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 crossover.  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 redheaded 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
Updates Only List:  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbardupdates
Updates/Chat List:  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbard

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 click on the link for my stories.

Additional Background Info:  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.

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

By Texbard

Chapter 4


"Hey." Gabrielle sidled up to the weapons master, securing a spot along the front railing. "Good to see land, huh?"

"Yeah." Eponin fidgeted under her queen's intense gaze. She's up to something. "What's the plan from here?"

"Actually, that's what I came down here to discuss with you." The bard chose her words carefully. "Originally, Xena wanted Raella and Amarice to stay in Morrigan's village and provide extra protection for Bridgid. But Š"

"They can't very well do that, can they?" Eponin interrupted her. "They're both sick as dogs. I can't see either of them chasing after a small child right now, much less fighting anyone who might try to harm her."

Well, Gabrielle reflected. She gave me a wide open door on this one. "That's pretty much what Xena said just a little while ago. She thinks we need to leave someone else with them." Serious green eyes peered up, gauging the weapons master's reaction.

"Oh, no." Two defensive hands rose, as Eponin backed away a few steps. "If Xena thinks she's going to leave me alone with a toddler and two sick Amazons, she can just think again."

"We weren't going to leave you alone, exactly." The bard chewed her lower lip, offering an innocent expression.

"Well who else ..." Brown eyes flashed in anger. "Johanna?" Gabrielle's face provided all the answer she needed. "Great." She tossed her hands up in the air. "That's just great." She stomped off in a huff, finding a spot alone on the other side of the boat.

Gabrielle watched her for a moment, sighed with resignation, and followed after, cautiously settling in a few feet away. "Pony, I could order you to stay with Bridgid. You do know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know." She shook her head in sad resignation. "Probably about all I'm worth, anyway, anymore."

Okay, I think I was on the right track with that warrior princess envy diagnosis. The bard consciously softened her voice. "Is that how you feel?"

The weapons master looked at her for the briefest second, before turning her gaze studiously out to sea. "Sometimes, yeah."

"I can soooo relate." Gabrielle moved closer, propping a boot up on the lowest rail.

Eponin studied her, her interest piqued, raising one eyebrow in encouragement. "Really?"

"Really. I tried, so hard, for so long, to be like Xena." She smiled. "I learned a couple of things."

"Like what?" The weapons master frowned, picking at a loose splinter on the top rail.

"First, I learned that she's one of a kind, and trying to be like her was fighting a losing battle."

"You can say that again," Eponin muttered.

"Xena is the best warrior and the best strategist I've ever seen. She doesn't always win because she's bigger or stronger. She wins because she's smarter. She doesn't just fight with muscles, she fights with her heart and her head." Gabrielle paused, visualizing her partner in the heat of battle, sword slashing, hair flying, and her most feral grin flashing. It gave the bard an unexpected chill of pleasure, which she pushed aside. "The other thing I learned was that if I can't be like her, there's no one I'd rather have on my side." She moved closer, gently clasping Eponin's forearm. "Xena protects the people she cares about, Pony. That includes me, and it includes you."

The weapons master blinked, her defenses cracking bit by little bit. "Yeah, I know. I just wish ..."

"Pony." The timbre of the bard's voice forced eye contact. "Xena thinks you're a fine warrior. One of the best. I haven't fully discussed her plan with her yet. What I do know is that she doesn't make any decision without thinking it through. When it comes to fighting the enemy, she has a reason for every move she makes. If she wants you to guard Bridgid, I can promise you it's not because she finds you useless elsewhere. It's because she thinks you're the best person for the job. She can't be in two places at one time. This mask ... we don't know who took it. They may very well be after Bridgid as part of their plan. Xena can't hunt for the thieves and protect Bridgid at the same time. If she can't be with Bridgid, she wants the very best protector she can think of there instead. She wants you, Pony. I'm not going to order you to do anything. If you won't do it, we'll find someone who will ..."

"I'll do it." Eponin's posture relaxed, and a genuine smile returned to her face. "She really thinks I'm a fine warrior?"

"Yes. She's said so several times." Gabrielle squeezed her arm. "Thanks. I knew we could count on you."

"I'll guard the kid with my life." The weapons master unconsciously stood up a little bit taller.

"Spoken like a true warrior." The bard caught movement in her peripheral vision, her partner climbing down from the crow's nest and quietly walking back toward the wheel to guide the boat the rest of the way into port. "I'm going to go see what Xena needs me to do to help. I'll talk to you later, Pony."

"Yeah. I better get Raella and Amarice to go below again. They shouldn't be out in this cold for very long." She watched the bard walk away. "Gabrielle."

The bard stopped and turned partway around.

"Thank you." Eponin's typically no-nonsense voice was slightly sheepish.

"Just telling the truth as I see it." She smiled, and turned, carefully holding onto the railing and stepping over various obstacles between her and the warrior.

Xena's concentration was fully on the wheel, as she called out crisp commands to Kallerine and Ronan, who had taken up positions operating the winches that controlled the sails. Morrigan remained high up above, aiding the warrior in steering the boat through a narrow deep passage. On either side of their course was shallower water, with treacherous rocks that jutted up just under the surface, threatening to gouge the hull of any boat that strayed away from the deep. A few vessels could be seen, lying partially submerged, testament to other sailors who had tried, and failed, to maneuver through the watery maze.

Gabrielle sensed her partner's need for focus, and cautiously approached her from the side. "Hi. Anything I can do to help out?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact." The warrior craned her neck, watching the water as best she could. "Morrigan is doing a good job of spotting the rocks from up above. I need someone to go up to the very front of the boat and watch the water from this level, make sure I don't hit anything smaller that she can't see from up there. Um ... be careful. The water is pitching up off those rocks, and it's getting pretty choppy. Tie yourself off to the rail, okay?"

"Okay." The bard scrambled to the front of the boat and found a length of rope that she wrapped around her waist, knotting it and then securing it to the rail. She climbed up, standing on the next to the top rail, hanging onto a line that ran from the mast to the very front of the boat. It felt like flying, and she found herself grinning from ear to ear, the cold air washing over her face and blowing through her hair, invigorating her. "Rocks to the right!" She yelled, and felt the boat adjust accordingly. Okay. I can do this.

A half candle mark passed, and they cleared the passage, with nothing but unencumbered water between the boat and the docks of Morrigan's village, which could now be clearly seen way off in the distance. The bard continued to stand at her perch, enjoying the ride, quite unaware of the mischievous figure creeping up behind her. "Ahhhh." She jumped, her feet slipping off the rail, but she didn't fall. The two strong arms that had wrapped around her waist held her steady, lowering her to the deck. "Xena!" She turned, scowling and swatting the warrior's stomach. "You scared me half to death."

"Sorry. Couldn't resist." She spun the bard around so that she was backed up against the warrior, and rested her chin on her fair head, continuing to hold onto her tightly. "Glad that's over."

"I'll bet." Gabrielle could feel still-tense muscles pressed against her. "Good job."

"Wouldn't have made it without you and Morrigan." Xena rolled one shoulder, working out a kink. "Pony looks more content."

"I ... that is ... we ... she and I ... discussed Bridgid." The bard tilted her head, looking up at a strong jaw line. "She's agreeable to staying behind to keep watch over her."

The warrior smiled and kissed the blonde hair. "You are a miracle worker."

"Nah." Gabrielle relaxed back against her. "Just had to paint the job in the right light for her, that's all."

"However you did it, I owe you."

"I'll remember that." The bard playfully bumped her behind against the warrior's legs.

"Promise?" the low voice purred.

"Promise." Another bump for emphasis.

They grew silent, watching the docks and buildings of the village take shape. "I think I see an inn over toward the edge." Gabrielle pointed toward a long low building.

"Good." The warrior followed her gaze. "I'm sure Morrigan will want to go see Bridgid right away. Let's give her some time alone with her daughter. The rest of us can settle into the inn and re-group."

"Mmm." The bard grew thoughtful. "I need to go shopping and replenish our herb supply. Do we need to secure some horses?"

"Don't know yet. I need to talk to Morrigan about the terrain we're up against." She frowned. "I guess the first place we need to go tomorrow is the cave where she said the mask was kept before it was stolen. We can discuss plans over dinner. Right now, all I want is a warm bath. Care to join me?"

Gabrielle smiled, taking in the warmth radiating from her partner's eyes. "Only if you'll let me give you a backrub afterward, help you work out some of the knots I know you've got in your neck and shoulders."

Blue eyes rolled upward, and the warrior released a dramatic sigh. "Oh, okay. If you insist. Gods, Gabrielle, you're such a slave-driver."

The bard merely chuckled, and held on tighter.


"Mummy!" A small girl with long blonde curls and a cherub-like face ran across the village square and flung herself into Morrigan's arms.

The kneeling druid's face lit up and she blinked back tears of joy. "Hello darlin'." She hugged her daughter tightly. "Mummy missed ya so much."

"Mummy, you was gone too long." Bridgid reached across, touching Morrigan's face, as if to make sure she was real. "Don't you love me anymore?"

"Oh, Bridgid." Her daughter's words were like daggers in her chest. "Mummy loves ya more than anythin' in the whole world. I'm sorry. I had ta go get some friends ta help us fight some bad people."

"Bad people?" Large eyes reflected a child's fear. "Are the bad people going to hurt us, Mummy?"

"No." The druid stroked her daughter's hair. "Our new friends are going ta help us, Bridgid. Mummy will make sure ya stay safe. Some of our new friends are going ta stay with ya all the time, until we're certain the bad people can't get ta us."

"Are you going to stay with me too, Mummy?" Bridgid hugged her mother again, and kissed her on the cheek. "Mummy, please don't go away again."

"Oh, darlin'." The druid blinked hard. "I wish I could stay, but I have ta go away again for a little while. Would ya like to meet the new friends who'll be stayin' with ya while I go?"

"Mummy!" Bridgid stamped a small booted foot and crossed her arms over her chest. "Don't go! I don't want you to go!"

"I know, Bridgid." Morrigan stood, lifting her daughter and settling her against her hip. "Goodness. You've gotten so big. Almost four summers old, aren't ya."

"Yeah." The child smiled, momentarily forgetting her anger. "I'm a big girl now."

"Yes ya are." The druid began walking toward the inn where her Greek companions were lodging. "Mummy needs to go to the market with ya, and buy ya some grand new dresses. Yer about ta outgrow the ones ya 'ave."

"Pwetty dwesses, Mummy?" Bridgid's eyes sparkled with happiness.

"The prettiest in all of Eire, my love." Morrigan kissed her daughter's forehead.

They approached the inn and the druid stepped inside the doorway, blinking until her eyes adjusted to the lower light. She spied her group seated at a large table, wearily partaking of the inn's midday offering of lamb stew and hearty dark brown bread. "Xena, Gabrielle." She dodged around the other tables. "I'd like ya to meet ma daughter." She peered fondly at her small package. "Bridgid, these are Mummy's new friends."

"Mummy, they're all weawing pants, just like you!" The child's eyes wandered from Amazon to Amazon. She looked back at her mother. "Mummy, why aren't they weawing dwesses?"

"Sometimes we do." Gabrielle moved closer, smiling at Bridgid. "But it's cold right now so we're wearing pants."

"Bridgid, this is Gabrielle." Morrigan's eyes came to rest on the bard's signet ring. "She's the queen of the Amazons."

"Weally?" Childish eyes grew wide with wonder. She reached across and the bard moved closer still, feeling small fingers sift through her hair. "Pwetty."

Gabrielle blushed. "Thank you. I think you're very pretty too." She gasped with delight, as Bridgid held out her arms and leaned over, indicating she wanted to go to Gabrielle. The bard reflexively grabbed hold, and found her arms full of a warm, wriggling little girl. "Hi there." She smiled and bounced around in place, laughing and making funny faces at the girl, and talking in no-nonsense words that made the child giggle.

Xena sat back, her chair firmly resting against the rough-hewn wall and one foot propped against a sturdy table brace. She nursed a tall tankard of ale and watched her partner interacting with Bridgid. Soulful blue eyes turned inward, remembering another day, and another child in Gabrielle's arms. She looked up to find the bard studying her with great intent. I'm so sorry, love. She looked back down, unable to maintain eye contact.

Gabrielle looked around. Morrigan had moved to the end of the table and was already deep in discussion with Eponin and Johanna regarding her daughter's care. The bard swallowed hard, a trembling smile on her face. "Bridgid." She tweaked the girl's nose. "How would you like to meet my best friend?"

"Is she a queen too?" Small hands framed the bard's face, patting her cheeks.

"No." Gabrielle turned toward Xena, taking in the slump of her normally squared shoulders, and the drawn expression on her face. "She's a warrior princess."

"A pwincess!" Bridgid's face shone. "Is she pwetty like you?"

"No." The bard smiled, knowing she now had her partner's attention. "She's beautiful. See?" She pointed toward the warrior, who hesitantly looked back up and managed to smile for the girl.

"Yeah she is," Bridgid stated solemnly. "She gots a sword."

"Uh-huh." Gabrielle moved toward the table, sitting with one hip on the edge. "Xena, this is Bridgid." She leaned over, handing off the child before her partner had time to protest.

The warrior grabbed hold, as Bridgid was deposited in her lap. "Gabrielle, I don't think Š "

"You a nice lady." The girl clamored up, using the armor-gilded vest for handholds. She balanced with one foot on each muscular thigh and got nose to nose with the warrior. "Pwetty blue eyes."

Gabrielle snickered. Those eyes. Gets 'em every time. No matter how old or young they are.

"My Mummy gots blue eyes too." Bridgid sat back down, perfectly content to remain in Xena's lap. She patted a leather-clad leg. "You a lot bigger than my Mummy." She cocked her head to one side. "You gots a little girl?"

"No." The dark head shook negatively. "But I'd like to have one someday." She looked over the girl's head, finding warm green eyes shining back at her.

"You be a good Mummy." Bridgid smiled and snuggled up to the warrior. She continued in idle childish chatter, much to Xena's surprise and Gabrielle's relief.

Whew. The bard carefully sat down across the table from her partner. Glad that went as well as I hoped it would. Gabrielle smiled, watching Bridgid's eyes grow droopy, as she yawned and stuck her thumb in her mouth. Moments later her eyes closed, and she fell asleep. "You're a natural."

"Don't know that I'd carry it that far." The warrior gave her a wry grin.

At that moment, the girl chose to cuddle up even closer, her free hand clutching at Xena's vest. A contented mewling sigh escaped her lips, muffled by her thumb. Gabrielle giggled. "I know exactly how she feels."

"Oh you do, do you?" Xena nudged her leg under the table, and received a return bump. "Seems to me it's not usually your thumb that you ..."

"Xena!" The bard's hand clamped firmly over her partner's mischievous mouth. "Brat." Green eyes twinkled knowingly, as she allowed her thoughts to surface there. You don't know, do you love? Being in your arms is like being covered in an earthy-smelling, overpowering blanket of utter protection. "It's the warmest safest place in the world."

The warrior's mouth started to open in retort, and quickly closed, her eyes gazing steadily at the inn's doorway. "I don't believe it," she mused. Or maybe I do.

"What?" Gabrielle turned, peering over her shoulder. "Oh my gods."

"Xena." Eponin paused in the middle of a discussion regarding bedtime stories. "Isn't that ...?"

"Yes," the low voice answered. "Autolycus!" She yelled across the room.

"Well what a coincidence." Gabrielle smiled warmly as their old friend approached them. "We need to find a stolen mask. What better person to help us out than the king of thieves himself?"

"Yeah," Xena burred sarcastically. A little too much of a coincidence. "Here." She rose and handed off the sleeping Bridgid, carefully tucking her back into Gabrielle's arms. She quickly closed the distance with a purposeful stride.

"Xena!" The king of thieves smiled charmingly. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Uh-huh." She wrapped one hand into a fold of his cloak, twisting until she had a firm grasp just below his neck. With one swift motion, he was pressed against the wall, his feet barely touching the ground. "Okay," Xena growled, her eyes flashing menacingly. "Where is it, and who hired you to steal it?"

"Xena, Xena, Xena." Autolycus held up both hands in a defensive stance. "Why must every trip I make be business-related. Maybe I came to Eire for pleasure."

"Oh yeah?" Her fist twisted tighter. "The last time I checked, there wasn't much pleasure in traveling from Greece to Eire in the dead of winter." Well Š she silently corrected herself Š unless you count sharing a bed with Gabrielle. She shook him slightly. "So ... I'm gonna put you down, and we're gonna have a seat at that nice long table over there, and you're gonna tell me the whole story, from beginning to end." She reached inside his cloak, groping around.

"Well." He waggled an eyebrow at her. "Xena, no need to grope me. If that's what you wanted, why didn't you just say so?"

The warrior practically hissed in response, fishing until she found what she was looking for. She withdrew a bulging leather pouch that she jiggled, producing the unmistakable sound of coins clinking together. "Thought so." She finally released her captive and opened the bag, peering inside. She looked back up with a feral smile, flipping a single gold coin between her fingers. "While we're talking, you're buying. Barkeep ..." she got the lone innkeeper's attention. "A round of your finest for all my friends here."

"But ..." The king of thieves watched helplessly, as she plunked two gold coins down on the bar.

"Start talking." Xena shoved him toward the table. "I'm gonna keep buying rounds until you've told me everything I want to know. The faster you talk, the less gold you lose. You better hurry." She winked evilly. "The Amazons do appreciate a premium mug of ale."

Autolycus sighed in resignation, and dropped down onto the bench next to the bard. "Hello Gabrielle." He smiled sheepishly, and received a gentle squeeze to his shoulder. He caught another pair of eyes studying him. "Eponin." He nodded in recognition. "Long time, eh?"

"Yes." The weapons master accepted a foaming mug from the barkeeper.

"Autolycus ..." Xena slid onto the bench across from him, raising her fresh mug in feigned salute, and taking a long draught. "Good stuff." She swiped her hand across her lips. "Okay ..." Her face became deadly serious. "Spill it."

"Before I assume too much, are we talking about a mask, or something else?" Autolycus smiled hopefully. "If there's something else you're after, maybe I can help you find it."

"The mask." The warrior watched her old friend grimace, his brief hopes dashed. "And I'm just dying to know how a common thief from Greece got called all the way to Eire to steal it." She waved a fork in his face and stabbed it into the tabletop.

"Common thief?" Autolycus mustered up feigned outrage. "Ouch. Xena, that hurts. Besides, in all fairness, I was already in Gaul on business, not so terribly far from here. I was approached there by a man who said he'd heard I was the best thief to be had." He waggled an eyebrow. "Had to agree with him."

The warrior rolled her eyes. "So who was this man, and where did he hear about you? Did you get a name?"

"I have no idea where he heard about me. It took a while to learn anything about him, personally. I still don't know much. He arranged for passage here, and on the way across the sea, he told me about the mask, where it was, and some of the hazards I might have to overcome to get to it. It was relatively easy, although those druids set several traps. I'm not fond of dodging arrows and spikes that come flying at me out of nowhere. " He observed Morrigan out of the corner of his eye, as the druid slid closer to hear his story. "Anyway, I got past the traps, and once I was in the cavern where the mask was located, the rest was a piece of cake. It was almost as if the doors opened for me. There wasn't anything to prevent me from getting to it, once I was in the actual chamber where it was kept. It was ... almost too easy."

"That doesna' sound good." Morrigan spoke up. "If ya got past the traps so easy, makes me think there be some other power at work here. Somethin' ya weren't able ta see."

"Could be. All I know, is, the job was relatively easy, and I'll take an easy job any day, if I can get it." The king of thieves paused to take a sip from one of the mugs Xena had ordered. "Ah. That hits the spot. Might as well enjoy myself, since I'm paying for this little party." He laughed heartily until impatient blue eyes bore into him. "Oh, back to the story. Anyway, once I had the mask, we met back here, as a matter of fact, to complete the transaction. We were both in a good mood. He had that mask and I had the bag of gold. Mission accomplished with no casualties, which is just how I like it. After a few drinks, he was pretty sloshed. Guy couldn't hold his liquor, that's for sure."

"Autolycus ..." Xena drew out the name, drumming her fingers on the tabletop as her lips curled into a snarl. "A name. Did Š you Š get Š a name?"

"Oh. Oh, yeah." Autolycus chuckled. "Kernunnos."

"Kernunnos?" Morrigan's voice raised an octave. "Nay. That's impossible. I killed Kernunnos. And even if he did manage ta come back ta life somehow, Kernunnos is a god. He canna get drunk."

"Look." The king of thieves held up one hand in self-defense. "I'd never met the guy before in my life. All I know is that he said his name was Kernunnos, and he got drunk. It was just a job. I don't tend to get personally involved with clients." He felt a pair of blue eyes and a pair of green gazing at him with equal intensity. "As a rule, that is. I don't get involved with clients as a rule. Unless Xena's the client," he muttered the last part under his breath.

"Autolycus, this is really important." The warrior grasped his wrist, her fingers almost cutting off his circulation. "Kernunnos is dangerous. That mask is dangerous. Think hard. You have to tell me everything you remember about him, and what he said about the mask, and what he wanted with it."

"Well ..." Autolycus shook his arm free, rubbing it and peering cautiously at Xena. "He said he was getting the mask for a friend of his. Now what was his name ... ?" He crossed one arm over his chest and pressed a finger against his chin, his eyes narrowing in thought. "Oh, yeah. Laki."

"Laki?" The warrior frowned. "Who is Laki?"

"Or was it ... no ... it was Loki, that's who it was." Autolycus smiled in self-satisfaction. "Yeah, Loki."

"Loki?!" Xena and Morrigan spoke simultaneously.

"Xena, who's Loki?" Eponin sensed that whoever it was, it wasn't good.

Xena bristled. "Of all the gods in all the known world ..." She trailed off and stalked to the window, the smoke pouring from her ears almost visibly.

Gabrielle watched her go. She debated between following, or giving her partner the space she seemed to need. Her decision was made, as she looked back around to find a druid, four Amazons, a former barmaid, and a thief all peering at her expectantly. Well Š at least Bridgid's still asleep. The girl was curled up right where Gabriele had left her, on the bench next to Morrigan. "Um Š Loki." She laughed nervously. "I studied a bit about him while I was at the Academy in Athens."

"Why is Xena so upset?" Kallerine gazed anxiously at the dour figure standing across the tavern with her back to them, studying whatever was out the window with great intent.

"Don't know." The bard frowned. "Why is the sky blue?" she mumbled to herself.

"So." The weapons master perched on the edge of the table, one leg braced against the floor and the other swinging with pent-up energy. "Loki? Tell us about him, my queen."

The bard scowled at her. No need for formalities here. "Loki is the Norse god of strife and the spirit of evil. He killed Balder, the Norse god of peace and the second son of Odin, the king of the Norse gods, kind of like Zeus is to the Greek gods. Odin loved Balder, and decreed that nothing that comes from fire, air, earth, or water would ever be able to injure Balder. Mistletoe is not of those elements. Loki was jealous of Balder, and plotted against him, giving an arrow of Mistletoe to the blind Hoder, who shot the arrow and randomly struck Balder, killing him."

"Nice guy." Kallerine piped up. Ooo. Wonder if Mistletoe would kill Bacchae? "So what happened to Loki?"

"Odin was furious." Gabrielle took a sip of ale to wet her parched throat. "He had Loki bound to a rock in the underworld, using ten chains. Odin then convinced the other gods to allow Balder's life to be restored. If Loki is ever released, it will mean Ragnarok Š the twilight of the gods and the end of all things. The sea shall swallow up the earth, and fire shall consume all the elements, even the gods. Everything ... and everyone ... as we know it will be no more."

"The mask ..." Morrigan's blue eyes widened in understanding. "If the mask reaches Loki's hands, he can use it ta break free o' Odin's chains. With the mask, he could use it ta become the lone survivor of Ragnarok. He would have the sole power ta recreate the universe "

"Should we be afraid?" Amarice's eyes were wide with fear, her already pale features almost white.

"Yeah?" Raella relaxed just a little, as Eponin moved to her side, draping a protective arm around her. "It seems like we should expect utter chaos at any time. The damage is done. The mask is already in the wrong hands."

"Ohhh." Johanna wailed. "I don't think I should ever have left Pirgos."

Autolycus slowly rose from the table, and stuck his hands in his pockets, leaning against the wall and looking down at the ground. "Gabrielle. I think I've done enough damage here." He made brief eye contact. " Tell Xena I'll be staying here tonight. If ... I can help ... just ask."

"You didn't know." The bard patted his arm. "You were just doing what you do best." She chucked him on the chin, earning a smile. "Even if I don't always approve, I'll never fault you for it, and I think you know that. If it weren't for your skills as a thief ..." She looked across the room and shivered involuntarily.

The thief mussed her hair. "Something's changed with you two, hasn't it?"

Gabrielle blushed. "You could say that, yeah. Come down here for dinner tonight, and I'll fill you in. It's been ... an interesting year."

"I'll say." Autolycus tugged at his moustache. "First I hear you two are dead. Then I hear you're alive and living with the Amazons. I tend to steer clear of Amazon territory. Not much business to be had there. Stealing from the Amazons is tantamount to suicide."

"Damn straight." Eponin crossed her arms smugly, but there was a great deal of unspoken respect in her eyes.

"Why don't you all go ahead and order some lunch? I need to go have a word with Xena, if you'll excuse me." She crossed the room and sidled up to the warrior, resting a hesitant hand on her back. "Xena, what are we going to do?"

"Well, we're not going to Valhalla." Her eyes were cold as the drifting snow. "Not except as a last resort."

"Valhalla?" Gabrielle looked up in confusion. "Why would we even consider going there? Isn't that a very long way from here?"

"Yes." The warrior's eyes gazed past her. "Not long enough."

"What's in Valhalla?" As she spoke, the bard's hand moved in comforting circles against Xena's back, and she felt her lean into it, soaking up the warmth. "Loki's in the underworld, isn't he Xena?"

"Odin's in Valhalla. He might know how to make Loki's bonds more permanent, even with the power of the mask. But there's also a lot of people, and gods, and Valkyrie who would just as soon see me dead." She peered back outside, staring out at the sun sparkles on the snow, and felt her partner's gentle compassion as an almost physical force. She hung her head, her dark hair obscuring her face.

"You wanna talk about it?" Gabrielle pushed back the dark locks and caressed a tanned cheek.

"Later." Regret-filled eyes fell on the bard's face, then quickly flicked away. Guess that part of my past was bound to come up, eventually. Xena sighed heavily. Just another story of yet another horror I brought upon someone. Not like she hasn't heard a dozen other stories similar to it. The warrior brought one hand up, slapping the wooden window frame with some force, before she turned and made her way back to the table.

The bard followed in thoughtful silence.

"Sorry." She sat down across from Autolycus. "Bad memories." Her expression softened, as Gabrielle slid in beside her, and rested a supporting hand on her leg under the table. "Is there anything else you can remember?"

"No. It was a fairly simple job, with a nice reward." The king of thieves patted the gold pouch, which still rested on the table. He frowned and looked up at her. "One funny thing. Kernunnos. He kept making a big deal about not putting the mask on, and trying not to touch it any more than I had to. It has these two giant emeralds for eyes. He told me to remove the stones and wrap them separately from the mask, and then put them all in a sack together."

Morrigan and Xena exchanged a worried glance. "Did he touch the mask at all?"

"No. It stayed in the bag. He did have me unwrap the pieces long enough for him to see that it was what it was supposed to be. But back in the cavern, when I first picked it up, before I removed the stones, I had the strangest desire to go find Cupcake* and sacrifice her to the druids. It went away as soon as I put it in the sack." He shook his head. "Weird."

"Autolycus, who's Cupcake?" The warrior grinned at the druid.

"No one special." He frowned and his voice took on a defensive tone. "Just a girl I met a while back, when I was traveling with Salmoneus."

"Just a girl, huh?" Xena winked at Morrigan. "You wouldn't happen to be in love with her, would you?"

"No. Absolutely not. No way." He crossed his arms and the frown deepened.

"Hmmm." Gabrielle caught on to at least half of the game. "That's three denials in one breath, Autolycus." She laughed softly. "You protest too much."

"Hmmpphh." He got up from the table. "I think I'll go order us another round of ale."

The bard giggled and watched him go, then turned back toward her partner. "Xena. Not to put too fine of an emphasis on things, but surely Loki has the mask by now. Is it too late?"

"No," the warrior rasped. "That's just it. It's been over a moon, at least, since Autolycus stole the mask, right?"

"That would be correct," Morrigan confirmed.

"Something's not right." Xena stood, and leaned against the wall, her eyes narrowing as she peered out the window, unseeing. "He doesn't have the mask yet. If he did, he would have used it by now. There's something else going on here. Something we're not seeing."

"What are we going to do?" Gabrielle voiced the question, as six anxious faces watched in silence.

"We're gonna go to that cave with Auto, and pick up Kernunnos' trail." She flicked an imaginary piece of lint off her arm. "If there's no trail, we go find Loki."

"But Xena." The bard rose and moved to her side, leaning back in a similar position. "Loki's in ..."

"The underworld." Xena growled. "I know."

"Wouldn't Valhalla be a better place to check out first?" Gabrielle spoke carefully, "With Odin there ..."

"I'll take my chances in the underworld," the warrior spat out the words.


Autolycus sat next to the bard, enjoying a round of after-dinner cider. Xena had gone with Morrigan and Bridgid to her hut, to help get Eponin, Johanna, Amarice, and Raella settled. Gabrielle had spent much of their mealtime filling their old friend in on everything that had happened since Caesar had crucified them. Kallerine sat across the table from them, quietly taking in the conversation, soaking up new information about her two favorite heroes.

"I could have told you Xena was in love with you, Gabrielle." Autolycus smiled smugly. "I felt it that time, you know."

Gabrielle grew quiet, and looked down at her lap for several moments. "That was a very hard, very confusing time for me."

"Sorry." The thief clapped a hesitant hand on her shoulder. "Didn't mean to bring up bad memories."

"It's okay." She turned her head to the side and smiled briefly. "Now it seems like such a long time ago. So much happened afterward, it feels like I was a different person. She Š told me a much later Š that she loved me then, but she could only get the courage to act on it while she was dead."

"When she was inside me, I could feel her emotions. I felt her fear, that we wouldn't get to the ambrosia in time. Her love for you Š that was her motivation for coming back to life. You needed her. She didn't do it for that infernal 'greater good' she always talks about. She did it for you." He smiled rakishly. "I was just as surprised as you were when she kissed you. My heart Š her heart Š was beating so hard, I was afraid she was going to kill me in the process."

"I was so confused," the bard reflected shyly. " She said once that we acted like lovers a long time before we actually were.  When she came back to life Š that changed everything. We went through some very hard times after that, but her death, and her coming back to life Š I think that strengthened the bond between us. It got us through the bad times."

"So what took so long?" Autolycus drained his mug and signaled for a refill. "I mean, for you two to figure things out."

"I don't know. Lots of things. Life got complicated." Green eyes closed in abject sadness. "That first time, when I was at the top of that mountain, it hurt so much when she died. After she came back to life, I didn't think I could ever survive her dying again. I remember thinking that I wanted to be the one to go first. I was wrong."

Both Kallerine and the thief leaned forward, encouraging her to continue

"When Brutus captured me, and Callisto severed Xena's spine with her chakram, that was the end of the line for us, or so we thought. I remember sitting in that cell, waiting to be crucified." A single tear trickled down the bard's face and she sniffled, quickly brushing it away. "She was already dying. She couldn't move from the waist down. So I sat there, holding her in my arms. We knew what was coming. I had heard enough about crucifixion to understand the horror that we were about to face. And it was horrible. More horrible than I could ever have imagined." Gabrielle shuddered.

"Gabrielle, you don't have to Š"

"No." She sniffled again. "I haven't talked about it to anyone besides Xena in a very long time, and she and I don't discuss it very often. I felt so many things in that cell. I had to be the strong one. She was already in so much pain, both physically and emotionally. I knew she was blaming herself. She'd had these visions for almost a year before, and her nightmares were coming true. So I held her." Gabrielle drew in a shaky breath, holding back the tears. "I wished Š with all my heart Š that she would die in my arms, before they got the chance to crucify her."

She could still smell the musty old straw and feel the dank cold stone they sat on. Xena's breathing and her heartbeat were so shallow. The warrior fought for coherence, and Gabrielle kept encouraging her to rest. But you wouldn't have any of that, would you love? It was as if Xena knew that if she closed her eyes, she wasn't going to wake up again. And you weren't going to let me die alone, were you?

They shivered periodically, and Gabrielle had held on tighter. It was freezing in the cell, even colder outside, and the scant burlap wraps they were wearing provided no warmth at all. The beatings had been painful, both to receive and to watch. Guards had held her and made her watch them beat Xena. Then they held the battered warrior and forced her to watch them beat the bard. Xena had fought them even then, cursing and struggling with all the upper body strength she could muster. It had earned her several punches to the face.

When they stripped both of them afterward, Gabrielle feared they were going to make them watch something even worse, but instead, the soldiers had tossed the rough wraps at her feet and left them alone. The loud clank as they closed and locked the cell door had chilled her to the bone. She had never felt more humiliated in her life as she knelt down, naked as the day she was born, and dressed an unconscious Xena first, before she struggled into her own execution garb.

After that, she sat back against a post, awkwardly pulling the warrior's body to her. She had assumed Xena was very close to death. She was never more surprised than when the warrior came around, and they shared one last heart-breaking conversation. What do you say to the person who means everything to you, when you know you are going to die? So many things to say, and so little time left in which to say them. Their eyes spoke volumes. She saw it there, the love the warrior could never bring herself to declare. It was bittersweet, the knowledge that so much would go unexpressed between them. Too late.  Too damned late.  I made sure you knew, Xena. The last thing I told you was that I loved you.

"I don't know what hurt more." Gabrielle came out of her somber reflection. "Being crucified, or the knowledge that Xena watched me through the entire process. I felt her eyes on me the whole time, and while I held my tongue, she cried out for me. Anyway, we got a second chance, Autolycus. Or I guess really, a third chance. We'd both died before. When Eli brought me back, and helped me bring Xena back, we both understood just how precious life was. There was no more holding back. Life is too short. And the 'greater good' has been re-defined. That's why this mission is so hard for us."

"Why so?" The thief had all but forgotten his cider, and nearly knocked the mug over with a hand gesture, catching it at the last minute.

"Because it brings us dangerously close to a place that almost ripped us apart forever. And we aren't ever going to let anything come between us like that again." Green eyes grew dark, flashing a warning, as she watched the question forming on her old friend's lips. "Don't ask. I can't relive that one again, ever. It's over, and we survived it, and that's all that matters."

Kallerine had sat in silence. She guessed at what her queen referred to. She had heard about Hope and Solan from whispered conversations in the Amazon village. She knew the crucifixion story, having picked up most of it right after it happened. It's been almost a year, hasn't it? The pain in Gabrielle's eyes seemed almost as fresh as it had those first few days after they came back from the Elysian Fields. Wonder if she realizes they're coming up on the anniversary of all that? "Excuse me," the slayer rose from the table. "I think I'm going to go over to Morrigan's and say one last goodbye to Amarice, before we set out tomorrow."

"Good idea." The bard smiled, although her eyes were brimming with more unshed tears. "I know all of them are pretty bummed about not getting to go with us. I bet Amarice will feel a lot better if she gets a proper hug before you go."

Kallerine's cheeks colored and she smiled, ducking out the door without another word, pulling her cloak around her. Now. She looked across the snow-filled courtyard and down the narrow path that led to Morrigan's hut.  Let's see if I can find Xena, and get her warrior butt back to this inn where she's really needed.


"I'm glad you're staying here with me." Raella smiled feebly from the comfy feather bed in Morrigan's hut. She was propped up against two pillows and had a soft thick quilt tucked up under her chin. She grimaced and opened her mouth, swallowing a dose of herbs from a mug that Eponin held against her lips.

"Yeah. I just wish Š" The weapons master stopped, torn between her warrior's heart, and the desire to be with the woman who had claimed a good part of it.

"You want to go with Xena." Sad amber eyes peered over the rim of the cup. "I know. I'm sorry I got sick. I know you'd probably be going with them, if it weren't for me and this gods-be-damned grippe**." A cough wracked her frame, driving her point home.

"You can't help it. I'm the one who should be sorry. I'm such an ass sometimes, and you just put up with it. You know I Š love you." The word felt strange on her tongue. It was something that for some reason, she couldn't often bring herself to speak aloud.

"I know." Raella swallowed and grimaced again at the after taste of the herbs. "Ugghhh. That stuff tastes like hog swill."

"You been sampling the swill again?" Eponin gently cuffed her partner's arm. "I know Daria's cooking leaves something to be desired, but still Š"

"You know what I mean." Thick wavy auburn hair slid across the pillow, as she moved closer, resting her head in her lover's lap. "You're my hero, did you know that?"

"I Š I am?" An uncharacteristic blush slowly crept up the weapons master's face, reaching all the way to her dark hairline. "Really?" her voice squeaked.

"Really." She softly kissed a leather-clad knee.

"Xena's not Š?" Chestnut brows furrowed. Raella was one of the most beautiful women in the village, and had caught the eye of almost every eligible Amazon at one time or another. It still escaped the weapons master, as to how she had managed to woo and then win her lover.

"Oh, don't get me wrong. I think we all know the warrior princess can do impossible things. Sure, I admire her Š" A long elegant finger lightly tickled Eponin's inner thigh. "But you're the only one I love. Do you know how I see you?"

"I Š never really thought that much about it." Eponin cleared her throat and looked away, afraid she might not like her reflection in her partner's eyes.

Raella sat up and tilted a strong chin, forcing eye contact. "Look at me." She chafed a wind-burned cheek. "You are beautiful to me. In a strong and sexy way," she hastily added. "You almost never think of yourself first. You're always doing nice things for me, and you're incredibly sweet, whether you admit it or not. You're always there for me. For all of us. You protect us, especially during the times when Xena and Gabrielle have to go away. You teach the younger girls how to defend themselves. That's when I fell in love with you. My first long bow class Š you're so strong and brave. Do you know, I kept pretending I didn't get it, because every time I held the bow improperly, you'd come over and put your arms around me, and correct me."

A shaky laugh escaped the weapons master's lips. "I Š um Š kept hoping you'd take a very long time to get it."

"You." Raella laughed and slapped a strong leg. The laugh turned into another coughing fit, and she felt herself pushed gently back against the pillows.

"You rest now." Eponin brushed her forehead with the backs of her fingers. "You've still got a fever."

Just outside the door, a bemused warrior was doing her best to stifle deep belly laughs that silently rocked her mid-section. Oh, this is rich. I could get days of torture out of this. She sobered, briefly. But that's better medicine than either Gab or I could ever dish up. She needed that, and boy do I know it. The conversation was all-too-familiar. She couldn't count the number of times she would have a bad day. Maybe she'd get knocked around too much during a routine fight, or she'd have a momentary lapse in her usually solid judgment, and make a mistake. Gods forbid I should be human, she silently chided herself. Doesn't take too much to wound that old warrior ego, does it? It was at precisely those times that Gabrielle would gently build her back up, with words not too dissimilar from the ones Raella had just spoken to Eponin.

Okay, gotta make sure she hears me coming. The warrior backed off several paces, then strode forward, making sure her steps sounded solidly against the wooden floorboards. "Hey, Pony Š" she called out in a loud voice, right before she entered the doorway. She smiled, just a little. The weapons master was red as an apple, and had hastily scooted to the foot of the bed, trying to appear nonchalant. "Everything okay in here?"

"Yeah." Eponin idly scratched the side of her neck. "You about to leave?"

"I just need to settle on a meeting time tomorrow with Morrigan." The warrior dropped into a padded chair next to the window. "She's going to stay here, in Bridgid's room, spend one last night with her daughter before we set out tomorrow. I Š" she jumped to her feet, tilting her head. "Kallerine's coming."

"Xena," the breathless slayer ran into the room. "You need to get back to the inn."

"Calm down." She placed both hands on Kallerine's arms, steadying her as the girl gasped for air. "What happened?"

"The queen Š she Šshe's not sick or hurt or anything. She just Š" The slayer rolled her eyes toward the door, indicating she'd rather have the conversation in private.

"Go on in the front room." She gently nudged Kallerine into the hallway. "I'll be there in a minute." The slayer nodded and slipped back out the door.

"Pony, hate to cut this short Š"

"Get out of here." The weapons master stood and took a deep breath. "Everything will be fine here."

"I know." The warrior clapped her on the shoulder. "Bridgid's in good hands. Thanks." A brief exchange of smiles, and she was on Kallerine's heels.

"Now Š" she found the slayer peering thoughtfully out the window at the moon-lit snow. "What's going on?"

"The queen Š" Kallerine shrugged and looked down at the floor, kicking at a nubby rag rug. "She Š um Š she needs you, that's all."

"Can you be a little more specific?" Xena checked a growl that almost accompanied her words. She had come to trust the slayer's instincts.

"We were eating dinner." Hazel eyes tracked back upward, meeting concerned blue ones. "She was just catching up with Autolycus. One thing led to another, and she Š told him about the crucifixion." She watched the blue eyes blink in startlement. "Um Š I haven't heard her talk about it like that before. She Š just seemed so sad. I thought Š maybe if you were there Š I'm sorry. Maybe I'm out of line here Š"

"No." Xena's hand cradled the slayer's face. "No. Sit down." She directed the surprised girl to a low couch. The warrior almost never made physical contact with anyone but the queen, at least in such a gentle way. "When it comes to your concern for Gabrielle, don't ever be afraid to speak your mind with me. Let me tell you something."

"Okay." Kallerine peered up from beneath long pale eyelashes.

"There's a reason I chose you to go with us to search for this mask. I didn't need another warrior." She held up a finger at a silent flash of hurt in the slayer's eyes. "Not that you're not an excellent warrior. You're one of the best in the village." She sat down, resting her hand on Kallerine's arm. "But Morrigan, Gabrielle, and I, are more than enough to handle this, when it comes to sheer fighting force. I needed you because of your heart."

"My Š my heart?" Kallerine frowned in complete confusion.

"Kallerine Š" She stood, and began pacing back and forth in front of the window, looking out every now and then, her thoughts as dark as the night sky. "Pony is one of my best friends. Probably the best one I have other than Gabrielle. This is a very dangerous mission. You've heard enough to know that, right?"

"Right." The slayer nervously clasped her hands between her knees and looked down.

"If anything happens to me Š if I Š can't make it back Š" Blue eyes flicked toward the slayer, making sure she was understood. "I need someone to make sure Gabrielle gets back here, and then back to the Amazon village safely. Pony could do that. But you Š I think you could offer comfort to your queen in a way Pony isn't capable of. You are a fierce fighter, but I've watched you. You also have a gentle spirit. I Š think if it came down to it Š Gabrielle would be more comfortable Š grieving in front of you, than she would in front of Pony."

"Xena." The slayer rose up from the couch and crossed the room, stepping into the warrior's path. "I'm honored by your trust. But it's not going to be needed. I believe in you. The queen believes in you. There is a village full of Amazons back home anxiously waiting for your joining ceremony. We are going to find this mask, and we are going to stop whoever stole it, and we are all of us Š including you Š going to go back to Greece and have a big party."

The warrior nodded, unable to give voice to her thoughts. Bright eyes softened in silent gratitude. "Okay. I need to go have a word with Morrigan. Why don't you stay here tonight, too, with Amarice? We'll be fine at the inn. You come back in the morning with Morrigan."

"I will." Kallerine kept her eyes firmly locked on the warrior's face. "Have faith, Xena. In yourself."

"I'll try." Xena impulsively hugged the girl and then quickly made her way back to Bridgid's room. She stopped in the doorway. Bridgid was sound asleep, curled up against the druid. The scene stirred up a longing in the warrior's guts, something she had shoved firmly down in the deepest recesses of her consciousness. She swallowed hard, surprised at her reaction.

Morrigan looked up, catching Xena's expression in the split second before the stoic mask slipped firmly back into place. She lifted her hand, motioning the warrior inside.

"She been asleep long?" Xena hesitantly reached out, briefly touching soft blonde baby-fine curls. Wonder if we have a little girl, if she'll have hair that color? Bridgid had talked non-stop throughout their earlier dinner, chattering childish gibberish that only Morrigan seemed to fully understand.

"I told her some of her favorite stories. She fin'ly fell asleep a wee bit ago." The druid patted the mattress, inviting the warrior to have a seat.

Xena carefully sat down, trying not to jostle the sleeping child. "Listen, I need to get back to the inn. Kallerine's staying here tonight. Can you two meet us at the inn after breakfast in the morning?"

"Not a problem, Xena." The druid studied the troubled face. "Is there anythin' I can do?"

"No." The dark head shook negatively. "I think this is something I have to try to fix myself. See you in the morning." She patted Morrigan's leg under the blanket, and slipped out of the room.

In the last room on the hallway, Kallerine sat down in a chair next to the bed, watching Amarice sleep. The redhead shifted, sensing her presence, and her eyes slowly fluttered open. "Hey." A long arm reached out from beneath the covers, seeking contact with the slayer. Her fingers lightly traced a kneecap. "What are you doing here?"

"Spending one last night with you before we leave tomorrow." She moved from the chair to the edge of the bed, resting her hand on Amarice's belly, on top of the blankets. "I'm going to miss you."

"I'll miss you too." The redhead rose up on her elbows. "Come here." She lifted the covers and scooted to the other side of the bed, batting her eyelashes in invitation.

Kallerine hesitated, then removed her boots, carefully laying her weapons on the tall wooden wardrobe, her array of wooden stakes clattering against the metal of various daggers, silver-tipped arrows, and her sword. She slipped beneath the blankets and pulled the taller woman against her. "You're too warm."

"I'm freezing." Shy eyes looked up from where Amarice's head was pillowed against the slayer's chest. "But you'll get me warm."

"I'll do my best." She stroked the red ringlets. "You get a dose of herbs recently?"

"Not too long ago." Amarice frowned, trying to grasp the passage of time. "At least I don't think it was long ago. I know it was already dark outside when Pony came in and gave me the gods-awful stuff."

"Poor baby." Kallerine kissed her on top of her head. "Sleep now. We can talk in the morning, before I leave."

"Okay." Amarice's eyes were already closed, and she snuggled up to the slayer, hugging her tightly across her stomach. "Love you," she mumbled under her breath.

"Huh?" the slayer whispered and looked down, tilting her head to see the redhead's face, but her eyes were firmly closed. Did she say what I think she said? Oh, Hades. I think she did. And I have to go and leave her tomorrow. I need to have a long talk with the queen sometime soon. She shook her head in befuddlement, and joined her girlfriend in sleep.

Outside, an inky black sky had clouded over, and small snow flurries began to fall, swirling around on the light breeze. The warrior drew in great lung-fulls of crisp cold air that tickled her nose, occasionally swiping the annoying flakes from her eyelashes, intent on her goal. She half-slipped, half flew down the treacherous narrow trail, her booted feet catching her and re-distributing her weight each time she hit a patch of ice. Her breath clouded white in the air, and she silently cursed the brewing storm. Hold on baby, I'll be there in a few minutes.

An arm reached out from behind a tree, and a fist connected with her jaw, knocking her off balance. She gasped in surprise, caught completely off guard. Before she could regain her footing, she felt the arm wrap around her middle, and she was pulled back against a solid body. Her nostrils flared at the stench of body odor that assaulted her senses. She opened her mouth to speak and then quickly clamped it shut, as cold steel pressed against her throat.

It took her a moment to get her bearings, as she was bodily hauled to her feet, the knife still threatening her jugular vein. Okay. LargeŠ she sniffed, grimacing once more at the scent of the unwashed body behind her Š man behind me. Ice patches under both feet. She felt her boots sliding slightly with each small movement of either her or the man who held her. That could be an advantage. It was obvious the man was forced to concentrate on both holding her up, and keeping his own balance. 'Course, it could be a real disadvantage if he slips the wrong way with that knife. Talk first, or wait him out? He must want something, otherwise he'd already have slit my throat. She decided to wait.

The silence went on for a longer period than she would have expected, and she felt snow collecting on top of her head, the flakes falling at a steadily increasing rate in the quiet whispering woods around them. It would have been almost peaceful, save for the stench, and the knife, and an uneasy sensation in her gut that told her she really needed to get to the inn. She was about to change her mind and speak up, when a deep masculine voice growled in her ear, his hot breath making her skin crawl. "Who are you?"

"Who wants to know?" she countered. She felt the blade begin to dig into her skin, and began mentally assessing her possible means of escape.

The arm around her waist tightened, and her skin stung, as the man nicked her, just enough to draw a few drops of blood. "You're in no position to question me," he snarled.

She felt him slide sideways and took advantage of the opening, as the knife momentarily pulled away. I've had about enough of this. She slammed her head backward, connecting with what she assumed was a nose. The sound of bone and cartilage crunching, along with the man's cry of pain confirmed her direct hit. She pressed out with both arms, breaking his hold. In one swift motion, she snatched the knife from his hand, threw him on his back, and landed on top of him, pinning his arms behind him and holding his legs down with her own powerful thighs.

"One more time." Blood for blood. She made her own nick in the man's throat. "Who wants to know?" The knife pressed deeper, into a non-fatal bit of muscle. Warm blood from the man's nose ran down his chin, mingling with the fresh blood drawn by the blade.

"I've been watching you." The man's voice was weaker and less intelligible, hampered by his broken nose and the blood that kept pooling in the back of his throat. He sputtered, sprinkling pink froth onto the white snow near his head. "What are you doing with my wife?"

"Wife?" It was dark, but not so dark that she couldn't make out his unfamiliar tanned features, along with short dark hair and eyes that made her shiver. She mentally ran through the list of women she was traveling with. Kallerine? No. Raella? No way. Pony would have killed him already. Pony? She snorted out loud at that thought. Amarice? Don't think so. Gabrielle? Not unless we've really been amiss in discussing the past. Johanna? Maybe Š AhŠ "Kernunnos?"

"So Š" he struggled against her, to no avail, feeling her weight settle more solidly on his legs and torso. "You know who I am?"

"Process of elimination. And I know enough to know that you may be the father of her child, but you're not Morrigan's husband." The warrior kept a careful eye on him, retrieving a rawhide tie from the man's own cloak hood. She deftly flipped him onto his stomach and bound his hands behind him. "On your feet."

Kernunnos felt a powerful knee to the small of his back, and then he was lifted by arms much stronger than he had guessed during his earlier visual appraisals through the windows of Morrigan's hut. "Are you always this rough with your captives?"

"Do you always hide behind trees and attack strange women as they're running by?" She groaned and turned back toward Morrigan's hut, shoving Kernunnos along in front of her. "You know, you could have simply approached me and asked what my intentions are."

"Okay." Unable to use his hands, he swiped his nose on his shoulder as the blood continued to flow. "What are your intentions toward my wife Š er toward Morrigan?"

Why am I having bad Potadeia flashbacks? she mused silently. "None of your gods-be-damned business," she growled, giving him an extra-hard push for emphasis.

"Be careful how you speak of the gods." His voice was indignant, despite its temporary nasally quality. "I'm a god."

The warrior laughed heartily. "Not hardly." She leaned close and made a show of sniffing at his cloak. "Last time I checked, gods didn't get body odor. Or halitosis. And they sure as Tartarus don't bleed." She continued to chuckle, remembering one of the most confusing times in her life, when trapped in Callisto's body, she had to retrieve Ares' sword for a god of war who had become decidedly mortal. And smelly. And able to Š get drunk. She remembered Autolycus' claim that he'd had drinks with an inebriated Kernunnos, and tucked it away for later.

"Listen, Kernunnos, if that's who you really are." They reached Morrigan's gate and she kicked it open. "We're about to have a chat with the mother of your child, along with a friend of mine you've been doing business with. You may have been immortal at one time, but I'm laying odds that right now you're more flesh and blood than Morrigan. Or me, she privately added. You have two choices Š" She shoved him through the gate and continued to push him along the path. "Co-operate, or find out real quick what it's really like to be mortal, and go up against a warrior and a demi-god." Or two, she added silently. "Who do you think would win that battle Š hmmm?"

The defeated man did his best to snarl, forgetting his broken nose. As his face contorted, he choked out a whimper of pain instead. "We'll see." He finally commented.

The warrior guided him to the door and knocked quietly, emitting a series of soft birdcalls immediately after the knocks. She listened intently, hearing answering signals on the other side of the door. She responded with more whistles, and the door opened. "Pony." She nodded toward her captive. "Go get Morrigan and tell her she has some unwelcome company."

The weapons master frowned. "Who's he?"

"Former god." Xena rolled her eyes.

"O Škay." Eponin started to go get the druid.

"Oh, and Pony, make sure Bridgid stays back there." The warrior glanced at a fuming Kernunnos. "I don't think she needs to be seeing this particular guest. I'd prefer to let Morrigan make that call."

In a very short period of time, an irate druid came storming out of the house. "It isyou." She poked the much larger man in the chest. "I didna' believe it when I heard ya was involved in this." To Xena's surprise, Morrigan tackled Kernunnos, knocking him to the ground and pouncing on him, as she proceeded to pummel his chest and face. He cried out, unable to block the blows to his already-broken nose. "Why didn't ya stay dead, ya bloody damned bastard?"

"Morrigan." The warrior laid a gentle hand on the druid's shoulder, only to have it slapped away. "Morrigan." Her voice was more firm. "If you kill him, we won't be able to question him."

"You Š" the druid roared, her voice reverberating in the snow-filled air. "You tried to MURDER our daughter. Ya tossed her over a cliff, ya filthy piece of dung. I've half a mind to skin ya alive."

"Mummy Š" a small voice sounded from behind them.

"Not a word." The druid hissed low, as she slipped her dagger from her hip and held it to Kernunnos' throat. "She isn't to know yer alive." She got right in his face, her nostrils flaring in anger. "Do I make maself clear?"

The man nodded feebly, and Morrigan shifted, blocking Bridgid's view of her father.

"Mummy," Bridgid started to run out the door, when the weapon's master grabbed her around her waist, holding her back.

"Sorry," Eponin apologized. "She heard the commotion and slipped right under my arms as I tried to stop her."

"Bridgid, darlin'." Morrigan kept her eyes on her former lover as she spoke. "Mummy caught a bad man. Let Auntie Pony take you back inside, sweetheart. Mummy has to go take the bad man to the reeve, but I'll be back to tuck ya in later, okay?"

Xena smirked at the weapons master. "'Auntie' Pony?" She quirked an amused eyebrow.

"Stuff it, warrior princess." Eponin scowled.

"Mummy, will the bad man hurt you?" Bridgid's chin quivered and she sounded like she was about to cry.

"Xena, can ya take over here for a minute?" Morrigan pleaded.

"Sure." The warrior pulled her breast dagger from its warm haven and relieved the druid so she could talk to her daughter. "With pleasure." The dagger found it's mark, and she grinned wickedly as the former god shrunk back from her.

Morrigan waded through the gathering snow and knelt down in front of the tot. "Mummy will be fine, darlin'." She ruffled the blonde curls. "Auntie Xena is going with Mummy, so I'll have help with the bad man. Now give me a hug."

"Yeah." A smug Eponin chimed in. "AuntieXena protects our entire village back home, single-handedly, Bridgid. Your Mummy is in good hands with AuntieXena." The last two words were projected, just in case Xena's sensitive ears didn't hear her the first time.

"Later, feather butt." The warrior called over her shoulder. "I know where you live, and I know what you whisper to your girlfriend when you're alone."

"Huh?" Eponin stomped over to the warrior, oblivious to the rather large man she was holding down. "How in the name of Artemis do you know stuff like that? Your hearing's good, but it's not thatgood."

Xena glanced at her, dark eyebrows waggling. "My girlfriend is very good friends with your girlfriend."

"I Š" The weapons master opened her mouth, and then closed it.

"Gotcha." Xena laughed. "Come on, Pony, you know Gabrielle better than that. She would never disclose private conversations unless she had dire reason to."

"I Š" She clamped her mouth closed a second time.

Xena sobered as Eponin stormed away. Probably shouldn't have done that. "Pony. Wait."

"Yeah?" The weapons master sounded almost hopeful as she paused and turned back around. "You got more centaur dung to hurl my way?"

"No. Just Š" She sat down on Kernunnos' chest, continuing to prevent him from moving. "Glad you're here to take care of everyone while I'm gone, that's all. I Š couldn't think of anyone better for the job."

Even in the darkness, the blush was quite evident. "Yeah?" Her voice was tough but her eyes were smiling. "Just remember. You're gonna owe me big time when you get back."

"I'll remember." Out of the corner of her eye, the warrior saw Johanna ushering Bridgid back inside the hut. "Time to go." She stood, dragging Kernunnos up with her, as Morrigan re-joined them. "We need to haul his sorry carcass back to the inn, and get Autolycus. I have a lot of questions, and I want Auto there with us to verify some of this piece of pig dung's answers."

The man snarled at her, but there was no force behind it.

"Save your breath, you're gonna need it." She tightened her hold on his wrists, which were still bound behind his back. "Sorry to cut your evening with your daughter short, Morrigan. Maybe we can make quick work of this."

"And I'm sorry fer almost killin' yer new-found source of information, Xena." The druid studied her former lover through narrowed eyes. "Although he'd best be behavin' himself, or I'll take great pleasure in sendin' 'im out of this world a second time."

The warrior clasped arms with Eponin. "See you in a few."

The weapons master merely nodded, and disappeared inside the house.

"Okay." Xena led the way, dragging Kernunnos along with her. "Let's get this over with."

They started back down the slippery path, which was covered in a growing blanket of new-fallen snow.

Back at the inn, a forlorn bard watched the white flakes falling outside the window of the upstairs room she had procured. She sighed heavily and sank down on the edge of the double bed, removing her boots and the rest of her clothing, exchanging them for a long-sleeved woolen sleep shirt and a pair of thick warm socks. With quiet resolution, she pulled a fresh piece of parchment from her scroll case and located the metal quill Xena had given her for Solstice. She sat down at the tiny desk under the window, gazing blankly at the snow for another long moment. Then she dipped the quill into her ink well and began to write.


To be Continued in Ch 5 Š

*For more information on Cupcake, to http://www.whoosh.org and click on the episode guide. Go to 4th season Hercules, and read the synopsis for "Men in Pink," and "My Fair Cupcake."

**I've been calling their ailment "consumption," which has a lot of folks confused, thinking they have tuberculosis. From here forward, I'm changing it to "the grippe," an antiquated term for influenza.

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