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.

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

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. The series begins after "The Ides of March" 4th season cliffhanger, and parts ways with the show at that point. No pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no dead Olympian gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Japan (ever). Their friends and family are still alive. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell. Xena's Norseland history is part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle with the ring.

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 6

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

"Should we wake them?" Kallerine crouched down, studying the two sleeping figures with a worried frown.

"I canna believe Xena's not awake, much less sleepin' through us talkin' two feet away from 'em." Morrigan peered over the slayer's shoulder. It was a candle mark past dawn, the morning sky completely clouded over. Snow was falling steadily outside but there was little wind, and the lacy flakes were not so abundant that their vision would be obscured if they chose to travel. The clouds were painted with a faint rosy glow, the only sign that the sun was indeed shining somewhere way up above them.

The warrior was asleep on her back with Gabrielle stretched across her at an angle, stomach-down. Their furs mostly covered them, but it appeared that both women had their arms wrapped around each other. Xena's face was a study in contentment, her usually-sharply alert features relaxed and peaceful, her left cheek resting against the bard's head. Gabrielle was breathing heavily, the tiniest smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

"Do you think there's something wrong with them?" The slayer stood and backed away. She stooped down next to the fire and poked another log into the middle, watching the flames lick at the new wood as it began to crackle and the fire flared up around it.

"Xena had some bad dreams last night," the druid mused thoughtfully. "Maybe she's simply exhausted. And from what I've seen o' Gabrielle, she'll sleep as late as Xena will let 'er."

"True." Kallerine smiled. "It's just that I've never seen Xena let her guard down this much. Even when she's asleep, it seems like her subconscious takes over. I've seen her go from laying down sleeping to standing with her sword drawn in a split second, fully awake as if she's been up for candle marks." She sat down cross-legged, and checked a pot of hot water. Satisfied it was ready, she poured the bubbling water into two mugs full of minty tealeaves, offering one to Morrigan. "Honey?" She drizzled the sticky golden treat into her mug, then handed it over as well.

"Thank ya, Kallerine." The druid allowed a healthy dollop in her own tea, then capped the small container and set it aside.

"They sure do look happy." The slayer's eyes strayed back toward their slumbering companions. "What do you think they're dreaming about?"

Morrigan stared ahead at the cave wall, her eyes unseeing. She remembered the whispered conversation from the night, and the women's gentle interaction. "Don't know," she eyed Kallerine, certain the girl was too young to understand the depth of emotion that ran between warrior and bard.

"They've been through a lot, you know." The slayer recalled whispered stories about the women's trip to Britannia. "I didn't meet them until last winter, about this time as a matter of fact. Queen Gabrielle, she was our queen back then, but she traveled with Xena and left our regent Ephiny in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the Amazons."

"But they live in yer village now, do they not?" Morrigan sipped at her tea, her stomach gradually waking up to the thought of something more solid. She rummaged around in one of the food pouches, retrieving a half loaf of hearty brown bread and a chunk of cheese wrapped in linen. She made two small cheese sandwiches, holding them near the fire to toast the bread and melt the cheese.

"Yes." Ephiny was killed, and that changed everything. Kallerine blinked in surprise, as her eyes filled with tears. She discretely wiped the back of her sleeve across her face and shook her head, determined to get a grip on the perceived weakness.

"Sounds like ya were fond o' this Ephiny." The druid handed her a sandwich, squeezing the slayer's hand in sympathy.

"Yeah, I was. I wasn't born in the Amazon village." She took a healthy bite of bread and cheese, chewing as she slowly relayed her thoughts "I was born near Athens and lived a fairly calm life until about five summers ago. My parents were Athenian dignitaries, and threw parties to entertain groups of merchants and visitors from other provinces. One night during a full moon, they held the most lavish party they had ever had. It was during the harvest festival, and the wine was flowing freely. I wasn't allowed to stay all night, and after a while they sent me to sleep over at a neighbor's hut down the road. That night, bacchae invaded the party and killed everyone there, or at least the ones they didn't turn into more bacchae. When I returned home the next morning, I found dozens of dead bodies in the house. It was apparent my father had died trying to protect my mother. My older sister was nowhere to be found. I found her last summer. She had become a bacchae, but Xena called in a favor from Ares, and we were able to turn her back into a human." She paused, smiling at the druid's incredulous wide eyes. "That's another whole story in itself, for another time. Anyway, I vowed to avenge their deaths, so I spent a few years roaming the countryside, hunting bacchae and experimenting with ways to kill them. I kind of perfected some different methods, and continued to travel. One day I ran into a party of Amazons and traveled with them a few days. We bonded. Ephiny was with the group and asked me to come live in the village. I was really tired of being alone, so I did. Ephiny she took me under her wing treated me like a younger sister."

"Who killed 'er?" Morrigan asked softly.

"Brutus." Kallerine's upper lip curled at the name. "He was leading a legion of soldiers for Julius Caesar, and they attacked some of us in the woods near our village. It was senseless. The Amazons just wanted to live on our land in peace. We didn't want to get involved in Caesar's war with Pompey. Anyway, Brutus killed Ephiny and Solari. Solari was another one of our finest warriors. So we sent Amarice to find Queen Gabrielle, because we were without a named leader. It was a bloody awful mess. Xena and Gabrielle led us in a fight that eventually ended with the death of Pompey and Brutus taking his troops back to Rome. I always thought battles would be glorious, but they're not. I wasn't allowed to fight because of my age, but I saw the death, and what it did to my Amazon sisters."

The slayer's eyes tracked toward the sleeping warrior, before continuing. "I talked to Xena about it a while back. I don't think it's any big secret that I admire her a great deal. She was one of the first people to talk to me like I'm an adult, not a kid. And we understand each other on certain levels that very few others can." Kallerine smiled. "She told me I had the fire in my blood, just like she does. I was afraid that because I found battle to be distasteful that maybe I wasn't cut out to be an Amazon."

"What did she say to that?" Morrigan's blue eyes shone in the firelight, guessing.

"She asked me if I thought Queen Gabrielle wasn't cut out to be an Amazon." The slayer chuckled. "I was dumb-founded. Xena said that the queen cries after battles, that Gabrielle is an excellent warrior, but she only fights out of necessity. She said a soft heart is a good thing, and that she's glad I have a positive outlet for the fire, that I never had the blood lust in the way that she has. Said she wished she had made better choices when she was younger. She said " Kallerine's eyes rolled toward the cave ceiling in thought. "She said that it took being with the queen to make her understand how truly horrible war is. She said that she knows she has broken Queen Gabrielle's heart in the past, by fighting battles she had no business fighting that the queen made choices that she shouldn't have been forced to make ... that she took the queen places she shouldn't have taken her. They love each other so much. I can only hope to have that with someone someday."

And I thought I was dealing with a child. "How old are ya, Kallerine?" It was obvious to the druid that the slayer was young, but she seemed to possess experience and skills that made it easy to forget her youth.

"Seventeen summers. Next year I'll be old enough to have my own hut. I may go back to sharing one with my sister, Kama. We lived together in her hut for a while when I first found her, but after she got settled into the village, they asked me to move back into the older girls' bunkhouse. I think more for me to keep them in line than anything." She smiled.

"I'm sorry you've lost so many people so close to you, Kallerine." Morrigan scooted closer, patting the girl on the back.

"My life it's not so bad," Kallerine reflected. "I sometimes miss my parents. I'm not sure what they would think of how I'm living now. Especially the bit with Amarice."

"You two seem very fond of each other." The druid treaded lightly. "Have ya considered sharing a hut with her next year?"

"We haven't talked about it, no." The slayer looked down, her cheeks coloring. "We sometimes sleep together." She played with the rawhide laces on one of her boots, unable to make eye contact. "But that's all we do sleep. Well, mostly sleep. I think most of the Amazons assume that we you know. But we haven't. At least not yet. She's the only person I've ever kissed. When we started spending time together, we kind of talked about it, and we neither one of us we've never not with anyone."

Morrigan swallowed. Oh boy. How did I end up havin' THIS conversation? "Ya haven't asked for ma advice, but I'm feelin' the need to give it to ya, anyway, is that alright?"

"Sure." Kallerine gave her a quick encouraging smile, before shifting her focus to her other bootlace.

"Take it slow and easy. Don't do anythin' unless it feels right. And by 'feels right,' I don't mean just those wonderful warm tingles ya get whenever ya look at 'er." Morrigan stifled a grin as the telltale blush on the slayer's cheeks deepened. "I mean when it feels right in here." She tapped Kallerine on the head.

"Thanks." The slayer glanced over her shoulder. "I've been meaning to talk to Gabrielle about all of this, but haven't found the courage. Kind of intimidating to discuss sex with your Queen."

"I guess it would be." The druid poured them both a second cup of tea. "Well " she uncurled her legs and stood, rolling her shoulders a bit while changing the subject. " I hate to wake them, but we need to decide if we're travelin' today or not." She moved to the cave entrance, sipping the steaming tea while she observed the continually falling snow. She frowned and turned back around, casually crossing her legs at the ankles as she leaned against the wall. "Kallerine, what, exactly, is a bacchae?"

"Oh." She pursed her lips. "I think Ares said that this far north, you call them vampires."

"Sweet Mother. That's what yer so proficient at slayin'?" Blue eyes grew round as saucers. "Nasty creatures, from what I've heard, although I've been fortunate enough never to've run into one of 'em."

"Yes." The slayer's eyes narrowed in memory. "After what they did to my parents what they made of my sister I'll spend the rest of my life flushing them out. I Ares he said some really strange things about me and about the bacchae. Said it was my destiny, or something like that."

"Does Ares come around the Amazons often?" A puzzled druid padded closer to the fire.

Kallerine spewed a mouthful of tea into the flames. "Oh gods. Sorry about that." She chuckled. "No. I don't think he's ever been in the Amazon village. Just between you and me, I think he's terrified of us. No, he has a special relationship with Xena."

"I see. Speakin' of, which one of us should have the honor of wakin' the mighty warrior?" Morrigan gestured toward the dozing couple, her arm circling with a flourish.

"Hmmm " Kallerine's mouth twitched into a grin. "Whatever you do, better make sure her weapons are out of reach first."

"Good point." The druid crept stealthily over to the pallet, sliding the chakram away from its spot just above the warrior's head. As she started to move the sword, a strong hand reached out, grabbing her wrist, pinning it to the sword hilt.

A lazy smile appeared on Xena's face, her eyes still closed. "Careful," her morning-hoarse voice rasped. "There are a couple of dozen former soldiers wandering around Greece minus a hand, who tried to remove my weapons while I was asleep."

Morrigan's heart leaped into her throat. "Goodness, Xena, ya scared the livin' daylights outta me. How long've ya been awake, anyway?"

"Since I heard you move my chakram." The lazy smile became a wicked grin, as two blue eyes popped open. She blinked, trying to make sense of the gray light filtering in from outside. Mindful of her sleeping partner, she maintained her prone position. "What in Hades time is it, anyway?"

"Almost two candle marks past dawn," the druid smirked.

Huh? The warrior scrubbed her eyes and gently shook her partner. "Gabrielle, we need to get up."

"Noooooo." The bard ducked further under the furs, completely out of sight. "I was having the nicest dream."

Xena closed her eyes again in surprisingly pleasant memory, given her first dream of the night. "Me too. Right before I woke up, I was dreaming of the Fields."

She felt the compact body scrambling upward, and Gabrielle's head suddenly popped out from beneath the covers, staring at her so closely, their noses were touching. "Me too." She smiled dreamily. "I was dreaming about that "

" willow tree," they spoke simultaneously. Twin smiles appeared. For a moment the cave faded out, as the warrior reached up, the backs of her knuckles brushing against the bard's face. They slowly became aware of their surroundings again, and the two figures watching them curiously from nearby.

"Oh." Xena rose up on her elbows. "Just some memories. Kinda hard to explain."

"No need." Morrigan scooted back so that Xena would have an unobstructed view of the falling snow. "The only thing we'd like an answer on, is are we travelin' today or not?"

The warrior watched in silence for a moment, her eyes taking in the near foot of new snow piled up at the cave's entrance. I used to like the snow. She groaned wearily and plopped back down onto the pallet, pulling the furs completely over both her and her partner.

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

The snow quit falling shortly after lunch and they decided to travel as far as they could before nightfall. It was bitterly cold and the soft new powder was difficult to walk in, even with snowshoes. Conversation was almost non-existent, save a few short exchanges between Xena and Morrigan to ascertain they were still going in the right direction. Otherwise, the four women trudged silently through the deep drifts, each lost in her own thoughts.

As the shadows lengthened, the temperature dropped even lower, causing their eyes to water and burning any exposed skin. Gabrielle, Morrigan, and Kallerine had their hoods pulled snuggly around their heads and thick woolen mufflers wrapped around their faces up to eye level. Only Xena continued to forge on bareheaded, seemingly oblivious to the brutal conditions.

In the thick woods sunset would come abruptly, and they needed to either find shelter soon or else make a firm decision to travel on through the dark for a while. The warrior debated. On the one hand, if they continued to move, the activity would keep their body temperatures elevated. On the other hand she looked over her shoulder, studying her companions with a critical eye. All three of them appeared to be weary and even as she watched, Kallerine stumbled, the tips of her snowshoes almost tangling in the process. The slayer righted herself just in time, her shoulders slumping in utter dejection.

Okay I think we need to stop. Question is, where? She knew from earlier discussion with Morrigan that there were no caves in the area. It was much too cold to camp out in the open, and even if it were warmer, the snow would make camping miserable at best. The druid did mention some craggy hills that were off to the side of their path through the trees. If they could at least find some sort of overhang to block the wind, it would be better than nothing. She and Gabrielle could wrap up in one bedroll and keep each other warm, and the slayer and Morrigan Xena chuckled to herself good thing they've gotten to know each other. They're gonna need a warm friend tonight. At least they aren't complete strangers.

She shook her head, remembering her early travels with Gabrielle.

They met in the spring and traveled through the summer together. Each night when they made camp they spread their bedrolls out on separate sides of the fire. Dinner was passed in one-sided conversation, Gabrielle chattering endlessly on about anything and everything where they had been that day what they had done and seen the people they met and she had a bottomless supply of questions for every new experience. Xena well, she had been Xena, answering with an economy of words and syllables, the fewer the better.

Gods, what an ass I was. Can't believe she didn't just pack up and leave me. I sure deserved it. Little did the bard know how much her chatter served to calm the warrior, keeping her mind off much darker thoughts. Great Hera some of the things she asked me like why my chakram returns to me, or why it cuts other people but not me or why some warriors use a double-edged sword and others use a single-edged blade She did manage to keep me on my mental toes, that's a certainty. Not much time left for brooding with all that to think about, no sir.

Summer gave way to fall and fall soon eased its way into winter. Their routine was familiar, if not still a bit impersonal on Xena's part. A visit to a sizeable village resulted in the purchase of a thick hooded cloak for Gabrielle, one she was more than grateful to have. Xena already owned a similar but larger wrap. The shorter days and cooler nights found them donning the cloaks more often than not, both for travel and in the evenings as they ate dinner and prepared for bedtime.

Xena was typically resourceful in finding them snug caves, unlocked barns, and other assorted sources of shelter against the increasing cold, but their came an evening when they found themselves too tired to go on with no such structure in sight. The warrior would have plodded wearily on if she had only herself to consider, but even Argo was starting to balk stubbornly and she knew they needed to stop.

She did find a small alcove of trees, which provided some respite from the blowing wind. Gabrielle made them a hot pot of rabbit stew and cups of fragrant steaming tea. Still, after the sun set, the warmth of the fire seemed to offer almost no relief, at least to the bard, who was visibly shivering, her jaw clenched in firm determination.

Xena saw it on her young companion's face. Gabrielle was prepared to freeze to death before she would complain about the cold and risk being sent on a one-way trip back to Potadeia, which wasn't so very far away from where they were camping. The warrior saw another shiver run the entire length of the bard's body and sighed wearily.

She put down her sword, which she had been sharpening, and crossed to the other side of the fire, kneeling down next to the young girl. "Hey."

Gabrielle slowly looked over at her, her eyes begging to be allowed to stay. "H hey."

"Cold, huh?" The warrior poked a stick into the fire, stirring up the embers.

"It's it's not so bad " Gabrielle's teeth were chattering as she spoke. " really. I'll be fine."

"Gabrielle " Xena drew out the name, watching the girl shake again. Little did she know the sound of her voice had caused that particular tremor. She hesitantly reached out, grasping one of the bard's hands. "You're freezing." She chaffed the cold hand and squeezed it, not letting go as she spoke.

"I said I'll be fine," the girl's voice quivered in desperation. "Maybe if I get a little closer to the fire "

"Any closer and we'll be having a bard-b-q." Xena watched a smile appear on the girl's face. Did I put that there? It had been a long time, she reflected, since she made anyone smile.

Gabrielle giggled. "True." Her face sobered again. "But don't worry about me. I'll cover up in my bedroll and get all nice and warm. No problem."

Xena slowly became aware that she was still holding Gabrielle's hand, and of just how nice that felt. Even nicer was the sensation of the bard squeezing hers back. "Um look Gabrielle it's really cold, and it's only going to get colder before morning. You've already lost a lot of body heat, and at this point it's going to be difficult for you to get warm, even in your sleeping furs."

"Oh." The girl looked down, studying their linked hands. "You're still warm. Guess you won't have any problems sleeping, huh?"

"No." The warrior peered off into the distance, beyond the fire and into the dark shadows of the woods around them. "No I won't. And funny thing about that if um if we were to share a bedroll I'm probably warm enough to help you get warm again too."

Their eyes met, the bard's as large as a deer caught in torchlight. She looked back down quickly. "I um " She suddenly grew self-conscious and quietly released Xena's hand, wrapping her arms around her knees and hugging herself.

"Gabrielle." The warrior tilted her chin up. "It's okay. I don't bite. We're friends, right?"

"Right." The girl nodded soberly.

"As your friend, I can't let you sleep cold when you could be warm." She got up, dragging the bard's furs over to the other side of the fire. "Come on." She stretched out on her own bedroll, patting the space next to her.

Gabrielle took an agonizing amount of time to stand, treading carefully over to her and sitting down, slowly stretching out her legs and gradually lying down. "Oh." She felt a large hand on her hip.

Xena chuckled, pulling the smaller woman up against her and drawing Gabrielle's fur over on top of them. She shuffled around until the bard was closest to the fire, their bodies spooned together. The warrior kept her arm wrapped around the girl's waist. "There." Her voice tickled the bard's ear. "How's that?"

"Not not so bad." One last shiver ran through Gabrielle's body, then Xena felt her relax, the girl's body gradually growing warmer. Her breathing evened out and the last bit of tension melted away from the bard's cold muscles. "Th thank you."

"You're welcome." Xena closed her eyes. After several minutes, she felt a shy hand grasp hers, twining their fingers together against Gabrielle's stomach. This is nice, she mused sleepily. She thought, at the time, that it was a rare and innocent opportunity to get closer to her friend in a way she could never bring herself to seek under normal circumstances. When she was certain Gabrielle was asleep, she quickly brushed her lips across the blonde head, then settled back against the furs. Where in Hades did that come from? she fuzzily wondered, before drifting into the most peaceful sleep of her life.

"Hey." A tug at her cloak brought her out of her musings. "You okay? You seemed awfully far away there." Concerned green eyes peered up at her, as the bard twitched her hood up over her head, settling it into place and daring her to let it fall back again. "Hmmphhh," Gabrielle snorted in admonishment. "Xena, you just recovered from the grippe less than a moon ago. The last thing we need is for you to get sick again, especially out here in the middle of nowhere."

"Sorry." Blue eyes twinkled in the dwindling daylight. "I was thinking about that first really cold night after we started traveling together."

"Oh my gods!" The bard laughed. "I was so cold. And so afraid you would see it as weakness and make me go home. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard you suggest we share a bedroll."

"Yeah, I could tell you were pretty scared." Xena tweaked her nose. "You sure got over that by morning."

The bard's face colored, a dusting of blush under already wind-reddened cheeks. "I was mortified when I woke up practically sleeping on top of you. Especially when I figured out that it was full daylight and you had probably been awake for a while."

"Gabrielle, I would have let you sleep until noon that day if you had wanted to." The warrior's arm appeared from beneath her woolen folds, and wrapped around the bard's shoulders, pulling her closer. "I had never felt more calm and centered in my life, up to that point. I think my body was already figuring out things my heart and mind took much longer to catch up to."

"Yeah, me too." The bard laughed. "I remember secretly hoping it would be a really cold winter."

"You did, huh?" Xena's smile carried over into her voice. "Well, you certainly got your wish now, if not then, 'cause we have got to find some semblance of a campsite soon."

"I thought I heard Morrigan say there isn't much around here in the way of shelter." The worry returned to the green eyes.

"She did." The warrior steered her off-path, motioning for the others to follow. "I've got an idea, though. I think with four of us, it shouldn't take too long to implement it."

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

"Ahh." Xena stood back and swiped her hands together, admiring her handiwork with some satisfaction. "That should do the trick. Is the fire pit ready?"

"Yeah." The bard emerged from the well-built shelter and stood beside her. "Amazing." She nodded with approval, her hands planted on her hips. "I had no idea you could build something like this."

"Yeah." Another thing I figured out in northern Chin. The warrior kicked idly at the snow around her feet. They had found a rather nice alcove with an overhang that jutted out from the rock face far enough to allow all of them to spread their bedrolls under its cover. It wasn't quite high enough for anyone but Morrigan to stand up to her full height inside, but it was protected on two sides. Xena had built a wall of snow blocks to close it off, a makeshift snow fort over a foot thick. The other three had busied themselves in keeping snow piled up for the warrior to work with, and helping pack the snow into icy-hard blocks. Once they got a fire started, it would be as good as a cabin inside.

"Won't the fire melt the snow?" Gabrielle frowned.

"Not if we build it against the back wall. I left a few vent holes near the top of the wall so we don't get smoked out." She looked up. The sky was completely clear, with hundreds of twinkling stars.

"The moon is gorgeous, isn't it?" The bard motioned toward a large bright glowing half-sphere that hung low, just over the tops of the trees. "It looks so close, almost like you could touch it."

Just then, a shooting star blazed across the sky, a sparkling tail shimmering in its wake, then fading away. Xena paused and closed her eyes. She felt the bard's hand on her arm and opened them, an affectionate smile gracing her lips.

"What did you wish for?" Gabrielle returned the smile.

"You know I can't tell you. Might not come true." Her face sobered. I laid a parcel of wishes on that star, my bard. For your happiness our happiness. For the success of this mission. For a safe journey home. For a joining ceremony we'll remember fondly for the rest of our lives. That my dream last night was just that a dream. Damn. That's one I can't withhold for a while, is it? She needs to know. "Gabrielle, we need to talk. I'd prefer we do it privately, but this can't wait. Do you mind having a fairly sensitive conversation in front of Morrigan and Kallerine?"

A shadow crossed the bard's fair face, dulling the green eyes for a moment. She felt a nervous fluttering in her stomach and swallowed in reflex. "Depends on how sensitive the topic is."

"I had a dream last night. It was pretty vivid." Blue eyes looked inward and the warrior involuntarily drew in a very deep breath.

"Was it that nightmare?" Gabrielle squeezed her arm in comfort.

"Yeah at least I hope so." Hope it wasn't some damned vision like the crucifixion dreams. "Alti was in it. That's who I was fighting."

"Oh." The bard looked away, out over the treetops, focusing on the moon again. Her jaw worked in silence as she formulated her thoughts. "You're right. I don't think we can wait for privacy. But we can send Kallerine out hunting and get Morrigan to take a turn at cutting some firewood. That'll buy us at least a half candlemark, I think."

"Good plan." Xena mustered a true smile. "Let's get inside and see if this little fort is worth the effort I put into it."

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

"So I did okay, huh?" Xena sat cross-legged on their bedroll, nervously fidgeting with a loose clasp on her armor, working the piece back into better position.

"Yeah. It's really cozy in here." Gabrielle knelt next to the fire, pouring up two cups of mint tea. She closed her eyes, listening to the crackle of the fire, and the soft whispering of a light wind just outside the doorway. The opening was temporarily covered with one of their furs until the others returned from their assignments. Once they were all safely inside, they would close off the entrance with additional blocks of snow that were stacked immediately outside.

"It's a little close," Xena spoke ruefully. "Makes me a kinda twitchy."

"That much is obvious." The bard walked on her knees across the short distance between them. "You've fixed that same piece three times since I started making the tea."

"Oh." The warrior set the armor aside. "Guess so. I can't seem to get it quite right."

"Because you're not concentrating." Green eyes sparkled warmly and the bard curled up next to her, offering up a steaming mug. "So " Gabrielle took a few sips, then set her cup down, feeling Xena's arm wrap around her and pull her close. " you want to tell me about your dream?"

The warrior hesitated, remembering countless crucifixion visions. She cocked her head to the side and riffled her fingers through short blonde locks. "Gabrielle, I always wondered " She pushed the bard's bangs back, kissing her forehead. "When we were in India after Alti showed you that vision and I had to cut your hair off I know you needed to get it trimmed up " She smiled briefly. "The chakram didn't do such an even job but why did you get it cut so short?"

"I thought you liked it short." Gabrielle bit her lower lip and frowned. "Besides, it's almost down to my shoulders now. Remember? At our joining ceremony, I want to wear some of those combs Ephiny gave me the last time I saw her. I can grow it out even longer if it bothers you that much, but it's going to take a little while."

"No sorry. I'm not making myself clear here. I love it shorter. It sets off your beautiful face." She placed another kiss on a pale brow. "What I meant to ask, is why did you get it cut exactly like it was in that vision?"

"Oh." The bard looked up, rolling her eyes in thought. "Alti really terrified me, Xena. It was almost worse than Dahak. Dahak hurt me physically, and so did Alti. But Alti got in my head and made me feel fear as I'd never felt it before. Even after we defeated her, I couldn't shake all of that fear at least not completely. When I found that woman to cut my hair, I decided to defy that fear. I thought by getting it cut exactly like the vision, I could prove to Alti, or whoever, that they weren't going to win. Does that make sense?"

"It makes perfect sense." The warrior wrapped both arms around her and pulled the bard back until she was reclining against Xena's chest. "Especially coming from you. There I was, trying to avoid any situation that even remotely resembled those visions, and you simply took the bull by the horns, and got in its face. I should have realized that."

"Does short hair have anything to do with your dream?" The bard felt Xena's chin come to rest on top of her head.

"Not exactly." Xena sighed heavily, and began recounting her dream in great detail. There was a time when she would have spared Gabrielle the unpleasant parts. She'd kept quiet about the crucifixion visions for a few moons, bearing the nightmares alone. It hadn't changed anything. Just like avoiding Romans and snow hadn't kept the vision from becoming reality. It was almost as if, because I didn't allow us near the vision, the vision came to us. Her mind worked around that on occasion, trying to determine if maybe she had done things differently, if she could have kept it from happening. She finished her story and closed her eyes, waiting for the bard's reaction.

"Wow. That is a bad dream." Gabrielle turned in her arms to make eye contact. "Do you think it means anything? Was Alti playing games with you, or was it just a very bad dream?"

"Don't know." Xena swallowed, studying the red and yellow flames of the fire, as they licked hungrily at the pine logs. The inside of their little snow fort smelled strongly of the sweet green scent. "It's just that after spending an entire year living in fear of Roman crosses, this new one has me really spooked on certain levels. I keep playing it over in my mind, trying to figure out if there are any details I can control something that'll keep it from " Coming true? Her mind reeled in horror at the mere thought.

"Xena," Gabrielle's voice was loving but stern. "There's no way you would stab me. I'm sorry, but even you can't believe you're capable of that."

"Aren't I?" Blue eyes tracked sadly to green. "Have you forgotten so soon what I did to you after Solan died?"

Beating a dead horse into the ground, are we? The bard bit off the words, not speaking them out loud. "Xena, number one, you were drugged at the time. You told me that much. Number two, Ares had played with your head. Number three, you were half out of your mind with anger and grief. We've come a long way since then. Things aren't the same between us. We've learned to talk about things, Xena. I don't think it can ever be that bad again, not as long as we continue to be honest with one another."

"I know that logically, Gabrielle." She blew out a frustrated breath. "But after what we went through last year, there's a large margin of self-doubt."

Whoa. The bard's eyes widened. Takes a lot for her to admit that outright. She carefully replayed Xena's dream. "Hey." She whirled completely around, sitting back and placing both hands on the warrior's thighs. "Did you actually see yourself stab me in this dream?"

"I well, no. But it was awfully close. Don't know how else it was going to end." She looked down. "I stabbed you in Illusia."

"Xena." Gabrielle shook her slightly. "Just stop it, okay? We aren't in Britannia and we certainly aren't in Illusia. Stop beating yourself up over stuff I've already forgiven you for. I don't want to go backwards. Do you understand that?"

"I " Xena watched as the bard rose up in anger. "Gab, be "

"Ouch." The bard's head made contact with the cold hard stone above them.

" careful." The warrior winced, hearing the audible crack as her lover's skull hit rock.

"Ahhh." Gabrielle sat back down. "That hurt." She rubbed her head. "No need for stargazing tonight. I'm seeing plenty of them right now."

"Come here." Xena located the tender spot, carefully probing for any real damage.

"Anyway " The bard's face scrunched up as a long finger prodded a small bump. "Ouch. Anyway, I don't want to go backward, Xena. Don't you see? The whole future is ahead of us. I want to focus on that, honey. Get joined, have a family. Sure, our past is important. But sometimes, even very bad things serve a purpose, and end up turning us toward something good. Aren't we, in a strange sort of way, the sum of our experiences? Take away a good one or a bad one here and there, and we might be very different people than we are today. Even us dying that helped us get together, didn't it?"

"True." Xena finished poking her partner's head. "Tiny bump. Nothing serious. If you get a headache, let me know and I'll get you something for it." She pulled the bard back to her. "True but I think we would have gotten together anyway, my bard. I don't know how much longer I could have put a damper on the feelings I was having for you."

"Okay, I'll give you that." Gabrielle smiled. "I was having some pretty strong feelings myself. But my point is that we are together as a couple now, at least in part, because of our time together in the Fields. You had a bad dream. We're not sure how it ends, just like we didn't know how the crucifixion would ultimately end. Maybe it's not even Alti."

"It's Alti." The warrior's lip curled as if tasting something bitter. "I can feel it. I heard her. I bet we're not going to find any kind of trail tomorrow at Kernunnos' campsite. In the dream she said I was going to be joining her. It sure looked like the underworld to me. Ten dinars says she's the one behind all of this. Question is, why?"

"Oh, come on , Xena. That's an easy one." Gabrielle laughed, shaking her head. "Alti is all about power. It's all she talked about in India. Something as powerful as this mask is supposed to be someone like Alti would be salivating like a dog on butchering day, just thinking about it."

"I know that." The warrior swallowed a mouthful of tea. "What I wonder, is why she's playing with me. If she has the mask, and I'll wager another ten dinars she does, why doesn't she go ahead and use it? Why is she bothering with us? That's the part I don't get."

"Xena, what is Alti, exactly?" The bard shuddered, remembering her partner's recounting of her time with the Northern Amazons. "She was obviously human when you met her. But you killed her. And I thought we killed her again in India. It's all very confusing. Will the mask effect her like a god, give her all kinds of power, or will it effect her like a mortal, make her want to go take out her loved one?" If she has a loved one, Gabrielle added silently. Which I doubt.

"Don't know. Even as a mortal she's a force to be reckoned with. If she's something more, she could be the most challenging opponent I've ever faced. She can beat a person with head games alone, if they aren't careful. As for her killing someone she loves, Gabrielle, the only person she's expressed any interest in, that I'm aware of, is " Xena stopped, realizing too late where her thoughts were headed, watching the bard's eyes grow wide in fear.

"You," Gabrielle whispered. "Xena, she's obsessed with you. Are you kidding me?" She got up on her knees, clasping strong shoulders and holding on tightly. "Xena." She looked deeply into the warrior's eyes, allowing her own fear to resurface, willing Xena to understand just how serious she was. "If Alti is behind this, and she does have the mask, you be careful. Alti doesn't have to be in touching range. Don't you even get close to her. You promise me you'll be careful, no matter what, okay?"

"Gabrielle, I'm always careful. I only take calculated risks." She watched her lover relax, the bard sinking back down into her warm warrior nest. "Don't you worry about me, love. Alti's not gonna touch us."

They watched the fire in silence, quietly finishing their tea and waiting for their companions to return so they could start dinner. 'Course, Xena mused to herself. If Alti and Loki have teamed up, what good is caution going to do if they have the power to destroy the universe?

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

Four weary travelers reached Kernunnos' abandoned campsite at mid-afternoon the next day. No more snow had fallen but the icy cold air appeared to have settled over the land for an unforeseeable period of time. Xena knew, before they even reached the small cave, that there would be no tracks to follow. Instead they met with pristine untouched powder, which sparkled in the soft winter daylight, its innocent beauty mocking them and their mission.

The warrior carefully searched the interior of the cavern, finding only the charred remains of the ex-god's campfire. Not a single footprint was to be found, nor even the slightest clue as to which direction the thief had headed after absconding with the mask. So she sat down on a narrow rocky ledge, her weight pressing against her hands, which rested on the cold stone. Now what? You know 'now what,' warrior, her own mind retorted. Now you go find the portal to the underworld and have a chat with Loki.

She sighed heavily. "At least I don't have to drink any horse blood this time," she muttered under her breath. "I sure hope not, at any rate."

"What?" Gabrielle popped into the cave and took a seat next to her. "You lecturing the rocks, or just talking to yourself?"

"Oh." A wry smile graced her lips. "No. Nothing. Just weighing my options."

"Looks like whatever you've come up with is awfully heavy." The bard bumped shoulders with her.

"Um, yeah, you could say that." Xena drew up one leg, propping a booted foot on the sharp stone edge and wrapping her arms around her knee. "As a mortal, there are so many ways to do these things. To get to Tartarus or the Fields, I had to dive to the bottom of that lake. To get to the Amazon Land of the Dead, well you've already heard that story."

"Ewww." Gabrielle's nose wrinkled. "Yeah. Don't remind me. Glad Argo didn't know what you were going to do to her friend. She might have let that guy run you through after we found her again."

This drew a half-hearted chuckle. "True. And in Egypt I somehow made it to their underworld when we were inside that pyramid. 'Course, to get to Valhalla, all I had to do was ride a flying horse."

"What?!" The bard's head snapped around. "Like a Pegasus?"

"No, not exactly." Damn. I had to bring up Valhalla, didn't I? Xena mentally slapped herself. "Long story. I promise I'll share it after all this is over, deal?"

"Deal." Gabrielle studied the somber profile. Why do I get the feeling she's hiding some whole other chapter of her life from me? She could read the tension just under the surface, the warrior's fine jaw muscles twitching almost imperceptibly. And why do I get the feeling it's killing her to think about sharing it with me? The bard instinctively reached out, covering Xena's hand nearest to her. "No rush, honey. Just remember, though, that there's nothing you can ever tell me that will make me stop loving you, okay?"

"I'd never doubt your love for me, Gabrielle." Blue eyes shone sadly. Only whether I deserve it. She knew better than to voice this last thought. It would only upset her, and I'd get a lecture on all the reasons why I do deserve it. Okay, my bard, I'm going to do my best to live up to all that you've offered me, and try to believe even half as much as you do. She squeezed the smaller hand and drew it up, brushing her lips across Gabrielle's knuckles.

"So you're trying to figure out the trick to getting into this underworld?"

"Yeah. Valhalla was the good place. I never saw the bad one, and I can only assume that since Loki and Kernunnos were both there, that the Norse gods and the Celts must share their underworld. Makes sense, I guess. Sort of like certain parts of religious beliefs are common to both Chin and India." Dark brows knit in puzzlement. "It's all damned confusing sometimes."

"I'll say. I remember how surprised I was when Ephiny and Solari explained that they could cross between the Elysian Fields and the Amazon Land of the Dead. That was a little mind-boggling." The bard bumped shoulders again. "I'm just glad Aphrodite won that argument. Otherwise, I'd have raised a fit until they let me get to where you were."

"Not if I got to you first." She searched the bard's face. "Wherever we go, we go together, right?"

Surprised green eyes met twinkling blue. "Right " Gabrielle had been prepared for her partner to gently suggest that she could stay behind, and skip the journey into the underworld. Xena would never ask, or ever demand, but her own fierce protective streak could never stop her from trying more subtle approaches when she wanted the bard to choose safety over togetherness.

"And before you suddenly think I've lost my mind, this time, I'm selfishly asking you to go with me." She watched surprise give way to confusion. "The last time I left you behind because of one of Alti's visions, it backfired on me. If we'd been together, I think I could have changed the outcome. I'm not taking that chance this time. Not where you're concerned. It occurs to me that the easiest way for me to protect you is if I'm with you."

"Um okay." Gabrielle rubbed the side of her own neck. "No arguments here. So what's the plan?"

"I "

Morrigan ran into the cave, her eyes wild with terror, her breath coming in great heaves. "Xena, ya need ta get out here. We were scouting the perimeter, just like ya asked, and somethin' really strange is going on with Kallerine."

The warrior bolted from her seat, not bothering to put her snowshoes on first. I'll do flips if I have to. She followed Morrigan around the outcropping that housed the cave, watching as the druid's legs carried her over the top of the snow in a blur. Damn. Wish that particular gift were part of my heritage right about now.

She saw Kallerine ahead of them, kneeling under the trees clutching her neck with both hands, her body convulsing. The slayer was gasping for air and Xena cursed quietly, launching herself up, turning in a series of flips over Morrigan's head and landing in front of Kallerine.

"Kallerine, can you speak?" The slayer's eyes were glazed and beneath her fingers, Xena could see trickles of blood. She grabbed Kallerine's hands, prying them lose and gasping when two puncture wounds were revealed, blood pouring steadily from both holes. The warrior's mind spun, processing what she knew of the slayer, and she looked wildly around them.

"Alti!" Her voice thundered in anger. "Show yourself, gods-damn-you!"

Morrigan had stopped directly behind her, and cautiously moved around into the warrior's line of sight. "You think the shamaness is doing this to her?" The druid shivered. Xena had spent the better part of a candlemark the prior evening, describing Alti to their travel companions, and explaining some of the tricks she was capable of playing. Despite the cozy iglooed cave they slept in, all four women had slept fitfully afterward.

"I know she is," Xena growled. "It's one of her favorite mind games, to make you feel pain from either your past or your future, both emotional and physical. My guess is that right now Kallerine is reliving her experiences when we found her sister -- Kama had to feed on Kallerine's blood in order to become human again after being a Bacchae."

The druid seemed to accept the information without so much as a raised eyebrow, much to Xena's relief. She had no time to explain further at that moment. "So what do we do for her?"

"Not sure." The warrior looked past her, as Gabrielle approached them, slogging through the drifts on her snowshoes. Xena regretfully realized that just that winter, the bard had quit refreshing the mehndi tattoos she had carefully kept up for over a year, and had allowed the intricate designs to gradually fade away. Not that I'm sure that trick would work outside India, she mused. "Gabrielle, keep your guard up. It's Alti."

"Where?" The bard looked around, then felt a punch to her gut, followed by another to her face, along with general pummeling about her entire torso. She groaned and dropped to the snow, her body jerking with each painful blow.

"Dammit, Alti!" Xena's rage flowed freely, and she launched skyward again, landing next to her partner and trying her best to hold onto her. "Gabrielle?"

"Tara," the bard mumbled weakly.

Gods. Xena had not actually seen the beating Gabrielle had taken at Tara's hands, only the aftermath, which consisted of some scratches to her face and a nasty gash to her earlobe where the feisty girl had bitten her. The warrior watched as invisible claws recreated the same scrapes across the bard's right cheek, and Gabrielle screamed in pain, grabbing her ear, which became bloody as soon as she touched it.

Just as quickly as it all started, Kallerine finally drew in a great breath and fell to the snow, and Gabrielle went limp in Xena's arms, her chest rising unevenly and her pulse beating out of control under the warrior's fingertips. She looked cautiously around at the sudden silence.

It lasted a split second, then Morrigan cried out, her body flying through the air and slamming into a tree trunk. She slid down and landed in a twisted heap, only to find herself hurled through space again, colliding with yet another tree, visions of her final big battle with Hercules, right before she left her evil ways, replaying themselves. She looked around in confusion then cried out, flinging herself across the snow, her arms outstretched. "Bridgid!" Her voice was anguished, reliving a vision of Kernunnos tossing their daughter over the edge of a cliff.

"Morrigan?" Xena stood and tramped the short distance to the druid, who was curled up into a tight ball.

"She's got ma daughter, Xena." Hardened blue eyes looked up, meeting Xena's own steely orbs. "I can feel it."

"Don't trust everything she shows you, Morrigan." The warrior started to kneel down, then doubled over instead, clutching at her left side as incredible pain shot through her. Her eyes grew wide, as she found herself back at the beginning of her travels with Gabrielle. She'd left the bard behind, and ended up taking an arrow through her gut, depending on the kindness of Darius and his children to care for her until she was able to travel again. She cried out again, feeling the pain as if it were real, as the imaginary arrow was first shoved through her body, then the shaft broken, before it was pulled back through. Oh gods. Her mind had just enough time to remember what was coming, before a searing burning sensation replaced the arrow pain, recreating the moment when they used a hot poker to cauterize the arrow wound. She bit her lip until she tasted blood. Can't pass out won't pass out mustn't pass out. She screamed as the pain ripped through her, taking her to her hands and knees.

Then it was just gone, and she found herself retching into the snow, giving up the contents of her stomach. Uggghh. She grabbed a handful of snow, scrubbing her face with it, then gathered another and used the cold substance to rinse out her mouth. She stood on shaking legs, feeling weak as a newborn colt.

Familiar laughter lilted through the trees and a taunting voice filled the air around them. "I've missed you, Xena. We've got a date with destiny, you and I. I think you know where to find me."

"Alti?!" The warrior looked around for the source of the voice. "Ahhhgggghhh!" She fell, grabbing both shins and rolling in agony. Damn. Her jaw clenched, feeling anew the blow as a Roman mallet broke her legs. She always pulls that one.

"Better hurry, Xena," the voice rasped. "I've got your friends and I've got the druid's daughter. I've even got Loki. The longer you delay, the greater the power I can draw from them. Guess what else I have?" The laughter rang out loudly, gradually fading away and disappearing, leaving all four women lying limply in the snow.

"Gabrielle?" The warrior crawled to her partner, gathering the shaking bard into her arms. "Hey. Can you talk to me?" She patted a pale cheek.

"Mmmm." Green eyes fluttered open. "How's the others?" The bard coughed weakly.

"We're okay, Gabrielle." Morrigan had made her way to Kallerine, inspecting two tiny punctures at her throat, the only visible remains of the slayer's ordeal. The druid herself felt the beginning of large bruises to her back and stomach where they had impacted the trees, but was otherwise unharmed.

"What in Tartarus was that?" Kallerine found her voice, sitting up and looking around them.

"That was Alti," the warrior's nostrils flared. "Come on," she stood, helping the bard to her feet. "Let's get back to the cave and clean up our injuries." Her fingers lightly traced the scratches on Gabrielle's face. "And re-group."

"Xena?" Warrior and bard supported each other as they trudged back to the cave.

"What is it, sweetheart?" She could feel her partner trembling.

"You think she really has Pony and Autolycus and Bridgid?"

"Don't know." She felt a twinge at her side and grimaced. "Sometimes her mind games are riddles."

"Xena?"

"Hmmm?"

"If you don't kill that bitch when we find her, someone better hold me back." She shook again, and the warrior realized it was from rage, not fear.

"Don't you worry about that, my bard." Xena's own face twisted in anger. "I've got plans for her." Hear that, Alti? She shook a mental fist. I'm coming to get you, once and for all this time.

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

"How's that?" The warrior gently dabbed at the bard's earlobe, then swabbed her cheek with an infusion of cleansing herbs.

"Xena, you've cleaned my wounds three times since Alti attacked us." Gabrielle tugged at a leather waistband, urging her partner to sit down. "They're just minor. No big deal. Finish your dinner before it gets cold."

"Sorry." The warrior set aside her healer's kit and resumed her seat nearest the tiny cave's entrance, taking up a half-full lukewarm mug and picking at the remaining contents listlessly with a spoon.

She had tended to Kallerine's throat punctures, insisted on taking a look at Morrigan's bruises, built up a healthy fire, and hunted down two sizeable rabbits that Xena would have cooked herself if the bard hadn't intervened, pointing out that the warrior also had a small wound on her lower left torso.

Gabrielle had set the rabbit pieces to boil in a stew, along with a portion of roots she'd scrounged from the kitchen in the inn back in Morrigan's village. Then she carefully peeled off Xena's black leather vest and the long-sleeved wool undershirt, and administered the same herbs the warrior was so liberally passing around to everyone else. She'd wrapped a clean piece of linen around the muscular abdomen, then tugged the shirt back over Xena's head, giving her uninjured side a little pat.

Dinner had been somber, with carefully guarded conversation regarding Alti. It was one thing to hear Xena describe the shamaness' powers, quite another to experience them firsthand. Kallerine was shaken at reliving her sister's feeding session, and Morrigan was beside herself with worry over Bridgid, so much so that Xena had finally made both the slayer and the druid cups of tea from herbs that were guaranteed to put them to sleep. After the warrior promised she'd keep watch, Morrigan reluctantly accepted the potion, weary of the doubt and fear buzzing around in her head. Kallerine followed suit, grimacing at the bitter taste that assaulted her tongue.

Both women were now fast asleep on a shared bedroll on the other side of the fire. They had quickly overcome any reservations they had regarding sharing a bed with a relative stranger, the need for body heat outweighing any shyness. While not snuggled up as tightly as warrior and bard would be, they were sharing a single top fur, their bodies touching all along one side.

The cave wasn't wide enough for Xena to stretch out completely, and she was half-sitting, half-reclining on their furs, her head and shoulders propped against the cave wall, her body blocking the bard from the steady stream of cold outside air. Gabrielle was curled up against the warrior's right side with her sleeping fur pulled up around both of them. She watched Xena drain her stew mug and set it aside. The warrior's hand came up, absently stroking the bard's injured cheek, her fingertips tracing the light scratch marks.

Gabrielle sighed and tucked her head into the crook of Xena's neck, closing her eyes, her senses taking in the pleasant scent of the campfire, the chill that reached her bare head, and the comforting sensations Xena's gentle touch evoked. Her own hand slipped inside the warrior's shirt, rubbing the muscular belly. "Honey " she nuzzled the warm musky-sweet skin of her partner's throat. "I know Alti is scary she sure scares the poop out of me but you seem a little more upset about all of this than I would have expected you to be."

"Sorry." The warrior forced her hand away from her partner's face, moving it to the blonde head and sifting the silky fine hair through her fingers. "It's just Gabrielle I never knew."

"Never knew what?" The bard looked up to see sad regret in the silver-blue eyes. "Xena, what's wrong?"

"That beating you took from Alti this afternoon did Tara really knock you around that badly?" Her fingers trembled as they made another pass through the blonde locks.

Oh. I see the problem. No more lies, isn't that what we agreed on? She sighed. "Yes. I probably should have fought back harder. She caught me completely by surprise. I was just sitting there trying to write in my journal. Didn't do a thing to provoke her. I wasn't used to beating the snot out of another woman, especially one that is smaller than me, so it took me a while to react and defend myself. She knocked me around, slammed my face into a table a few times you saw where she scratched me and bit my ear Xena, it's been a few years. I haven't thought about it in a very long time until today."

"Why didn't you tell me how bad it was? If it was that bad, I should have checked you for a concussion." Xena released a long breath and pulled the bard's head back under her chin. "All I saw was a few scratches. I couldn't figure out why you were so upset at her traveling with us. I think no, I know if I'd seen her beating you as badly as what I saw today, I probably would have kicked her into her next life right there on the spot."

Gabrielle smiled and softly kissed her partner's cheek. "I it wasn't so long after Illusia, Xena. At the time, I was still feeling a little insecure about us our relationship I think I already told you that I was jealous of Tara but it was more than that. You and I were still working through a lot of bad stuff. I didn't want to make any waves or demands on you. I just desperately wanted for you and I to get along."

"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry." Xena kissed the top of her head and wrapped both arms securely around her, oblivious to the slightly painful pull at her injured side. "Sorry you didn't think you could talk to me about it."

"Shhh." The bard reached up, brushing her knuckles against the soft skin of Xena's face. "We're talking about it now. So if I had told you what all she did to me, you would have kicked her behind, huh?"

"You bet." The warrior's lips formed a tentative smile. "We would have figured out a way to get that urn back without her help. Besides, in retrospect she was a lot more of a hindrance than a help."

"In a way, then, I'm glad I held back." The bard gave her partner a little squeeze, mindful of the bandage around her lower body. "We may not have needed Tara, but she really needed us, Xena. I think your belief in her was the beginning of her road to turning her life around."

"I couldn't have helped her, Gabrielle, if I hadn't had the very same kind of help from you not so very long before that. I had a good teacher." Her words echoed the bard's own, on more than one occasion.

"Hey." Gabrielle looked past her, out at the white snow that glowed under the light of a three-quarter moon that shone from a cloudless sky, wishing to change the subject. "Beautiful night, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Xena smiled. "This place kinda reminds me of that little cave we holed up in up in the hills that time after you gave Tobias to Yosef and Mary. Remember it snowed that night?"

"Uh-huh. Wonder how they're doing now, and little Yeshua. He was so precocious." Gabrielle spared a moment of memory for their Egyptian friends. "Wonder if they made it back to their home okay?"

"We could send word to them when we get back home." Xena silently pondered all the prophecies Mary had shared with them regarding her oldest son. "I have a feeling they have a very difficult road ahead of them."

"Me too," the bard answered softly. She looked up at the glittering sky, remembering their chance meeting on the road just outside King Silvus' province. "That one star was so bright that night, remember?"

"I sure do." The warrior resumed her gentle play with Gabrielle's hair. "You know I'd never seen that star before that night. And I still only see it each Winter Solstice eve."

"Did you make a wish on that one, Xena?" Gabrielle patted the warm stomach, laughing softly at her partner's penchant for wishing on stars.

"Yeah." She tilted the bard's chin up, ducking her head and briefly kissing her.

"Mmm." Green eyes slowly re-opened. "What was that for?"

"For making it come true." Xena cupped her face, stroking her cheek with her thumb.

"Why? What did you wish for?" She leaned into the contact.

"Same thing I wish for every Solstice eve." The warrior paused, drinking in the closeness, watching the firelight dancing off the golden flecks in Gabrielle's eyes. "One more year with you."

The tears welled up so fast, she couldn't stop them. Gabrielle blinked, sending a scattering of them down her cheeks. A trembling smile graced her lips as the warrior carefully kissed each one away. She buried her face into the fuzzy warm woolen shirtfront, feeling strong hands slide under her own top and rub comforting circles against her back. "I love you," she whispered.

Xena reached down, cradling her face and drawing her back up. "I love you too, Gabrielle." She found the bard's lips again, nibbling softly, gradually deepening the kiss, taking her time at it. After a long while, she felt her partner curl into a happy mass against her, the bard's arms circling her and a pair of soft lips giving tentative nips to her collarbone. Both of them had found warm bare skin, their hands wandering lightly, careful not to tease each other too mercilessly. Xena forced her hands to still and drew the bard into the nest of her arms and legs, rocking her slowly for several long minutes.

She finally felt her partner's body go limp, and watched green eyes gradually close in sleep. She tucked the furs carefully around them both, turning her face toward the cold snow outside, her eyes and ears alert for anything unusual. Don't you worry, Gabrielle. We're gonna get through this and get back home. I'm gonna give you the life you've always deserved. One hand dropped down, finding the bard's stomach and resting there, gently caressing the soft skin. She sighed wistfully, remembering a magical night at a desert oasis. You and our children.

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

The night was long and silent, save a light whispering wind that rustled the tall evergreens and made odd clicking noises among the bare branches of the deciduous trees. Ethereal moonlight kept her company and Gabrielle kept her warm. The moonlight in the clear dark sky was a relief, removing one more worry from the back of her mind, the fear that snow might slow them down yet again.

She had a lot of time to think in the dark candle marks between midnight and dawn. Where she'd been. Where she was going. Why she was in Eire at all. True, a friend of Hercules had come calling in the dead of winter, asking for her help. The big guy had specifically told Morrigan to turn to Xena if she ever needed help and he wasn't available. Tick.

Eire was very close to Britannia and the Norse lands, both places that held some of her most shameful memories. Places that could drive her to distraction of she let them, and cause her to lose focus on the task at hand, and wear away at her normally strong self-confidence. Places that easily drove her to think about the darkest times in her life, and the person she once was -- a person she was convinced she could easily become again if not for Gabrielle's love and the bard's gentle persistent influence. Tick.

She arrived in Eire to discover that Autolycus was the thief who had stolen the mask. Autolycus was her friend, and someone to whom she quite literally owed her life. A life she had chosen to return to because of Gabrielle. Tick.

After talking to Autolycus, she learned that Autolycus had stolen the mask for Loki, who was eternally cursed by Odin. Odin was, at one time, her friend. He was now, by all assumption, her enemy. She had unfinished business with Odin, something she knew she couldn't avoid forever, and something she would have to handle with the utmost care, lest it drive a wedge between her and her beloved soulmate. Tick.

Then there was Alti. Alti, who somehow, at some point, had intervened, and almost certainly had possession of the mask. Not to mention that the shamaness had led them to believe she had Bridgid and maybe Autolycus and Eponin. For all they knew, the shamaness also had Amarice and Raella. Alti wasn't clear. Either way it was a trump card and Alti knew it. There was no way, now, that Xena would back away from finding the shamaness, no matter the danger. She had to save her friends. And there was no way she would leave Gabrielle behind, because of a promise. Tick.

Too many ticks.

Coincidence that she was in Eire? The warrior snorted softly. I don't think so. It was so obvious in retrospect. Alti wanted her there, but why?

Something probed the edge of her mind and she turned that over, examining it. Did the shamaness orchestrate everything, from Loki's first meeting with Kernunnos, or did she merely step in at some point after Xena was involved, taking advantage of an opportunity. Planned or unplanned? Did it really matter?

If she knew, it might give her a clue as to what Alti had in mind. She shuddered. Alti's mind was a place she never hoped to go, and examining it was truly frightening. That the shamaness was power-hungry was a given. But if she had planned everything from the beginning, manipulating Loki and Kernunnos, it was quite possible she was working with Loki. However, if she had stepped in only after Xena became involved, then she was probably foiling Loki's plans. Not that that necessarily mattered either.

If Alti had the mask, it was dangerous, whether she was planning to help bring about Ragnarok with Loki, or if she merely wanted the relic for the power she could gain from it. Either way, they had to get the mask away from her, if she did indeed have it.

Alti was a hard one to figure out. Xena carefully mapped out everything she knew. Alti was born an Amazon, the only daughter of a powerful Amazon shamaness in a long line of them. Alti's mother taught her the mystic ways, and Alti was the shamaness of the Northern Amazons by the time Cyane was born. It was unclear just how old Alti was, but she was surely older than Xena by a good ten to fifteen summers, if not more, making her somewhere between forty and fifty summers old. According to Cyane, Alti became obsessed with the power of her position, and it got out of control. She quit acting in the best interest of the tribe, instead using her powers to manipulate others for her own purposes. Cyane had believed that Alti wanted to channel the Amazon's natural abilities at warfare into a great powerful force for darkness.

She wanted what I wanted -- to take over the world.

Cyane grew up, becoming first leader of her own tribe, and eventually taking the position of head of the leaders, the highest Amazon queen. In a move none of the others before had found the courage to do, she banished Alti from the Amazons. When the shamaness tried to beat her in a battle of wills, she lost. Cyane bested her at her own mind games. Xena had seen the fearless queen do it again in her own presence.

So what happens to a power-hungry Amazon shamaness when she no longer has a tribe to draw power from? Xena knew all too well. Alti was bent on revenge and on gaining so much power, that she could never be bested again, by anyone. She took it wherever she could, be it from feeding on the fear of others, to drinking the blood of her victims.

And she used me. Xena had always taken full responsibility for her actions in the Northern Amazon territory, but she could also see, now, some fifteen winters later, how the shamaness had played upon Xena's greatest desire, to be a mighty and powerful warrior, nay to rule the known world. Alti had promised her the moon, and the young warrior took the bait, proving her allegiance in a bloodbath that ended with the bodies of the Amazon leaders hanging from spikes high in the trees.

In the end, Xena chose Borias and the life of her unborn son over Alti. She never forgave me for that, and she didn't stop until Borias was dead and Solan was out of my life. Xena couldn't figure it out. What were her ultimate plans for me? Was she really going to make me the destroyer of nations, or was she going to continue to use me for her own purposes? Why didn't she move on and find someone else? Was I truly the darkest soul she knew? A single tear trickled down her cheek. Maybe I was.

Gabrielle stirred in her sleep, wrapping her arms tightly around the warrior's middle and burying her face into the warm wool shirt. Did you feel that, my bard? Xena shifted, re-tucking the blankets around both of them. Maybe Lao Ma's gift runs both ways. She closed her eyes. I sure hope not. I'd never wish an ounce of my pain on you.

It's my light Alti wants. She either wants me on her side, as my old dark self, or else she wants to destroy me. There was no middle ground. Xena knew it. Alti cursed Solan because she knew the light in the face of my son would chase the darkness away. She was livid when she found out about Gabrielle. Xena thought about that. She had to ask me who Gabrielle was. She couldn't get close enough to that part of me to figure it out for herself. She only knew that Gabrielle was a threat to her. She tucked that away for future reference.

She thought about their time in India. Did Alti orchestrate that too? How odd that they would travel halfway across the world only to end up fighting her old nemesis in a spiritual battle. Naimah told them they had defeated Alti at her most powerful point. Could Alti have somehow altered that, finding a way to come back here to this place in time, in hope that if she could destroy Xena now, she could alter the prior defeat? No matter. A feral smile graced her lips, her eyes flashing wickedly in the darkness. Naima also told us that we would always defeat Alti.

But what was the point? Naima had stressed that she and Gabrielle had been together in many lifetimes and would face Alti's spirit in many lifetimes. Why would Alti bother to come back now? Why wouldn't she just wait for their next incarnation? It seemed pointless to the warrior. The only way to stop me would be to kill my soul.

Her heart skipped a beat and grew cold. The surest way to kill my soul would be if I killed Gabrielle. She thought of her dream and shivered. Gabrielle is all that is light inside of me. Alti knows that. Alti can hurt Gabrielle physically, but she can't touch the part of Gabrielle that lives in me. The only way to kill that is to use me to do the deed.

Maybe she wants to destroy me. Maybe she wants to draw me back to the dark side. The warrior shook her head, trying to juggle all the puzzle pieces into place. Maybe she wants both. My soul will be dead either way, and that's exactly what she wants.

She felt Gabrielle's hand move, pushing beneath her shirt, the warm hand rubbing her stomach in idle circles. "Hey." Soft lips found the warrior's. "You're all in knots, Xena. What's going on?"

"Did I wake you?" She tucked the fair head back against her shoulder.

"No." Gabrielle yawned, patting the soft skin under her hand. "Not sure. I was having fuzzy dreams and somehow in the middle of all the fuzz, I felt like you needed me. Do you?"

"Always." Xena kissed the top of her head. "Gabrielle, do you trust me?"

"Always." The bard smiled into the darkness, echoing her answer. "Is that what you needed me for?"

"Yeah. That'll do for now."

"That was easy enough. Glad I could help." Xena felt her partner's body slide back down, her head resting against the warrior's chest, one leg thrown across Xena's thighs. "I'm going back to sleep now. Night, Xena."

She couldn't help but smile. "Night, love." Her face grew somber, a plan falling firmly into place. Good thing you trust me, Gabrielle. That's the key.

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

To be continued in Chapter 7


Return to Main Page