Chapter Four

For several moments, the only sound in the cottage's kitchen was the crackling of the fire on the hearth. Lanessa sat tensely, waiting for the reaction she knew would soon abound from her oldest friend. Her senses were finely tuned, but she and Xena had not been near each other for a long time. Lanessa waited, her breath shallow and nervous.

The small woman flinched slightly when Xena rose abruptly from the table. The warrior's fists were clenched taut, the muscles along her chiseled jaw rippled as she fought hard to control her own fury. She strode quickly across the room, then stopped. The 'demons', as Lanessa had called them, were threatening her discipline again. Xena's own will was being tested now; she would not let them win.

Xena could feel her heart pounding against the leather under her armor, but she was determined not to vent her anger at Lanessa. She purposefully opened her hands, flexing the fingers to curb the rage she felt building. She drew a slow, shaky breath and exhaled with great effort. After another deep, cleansing breath, she turned slightly toward where Lanessa sat, guarded and immobile, at the table.

Xena strained to keep her voice level. "Where's his camp?" the warrior asked in a tone of steel. "I think we need to talk." she said.

At last Lanessa turned toward Xena. Calmly and quietly she answered. "No, Xena. Not this time."

Xena's head snapped in the direction of the voice behind her. The cold fury in her eyes would have caused many others to cower in fear. But there was no such reaction in Lanessa, who had anticipated the reaction she now was about to challenge..

"What?" the warrior snapped. Xena strode angrily back to the table's edge. "What do you mean, no."

"No.", Lanessa said again, a marked resolve in her quiet tone. "Not again."

Lanessa's calmness had always been unnerving to Xena. Even when they'd been children, Xena remembered , the small woman could not be bullied, would not be taunted away from a decision she'd made. It had been highly frustrating, sometimes maddening. Not even Lyceus, with all his charm and cleverness, could ever manage to sway Lanessa, if she'd made up her mind on a subject.

Now she turned her face toward Xena's and calmly repeated, "We're going to do this another way."

For a brief angry moment, the warrior felt like shaking the woman seated before her. Then the absurdity of her impulse dissolved her rage. Her body began to relax. She leveled her most convincing glare at her hostess, then remembered how futile such a tactic had always been when employed with Lanessa. Xena turned back to the fireplace, frustration rampant within her.

"That's foolishness, Lanessa.", Xena spat out. "It's ... it's naive and dangerous." The words hung in the air like an unkind chastisement. As soon as she'd uttered the phrase, Xena wished she hadn't. She turned toward Lanessa's back, so slender, so apparently fragile. She knew her friend's heart was one of the strongest on the gods' earth. She was Gabrielle's equal in that realm. She also knew her old friend had a will of iron, a ready competitor for her own.

Xena also felt a sharp wave of shame at the memory of what Lanessa's words had referenced. Even though she knew Lanessa would never knowingly hurt her, she recognized her old friend's deep disappointment in the direction her, Xena's, life had taken. She knew of Lanessa's innate revulsion at the violence of that life. Embarrassed, the warrior mutely returned to her position at the table.

For a long moment, her own self-consciousness kept her from responding. Then, striving to keep her voice even, Xena took the woman's small hands in her own. "Look, old friend," Xena began, "I know how you feel about weapons. But ..."

Lanessa's expression had not changed, nor had her determination. "Xena." she said, silencing the warrior's arguments in mid-sentence. Returning the pressure of Xena's hands on hers, Lanessa continued. "I want your word on this. No weapons." Lanessa said very deliberately.

"But these men..", Xena said, losing patience again.

"...are not soldiers." Lanessa finished. "You said it yourself. They're petty pickpockets and charlatans." Xena listened, unconvinced. "Even Dryfius. He may be a greedy, slimy fool", Lanessa continued, "but he's no warrior."

"You don't have to be a warrior to kill with a sword", Xena said coldly. "It's a skill learned all too easily." She pulled her hands away from Lanessa's and sat back angrily. "These men only listen to one kind of voice ...", Xena began again, then saw the silent resolve still flashing in her old friend's dark eyes. "Lanessa...", she tried once more. But she knew the woman's decision would not be swayed. She knew she was indeed wasting energy on this argument.

Finally, Xena threw her hands up in ultimate defeat. When she brought her arms back down onto the table, the bracelet she wore on her left wrist clanked loudly against the wooden surface. At once Xena's eyes were drawn to the large, metal adornment. She'd worn it there, hovering at the end of her gauntlet, since the last time she's returned home, since the day her mother had retrieved it from the small wooden chest that held her most treasured possessions.

"He'd have wanted you to have it", Cyrene had said that day, handing the bracelet to her daughter. Xena had placed it on her wrist and had not removed it since. Looking at the bracelet now drained all the anger from her. She ran her finger across the designs laden into the metal.

She looked up at Lanessa's quiet face. "Do you know who you remind me of right now?" she asked the woman.

Lanessa's gentle smile matched that of her old friend. "Lyceus?" she said without hesitation.

Xena swallowed against the lump forming in her throat. "He could always talk me into things, too." she said. "And out of them." Xena felt a curious release as she stroked the bracelet again.

"All right, Lanessa", she said with a sigh. "I give you my word. We'll try it your way." Lanessa's smile widened and she took Xena's hand again. "But", the warrior added, her voice firm. "if that doesn't work, I am not going to stand by and let Dryfius or anyone else take you." Xena's tone held it's own resolve. "Understand?"

Lanessa reached across the table to take Xena's hands. "I can accept that." she said. She released her friend. "But, my plan will work."

Xena's eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. Her unspoken question was soon answered by the petite female facing her. "Oh, I already had the plan", Lanessa said with a knowing glint in her brown eyes. "I just needed the right partner for it."

The warrior shook her head and glanced at the ceiling of the cottage. "Besides", Lanessa continued, "now we also have Gabrielle. She can certainly handle the words." Xena's old friend gave her a winning smile, the same expression Xena remembered from their childhood. Even though it soothed her heart, Xena couldn't deny the uneasiness she still felt gnawing at her senses.

'By the gods' grace', she said in her mind, 'I hope you're right, old friend.'

Chapter Five

Gabrielle woke to the enticing smells of breakfast. She opened her eyes and took a moment to reacquaint herself with her surroundings. The bed was soft and soothing, the linens held the refreshing aroma of forest blossoms. 'I wonder how she does that!', Gabrielle thought absently, burying her face in the soft coverlet. Then she stretched luxuriously and yawned deeply. She realized she had not slept as comfortably nor as soundly in a good long time. She looked at the other half of the bed. She found it empty. Xena was obviously already up. Finally the girl pushed aside the quilt and got up.

Outside the cottage, the muted sounds of the village drifted in through the open window. Gabrielle pulled on the shawl Lanessa had obviously left for her use, shook her long blond hair and padded out into the kitchen. Again the luscious smells of the morning meal assailed her. As usual she was ravenous. She felt herself smiling in anticipation.

Lanessa stood at the hearth, a large platter in her hands. The moment she heard Gabrielle's bare feet on the floor, she turned slightly to the girl and cocked her head in a 'motherly' imitation. "Shoes, please." she chided in Gabrielle's direction and the young woman felt a warm blush cover her face. Lanessa's impish smile tempered the gentle reprimand with a winning fondness.

"You sound just like my mother." Gabrielle said, retreating again to the bedroom. She sat on the bed to pull on her boots, then decided she might as well get dressed while she was at it. She brushed her long hair and repaired the two side braids that were gathered together in the bone clasp Xena had made for her. With a final brushing of her clothes, she turned to survey the room.

Before she realized what was happening, Gabrielle found herself straightening the bed covers and smoothing the quilt over the down mattress. When the chore was finished, she stood back staring at the bed, hands perched on her hips. A slow look of surprise crept across the bright, young face. She felt herself smiling, ruefully.

"By the gods!", she said softly. "She even makes me tend my bed like my mother." Gabrielle turned her attention toward the sounds in the next room. With an amused shake of her head, she walked back to the kitchen. Lanessa stood near the table, pouring a mug of what looked like fresh, cool goat's milk. She turned toward Gabrielle, her face warm and inviting.

"Good morning!", Lanessa said, cheerfully. She put the mug and the larger jug down on the table and strode toward Gabrielle. "How did you sleep, Young Lady Bard?", she said to the girl. Gabrielle couldn't help smiling back at this small, friendly woman she barely knew.

"Like a cub in a lair", Gabrielle said. Lanessa's gaze was focused on Gabrielle's golden hair so intently that the girl reached up to stroke her own locks. "This all smells wonderful." she said, gesturing to the food on the table. Lanessa put a small hand on Gabrielle's cheek and another on her arm.

"Breakfast!" she announced, then moved back toward the hearth gathering her apron in her hands as she went. "Sit. We can talk while we eat." she said as she busied herself retrieving utensils from the various hooks and steps in the fireplace.

Gabrielle moved to the table and slid onto one of the wooden benches. She happily took the mug of milk and drank from it. The liquid was indeed cool and sweet. She swallowed a mouthful and brought the mug up for another. Lanessa was placing a rather large plate in front of her as she lowered the mug.

"Lanessa!" Gabrielle squealed when she noticed the amount of food set before her. "I'll never eat all this!"

"Since when?" came a droll voice from the cottage doorway. Gabrielle turned toward the door and nearly dropped the earthen mug in her hand.

Chapter Six

Xena stood just inside the room, wearing a long, flowing dress the color of a spring afternoon sky. Her mass of hair was pulled back from her face and a creamy, looped shawl captured her shoulders. The dress's hue heightened the color of Xena's striking blue eyes and the lacings on the bodice of the dress pulled the fabric snug against her lean, trim figure.

The warrior moved from the doorway in a smooth, effortless stride. She sat down on the bench next to Gabrielle, her back against the table, and crossed her long legs under the dress' skirt.

Gabrielle stared at her best friend as though she'd never seen her before. Startled green eyes traveled over the person next to her, wide-eyed and amazed. Xena waited a moment, then gave in to the smirk that played on her own face. She reached forward to place one long finger under Gabrielle's chin and playfully tapped upward. Gabrielle's mouth snapped shut, but her eyes remained in their totally shocked openness. Xena heard Lanessa's soft chuckle float across the table, but she kept her attention on Gabrielle's shocked expression.

Finally the girl found her usually ready voice. "Wha..What...?", she stammered, then again succumbed to confusion. She gulped, put the earthen mug down carefully on the table, and released a mirthful chuckle. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been here to see it."

Lanessa laughed openly and placed another mug in front of Xena. The warrior's gaze acknowledged the mug, then returned to Gabrielle's still astonished face. She waited while her young friend continued to inspect her new attire. Finally she relaxed her position and placed both hands demurely in her lap.

"Lanessa's idea." Xena said in her normal concise style. "She has one for you, too." she told Gabrielle. "She figured we'd look 'less conspicuous' this way. Less likely to spook our ... guests." , she finished, glancing quickly at Lanessa's serene face.

Gabrielle's awareness came alive. "Guests?" she repeated, looking from Xena to Lanessa and back again. When her gaze settled on Xena, the warrior was calmly sipping from the mug Lanessa had poured for her. She met Gabrielle's eyes and the girl recognized the smug look of a clever strategy behind the cool glance.

"This sounds like fun", the bard said, a delicious excitement growing in her. "Tell me."

"Food." Lanessa said, handing another platter to Xena. "We can plot while we feast." she said. Gabrielle watched Xena take some of the food from the platter and return the dish to Lanessa. The young girl was still transfixed by the change in the warrior's appearance. Images of her friend's life before the days of war began forming in the bard's mind. She seemed absorbed in the visions of a Xena long ago.

Finally Xena turned an embarrassed eye toward her young friend. "Eat, Gabrielle', she said, a light blush covering her own face. "Lanessa has worked all morning."

Gabrielle shook herself away from her fantasy. "Sorry", she giggled, turning back toward the table. "The ... outfit really threw me." She reached for the large platter and began filling her own plate. Another slight shake of her head accompanied the motion.

While the three women enjoyed the delicious meal, Xena and Lanessa informed Gabrielle of the situation with Dryfius and of the plan to outwit him. At Xena's insistence, Dryfius' precise plans in regard to Lanessa's fate were withheld, for the moment. Lanessa hadn't understood why the warrior had been so insistent about not sharing those details with the young woman, but she agreed to abide by Xena's wishes.

The following hour was filled with the various details and intentions of their scheme. Gabrielle's senses became sharpened by the seriousness of the circumstances, but she could feel the excitement of enacting the glorious tricks mounting within her.

Several times during the discussion, the girl offered suggestions as to how certain parts of the plan could be implemented. Both Xena and Lanessa were open to her clever ideas. Lanessa even said as much to the warrior.

"You are a worthy companion, Young Bard", she said honestly to Gabrielle's open face. "It gives me pleasure to know my friend travels with someone so brave." She turned in Xena's direction. "Her heart is true, just as you said."

Gabrielle's throat caught at Lanessa's words. She felt proud that Xena thought so highly of her, even if she'd never heard those words from the warrior herself. Tears cluttered her lashes and she swallowed hard.

There was a moment of unruly quiet around the table. Xena waited for one of the other two women to break the silence, but neither seemed so inclined. Finally Gabrielle wiped a restless hand against her eyes and picked up the earthen plate before her.

"Well", she chirped in a somewhat forced cheerfulness, "let's clear the table and get started." She gathered her mug in her other hand and rose from her seat on the bench. Xena watched the girl with a loving eye. Glancing at Lanessa's knowing face, she rose to carry her own utensils to the bench near the hearth.

Chapter Seven

Xena pulled the shawl higher on her shoulders and crossed her long arms over her slim waist. She gazed at the children playing in the courtyard. She found Lanessa's slight form near them on the grass, in much the same position in which they'd seen her that first day. Several of the children had formed a boisterous group in front of Lanessa, each obviously pleading a different cause in their own behalf. As the warrior observed, the small woman addressed first one child, then another until she had settled the dispute among them. The children happily returned to their game, readily accepting Lanessa ruling and advice.

The tall, beautiful woman felt a deep longing engulf her heart. Watching the innocence of the children's activity, and Lanessa's gentle patience and kindness with them, made her hungry for her own son, so many miles away. She had never had the chance to share such loving pastimes with Solan; his childhood would be gone, she knew, before she saw him again, if she ever *did* she him again.

The warrior didn't often waste energy dwelling on parts of her life that couldn't be changed. She had made the decision to go forward, with Gabrielle, to try to make up for her former life. There was no changing the past; it was futile to try. But, of those days, having had time with her son would have been the one thing she wished with all her heart could have been different.

Xena turned away from the courtyard to find Gabrielle's green eyes staring at her intently. The young woman sat on a bench in front of the cottage, lacing a section of matting with a narrow, wooden tool. The bard wore the long, rust-hued skirt and yellow blouse that Lanessa had provided for her. A short, trimly cut jacket covered the bodice of the outfit.

"How long have you been there?" Xena asked, a thin strain of resentment coloring her voice. Whenever she returned to Amphipolis, painful memories always made her irritable and edgy. There were still members of the village who didn't trust that she'd changed; some still didn't trust her at all.

Gabrielle lowered her eyes to the mat in her hands. Xena immediately felt sorry for the shortness in her tone. She knew the girl's intentions were always in her, Xena's, best interest. And she valued Gabrielle's friendship more than any other on the earth. The warrior gave the girl a rueful smile and sat down next to her on the bench.

"Lanessa had some breakfast for you, but you were already gone when she came back from the market. Where'd you go?" Xena tried not to sound too much like a parent.

"I took a walk around the village." Gabrielle said, her tone reflecting her own less than happy temper. "I needed some air."

"We missed you. Lanessa said she remembered another story." The warrior made a concerted effort to keep her tone light. But she felt a hollowness near her heart when the bard didn't respond to her peace offering.

The warrior watched the young woman working busily on the matting. She could tell that Gabrielle was using the diligence on the project as a ruse. She waited a moment longer, then reached a gentle hand out to cover those of the bard. Gabrielle stopped the activity. But her eyes remained trained on her lap.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said to the silent girl. "What's bothering you?" She watched embarrassment and confusion travel across the girl's face. Finally the young woman turned troubled eyes toward the blue gaze of her friend.

"What's wrong?" Xena asked again. "You've been very quiet since last night." The warrior kept her voice light. "We both know that's not like you." She watched hopefully to see if Gabrielle responded to her feeble joke. The girl's lovely face finally broke into a small grin.

The young woman looked into her friend's eyes. She regretted her feelings at the moment, but Gabrielle had too much respect and admiration for the woman next to her to consider anything but expressing herself honestly.

"I'm sorry." the girl said sadly. "I know Lanessa's an old friend of yours." The bard paused and the warrior waited, uneasy about the concern she read in the young face. Gabrielle let a sharp sigh escape and continued. "And I know she's very special to you, but I can't ..." the girl paused and pulled her eyes away from the warrior's. Xena felt a menacing discord rising within her. "But I have ..." Gabrielle stammered, unsure of how to form her thoughts.

In an instant, Xena's intuition flashed in her mind. Suddenly she knew what Gabrielle was trying to tell her. "But you don't trust her." the warrior said calmly to apology she read in the girl's green eyes.

Gabrielle returned her gaze to her hands, still covered by the warrior's. "No." the girl replied regretfully. "I'm sorry, but I don't."

Xena watched the girl's face. Gabrielle's innate decency would never permit her to lie when the truth was important to a situation. She could see how this conflict was tearing at the girl's loyalty, but she knew Gabrielle's honor was strong. She trusted the bard's judgment, even when she didn't always understand it.

The warrior touched the young woman's shoulder. Gabrielle looked up to meet her eyes. "Can you tell me why?" Xena asked openly. She searched the girl's face, trying her best to understand the uneasiness the bard felt.

The young woman could tell that her friend wasn't actually angry, but she did find a trace of hurt in the blue eyes trained on hers. "I just...", Gabrielle began, then took another breath and stroked the matting again.

"I just can't bring myself to trust someone who won't look you square in the eye." With the statement said, the girl brought her eyes up to meet her friend's again. She was taken aback by Xena's rather astounded expression; the warrior's eyes were wide with surprise and her lips were parted slightly. Gabrielle assumed the warrior's expression portrayed her disappointment in the girl's behavior.

"I'm still ready to help in whatever way I can." Gabrielle began, her voice rushed, her tone repentant. "I'll do whatever you need me to do to ..." the girl's said, still looking at the warrior's shocked face. Eventually, her voice ran down.

Xena closed her eyes slowly and brought her hand to her own forehead, a heady feeling of relief washing over her. "Of course!", she said quietly to herself. Then she turned to the anxious girl and put a gentle hand on the bard's slim arm. "Gabrielle," Xena said, "I'm sorry. This is my fault. I should have told you." the warrior finished.

The green eyes blinked. The girl cocked her head, now even more confused by Xena's comments. "Told me what?" she asked.

The warrior looked away a moment to combat her own chagrin. "I've handled this very badly." the warrior said, more to herself than to the young bard.

"What are you talking about?" the girl said, a wave of impatience coloring her tone. It was very unlike Xena to be this vague when expressing her ideas. It made the Gabrielle uncomfortable. Finally the warrior turned on the bench to meet the young woman's eyes more directly.

"There's something you should know about Lanessa." the warrior said, her lovely face displaying her own sheepishness. Gabrielle's face was expectant, receptive. She did however notice that Xena seemed a little ashamed of herself about something.

"Lanessa doesn't look anyone square in the eye," the warrior said carefully, "at least not the way you mean." Gabrielle still listened carefully. "She can't." Xena said.

"What do you mean, she can't?" Gabrielle asked, a trifle irritated.

Xena gazed again at the slight woman reclining on the grass surrounded by the group of children. Then the blue eyes returned to the girl beside her. "Gabrielle, Lanessa is blind." the warrior said simply.

The bard turned a startled look in the direction of the warrior's old friend. Then she trained the same surprised orbs back at her friend. "What?" the girl asked in a shocked tone.

"She's been blind since we were children." the warrior said, her eyes on the girl's face. "I'm sorry. I should have told you."

Chapter Eight

Gabrielle turned to stare at the woman and the children. Xena watched the young bard's face exhibit an array of emotions. She let the young woman work through her confusion and surprise. It always happened this way, whenever people learned about Lanessa's blindness for the first time. She knew Gabrielle was dealing with her own disbelief.

She studied the girl's face for a moment longer, to decide if Gabrielle was now calm enough to listen. She looked across the courtyard again then turned to the expectant green eyes still trained on her face.

Quietly, the warrior began to speak. "When we were all young, Lanessa became very sick. She was ill for a long time. In fact, no one in the village even thought she would survive. For three full summers, she was too sick to leave her bed, too sick to even speak, much of the time. None of the healers could find out what had caused the illness; all they would say was that it was some horrible kind of fever and that she wouldn't, that she couldn't, live much longer." Xena looked back at the small woman on the grass. "But she did."

Gabrielle's gaze followed that of the warrior. The petite form near the circle of children seemed so small, so delicate. Yet, the bard reminded herself, she had already seen Lanessa's spirit. She had already found a place forming in her heart for this brave, proud woman who met the challenges of her disability not with complaint, or self-pity, but with strength and a contagious joy instead.

Xena turned to Gabrielle again. "Then one morning, the fever left her." Xena said matter-of-factly. "As suddenly as it had come, it was gone." The bard's eyes widened again. "And just as suddenly, Lanessa started to get well. Her health began to return; she became strong and fit. Very soon, she was her old self again," Xena told Gabrielle, "in every way but one." The blue eyes glanced to the small woman again.

"Since that day," Xena said, "she's been blind."

Gabrielle's gaze returned to Xena's friend. The bard could feel tears stinging her own eyes. She turned to Xena again. The warrior's gaze was pensive and sad as she watched the children and their companion.

"But ... wait...", Gabrielle began haltingly, "she knew I was there, with you, before you ever said my name. In fact you never did tell her my name." The girl's words came out nervously, almost frightened, as though the series of facts now seemed to betray her own sensibilities. "And she knew about my stories ... my staff...." the girl's voice ran down again.

"That's why she touched my face, with her hands, wasn't it ?" Gabrielle said slowly. "That first day." The bard's voice was low and steady. "She was ..." the girl stopped.

"She was 'seeing' your face." Xena finished for her. "Her way." The warrior's blue eyes were gentle on the bard's tearful face. Gabrielle blinked and wiped the tears away with the back of one hand.

The girl turned to Xena again. "And Argo?" Gabrielle said. "Lanessa didn't even back up that day in the field. And Argo was coming at her at a full gall..." Suddenly the bard's words stopped in mid-sentence. Xena's blue eyes were watchful, knowing. She waited for Gabrielle to come to her own conclusion.

"Argo knew she couldn't see her coming." the girl said, an awe creeping into her words. "That's why ..."

"Lanessa and Argo have had their own relationship for the whole of Argo's life." Xena said, her voice showing her own bewilderment. "Argo was bred from the mare Lanessa gave me when I left Amphipolis ... the first time." the warrior said hesitantly.

"The first time I mounted Argo, she responded as though she'd already had months of training. I didn't have to spend one day teaching her anything. It was as though Lanessa and her mare had bred Argo specifically for my ... thoughts, my needs." Xena turned to the young woman again.

"That's just another part of the mystery." Xena said, a heartfelt meaning in her tone. "She .. speaks.. to all animals like that. They seem to know her and she them." The warrior's tone was tinged with an unusual reverence.

Xena's expression became animated. "One day, during the first spring solstice after Lanessa became well, she began to warn everyone that a bad storm was coming and that we should be prepared. She kept saying that the crops needed protection."

The bard listened closely to the story.

"Of course, no one really believed her, especially when she kept saying that ..." the warrior paused, remembering the skepticism of the townspeople. "She kept saying that the birds had told her about it." Xena turned a cautious glance at her friend. She found the bard still enthralled by the tale.

"The next afternoon, the sky suddenly became as gray as ashen mud, and the wind came up with no warning." Even the warrior seemed shaken by her own fearful memory. "Within minutes, a terrible storm hit, with ugly, heavy winds and icy rain. It was just as Lanessa had said." Xena's eyes held a childlike astonishment. "And she was right ... about the crops in the fields. They were ruined. Nearly a whole planting ... washed away in an afternoon."

Both women were silent for a moment. Gabrielle's clear eyes were riveted upon her friend's face. She had never seen the warrior so affected by her own words. In fact, the story of the Lanessa's illness and the storm were the most words in a grouping that she'd heard from Xena in their entire time together.

"After that, most people in the village began to look at Lanessa differently." Xena's tone became sad, almost contrite for her kinsmen's cruelty. "Either they treated her like some sort of daft seer, or they simply avoided her altogether." The warrior's long fingers played with the edges of the shawl in her lap.

"Except for you.", Gabrielle said simply, her hand on her friend's arm. "You still treated her like your friend." The warrior turned a quiet blue gaze toward her dear young friend. "You wouldn't have hurt her then, or now." The bard was simply stating what she knew was in the warrior's heart; the girl knew her friend's loyalty was strong and true.

"She was, and is, my friend." Xena said quietly. "Like you, she's part of me."

Gabrielle's senses suddenly cleared. "Is that what you meant when you said, 'another part of the mystery'?" The green eyes were constant and intense.

"Gabrielle," Xena began carefully, "Lanessa may have lost her sight to the fever, but the illness left with a very powerful .. vision." the warrior said, her blue eyes very intense. "When she touched your face, she read your soul."

Gabrielle's mouth dropped open, her eyes grew wide again. "She can do that." Xena said fervently. "Lanessa can put her hands on someone's face and 'know' that person, know what's in their heart, know their - being. She can tell if they're telling the truth or if they're .. feeding their own purposes."

Gabrielle watched her friend's face closely. She knew that Xena was not one given easily to tales of 'vision' and 'soul'. The bard had no doubt that what she was hearing from the warrior was the complete truth as Xena believed it. She watched as the blue eyes searched about as if to convince herself of the reality of her feelings.

Finally the warrior turned back to her friend. "Remember the night I said we were coming here?" Xena asked. Gabrielle nodded. "Well didn't you wonder how I knew that Lanessa wanted me? Didn't you wonder ...?"

"... how the message had arrived?", Gabrielle finished her friend's thought. "Yeah, I did wonder about that.", the bard admitted. "I couldn't figure out how you could have received a message when I hadn't seen any messenger."

Xena's blue eyes were serious. "I just knew." she said. "Gabrielle, that day, when we made camp, I heard Lanessa's voice," the warrior touched her own forehead, "here. I heard her as clearly as you can hear me now. She was telling me that she needed me."

Gabrielle watched the wonder reflect on her friend's lovely face. The warrior princess was not easily surprised by events in life, nor was she often taken aback by an unexplained event or situation. Gabrielle could see a remarkable new wave of astonishment present in the woman's mind. The young woman reached to comfort her friend.

"Lanessa is really special, isn't she?" the girl said softly. Xena's blue eyes turned to her. "Not just because she's your friend. She's been given so many gifts, Xena. She's truly been blessed by the gods." Gabrielle turned toward the courtyard again. "And so have we to have known her." the girl said quietly.

The young woman turned to the warrior again. But the softness had faded from the blue eyes by then. Gabrielle instantly felt an uneasiness as she watched the familiar hardness return to her friend's gaze.

"That's why Dryfius is so determined to take her with him.", the warrior said, a cold determination making her words bitter. "He's intends to use her 'gifts' to help him succeed as a warlord." Xena angry tone made Gabrielle shiver, as usual. "That's why we're going to stop him."

Gabrielle watched as the warrior fought to contain her own anger. The girl knew how the rage in Xena's own soul could unleash a frightening fury, an unbridled wrath that had often driven her friend to do desperate things. Her 'demons', as the warrior called them, were a constant source of the insidious struggles within her.

At that moment, Lanessa appeared before them. Gabrielle jumped slightly when she realized she hadn't heard the woman's approach. There was a tranquillity surrounding the slight figure, an almost visible, soothing calm that arrived with her. As the young woman watched, she could see the strident chords in Xena being released.

Without a word, Lanessa reached forward and cupped Gabrielle's soft chin in her hand. Her focus seemed centered not the girl's face, but rather in the direction of the her long, blond hair. After a moment, a gentle smile spread across the woman's countenance as she turned slightly toward Xena's blue gaze.

"You've decided to tell her." Lanessa's soft voice disbursed the silence. She faced Gabrielle again and stroked the girl's cheek lightly with the back of her fingers. Gabrielle reached up to take the small hand in her own.

"It was time." Xena said quietly. She reached for Gabrielle's shoulder.

"Yes." Lanessa said, and took the hand Xena extended to her. "And it is time for our plan to be enacted. Dryfius will be here in the morning" There was no need to ask how she had arrived at that fact. By now it was clear; she just knew.

Lanessa smiled warmly at the two women before her. "But first, we will enjoy our time together. Come." the slender woman said. As she turned toward the cottage, Xena and Gabrielle rose to follow her. The afternoon sun was sliding down on the horizon; soon it would be evening.

Full Circle - Part 3

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