Gabrielle took a sip of the tea and lowered the mug to the table, her green eyes pensive and sad. She let out a short, quick breath. "Usually, if I write it down," the girl began, "I get a different ... perspective on things." The tense voice stopped as the girl’s eyes darted to the cobalt blues before returning to the mug. "But with this, I can’t even think about ... what happened ... there ... without my stomach turning over." The slender neck twisted in a hard swallow. "I can’t even write about ... Hope without feeling sick."

This time it was the warrior’s throat that jerked. She pushed down her own uneasiness and brought the mug to her mouth. "Understandable. I have a similar reaction myself," she said evenly, steeling herself against the shock in the green eyes. "After all, it was my fault you got mixed up in that whole mess."

Gabrielle stared at the warrior. "Your fault?" she said sharply. "How did you come to that conclusion? I was the one who let Krafstar ... talk me into all that nonsense about the ‘one, true god’." The girl became more animated. "I was the foolish one, Xena. I let him trick me."

"That’s right!" the warrior said sharply, her blue eyes flashing. "He tricked you. Gabrielle, he used you ... made you an innocent ploy in the putrid villainy of his devil-god, Dahok. Used your body ... your soul. He took advantage of your trust, of that core of goodness in you. He defiled them for his own evil purposes."

The warrior sat back in her chair, the emotional eruption having further drained her tenuous resources. She took a long breath and focused on her hands, trembling around the mug.

"Well then," the bard said quietly after a moment. "I’ll ask you again. How was that your fault?"

Xena’s blue eyes were penitent and ashamed. "I brought you there. In a way I ‘delivered’ you to that monster myself." The warrior’s slender neck contracted in a deep swallow. "Don’t you see, Gabrielle? I was so ... blinded by my need for vengeance against Caesar that I totally ignored what was happening to you ... until it was too late."

The two women exchanged a long, meaningful glance. For several minutes, the only sounds in the little hut were the echo of the rain on the roof and the crackling of the logs in the fireplace. Then the bard’s slim form relaxed and she covered the warrior’s hand with her own.

"Xena, you tried to warn me about Krafstar, but I wouldn’t listen." The blue eyes dropped to the earthen mug then rose again to meet the bard’s. "And you saved me from the horror Caesar had planned for me ... just as you’ve saved my life countless times in the past." The bard’s gaze returned to her own mug. "I should have used better judgment... and I should have followed your advice."

The room grew quiet again. "And when I killed Meridian ...." The little blonde gulped and closed her eyes. "For the first time, I realized how it feels to ...."

"It wasn’t the first time," the warrior said firmly. The green eyes rose to meet hers. "Meridian wasn’t really your ‘first kill’." The girl’s expression changed to one of shock.

"What are you saying?" she gasped.

"I’m saying Meridian wasn’t the first person you killed." Gabrielle stared at the warrior’s stoic face. "Remember Velaska? And what happened in the Hall of Ambrosia?" The little blonde’s breath caught in her throat. "You sliced through the rope she was hanging on and she plunged to her death on that bed of spikes ... or at least you thought she had. Remember?"

"B-but, I didn’t .." the bard stammered. Her tortured expression tore at the warrior’s soul. "That was you!" the bard screamed. "You had control of my ...." The girl’s denial stopped abruptly as a numbing realization crept across the young face. She watched the warrior’s golden countenance grow wise and knowing.

"Control of your ‘bodily functions’, to quote our friend Autolycus?" the warrior said, a tiny grin appearing in the corner of her mouth. The tall woman slowly covered the girl’s hand and smiled warmly at the green eyes. "Absolutely right, my noble friend," the warrior said quietly. "Even if Velaska had died from that fall, you wouldn’t have had a thing to do with it, because I took control of your body that day. I made you cut the rope." The young blonde

blinked to clear her senses as she gazed at her tall friend’s remorseful expression.

"The same thing happened in the temple," the warrior continued smoothly. "Dahok put that dagger in your hand ... he had ‘control’ of you ...." The blue eyes fell to the tabletop. "But I was the one who put you there ... me and my hatred for Caesar and what he had done to me." The warrior’s gaze returned to the bard’s. "It was my refusal to listen to my own ‘better judgment’ that led to your horrible experience ... just as my stupidity and blind anger have put you in danger so many times in the past three summers." Xena’s clenched fists trembled on the table. "If you want to blame someone for Meridian’s death, blame me. Like I said, it was my fault."

The quiet conversation at the table was momentarily interrupted by a low, resonant wave of thunder. The loud noise resulted in very little reaction from the two women at the table. When the sound began to drift away, the warrior rose from the table and walked toward the fireplace. She bent to retrieve the little kettle from its place near the flames and carried the pot back to the table. She carefully added a portion of steaming tea to each of the earthen mugs, then returned the kettle to the hearth. When she sat down in the chair again, the blue eyes cautiously rose to meet the bard’s.

"Xena," the young queen began, "I know what you’re trying to do." The girl reclaimed the warrior’s hand. "Just like always, you’re trying to protect me from having to face what ...."

Suddenly the warrior pulled her hand from the bard’s The cobalt stare flashed angry and intolerant. "Trying to do?" the slender woman growled. "I’m trying to tell you how I feel. Isn’t that what you’re always saying you want me to do, Gabrielle? Share my ‘feelings’ with you?" The bard recoiled from the warrior’s insensitive outburst. "Well, this is how I feel ... I feel guilty ... ashamed ... full of blame, all right?" The azure pools held a primitive gleam. "I ‘feel’ as though I laid you on that altar myself! Do you understand, now??"

The bard sat immobile, both frightened and appalled at the vehemence in the warrior’s tone. For an instant, neither woman moved, neither breathed....until the warrior brought one hand to cover her face and cradled the side of her aching neck with the other. The tall woman took several deep, ragged breaths, swallowed hard and leaned heavily on the edge of the table, her slender fingers kneading her forehead. A long, tense moment passed before she felt brave enough to glance at the bard’s stricken face. She closed her eyes against the pain she saw there.

"I’m sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice tense. "I didn’t mean to ..." The raspy voice faded away. "Oh, Hades," Xena mumbled. She rubbed her forehead again.

After a strained moment the warrior dropped her hands and focused on the young bard’s pensive face. The girl’s attention was trained on her, but the expression displayed none of the distress that had blazed there only moments before. The warrior’s bronze face slowly transformed into confusion. "What?" she asked carefully. "What are you ...." A tiny, hesitant grin began to grow across the chiseled features.

The bard shook her head and ran her hand through the long bangs over her forehead. "I was just thinking about all the ‘enemies’ we’ve faced ... all the ‘bad guys’ ... and ‘bad girls’ we’ve managed to defeat."

The warrior waited, gazing intently at the girl’s face.

"Draco ... Krykus ... Myzantius ... Callisto ... Velaska ... the Horde ... Poseiden ... Ares." The young face softened. "All those ‘villains’ ... when we fought them, it was always .. together, or at least on the same side."

The warrior’s smile was tentative, hesitant. She felt her pulse begin to race as a subtle foreboding crept into her senses. "Yeah," Xena said, almost holding her breath.

"All those opponents. None of them managed to defeat us. In fact, many of those battles made us stronger, I think. If anything, they strengthened our ... friendship."

Xena’s throat contracted heavily. Her extraordinary instincts brought a clamoring warning into her head. She waited, her eyes still fastened on the bard’s open face.

"How could we know that our greatest enemy would be each other?" The bard whispered thickly, the green eyes filling with tears.

The simple statement slammed against the warrior’s chest like a deadly blow. She gulped hard, trying valiantly to draw air into her tightened lungs as the blue eyes wavered, blinked quickly, then returned to lock onto the bard’s verdant gaze. She laid her open hand in the middle of the table and the little bard placed her palm within the warrior’s. Xena closed her fingers around the little hand.

"Xena?" the little blonde said softly. "What’s going to happen to us?"

The warrior gazed down at the two hands together on the tabletop. She covered the joined fists with her other hand as the blue eyes swept up to meet the girl’s tearful gaze.

"We’re going to work this out, Gabrielle. I promise you ... we will work this out." The blue eyes were steady on the green pools. The girl’s thin smile tightened the warrior’s throat.


Chapter Seven ~~~

Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly, exerting every impulse she had against combating the raging pounding behind her eyes. She brought her hands up to cover her face, putting steady pressure against the throbbing under her blonde bangs. She listened unhappily to the steady patter of the rain on the roof of the hut. The girl let out a displeased groan.

After a moment, the young woman carefully sat up, pausing stiffly as the thumping across her forehead slowly subsided. When she could focus, the green eyes traveled across the hut to the warrior’s empty bed. The bard searched the interior of the hut, returning to the abandoned pallet when she failed to locate her tall friend. She pushed off the blankets and slowly swung her feet to the floor.

Just as the little blonde was about to insert one foot into a leather boot, the door to the hut swung open to reveal the warrior’s sleek form. The tall woman pushed back the hood covering her head to reveal her long, ebony hair and the bronze face smiling warmly at the little bard. Xena swept into the room, a large rattan basket cradled in her arms. She closed the door behind her, strode to the table, put down the basket and shook her tunic slightly, scattering droplets of rain from her clothes and her hair. She turned brightly to the little form on the bed.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," she said giving the girl an indulgent look. "Finally decide to meet the day?"

Gabrielle dropped her boot on the floor and tucked her uncovered foot back under the blankets. She pulled the wool covering tightly around her shoulders and returned the warrior’s warm smile. The emerald gaze followed the warrior as the tall woman crossed the hut to add several logs to the smoking fire. When the flames were again dancing on the smooth stones, Xena replaced the small kettle on the metal arm over the blaze and turned back to the little blonde.

The bard started to move off the mattress. "I’ll get breakfast started," she said, opening the blanket. Her movements stopped when she saw the warrior wave a slender hand.

"Stay put," the tall woman admonished, "at least until it warms up in here." The bard settled back on the bed again. "We’ll have fresh tea in a few minutes," Xena announced, picking up the basket and depositing it on the bed next to the bard. "In the meantime, you can snack on these." The little bard leaned sideways to peer into the rattan hopper. Her expression brightened when she recognized the basket’s contents.

"Berries!" the girl chirped, helping herself to a handful. "Where did you find these?"

Xena sat down on the edge of the bed and reached into the basket, retrieving a cluster of the deep, crimson fruit. "Right outside, along the path," the warrior said, dropping the berries into her mouth. "They looked so crisp and clean after the rain, I couldn’t resist them." She helped herself to another clump. As she popped them between her lips, she smiled at the bard’s happy expression.

"They’re wonderful!" the little blonde cried, filling her palm again. "And they’re full of juice," the girl giggled, tilting her head back for another mouthful. The warrior’s gentle laugh brought the green eyes to her face.

Xena plucked the corner of the blanket from the bard’s knee and stroked the material over the girl’s soft chin. "Yeah," the warrior said warmly, "and most of it is all over your face." She dabbed at the sticky evidence at the corner of the little blonde’s mouth. The warrior shook her head as she continued swabbing the area. She finished the ‘clean up’ and tossed the blanket back into position.

Gabrielle held her face still while Xena gently attended to the juice on her chin. When the warrior had sufficiently handled the task, the little bard sat back, chomping happily on the mouthful of berries. She swallowed, savoring the sweet juice in her mouth, then noisily sucked the remaining stickiness from her fingers. She gave the blue eyes an impish glance and peered into the basket again, in search of another serving.

Xena watched the girl enjoy the treat in the hopper for another moment, then stood and walked to the fireplace. She retrieved the small kettle, poured two mugs of the rich tea, replaced the iron pot and carried the mugs to the pallet. As she approached the bed, she saw the bard stretching her neck stiffly first to one side, then the other, obviously trying to unseat the stiffness in the area. The warrior stopped next to the bed and cast a sympathetic eye at the uncomfortable ritual.

"Still got your headache?" she asked the little bard.

"Yeah," Gabrielle said, smiling ruefully. "It’s the weather. It’s no big deal."

Xena handed the girl one of the mugs and put the other down on the wooden table. She sat down next to the little blonde and gently rotated the girls shoulders until she was facing the girl’s back. She began a steady, deft massage along the back of the young woman’s neck. After a moment, she heard a quiet moan emerge from the trim form.

"Is that better?" the warrior asked. She paused to let the girl take a sip from the steaming mug.

"Um-hum" Gabrielle said, slowly swallowing the mouthful of tea. "Much better," she said, her eyes closed, the stiffness in her neck being steadily dismantled by the warrior’s strong fingers. Xena continued the manipulation as the rain drummed a regular pattern on the roof of the little structure. The warrior halted the kneading again to allow the bard to enjoy another mouthful from the mug. After a few minutes, she let her hands rest on the slim shoulders as she addressed the girl.

"How’s that?" the warrior asked.

"That’s really nice," Gabrielle said, turning her head slightly to answer. "My head’s not pounding anymore, either." She laid one hand over the slender fingers resting on her shoulder. "Thanks."

Xena removed her hands and sat back on the bed. "Good. Now you can start breakfast," the warrior said, the blue eyes twinkling in response to the bard’s amused glance. Gabrielle laughed softly and shifted position on the bed. She handed the warrior the mug of tea, shoved her feet into her waiting boots, retrieved the container and crossed the hut to the assortment of stores near the hearth.

The warrior moved from the bed to the wooden chair near the table, picked up the remaining mug and took a sip of the stimulating tea. She watched the bard select the food and assemble the various utensils to be used in the preparation of the upcoming meal. The warrior absently raised her hand to the bandage on her neck, slid her fingers between the cloth and her skin and carefully scratched the area beneath the bandage. She grinned lightly when the bard turned around to watch the activity.

"My mother used to say, ‘when it starts itching, it means it’s healing’," the warrior said, her tone friendly. "Well, this thing must really be fixing itself, because it really itches." The bard’s gaze paused on the bandage then swept back to the warrior’s blue eyes. Xena dropped her hand when she saw the penitent look on the bard’s face. Gabrielle’s thin smile unsettled the tall woman’s humor.

"Well, you can take it off, if it’s that uncomfortable," the little blonde said, quietly. She turned back to the food on the carving block. "You always did heal faster than anyone on the gods’ earth," the young queen said, exerting slightly more force than necessary on the slicing of the food.

A long moment of silence followed, interrupted only by the pattering of the rain and the low resounding thunder. The warrior wordlessly removed the cloth bandage, folding the cloth into a small bundle and placing it at the far edge of the table. After enjoying another mouthful of tea, the warrior cleared her throat and addressed the little blonde.

"Listen," the tall woman began, somewhat hesitantly. "Since you’ve been having such trouble with the new scroll, maybe it would help ... clear the cobwebs if I told you a story that I know." She waited nervously, slightly embarrassed when she saw the little bard’s surprised reaction to her suggestion.

Gabrielle stopped in mid-gesture, part of the brick of cheese and the knife she was using to slice it suspended halfway between the carving stone and the warrior at the table. She sent an astonished expression toward her tall friend, her mouth open in comic amazement. She turned to face the dark-haired woman, lowered the cheese and forced her eyebrows to return to their normal position.

"You’re going to tell me a story?" the little bard asked the warrior.

"Yeah," Xena said, more than ordinarily unnerved by the question. The bronze face showed the warrior’s chagrin. "I know it won’t be as good as you telling it, but ...." The little bard’s subtle grin widened. "So do you want to hear it, or not?" the warrior asked, somewhat irritably and profoundly self-conscious of the warm blush that slowly covered her face.

"I ... can’t think of anything I’d rather do," the little blonde said, her eyes warm on the warrior’s disconcerted face. She gazed at the warrior for a moment, then turned casually back to her preparation activities. "Go ahead," the girl said resuming the cheese slicing. "I’m listening. What’s the story about?"

"A silver fox," the warrior said evenly, drawing the bard’s attention back to her face. "Actually, it’s about a gray she-wolf and how she ... learned a very important lesson from the fox." The bard nodded slowly. "Shall I go on?"

"Absolutely," the little blonde said. She carried the platters of food to the table, sat down and looked at the warrior expectantly. "A silver fox?" Gabrielle said, breaking a slice of cheese in her hands. "Sounds ... intriguing."

Xena took a long breath and nervously fingered the mug in her hands. She swallowed slowly, met the bard’s green gaze, moistened her lips and began.

"This gray she-wolf started off life in a pretty ordinary way. She and her other litter-mates ..." the warrior’s eyes rose to the bard’s. "Two males cubs ... played and hunted and roamed about the countryside, enjoying the forest and the company of the other ... cubs of the pack." Xena’s blue gaze considered the plate of food.

The young queen’s green eyes lingered on her friend’s face, her mouth slowly chewing a bite of venison.

"The she-wolf had a particularly special relationship with the youngest male cub ... they were not just ... litter-mates, they were friends ... best friends, so to speak. He ... understood her and accepted her just the way she was, which didn’t seem to be like any of the other young female wolves in the pack." The cobalt pools drifted up to the young bard’s emerald gaze and the soft face returned the subtle grin on the bronze face. The warrior shrugged self-consciously and cleared her throat.

The bard swallowed the mouthful of food and slowly nodded her understanding.

"Well," the warrior said, taking a short breath, "one day a ... hyena attacked the wolf pack. He and his .. mongrel band ... killed many of the adult males and left most of the she-wolf’s friends wounded and ... terribly afraid. She was so angry and full of revenge, she convinced the remaining males in the pack to ... go after the hyena and his band. In fact, she led the way, following them into the hills and over the countryside." The warrior’s gaze was cloudy, lost in thought.

"The she-wolf and her ... followers caught up with the hyena and engaged him and his band in battle. It was .. brutal ... savage ... many of the she-wolf’s pack were wounded and killed ... including her younger litter-mate. He stepped in front of her when one of the hyena’s vicious partners tried to ... slash her belly with his claws. The mongrel slashed the young male cub instead. He died soon afterwards. And the hyena and his vicious band got away."

Gabrielle sat quietly, watching her friend move the food around on the plate, completely aware that the woman had yet to bring any of the sustenance to her mouth. She pulled her eyes back to the warrior’s sorrowful face.

Xena swallowed hard and brought her eyes to meet those of her soulmate. "Something happened to the she-wolf when her litter-mate was killed. Her heart became filled with hate and revenge, so much so that she decided she couldn’t return to the part of the forest where her home den was. She knew she could never live there again." The young bard felt a heavy ache constrict her throat and she watched the warrior blink hard against her own tears.

"After she had ... buried her litter-mate, the she-wolf continued to track the hyena. She told herself that she was protecting her home, that she was providing a ... buffer of safety for the members of the pack where she had spent her childhood. But, along the way, she found out something about herself, something that would come back to haunt her senses and plague her spirit like nothing else." The warrior’s voice had become remorseful and ashamed. The little bard held her breath.

"The she-wolf found out that she began to enjoy the ... raiding and the killing. She began to revel in the power she held, to relish the look of fear that she saw in the faces of the other animals in the forest whenever she and her pack came along. It began to consume her ... control her ... like a vile fever, a deadly ... disease. She found herself killing simply for the thrill it brought her."

The tall woman’s tone grew bitter, full of self-loathing. She let her eyes linger imploringly on the girl’s verdant gaze before returning her attention to the uneaten food on her plate. She brusquely pushed the platter away. The little blonde became aware that her own hands were clenched tight, her fists aching and cramped. She labored to relax her fingers, drew in a long, shaky breath and gulped.

"What happened to her?" the bard asked quietly. The warrior’s blue gaze met the bard’s again. "Did she ever recover from her ... illness?" the little blonde asked, her eyes riveted on the tall woman’s sad expression.

Xena met the bard’s steady stare, her eyes penitent and contrite. "Not for a long time," the warrior said quietly. "In fact, her blind rage and unbridled ‘quest for power’ nearly destroyed her ... very likely would have ravished her completely, had it not been for a simple act of kindness from a very unlikely source." The stoic face softened slightly as a small, lop-sided grin graced the warrior’s expression. The bard waited, intent on the woman’s ‘story’.

The dark-haired storyteller took another deep breath and left her chair at the table, carrying the earthen mug to the fireplace. She knelt to retrieve the small cauldron from the hot stones of the hearth, refilled the mug and raised the kettle in the bard’s direction, a mute question in the blue eyes. The little bard glanced at the contents of her own mug, returned the warrior’s gaze and gently shook her head. The tall woman replaced the kettle in the stony fireplace, returned to her chair and sat down again, stirring the steaming contents with the wooden tool.

"One day, the she-wolf encountered a jackal ... very vain ... very arrogant. But for some reason, the she-wolf became attracted to this ... creature ... even began a ... relationship with him. She didn’t really understand why she felt so drawn to him ... all she knew was that he seemed to ... respond to her ... to share her ... inclination. And, even though her life was filled with violence and conquest ... she felt a kind of ... release in the satisfaction of their ... mutual needs." The stoic face displayed a brand of submissive regret, an almost embarrassed admission of weakness.

Gabrielle’s quiet smile greeted the warrior’s abashed grin. The two friends shared a brief moment before the golden face sobered, the blue eyes changed to the color of gray steel. The little blonde leaned forward, compassion and understanding radiating from the green pools.

"Then the jackal betrayed the she-wolf ... coldly manipulating her, using her feelings to get her to drop her guard ... and to trust him. He engineered her capture, tortured and killed the members of her band and left her brutally injured, on the verge of death." The warrior’s jaw rippled in fury. "He did it without a shred of remorse ... without a single moment of regret. He left her ... wounded and in pain ... just walked away ... left her for dead."

A heavy silence hung in the little hut. The cadence of the rain rose in intensity and a loud roar of thunder rattled outside the building. The tall, slender form at the table sat rigid and stiff, her hands shaking, chalk-white patterns outlining her lips. After a long moment, the warrior became vaguely aware of the bard’s gentle touch on her arm. She slowly raised her eyes to answer the girl’s sympathetic gaze. Xena drew in a slow, calming breath.

"The she-wolf survived the jackal’s cruelty. She recovered enough from her injuries to return to her life of pillaging and preying on those weaker than she was. Physically, she was nearly as strong as she had been ... she was still vicious and sly. And she was even more angry, more ruthless, even more without conscience than before. All she knew was hate, conquest, survival and fear ... her own and what she instilled in her victims.

"The only thing that seemed to matter to the she-wolf now was satisfying her own vengeance; it filled her senses, controlled her every action. She lived each day filled with hate and anger and ruthless revenge, consumed by her own intentions to make everyone she met pay for her pain and her feelings of being used and cheated." The warrior slowly stirred the dark liquid in the mug. The bard’s attention remained on her friend’s remarkable face.

"Soon afterward, the she-wolf met a silver fox ... a beautiful, rare, unique little creature. The fox was brave and wise and compassionate. Her heart was strong and courageous and she approached the world with a gentle awareness. The little fox saw the dignity in every other creature in the forest, even in the predators and the animals who hunted the others for food. There was a spiritual quality about her. She never judged those she met, she only required that they be as truthful and honest with her as she was with them."

Gabrielle sat transfixed by the look of pure affection on her friend’s sculpted face. She knew the warrior was capable of deep emotion and that the woman’s honor enveloped her very being. And she knew how difficult it was for the tall, dark-haired warrior to express her most private feelings. The little bard felt very fortunate to have the tall woman’s trust.

"The silver fox took the she-wolf into her den, protected her from the many enemies she had acquired, cared for her, gave her friendship and ... love. She saw the agony in the she-wolf’s heart and tried to help her put aside her hatred and her selfish desires. The fox even managed to heal the she-wolf’s body .. to repair the damage left by the jackal’s vicious attack. Soon the she-wolf was whole again, at least physically, strong ... agile ... full of intensity and anxious to take advantage of her new vitality."

The cobalt gaze was steady and compelling as the warrior concentrated on the young queen’s

face. The little blonde swallowed heavily and waited for her friend to continue. Xena let out a quiet breath.

"The fox taught the she-wolf many skills ... not only how to use the forces within her to protect herself and to combat the will of others, but to open her senses to the needs and longings of those she met. She tried to teach the she-wolf about honor and the dignity of caring for those in need for no other reason than that it was ... the right thing to do." The blue eyes met the bard’s gaze. "Simply because, it was ... noble and caring and right.

"But, the she-wolf still held on to her hate ... her desire to exact revenge ... her stubborn, blinding, destructive will. She couldn’t let go of the rage or the vengeance in her heart. And she couldn’t understand why she should."

The warrior’s clear blue eyes were filled with shame. The little bard waited, anguish for her friend’s pain tightening her throat.

"Finally, the silver fox sent the she-wolf away, disappointed and sad at her failure to open the wolf’s heart to love and unselfishness. The wolf left ... seeing only her own anger and resentment ... still unaware of the true meaning of what the fox had tried to teach her. She didn’t even care that she had broken the silver fox’s heart. She returned to the forest and to her old ways ... fighting, conquest and blood."

The staccato cadence of the rain filled the room. Quietly, the bard wiped the tears from her face, her green eyes locked on the warrior’s silent stare. She waited, her laced fingers pressed against her quivering lips. After swallowing several times, the little blonde asked a gentle question.

"What happened to the silver fox?"

"The she-wolf never saw her again. She carried the image of the fox deep inside her, unwilling to admit how much she knew she owed to the fox’s kindness. But it was many summers before the she-wolf began to realize the value of what the fox had tried to teach her... and by then, it was almost too late."

A low rumble of thunder punctuated the warrior’s statement. As the sound slowly faded, the little bard shivered and rubbed her arms, glancing quickly at the rumpled blankets lying on the pallet. She slid her chair back from the table, stood up and crossed the room to retrieve one of the woolen coverings. At the same time, the warrior left her chair, stepped to the fireplace, knelt next to the hearth and lifted several logs onto the low, glowing coals, carefully

positioning the wood with an iron implement.

Gabrielle stood watching the tall woman’s silent activity, unwilling to intrude on her friend’s contemplation, determined to allow her friend whatever private decision might be necessary concerning continuing her story. After a moment, as the fire grew more active and the dampness in the room began to dissipate, the little blonde slowly walked back to her chair at the table, her green eyes sympathetic on the warrior’s pensive face.

"What happened to the she-wolf after she left the fox?" the bard asked quietly. "Did she ever

come to understand what the silver fox had tried to teach her?"

Xena’s blue eyes swept up from the flames to meet the gaze of her friend. A gentle smile warmed the stoic expression. The warrior rose, picked up the two mugs and carried them back to the fireplace. She put one mug down, picked up the small kettle, refilled the mug, then exchanged it for the other vessel. After replacing the kettle on the arm over the fire, she stood up and carried the two full mugs back to the table.

"Well, she spent most of the next ten summers exacting revenge on anyone who was unfortunate enough to cross her path. She surrounded herself with the most vicious, bloodthirsty animals she could find and her band of ... creatures ... traveled the countryside, leaving pain and devastation in their path." The bard closed her eyes tightly and took a deep breath. When she focused on the warrior’s face again, her heart caught at the look of total contrition she saw on the bronze face.

"The she-wolf had closed herself to any kind of feeling ... she refused to let herself experience anything except hate and rage and vengeance. It nearly consumed her ... destroyed her spirit. She continued her path of destruction and fear for a long, ugly period." Xena’s long fingers traced imaginary patterns on the wooden tabletop, her gaze distant and reminiscent. Then the blue eyes slowly rose to gaze intently on the little bard’s sad face, a tiny, subtle smile began at the corner of the woman’s mouth.

"Yet, the odd thing was that the she-wolf had begun to find feelings within herself. She found that, not only did she not enjoy her violent life anymore, she actually began to feel ... disgusted by it and ashamed of ... herself. It seemed as though all the very ideals the little silver fox had tried to teach her were slowly beginning to make sense in her mind. She found the rage in her heart fading away ... controlling her less and less. And she decided to return to the part of the forest where she had been young, to try to ... begin a new life."

The little bard saw the thin wave of regret seep into the warrior’s face. "Of course she knew she could never completely .. escape the consequences of all the pain and suffering she had been responsible for ... she knew that wasn’t possible." The warrior paused to meet the little blonde’s compassionate gaze. "But, the she-wolf decided she had to try, to at least attempt to do some good before her life was over. She had to try, at least."

Gabrielle blinked hard to stem the ache she felt tightening her throat.

"Then the she-wolf was befriended by a magnificent ... lion. He was decent and gallant and kind and very, very wise. He saw her rage and somehow managed to ... sweep it away. He unchained the anger in her heart and dispelled it with patience and understanding. They fell in love ... but they both knew there were too many differences between them to ever find happiness together. And the she-wolf knew she had too much to ... make up for before she could allow herself that sort of ...contentment. The lion and the wolf parted company ... still friends and still very ... fond of each other."

The little bard’s warm grin met the warrior’s. The girl recognized the obvious reference in the tall woman’s words and she graciously ignored the slight blush that had invaded the golden features. She met the warrior’s gaze easily, treasuring the genuine trust she saw in the clear, blue eyes. The girl casually lifted her mug, blew into the steaming mixture and slowly brought the container to her mouth.

"Sounds like this lion was very special ... sort of ‘god-like’, even?" the girl quipped quietly, her eyes warm and loving.

Xena returned the bard’s grin affectionately. "Yeah," she said dryly. "You could say that .. at least the she-wolf thought so." The warrior’s expression changed subtly. "He was the first ... true friend she had even known, since the loss of her younger litter-mate. The lion showed her how to trust again ... in others and in herself."

The bard nodded slowly, her green eyes intent on the deep, blue pools. The two women sat quietly. Then the warrior smiled, openly and without restriction.

"So, back the she-wolf went ... to her home valley ... intent on giving up her life of violence and revenge. She separated herself from her ‘nasty cohorts’, laid aside all her weapons and turned her path toward the part of the forest where she had grown up." The bard’s brow curled curiously at the noticeable lightness now present in the warrior’s tone.

"Before she could bury her past, though, the she-wolf came upon a small, furry ... bobcat. A young, curious and somewhat stubborn little bobcat." The bard felt the warm blush travel over her own face. She fought hard to forestall the embarrassed smile that threatened her serious expression but soon the warrior’s warm grin dispelled any hopes the girl had of maintaining her composure. She gave in to her own amusement and returned the affectionate gaze.

"A bobcat?" the girl said, impishly. "Aren’t they sort of ... unpredictable and kind of ... headstrong?"

The warrior’s eyebrow leaped upward. "To say the least," she replied drolly. "Especially when they dig their little paws in if you try to change their mind about something." The bard gave the warrior a perfect imitation of her own ‘look’. "Anyway," Xena continued, "after the she-wolf rescued the little bobcat from another predatory animal, she tried to continue on her way, back to her home, to try and ... start her new life."

"But ...." the little bard prompted coyly, her soft face still warmed by her gentle smile.

"But, the she-wolf found that the little bobcat had followed her ... and kept following her ... no matter how the she-wolf tried to discourage her from following her, the little bobcat just kept it up!" The warrior’s face displayed mock frustration and the bard submerged a tiny giggle.

"Yeah, I’ve heard that bobcats can be as stubborn as she-wolves, sometimes," the little blonde said. The girl’s green eyes were warm on the tall woman’s blue gaze. The two friends shared the loving moment, their easy laughter filling the little hut. Then the warrior’s expression slowly changed.

Xena sat quite still, breathing deeply, her blue eyes rooted to the bard’s steady gaze. Gabrielle gazed lovingly at the warrior’s profound expression, the devotion and loyalty she felt for the tall woman tightening her chest. A long quiet moment passed, the stillness in the hut accentuated by the steady drumming of the rain. A shallow wave of thunder broke the silence and both women relaxed slightly.

"Well," the warrior began, moistening her lips, "since she couldn’t seem to leave the little bobcat behind," Xena said, her blue eyes twinkling, "the she-wolf decided they could travel together. Her plans for staying in her home valley didn’t quite ... materialize, so she and the little bobcat set off to try to do some good and atone for the she-wolf’s angry life. They traveled side by side, meeting danger and enemies alike ... shoulder to shoulder ... together."

The bard’s eyes remained on the warrior’s. The tall woman swallowed slowly.

"And that little bobcat became the she-wolf’s best friend," Xena said quietly. "She gave her support and understanding, gave her a reason to trust again, to see the goodness present in those she met. That little bobcat showed the she-wolf what it was to be a true friend, even when the wolf seemed determined to return to her old life, when she let the hatred and anger still in her heart begin to take control again. The little bobcat showed the she-wolf only faith and loyalty ... and love."

The bard’s green eyes glistened brightly.

"You see, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice thick and solemn. "The silver fox saved the she-wolf’s life and healed her body. The brave lion freed her heart and her spirit, let her regain her self-respect, at least ... let her see herself as more than she had been. But the little bobcat saved the she-wolf’s soul." The warrior covered the bard’s little hand with her own. "Even when the wolf had begun to believe she would never know that kind of faith and trust again, the little bobcat showed her a friendship and an allegiance like none she had ever known. She swept the pain away and replaced it with friendship and love."

Gabrielle’s tears covered her face. She returned the warrior’s loving grasp on her hand and gently caressed the bronze face with the other. After a moment, the girl rose from her chair and moved toward her friend, wrapping her arms around the tall woman’s muscled form and holding on tightly. The warrior returned the fervent embrace. The two friends were still for a very long time. Finally the little bard pulled back, wiped her face and, with her hands trembling on the tall woman’s shoulders, met the moist, blue eyes of her best friend.

"Tell me, Xena," the girl began haltingly. "Did the little bobcat ever betray the she-wolf?" The warrior’s throat convulsed around her nervous gulp. "Did she ever blindly follow her own perceptions and threaten her best friend’s safety ... put her life in danger?" The young form began to shake as the girl’s sobs grew in intensity. The warrior gripped the little blonde’s shoulders tightly.

"Gabrielle," Xena began, watching the young face nervously.

"No, of course she didn’t!" Gabrielle said harshly. "Best friends don’t do that to each other, do they? Best friends don’t let their own narrow point of view endanger their best friend’s life! That’s not what best friends are known for!" Xena tried to gather the girl closer but Gabrielle backed away, her fists clenched, a manic gleam in the weeping, green eyes.

"Gabrielle!" the warrior barked, rising and reclaiming the slim shoulders. "Listen to me!" The girl’s eyes swept up wildly, meeting the piercing blue pools. "You couldn’t have known what would happen ... what a monster Ming Tien was." She softened her tone as the girl’s eyes locked on hers. "You were only doing what you thought was necessary ... to stop me ... to rescue my soul." The blue eyes grew warm. "Just like you always have ... like you’ve been doing every day since we met."

Gabrielle searched the warrior’s beautiful face. The girl’s breathlessness subsided, her manner grew calmer. She opened her fists and tried to focus on the clear blue eyes of the woman before her.

Xena released her hold on Gabrielle’s shoulders and took one small hand into hers. "Please stop torturing yourself. I understand what you were trying to do and I love you for caring enough to do it." The bard swallowed slowly. "And I forgive you, honestly, I do."

The sound of the rain on the roof filled the quiet chamber. The warrior watched the soft face

closely for signs of sensibility, of understanding. Finally, the bard’s green eyes traveled up to meet the warrior’s.

"I know you understand ... that you believe what I did was for ‘your own good’." The girl swallowed heavily. "I just wish I could believe it and forgive myself." The warrior’s heart thumped.


Chapter Eight ~~~

Gabrielle sat quietly on the warm, flat stone beside the clear, dancing stream. She raised her eyes from the piece of parchment in her lap and tilted her head back, letting the sun warm her face and chase the stiffness from her neck and shoulders. She had hoped that the gentle sounds of the rippling water might soothe her uneasiness and that the bright sunshine would ease the heaviness in her chest. Unfortunately, neither had occurred; instead she still had the headache she’d brought with her. The bard trained her eyes on the forest around her, but her thoughts were turned inward, toward the not-so-distant past.

‘How will she ever trust me again?’ the girl asked herself. ‘I let myself be blinded by my own inflexible views. She was nearly tortured to death ... because of me ... because I turned my back on our friendship. I was so determined that I was right ... how could I have given her so little credit, been so ... narrow-minded?’ The little blonde pressed her palms to her temples. The raging confusion in her mind only intensified her pounding headache. She dropped her chin to her chest and rubbed against the stiffness tightening her neck.

‘And what about Hope?’ the girl’s mind continued. ‘I lied to Xena about what happened to .. my child. My child,’ the young queen thought sadly. ‘The child of a demon-god, a repulsive creature bent on destroying mankind. Another blunder, Gabrielle,’ the girl admonished herself. ‘Another example of your ignorance and your lack of judgment.’ The bard blinked as tears began to cloud her vision. ‘How many times has she risked death to save you? And how many more times will it have to be so?’

Gabrielle shook her head irritably, leaning forward on the rock to combat the dizziness and the self-reproach filling her senses. She gazed unseeing into the clear, tumbling water. When she heard the noise behind her, the little queen quickly retrieved her Amazon staff from its position next to the big rock. In an instant, the girl was on her feet, facing the approaching form. However, she was totally unprepared for the figure that emerged from the greenery.

"Sorry," the small woman said. "Didn’t mean to alarm you." The slender female stepped forward, separating herself from the foliage and offered a lazy smile to the young blonde’s taut expression.

Gabrielle relaxed her stance but kept her eyes on the lean form. She let her eyes travel over the woman’s appearance, noting the simple traveler’s garb, the petite stature and the unusual condition of the woman’s attire ... she carried no weapons, carried nothing at all, except a small, cloth bag suspended from her shoulder by a narrow leather string. The other aspect that captured the little blonde’s attention was the startling color of the woman’s thick mass of hair. It reminded her of polished candlesticks ... or a brightly burnished set of expensive eating utensils. The green eyes softened as the woman’s smile widened slowly.

"Is everything all right up here?" the woman asked. The clear hazel eyes scanned the area. "Where’s Xena? Is she still up at the Retreat Hut?"

The bard’s brows furrowed in skepticism. She tightened her hold on the staff. "Who are you?" she asked the woman. "How did you know we were here at the Retreat Hut? Did Ephiny send you?" The young face remained uneasy.

The slender female smiled warmly at the bard’s tentative expression. She extended a thin hand. "Name’s Isabella," she told the little blonde. Gabrielle took the hand and noted the softness of the woman’s palm. "Let’s just say I’m another friend who’s concerned about you two. Have you ... worked things out? Settled your problem?"

The little queen stepped back from the gaunt figure, her eyes still fixed on the woman’s open face. After a moment, she turned back to the clear, bright water bubbling noisily over the rocks in the stream.

"Guess not," the thin woman said, moving to sit on another large boulder. "Well, it’s understandable ... considering what’s happened between you lately."

The blonde head snapped toward the visitor. She studied the slim face, her eyes narrowed and guarded.

"I mean ..." the woman’s head bounced in the direction of the Retreat Hut. "She can’t be the easiest person in the known world to live with, right?" The gaunt face contorted in a ‘confidential smirk’. "So ... talkative ... so easy to reach."

"Listen, Isabella, is it?" The woman nodded. "I don’t know what Ephiny’s told you, but Xena and I have some ... communicating to do. And, we ... I don’t appreciate you making that sort of comment about her. She’s still my best friend and ... well, she just is." The little bard straightened and sat down on the rock again.

A small moment of silence settled over the bank of the stream. Then the thin traveler spoke.

"Do ‘best friends’ usually try to kill the daughters of their ‘best friends’?" the woman said evenly.

The little blonde stiffened, her expression angry and harsh. "Look!" Gabrielle said, pointing an accusing finger. She stared at the other woman’s face, unnerved by the knowing glint in the hazel glance. Slowly, the little bard’s anger was replaced by an unsettling wariness. She peered at the woman’s enigmatic face and drew a slow, calming breath.

"Isabella," the bard began. "You seem to know an awful lot about us. But what you don’t know is ... these past few moons have been ... very difficult. Things have happened that neither of us could have known about. It’s just ...." The girl rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers. "It’s complicated, that’s all." The petite waited, her attention fixed on the troubled young face.

"Anyway," Gabrielle said, a new forcefulness in her tone. "In spite of all that, Xena is still my best friend. I trust her with my life. She’s the truest, most loyal, most honorable person I know. And ... whatever has happened between us, I know in my heart that’s still so."

The slender voyager nodded in resignation. The bard relaxed a bit and turned her attention back to the stream. Isabella studied the small form, noting completely the sorrow and defeat in the young woman’s manner. She took a short breath.

"OK," she began, "I’ll buy that." The woman crossed her arms over her chest. "You trust her with your life." Gabrielle turned to meet the woman’s gaze. "Does she trust you with hers?"

The bard flinched, swallowing hard. The small woman saw the convulsive gulp, the doubt in the green gaze. She waited for the little bard to answer.

"What kind of a question is that?" the girl sputtered.

Isabella shrugged innocently. "Well, does she? More to the point, does she have good reason not to trust you?" The little bard blinked. "Have you given her any reason for that to be true?" The young blonde stared at the slim female, her breath uneven and ragged. "Well?" the woman said roughly. "Yes or no?"

Gabrielle leapt up from the boulder and took a frightened step away from the visitor. She glared at the woman, her fists clenched. "Who are you?" the bard asked in a ragged voice. "How do you ... who told you ...?" Isabella’s smug grin widened. She stood and advanced toward the bard.

"Aren’t you the same Gabrielle who went to Chin to set a trap for her ‘best friend’? Aren’t you the ‘friend’ who was responsible for her ‘best friend’ being captured, thrown into prison and nearly executed by a ruthless tyrant?" The bard took another retreating step as the woman continued to come toward her. "Well?? Aren’t you?"

Gabrielle stopped and thrust her hands over her ears. "Stop it!" she screamed, closing her eyes tightly. The trim form crumpled away from her accuser. "I tried to save her ... to save her soul," the girl whimpered, turning mournfully to the slender woman. "I just wanted to keep her from murdering someone in cold blood." She glared defiantly at the girl.

"That’s why I went to Chin ... to stop her." Gabrielle’s tears covered her face. "I tried to make her see that she’s ... too good for that now. She’s come so far ... back from that ... monster she was." The girl brought her hands to her head. "She’s so much more," the bard said plaintively. "So much more ...."

Isabella took a firm hold of the girl’s slender arms, roughly turning her to face her. The bard felt her eyes being drawn to the woman’s face. She gulped and blinked to clear her tears.

"Don’t you think she knows that?" the traveler said firmly. "Don’t you see? Xena understands why you did what you did." Isabella let her words register a moment. "She’s forgiven you, Gabrielle. She told you that, remember?" The bard gulped, confusion and surprise traveling over the soft features. "Now, why can’t you believe that ... and forgive yourself?"

The small woman released the girl’s shoulders and placed a gentle hand on her back. Gabrielle’s manner became calmer as she gazed at the gentle gray gaze. She swallowed smoothly as the pounding in her chest began to lessen. Isabella pulled the soft blonde hair back from the wet face and smiled warmly.

"You two are a very special pair of friends, little bard. After defeating all those villains together, it would be a shame if you ended up defeating each other." The slender woman raised a slim hand and wiped the girl’s tears away. "That would be a great tragedy." She gave the bard’s shoulder a gentle squeeze and stepped away.

Gabrielle’s gaze followed the woman. The traveler turned back to the little queen. "You must free your heart of this guilt, Gabrielle. For your sake and for Xena’s. She counts on you, you know? She often says you are the guardian of her soul." The little blonde stared at the gaunt form. "You, too, are capable of great loyalty. And Xena knows that. She relies on your pure heart and the goodness within you. Can you abide with letting her down?"

The slender woman tossed her unusually-colored hair and faced the bard, hands on her hips, smiling widely. "So, what’s it to be?" she asked the young woman. "Are you prepared to finish your life without Xena in it? Or are you strong enough to go forward, now? To let these ... incidents ... fade into the past?" The bard’s gaze rested on her trembling fingers until the woman’s smooth voice captured her attention again.

"Well, I guess the only question you really have to ask yourself is, Which would be more painful? Letting the events in Chin ... and those concerning Hope ... destroy the most beautiful friendship of our time?" Gabrielle felt a heaviness thump across her chest. "Or," Isabella said, gently touching the bard’s soft face. "Can you settle what’s happened into the deepest, most forgiving place of your heart, offer absolution to yourself ... and to your best friend ... and get on with your life ... together, as you should be?" The woman turned, repositioned the strap of the small pouch on her shoulder and stood facing the little blonde. "When all is said and done, it’s really your decision, isn’t it? Look into your heart."

Gabrielle took a long, slow, steady breath. She let her arms drop to her sides and trained her eyes on the thin female’s face. She found herself returning the woman’s gentle smile. Isabella turned and took a few steps toward the surrounding greenery, then turned back to the bard. She raised one thin hand in farewell.

"Be well and happy, my little friend," the woman said. "Just remember ... you may believe you can survive without Xena. But, can she survive without you? Think about it." And with that, she was gone.

Gabrielle sat back down on the large boulder wearily. She let her eyes settle on the gentle stream, the clear water bouncing crisply over the smooth stones beneath the surface. The bard heard the Amazon’s parting statement resounding in her head. ‘Can she survive without you?’, the woman had asked. ‘ ... without you?’, the girl heard, over and over. ‘....without you?’ She sighed heavily and wiped away the new tears on her face.

"Problem is, Xena," the bard whispered to the tumbling water. "Will you survive with me there, as frightened as I am that I might betray you again, someday, somehow." The young blonde shivered and wrapped her trim arms tightly around herself. "How could I go on living, if that should happen? Knowing I had been responsible?" The little queen sat very still for a moment. Then the trim form straightened as the bard retrieved her staff and the piece of parchment and stood up.

"No," Gabrielle murmured quietly. "I will not put you in danger another time." The green eyes swept in the direction of the Retreat Hut. "You’re safer without me ... I love you too much to do that to you again. Not again ... never again."


Chapter Nine ~~~

The little blonde slowly approached the Retreat Hut. She glanced quickly around the area, searching for the tall form of her best friend. A small wave of relief wafted across the girl’s heart when it appeared that Xena had not returned from her hunting expedition. The warrior had set off half a candlemark before, tossing promises of fresh fish and more berries over her shoulder as she left. The bard had taken the opportunity to make her trip to the stream at the same time.

Gabrielle entered the hut, her green eyes sweeping the interior of the small building. She sighed quietly when she realized that her friend was not inside. The bard looked down blankly at the piece of parchment in her hand, swallowed and let her eyes travel over the furniture in the hut. She walked to the wooden table in the center of the room, folding the parchment into a neat square. She carefully propped the papyrus up against one of the earthen mugs in the middle of the wooden expanse, took another slow look around the hut, turned and walked through the door, closing the panel behind her. Half a candlemark later, the warrior returned to the hut.


Xena wore a satisfied grin as her slender form emerged from the forest behind the Retreat Hut. She carried several large trout on a thin rope slung over her shoulder and a full basket of crimson berries under her other arm. Her face lit as she approached the little building, anticipating the delight in her soulmate’s smile when she presented the day’s bounty. The warrior shifted the basket to the hand that held the line of fish, pulled open the wooden panel and stepped inside.

"Well, you wanted trout!" the warrior announced proudly, her blue eyes sweeping the room for her friend’s small form. "Gabrielle?" the tall woman called, searching the area more distinctly. Then her eyes found the parchment square.

Xena put down the basket and the fish and unfolded the note, quickly recognizing the bard’s clear handwriting. As she read the transcribed message, the warrior’s throat contracted when the words on the page clamored in her brain.

My dearest Xena,

I know you may not understand why I must leave you, but I could not live with the idea of hurting you again. My blind ignorance and foolish choices have endangered your life and our friendship. You will be safer continuing on without me.

Please know that you will always occupy a special place in my heart and I will always think of you as the finest friend I have ever known. Try not to think too harshly of me. Be happy and safe. And know that I will love you, always.

Your friend. Gabrielle.

The warrior’s chest tightened as she fought to draw breath into her lungs. She crushed the small parchment in her palm and stared blankly at the small window across the room. For a shattering moment, the interior of the little hut pivoted and wavered wildly as the tall woman clenched her teeth together, striving to regain her equilibrium. She grabbed the edge of the table with a shaky hand.

"No!" Xena gasped. "You can’t do this to us!" The warrior gulped savagely as the swirling fixtures drifted back to their regular positions. The tall, trembling form slowly quieted, the piercing blue eyes regained their usual clearness. Xena breathed slowly, let go of the table and stood up straight.

Another short moment passed before the crumpled piece of parchment was launched toward the fireplace as the tall warrior’s slender hands pulled at the cloth belt around her waist.

"Sorry, Gabrielle," the warrior murmured to the empty room. "You mean too much to me to let you go like this. Not like this."

In the next instant, Xena crossed the room and located the large bag containing her normal, daily attire. She found her leather tunic, pulled the woolen garment off over her head and replaced it with her leathers. In a very short time, the warrior was again clad in the costume that had become her trademark apparel; leather tunic, gauntlets and arm coverings, brass armor, tall boots and leg coverings, crafted scabbard containing the renowned sword, round metal chakram hooked on the loop on her belt.

The tall warrior tugged one last time on the lacings of her left boot, dropped her foot to the floor and strode purposefully toward the door of the hut. She swung open the panel and stepped outside, her blue eyes scanning the forest. Suddenly, her sharp hearing detected the sound of an approaching rider. She turned toward the sound. The blue gaze recognized the golden mare immediately, as well as her blonde rider.

Seconds later, Ephiny rode into the little clearing around the hut. The Amazon reined in her mount and jumped to the ground in front of the warrior. Her nervous expression registered in the warrior’s awareness, however, at that moment, Xena’s concentration was on the finding the absent bard. Before the warrior could voice the question on her lips, the tall, blonde Amazon handed over the horse’s reins.

Xena cast a quick glance at the leather strips before meeting the tall warrior’s gaze.

"She’s headed west. If you take the shortcut through the prime length ...."

Ephiny’s suggestion was lost on the tall woman who moved quickly around her and leapt onto the great mare’s back. She watched the warrior quickly gather the reins, find the stirrups with her boots before pulling the mare’s head toward the path. Moments later, the horse and her rider disappeared into the forest, the animal’s hooves thundering loudly on the hard earth as the woman on her back urged her on.

"Good luck," the Amazon said to the departing warrior.


Xena’s blue eyes found the trim form on the road with ease. She pulled Argo to a halt, jumped down to the ground and stood, trembling and hesitant, next to the great steed.



Absently, the warrior looped the reins over the large saddlehorn, her gaze still locked on the small, retreating figure. She gulped and tried to calm her rapid breathing.

A moment later, the warrior felt herself being firmly nudged from behind. She stumbled forward a step then turned a slightly irked gaze at the animal who had initiated the powerful ‘hint’. She turned toward Gabrielle’s back ... and was nudged forward again, this time somewhat more forcefully. She swiveled back toward the mare’s golden head.

"All right!" Xena growled at the animal’s stubborn glare. "I’m going, I’m going." She took a tentative step down the path then stopped, her heart hammering in her chest. "Oh, gods, Argo. What if she doesn’t want to ...." She put a shaky hand on the horse’s neck. "What if she won’t talk to me?" Argo shook her head and puffed against the warrior’s hair. The great head swung toward the small figure on the path ahead, then back to the warrior. The animal leaned against her mistress to offer moral support.

"Yeah, I’ll never know until I try, right?" Argo whinnied softly. "OK, then. Wish me luck." Xena patted the smooth hide and swallowed nervously. She took a long stride and then another, all the while trying to ignore the panic in her stomach.

"Gabrielle!" the warrior shouted, and the small form stopped moving.

The bard stood stone still as the sound of the familiar voice brought her breath to an abrupt halt. She gulped, closed her eyes and clenched her fists to stop her hands from shaking, willing herself to remain calm and controlled. After a moment, the green eyes drifted open and their owner turned slowly toward the approaching form of the tall warrior. As the blue eyes drew closer, the little blonde found she couldn’t seem to focus on anything else in the immediate vicinity. She gulped again, quietly.

Xena loped easily toward the bard’s stationary form, slowing her stride to a walk when the girl turned around to face her. Her eyes locked on the soft green pools and it seemed meeting the gentle gaze was the most important thing in space and time, at that moment. The warrior’s long legs brought her within arm’s reach of the little blonde and the bronze face mirrored the deep yearning in the tall woman’s heart.

"Where are you going?" she asked the little blonde.

"I’m not sure," the bard answered haltingly. "Maybe ho ... I mean to Poteidaia ... for a while. Maybe the Academy ... I don’t know." The green eyes swept the surrounding area before rising to search the chiseled face. It felt as though her heart would soon burst from her green Amazon top. "I just thought ... I figured you’d rather I wasn’t ...." The girl’s words dwindled as she blinked hard.

The warrior took a deep breath and settled back into a balanced stance. "Is there a reason you have to go alone?" she asked, clenching her fists to combat the pounding in her chest. "I mean, do you want that? To go alone?" Xena watched the soft face intently. It seemed like an eternity before the little bard seemed inclined to answer. The warrior’s heart continued to pound under her leather tunic.

"No ... I don’t really ... want to go alone," the bard whispered. "I just figured ... you’d want it that way. I mean, after the way I ...."

"The way you what?" the warrior interjected. "Don’t you mean, after the way we both have been ... behaving lately? I mean, you aren’t the only one at fault here ... if ‘fault’ is even the word to use." The bronze face softened, the blue eyes grew warm and loving. "You have as much right as anyone to want to ... separate yourself from me ... to be angry with me." The tall woman swallowed quickly. "Don’t you think?"

Slowly, a particle at a time, the bard’s expression began to clear. In the next few seconds, the soft face displayed confusion, then surprise and finally clear, abiding relief. A tiny, barely perceivable smile began to grow at the corners of her mouth. "Angry with you?" she said quietly. "You think I’m angry with you? Are you serious?" the bard finished softly.

The warrior’s blue eyes glistened and she blinked hard to clear her vision. "Well, aren’t you?" Xena asked. "Not that you don’t have good reason. But ... isn’t that why you’re ‘going alone’?" The tall woman shifted her stance. "Because of what happened ... in Chin and with ... Hope?"

Gabrielle took a quick step closer to the warrior. "No ... that’s not why I ..." She stopped talking and simply stared into her best friend’s anguished expression. "No," the little bard whispered. "I’m not angry. I just felt, since I’ve disappointed you so badly, that you’d never want to ...."

In one quick step, the warrior moved to gather the small form tightly in her arms. She sighed gratefully when she felt the bard’s slender arms return the embrace. The two stood very still for a very long moment. Finally the tall woman’s smooth voice sounded against the girl’s blonde head.

"No, I’m not angry with you ... anymore. And you could never disappoint me enough to make me want to be without you. Gabrielle, I’d rather go to Tartarus than face that," the warrior said quietly. She pulled back to meet the bard’s green gaze. "I’d rather have let Ming Tien send me there than ...." The statement was interrupted by the bard’s enthusiastic hug.

"Don’t ever say that!" she cried into the warrior’s chest. "I wouldn’t want to live, either, if that had happened." The warrior’s long arms drew the little form close until the girl pulled back to meet her eyes. "I’ll never forgive myself for nearly causing that, Xena. Never!"

Xena swept the blonde hair away from the tear-covered features. She leaned closer to take the sweet face between her hands. "You did what you thought was right, I know that. Even when we were ... there, I knew that. You always respond from your heart." The girl took in a staggered breath. "And like I’ve said before, your heart is always in the right place." The warrior’s gentle smile was eventually met by the bard’s. Gabrielle took another shaky breath and searched the sculpted face. "I understand ... I understood then," the warrior said quietly.

The two women separated slightly as the bard wiped her face with one small hand and took the tall woman’s slender hand with the other. Focusing on the warrior’s metal armor, the little blonde swallowed hard and tried to speak.

"I understood what you ... tried to do with ... Hope, too," the girl whispered. "I didn’t at first, but I do now. You were doing what you thought was right. Even when ...." she took another deep breath. "Even when you knew I would surely hate you for it." She slowly raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s. The deep sorrow in the clear blue pools clutched at the girl’s heart. She stepped closer and hugged the warrior’s waist. "I’m so sorry, Xena. How it must have hurt you, knowing that."

Xena wrapped her arms around the slim form of her best friend. "Gabrielle ... I should be saying that to you. She was your child ... I should have tried to understand how you felt." The bard tightened her hug when she felt the shudder shake the warrior’s form. "I know what it’s like to lose a child ... I should have remembered that."

The two friends stood quietly for a long moment. Then the warrior sighed briskly and stepped back from the little bard. She took the slim shoulders and gazed deeply into the girl’s green eyes. With her thumb, she wiped the tears away from the soft face and smiled warmly at the young countenance.

"Like I said, we both have things to answer for lately." The bard’s thin smile sent a quiver through the warrior’s being. She stiffened when the girl took a step back away from her.

"Question is," the warrior began cautiously, "can we go forward now?" She gazed imploringly at the green stare. "Are we going to be able to ... put these events behind us? Or are we going to let them ... destroy what we have? Destroy what we both know is the most special part of the both of us?"

Gabrielle gazed, open-mouthed, at the tall warrior. Even though, in the last two days, she had heard the warrior say more, and display more emotion, than she had ever heard or witnessed in their entire history together, the impassioned speech completely surprised her. She stared at the blue gaze, unnerved and totally in awe. She finally found her voice.

"I don’t know," the bard stated clearly. Then more softly ventured, "What do you think?"

The warrior’s tense form relaxed as she drew in a slow, steady, confident breath.

"I think we’re two of the strongest people I know ...." The stoic face warmed in a subtle grin. "And two of the most stubborn." The bard’s grin grew easily. "I think we’ll make it ... oh, yeah. I think so." One dark eyebrow crept upward. "How ‘bout you?"

The little bard’s gentle giggle sent a head-spinning wave of joy through the warrior’s soul.

"I say, just try and stop us. Anybody ... just try and stop us."

The two friends smiled at each other, turned together and walked back toward the golden mare, waiting patiently at the end of the path.


Epilogue ~~~

The Solstice Celebration had been a complete success, food, drink and the exchange of gifts having progressed in a perfect plan. Numerous members of the little queen’s tribe had taken time during the ensuing festivities to express their congratulations to the small monarch and her ‘first champion’ concerning their obvious reconciliation. Even the usually reticent Solari had responded with surprisingly warm, verbal felicitations.

Aurora had done a discriminating inspection of the rapidly fading bruise around the warrior’s neck and pronounced the injury ‘well tended’, complimenting the bard on her proficient application of the healing balm. When the thin healer had moved away, the two friends shared a private chuckle.

"We just won’t tell her that you hold the record in the known world for healing yourself," the bard giggled, collapsing dizzily against the warrior’s muscled shoulder.

Xena gently stroked the blonde head. "Only on the outside, little bard," the tall woman said into the young queen’s ear. "You healed the inside ... as you do every day." The deep, blue pools were soft on the girl’s face. The little bard smiled into the eyes of her friend. Xena ruffled the soft golden hair. "You little bobcat, you."

The bard playfully poked the warrior’s ribs. "Fair’s fair. One good healing deserves another."

The two friends smiled together. Not long afterward, the warrior’s discerning gaze recognized the combined effects the stimulating ‘celebration brew’ and the late hour were having on the young blonde queen’s composure. She adroitly suggested they retire to the Regal Hut to get some needed rest before their early departure in the morning. The little bard only offered a thinly veiled objection before depositing her empty tankard on the table, graciously bidding a sleepy ‘good night’ to those in attendance and submitting to the warrior’s gentle, but firm hand on her arm.

When she had completed the usual preparations for sleep, the tall warrior sat relaxed on the edge of the large bed, casually watching the bard tie the lacings at the neck of her sleeping shift then sit down to draw off her leather boots. As she dropped one boot to the floor, the girl’s green eyes drifted up to meet the warrior’s and she smiled warmly.

"Thanks for the bracelet ... and the poem. Best Solstice presents I’ve ever had." Xena saw the clear confusion in the soft face. It brought a similar reaction to the warrior’s expression. "What?" she asked gently.

The bard blinked a few times and dropped the other empty boot to the floor. The green eyes scanned the hut for a moment before returning to the warrior’s quizzical stare. "Bracelet?" the little blonde asked softly. "But I didn’t ...."

The warrior opened her palm and displayed the bracelet, a uniquely crafted piece fashioned of multi-colored lengths of leather, the different pieces woven together into a beautiful, slender

circle. The green eyes opened wide as the girl slowly crossed the room. Xena held out her hand and Gabrielle gently picked up the bracelet lying against the warrior’s fingers. The little bard raised her gaze to meet the warrior’s.

"But I didn’t get a chance to finish it," the girl said softly, her green eyes surprised. "I started it but, then things got a little ... complicated," she said, leveling a tentative grin at the warrior’s warm smile. "How did you ...?"

"It was here on the pillow, when we came in tonight." Xena said quietly. She turned slightly to retrieve the small scroll behind her. "I found it wrapped around this." She exchanged the leather bracelet for the scroll to the bard, waiting patiently while Gabrielle unrolled the dainty parchment, her green eyes questioning on the warrior’s blue gaze. The little bard let out a small gasp when she recognized her own handwriting:


Someone who ...

A friend is someone who

hears what you’re saying and knows

what your heart really means.

She listens to anger and pain

and confusion

And sees what is there in between.

A friend is someone who

gives you an answer to questions

she’d rather ignore.

By willingly sharing those thoughts

oh, so private,

She garners your trust even more.

A friend is someone who

knows your worst fears.

And when they descend from above,

She shelters your trembling soul,

Strengthens your spirit,

With amity, honor and love.

A friend is someone who

opens her arms when terror

and demons surround you.

She offers you comfort and safety

and warmth

By wrapping sweet kinship around you.

A friend is someone who

makes good times better,

brightening your day with a smile.

With her, you become more, the best you

can be, and still just yourself

The whole while.

My best friend is someone

I trust with my being,

with no doubt at all in my heart.

I thank the gods daily it’s me

you have chosen and pray that

We never will part.

Thank you for being My Best Friend.

Happy Solstice. Gabrielle.


"I’m sorry I didn’t get yours finished, though," the dark-haired woman said sheepishly when the little blonde’s gaze returned to hers. "I had it almost done, but I left it in the pocket of the tunic I was wearing at the Retreat Hut. I forgot all about it when you ... when I left to meet you on the road," the warrior said, her voice low and smooth. She watched as the girl crossed the room and tugged at the strings at the neck of her cloth satchel.

"I can make another one," Xena said. "As soon as I find another piece of ...." The warrior’s apology was stopped in mid-sentence when her eyes settled on the small wooden carving the bard now cradled in her hand. The blue eyes were clearly astonished, and for once, thoroughly surprised.

"It looks finished to me," the bard said softly, striding back to present the little wooden statue to the warrior. Xena accepted the sculpture gingerly, turning the small figure over in her hand and examining it closely. It was a perfect miniature of the wooden lamb the bard had carried lovingly since it had been the warrior’s Solstice gift the previous year. The blue eyes drifted up to meet the green pools.

"I was going to thank you for it ... but you kind of threw me a little with the bracelet." The green eyes were soft on the warrior’s deep azure gaze. "I guess we both were a bit ... distracted, huh?"

The two friends exchanged a warm, loving look. Whatever questions each had concerning the mysterious appearance of her gift suddenly seemed totally and completely irrelevant to the situation. The women retrieved their respective presents and smiled warmly at each other.

"Happy Solstice, Gabrielle," the warrior said.

"Happy Solstice, Xena," the bard answered.

Together they recited, "May we both have many more."


The next morning, Gabrielle gave Ephiny one last, tight hug and the Amazon returned the embrace.

"Thanks again," the little bard said. "For everything." Ephiny squeezed the girl’s slender arm. "I mean it. You’ve been wonderful during this whole ... painful mess." The green eyes were sincere. "I don’t know how we would have made it through this without ...."

The tall Amazon waved a slender hand. "No, no," she objected. "All I did was give you a place to work it out. And that was actually Aurora’s idea, not mine. You two did all the real work."

The bard shook her blonde head. "Well, thanks anyway." She turned to the warrior.

Xena extended a forearm to the Amazon Regent and the blonde warrior grasped it. "Yeah, thanks, Ephiny. Gabrielle’s right. We’ll always be grateful for your ... patience." The stoic faced creased in a subtle smile. "I owe you one, Amazon." The Regent returned her grin.

"And I’ll remember that you do," the blonde woman said. She released the warrior’s arm.

Xena went back to making the last adjustments to Argo’s saddle. The bard took Ephiny’s arm and slowly pulled her to the side. The Amazon bent to hear the little blonde’s quiet words.

"By the way, please tell Isabella ‘thank you’, too. Tell her I really thought about what she said. It helped me ... clear my head. Will you tell her ‘thanks’ for me?"

Ephiny’s lovely face clearly showed the level of her total confusion. She searched the girl’s soft face for a moment, brows furrowed and mouth slightly open.

"Who?" the Regent asked finally, her eyes on the bard’s. "Tell who ‘thank you’?" She glanced at the warrior standing behind the bard, whose sculpted face showed an equal level of puzzlement. Xena turned to face the two blonde women.

Gabrielle looked closely at the Amazon’s befuddled expression before noticing the warrior’s small frown. "Isabella," the bard stated again. "The ... woman you sent to see if we were all right. I talked to her right before I left." She cast a playful grin at the warrior. "Before I tried to leave." She looked back to Ephiny. "The small, thin woman? She said you sent ..." The bard hesitated. "No, actually she didn’t say that. I just assumed...."

"Gabrielle," Ephiny said, "I don’t know who you mean. Honest. I didn’t send anyone up there to ...."

The little bard giggled softly and tugged on the Regent’s arm. "It’s OK, Eph’. I was a little angry with you at first, but now I know you were only concerned about us." The girl glanced at the warrior. "It’s OK, really. Just tell Isabella our little talk really helped." The girl’s eyes scanned the camp. "In fact, if you can find her, I’d like to tell her myself. Where is she, anyway?"

"Gabrielle, on my word," the Amazon said, sincerely. "I didn’t send anyone to the Retreat Hut." The girl’s eyes darted over the Regent’s honest expression. "I didn’t, I swear."

The Regent and the warrior exchanged questioning glances. Finally, Xena touched the bard’s arm.

"Gabrielle, what did this woman look like? Do you see her now?" the warrior said, motioning to the numerous females milling around them. She turned back to the bard’s blank expression.

"Like I said," Gabrielle began, a little impatient. "She was a little taller than me ... rather thin ...and she had the most amazing hair." She turned an excited smile to the Amazon Regent. "It was kind of long, very shiny ..." The bard focused on the warrior again.

"It was ... almost ... silver." The warrior’s mouth dropped open slightly. "Yes," the bard continued, "I guess you could say, she had silver hair." The girl murmured, almost to herself, "You know, she didn’t appear that old, come to think of it. But, her hair was definitely ...."

Gabrielle stopped talking as her green eyes met the warrior’s gaze. Her expression slowly cleared as she gazed into the deep, blue eyes of her best friend.

"A small, slender woman ... with long silver hair," the warrior’s liquid voice said quietly, the bronze face slowly softening in a warm grin.

The two friends smiled knowingly at each other while the Amazon remained thoroughly and totally confused.




The Bard's Corner