When they had finished their delicious meal, including the fat squares of ginger cake hiding inside the hamper, Gabrielle gathered up their plates and utensils, spending several minutes outside using handfuls of snow to scrub the platters clean of any remaining particles of food. When she returned, she stacked the dishes carefully inside the hopper together with the spoons, the neatly-folded napkins and the cloth coverings. When the implements were safely ensconced in their wicker transport, she turned to the dark-haired warrior slouching on the wooden stool and gave the woman’s neck an impromptu hug.

"You’re so cute when your mother’s giving you grief," the girl giggled. "She can really push your buttons."

Xena twisted her head to confront the bard’s amusement. "I’m what?" she groused. "Gabrielle, cut it out." She tried to shrug off the young blonde’s teasing. But the bard’s arms remained around her neck.

"C’mon, Xena," the girl jibed playfully. "She’s really something, isn’t she?"

"Something," the warrior muttered in annoyance. "The question is, ‘what’, exactly’?"

The bronze jaw tightened at the young woman’s continued mirth. She turned away from the amiable embrace.

"I think you enjoy the fun as much as she does," Xena sniped. She slumped forward, her body tense and irritated. The bard’s cheerful giggle faded immediately. She let her arms fall away from the tall figure, her fingers lacing in embarrassment. She gazed down at the warrior’s aggravated posture.

"I’m sorry ... I didn’t mean anything," the bard said, her voice quiet and halting. She took a step away from the surly, dark-haired woman. "I don’t want to upset you. Sorry." Gabrielle turned back to the shelf, busying herself with the incidental chores of repacking the basket.

A long, stilted silence hung in the chilly building. The warrior’s blue pools closed tightly, her shoulders sagging in guilty remorse. After a moment, she cautiously raised her eyes, the cobalt orbs settling on her friend. She felt a heavy pressure on her chest when she recognized the hurt in the girl’s stance. Xena reached out to the bard, capturing one small hand with her fingers.

"Gabrielle, I’m sorry." She gently turned the girl to face her, ducking her head to meet the sad green gaze. "I didn’t mean to take it out on you." The golden face clouded in apology. "You’re right about one thing, though. She really does ... ‘push my buttons’," the warrior joked weakly, her expression plaintive. "I guess I’ll never figure out how to make that not happen."

The bard’s lips pursed in a tiny grin as she placed one hand on the warrior’s shoulder. "She’s just being a ‘mom’," the girl said, the hurt receding from her emerald gaze. "Seems they all have that talent." Her warm smile soothed the tall woman’s regret.

"It’s OK," Gabrielle whispered, squeezing the warrior’s slender palm. "I understand ... don’t worry about it."

Xena gazed up into the soft, young face, the tenseness in her stomach gradually relaxing. She offered a silent, grateful thanks to whatever benevolent source had deigned to allow her another opportunity to maintain the special, invaluable friendship with this unique young woman. Her cobalt pools begged forgiveness.

"It’s OK ... really," the girl confirmed. The warrior took a deep breath.

Any further discussion intended by the warrior and her friend was quickly redirected by the sudden and obvious change in the young mare’s behavior. The chestnut began pacing the stall impatiently, lying down and getting up. Then she lied down again and rolled up on her back. At first, neither Lanessa nor the warrior seemed too concerned. But as the bard watched, the animal got up, paced a bit more than lied down again, rolling quite frequently. Soon she began a pattern of getting up and pacing about one circuit of the stall, lying down and pushing for a number of contractions, then rolling back and forth from side to side a number of times, becoming more agitated and violent in her behavior.

Gabrielle’s gaze sought the warrior’s, a nervous anticipation tightening her chest. The tall woman watched the horse’s activity closely, her blue eyes narrowed in concentration. The bard changed her focus to the small, auburn-haired healer. The woman’s brown gaze was equally intense, the dark pools traveling over the rust-colored animal, a subtle look of concern creasing her normally serene expression. Finally, the two older women exchanged a worried look. Even the young blonde realized the horse’s antics were completely out of character for a normal foaling.

"What’s happening to her?" the girl asked anxiously. "Xena?" The warrior’s blue gaze met the blonde’s. "Is she ... is she going to be all right?"

Xena drew in a slow, deep breath. The bronze face clouded, the sleek, angular jaw rippled in consternation. "She’s trying to push, Gabrielle," Xena said quietly. "And no, it’s not a good sign." She silently conferred with the slender healer who was observing the scene from beyond the other side of the wooden stall.

"We’re going to have to try and turn the foal," the warrior said tensely. "Or, at least find out where it’s sitting." Lanessa’s slim shoulders straightened. She gazed down at the nervous animal for a few seconds, then raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s.

"Yes, you’re right," Lanessa said decisively. She pulled off her shawl, folding the looped garment quickly and moving toward the bard. Without taking her eyes from the horse, she handed the wrap to the blonde, gently guiding the girl to another area away from the pacing animal. She began rolling up the long sleeves of her dress. The warrior removed her cape and tossed it in Gabrielle’s direction. The girl gathered up the coverings, turned and deposited the pile of clothing on the bench behind her. She turned back to the crowded stall.

Xena took hold of the mare’s head, wrapping one sinewy arm around the horse’s neck and clapping her other hand over Ma’ia’s long nose. She murmured quietly into the animal’s twitching ears.

"Easy girl, take it easy." The chestnut’s head jerked up as her shrill, frightened whinny filled the barn. Ma’ia pranced forward, her frantic bulk pushing the tall figure back against the front of the stall. Xena grunted as her back met the wooden wall hard. The bard let out a sharp cry. The warrior tightened her hold on the horse’s neck, throwing her weight against the rust-colored hide with surly resolve.

"SETTLE DOWN!" Xena shouted, even her superior strength being challenged by the horse’s frenetic gyrations. Ma’ia’s bulging form shuffled forward, then sideways, her eyes wide and terrified, her hooves thumping loudly on the floor of the stall. It took all the warrior’s strength to end the mare’s anxious dance. Finally, the animal stood relatively still, but nearly every inch of the rust-colored hide rippled in apprehension and fear. Lanessa carefully returned to her position behind the mare, gently stroking the quivering hide.

"Gabrielle," the warrior called. "Bring the bucket over here." She glanced at the girl’s confused expression. "The square metal bucket ... the one we brought from the kitchen." The bard’s face cleared in understanding. Gabrielle quickly retrieved the metal box, pulling off the lid and waiting for further instructions.

"Take it to Lanessa," Xena instructed. The girl carried the container over to the slender healer. Lanessa stepped over to the bard, plunging her hand into the milky substance contained in the metal reservoir. She scooped up a generous amount of the mixture and spread the matter liberally over her other arm, leaving the slender limb glistening and slick. When she was satisfied with the preliminaries, Lanessa turned and walked back to the stall.

"That’s it, Pretty," the small woman crooned as she approached the nervous animal. "Don’t worry ... we’ll take this slow and careful." The small mare whinnied, her cry low and distressed. "Good girl ... just relax." Lanessa quietly removed the long scarf hanging around her neck. She used her clean hand to wrap the material around the horse’s silvery tail, gently lifting the appendage and securing it away from the mare’s rear. She raised her grease-covered hand and slowly slid it into the horse’s vagina. Gabrielle stood very still, her lower lip caught between her teeth, her eyes wide and anxious.

Lanessa’s slim arm slowly disappeared inside the mare as she cautiously probed the animal’s uterus to determine the position of the unborn foal. The woman’s eyes narrowed in concentration, the brown pools seemingly focused on the floor of the shed. Very soon a small scowl of frustration wrinkled the woman’s brow as a small grunt escaped the slender form. The dark pools darted up to meet the warrior’s cobalt gaze.

"Drat!" the small woman muttered, her face a study in exasperation. "The baby is definitely sitting backwardss. Ugghh ..." the healer grumbled, shifting position slightly. "Ah .. I think we’ve found the tail .. and ... yes! There’s the rump." The petite figure leaned forward as her arm retreated further into the animal’s body. She used her fingers to explore the warm cavity.

Gabrielle realized she’d been holding her breath. She slowly stumbled backwards until she felt the edge of the bench behind her calves. The young blonde sat down abruptly, shaking her head to clear the dizziness she felt invading her awareness. She swallowed hard, leaning forward and gripping the wooden seat with her fingers.

Xena kept up the steady, soothing chant, keeping a firm grip on the horse’s neck with one hand and stroking the rust-colored face with the other. Her face was serious as she absorbed the information from the slender woman examining the mare. The dark brows furrowed in concern. She knew Lanessa’s findings meant they’d have to either turn the baby within the mare’s uterus or find a way to deliver the foal in its current position ... a complicated and very dangerous procedure, at best. She kept her eyes on her old friend’s face, her mind considering both possibilities and the best solution for mare and foal.

One fact blazed clearly in the warrior’s mind; the mare’s water had not broken yet. That meant any normal process of delivery was highly unlikely. The other contingency to be weighed was whether the foal was still alive and if so, it would soon be necessary to take some sort of action in order to save the baby’s life, as well as the mare’s, if possible. The longer they waited, the more pressure would be exerted on the foal as its mother tried to perform the contractions normally required in the birth process. With the foal in this reverse position, such an enactment could prove fatal to both mother and offspring. The situation was quickly becoming very critical.

Lanessa continued her prudent examination for several minutes before giving her auburn head a resigned shake and smoothly withdrawing her arm from inside the mare. She loosened the scarf from the animal’s tail and used the expanse to wipe the slimy residue from her arm as she stepped around the horse to confer with the warrior. Xena released the mare’s neck and left the stall to listen to the small woman’s opinion.

"The foal is wedged tight ... rump forward. There’s no doubt about the position." The warrior’s jaw clenched in dismay. She watched Lanessa pace slowly across the shed. The small healer faced the dusty window, silently gazing out at the snow-covered yard. Gabrielle let her eyes drift over the little mare. She felt a heavy dread invade her stomach.

After a long moment, Lanessa turned back to her tall friend, her usual calmness denoted in her expression. The slender woman took a quiet breath, her brown eyes focused on the last of the cleaning process she’d been performing on her arm. She dropped the soiled scarf on the bench beside the bard and repositioned the long sleeves of her tunic, unrolling the fabric and rebuttoning the gathered cuffs. Finally she turned an unruffled gaze up at the dark-haired woman’s dubious stare.

"We still have some time," Lanessa said quietly. "There’s always the possibility that it’ll turn on its own." Xena listened to her friend’s optimistic musings, swallowing her own skepticism. The warrior glanced quickly at the bard’s hopeful expression.

"Why don’t you two go into the cottage and warm yourselves a bit?" Lanessa said, laying a hand on the bard’s shoulder. "I could use some more of that wonderful brew you prepared," she told the girl. Gabrielle’s thin smile covered the unsteadiness still plaguing her. Lanessa turned to address the warrior again.

"In the meantime, I’ll see if I can get her to take more of the tergic," she told the tall woman. "I think that’ll make things easier if we do have to turn the foal." She tilted her head, requesting Xena’s concurrence.

"Sounds like a good plan," the warrior said, meeting the brown gaze with assurance. She glanced once more at the small chestnut, at the moment satisfied with the young horse’s momentary composure. She touched the slender woman’s shoulder before turning to the young blonde seated on the bench.

"Let’s go get warm and you can mix up some more tea, OK?" She sent a warm grin at the girl’s green gaze.

"Sure," Gabrielle said, sensing the warrior’s desire to appease their hostess. She stood up, collecting the tea kettle and Lanessa’s soiled kerchief. "New brew, comin’ up," the girl chirped. "Can I get you anything else, Lanessa?"

Lanessa smiled openly at the young blonde. "There should be a clean scarf on my dresser, if you wouldn’t mind. And bring the tea. That’ll be fine." The blonde took a step toward the door.

"On second thought," Lanessa said, turning back to the warrior. "You’d better bring back some blankets and a few more candles." Xena nodded in understanding. "Looks like we’ll be here a while longer. We may as well get comfortable." She smiled at her tall friend.

"I could stay here ...keep an eye on things, if you need to ..." the dark-haired woman offered.

"No, no," Lanessa replied, pulling her shawl around her slight frame. "Go ahead. We can all do with a stretch, I think." Her gaze held the blue gaze for a long moment. Xena studied the soft, brown pools. The dark head nodded slowly and the warrior turned to follow the bard.

"OK. We shouldn’t be long." She turned to Gabrielle. "C’mon."

Both women took a moment to cover their heads before opening the door and stepping through the doorway into the cold, crisp air. Once outside, Xena turned back to pull the door closed behind them. She pulled on her leather gloves, waiting a moment while the bard slid her mittens over her hands. Snow had begun falling again, the large, soft flakes glistening brightly in the moonlight.

"Ready?" she said to the girl’s expectant expression.

"Yeah," Gabrielle said, pulling her cape closer around her neck. She looked up into the star-filled night, watching the icy lace patterns floating in the air. She turned back to the warrior, her emerald pools twinkling impishly.

"Do I get a ride this time, too?" the girl quipped. The warrior’s dark eyebrow crept upward. She gave the little blonde a transparent scowl which was completely thwarted by the grin curling the corners of her mouth. She lost all pretense of irritability when the girl’s cheerful giggle echoed across the night air.

"Sure, why not?" the warrior chortled, turning around and lowering her body slightly. She felt the lithe body climb onto her back, one slim arm slipping across the base of her neck. Xena stood up, reaching behind herself to grasp the bard’s muscled thighs. She shifted the girl’s weight, squared her shoulders and addressed her cargo over one shoulder.

"Now are you ready?"

"Giddy-yup!" Gabrielle giggled, letting out a little squeal when the warrior’s fingers tickled the back of her knee.


"Just hang on," the warrior grumbled, turning forward and trudging into the snow, her relaxed smile out of the bard’s line of vision.


Chapter Ten ~~~

Gabrielle added a handful of kindling to the coals on the hearth, using a flat piece of wood to fan the feeble flames. While the tinder sparked to life, she dropped the measured amount of herbs into the copper kettle, hooked the pot onto the long, metal arm and swung it over the growing blaze. When she was satisfied with the fire’s progress, she held her chilled fingers toward the rising heat. She turned as the warrior came into the kitchen, carrying a stack of blankets. Xena deposited the pile on the far end of the wooden table next to the three large candles she’d found in the cupboard and the wide, brightly colored scarf Gabrielle had found on Lanessa’s dresser. She crossed the room to stand at the square window, looking out at the snowy yard.

"Those look nice and warm," the girl commented, her gaze resting on the thick stack. "The tea should be ready in a few minutes." The bard raised her eyes to the warrior’s face, waiting for her tall friend to reply. The dark-haired woman nodded absently, her blue eyes still focused on the scene outside the window. A worried frown furrowed the bard’s brow when she noticed the vague, distracted look covering the bronze features. She brushed her hands together, stood up and faced the lanky form.

"OK, now where did you go?" the girl asked, planting her hands on her hips. A long moment passed before the warrior’s mind finally translated the bard’s question. She turned to the blonde.

"What?" Xena asked, slightly confused. "What’re you talking about? I’m right here."

Gabrielle took a step closer to the warrior. "Physically, you are, yes," the young woman said. "But here," she commented, tapping her forehead. "You’re a thousand leagues away." She crossed her arms over her slim waist, her eyes searching the azure pools of her best friend. "And you’ve been going there a lot, lately. I just wondered why."

Xena’s irritation faded at once. She endured the bard’s searching look for a moment before lowering her gaze to her own hands which were nervously twisting together. The lean throat moved in a nervous gulp.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly. "What is it?" She waited for the warrior to respond. "Look, I know ‘talking’ is not one of your ‘many skills’, but just give it a try, OK?" The girl’s words were jesting, but her voice was firm.

When the tall woman remained silent, the bard let out a loud, exasperated sigh. The young blonde’s hands dropped to her sides as she walked slowly to the table and lowered her trim form onto the long wooden bench. She massaged her forehead with her fingers and leaned forward on the seat, her hands gripping the edge, her eyes examining the toes of her boots.

Xena studied the bard’s dejected pose, an excruciating tightness threatening to close off her throat. She took a tentative step toward her soulmate, all the strength and muscular dexterity normally characterizing her stature suddenly absent from her body. She tried valiantly to make her mouth form words ... to say anything ... even the simplest phrase ... to express how precious and important the young woman was to her. But the heaviness weighing on her chest made it difficult to draw enough breath to support any utterance. Instead, the clear blue orbs remained riveted on the slender form.

The warrior heard the small, pathetic moan resonate across the kitchen but she had no idea the noise had come from her own throat. She felt her stomach twist when she saw Gabrielle’s head jerk toward her in response to the sound. The bard’s gaze locked with the warrior’s, a clear, meaningful realization shining in the verdant pools. The blonde head tilted.

"It’s my hair, isn’t it?" Gabrielle said softly, relaxing back against the edge of the table. She saw the subtle grimace that grazed the bronze face. "Every time you see my hair, your eyes get that ... that ‘look’ ... the one saying, ‘That’s my fault’." The warrior lowered her gaze.

"Just like they’re doing right now," the bard stated, her voice gentle and forgiving. Her tone pulled the azure pools back to her face. Gabrielle winced at the tears shimmering above the dark lashes. She rose and started toward the warrior, halting when she saw the tall body tense and recoil. The girl let out a sharp breath.

"OK, let’s try something else," the bard murmured, scratching the back of her head brusquely. She paced slowly away from the warrior. "I’m a bard .. maybe I need to take my own advice." She paused quietly, turning slightly back toward the still form across the room. "I said we need to talk, so ..." Her green eyes studied the silent warrior as the girl seemed to make a decision. She faced her tall friend and drew a long, deep breath.

"I’ll go first." Gabrielle steeled herself against the despair clouding the clear blue eyes. She returned to the wooden table and sat down on the bench again. "OK?" the girl asked, her eyes steady on those of her friend. "OK," the bard said, her soft chin lifting confidently. Her resolve only lasted a moment .... until she recognized the blatant look of panic invading the warrior’s stare. The trim body relaxed.

"Look, Xena," Gabrielle began softly. "I’ll admit .. lately there are things about our lives that have begun to scare me." She saw the warrior swallow hard. "But not for the reasons you think, I’ll bet." The lovely face softened as she met the dark-haired woman’s gaze.

"When we first started traveling together, you took all the risks ... you were the one who beat up the ‘villains’, who fought the creeps, dealt with the trash." The girl’s grin widened. "I thought you were the bravest, the most heroic person I’d ever met." She stopped to allow the warrior’s low scoff. "You were my protector, the one person I knew I could always count on .. no matter what stupid mess I got myself into ... you’d be there to get me out of trouble. You always came through for me."

Xena studied her hands; at least they’d stopped shaking. Now they simply hung together, her fingers laced tightly. She raised her eyes to the bard’s again.

"After we met the Amazons and they taught me how to use my staff, I began to feel a bit more useful, like I wasn’t just the silly little girl from Poteidaia you let follow you around because it was too much trouble to take her home. I finally felt like I was helping you. At least I wasn’t such a burden ... someone you always had to watch out for.. or worry about."

The warrior shrugged self-consciously, her golden face creased in a flustered scowl. The bard laughed softly.

"That’s not to say you’re still not doing that ... looking out for me. It’s what you do best, it seems."

"Seems only fair," the warrior said quietly. "You’re always looking out for me."

The two friends enjoyed each other’s smile until the bard’s expression grew serious.

"But there are things about our lives that still frighten me... that I can’t ‘get used to’, and I don’t think I ever will." Xena’s jaw clenched in reflex. "The violence ... the rage .. the vengeance," Gabrielle continued. "Knowing there’s always going to be someone like ... Callisto .. who will never forgive you. Or Japhet .. who lives for nothing more than ... to take you away from me."

The warrior felt her heart thump in her chest. She flinched at the anguish in the girl’s eyes.

"It’s not just the fighting ... and the fact that you do it very well." The bard paused, her eyes drifting away from the warrior’s, returning to the cerulean gaze after only a few seconds. "I don’t believe you ‘enjoy’ it .. not anymore. I know now that it’s just ...." The girl took a short breath. "You do what needs to be done ... because it’s what you are ... who you are .. and you’re very good at doing what it takes to ... solve the problem, when it comes to that."

"And, in my heart I know, it’s part of you ... the most honorable part. And sometimes we don’t have a choice ..." The young blonde smiled ruefully. "Most of the people we meet don’t allow us that luxury." The soft face grew serious. "I know I can rely on you to choose the right action for the situation. I’ve always believed that."

If it weren’t for the somber tone of the conversation, the warrior might have smiled at the girl’s compliments. As it was, her eyes shone with gratitude for the young bard’s trust in her.

"But lately ..." Gabrielle continued softly. "The image that scares me the most .. . is the thought that, one day, when we’re in the middle of one of those ‘no choice’ situations ... I’ll let you down .. that I’ll ... hesitate ... have a moment of indecision ..." The bard’s voice broke in a choking stammer. She gulped hard and fought to finish her thought, the soft emerald orbs filling with tears.

"And in that split second ... in that instant when I ... I’m not good enough .. not fast enough ... or respond quickly enough ... that’s the moment when I watch a sword pierce your heart." The girl’s voice remained uncommonly calm. "That’s what scares me more than anything ... one day I’ll fail you." Her breathing was steady even though her hands clenched into hard fists.

"I’m terrified that, one day .. I’ll let you down ... for the last time."

"Gabrielle," Xena spoke at last. "You’ve got to stop torturing yourself with this." She crossed the room and sat down next to the blonde woman, taking the girl’s white-knuckled hands in her own. "You can’t make yourself responsible for me."

"Why not?" the bard squeaked, returning the warrior’s intense gaze. "You’ve made yourself responsible for me ... you always have."

The warrior’s expression softened. "That’s different," she said quietly. "I can’t afford to be without you," Xena murmured, stroking the top of the bard’s hand with her thumb. "I couldn’t survive ... don’t think I’d want to ... if I lost you again."

Gabrielle let her eyes travel over the smooth, golden face of her most treasured friend. She leaned close to the warrior, resting her head against the woman’s shoulder. She closed her eyes when she felt the gentle touch of Xena’s hand on her hair. The bard took a shaky breath and looked up into the clear blue eyes.

"Don’t you see?" the girl whispered. "I feel the same way, Xena. You’re part of me ... I’m not whole when we’re not together." She used her fingers to still the warrior’s intended remark. "No matter how dangerous our journeys are ... no matter how many ... bastards ... we encounter." A small grin wrinkled the corners of the girl’s mouth. "And no matter how many times we drive each other crazy." The sweet face grew more serious. "Or say and do things we don’t mean."

The warrior’s blue eyes softened as she captured the slender hand against her lips and pressed it against her chest. Gabrielle mirrored the movement, bringing their other two hands to her breast.

"Feel that?" she asked the warrior quietly. "Without you in my life, my heart would stop beating ... because it would split in two. I swear it," she told her partner. "You’re the one who possesses that part of me."

Xena released the girl’s hands and wrapped her arms around the bard, pulling the slim form tightly to her. Gabrielle snuggled close, returning the hug, her blonde head nestled against the crook of the tall woman’s shoulder. The two friends were quiet for a long moment. Finally the bard heard the warrior’s smooth voice rumble beneath her ear.

"You’re part of me too, Gabrielle. The best part of me." Xena’s hand was warm on the girl’s back. "It’s just that ...." The warrior exhaled loudly. "I hate to see you hurt ... especially when I’m usually the reason you’re in danger." Xena lovingly fingered the short curls framing the young woman’s face. The golden face showed the tall woman’s regret. "Or worse," the warrior swallowed hard. " ... when I’ve hurt you myself."

Gabrielle pulled back from the embrace, her green eyes direct on the cobalt gaze. She shook her blonde head at the woman’s regretful look.

"The nightmares I’ve been having?" Xena began haltingly, her voice raw and painful.

The bard nodded. "About us dying on the cross?"

The warrior’s jaw rippled in fear. "I keep seeing you there ... beaten, bleeding." The cobalt pools gazed into space. "Two nights ago I saw myself putting those ropes around your wrists...." She looked down at the soft sea-green eyes of her best friend, her heart thumping at the shock she saw there. "It’s as though someone ... or something ... is trying to warn me ...." She cupped the bard’s face with her palm.

"They’re telling me I will put your there ... on that cross. I’m the one who will hurt you .. again and again." The woman’s blue eyes showed her terror. "And it’s true ... I have hurt you ... more often than you will admit, I know." She rubbed her thumb across the bard’s chin.

"By the gods, Xena," the young blonde said, taking the slender palm from her face. "You made a deal with Ares ... your most deceitful enemy ... you bargained with him to give me back my life." The warrior’s self-deprecating expression faded.

"You made a deal with him to give me back my soul," Xena said softly. The bard’s eyes closed painfully. "But I would do it again, if it meant getting you back." Xena lowered her eyes. "And you forget ... my deal could have gotten Ephiny killed."

The emerald pools opened wide. "MY deal nearly DID get YOU killed," she countered, breathing hard. "At least your motives were driven by love ... and honor. I went to Ares because I was ...."

Xena’s hands captured the bard’s face, pulling the girl’s focus to her eyes. "Gabrielle ... stop it. You were hurt and angry ... and I didn’t leave you much choice in Chin." The warrior’s stony expression softened as she used her fingers to wipe the tears from the bard’s face. "Besides, we agreed that’s all in the past, remember?" Gabrielle gulped, her breath subsiding unevenly.

"And I’m sorry I’ve been so ... distant lately. Even more than usual, I guess." She gave the bard a weak smile. "It’s just that I don’t want to hurt you anymore," Xena said, her blue eyes sincere and pleading. "You’re the most important person in my life ... my best friend." The bard’s face slowly brightened. "I don’t know how I could ever be without you again. And I’m sorry we haven’t talked about this until now."

"It’s okay," the bard quipped, wiping her face with the back of her hand. "Talking is not high on your list. I forget that sometimes." The warrior’s smile was soft on the girl’s tearful grin.

"I know that’s hard on you, too," Xena confessed. "I tend to forget that words are your world."

Gabrielle swallowed hard. "No, you are my world," she said, her eyes direct on the warrior’s. "Words are a part of it." She took the warrior’s hands. "But, please .. don’t ever believe that I’d be better off away from you ... in some place ‘safe’?" The green eyes sparkled with determination. "The best place for me is right beside you ... from now until ... until we cross over .. together." The blonde head tilted comically.

"Agreed?" she asked.

"If you say so," the warrior answered quietly. She pulled the bard close again.

The two women separated when the shrill whistle of the tea kettle demanded their attention.

"We’d better get back out there," Xena stated simply.

Gabrielle rose from the bench and crossed to the fireplace. Using one of the heavy, quilted squares Lanessa kept hung there for that very duty, she swung the long metal arm holding the copper kettle out away from the flames. She unhooked the kettle and set it on the narrow table beside the hearth before kneeling before the fire to reposition the logs in the fireplace, settling the logs at the back edge of the grate.

Xena watched the bard’s activity while she pulled her cape from the peg on the wall. She pulled the hood over her head and drew on her heavy, leather gloves. Then she removed the bard’s short cape from the other wooden peg, holding the garment open as Gabrielle crossed the kitchen, carrying the kettle containing the new batch of tea. She put the small cauldron down on a corner of the table and turned around, allowing the warrior to settle the cape over her shoulders. She pulled the hood up over her head, drawing the warm mittens over her hands. With her warm cloak in place, Gabrielle retrieved the kettle and Lanessa’s scarf while Xena picked up the blankets and the candles. The women walked to the door of the cabin.

The warrior pulled the panel open, stepping to one side to allow the blonde to pass in front of her. Then she stepped through the doorway, pulled the door closed, and turned to face the slim form of her friend. The girl’s grin lit her face.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Let’s go," the warrior answered.

The two friends turned toward the small shed, ducking their heads as they struggled with the white, powdery drifts.


Chapter Eleven ~~~

Lanessa turned to gaze at the pensive warrior leaning against the wall of the shed, her long legs stretched out in front of her. The warrior’s cape was still in place around her shoulders, falling in dark gathers around her lean torso and onto the piles of hay covering the floor.

The candlelight flickering from the thick tapers lining the wooden shelf threw dappled shadows onto the smooth, angular features, illuminating the vague, distracted stare in the clear, cobalt pools.

The bard’s blonde head was nestled comfortably in the tall woman’s lap, one small hand tucked between her cheek and the warrior’s sturdy thigh. Gabrielle’s breathing was soft and even. Xena gently caressed the girl’s pale hair, her long fingers tracking subtle corridors in the short, feathered locks. The warrior’s attention, however, was focused on another sequence of events, one that was being replayed in her mind and not within the chilly outbuilding. For a moment, Lanessa watched the reactions flutter across the sculpted face. Her heart reacted to the remorse reflected in the warrior’s expression.

"Dinar for your thoughts," Lanessa said quietly.

"The day after tomorrow is Gabrielle’s birthday," Xena replied, keeping her voice low. She looked down at the blonde head resting in her lap.

Lanessa thought for a moment. "Yes, I seem to remember her telling me that," she agreed. She lifted the edge of the blanket, pulling the woolen material closer to her chin.

"Always a big day for her," the warrior said. She studied the sleeping bard’s peaceful form. "And … this will be another birthday without her family," Xena said, regretfully. "Seems to be the way of things … ever since we’ve been together."

"What do you mean, Xena?" Lanessa asked, turning slightly toward the warrior. " ... ‘the way of things’?"

"I mean, since she’s traveled with me, Gabrielle has had to do without lots of ... pleasures," Xena said, her voice dejected. "Including her family and spending time, safe at home with them ... on her birthday, at least."

"I think you’d hear a different opinion if you asked Gabrielle, my friend," Lanessa commented, her smile warm on her old friend’s face.

Xena gently adjusted the blanket covering the young woman next to her. "No, of course she’d tell you it’s been a ‘great adventure’." She tucked the material closer around the bard.

The clear blue eyes lingered on the blonde head resting on her legs. "Did she tell you about what happened to her hair?"

"She didn’t give me the details .. and I didn’t ask for any," Lanessa answered. The warrior’s eyes met those of her oldest friend. "She mentioned someone named Malicon tried to use her to get to you." The tall woman’s jaw rippled.

"Was he also responsible for the bruises on her face?"

The bronze face darkened, the blue orbs glinting hard in the subdued light of the shed.

"Only partially," Xena said bitterly. "He was the one who hit her ...but it was really my fault for putting her there." She slumped back against the wall, pressing her palms against her temples. "As usual ... she follows me into some stupid situation, covers my back ... puts her life ahead of mine ... over and over. And again ... she’s the one who gets hurt." The warrior drew a shaky breath and wrapped her arms around her chest.

"Did you insist that she go with you, even when she’d refused?" Lanessa asked, her expression open.

"Of course not!" Xena answered, slightly irritated.

"Then how was it your fault?" Lanessa asked in a quiet voice. "She obviously chose to be there with you." The small woman met the hostility in the warrior’s gaze without flinching, her brown eyes steady and kind. The tenseness left the lean form only to be replaced by a

vivid, desolate anguish.

"I could have lost her this time, Lanessa," Xena moaned, her words were pathetic and frightened. "And I just keep doing it to her. When will I ever learn?" She closed her eyes tightly. "Gods know I don’t mean to … and it nearly kills me every time it happens. But I can’t seem to stop it, Lanessa ... I just keep ..."

"Xena," the slender woman interrupted. "I know you and Gabrielle have had some very difficult times lately. You’ve faced some horrible ... devastating events." The mahogany pools were compassionate. "And you’ve both made some wrong choices ... each taken paths that hurt the other deeply. You’ve given each other great pain."

Xena’s eyes dropped to the blonde head again.

"But, in all my life, I’ve never known two people more devoted to each other than you and Gabrielle." The warrior’s gaze met the slim healer’s. "It’s why you’ve both survived, despite everything you’ve been through." Xena’s tall form slumped back against the wall of the shed, her jaw working roughly as she fought against the agony pressing on her chest.

"Whatever has happened, I know Gabrielle still loves you ... as much, if not more, than ever."

Lanessa laid a small hand on the warrior’s arm. "And I know you still feel the same way about her."

"Of course I do!" Xena said tersely. "That’s not the point." The warrior studied the timbered roof above them. "Or maybe it’s precisely the point. It’s because I love her ...." She turned sharply toward Lanessa. "Because she’s so important to me .. I want nothing more than to make sure she’s safe ... away from harm." One slender hand sliced the air. "As far away from danger as I can manage."

Xena slouched back again, the exhaustion of her internal battle evident in her carriage. She drew in a shaky breath as the tears hovering above the dark lashes tumbled down over the chiseled cheekbones. "I’m beginning to believe that means far away from me."

The small gentlewoman’s heart ached for the pain she read in the face of her oldest friend. For several minutes, there was silence in the small wooden shed. Finally, Xena took a deep breath and swept her long fingers over her face, wiping away the evidence of her tears. She swallowed hard, blinking furiously, her calm, stoic reserve slowly reinstating itself.

"She wants me to promise I won’t send her away or try to leave her again," Xena said, her voice low. The azure pools met Lanessa’s gaze. "But I don’t know if I can do that ... I want her to be safe, Lanessa. More than I need her with me." The warrior shook her dark head. "It’s hard to explain." She rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand.

"She’d be better off at home, with her family." The lean throat gulped nervously. "Or maybe, back with the Amazons." Xena laid a tender palm on the blonde head in her lap. "Any place except with me ... she’d be safer that way."

Lanessa sat back against the wall, her fingers caressing the soft, clean scarf at her neck. She held a short, mental debate with herself, sorting and selecting the precise wording she

needed to make her next remarks most effective. When she’d made her decision, she took a deep, steady breath and rolled her head toward the warrior.

"Well, if you’re intent on breaking that young woman’s heart, then go ahead and figure out a place to leave her and a way to get her there." She ignored the blue eyes closing painfully.

"But you’ll also have to devise a way for you to disappear from the face of the earth, because, no matter where that ‘safe place’ is, unless you’re either dead or in another reality, she’ll be up and following you the moment you leave." Xena’s head snapped toward the healer’s, her gaze approaching the cold anger for which the warrior was so well known.

"Do you really believe you can just leave her ... just because you say it’s what’s best for her?" Lanessa sat forward, her tone unusually harsh. "How arrogant you are! How completely selfish and presumptuous of you!" The warrior’s mouth dropped open, the blue eyes widening in surprise.

"Gabrielle is not the naive, little girl you brought here four seasons ago, Xena. She’s a grown woman ... an adult. She’s known terror ... felt dismal pain ... killed her own child ... watched you die." Lanessa paused, aware of the effect her words were having. She saw the warrior’s expression harden, the bronze jaw tight and furious.

"And in spite of it all, tell me you’ve known anyone with more honor, who’s more loyal, who is more unselfish than Gabrielle." Lanessa’s brown eyes flashed angrily, the slim face glinting with impatience and disappointment. Finally the slender female relaxed as she returned to her position against the wooden wall.

"Shame on you for thinking so little of Gabrielle to believe you can just ... toss her away ... like a worn piece of girth strap." Lanessa shook her head sadly. "If you go through with this, I must tell you, in all the years that we’ve been a part of each other’s lives .. I will never be more ashamed of you, Xena. For giving Gabrielle so little credit ... and for having so little faith."

For a long, resolute moment, Lanessa’s gaze was steady on the warrior’s. Xena returned the purposeful stare, her smooth face solemn and brooding. She felt a deep, numbing sadness at the derision she’d heard in the slender woman’s voice and a stinging sense of shame at Lanessa’s chastisement. She lowered her eyes, disgrace and humiliation weighing heavily on her senses. After a moment, she glanced up at the woman’s face, her blue eyes contrite and repentant.

A wave of relief flooded through Xena’s chest when she saw the affection and understanding return to the small healer’s expression. Lanessa’s tender, loving smile had already begun to reappear, the brown pools soft and forgiving. She took the warrior’s slender hand, lacing the long fingers with her own. The auburn head tilted coyly, holding the blue gaze with amiable firmness.

"I’ve never known you to turn your back on a challenge, my friend," Lanessa said softly. "Not even when you decided to teach the village’s blind girl to ice skate." A teasing grin beckoned at the small woman’s lips. "And not even when her mother threatened to thrash you senseless if you even tried." The small woman’s smile flashed wide and clear. The warrior’s dark eyebrow scampered upward. She shrugged comically, her bronze face softening.

"She told me ‘no’," Xena commented dryly. "The magic word."

The two friends laughed together, the warmth of their mutual affection wrapped around them. Finally, the small healer’s eyes grew serious.

"Xena," Lanessa said. "No meaningful relationship is ever achieved easily. Even the simplest of friendships takes .. attention .. time .. compromise." The small healer smiled kindly. "Friendship takes work ... from both parties." The warrior’s gaze was steady on the mahogany pools.

"And no one could ever say that you and Gabrielle have a ‘simple friendship’," Lanessa joked dryly. Xena’s light scoff widened the small woman’s smile. "But, what you do have is ... something unique ... and very, very special. It’s ... magical," Lanessa said sincerely. "And for you to lose that ... for any reason, let alone for something as .. unnecessary as thinking Gabrielle would be better off away from you ... It would be truly sinful ... more detestable than anything you may have done in your past."

Xena’s lean throat moved in a painful gulp, focusing on the small hand captured tightly against her own palm. The gentle woman’s words brought her eyes back to her face.

"You forget ... I saw what happened to you when you thought you’d lost Gabrielle for good." Lanessa waited while the glimmer of torment swept across the warrior’s blue eyes. "I know you don’t want to feel that again. And I know you don’t want that for Gabrielle, either." Lanessa glanced at the sleeping bard.

"Your souls are linked, Xena. Forever," the small woman told the warrior. "And I do believe, my brave, fearless old friend, you’ve both been given a precious gift ... each other. Don’t let your fears rob you of that."

The subject of the discussion chose that moment to awaken, murmuring softly and stretching gracefully. Gabrielle’s green eyes blinked slowly as she pulled herself into a sitting position. After yawning widely, she tried to focus on the other occupants of the shed.

"What’s happening?" Gabrielle asked sleepily. She blinked slowly, her eyes sweeping over to the mare, standing quietly in the narrow stall. "Is she all right?" the bard asked, her verdant gaze meeting the warrior’s blue pools. "She hasn’t …?"

"No, not yet," Xena answered, discreetly wiping her face. She swung her head toward the rust-colored horse. "But I think we finally got her to stop pushing."

Gabrielle sat back, gathering the blanket around herself. She stood up, crossing the short distance to the small horse. The girl ran one small hand down the middle of the white blaze gracing the center of the equine’s face, cupping her fingers against the soft muzzle. The mare nickered softly against the girl’s palm.

"Good girl," the bard crooned, fondling the soft ears that twitched in her direction. "Good girl, Ma’ia," she murmured. "Your baby will get here soon, you’ll see." The young blonde’s green eyes turned to meet those of her partner. "Right?" she questioned the warrior.

"Right," Xena answered quietly, returning the bard’s gentle smile. When Gabrielle turned her attention back to the mare, the warrior sent a wistful grin toward the slender, brown-eyed woman sharing the chilly area. Lanessa smiled back at the warrior.


Chapter Twelve ~~~

"Well," Xena said, stretching her long frame. "I need to get some air." The bard and their hostess exchanged a quizzical look. A second later, the warrior witnessed their silent mutual query. She forced a lightness into her tone.

"May as well take Mother’s dishes back while I’m at it," the tall woman joked. She pulled up her knees, shifting her weight onto her boots. Xena stood up with one fluid motion, locked her hands together behind her and stretched them up her back. The two other women grimaced at the soft cracking sounds of the warrior’s shoulders straightening. Xena dropped her hands to her sides, shaking them briskly and rotating her head from side to side. She looked down into the bard’s gentle grin.

"What?" the warrior asked comically.

"I thought she said she’d get them in the morning?" the girl replied. She faced the warrior, her green eyes amused.

Xena tapped the blonde’s nose affectionately. She jerked her dark head toward the window.

"It’s almost morning already," the warrior quipped. Gabrielle glanced at the darkened window before turning back to the blue pools.

"Xena!" the girl giggled. "Your mother’s prob’ly still in bed. You gonna wake her up?"

The tall woman’s dark eyebrow skipped upward, a subtle grin lifting the side of the warrior’s mouth.

"If I know Cyrene, Innkeeper of Amphipolis," the smooth voice bantered. "She’s been up for a couple of candlemarks already." Xena returned her focus to the window, her gaze softening. "She likes to make sure everything’s ready for the day." The tall woman’s expression sobered slowly, the smooth face showing a melancholy regret.

"She’s worked very hard keeping the Inn running," Xena said softly. "And she’s done it all by herself ... for a long time."

Gabrielle pulled the blanket higher on her shoulders. She laid a small hand on the woman’s sinewy arm, smiling knowingly into the rueful blue gaze. The girl plucked a thin stalk of hay from the warrior’s long cape.

"At any rate," Xena said nervously, "I should make it up to her for not letting her know we were here." The warrior brushed away the small remnants of hay still clinging to her covering as she moved to the wooden shelf. She picked up the hamper and started toward the door to the shed. "I shouldn’t be long," she told them.

With her hand on the heavy latch, she turned back, a whimsical twinkle beaming in the clear azure pools. "Maybe I’ll bring back breakfast," the warrior joked, her dark brows dancing up and down. She winked at the bard’s cheerful smile.

"See you soon," Xena said, pulling the door closed behind her.

Gabrielle took a slow step toward the window, her eyes following the tall warrior’s progress across the snow-drifted yard. The girl absently twirled the long stalk of hay. Lanessa watched the young woman’s contemplation, her senses prickling acutely. She quietly rose from her position against the wall, folding the blanket over her arms. She waited patiently, allowing the bard the time she knew was needed.

"Do you think she believed you?" Gabrielle finally asked softly, her green eyes still focused on the window. When Lanessa didn’t answer, the bard turned back toward her. The girl was slightly surprised at the charmed expression on the small healer’s face. There was also a faint look of congratulations in the woman’s chocolate-hued gaze.

"How much did you hear?" Lanessa asked, stepping closer.

Gabrielle lowered her eyes to her hands, the hay stalk dancing between her thumb and forefinger. "I woke up when you were yelling at her ...." The verdant pools met the healer’s. "Telling her it would break my heart if we were separated again."

Lanessa’s dark eyes widened innocently. "I wasn’t yelling ... was I?" She gave the bard a playful grin. The girl’s eyes were steady. "Well, sometimes you have to ... try harder .. when you’re talking to Xena. She tends to be a bit ...single-minded." The two women smiled together.

Lanessa laid a soft palm on the bard’s trembling hands. "But to answer your question ... I hope so." She noticed the quick swallow that lurched in the blonde woman’s throat. "I meant it when I told her you two belong together, no matter what the Fates send your way." She touched the girl’s shoulder.

"She’s frightened for you, Gabrielle. She’s terrified just as you said." The gentlewoman cradled the girl’s soft face with her hand. "In her mind, she’s prepared to answer for her past. She just doesn’t want you to have to face those demons, too."

Gabrielle took the slender hand from her cheek and covered it with her own. She turned a tear-filled gaze toward the darkened window.

"Oh, Lanessa," the girl whispered. "I’ve failed her so many times ... just like I failed Hope .. and Solan." She turned back to the small woman’s tender brown eyes. "I guess I can’t blame her for not wanting to ...."

Lanessa grasped the bard’s shoulder firmly. "Gabrielle, that’s not it at all. Xena has forgiven you for what happened. She knows you were both responsible for those ... dreadful events." She waited while Gabrielle tried to reclaim her composure. "Now you must stop punishing yourself ... it’s in the past and that’s where it belongs."

The bard took a long, shaky breath and wiped her face with one hand. The green eyes blinked, slid closed for a moment and finally raised to meet those of the petite healer. Lanessa saw the young woman’s strength surfacing again.

"Now, let’s give our tall friend some credit, OK?" The bard nodded. "She’s struggling with her own regrets .. and her conscience. Let’s not give up on her, yet."

Gabrielle’s young face brightened with renewed resolve. The young woman’s smile slowly emerged, her emerald gaze shining with confidence.

"OK. You’re right," she said bravely. "The most important thing right now is to have faith in her ... in her honor ... her strength." The trim form straightened, her tousled blonde head shaking briskly. "We gotta have faith, right?"

Lanessa’s eyes were warm on the bard’s. She patted the girl’s shoulder. "Right," she answered. "In the meantime ...."

The small woman’s attention was drawn to the chestnut mare, turning quickly to observe the animal’s agitated prancing. She stepped closer to the horse’s stall, her brown eyes alert and aware. A moment later, she turned sharply to the young blonde.

"Looks like our long wait is over," she told the bard. She tossed the blanket in her arms onto the rails separating the young mare’s stall from the one Argo occupied. "You’d better get Xena. Tell her ...."

Further instructions weren’t necessary. The bard was already on her way through the door.


As Xena lifted the heavy latch on the front door of the Inn, she felt an odd sense of uncertainty, as though she was entering the establishment more as a customer than as the daughter of the owner. She shook her head, driving her insecurities into the back of her mind, took a deep breath and pushed open the door. She paused just inside the doorway.

"Hello?" the warrior said, scanning the dimly-lit room. Her expression warmed when her eyes found her mother’s familiar figure.

"Xena!" Cyrene said, her mature face lighting in recognition. She crossed the room, wiping her hands on her apron. "What are you doing up at this hour?" The auburn head swept in the direction of Lanessa’s barn. "Did you deliver the foal?"

"No, not yet," the warrior replied. Xena stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. She walked toward her mother’s advancing form. "Lanessa thinks the foal may turn on it’s own ... but right now, we’re still waiting for that to happen." She held out the rattan hamper.

"I brought back the dishes .. from last night," she told her parent. Cyrene accepted the basket. "Gabrielle’s still talking about your stew," Xena commented, smiling at her mother’s proud grin. "It was very good, Mother."

The matron took her daughter’s hand and turned back into the room, coaxing the warrior to follow. "I’m glad," she told her tall offspring. "Come on, I have some cider warming on the hearth. You look like you could use something hot." She squeezed the warrior’s chilly fingers. Xena blinked at the dark blue eyes meeting hers.

"Your hands are cold," Cyrene said, a maternal concern in her scrutiny. "Now that’s a first," she chided. She released the slender palm and waited while Xena pulled the cape’s hood from her head. "You feeling all right?" the older woman asked, laying the back of her fingers against the warrior’s face.

Xena captured the weathered palm, covering the hand with her own. "I’m fine, Mother. Just a bit tired. We’ve been at this all night and the mare still doesn’t seem in any hurry to deliver." She gave her mother a comforting smile. "But I could use some of that cider, if it’s not too much ...."

"Trouble?" Cyrene interjected, giving her daughter a playful ‘scolding’ frown. "Get in here, you rascal." She waved the tall form toward the stools facing the long, wooden bar. The warrior slid her long form onto the nearest seat, opening the ties under her chin and shrugging off her dark, woolen cape. Cyrene set the basket down on a nearby table and picked up a tall, ceramic mug on her way to the fireplace. She unhooked a long-handled ladle from a peg above the hearth and transferred several scoops of the steaming cider from the large iron pot into the tall vessel. She placed the full mug on the counter in front of the warrior.

Xena observed her mother’s activity at the fireplace. She was filled with a deep, abiding affection for the stocky matron, her feelings a mixture of admiration for the woman’s indomitable spirit and a high degree of respect for her parent’s valued status within the community. The warrior readily acknowledged her own devotion to her maternal parent. There were few people in her world Xena loved more. The two women waiting in the small shed were the only others for whom the tall warrior admitted an equal loyalty and regard. Her musings only added to her internal conflict.

Cyrene watched her daughter blow into the steaming cider before raising the flagon to sip the heated brew. She clearly recognized the sadness behind the younger woman’s projected light-heartedness. Her heart ached for the distress she saw in her child’s expression but she was determined to let the warrior decide whether or not to discuss the subject. Still, she yearned to offer comfort to her stoic offspring. The innkeeper took a quiet breath and gave her daughter a warm smile when the clear blue eyes raised to meet hers.

"This is really good, too," Xena said, her eyes soft on her mother’s smile. "You always did make the best spicy cider I ever tasted."

Cyrene’s dark eyebrows rose toward her gray-specked hairline. "You and your brothers certainly drank enough of my cider," the older woman quipped. "I had a time keeping it in the pot, as I recall." The warrior’s face creased in a fond memory. "The three of you snatched it up as fast as I could mix it." The two women exchanged a loving gaze.

A quiet moment passed, the soft noises of the food cooking over the fireplace sounding uncommonly loud in the awkward silence. The matron wiped her hands, surreptitiously watching the brooding warrior. She gathered her reserves and decided to venture boldly.

"So ... how’s Gabrielle?" she asked, a forced lightness in her tone. "I think she looks adorable with that short hair."

All too soon, the tall woman’s expression clouded. She studied the tall vessel between her palms. Cyrene’s stomach churned at the sight of her daughter’s dispirited manner. She slid a worn palm under the warrior’s chin, raising the blue eyes to hers.

"What is it, Darling?" she questioned gently. Her dark blue eyes searched her child’s. "There’s something bothering you, and I don’t think it’s that little mare in Lanessa’s barn."

Xena swallowed hard, unable to pull her eyes from her mother’s. Cyrene released her chin and swept a lock of dark hair away from the smooth face. The warrior caught her mother’s hand, stroking the weathered skin with her thumb.

"Mother," the tall woman began, her voice low. She glanced up at her mother’s face, a smoldering dread tightening her stomach. She returned her focus to the hand clasped in hers. "There’s something I need to tell you. Something I couldn’t bring myself to ... share with you .. until now." Her eyes rose hesitantly to the matron’s patient gaze then floated sideways to a point over the older woman’s shoulder. "I also need to ask you a favor." The warrior’s eyes searched her parent’s again.

Cyrene’s eyes were steady and calm. She watched the emotions racing across her daughter’s face, her heart aching for the misery she saw in her child’s expression. The matron tilted her head expectantly.

"I know when I was ... away for all those years," Xena began, her voice faltering. "I know what I was .. what I had become..." She lowered her eyes to the wooden surface in front of her. "Well, I didn’t give you much reason to be proud of me .. or even admit I was your daughter, for that matter," the warrior finished quietly. "And I wanted to tell you, I’m sorry for all the shame and dishonor I brought you." She raised her eyes when she heard her mother’s deep sigh.

"I’m very sorry, Mother," Xena said, her eyes pleading on her mother’s sapphire pools. "I’m sorry I hurt you ... and disappointed you so badly." She focused again on the hand she held. "And I’ve wanted to tell you that for a long time." The dark-haired woman gulped uneasily.

"I meant it when I said I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to make up for ... what I’d done." The warrior tightened her fingers around her mother’s. "I intend to do it ... do the very best I can to .. atone for the monster I was for all those years."

Xena waited nervously for her mother’s response, a part of her steeling against the older woman’s confirmation of her guilty admission, another part desperately hoping to hear even a thin expression of her parent’s absolution. The warrior slowly raised her eyes to gauge the matron’s reaction. Her heart trembled at the look of regret in the dark blue gaze. She lowered her eyes and braced herself for the worst.

Cyrene took a slow, deep breath, letting her eyes sweep the scarred surface of the wooden bar for a long moment. Finally she focused on her daughter’s remorseful expression. She willingly surrendered to the deep longings of reconciliation that had long been begging for fulfillment in her heart. She covered the warrior’s slender hands with her own, her eyes direct and honest.

"Well, my darling, I’d be less than truthful if I said I wasn’t very ... disappointed in what you were doing while you were ... away." The warrior’s throat quaked in a repentant tremor. "It was a long, lonely time for me ... losing Lyceus ... was the worst pain I’d ever known. With you and Toris gone, too .... I was alone. Without my children ... it was agony."

Xena’s chest tightened at her mother’s sorrow.

"But then you know that pain, don’t you? The pain of losing a child ... losing a son."

Xena’s head snapped upward, her blue eyes wide and astonished. She stared at her mother’s mature countenance, her mouth open in shock. Eventually, the warrior heard her own strangled comment.

"H ...How did you ...?"

Cyrene’s dark blue eyes were kind. "The last time you were here, you spent a number of nights ... right there on that very stool." The warrior’s mind raced back to those evenings to which her mother referred. She could remember only vague moments, rambling visions of the time when she had returned to Amphipolis to try and deal with the agony of losing Gabrielle.

Later, Lanessa had told her of her stuporous fury, the long series of days and nights wasted in vicious, self-inflicted drunkenness, her pathetic attempt at dulling her mind by filling her body with numbing, intoxicating liquids. She closed her eyes as her shame sent a searing agony across her chest.

"You told me about him then ... about Solan and how he died. I’m so sorry, Xena ... and sorry for poor Gabrielle .. it must have nearly destroyed her, too. "

Xena felt her mother’s hand gently stroking her hair. However, she was totally unaware of the wave of tears washing down over her own face. She brought her fists to her mouth, the gesture only partially blocking the desolate whimper that escaped her throat.

The warrior’s sobs echoed in the empty tavern. Cyrene moved from behind the bar to stand beside her daughter. She wrapped her arms around her child, pulling the muscled form close to her chest. She rocked the younger woman tenderly, murmuring quiet, soothing sounds against the warrior’s temple.

"Shhh," the older woman whispered. "It’s all right, Baby. It’s all right." The matron held her daughter tight, waiting patiently until the waves of torment had washed over the shuddering figure. Finally, she released her and pulled back to take the warrior’s face in her hands.

"My deepest regret ..." she said, wiping Xena’s tears away. "...besides never knowing my grandson?" Cyrene gave her daughter a tiny smile. "But almost more than that, I’m so sorry I couldn’t help you get through that pain." She brushed the dark locks back from the warrior’s face. "You’re still my daughter, Xena. Even though I didn’t ... approve of what you were doing ... of what you had become... I still loved you. I love you now." The matron spoke lovingly to the warrior’s tear-filled gaze.

"It’s a ‘mom’ thing," Cyrene joked kindly. She gratefully acknowledged Xena’s shaky laugh.

"But, since you’ve come back ... and I mean returned to the Xena I know you can be?" Cyrene cradled her daughter’s face with her palm. "I am very proud of you ... and of the way you’ve tried to ... change your life." The tall woman smiled sheepishly.

"And believe me, my patrons keep me well informed of your latest .... escapades," the innkeeper quipped, her expression teasing. "They’re always very willing to share the latest news about all the ‘good deeds’ you and Gabrielle have been accomplishing." She sent a wide smile at the warrior’s abashed shrug. "I’ve popped more buttons than I can count ... I’ve had to reattach more than a handful."

Xena’s gaze was soft on the matron’s impish grin. She wiped her face with her hands, swallowed hard and focused on her mother’s merry expression.

"They keep me advised," Cyrene chided, shaking a playful finger at her daughter’s nose. "So don’t go thinking I’m not aware of what you’re up to." She gave the warrior’s cheek a playful pinch and smiled knowingly as the golden face flushed deeply.

Cyrene used her fingers to rearrange the dark bangs hovering over the warrior’s forehead. Xena rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. She brought her mother’s hand to her cheek, returning the loving gaze in the older woman’s eyes.

"Thank you, Mother," the warrior said, her voice still thready. "And I’m so sorry I never told you about Solan." The matron’s eyes were kind on her daughter’s. "Someday .. maybe our next visit ... I’ll tell you about him. You would have been very proud of your grandson," Xena said quietly. She focused on her mother’s weathered palm. "Even if you weren’t that proud of his mother."

Xena took a deep breath. "I’m grateful you’re giving me a chance now to ... make up for all those years," she finished dryly. "I hope I never disappoint you again."

A quiet moment passed before Cyrene tilted her auburn-gray head.

"Now, what was the favor you wanted?" the matron asked, drawing the warrior’s blue gaze back to her. "You said you had a favor to ask. What is it?"

Cyrene’s heart skipped when the subtle concern returned to her daughter’s golden face. She held her breath and waited what seemed like an eternity before she heard the warrior’s answer.

"Oh, well .. it has to do with Gabrielle," Xena stammered, clearing her throat. "I would really appreciate it if ... well, if you could find a way to ..." The warrior let out a sigh, her face furrowed in an anxious frown.

Cyrene was more than slightly rattled as she listened to the disjointed statement. "If I could find a way to ... what?" the matron asked finally, trying valiantly to keep her own renewed concern from manifesting itself. "Xena, please just tell me what you’d like me to do."

Xena took a moment to formulate her request, admitting to herself for the umpteenth time that talking was not her most polished ‘skill’. She gathered her courage and bravely raised her eyes to her mother’s. She saw the affection beaming from her mother’s worried gaze.

"Mother," Xena said, meeting the matron’s eyes. "If anything should ever happen to me, I’d like Gabrielle to know she would always have a home here ... with you and Lanessa. I think that would please her. And I’d really appreciate it if you would ... let her know she’d be welcome. If it’s all right with you, of course." The warrior let her words trickle to an end. She sent a meek smile at her mother’s bewildered expression. For a moment, she was afraid she’d bungled the request when the matron’s dark blue eyes narrowed inquisitively.

"That’s your favor? That’s what you wanted to ask?" Cyrene’s mature face cleared slowly.

"Yeah," the tall woman answered, nodding stiffly. "Would it be all right with you if Gabrielle came to live here ...?"

Cyrene scoffed impatiently, making the warrior cringe in repentance. The other woman leaned forward, bringing her face close to that of her apprehensive offspring. She grasped the tall woman’s chin with a motherly purpose.

"For goodness sake, Xena!" the matron sputtered. She released the bronze face, giving the warrior’s long hair an admonishing yank. "I consider Gabrielle ‘family’ .. part of our family." She watched as the otherwise formidable combatant adopted the look of a thoroughly chastised six-year old.

"Of course I’d expect her to come here if ...." The matron’s expression changed abruptly, her auburn head tilting in inquiry. "Wait a minute! What did you mean by ‘if anything should ever happen’ to you?" The warrior’s expression changed to one of supplication. She opened her mouth to reply.

"Is there something you’re not telling me, Xena? Are you trying to prepare me for another little ‘surprise’ ?"

"No, no," Xena vowed hastily. "I was speaking ... theoretically." She waved one hand casually. "You know .. just in case." She waited until she saw the irritation recede from her mother’s face.

"That’s all I meant, Mother. Honestly." The warrior paused, gathering her senses. "And I really appreciate you saying you think of Gabrielle as family. I’m glad you feel that way. She feels the same way about you, by the way."

Cyrene let her uneasiness drain away. She focused on the sincerity in her daughter’s open expression. The matron took a deep breath and spent several moments adjusting the shawl around her shoulders. When she had regained control ... and her own anxiety had been dispelled ... she faced the warrior’s blue gaze again.

"Well, I’m glad we got that settled," the innkeeper stated, straightening her stocky form. "Now, unless there’s something else I can do for you, I really need to get things ready for the breakfast customers." The mature face softened as she studied the warrior’s relieved gaze. She covered the woman’s lean hands again.

"Are you really OK?" she questioned gently.

"Yeah, I am ... really," the warrior answered giving her mother a genuine smile. "And thanks again, Mother." Xena slid off the stool, pulling the hood of her cape over her head. "I’d better get back ... it shouldn’t be long, now."

Cyrene opened her arms to her daughter, gathering the lean, muscled form firmly. Xena bent to accept the hug, lingering a long moment to enjoy the tender embrace. Then she stood up and turned toward the entrance to the Inn. She addressed her mother as she pulled on her gloves.

"As soon as the foal arrives, we’ll all be in for a plate of your biscuits."

The innkeeper grinned, making a shooing motion with her hands.

"Go on, get going," she ordered. "You just bring that foal in, that’s most important right now."

Xena gave her mother a little wave, pulled open the door to the Inn and stepped through the doorway. She’d only taken a few steps into the infant dawn when she heard the bard’s excited voice coming toward her.

"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted. "Lanessa says it’s time!"

The warrior broke into a run.


Chapter Thirteen ~~~

Within moments of Xena’s arrival inside the shed, it became abidingly clear the young chestnut mare had entered the final stages of labor. The mare was lying down in the middle of the narrow stall, flat on her side, her head straining back toward her bulging stomach. The warrior watched the animal’s activity closely; the time had come to make a decision, one way or the other, about attempting to turn the unborn foal. Xena’s gaze tracked to Lanessa’s. The petite healer knelt at the horse’s head, softly stroking the rust-hued head. Brown eyes raised to meet the warrior’s.

"I don’t think we can wait any longer. She’s dilated as far as possible," Lanessa said tersely. She stood up and stepped toward her tall friend.

"Yes, I agree," Xena said, drawing off her gloves and untying her cape. Without even looking to be sure, she handed the clothing to the bard ... or at least, held it out where she assumed the girl was standing. Gabrielle gathered the cape and held out her hand to receive Lanessa’s wrap, as well. The two healers conferred.

"I think you’d better do the palpating," Lanessa suggested. "The way the foal is lying, it’s a bit beyond my reach."

Xena nodded and began to roll up the long sleeves of her tunic. She kept her eyes on the mare, addressing Gabrielle as she considered the impending procedure.

"Gabrielle, I’m going to need the ..."

The warrior’s request ended quickly when the bard presented the open metal box to her partner. "Thanks," Xena told her, scooping out a handful of the filmy substance. As she lubricated one arm, the warrior’s eyes sought the girl’s.

"You OK?" she asked. Gabrielle’s eyes moved from the young mare to the warrior’s blue pools.

"Don’t worry about me," she told the warrior. "Just help her," she added, nodding toward the horse. "I’ll be fine." Xena winked confidently.

"OK, see if you can help Lanessa with the head, all right?"

Gabrielle put the box down on the wooden bench and pulled off her cape, flinging all three coverings over the side rails of the stall as she moved to stand beside Lanessa. The slim healer smiled at the girl’s concern. They both turned toward the warrior.

"OK," Xena said purposefully, "let’s get her up."

The three women maneuvered the chestnut onto her feet, wedging the quivering animal against the sturdy side wall of the stall. Xena moved the animal’s rear, lifting the silky tail and preparing to insert her hand into the equine vagina. Before the warrior’s hand had proceeded less than a centimeter, the young mare balked, throwing her head back sharply, the hard bone slamming against Lanessa’s chest. The powerful move sent the small woman hurtling backwards, crashing shoulder-first into the back wall of the stall.

Lanessa was vaguely aware of the bard’s scream as she felt herself being propelled toward the wooden slats. She stuck out her hand to forestall the collision she knew was about to occur. The gesture proved only slightly effective, resulting instead in the majority of her body’s impact being inflicted on her slim wrist. The small healer grunted in pain as she slid down the wall and rolled her body away from the jittery horse.

Xena quickly withdrew her hand and used her considerable strength to press the horse firmly against the side of the stall. Gabrielle knelt beside the petite healer, her young face worried.

"Lanessa!" the bard exclaimed. "Are you all right?" She turned to the warrior who circled the mare and knelt at Lanessa’s other side.

"What happened?" Xena asked, laying a hand on the healer’s shoulder. She changed her focus to the hand Lanessa was cradling against her chest. She cautiously examined the slender wrist, gently flexing the woman’s fingers and manipulating the joint. Her grimace matched the healer’s.

"The little sneak," Lanessa muttered. "She took me by surprise." She turned a regretful scowl at the warrior’s blue gaze. "Sorry, Xena ... I guess I wasn’t paying attention."

"Don’t worry about it," the warrior told her. She held out her hand to the woman on the floor. "Can you stand?"

Gabrielle and Xena helped the small healer to her feet. Once Lanessa was standing, she waved away their solicitous attention, using her good hand to brush away the stalks of hay that clung to the sides of her long dress. She turned a determined gaze to the warrior.

"I’m fine, really," she told her old friend. "Nothing’s broken, I can tell that much." She flexed her fingers carefully. "Just a bad bruise, I’m sure of it."

The warrior wasn’t totally convinced but she knew she could rely on Lanessa’s medical intuition. She backed away from the woman, allowing the diminutive female to regain her composure.

"Let’s finish this," Lanessa said firmly. "The foal doesn’t have much time." She turned to the bard. "Gabrielle, put that halter on her and hold on tight." She waited only a moment before turning her attention to the warrior.

"You’d better slick your arm again," she told the tall woman. "C’mon, Xena," Lanessa said, massaging her arm. "We’re running out of options."

The warrior saw the determination in her old friend’s expression. She acquiesced, deferring to the other woman’s stalwart determination. She left the stall momentarily to reapply lubrication to her forearm and hand. Lanessa pulled her scarf from around her neck and fashioned a temporary sling for her injured wrist.

By the time the warrior was ready to begin the procedure again, Gabrielle had affixed the leather halter to the young mare’s head. Lanessa moved closer to the animal’s side, pressing her slight form tightly against the horse to help secure the mother’s position against the stall. Xena returned to her position behind the mare and, after getting a confirming nod from the young blonde, she carefully raised the silvery tail and slide her hand inside the animal.

The first step for the warrior was to establish the current position of the foal. As she explored the uterine end of the vagina, she found the baby in the same position in which Lanessa had reported it; rump pointed toward the mare’s tail, the small form pressing tightly against the cervical opening like a stopper in a bottle. Now she knew the reason why the mare’s water had not broken.

Xena’s next action was to tear the placental sac covering the foal’s rump. The tail was very distinguishable to her now. She followed it to its root, determining that the foal was in an upright status in the uterus in very much the position as the mother was standing. The warrior’s eyes sought the healer’s.

"The legs are toward the ground .. like it’s standing in the womb." The bronze face creased in concentration.

"Can you tell if it’s alive?" Lanessa asked cautiously.

The warrior moved her hand within the animal. "No, not yet. But ... here," she said satisfied. "I found .. a foot. I found one of the hind legs ... and I have the foot in my hand."

The bard’s nervousness subsided. She let out a small sigh, her green eyes bright. She stroked Ma’ia’s long face. "Easy girl," the girl crooned. "Any minute now ... it’s OK."

By now the warrior’s arm was in the mare well past the elbow. Fortunately the mare had not lost her water and her uterus had not contracted much around the foal. There was more than enough room to manipulate the foal’s leg within the cavity. Xena cupped the foal’s foot and fetlock in her hand and, utilizing the normal bending of the leg joint, was able to guide the foal’s rear foot out of the uterus and toward the pelvic opening. The tall woman’s expression brightened quickly as her eyes met the healer’s.

"Oh yeah .. this one’s alive, all right," Xena chortled. "He just took his foot back." The foal had tried to pull its leg back into the uterus. The three women laughed. Lanessa held out her ‘good’ hand and the warrior grasped it firmly. The two friends grinned in satisfaction.

"Gabrielle," the warrior called. "C’mere ... let Lanessa take the halter."

The bard immediately responded to the warrior’s instructions. She changed places with Lanessa, then moved to stand beside the warrior. She listened carefully as Xena told her what to do next.

Using her fingers, Xena carefully tore open the amniotic sac and reclaimed the foal’s foot. Holding the squirming appendage in her hand, she addressed the bard as she slowly pulled the foot toward her again.

"Get that slim piece of leather on the side of Argo’s saddle," she told the girl. Gabrielle quickly did as requested, sliding the narrow strap into the warrior’s free hand. Xena withdrew the small fetlock and tied the leather piece above the joint on the slender leg. She took the loose end of the lash in her clean hand.

"There," the warrior said, winking at the bard. "Now then, little one, let’s try the other foot."

Xena repeated the procedure with the foal’s other hoof and leg. A few minutes later, there were two small feet protruding from the mare’s vagina. The warrior stepped back a pace, using the sleeve of her tunic to wipe the perspiration from her brow. She moistened her lips as she met the bard’s anxious gaze.

"So far, so good," the warrior murmured, her blue eyes bright. She glanced at the small healer; the woman’s gaze was calm and trusting.

"How about the cord ... do you think it’s free?" Lanessa asked, her brown eyes steady.

"I’m not sure," the warrior answered. Her heady manner faded perceptibly, but her eyes remained confident.

"What’s wrong now?" Gabrielle asked, her green eyes alert.

"We can’t take our time now, Gabrielle. It’s important to get the foal out before it smothers."

Gabrielle cast a nervous look at the small feet protruding from the mare. She returned her attention to the warrior’s serious face.

"Normally, when the foal is born face first, it can begin to breathe as soon as it’s nose is cleared." Xena concentrated on rolling the sleeve on her lubricated arm up farther. "With this birth, the face will emerge last. So we have to get the baby out quick, otherwise it will drown in the fluids inside the womb." She focused on the girl’s apprehensive look.

"I’m gonna need your help with this. You ready?"

The bard’s gaze met the warrior’s, skipped to the healer’s for a moment, then returned to those of her soulmate. She swallowed nervously.

"Sure. What do you need me to do?"

Xena smiled proudly, touching the girl’s shoulder. "Roll up your sleeves," she said, returning to her position behind the mare. She motioned Gabrielle to her other side as she put both hands on one of the slim legs still waiting in the horse’s opening.

"Take the other leg," the warrior instructed. "Hold on tight. We need to pull together. So when I tell you, pull as hard as you can."

Gabrielle gulped again then put her hands where the warrior had directed. She was only vaguely aware of the warm, slimy feel of the small foot in her hand. She closed her fingers around the appendage and waited for the warrior’s signal. A moment later, the small chestnut mare’s front legs stiffened as she thrust her head toward the roof of the shed. Lanessa hugged the animal’s neck. The girl’s heart began to pound.

"Now!" Xena yelled, pulling firmly on the leg she held. "Pull, Gabrielle! Keep pulling and don’t let go!"

Gabrielle tightened her hold on the leg and pulled as hard as she could. She yelped when she saw the leg emerge further, exactly matching the length of the one the warrior held in her hands. Ma’ia relaxed a moment, her shrill whinny filling the wooden enclosure.

"Argo!" Lanessa shouted forcefully. "She needs to push!"

The golden mare responded instantly to the small woman’s command. As Gabrielle watched mesmerized by the wet extremity’s emergence from its mother’s womb, the palomino’s powerful sound accompanied the small mare’s entreaty. The warrior took a step backwards, tugging purposefully at the foal, encouraging the bard to do the same.

Within a minute, the rest of the small horse emerged from the mare, the figure shrouded in the remains of the placenta. As the shoulders came out, there was a huge gush of fluid. The force of the contraction defeated the precarious symmetry of the two women standing behind the mother. An instant later, the warrior found herself flat on her back with the foal resting on her stomach. She quickly shifted position, moved the foal to the floor and deftly cleared the little animal’s nose. Lanessa appeared at the warrior’s side, handing over a soft cloth she had somehow produced from beneath her long apron.

"Come on, baby," Xena crooned as she worked. "Breathe, dammit," the warrior said, her voice low and urgent. "Cahhmmmon ...."

The new mother craned her head around to observe the warrior’s efficient activity. Argo’s brown eyes were also attentive.

A long moment transpired before the little female shook her head, expelling the mucus and slimy fluid from her nostrils. She rolled onto her knees, her spindly legs scraping at the hay under her. She tentatively extended one front leg, then unfolded another. A moment later, the foal struggled to her feet, taking an unsteady step toward her mother. The warrior smiled triumphantly, covering the bard’s hand which had settled on her shoulder. She looked up at the girl’s happy face.

"It’s a filly, Gabrielle," the warrior said, drawing her long form upright. "Looks like she’s got some of Argo’s markings, too."

The bard watched the chestnut mare lower her head to inspect her new offspring. The baby happily endured her mother’s investigation, her moist, little form quivering in contentment. The three women laughed when the great golden mare made a loud, noble proclamation, announcing the arrival of her great-granddaughter to the small party of witnesses in the shed.


Chapter Fourteen ~~~

Gabrielle smiled at the small palomino foal’s blissful consumption of her mother’s milk. The chestnut was busy relishing mouthfuls of fresh hay from the bin in front of her. She glanced back at the foal occasionally, the baby’s head partially obscured beneath her belly as she nursed.

Lanessa had been pleased that the post-delivery procedure had concluded without incident. Ma’ia had performed the normal additional contractions necessary to expel the remainder of the placenta. Xena had used one of the blankets to dry off the foal, vigorously rubbing the baby to stimulate circulation and increase the body heat needed for the young animal’s survival. Both the young mare and her new arrival were now comfortably enjoying their first meal together.

The petite gentlewoman turned from the lovely scene in the stall to the tall warrior busily wiping her hands on the cloth. She gratefully acknowledged the placid, peaceful look on the smooth face of her old friend. She returned the woman’s satisfied grin.

"You did a wonderful job, Xena," she told the blue-eyed warrior. "I know Silvanus will be pleased." She turned back to the foal. "She looks like a miniature Argo, doesn’t she?"

Xena studied the new arrival. "Yeah ... isn’t that something?" Her gaze moved to the great golden steed peering over the neighboring stall. The mare’s soft brown eyes acknowledged her smile. Argo neighed softly, offering her own congratulations to her dark-haired mistress.

A tiny glint of uneasiness flashed through the warrior’s euphoria. She returned her eyes on the cloth in her hands. "Does Silvanus know yet?"

"Yes," Lanessa answered quietly. "I sent him a message. He should be here soon."

"Well, at least this time I’m giving him a new life .. instead of ..." The azure gaze floated to the dusty window for a moment then returned to the healer’s gentle brown orbs.

"Oh well, that’s in the past, right?" Xena said philosophically. She gave her old friend a brave smile. "And this is today."

As if by divine design, the round merchant chose that very moment to open the door to the shed, his full, cherubic face beaming happily. He held the panel open to allow a young, freckle-faced girl to enter ahead of him. The child’s face brightened the moment she saw the healthy foal.

"There she is, Egeria," Silvanus boomed. "Your new little horse."

The little girl squealed delightedly as she crossed the shed to give the small foal an enthusiastic hug. Xena watched the child exchange greetings with the bard, the young blonde’s expression as animated as the child’s. The bard’s green eyes lifted to meet the warrior’s, a joyful shine radiating from the young woman’s gaze. Xena’s heart warmed at the sight of the girl’s happiness.

"Daddy says I getta name her," the red-headed youngster giggled, her tiny hand stroking the foal’s soft muzzle. The little horse rubbed her nose against the child’s palm, her delicate ears twitching.

"Have you decided on a name?" Gabrielle asked, bending down to the youngster.

"I’m gonna call her Thalea," the little girl chirped. "That’s one of the Muses, ya know?" She flashed a dimpled smile at the bard.

"Yes, I know," the young blonde replied, her green eyes sparkling.

The warrior felt her jaw tighten as the rotund tradesman approached. She kept her expression non-committal as she took the thick hand the man extended to her.

"Thank you, Xena," Silvanus said, his gray eyes direct on the warrior’s. "I won’t forget what you’ve done here ... and I’ll make sure the rest of the town remembers, too."

Xena released the fellow’s rough palm, shrugging off his statement. "Not necessary, Silvanus. Besides, I had some help, you know?" She smiled at the young blonde playfully interacting with the man’s daughter. "I’m just glad we were here." The cobalt pools shifted to the child’s gleeful enjoyment. "Is she your youngest?"

Silvanus gazed lovingly at his young daughter, his pudgy fists perched on his hips. "Yes, that’s Egeria. She’s the last of them." The merchant turned back to the warrior, his round face apologetic. "Xena," he began. The warrior’s eyes returned to his. "I know I wasn’t very ... neighborly the last time you were home." Xena’s expression registered her regret.

"You had good reason," the warrior told the man. "Silvanus, I’m sorry about ...." She stopped when the man held up his hand.

"No, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you." Silvanus gathered his large form, rubbing his rough palms together. "For years I’ve been ... angry with you because my son ..." The man took a short breath. "Look, it wasn’t all your fault that Gaberis decided to go with you and Lyceus when you followed Cortese into the hills." The warrior’s jaw rippled under the smooth skin.

"It was his own idea .. he and Lyceus were so close." Xena kept her eyes steady on the man’s pink face. "Gaberis was nearly grown .. he made his own decisions." The merchant exhaled loudly. "Isabella ... she took it hard. I mean, he was our oldest ... and her firstborn."

Xena dropped her eyes, her throat working in a tight swallow. She looked up again when Silvanus continued.

"I just wanted to tell you ... I’m glad you’re back." He gave the warrior an honest smile. "Especially now .. after what you did for the chestnut .. and Egeria." He extended his forearm and the warrior grasped it. "Thanks, again." With that, the man turned and walked toward his daughter.

"OK, Eggie," he told the child. "C’mon, honey. We need to let the foal and her mama get some rest. You can see her again tomorrow, right Lanessa?"

As Lanessa moved toward the stall, the warrior’s gaze found the bard’s. She read the subtle concern registering in the young blonde’s emerald gaze. Xena sent a genuine grin in the girl’s direction while her mind considered the merchant’s words.

‘How many others are left to make amends for?’ the tall woman mused. ‘Well, Gabrielle, we’ll take them one at a time .. you and me ... one at a time.’ The warrior’s bronze face softened warmly. ‘Together.’


A few candlemarks later, while the bright sun made sparkling pinpoints on the clean, white drifts, the warrior and the bard trudged slowly across the open yard toward the small cottage. The tall woman’s arm was draped over the shoulders of her shorter companion while the young blonde’s arm encircled her partner’s slender waist. The petite healer walked alongside the pair, her heavy shawl pulled tightly around her slim form.

"Arrgh, I’m stuffed," the bard lamented, surrendering to a long, noisy yawn. "Your mom’s biscuits were too much."

The warrior’s grin answered the blonde woman’s sleepy look. "You’ll have to get her recipe," Xena teased her. "Although, she’s not always willing to share those with just anyone."

Gabrielle giggled happily. "Well, I’ll ask her as a special favor. But she already told me she’d show me how to make them."

The two friends turned to the small woman stepping carefully through the powdery drifts. Lanessa kept her eyes on the snow as she spoke to the two caped figures.

"So, you two staying a while?" she asked, her brown eyes leaving the slippery path for a moment to seek the warrior’s. She resumed her careful scrutiny, extending her arm to enhance her balance. "You really haven’t had much time to enjoy yourselves. We spent most of the time in the barn."

The three friends laughed together.

"Well, I don’t know," the warrior ventured, ducking her head to meet the bard’s gaze. "I guess we could stay around for a few days." She read the blonde’s agreement in her green eyes. "Not much we can do with all this snow around ... whattya think, partner? Wanna kick back for a while?"

"I’m all for it," the bard chirped. "We could both do with a little vacation." She smiled openly into the warrior’s relaxed grin. "But right now, I could use about a dozen candlemarks of sleep." The young face contorted in a mock grimace. "I don’t know about you, oh indestructible one, but I’m downright pooped."

"Indestructible one?" the warrior repeated. She pulled the giggling blonde closer. "Yeah," the tall woman sighed. "I could use a little time on that mattress myself." She tousled the young woman’s short blonde hair.

"C’mon," she jibed, trotting ahead of the two smaller women. "Race ya to the house." The warrior leaned forward, driving her boots into the deep, white powder.

"Xena!" the bard squealed. "No fair!" She lifted the lower edge of her cape, gathered her resources and made a supreme effort to follow the warrior’s long strides in the snow.

"You cheated!" the girl shrieked. "You didn’t say, ‘ready, set, go’." Gabrielle’s voice trailed after her, the slender, lithe form tromping after her best friend. "XENA!"

Lanessa giggled as the two competitors loped away, scattering glistening clouds of snow with their boots.


On their way back to the Inn the next morning for breakfast, the two friends diverted their path slightly to watch the new foal’s first encounter with the soft, icy crystals covering the ground in the small corral outside the shed. The young horse frolicked excitedly, sinking her dainty muzzle into the powdery mixture, then tossing her head to send the snowy particles skyward. She bounded across the small arena, her tiny hooves making miniature indentations in the drifted piles. Her mother calmly watched the foal’s merry activity, a maternal indulgence lighting the sweet chestnut’s expression.

"Look at her!" Gabrielle commented. "She’s perfect, Xena. You’d never know there’d been any trouble bringing her into the world." She turned an admiring glance at her partner. "You really saved her life." The girl’s eyes followed the small equine. "She looks ...."

"As healthy as a horse," the warrior said dryly. "Yup .. great markings, too."

The bard’s head rotated ever so slowly up toward the tall woman at her side. The girl’s lips parted slightly, her green eyes wide and alert. Xena deliberately kept her eyes on the little palomino scampering in the fenced area.

"Did you just make a joke?" Gabrielle said, her voice quietly astonished. "You did .. you just made a joke! You said she was ..." She broke off when she saw the warrior’s struggle at concealing her own amusement. She playfully slapped the tall woman’s arm. "I don’t believe it .. ‘as healthy as a horse’." The bard leaned against her tall companion, laughing louder as the warrior’s smile grew.

The two friends turned to greet their petite hostess. Lanessa strolled toward the pair, her cheerful smile adding to the light-hearted atmosphere. She watched the two women’s enjoyment for a moment, then turned her attention to the little golden horse cavorting in the snow.

After sending a sly grin at the warrior, Lanessa clapped her hands crisply. The sharp sound quickly drawing the horses’ attention. The animals responded immediately, the little foal falling in beside her mother as the chestnut trotted over to the side of the corral to answer the small woman’s summons.

Xena’s jovial expression faded perceptibly. She turned her head to watch the smaller woman slide one hand into the pocket of her long apron and withdraw a long, thick piece of carrot.

Lanessa took the orange stalk with both hands and easily snapped it in two, offering half to each horse, murmuring kind-hearted endearments to her charges. The warrior’s blue eyes narrowed slightly.

When the horses had claimed their treats, the small healer brushed her hands together and pulled her shawl closer, crossing her slender arms in front of her. She turned an innocent grin toward the tall form of her old friend. The petite gentlewoman blinked mischievously, quietly awaiting the warrior’s comment.

"Looks like your hand has healed nicely," Xena said evenly.

Lanessa presented the appendage in question, spreading her palm and turning it over and back again. "Oh, didn’t I tell you?" she asked guilelessly, her face displaying a childish grin. "Well, I said it wasn’t anything serious, remember?"

The warrior nodded very slowly, her smooth face attentive. The azure pools were fastened on her small friend’s twinkle. "Ah-huh," Xena said. She turned slightly toward Gabrielle.

"Look, Gabrielle," the warrior said deliberately. "We have a healer who can truly heal herself."

For a moment, the three women were silent. The young blonde gazed down at her hostess’ hand, noticed her tall friend’s stoic gaze and returned her attention to Lanessa’s guilty smirk. She felt an enormous giggle gathering in her throat. An instant later, she released it. She covered her mouth with one hand and leaned heavily on the warrior’s sturdy shoulder. Lanessa’s happy chortle joined the girl’s, but Xena’s expression remained skeptical.

"Oh, all right," Lanessa said, gleefully. "I guess I’m ...." She smiled warmly at the bard. "What is it you always say .... I’m ‘busted’?" The warrior’s brows rose in confusion. "I guess I’ll have to confess," the small healer admitted. She faced the dubious azure gaze, took a short breath and began her explanation.

"I knew I had to convince you that you and Gabrielle are still a team .. and a very good one." Her brown pools were gentle. "I didn’t plan it, honestly." She touched the warrior’s arm. "At least not with any specific scheme. But when Ma’ia threw me against the wall, a little idea popped into my head. I let you think I had hurt my hand .. perhaps more seriously than I had ... because I knew you’d instinctively turn to Gabrielle when there was something ... vital to be done." She paused to gauge the warrior’s reaction, her brown eyes sincere and honest.

"I decided it would help you remember how much you rely on her ... and how much you’re a part of each other." Lanessa watched the warrior’s chin rise. "I knew you want her nearby .. to share the triumph, as well as the ... danger." Xena’s gaze was steady on her friend’s.

"What’s most important is, you need her there ... at your side. I wanted you to remember that." The woman’s auburn head tilted. "Did it work?"

Xena’s blue eyes held the gentle healer’s gaze for a long moment before she turned to the bard standing quietly at her side. She touched the young face tenderly, her fingers moving slightly to stroke the girl’s cheek. Gabrielle returned the warrior’s loving smile. Xena’s dark head swiveled back to her old friend.

"Yes," the tall woman said quietly. "It worked." Xena tilted her head to make contact with the soft blonde head nestled against her shoulder. The young bard sighed contentedly.


Gabrielle watched Lanessa escort Silvanus’ young daughter into the corral, carefully extending the child’s hand to allow the foal to investigate the girl’s scent. The two youngsters soon exhibited a mutual enchantment as the corpulent merchant and the slender healer looked on. The bard enjoyed the pastoral scene for a moment, then turned her verdant gaze toward the warrior leaning against the wooden rails of the corral. The tall woman’s peaceful attitude brought a grateful satisfaction to the young woman’s heart. She gazed up at the warrior’s attractive features.

"Xena?" the girl asked quietly.

"Hmm?" the warrior answered.

"I want you to do something for me."

The warrior’s blue eyes settled on the girl’s verdant pools. "Sure, what is it?"

Gabrielle ran a slim finger over the tall woman’s muscled forearm. "Let’s make a pact .. each to the other."

Xena’s smooth face softened. "You mean, a pledge?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle answered. "A solemn promise."

"OK," the warrior replied, her expression warm on the girl’s heartfelt smile. She covered the small hand on her arm. "How about ... Gabrielle, I pledge you my soul?" Xena’s smile widened. "After all, you already own it ... I guess that’s an honest vow."

The bard’s green eyes glistened brightly.

"What do you pledge?" the warrior asked, squeezing the small hand softly.

"I pledge ... my soul, as well," the young woman whispered. "Because you own mine, too."

"Forever," Xena added, her gaze steady on the bard’s.

"Forever?" Gabrielle repeated, her green eyes twinkling. "I’m gonna hold you to that, Warrior," she chided her friend.

The two friends laughed comfortably, their smiles mirroring each other’s.


"What’s this?" Gabrielle picked up the item sitting next to her quill. She examined the smooth, burnished surface glowing in the light beaming from the candlestick on the dresser. The figurine depicted a little horse, complete with tack and saddle, one tiny front hoof raised in mid-stride, its dainty head held proudly. The girl giggled softly when her eyes lit on the slim piece of ribbon tied around the animal’s neck and gathered into a perfectly formed bow. The bard turned the statue over in her hand.

"Xena?" She turned to the warrior sitting on the bed. "Where did this come from?"

"Happy Birthday, Gabrielle," Xena said, her clear blue eyes warm on the young blonde’s face.

The girl’s eyes shone with affection for her friend. "You remembered," Gabrielle said softly. She crossed the room to sit next to the lean figure.

"Oh yes," the warrior answered quietly. "I remembered." She smiled at the young blonde. "Her name is Paleas," Xena told her. "She’s named for the goddess of cattle and horses." The woman’s gaze fell to the little statue.

"My father brought her back for me when he returned home from one of his .... journeys." The bard listened carefully. "I used to keep her on the table next to my bed. I would go to sleep looking at her ... dreaming of what a great adventure it would be to ride a horse like her, be a great warrior like my father." The cobalt pools lifted to meet the girl’s, a slim glint of sadness dimming their sheen. Xena smiled at the young woman next to her.

"Mother found her last week, when she was clearing out some things." Gabrielle stroked the tiny figure softly. "She sort of reminds me of the little filly ... got the same proud head."

"But she’s yours," the girl whispered.

"No," Xena said softly. "I want you to have her. Her name means ‘Soul’s Guardian’. To me, it means, ‘Gabrielle’." She laid a gentle hand on the young woman’s cheek. "I’d really like you to keep her .. and, if you like, she can travel with us in the bag with your scrolls."

The two friends embraced. "Happy Birthday," the warrior said, her hand tender on the blonde head. When the women separated, the bard held up the little horse, balancing the tiny figure in the palm of her hand.

"Paleas ... do you like adventure and travel?" She turned a warm smile to the slender woman beside her. "Thank you, Xena. She’s lovely." Gabrielle rose and strode back to the dresser, placing the figurine in the middle of the flat surface. "But, you know, you’ve already given me a wonderful birthday present." She sent an affectionate gaze over her shoulder at the warrior.

"I have?" Xena queried, her dark brows traveling upward.

"Yes, you have," the bard said, picking up a roll of parchment and her quill. She faced the tall woman, her green eyes sparkling and happy.

"Now I can write my new story ... about the brave warrior who saves a little foal’s life ...."

The warrior’s blue eyes closed in mock exasperation. She covered her forehead with her hand

The bard giggled at her tall friend’s chagrin.


Epilogue ~~~


"Gabrielle! It’s freezing out here!" Xena grumbled.

"Not as cold as yesterday. C’mon, you big baby." The bard’s young face glowed pink and cheerful. "You had fun the last time. Remember?"

"That was last time and this is now." The warrior wrapped her long arms around herself.

"Oh, Xena. At least give it a try," Gabrielle teased. "Please? For my birthday?"

"I’ll never know why you enjoy this so much." The golden face showed a petulant scowl.

"You’re just mad because I’m better at it than you are."

"No, you’re just crazier than I am. We’re gonna freeze out here in this weather!" The tall figure pivoted toward the cottage. "I’m going inside .. you can play out here all you ..."

"All you have to do is lie down ... you can do that, can’t you?" The girl’s green eyes showed a teasing challenge. "Whattsamatter, Tall and Talented? Afraid to get a little snow on you?"

"You’re really asking for it," Xena growled. "Don’t start something you can’t finish." The warrior glared at the bard’s smirk.

"Such a scary girl," the young blonde taunted. She ambled closer to her lanky friend. "How about if I help you get started. Would that make it easier?"

The warrior’s dark head tilted in an ominous warning. "Don’t even think about it," she threatened.

Gabrielle took a quick step, bringing her face to face with her friend. She tenaciously planted both hands on the woman’s midsection. After a few seconds of feigned apprehension, her young face crinkled in delirious anticipation.

"Gabri-ee-lle," the warrior threatened, her voice low and stony.

A split second later, the bard pushed against the lean form sharply, launching the tall figure backwardss into the soft powdery drifts. The warrior landed with a muffled splat, her arms and legs spread at cross positions away from her body. The little bard shrieked in pleasure.

"You are TOAST!" Xena snarled, raising her head up and finding the blonde’s giggling form. The girl’s blatant enjoyment quickly undermined the tall woman’s irritation. Slowly the bronze face softened, her clear blue eyes twinkling with grudging amusement. The warrior laid her head down in the snow again.

"OK," Xena sighed. "As long as I’m already down here ...." She pulled her arms close to, then away from her body, at the same time drawing her legs together, then sweeping them far apart. Her activity soon resulted in the formation of the prescribed indentations in the crystal, white snow. Gabrielle’s laughter trilled across the open yard as the bard cheered the tall woman’s efforts, clapping her mittened hands gleefully.

"That’s it!" the girl squealed happily. "Xena, you’re doing it! See? I told you it’d be fun!"

After numerous machinations, the warrior stilled her limbs and raised her head again, grinning widely at the young blonde’s delighted expression. She surrendered to her own pleasure.

"But remember," the bard goaded. "The trick is to get up without spoiling it." Gabrielle stopped clapping and stood still, resting her wool-covered fists on her hips. "Go ‘head. Now, try it."

Xena carefully lifted her arms and pulled herself into an upright position. She shook her hands, sending a cloud of the white powder billowing away from herself. The warrior leaned forward and gathered her cape around her. She took a deep breath and pushed herself away from the ground, sending her tall form upward into a perfect somersault, and landed gracefully, feet first, within arm’s length of the chuckling bard. She sent a deadly smirk at the girl’s flushed face.

"OK, your turn," Xena chuckled, raising her hands and smoothly pushing the young blonde backwardss. Gabrielle squawked as her lithe form was propelled onto the snow, her final landing position a near duplicate of the warrior’s. Giggling happily, the girl flapped her limbs up and down, side to side, creating another artistic depression in the soft, white drift. The girl paused breathlessly, then sat up, shaking the snow from her cape and her mittens. She held out a snowy hand to the warrior.

"No, no," Xena jeered. "The trick is to get up without ruining it, remember?" the warrior mocked. The clear blue eyes twinkled mischievously as the tall form backed away, her gloved hands disappearing under her long cape.

"Brat!" the little blonde complained. "Talk about not playing fair. I can’t do the flip thing, remember?" She stuck out her lower lip in a stereotyped pout. The green eyes widened plaintively.

"Yeah, OK," the warrior relented. She held out a gloved hand to the girl, easily lifting the trim form onto her feet. As Gabrielle brushed herself off, Xena nudged her playfully.

The two friends examined the decorative designs, comparing the differences and common aspects of the two depressions. After a short discussion, the competition was deemed a ‘tie’ as each artist offered praise and congratulations for the skill and dexterity of the other. After a moment, the warrior faced the bard, her smooth face beaming in childlike merriment.

"We can do better," Xena snickered. "Over there," she said, pointing with a long, gloved finger. "That clean spot .. and it’s flatter." She tugged at the bard’s cape, capriciously pulling the girl with her.

The two friends trotted to the new location, exchanged mischievous smiles and joyfully flopped backwards onto the pristine snowbank. Arms and legs swished with great abandon, creating two moderately impressive mini-blizzards as twin elegant representations emerged amidst the fluffy covering. The artisans’ carefree jocularity was momentarily interrupted by the sound of their hostess’ bemused comment. They lifted their heads to acknowledge the slender gentlewoman.

"Xena of Amphipolis," Lanessa said, her brown eyes slightly awed. "You haven’t changed since you were ten summers old." The healer shook her head, her smile wide and elated. "Still love playing in the snow, huh?"

The two sculptors turned to each other, a silent agreement being considered and arranged. An instant later, Lanessa found herself the hapless target of several icy projectiles, the onslaught a result of the merciless intent of her snow-covered guests. In self-defense, the slender victim began a retaliatory maneuver, skillfully returning an equal number of well-aimed missiles. As the battle raged on, only a few of the resident passers-by bothered to expend more than a passing interest in the frolicsome activity.


With dusk drifting across the town square, three women strolled toward the twinkling candle-lit windows of the Inn, their relaxed expressions illuminated by soft moonlight. As the trio casually negotiated the snow-covered path, they passed a pair of young male villagers, the boy’s conversation concerned with the unusual indentations displayed in the snow surrounding the cottage of the town’s healer.

"What’re those?" the tow-headed youngster asked.

"They’re snow angels," his friend answered. "You make ‘em by laying down and moving your arms and legs back and forth."

The blonde boy turned a startled look at his companion. "But, don’cha get snow all over you when you do that?"

"Sure," the red-headed youth replied, showing a toothless smile. "That’s part of the fun. Ain’t you ever made snow angels?"

"Nope," the first lad replied "My ma’d trounce me good, if I got all wet like that."

The two boys stared at the angelic configurations.

"Boy," the tow-head murmured, shaking his pale head. "Somebody’s sure gonna be in a whooolle lotta trouble."

The three women laughed heartily.




Author’s Note: This bard offers special thanks to Larry and Joanne Ross, Scott Creek Miniature Horse Farm of Silentz OR (www.scottcreek.com), for sharing their technical expertise and information in the care and delivery of a ‘breech presentation’.


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