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The Bard's Tale

by Rebecca Weiner (Aceberry)

The events described in "The Bard's Tale" take place between Xena: Warrior Princess episodes, Return of Callisto and Intimate Strangers.

Copyright Statement:

"The Bard's Tale" and "Choices"

© Copyright 1997 by R. G. Weiner (Aceberry)

Xena: Warrior Princess, and the names, titles and backstory used in "The Bard's Tale" are the sole property of MCA. The author intends no copyright infringement through the writing of this fan fiction. The action and events of this story are the creation of the author and may not be sold and may be archived only with the direct permission of the author. Any archives must carry this entire copyright statement.

The crowd stared at the bard standing before them---a young, attractive woman about to regale them with the exciting story of Xena's last battle with Callisto. This was to be the bard's first public appearance since Perdicus' untimely death, an event she anticipated by preparing this very personal story of losing the man she loved. The young bard opened her mouth to speak and was surprised to hear no words come out. She had rehearsed this story many times in her mind; yet, here she was, unable to utter a single word.

Gabrielle stared in panic at her best friend Xena, who sat alone in the back of the tavern with a large mug of mead in her hand. The warrior met her best friend's bewildered stare with an encouraging look of her own. Gabrielle nodded slightly in Xena's direction and exhaled deeply. When she opened her mouth to speak, this time, instead of words or silence, the bard found herself caught up in a fit of coughing. The harder she tried to control it, the more intense her cough became.

The barkeep reached over to hand Gabrielle a cup of water. "You all right?" he asked. Gabrielle nodded but kept coughing. "You wanna wait awhile?" He asked again. Gabrielle could not answer; she was too busy gasping for breath.

When Xena realized that the bard was really in trouble, she rushed up to disperse the crowd that had gathered around Gabrielle, allowing the bard room to breathe. Then Xena grabbed the bard and thumped her hard on the back with her fist. Still, Gabrielle kept coughing. With her best friend no closer to relief, a concerned Xena leaned over and whispered firmly in her ear. "I'm getting you out of here. Now!"

Without waiting for Gabrielle to reply, the warrior placed her arm around the bard's shoulders and guided her quickly out of the tavern and upstairs to the room they had secured for the night. Inside their room, Xena deposited Gabrielle down on her bed and sat down next to her. Within minutes the bard's coughing subsided and her breathing returned to normal.

The two women remained quiet for a long time, Xena gently massaging Gabrielle's shoulders, her heart aching for her best friend.

"Are you all right?" Xena asked, finally. No answer. Gabrielle had turned her face to the wall.

"It was too soon, Gabrielle." Xena continued. "You weren't ready. Next time..."

Gabrielle pounded her fist against the bed, tears flowing freely down her face. "No more stories," she sobbed. "Never again."

Xena reached over to dry Gabrielle's tears. "It was one bad experience, Gabrielle," she insisted, "not enough of a reason to give up being a bard."

Gabrielle shook her head. "It's over, Xena. Don't you see? I don't enjoy telling stories anymore." She started to cry, fresh tears spilling onto her cheeks.

Xena rose from the bed and began to pace the room, unsure how to respond to the bard in this state. As a warrior trained to fight, Xena understood action as a response to adversity and had no clue how to deal with personal emotions, her own or anyone else's, especially Gabrielle.

"It's my fault," Xena muttered. "I didn't think you were ready. I should have stopped you."

Gabrielle turned to face Xena, her teary eyes blazing. "Oh no, you don't, Xena. Not this time. You're not to blame, so don't even try."

The warrior reached out to calm her friend. "All right," she acknowledged. "It just surprised me that you wanted to get back to telling stories to strangers," she said, shaking her head, "when you haven't even told me any stories since Perdicus died."

Xena recalled how earlier that day Gabrielle had been reluctant to relate her story to her, saying she was still working it out in her mind.

"That's unusual for you, Gabrielle. You know how overzealous you get about sharing stories with me."

"I guess so," Gabrielle admitted. "It's just that it's been three months since Perdicus died and that should be enough time."

"Time?" Xena said, raising an eyebrow. "There's no set time to repair grief, Gabrielle. Being a bard requires enormous creative energy and you need to replenish your spirit after losing Perdicus."

"I thought it would help if I talked about Perdicus and Callisto."

Xena shook her head. "Your story is so personal, Gabrielle. How can you possibly hope to share your love of Perdicus with strangers when you haven't finished sorting it out for yourself yet?"

Gabrielle shut her eyes and inhaled deeply. "I wish we had discussed this sooner, Xena," she said.

"Me, too," Xena conceded. "It's just that you were so determined, I didn't allow myself to stop you."

Gabrielle frowned and turned to Xena. "So what now?" she asked. "We need to pay for this room tonight and since I'm not performing as a bard as I promised, we have no money."

Xena shrugged. "We'll just have to find another way."

The warrior walked over to the window at the far end of their room and looked outside. A group of men were gathered in front of the inn arguing who was strongest. Xena smiled as an idea came to her.

"Wait here and rest," she advised Gabrielle. "There's something I have to do." Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest but for the third time that day no words came out. This time it was Xena who stopped her with that no nonsense look of hers that Gabrielle knew so well.

"Trust me, Gabrielle. All right?" Xena gave the bard's arm a quick squeeze as she headed out the door, leaving Gabrielle no further clues about her mysterious mission.

With nothing to do until the warrior's return, Gabrielle fell back into her bed, allowing her thoughts to wander. She had wanted so badly to share with her audience the story of Perdicus and his dreadful murder by Callisto the day after their wedding. It was a story that resided in her heart begging to be told. Why then was it so hard for her to talk about it? She even had trouble discussing Perdicus with Xena, her closest friend, with whom she shared all her thoughts. Perhaps Xena was right and the story was not yet clear in her mind because Gabrielle hadn't finished resolving her own feelings about Perdicus' death. How could she possibly hope to compose a story that had no ending to it in her heart?

As Gabrielle attempted to sort out the many thoughts that were bombarding her mind, she felt overcome by a sudden wave of exhaustion. She slid under the covers of her bed and closed her eyes, allowing her body and mind to sink into a relaxed state.

While drifting off to sleep, she was startled by the piercing sound of a familiar voice---Callisto, her sworn enemy. "Gabrielle, I'm back," she taunted, her mouth curled in a grotesque smile.

"You're dead," Gabrielle growled.

Callisto moved in closer to the bard and seized her arm. "No, no my sweet. My memory lives on in your soul and you, my dear Gabrielle, have a decision to make."

Callisto pulled the reluctant bard through a long narrow passageway and into a large dimly lit chamber. As they entered, Gabrielle was met by an intense blast of heat that surged through her entire body. She looked up and saw a huge flame burning in the center of the room. On one side, tied to a thick wooden post was Xena, her mouth gagged and her eyes open wide with fear. On the other side of the room she saw her beloved Perdicus standing in the exact same pose and predicament as Xena.

Callisto pointed first at Xena and then at Perdicus. "You may save one of them," she instructed the bard. "Who will it be? Your warrior friend or your husband?"

Gabrielle twisted away from Callisto's grasp. "This can't be real. The Xena I know isn't afraid of dying and she isn't afraid of YOU." Callisto moved in closer to Gabrielle, her hot breath skimming the surface of the bard's skin. "Your soul is real, Gabrielle, and I reside there until you make a decision."

"But I love them both. How can I choose?"

"Quickly now, little bard," Callisto urged. "The fire is burning. Time is running out."

Gabrielle felt the intense heat permeate through her skin as she struggled to release Callisto's hold on her...

Gabrielle opened her eyes with a start and found herself sweating profusely, the room darkened as night had descended outside. She was alone; Xena had not yet returned.

Since leaving Gabrielle, Xena had been very busy. First, she went downstairs to the inn to reassure the proprietor that Gabrielle was still alive and they were certainly planning to pay for their room. She wandered over to the bar and scanned the tavern, finding it full of men drinking and bragging about their latest exploits.

"Hey fellas," she shouted. "Anyone interested in a little wager?"

A big burly man with a pock marked face and oily, shoulder length dark hair wandered up to her. "Right here, honey. Whatcha got in mind?"

"An arm wrestle," Xena declared. "Ten dinars says I can drop you like that," she said, snapping her fingers. The man led Xena over to his table and propped up his arm, ready to do battle with his female challenger. Xena's face was impassive while her opponent was all bravado. The man's drinking buddies hooted and howled for their friend to wipe out the warrior woman. The two rivals clasped hands as a tall, gray bearded man called out for the contest to begin. Xena's challenger struggled for the briefest period as she pinned his arm down easily. Xena smiled graciously as ten dinars were deposited on her side of the table. Somehow, word spread outside the tavern about the amazing woman warrior and for the remainder of the afternoon there had stood a long line of men from the village waiting to challenge her.

As twilight came, Xena glanced down at her huge pile of dinars and announced she was finished for the day. After gathering up her winnings, she went over to the proprietor to pay for the room.

"You know where I can find the nearest scribe?" she asked. The proprietor told her of a scribe who had a shop in the center of town. Eager to meet with him, Xena left the tavern.

Gabrielle was hungry, and though she was tempted to go downstairs for some food, she restrained herself. Better to let everyone believe that she was ill than to face a questioning public. The bard was startled out of her reverie by a loud pounding noise at the door.

"You'd think I was deaf or something." she mumbled, as she let Xena in, her arms laden with a huge platter of roast duck and wild rice, a crisp loaf of freshly baked bread, a huge chunk of feta cheese and a jug of mellow red wine.

"What's this?" asked a stunned Gabrielle.

Xena laid down all the food on the table by the window. "A festive dinner to celebrate," she announced. As Gabrielle feasted her eyes on the sumptuous food, Xena casually slipped her stuffed money pouch and a mysteriously wrapped parcel under the table, away from Gabrielle's sight.

Gabrielle squinted at Xena in disbelief. "You didn't kill the cook, did you?" she joked.

Xena laughed. "Come on, Gabrielle. Join me."

The bard sat down next to Xena and the two companions ate ravenously, not speaking until their plates were picked clean, save the bones from the duck. Xena poured a large mug of wine for Gabrielle and one for herself. Gabrielle watched Xena as she poured. Something seemed different about her friend. Then it hit her.

"Why are you using your left hand?"

Xena stared at Gabrielle. "No reason."

Gabrielle grabbed Xena's right hand and the warrior flinched in pain. "What's going on, Xena?"

The warrior placed her good hand under the table and pulled out her money pouch. "Here. See for yourself." Gabrielle poured the contents onto the table and counted the coins. "There's over 500 dinars here! Where'd you get this, Xena?"

Instead of answering, Xena reached down under the table once more and handed Gabrielle the wrapped parcel. Gabrielle's hands shook as she untied Xena's present, a fresh parchment of the finest quality she had ever seen. She stared at Xena and for the fourth time that day Gabrielle was completely speechless. The bard reached out and gave Xena a tight hug, tears streaming down her face. Xena wiped the bard's tears away with her hand. "This is getting to be a habit, Gabrielle," she said with a smile.

Gabrielle laughed through her tears. "I...I...I don't know what say except th...thank you," she stammered.

"Gabrielle, I want you to write your story on this parchment when you're ready. It's a special tale that deserves the finest scroll I can possibly give you." The bard gave Xena another hug. "I will, Xena. I promise." She placed the parchment by her bag and returned to Xena, who was wrapping her hand in some rags.

"What's with your hand?" Gabrielle asked. Xena sat Gabrielle down next to her and explained what she had been doing all afternoon. When she finished Gabrielle was silent.

"Aren't you going to say anything?" Xena asked finally.

Gabrielle grinned. "What do you want me to say? You're crazy?" Xena chuckled.

Gabrielle regarded Xena, her expression serious. "I know how strongly you feel about warriors who show off their prowess for the sake of exhibition," she said. "It must have been hard for you."

Xena shrugged. "Maybe, at first. But between defeating every one of those bragging ruffians and all that money rolling in, I adjusted." They both laughed.

The warrior flinched as Gabrielle gently probed her arm. "It's all swollen, Xena. Will you be all right?"

She nodded. "I've been through a lot worse. A good night's sleep is all I need."

Gabrielle grinned and recited in her best bard's voice. "And you shall have it tonight, O' mighty warrior. For no one in this town shall dare tangle with their arm wrestling champion."

Xena lay on her bed and smiled. "It's only temporary," she said sleepily. "Just enough to save for some things that we need."

Gabrielle wanted to know more, but Xena had already closed her eyes. She seemed so exhausted that Gabrielle decided to let the warrior sleep. Her unanswered questions would, no doubt, wait until morning.

With nothing to do other than think, Gabrielle lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling, her mind wandering to Perdicus and the day he asked her to marry him. She and Xena had been camping out for the night and Xena had heard the noise of an intruder who turned out to be Perdicus. He told Gabrielle that he was done fighting and so, sick at the thought of all the men he had killed in war, he almost killed himself with his sword. It was only when he recalled his love for Gabrielle that Perdicus spared himself, pledging that he would find the bard and ask her to marry him.

Gabrielle and Perdicus had known each other since they were children growing up in Poteidaia together. It had always been assumed by their families and friends that the two would marry someday and raise their own family in Poteidaia. When they became engaged, Perdicus was a farmer and Gabrielle, a simple village girl with wanderlust in her soul.

One day Gabrielle just left Poteidaia without telling anyone, on a personal quest to join Xena, the mysterious warrior who had rescued all the young women in her village (herself included) from being sold as slaves. Gabrielle was enamored of Xena from the moment she met her, the strong, dark haired, sullen warrior committed to turning around her dark past. With Xena, she hoped to live a life of excitement and adventure, finding new stories that would be the envy of any traveling bard.

It turned out almost as Gabrielle had wanted. Traveling with Xena had, in fact, brought her more excitement than she had ever dreamed possible. But beyond their adventures, the two companions were surprised to find that a deep level of committment and love had gradually developed between them, binding them together as adopted sisters and closest of friends.

During their months together, Xena taught Gabrielle many of the skills needed to survive the harsh, uncivilized world of their travels. Gabrielle, in turn, instilled within Xena the faith she needed to believe she was truly capable of redeeming herself from her dark past. The two companions grew together, each in her way, learning to trust each other with their lives and their hearts. And then Gabrielle left Xena for Perdicus.

"You did. Didn't you?" Callisto's voice---again. Gabrielle looked around her surroundings, wondering when she had fallen asleep. This was a dream, was it not? Here she was caught in that same inferno with Callisto by her side, and she didn't even see it coming.

Callisto smiled. "Welcome back, Gabrielle. I was wondering when you'd return."

The bard squinted, trying to gauge her surroundings. She could see an outline of the huge flame flickering before her, but the rest of the scene was shrouded in a deep fog. "Go away Callisto. Haven't you done enough to torture me already? Leave me alone."

"That would be lovely, wouldn't it, Gabrielle. But I can't, my sweet. Not until you make that decision." As Callisto spoke, the fog began to thicken.

"How can I choose something I can't see?"

"You have to feel, Gabrielle," Callisto answered. "What's in your heart?"

By this time the fog was so dense that Gabrielle could not even see Callisto. She walked slowly forward, holding her hands out in front of her in search of the crazed warrior. Gabrielle screamed into the haze. "How dare you tell me to feel? I feel hatred for you every day that you killed Perdicus, that you taunted Xena endlessly with guilt that she created you into the monster you became."

Gabrielle suddenly felt Callisto's hand on her cheek, the only sign she knew that the crazed warrior was beside her. "Your feelings for me are clear, Gabrielle. It's Perdicus and Xena who need to know your decision."

"What decision? I love them both. How can I make a choice?"

The fog lifted, again revealing the raging fire in the center of the room and both Xena and Perdicus tied to wooden posts at opposite ends, with their mouths gagged. "You must decide now," Callisto warned.

The blonde haired warrior walked over to Perdicus and removed his gag. "Tell Gabrielle how you feel about her," she commanded. Perdicus turned to his young widow, his sweet brown eyes looking vulnerable and hurt. "Please Gabrielle. I need you." Callisto slipped on his mouth gag once again.

The blonde warrior strode toward Xena and repeated her instructions. Xena looked at Gabrielle, her clear blue eyes appearing soft and understanding. "Our friendship binds us closer than blood ever could. Follow your heart wherever it leads you, dear friend."

As Callisto replaced the gag on Xena's mouth, she gave it an extra hard tug, causing Xena to glare at her. Then Callisto returned to Gabrielle and proceeded to shake her. "It's time for your decision, little bard."

Gabrielle felt herself struggle with all her strength to release herself from Callisto's grasp...

"Gabrielle, wake up. You're having a nightmare." The bard opened her eyes and found herself staring up at Xena, who was holding onto her arms tightly, a troubled expression on her face.

"Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

The warrior smoothed the hair resting on Gabrielle's forehead. "You didn't. I've been up for awhile, watching you thrash around in your sleep. It must have been some nightmare."

Gabrielle sat up in her bed. "It was." She paused and took a deep breath. "Callisto was in it, and you, and Perdicus..." She stopped speaking and looked as though she wanted to cry.

"Go on," Xena said softly. "Tell me what happened."

"I can't," she said, gritting her teeth. "It's too painful." Xena placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and looked directly into her eyes.

"Gabrielle, listen to me. You won't stop having these nightmares until you face the truth." Her voice trailed off. "I know."

"It's so hard, Xena. I don't know if I can."

"You've helped me do it, Gabrielle. Surely you can find the strength to help yourself. And," the warrior quietly added, "I'm here for you."

Gabrielle gently, but firmly, tried to push Xena away from her. "You're tired. Go back to sleep."

"And you're being a coward," Xena said, tapping Gabrielle lightly on the arm. "Tell me your nightmare."

The bard took a deep breath and looked into Xena's deep blue eyes, finding strength and compassion in their expression. Armed with her best friend's faith in her, Gabrielle reluctantly related her dream, leaving out none of the details. When she finished, Xena nodded slowly. "So what do you think?" she asked the bard.

Gabrielle frowned. "I just told you my nightmare. Now you want me to explain it?"

"That's usually the next step," Xena retorted. "Come on, Gabrielle. It's obvious what's going on."

"Then tell me, O' brave and brilliant warrior, because I certainly don't know."

Xena shook her head, somewhat amused at the bard's reluctance to understand her dream. "This is your nightmare we're exploring. Not mine."

Gabrielle didn't respond, as a new thought unexpectedly occurred to her. "Xena, when I left to marry Perdicus how did you feel?"

Xena was surprised to find her body grow suddenly tense at the unexpected question. She glanced at Gabrielle, who was watching her closely. "I gave you my blessing. You know that. But you, Gabrielle, never once shared how you felt about it."

The bard closed her eyes and thought of her dream and the decision Callisto was forcing her to make. Was this what she meant---to face her feelings about Xena when she agreed to marry Perdicus? When she opened them again she studied Xena's face to search for any clue to her feelings on the matter. To her surprise, the eyes that stared back at her were distraught with pain.

"Xena, why are you looking at me that way? What have I done to you?"

Xena cut her off. "Not now, Gabrielle. I can't." The warrior left Gabrielle's side and went to lie down on her bed. "There's still some time until daybreak. Big day tomorrow. We can both use some sleep."

Gabrielle lay quietly in her bed resisting the urge to pursue their dialogue further. She tried closing her eyes but could not shake the image of Xena's anguish from her mind. In all their time together since Perdicus had died Xena had never once indicated that she had been hurt by Gabrielle's leaving her to marry Perdicus. On the contrary, Xena had encouraged her to follow her heart, going so far as to dispel any doubts the bard had about marrying Perdicus.

Gabrielle had no idea when she finally fell asleep. It was only when Callisto appeared to her that she knew she must have been dreaming. "Gabrielle, time is short," Callisto warned. "You must choose now between your husband and your warrior. Who will it be?"

"This is crazy, Callisto. I won't choose. I love them both."

"You can't, Gabrielle. One must be hurt. Who is it, my sweet?" The flame grew larger and more intense. Gabrielle stumbled backwards, feeling a desperate panic seize her soul.

"I never meant to hurt you, Xena," she cried. "I only wanted to love Perdicus."

Gabrielle watched in horror, as the flame shot out toward her best friend, her pained eyes staring straight at the bard. Callisto issued a mocking laugh, her white teeth gleaming in the shadows of the burning fire. The bard fell to the ground as the roaring fire consumed Xena, her best friend. "No, not you, Xena," she wailed, the sound of her voice echoing inside the room like shattering crystal...

Gabrielle opened her eyes and sat upright in her bed, unnerved by the sound of her heart pounding wildly in her chest. She eyed Xena's bed. It was empty, the warrior nowhere in sight. Outside, the sun was shining and on the table was a plate of crisp bacon, a loaf of hot garlic bread and a large cup of cider.

Gabrielle forced herself to munch on the garlic bread, feeling little pleasure in this culinary delight, as it dawned on her how much she had hurt Xena by marrying Perdicus. If only she could talk to her, tell her how she felt, why she did it. As she was drinking the last of her cider, the door opened and in walked Xena.

"Come on, Gabrielle. We're leaving. Pack your things." The warrior's manner was brusque, leaving no doubt in Gabrielle's mind that this was not the right time to approach her.

The two women worked silently emptying the room of their belongings. When they finished, Xena led the way downstairs and outside the tavern where Argo was waiting. Without a word passing between them, Xena climbed on Argo and extended a hand toward Gabrielle.

The warrior and the bard rode silently for several hours until the sun was directly overhead. Gabrielle had no idea where they were headed, nor was she inclined to ask. The last part of their journey was up a steep, narrow incline on the side of a mountain. As they continued to climb higher, Gabrielle buried her head into Xena's back, too dizzy to look down, lest she fall to the valley below.

At last, they approached the mouth of a cave resting on the mountain top. Xena halted Argo and helped Gabrielle to dismount. Hoisting both saddlebags onto her strong shoulders, the warrior led the way inside the cave and tossed their belongings onto the ground. She glanced once, briefly, at the bard, before turning to leave the cave. Gabrielle followed, not quite sure what to expect. The warrior seemed either angry or hurt, her guarded expression leaving her mood wide open to Gabrielle's speculation. Knowing the taciturn warrior as well as she did, Gabrielle recognized it was her task to break the deadlock of silence between them.

"Xena," she began, "Are you angry? Because if you are we need to..."

"I'm not angry." Xena interrupted , her tone firm. "Just," she shook her head at Gabrielle. "Never mind."

"What, Xena?"

Xena did not reply immediately, taking her time to choose the right words. "Gabrielle, the two of us need some time apart right now. Nothing serious," she added quickly. "Just the rest of the day. I need to run some errands that should keep me away until sundown." She paused, her clear blue eyes intent on the bard. "Why don't you use this time to work on your story? Then we'll talk."

"Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't..."

Xena interrupted her with a wave of her hand. "Work on your story, Gabrielle. It'll help you to understand some things."

"My nightmares?"

"That, and other things...about us." Xena turned to leave. "When I get back I expect to hear all about your latest story. Otherwise, my little bard, you're in serious trouble."

Gabrielle snickered. "And what will happen to me, O' mighty warrior?" She challenged.

"I led my army with a strong hand. That's all you need to know." Xena's expression was unreadable leading Gabrielle to conclude that she would be most wise to finish her story just in case...

After Xena left, Gabrielle found a broad flat rock a short distance from the cave where she settled down to savor the magnificent scenery, on this mountain so high over the rest of the world. The sky above seemed so reachable at this height, almost as though she could extend her arms upwards to touch the deep blue expanse lined with snow-white clouds, fluffing out like soft cushioned pillows. The air was comfortably cool, the way Gabrielle liked it, with a slight wind to balance the intensity of the hot midday sun. She breathed deeply, time and again, relishing the clean, sweet, fresh fragrance of mountain air; a hungered bard seeking inspiration for a long sought story.

Much as she enjoyed traveling with Xena, the good natured bard found the warrior's extended periods of moodiness to be, at times, burdensome, prompting her to use her periods of solitude as an opportunity to gain a positive sense of her own equilibrium. Strange that the talkative bard should feel that way, but much lay beneath the young woman's exterior that Xena, more than anyone else in her life, had grown to appreciate. In their travels together, Xena had discovered a secret about her best friend that the loquacious bard had kept hidden from the rest of the world. Though she was quite skilled at drawing out the warrior or others about their feelings, she, herself, was somewhat inept at perceiving her own emotions.

It was maddening to the bard that Xena so readily grasped the meaning of her nightmares while she, herself, was struggling with that understanding. That was probably why Xena had pushed her to write a story, as a way for Gabrielle to understand her heart. Why, she wondered, didn't Xena clue her in on the source of her nightmares? Gabrielle smiled to herself as she immediately grasped the answer. Like everything else that Xena had taught her, this was a lesson the warrior insisted that her best friend learn on her own.

As she thought about it, there were times she felt, from Xena's attitude, that she may have hurt the proud warrior in some unknown way when she had left to marry Perdicus; but she could never be sure. Xena never said anything to her. She knew that the wedding had been difficult for Xena. It was for her, too. When she listened to the minister drone on about the marriage vows between herself and Perdicus, instead of feeling pure joy, her heart was divided, feeling love for Perdicus and anguish at leaving Xena behind. When Xena had refused to say good-bye and promised to visit the bard often, Gabrielle had felt instant relief, thinking that they would stay in constant touch and that Xena would be fine without her. She now knew otherwise.

In Gabrielle's nightmares, Callisto had urged her to make a decision. In her dream, as in life, she chose Perdicus, leaving Xena alone to face her raging demons. What an awful predicament for Gabrielle--to choose between the two people she loved most, both of whom needed her to define their lives.

It was then that the idea for a story came to her. Gabrielle ran into the cave to retrieve her new manuscript from Xena along with her writing instruments. The first few lines of her poem were difficult to compose, but as her feelings emerged, the words began to flow. As the sun began to set and the weather cooled, Gabrielle paused from her writing to gather wood for a fire and herbs for tea to serve Xena when she returned from her trip. Once she had the fire burning inside the cave, Gabrielle resumed her writing until she felt she was done. The bard read her poem aloud to hear how it sounded. When she was satisfied with the end result, Gabrielle set the manuscript aside and prepared her bedroll for a short nap.

It was almost twilight when Xena returned, feeling tired and cold from her long trip. At the same time she also felt mentally invigorated from the experiences of her day, having ridden Argo with abandon for long stretches of time and spending much of her time by a lake on the way to her errands, swimming and luxuriating in the sun's rays. Throughout the day she thought about Gabrielle's nightmares and her own emotional anguish that had flared up as a result. She came to no conclusions, other than she loved Gabrielle and that they would somehow work out their differences, as they always had in the past. It was these positive thoughts that guided Xena as she entered the cave.

The fire had burned low and Gabrielle was snuggled inside her bedroll, her body motionless in the evening chill. Xena gathered some pieces of wood from the pile Gabrielle had left by the cave's entrance and threw them into the fire. She looked over at the motionless form sleeping so peacefully on the ground, and smiled affectionately at her silent companion. The fact that Gabrielle was sleeping so soundly was a good sign, for it meant her dreams were free of Callisto. The warrior grinned to herself. Her story idea must have worked, after all.

Xena bent over the bard and shook her gently. "Gabrielle, are you awake?" The bard mumbled something unintelligible as she groped her way forward in the direction of Xena's voice. "Of course, I'm up," she slurred, finally. "Can't you tell?"

"I'd be more convinced if you opened your eyes." Xena retorted. Gabrielle rubbed her eyes and blinked several times. With some help from Xena, she even managed to sit up. The warrior was smiling. "Xena, do you seem in a good mood or am I dreaming sitting up?"

The warrior laughed and joined Gabrielle by the fire. "Show me your story," she urged. "Or better yet, tell it to me."

"Would you like some tea or wine before I begin?" Gabrielle offered. "How about some bread and hard cheese?"

The warrior shook her head. "I'm fine, Gabrielle. I'd like your story. Now."

"You're pushing me, warrior princess. A bard doesn't like to be pressured."

"And this audience doesn't like to be kept waiting."

Gabrielle gave up trying to get in the last word and went to retrieve her scroll from her saddlebag. She stepped up the broad, flat rock she had used as a platform when she had recited her poem earlier and unrolled her manuscript. Xena sat cross legged by the fire, her eyes focused on the bard standing a short distance away.

"I wrote this poem on the beautiful parchment you gave me, Xena. It's simple, not flowery or elegant, as the words on this parchment are meant to be, but these are the words that frame my heart."


I love a man I've known since childhood.
I left him once before.
And then he changed.
Came back to me,
I love him even more.

  I must now make a choice.

I love a woman who's my best friend.
We travel side by side.
She's my trusted companion.
My warrior princess.
My inspiration, my courage,
My guide.

  I must now make a choice.

I share two loves.
They both embrace me.
Two souls,
Yearning, bleeding,
Want me in their lives.

  I must now make a choice.

The man asks me for my hand,
To wed forevermore.
I know not how to tell him,
What lies beneath my core.
How can I leave you?
Warrior Princess,
Best friend of my life.

  I must now make a choice.

And once again Callisto comes,
To fight us to the end.
The man leans down,
Throws down his sword,
Declares he'll kill no more.
His eyes so gentle, sweet and kind,
Show agonies of war.
I cannot help but love this man,
His pain so deep and sure.
So I say yes.
And then we wed.

  Our love cycle complete.

I watch the sadness in her eyes.
Her heart reaches out to mine.
My soul is torn.
My heart divided.
To my warrior princess,
How I yearn to share with her
    my heart.

  I have now made a choice.

As she recited her poem Gabrielle found herself reading most of the verses from her scroll, too uncomfortable to look directly at Xena. It was only during the last stanza that she dared to glance up for some kind of reaction from the warrior. There was none, at least that she could see. Xena's head was hung low, almost to her knees, her long dark hair streamed loosely around her. Gabrielle sat next to Xena and draped her arm over the warrior's slumped form. They stayed that way for quite awhile until Xena finally looked up at her best friend. The warrior had been crying; her eyes, red, and her cheeks, wet with tears. The two women eyed each other, neither one daring to speak her innermost thoughts.

"Xena, you all right?" Gabrielle reached over to dry Xena's tears, gliding her fingertips slowly along the warrior's tanned features with soft, gentle strokes. A brief smile flickered across the warrior's lips, easing the burden that weighed heavily on the bard's mind. Thank the gods, Xena wasn't angry. Then why had she cried?

"I know my poem's bad, Xena, but do you really have to get so worked up about it? You're a warrior princess, you're not supposed to cry." Xena's smile broadened, her moist eyes glistening beneath her tears. Still, she remained silent.

"Say something, Xena, anything. We bards," Gabrielle checked herself. "No, this bard---I'm feeling insecure right now and your silence isn't helping."

Xena laid a reassuring hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'm sorry." she said, clearing her throat, "I didn't mean to upset you. It's just that there are so many emotions running through my mind it's hard to express them all." The warrior gave her friend a purposeful look. "And you know how I am about feelings!" They both grinned.

The solemn mood resumed, the bard and the warrior sitting quietly together, each engrossed in her own private thoughts. After awhile, Xena stretched her body and began to rise. "Fire's low." she murmured. Gabrielle reached up and firmly pulled Xena down beside her. "It's warm enough," she said. "Come on, Xena. Talk to me. Say what's on your mind. I can handle it." Gabrielle wasn't really sure about that, but anything was better than this unbearable, long silence between them.

The warrior turned to her. "It's not you I'm worried about," she suggested.

"Oh gods," the bard jested. "Can this really be happening? The warrior princess is actually thinking of herself first."

Xena smiled at Gabrielle and then turned to stare into the low fire, her clear blue eyes reflecting the brightness of the glowing embers. She soon returned her gaze to Gabrielle, who sat patiently watching her.

"Your poem touched me very deeply, Gabrielle, especially the last part." The warrior paused. "I understand your dilemma much better now, having to choose between the two people you love." Xena picked up a small flat stone from the ground and with a quick flick of her wrist, tossed it high in the air. She watched as the stone descended, letting it drop close to the ground before she snared it in her hand. Xena uncovered the stone and rotated it slowly between her thumb and forefinger to examine each side. At first glance, the stone appeared to be relatively smooth, but as the warrior rubbed the rock between her fingers she felt tiny bumps that made the texture of both sides feel coarse and uneven. She looked at the rock one more time. "I think you made the right choice." She said, finally, to Gabrielle. "I'm only sorry it ended so tragically for you."

"It didn't," Gabrielle said.

Xena looked puzzled. "Gabrielle---you chose Perdicus. Didn't you? And he died in the end. That's not tragic?"

The bard shook her head. "I chose Perdicus and our life together was cut short. But I spent all day thinking about it and I wonder if we would have stayed happy." Gabrielle looked down at her hands and clasped them together, lacing her fingers into a braid. "Perdicus and I had so little time before our wedding to find out if we really belonged together. Maybe destiny meant for it to be this way so I could be with you in the end."

Xena frowned as the impact of Gabrielle's words struck her. "Don't do this to yourself, Gabrielle. You have every right to your beautiful memory and I won't allow you to ruin it by trying to justify yourself to me."

Gabrielle covered her face with her hands and shut her eyes, wondering why it was so hard for her to communicate with Xena. Somehow, she had to make Xena understand. The bard breathed in deeply before looking up again at the warrior. "When I married Perdicus I was confused. He was so traumatized by killing that soldier during that battle in the village with Callisto, I needed time to know I wasn't marrying him out of pity or obligation. But Perdicus pushed me into a decision I wasn't prepared to make."

"You could have talked to him, Gabrielle, told him how you felt. You didn't have to give in to his pressure."

"You're right. I didn't speak up, but there's something else, too," Gabrielle admitted, pursing her lips together. "You and I are so close, Xena. We share everything, but you've had so much experience doing what I never had... done before and have wanted for so long, to love a man. I thought I could love Perdicus, like you loved Marcus." Gabrielle lowered her voice. "I thought you understood." Xena closed her eyes, a look of pain flashing across her face at the mention of her dead lover. The bard paused, to allow her best friend a chance to recoup from her own painful memories. Then the warrior nodded toward Gabrielle, a small unspoken gesture that Gabrielle understood to mean that the warrior had worked through her pain.

"It's just so confusing," Gabrielle continued. "I wanted Perdicus, but once I had him, I finally understood how much more you mean to me than I ever knew." The warrior placed an arm around the bard's shoulders and leaned in toward Gabrielle, their heads touching. They stayed that way for several minutes, savoring the quiet intimacy between them. It was Gabrielle who finally broke the mood, shifting toward the fire to feed a handful of twigs into the dying embers. As she watched the small sticks ignite into a small, but fleeting flame , Gabrielle could sense Xena's deep blue eyes boring into her back. The bard glanced up to meet the warrior's penetrating stare. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, her green eyes never leaving Xena's gaze.

"Do you know that after the wedding I couldn't stop talking about you to Perdicus? It was only after he introduced a new subject to me later that night that I even stopped thinking about you." Gabrielle turned to the side and blushed, her meaning clear.

"And that new subject," Xena grinned, "was it satisfying?"

"Very." Gabrielle said, returning Xena's grin.

"It's good, then, that you have this cherished memory of you and Perdicus."

Gabrielle's face reddened. "You're also part of that memory, Xena," she blurted out. The warrior raised a bewildered eyebrow at her companion, who mumbled something unintelligible about this stupid bard's inability to express herself. Gabrielle drew in another deep breath to try again.

"When Perdicus fell asleep I lay in his arms feeling content by what we had shared, but all I could think about was you out in the woods somewhere, all alone."

As Xena heard those last words, she felt her body grow rigid and her mood turn abruptly sour. Damn the bard for bringing up her wedding night. Xena had fought so hard to forget the loneliness of that horrid night; the flow of tears that had turned into wracking sobs as her mind filled with powerful images of the young, loving couple laughing together, lying together and enjoying moments of passion, too painful for the lonely warrior to fathom. Xena closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, willing her mind to shut out all those hideous memories, private thoughts she could never share with Gabrielle.

After a few minutes she glanced at the bard who was watching her, a look of concern on her face, or was it fear? Xena couldn't be certain, and strangely enough, at that moment she didn't care. She was feeling anger toward the bard, though she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the strain of helping Gabrielle sort through her feelings these past two days. All those raw emotions flowing back and forth between the two of them was too much for the stoic warrior to bear. Xena rubbed her temples, trying to clear her aching head. Hadn't she been through enough already, struggling through Gabrielle's failure to deliver her story, listening to the bard's nightmares and now this, having to endure Gabrielle's description of her night of passion with Perdicus, damn him, topped off by Gabrielle feeling pity for the lonely warrior? The bard had pushed too far. No one, not even her best friend, had the right to impose on the proud warrior's most distinctive trait---her dignity.

"That's very touching, Gabrielle." Xena said coldly. " But let me assure you that I was too busy tracking Callisto to give you any thought that night." The warrior's voice had a hard edge to it, sending a clear signal to Gabrielle to drop the subject. Gabrielle, however, was too upset by Xena's callous tone to heed her warning.

"Oh, that's right, Xena. You're a warrior trained to control your emotions. How silly of me to think otherwise."

Xena rose abruptly and went to arrange her bed roll, taking in long, even breaths of air, as she worked to unfold her blankets. "Maybe this wasn't a good idea." she said, finally, as she spread her bed roll on the ground. "Let's stop now. We're both tired and it's been a long day."

Gabrielle circled around the fire to where Xena was standing and, green eyes flashing, unleashed the deluge of angry words that lay within her heart. "No, Xena. I won't let you do this to me. Since last night you've ignored me, made me feel guilty, and left me alone all day to face my truth about a choice I made that's upset both of us. Now when I'm honest, you run away from it. Tell me your truth, Xena. Or is the warrior princess really a coward at heart?"

Xena pushed the bard roughly aside and stormed over to the cave's entrance. Gabrielle chased after her and managed to grab the warrior's arm, a torrent of unexpected words rushing desperately from her lips. "Xena, I love you. You're my best friend. My family. I hurt you and I don't know how to fix it without you. Please help me."

Xena froze, the bard's plea having found its way straight to the warrior's heart. She turned slowly, as if in a trance, and allowed Gabrielle to lead her back into the cave. The two women sat quietly by the fire, both feeling drained by their tense exchange. With her head finally clear, Xena gazed into the bard's eyes and swallowed...hard.

"When you first told me you were marrying Perdicus I wanted to be the good and loving friend, so I was happy for you --- until your wedding. That's when I realized all I had lost." Xena picked up a thin branch lying by the fire and twirled it slowly in her hand. "The night of your wedding I didn't set up camp, dreading the thought of being alone. I didn't want to think about...anything." She flung down the branch and turned to the bard, her eyes fraught with pain. "Gabrielle, you think of me as a warrior who has nothing to fear. Not true," Xena confessed. "Without you by my side my fears are endless." The warrior closed her eyes and did not move, not even when she felt Gabrielle snuggle up next to her.

"You're not alone, Xena. I'm here with you now, " Gabrielle said gently, hugging the warrior.

Xena opened her eyes to look at her best friend. "For how long, Gabrielle?" she asked quietly. "Ours is not a permanent arrangement. Either one of us is free to leave." With a deep sigh, the warrior pulled away from the bard's embrace. "When you came into my life I allowed you safe passage into my heart. It hurt so much to let you go. I don't know if I can go through that again."

Undaunted by the warrior's desire for distance between them, Gabrielle moved in closer to her best friend and took her hand. "Face it, warrior princess. I'm not going anywhere. I made my choice --- to be with you." She looked up at Xena suddenly and grinned. "It's you I'm worried about. You can meet some former warrior you once loved, that you haven't told me about, who will once again claim your heart. Then who's the one who will be devastated?" Xena smiled at the unlikely thought. "It works both ways, Xena," the bard persisted. "Don't you see? I want to be with you for a very long time, possibly forever, but we can't be sure that will happen." Gabrielle halted, unwilling to pursue that thought further. "So let's just enjoy whatever time we have together and the next time something comes up between us," she said, staring hard at Xena, "we talk more."

Xena shook her head. "Not on your life," she said, with a hint of a smile. "Next time we arm wrestle."

"That's not fair," the bard complained. "You'd always win." Xena arched an eyebrow, causing Gabrielle to laugh. "Of course we could even the odds more," the bard suggested. Xena furrowed her brow, allowing the bard to continue. "All right." Gabrielle said, flexing her muscles. "Let's try this out. Both my arms against your right one. How about it, Xena?" The warrior shrugged, the bright gleam in her eye suggesting she was becoming interested. "If I win," Gabrielle laughed nervously, "I become the new, undisputed arm wrestling champion who gets to order you around for a week, maybe two." The warrior tilted her head slightly, her eyes rolling upward. "If you win, Xena," the bard paused, "you can keep on ordering me around the way you usually do."

Xena extended her right arm toward Gabrielle who gripped it firmly. "Let's get going then. Shall we?" the warrior said, at last.

The two opponents lowered themselves onto the floor, Gabrielle's two hands clasping Xena's sore right one. The warrior eased her arm halfway to the ground, to give the bard an even greater advantage. As Gabrielle counted to start, Xena made her move, pushing down hard on her opponent's arms. Just as it seemed Gabrielle was about to lose, she looked up past Xena and let out a terrified scream. "Xena, behind you. Look out." The warrior instinctively turned her head, allowing Gabrielle to use all her weight to pin Xena's arm down. When it was over, Gabrielle jumped up and cheered.

Xena remained on the ground, clutching her right arm tightly to her chest. "Gabrielle, my arm. What have you done? It hurts like Hades!" The warrior sucked air in between clenched teeth and eyed the bard, who winced under her scrutiny.

"Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. I was only having some fun." Gabrielle leaned down and gingerly held her friend's arm to examine it. The next thing she knew she was lying on the ground, pinned down by Xena, who was sitting over her.

Gabrielle was not at all amused. "Not fair, Xena. C'mon, let me go." The warrior pressed down hard on her stomach. Gabrielle smiled pleasantly at the warrior, despite her pain. "Is there a magic word I'm supposed to say or something?" Xena loosened her hold to allow the bard some breathing space. "I'm sorry, Xena," Gabrielle said, finally. "I didn't mean to hurt your arm, or your dignity." Suddenly, Gabrielle found herself back on her feet beside a grim-faced Xena.

"Next time you challenge me, Gabrielle, don't cheat," she warned. Gabrielle lowered her eyes as she felt Xena release her arm, but brightened instantly, when she felt Xena's hand glide gently across her back, a sure sign that the warrior considered the incident to be closed and forgotten.

The two women busied themselves with their nighttime ritual; Gabrielle placing more wood in the fire, while Xena was removing her armor. Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle could see the warrior struggling with her right arm to unclasp the buckle on her back. The young woman moved over wordlessly, to help Xena, who smiled her thanks at Gabrielle when she was done. "You should have asked me to help you," the bard lectured. Xena murmured something about Gabrielle being too busy with the fire. Gabrielle shook her finger at the warrior.

"Xena, you have to learn to trust me and not feel so proud if you need my help. As long as you don't open up to me, what's the use?" Gabrielle stared down at the ground and kicked the dirt with her boot, wondering if it was a mistake to let her guard down about so sensitive an issue, that plagued her far more than she had ever let on to Xena. The warrior drew her dejected companion close to her and gave her a brief hug.

"I know it's hard for you, Gabrielle, when I don't share my feelings. I'm sorry." The warrior shook her head regretfully. "I've lived this way for so long it's hard to change." She looked into Gabrielle's eyes, which had softened considerably at the warrior's disclosure. "Please be patient with me. I will improve." Xena smiled when she felt the bard's arm encircle her waist.

"Xena...don't apologize...just improve." Gabrielle said with a twinkle in her eyes. The two friends laughed heartily at a familiar joke between them.

Exhausted by the day's events, the two women collapsed into their bedrolls, craving sleep. They lay quietly, relaxing their bodies; the cave silent, except for the occasional sound of wood crackling in the fire. Gabrielle glanced at Xena who was lying on her back, her eyes open, and her head resting over her arms. She hated to disturb the warrior, who looked so peaceful. Still---it was important. Just then the warrior turned on her side and gazed at Gabrielle, a big grin on her face.

"What's so funny, Xena?"

"I was just thinking of you on a horse," the warrior explained. "That's what I did today," she confessed. "I went looking for a horse for you."

"So, that's why you arm wrestled!" Gabrielle burst out.

The warrior nodded. "You've been so miserable since Perdicus died. Then after what happened at the tavern, I wanted to do something special for you."

"Xena, I don't know what to say except, what makes you think I even want a horse?" Gabrielle quickly put her hand to her mouth, and gasped, wide eyed, at her lack of tact.

Xena chuckled at her friend's discomfort. "Gabrielle, there is no horse. I found one I thought you'd like, then I realized it was your decision to make, not mine. The money's there for you, though, if and when you decide you want to get a horse... or something else."

Gabrielle moved over to Xena's bedroll and threw her arms around her, almost knocking over the surprised warrior.

Xena loosened the bard's tight hold on her neck . "Gabrielle, this is getting to be a habit."

"Good or bad?" the bard asked.

Xena smiled. "You decide."

"I could always consult with Callisto." Gabrielle joked.

"She's dead, little bard," Xena muttered, her face hardening. "I doubt she'll be coming back to haunt you again."

"Well then," the bard said, nestling her head comfortably on Xena's shoulder, "I guess that means I'm stuck with you, huh?"

"I guess so." Xena pulled her arm around Gabrielle, and, for the first time in weeks, felt the closeness she had missed for so long, return for her best friend.

Just as it seemed the two companions were ready for sleep, Gabrielle lifted her head from Xena's shoulder and called out to her friend.

"Hmmm," the warrior murmured, her eyes closed.

"I want to thank you for helping me with my nightmares, getting me to write my poem and everything else. I couldn't have done it without your help," the bard said.

Xena stirred and looked at Gabrielle. "We helped each other, Gabrielle. Don't forget that."

"Do you understand my choice now, Xena?"

"Yes, I do." she said softly, ruffling the bard's hair. "Now get some sleep," she added with a light hearted growl.


The tavern was crowded with people waiting expectantly for the young bard to begin her story. She opened her mouth to speak. "As a bard it's so much easier for me to tell other people's stories than to share one of my own..."

Xena leaned back in her chair and listened as Gabrielle recounted to her audience a somewhat modified account of the story the two best friends had shared the night before. That was fine with Xena, who felt relieved the real story would remain exclusively between them. She stared serenely at the bard, who smiled back at her. The story should have ended as planned, but didn't, much to Xena's chagrin.

"I wouldn't be up here now if it weren't for the one person who is so special to my life," the bard added. "You may know her as the warrior princess or, better yet, as the arm wrestling champion. But to me, Xena is my soul mate, my mentor, my best friend, and I owe her my life many times over, including tonight. After Perdicus died she supported me in my grief, no matter how impossible I behaved, and I was difficult," Gabrielle emphasized. "There's a reason she arm wrestled so many of you in this tavern, and it wasn't a warrior's ego. She did it to buy me a special gift, to make me to feel better about myself. Xena believed in me as a bard, so she made me sit down and write this story, despite the emotional pain. This was my story and I'm proud to have shared it with you tonight. Thank you."

Gabrielle looked out toward Xena and noticed her place was empty. She quickly scanned the rest of the tavern, but the warrior was nowhere in sight. The bard wanted to rush out to find her as soon as her story was over, but so many people in the audience came by to hand her dinars for an exceptional story, she found it impossible to leave. When the last of her admirers had left, Gabrielle hurried from the tavern and raced down the block for the town stable, where she knew she would find Xena.

The warrior was stroking Argo, whom she had just saddled. She looked up when she heard Gabrielle's soft footsteps enter the stable. "Are you angry with me, Xena?" the bard asked quietly.

"No, not angry, Gabrielle, just very uncomfortable," the warrior said. "I don't like it when you expose me in public like that."

"And I don't like when you're so over protective of me for my own good, either." the bard said, "but I accept it because I trust you."

"What are you saying?" Xena asked, pulling at Argo's reigns. The horse, noting his mistress' displeasure, lifted her head and snorted at the bard. Gabrielle reached out to pat Argo, but changed her mind, standing up to Xena, instead.

"As long as we're discussing my being a bard, there's something we need to get straight between us." Gabrielle said firmly. "When I tell stories about you I do it to spread the good you bring to people's lives, not to embarrass you. You told me a long time ago you wanted to heal your soul and I believed in you. Telling stories about your good deeds is my way to get others to believe in you, too." Argo whickered as Gabrielle finally patted her neck. "Those people at the tavern, deserved to know that the arm wrestling champion who took their dinars was really being a generous and loving friend to me. If you don't like it, Xena, that's too bad, but as long as we're together, you had better learn to trust me as a bard, like I trust you as a warrior."

"I don't like it." Xena said, with a slight shake of her head. "but I will trust you. Now get on Argo." she urged, as she mounted her horse. "We're heading for Athens and it's a long way."

Gabrielle held out her hand to Xena who pulled up the bard to sit behind her. "What's in Athens?" the bard asked, as they left the stable.

"The academy," Xena said, pushing Argo forward into a gallop. "We have a story to deliver there personally, 'The Bard's Tale.' Any objections?"

Once again, the bard was speechless.


With very special thanks to fellow bards, Rebekah, timwellman, Dancyer Mccoy and Storygal for their invaluable input into my story. To Rebekah for her attention to details and for challenging me to work on my story until we were both satisfied with the results, to Tim for believing in me as a writer and teaching me the technical end of posting on the net, to my pub pal, Dance, for her continuous encouragement and feedback, and to Storygal for her valued advice on pursuing a more satisfying epilogue.



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