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DISCLAIMER: Most of these characters (the obvious, recognizable ones) are the property of MCA/Universal Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters and the story depicted here are mine.

TIMELINE: These events follow the events of Sacrifice 2. I decided this was as good a way as any to resolve that scenario. At any rate, it sure beats summer reruns. Keep in mind, however ... this author has been away from the keyboard for a while. She might be a little rusty, OK?

DEDICATION: This story is lovingly dedicated to members of my own faithful 'Circle of Support' whose patience and understanding during my recent, and rather frightening, personal crisis of faith gave me the courage and reliance to 'climb back in the saddle' and indulge those creative juices again. Number One Officer in this troupe gets a special mention; as always, my Canadian Muse remained loyal, supportive and, in every way, incredibly generous. For her kindness and compassion, I will forever give thanks daily.

LMC, this one's for you. With all I have. MMG.

Heart's Promise
by Maggie
Copyright 7/98

Chapter One

Lanessa approached the sullen, recumbent figure with caution. Even though she still regarded the tall, dark-haired female as her oldest and most honored friend, she had learned not to intrude on the warrior's contemplation without warning. As it was, the closer she came to the silent, slender form, the more her heart ached for the anguish plainly apparent in the woman's despondent manner.

It had been nearly a moon since Xena had appeared at her door, drenched, disheveled and covered in mud and sweat. The warrior had nearly collapsed into the petite woman's arms, so visibly distraught and frightfully incoherent that, at first Lanessa assumed she had suffered some traumatic physical injury or battle wound. After she had managed to direct the stumbling woman to the bed in the small room beyond the kitchen, she had removed the filthy, mud-caked leathers from the shivering form and carefully examined the battered, bronze torso for any signs of serious damage.

Having found only minor, superficial abrasions and scratches, she'd gently washed away the dirt and debris, wrapped the trembling figure in soft, clean covers and stroked the woman's feverish brow until, at last, she had managed to coax the tormented warrior into a fitful sleep. While her patient rested, Lanessa tended to the needs of the great palomino mare who had accompanied the tall, slender traveler - and who waited patiently outside the lovely cottage until the small, kind woman renewed their longtime acquaintance.

Three days later, when Xena finally regained some semblance of awareness, Lanessa had learned the reason for the warrior's unscheduled return to her home village, as well as the cause of the woman's unmistakable grief. That day she had held her sobbing friend close, offering quiet, compassionate support for her devastating loss. Her tears joined those of her friend as she recalled her own memories of the lovely, unique young woman they now mourned together.

It was two days before Xena left the small room adjoining the kitchen and another three before she felt strong enough to leave the cottage, at least to sit on the wooden bench surrounding the large, leafy tree in the front yard. During that time, she ate and drank whatever Lanessa had placed before her, allowed her small friend to wash and brush her hair, accepted the simple, functional clothing her hostess had supplied, even followed Lanessa's directions to make use of the large, serviceable bathing tub enclosed in the shed behind the house. What she hadn't indulged in was any further conversation concerning the agony resulting from the passing of her best friend. Lanessa had elected to let the warrior progress to that stage of recovery at her own, personal pace ... until the drinking began.

For most of the remaining time since her arrival, the warrior's behavior had alternated between drunken delirium, pathetic lamentation and silent, contemptuous self-loathing. Regardless of the sympathetic, heartfelt attempts made by both her mother and her oldest friend, Xena had shown a limited inclination toward any recognizable progress in dealing with Gabrielle's death. If anything, she seemed to be slipping deeper and deeper into an endless chasm of regrets, remorse and recrimination ... mostly directed at herself.

When she wasn't mentally chastising and rebuking herself or ingesting intoxicating, numbing liquids in an effort to combat the staggering, insidious feelings of guilt threatening her sanity and her perception, Xena had been experiencing sinister nightmares and coherence-challenging visions that tormented her sensibilities and intensified the agonizing loneliness engulfing her.

For that reason, Lanessa had made a decision. It was time to fulfill her own promise to Gabrielle. She took a long, steady breath, pulled her shawl tighter and moved closer to her grieving friend. For a moment, she thought the warrior princess had surrendered her unusual, highly sophisticated reflexes. However, the notion was dispelled when she heard the liquid voice emanating from the figure reclining against the large rock on the hill.

"Lanessa," Xena said quietly, her eyes still focused on the town below the ridge. "Did Mother send you up here?" The warrior's eyes slowly swept up to meet her old friend's, then returned dejectedly to the distant landscape.

"Not exactly," Lanessa answered, lowering her slight form onto another giant boulder near the lanky, slouching figure on the ground. The gaze that met the warrior's was steady and unflinching.

"Not exactly?" Xena mimicked, training a bored glower at the smaller woman. "Then what, exactly, are you doing here?" Lanessa chose to ignore the biting sarcasm. Instead, her brown eyes softened in understanding and affection.

"She's concerned about you." Xena dropped her gaze to the grass beyond her boots. She let out a loud sigh, leaned her head back against the rock behind her and closed her eyes wearily. Lanessa continued. "All your friends are. We want to help you through this loss." The warrior's eyes snapped open as she leaned forward, addressing the slender figure perched on the boulder beside her.

"Tell Mother not to waste her 'concern' on me," Xena said bitterly. "And you shouldn't, either. I'm not worth the effort .. I never was." She tried to focus on Lanessa's tolerant expression, but the continuing languor plaguing her body undermined her resolve. She sat back against the rock again, the small burst of energy quickly depleted. After a moment, she heard Lanessa's soft chastisement.

"That's not true, and you know she doesn't believe that either." The blue eyes drifted open, settling momentarily on the petite woman's patient gaze. Xena closed her eyes again, raising an unsteady hand to massage her throbbing forehead. For a moment, it was quiet on the grassy ridge.

Lanessa studied the warrior's weary, sorrowful expression. The small woman's capacity for compassion was one of the most renowned facets of her reputation. She had also become recognized for her wise and intuitive instincts concerning the suffering of others. But, her most compelling characteristic was her innate talent for addressing the truth of a situation with dignity, honor and integrity. Lanessa often managed to cut to the core of the matter while gently, but firmly, dispensing with any unnecessary notions that hindered the resolution of the immediate problem. The slender form straightened.

"You know, " Lanessa began, her eyes steady on the warrior's averted gaze. "I only had the pleasure of knowing Gabrielle for a short time." She paused as the blue eyes swept up to meet hers. "But I'm certain she wouldn't want you to torture yourself like this." The warrior swallowed hard. "I think she'd want you to get on with your life ... to return to your goal of helping others and using your skills for the good of those who need them." Xena's gaze dropped to her lap.

"Don't you think that's what she would want you to do?" Lanessa posed the gentle question. But the warrior's expression had turned acrid and defiant.

"Well she's not here, is she?" Xena said, her voice low and angry. "Is she?" the warrior asked again, her eyes callous and quarrelsome.

"No, she isn't." Lanessa's voice was soft, her brown eyes kind. "At least not physically. But I know you still carry the essence of her in your heart." The quiet statement rattled the warrior's senses. She took a quick breath, closed her eyes and pressed the heel of her hand against her temple. Her primary concern at that moment was relieving the pounding behind her eyes.

When she heard Lanessa's quiet sigh, Xena immediately felt a wave of remorse at her selfish and rude behavior. She turned to the smaller woman, intending to offer an apology, but the look on her friend's face silenced her. Lanessa's attention was centered on the small roll of parchment she held in her hands. After a moment, she raised her eyes to meet the warrior's.

"I think you should read this now," Lanessa said, offering the scroll to Xena. The tall warrior swallowed nervously, her eyes darting from the parchment to her friend's face and back to the rolled document.

"What is it?" Xena asked. A sinister apprehension began to invade her senses. Her stomach suddenly twisted and tightened against her ribcage. She stared at the scroll fearfully .... as if not touching it would somehow reduce the terror she felt.

"Gabrielle said I would know when to give it to you." Lanessa extended her hand toward the warrior. "I think it's time." The warrior accepted the small scroll with a trembling hand. She only had to unroll a small part of the parchment before she recognized the precise lettering displayed inside. She gulped against the pressure constricting her throat.

"Where did you get this?" she asked hoarsely. Her gaze locked with Lanessa's. The smaller woman pulled her shawl closer and crossed her arms over her slender waist. She returned the warrior's blue stare.

"A traveling peddler who trades various herbs and healing roots with me delivered it on one of his trips through Amphipolis. He told me a young lady bard had paid him four dinars to bring it to me." Xena's gaze fell to the scroll again. "Actually, there were two scrolls. The other is addressed to someone named Ephiny?" The warrior's eyes returned to Lanessa's.

"Amphion ... the peddler ... " the small woman continued, "... said the young lady was very pretty, small with reddish-blonde hair and had the greenest eyes he'd ever seen." The warrior's blue eyes closed painfully. "She told him her name was Gabrielle. When she found out he was headed here, she asked if he would bring the scrolls with him."

It seemed as though Xena's chest would either explode or collapse at any moment. She took in several labored breaths as she stroked the smooth parchment with one long finger and raised tear-filled eyes to the woman facing her. After several attempts, she managed to utter a raspy question. "When?" she asked.

"A few moons ago," Lanessa answered. "He arrived right after the summer solstice." She watched the warrior's face, her own heart aching for the pain etched across the sculpted features. She laid a gentle hand on the woman's shoulder. "I think you should read it now." She stood up and took a step away from the warrior. "I'll leave, so you can have some privacy."

"No, please don't," Xena said, an urgent plea in the statement. She grasped Lanessa's slender hand. "Stay with me, will you?" She looked up into the smaller woman's face. "Please, Lanessa. I don't think I can do this alone." Lanessa nodded wordlessly and settled herself on the boulder again. She kept her eyes on the warrior's anguished grimace. Xena slowly opened the scroll, her heart thumping loudly in her ears.

Chapter Two

Lanessa watched her friend's face closely as Xena read the message transcribed on the parchment, her own heart breaking as she witnessed her friend's blatant, obvious pain. The small, petite woman sat quietly, not wishing to intrude, but hoping the grieving warrior might find some comfort in her nearness. She swallowed hard as the blue eyes traveled over the words on the scroll.

My Dearest Xena,

If you're reading this scroll, it means the reason I wrote it - my death - has occurred. I wanted to take this time to express to you all the things I somehow feel we didn't have a chance to share before that event ~~ and to tell you what's been in my heart these many moons.

I'm assuming you're rather sad right now or else Lanessa wouldn't have given you this scroll when she did. I asked her to try and let you work through your feelings on your own and, if you couldn't, to give you this scroll to read. I hope it helps and gives you some peace.

Let me start by saying I don't regret one instant of our time together, no matter what has happened between us. I want you to know I consider you the finest, bravest, most loyal friend anyone could have. I'm so grateful ~~ and feel so very lucky ~~ that the gods have blessed my life with your presence. And I will feel that way forever.

I'm sure I went to the other side while the two of us were in the middle of some wonderfully, exciting adventure, because that's what will stay in my memory about our lives together .. those glorious days we had doing good, helping people and each other. I will also remember how much I learned from you, about friendship, about honor and above all, about love and trust. Those are the memories that I will take with me into eternity.

My only wish is that you were not harmed in any way when I left the known world. That would make me very sad, too. Although, I find the thought of our being separated filling my heart with sadness and dread, the memory of our friendship gives me joy and satisfaction. I wish only the same for you, my dearest, most precious friend, for you deserve nothing less.

Please don't grieve for me, Xena. At least, don't let your grief control your life now. I ask also that you remember your promise to me that you wouldn't let my passing turn you back to the darkness. You must go forward and continue to show the good I know is in your heart. And not for me ~~ for yourself. You deserve that too, my friend, and I will believe that forever, as well.

Take good care of yourself. You'll have to handle that now, since I won't be there to nag and harass you. You know you forget to eat sometimes. And try to remember to rest, now and then, at least for a while, OK? I'll be anxiously waiting here for you .. wherever 'here' is. Although a part of me hopes it will be a good, long while before you join me. Stay well and strong. May you fulfill your destiny with all the power and grace that is in your soul.

Always remember too, that I love you. And our bond will stay in my heart for all time.

With everything that's a part of me. Your Friend. Gabrielle.

Xena's trembling hands dropped into her lap, her fingers tightly clutching the small document. Lanessa sensed the impending fury about to erupt from the slender form and battled against her own inclination to gather the tall woman into her arms, to offer comfort and support against the raging suffering registering clearly in the warrior's posture. She saw the river of tears cascading over the sleek, bronze cheekbones and the tight ripple fluttering under the smooth skin. She kept her eyes on her friend's face and held her breath.

Even though she thought she had prepared herself, Lanessa was still shocked when she heard the warrior scream; the sound was primitive and unrestrained, primal and disquieting. The small woman leaning against the boulder felt a frightening chill race across her chest as the shrill, shrieking clamor filled the air. She pulled her arms tighter around herself, blinking hard to maintain her focus on the warrior's tortured expression. After several long, disturbing moments, Xena's head dropped forward onto her chest as she brought her hands up to cover her face. Lanessa slid from the boulder, knelt next to her friend and pulled the sobbing woman close against her.

"Oh, Xena," the small woman whispered into the warrior's dark hair. "I'm so sorry. So sorry."

"Where will you go, now?" Cyrene handed her daughter the cloth bag of food and various other provisions she had packed.

"I'm not sure, Mother," Xena answered. "Thanks." She took the bag from her mother, lifted the flap on the saddlebag and deposited the sack inside. As she rearranged the contents of the leather satchel secured to Argo's back, the warrior lovingly stroked the long, wooden fighting staff secured under the straps on the side of the saddle. When she had re-tied the flap on the saddlebag, she turned again to her parent.

"First, I have to deliver the other scroll to Ephiny." For a moment, a wave of remorse darkened the chiseled features as the memories of her last visit to the Amazon village sullied her mind. As she shook her dark head slightly to dislodge them, she became aware of her mother's callused palm warming her forearm. "After that, I'm just not sure. It's OK," she assured the shorter, stocky woman. Xena bent to give Cyrene a hug. "I'll be all right."

The matron clung to her child's muscled form, unwilling to let her go, but accepting the decision she had made. She brushed Xena's long hair away from her face. "Well," Cyrene said, "just be careful and come and visit again .. when you ... when it's not so ...." The older woman paused, noticing the sadness still in place behind her daughter's clear, blue eyes. She took a short breath.

"Just come back and see us," the innkeeper repeated. She squeezed her daughter's hand. "Whenever you need .. or want to. Promise?"

Xena swallowed bravely and met her mother's concerned gaze with a thin smile. "OK, I will," she said, patting the woman's hand. "I promise." When Cyrene had released her, Xena turned to the small, slender woman behind her. She returned Lanessa's warm embrace.

"Be well, my friend," the petite woman whispered. The two old friends exchanged a loving glance. "May you find peace, wherever you go. And remember, you're always welcome here."

"Thank you, Lanessa," Xena murmured. "For everything." The smaller woman's smile grew wider. "And not just for this time .... for all the times you've stood by me." Lanessa's large, brown eyes were tender on the warrior's face. She covered Xena's slender hands with hers. "I'll always be grateful for all those times, too."

Lanessa patted the bronze face, released the warrior's hand and turned to the great palomino mare whinnying at the hitching post. She scratched the animal's long face. "Take care of her, Argo," the small woman told the horse. "She's special .. you know that." Argo nickered into the gentle embrace. Lanessa stepped back, scanned the tall woman's attire and met the warrior's gaze again.

"Back to the leathers, I see," the petite lady chided her old friend. Xena cast an embarrassed look down at the brown leather outfit she now wore. She gave Lanessa a small, sideways smirk.

"My leather suit," the warrior said, wincing slightly at the reference to her attire that had been coined by her small, blonde ~~ and absent ~~ best friend. "As my favorite bard used to say." She swallowed around the pain and mirrored Lanessa's warm smile. "Better get going," Xena said, turning to mount Argo.

She gave the two shorter women a brave smile, gathered the supple reins in her hands and pressed her long legs against the mare's sides. Instantly, the horse responded and together they moved toward the path outside the town. Within minutes, the mare was carrying her mistress along the road amidst the timbers toward the Amazon Village ... and the unwelcome greeting the warrior knew was awaiting her.

Chapter Three

Gabrielle opened sleepy eyes toward the gentle sun above her. She took a deep breath, stretched her trim, compact form and sat up, yawning easily. When her eyes finally focused, she looked around her for the welcome sight of her soulmate. She searched for the tall, sleek bronze form for a few minutes before extricating herself from the light coverlet and rising to her feet. It was then she realized her normal traveling outfit had been replaced by something quite different in appearance. The precise manner of the charming garment took the young bard completely by surprise.

She found she was wearing a long, flowing gown, its smooth, silky fabric soft and accommodating to her skin. The dress was the color of creamy buttermilk, except for the belt and the trim along the hem, both of which sparkled with bright, green threads the color of the soft grass around her. The dress' neckline sported sloping, gentle folds which draped from one shoulder to the other in perfect symmetry across the young woman's bosom.

Her long reddish-blonde hair was swept away from her face by a velvet ribbon, its hue matching the emerald stripe in the gown's belt. When she lifted the hem of the dress to inspect her feet, she found them ensconced in delicate beige slippers that seemed to have been made especially for her. Slowly a realization registered in the young bard's awareness; she had awakened in a very unusual place, indeed.

"Well, good morning, Sleepyhead," a voice behind her chided. Gabrielle turned quickly toward the sound. When she discovered the source of the comment, her senses were rattled even further.

"Did you sleep well?" the young man asked, a genuine smile lighting his smooth, handsome face. He gazed amicably at the speechless bard whose lower jaw had dropped even closer to her chest. "I know," the young fellow said, stepping to capture the young woman's shaking hand. "The first few days are always a bit of a shock." He patted her hand gently. "It gets easier, I guarantee it."

Gabrielle's green gaze swept over the young male face slightly above hers. She closed her eyes tightly for a moment, gave a brisk shake to her blonde head, then brought her focus back to the youngster's face. After a moment, she finally found her voice.

"Talus? Is that really you?" she asked the young man cautiously. The bard swallowed nervously as she studied the attractive male face.

"Yes, Gabrielle, it's me," Talus said, his smile warm and kind.

"But you're ...." The bard's green eyes traveled over the young man's casual stance, his open, serene expression. "But I saw you ... Death took you through to ...." Gabrielle let the statement fade while her mind tried to make sense of the situation.

"Yes, you did. Your memory is correct," Talus answered as he took the bard's hand. "That day in Sisyphus' castle ... I went to the other side with Celeste ... Hades' sister." He paused to let Gabrielle assimilate this information.

"Then, that means I'm ...." Gabrielle swallowed quickly, her throat suddenly very dry.

"C'mon," Talus said, laying a comforting arm around the girl's waist. "You'll have more information when we get to the Crystal Center."

Gabrielle allowed Talus to lead her away from the sunlit meadow. As they slowly made their way toward a large, crystal building, the bard gulped again and moistened her lips. She found herself grasping the young man's arm to steady herself, her green eyes sweeping the area for a sign of anything familiar and reassuring.

"Oh, boy," Gabrielle said, softly. "I have a feeling I'm not in Thrace anymore." Talus laughed quietly and patted her hand again. When she recognized the figure slowly advancing toward them, the young blonde was certain her 'feeling' had been correct. "Oh, boy," she said again.

"It's OK," the auburn-haired woman whispered into the bard's ear as she enfolded the young blonde in a gentle hug. When they separated, Gabrielle's expression clearly depicted her astonishment. "I know you're confused," the young warrior told her. "But, I promise, it'll all be clear soon." The woman's gaze wandered away from the bard's, her dark brows knitting in a sheepish glance. "Seems I've said that before." She gave Gabrielle a reassuring grin. "Trust me .. it'll only get better."

"Myfia? You're here, too?" The little blonde stared at the face of the young female whose courageous actions had saved her and Xena's life three summers ago when the two friends had been captured by a ruthless warlord. Gabrielle had been injured in their attempted escape and Myfia had extended kindness and generosity to the wounded bard while at the same time, bravely engineering Xena's freedom from the torture and suffering she had been forced to endure at the hands of their captors.

Sadly, Myfia's compassion had resulted in her own death at the hands of the malicious warlord she served when he had learned of her actions. After the two friends had been reunited, also as a result of the young warrior's arrangements, the happiness at that reunion had been tempered by the grief they felt at the young woman's ultimate sacrifice. The bard had carried a grateful reference for the small, auburn-haired woman ever since.

"It's OK, Little One," the small warrior said. "Come .. let's walk."

They started walking again with Talus falling into step on Gabrielle's other side. He clasped his hands casually behind him, his arms resting against the back of the rust-colored belt tied at the waist of his light brown tunic. He gave the bard a warm smile, then returned his eyes to the thick grass they were walking on. The bard turned her attention to the young woman striding beside her.

After a few paces, Gabrielle's focus left the warrior's face and swept over her attractive, but very unexpected outfit. Myfia's tunic matched Talus' in style and length, except for the color. The soldier's shirt was a soft, green hue ... ironically, very near in color to the bard's verdant pools which, at the moment, were darting nervously over the surrounding area before returning to study the features of her two companions.

"Myfia," Gabrielle began haltingly. "Are we ... is this ..?" She turned to the young warrior with a meaningful gaze. "Wait a minute!" The bard stopped walking and her two escorts did likewise. The young blonde took a shaky breath.

"I'm not moving another centimeter until someone tells me what's going on." Talus and Myfia exchanged a knowing glance. "Right now," Gabrielle said forcefully. She took a step backward and crossed her arms over her waist. Talus motioned silently to the young warrior and she nodded. The young man turned to the bard.

"Gabrielle," Talus began, settling his hands gently on her shoulders. "Please don't be afraid." He smiled warmly at the girl's anxious expression. "It's all going to work out. You'll understand everything." Talus glanced quickly at Myfia, then returned his attention to the bard. He recognized the high level of doubt in the girl's frightened face. He released Gabrielle's shoulders as Myfia stroked the bard's long, blonde hair. She tilted her head to meet the girl's tearful expression.

"Talus and I will help you understand it all."

Gabrielle's eyes met the young soldier's patient gaze. She studied the familiar face, her mind a myriad of emotions, not the least of which was irritation and skepticism. She wiped the moisture from her cheeks with an impatient motion and swallowed against the fluttering in her throat.

"OK," the bard said quietly. She extricated herself from Myfia's grasp, squared her shoulders and shot a determined glance at Talus' patient gaze. "So, where are we going, now?"

Myfia's smile dispelled Gabrielle's uneasiness only slightly. The young warrior gestured forward with one arm, beckoning the bard to follow. The trio started walking again. As the sparkling, impressive structure ahead captured the bard's attention, she gulped nervously.

"Oh, boy," Gabrielle said under her breath. "Now I know we're somewhere else."

Chapter Four

The still, tense figure on the hill scanned the Amazon village. The warrior's eyes traveled dispassionately over the various huts and the female figures milling about within the area. The tall woman vaguely realized she had not thought of this place, nor any of the inhabitants, for more than an instant or two, in the entire time that had elapsed since she'd left it. Except for one... she had spent a great deal of time thinking of one of the female citizens. It was the same personage for which the clear, blue gaze now searched in vain ... one young, trim, reddish-blonde queen with soft, sea-green eyes and an open, genuine expression who carried a quarterstaff ... and who had, in one deliberate, irrevocable moment, shattered the warrior's world and exiled her once-regenerated spirit to its previous barren and unredeemable status. It was time to end the cycle ... one way or another.

It had taken the better part of a week to reach the Amazon territory from Amphipolis and the warrior had not allowed herself anything but the most basic breaks in her journey. Except for tending to Argo's care, she had not paused more than the minimum amount of time necessary to accomplish those simple tasks concerning her own survival. Eating and sleeping had not been given a high priority on the list of needs. Reaching the Amazon village had ranked paramount in the woman's intentions.

Xena turned to the golden mare and swung her long, slender form into the saddle. She gathered the reins, pressed her heels to the horse's sides and leaned forward, ready to settle into the practiced rhythm of the great steed's gait. She cast an irritated glare at the straw-colored head when the mare refused to respond to her request. She applied the pressure with her heels again ... then wearily acknowledged the hesitancy in the horse's attitude. The warrior sat back in the saddle, resignation and capitulation threatening her reserve.

"I just want to talk to them, all right?" Xena said quietly, stroking the sinewy neck with one slender palm. "And Gabrielle wanted Ephiny to have the other scroll." The warrior exhaled a slow, exhausted sigh. "Besides, I'm too damn tired for anything else, right now." She retrieved the reins as Argo's large brown eyes returned to the road in front of them. "C'mon, Argo. Gimme a break."

After a moment, the golden mare moved forward, her sturdy hooves marking a steady cadence on the dirt path. Her rider surrendered the navigation of the short trip to the horse. Xena elected to concentrate her attention on remaining in the saddle; the rampant fatigue and bone-deep sorrow raging within her had made even the accomplishment of rudimentary tasks a great challenge lately. The fact that she had barely eaten or slept during her entire trek didn't help her perception. And the heaviness in her chest made regular breathing difficult.

While Argo expertly negotiated the path into the forest surrounding the Amazon village, the disheartened warrior tried to realign her awareness. Her mind settled on the vision of her ... her what? Her most precious friend? Once-treasured soulmate? 'What do I do now?' Xena's dissembled mind queried. 'We could read each other's thoughts ... knew each other like no one else.' A great shudder shook the lean, slender warrior. 'How can I go on ... now ... alone?' She woman gulped convulsively. The blue eyes stared unseeing on the foliage around her.

"Gabrielle...." the warrior whispered. "How could you do it? How could you leave me like this?" Xena tried hard to gather breath around the tightness in her throat.

Soon the tall rider became aware that Argo had stopped moving and was standing quietly beneath her, the mare's perceptive ears twitching nervously. The warrior pulled herself out of her reverie, swung herself to the ground and stood still, the muted noises of the forest awakening her crisp reflexes. Within moments, she sensed the presence of the other figures in her immediate vicinity. She took a deep breath, wearily raised her arms and clasped her hands together above her head. An instant later, she was surrounded by a dozen Amazon warriors who had descended from the trees above her. Xena's attention focused on the familiar face that slowly approached hers. She dropped her arms and met the dark, and noticeably unfriendly, stare.

"Solari," the warrior said evenly.

The muscled Amazon faced the tall warrior. "Xena," Solari said woodenly.

For a long moment, the two women exchanged a silent greeting. Then the Amazon lieutenant motioned quickly to her compatriots. The women encircling the warrior broke ranks and silently disappeared into the forest, returning to their posts in the trees and the greenery. Xena's jaw tensed as she prepared herself for Solari's impending comment.

"Ephiny will want to talk to you. This way," Solari announced, a sharp note of disapproval in her clipped tone. She abruptly pivoted away from the unsettled warrior and started toward the main entrance to the Amazon village without wasting the slightest effort to make sure that Xena was behind her. The warrior gathered the horse's reins and followed.

Ephiny's gaze was as cold as her assistant's had been. Xena absently noticed the young Amazon who accepted Argo's reins as she turned to face the tall, blonde Regent. Had there been anything within the bronze warrior besides the encompassing numbness now present, Xena might have felt a slight resentment at the obvious repugnance in the woman's manner. At that moment, she was having enough trouble simply maintaining her senses. The sculpted jaw rippled quietly.

"Ephiny," Xena said evenly. Even in her tenuous state, she recoiled slightly at the seething animosity present in the blonde warrior's dark gaze. She watched the woman draw a slow, controlled breath.

"She's not here," Ephiny said coldly. The tall, dark-haired warrior blinked.

"I know," Xena murmured painfully. Her blue eyes left the Amazon's glare and swept longingly toward the door of the Regal Hut. They wandered back to the Regent's face to find the woman staring frostily, her eyes steady on the warrior's wavering blue pools.

Xena's fists clenched without her intention, sending her fingernails deep into the flesh of her palms. Her gaze left Ephiny's, traveled to Solari's icy stare, then returned to the blonde Amazon's unforgiving face.

Ephiny studied the bronze features for a long moment. She took another slow breath and turned to her lieutenant. Wordlessly, she motioned to the dark-haired soldier who, after casting another stony glance at the warrior, turned on her heel and moved angrily across the courtyard. Ephiny turned back to the stoic, sculpted face. It was then she recognized the clear, undisguised pain present in the tall woman's expression. Reluctantly, she felt her rancor eroding.

"What do you want here, Xena?" Ephiny asked, her voice stiff and unfriendly. "And where's Gabrielle?" The warrior's form began to tremble. "Has she finally come to her senses and left you?"

For the next few moments, Xena's attention was occupied with controlling the overwhelming impulse she felt to scream at the top of her lungs. She gulped quickly, shoring up her diminishing resolve to push back the nausea rising in her throat. She stared at the Regent, striving to maintain her senses.

"Ephiny," the warrior began, teeth clenched. "I'm hanging on by a very thin thread, here." The woman's voice splintered giving her words a primitive, untamed quality. "I'll be gone as soon as I ... do what I came here to do. I don't want any trouble."

A long, tense moment of silence engulfed the courtyard. Xena became vaguely aware of a number of Amazon warriors who had quietly appeared in a loose circle around her. She kept her eyes on Ephiny's antagonistic expression. The blonde Regent's jaw rippled, displaying a brand of simmering disgust.

"What is it you came here to do?" Ephiny asked, her tone sarcastic and accusing. "Who do you plan to drag behind your horse this time?"

The warrior's blue eyes closed slowly, a sharp, rancid menace streaking across her chest. Xena swallowed carefully, for a moment, her attention occupied with combating the loud ringing in her ears and the dizziness raging within her brain. She slowly raised her eyes to meet the Regent's gaze, the blue pools now wounded and in pain. Xena blinked quickly, desperate to maintain what small level of perception she had managed to establish in the past few days. She tried hard to concentrate on the Regent's face.

Xena slowly opened her white-knuckled fists. The leather-clad chest rose and fell as the warrior took several labored breaths. She swallowed quietly, slowly releasing the tension that had collected at the base of her skull. When she was fairly certain she could address the Amazon without doing her bodily harm, she unclenched her teeth and tried to articulate the words howling in her brain.

"I need to talk to you .. in private, if possible." The warrior's voice reflected her valiant efforts to control her ragged breathing. Suddenly, an overwhelming wave of exhaustion swept over the tall, leather-clad figure. As the Regent watched silently, Xena's tall frame slumped, then straightened. Ephiny waited until the woman's gaze floated up to meet hers.

Xena's clear blue eyes were filled with tears. The bronze face grimaced sharply, the rampant pain in her heart contorting the beautiful, chiseled features. Abruptly, the tall form turned away from the loathing in the Regent's expression and staggered uncertainly into a nearby group of wooden barrels. For a long moment, the warrior sagged against the containers, gasping weakly as the heavy pressure on her sternum threatened to collapse her chest. Ephiny experienced a degree of remorse at the visible evidence of the tall woman's pain.

Finally, Xena met the Amazon's clear gaze. She felt her resources slowly begin to reestablish themselves. She pushed away from the barrels and faced the tall blonde woman squarely. Ephiny watched with grudging admiration while the warrior's body slowly returned to its normal, intimidating stance. Xena drew in a deep, purposeful breath, wiped the moisture from her glistening cheeks and took a steady, determined stride toward the Amazon Regent.

At that moment the overwhelming frustration and gnawing fatigue present in the sleek, bronze body prompted an uncharacteristically clumsy movement. As Xena's right hand appeared to start for the scabbard strapped to her back, she was suddenly - and completely - restrained as Solari smoothly blocked her path, relieved her of her sword and delivered a hard, back-handed slap to the warrior's jaw. The force of the blow forced the bronze face to one side and caused the leather-clad form to stumble backwards into the circle of women surrounding them. Before she could regain her balance, two other Amazon warriors easily pinned her arms behind her. A heartbeat later, Xena found herself face to face with the point of her own sword when the muscled lieutenant held the weapon poised at a deadly angle and fixed a clearly threatening glare at the steely, blue eyes.

"Solari!" Ephiny barked. She stepped beside her lieutenant. Slowly Solari's dark eyes regained their reason. She lowered Xena's sword before taking a short step backward. Ephiny turned to the Amazons who had secured the warrior's arms. After another moment, they released her and returned to their places in the encircling formation. Ephiny took Xena's sword from Solari and, after meeting the lieutenant's sullen glare, handed the weapon back to the warrior. Xena focused her wavering attention on the challenge in Solari's face.

"The only reason you're not dead right now is because I'm too tired to bother with you," the warrior said quietly, addressing the lieutenant. Her attention was quickly diverted by the Regent's threatening tone and the sudden nearness of the Amazon's angry face.

"No, the only reason you're not tied to a tree, baking to a crisp in the sun right now, is ...." Ephiny growled into the warrior's shocked expression. "... the last thing Gabrielle said before she left here the last time was, 'No Amazon will ever harm the Warrior Princess'." Xena's eyes met Ephiny's angry glare. "In fact, she made me swear an oath to that effect." The warrior's jaw fell perceptibly.

"Swear, Xena ... on my son's life." The Amazon's jaw rippled in subdued fury. Xena lowered her eyes to the ground.

Ephiny's body gradually relaxed. She turned back to her assistant and motioned sternly. Solari accepted the admonition, but stubbornly remained in position. A quiet battle of wills ensued before the muscled warrior moved away and the rest of the Amazons in the circle followed their superior. After another moment, Ephiny returned her attention to the shaken warrior. She was somewhat surprised to find the tall woman staring at the ground, her sword dangling weakly from her hand, her slender form trembling and unsteady. The Regent turned to the warrior squarely, her gloved hands planted on her hips.

"What is it you want here, Xena?" Ephiny asked in an even, stony tone. "And I'll ask you one more time," the blonde warrior continued, her grey eyes suspicious. "Where is Gabrielle?"

Xena considered the sword in her hand, reacting to the blade as though it were a strange, foreign object instead of the weapon that had become an extension of her will. Her gaze eventually drifted up to meet the Regent's questioning expression, then slowly returned to the weapon. She opened her hand and the sword clattered to the ground as the warrior's bronze face contorted in unbridled agony. After a long, tortured moment, Xena drew a deep, controlled breath and slowly slid the fingers of one hand under the leather gauntlet hugging her other arm. Carefully, she removed the small, rolled length of parchment nestled there. She stepped closer and handed the scroll to the Regent.

As Ephiny accepted the scroll, a heavy sense of dread began to invade her senses. Her eyes rested on the vellum for a moment, then rose to meet the tormented gaze of the grieving warrior. "What's this?" Ephiny asked, suddenly very frightened. As she slowly unwound the scroll, her breath caught in her throat. She recognized the small, precise lettering at once. She returned her gaze to the warrior's. "Xena, what's ...?" The Regent swallowed hard. "Where's the Queen?"

Xena's blue eyes closed tightly for a moment as she clenched her teeth together. When she opened her eyes again, there was a clear glaze of suffering in the azure pools. Quietly, the warrior's ragged voice sounded in the stillness of the courtyard.

"She's dead," Xena said, only vaguely aware of the Amazon's astonished response. "Your beautiful little queen ... and my best friend .. is dead." Only then did she raise her eyes to the Regent's.

Chapter Five

Ephiny slowly opened the scroll the warrior had handed to her. As she read the words of the message, her throat tightened. Her worst fears had become fact, yet she felt no satisfaction in having guessed right. The tall Regent swallowed hard and tried to concentrate on the words transcribed on the parchment by the small, blonde queen they had all come to love so much.

My Dear Ephiny,

If you are reading this, it means you are now Queen of the Amazons. I officially surrender my Right of Caste to you, with all the rights and duties included in that title. I know your decency and integrity will make you a respected, honorable Queen. You will lead our sisters with grace, intelligence and distinction. In my heart I believe this is something truly destined by The Fates and it is a good and worthy state of events.

Xena brings you this scroll at my request so please, allow her some latitude in her present state of mind. I know you two have had some rough moments lately, but I ask that you remember ~~ she is and will always be my best friend. I expect that she should be treated as such. I ask that you recall your oath, Ephiny. Please, in my name, treat my friend with the respect she deserves.

As for me, please don't let your grief and anger distort your good sense and any desire you may have for vengeance. On my Amazon Mask, Xena had nothing to do with my death ... I can honestly swear to that fact. I know that to be true, no matter how I died. I trusted Xena and I will go to the other side with that trust still in my heart.

If you're reading this scroll, it also means that Xena is in a certain amount of pain, right now. She needs a friend, so please help her through this time, if for no other reason than to honor our friendship ~~ yours and mine. She would never ask for help; you may have to use your charm to convince her to let you help her mourn. It's very important to me. She is a good and decent person. So, please be kind, Ephiny, for my sake.

And finally, I want to thank you, my special friend, for being my friend, even during those times you might not have agreed with my decisions. You still remained close by and ready to lend support and friendship. I will always be grateful to you for that loyalty. I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to thank you in person, but it seems The Fates have decided otherwise.

Take good care of yourself and give my love to Xenon. Always know that you both are in my heart, as part of my family and the circle of my most cherished friends. Tell Eponin I'll be waiting for my staff drills with her and let Solari know she still owes me the recipe for rabbit stew that she promised.

Stay well and safe. Be good to each other. With my love and respect. Your friend, Gabrielle.

Ephiny stared at the words on the scroll, her expression a study in disbelief and shock. Slowly the Regent's gaze rose to meet the ragged stare of the Warrior Princess. Despite the deep, abiding sorrow she felt at the loss of her young friend, the Amazon recognized the searing anguish contorting the warrior's expression. Ephiny swallowed hard, summoning all her strength and control in order to maintain the dignity she knew the young queen would have required and which she had shown by her example. Keeping her eyes on the tall warrior's pain-ridden stare, the Regent straightened her shoulders.

"Kieva," Ephiny addressed the young Amazon who stood nearby, holding the golden mare's bridle. "Take Argo to the stables. When you get her settled, bring Xena's saddlebags to the Visitors' Hut." She met the young woman's stare for a moment before returning her attention to the warrior. "She'll be staying with us for a while."

A slight tremor narrowed the glazed, blue eyes as Xena slowly reacted to the Regent's directions. The two women silently accepted each other's grief and wordlessly submitted to a weak, but effective truce ... in memory of the young queen whose grace had so affected both their lives. Ephiny slowly rolled up the scroll in her hands before stepping to one side, beckoning the warrior to follow. Xena hesitated for a few moments before rallying her remaining awareness. She concentrated hard on moving her boots toward the Amazon's retreating form.

Chapter Six

"I'm WHERE?" Gabrielle's question showed the level of her rising confusion. She turned to stare at the young warrior's casual smile.

"It's called 'The Aleaen Plain'," Myfia repeated, her expression patient and understanding. Gabrielle sat down heavily on one of the mortar benches beside the stone-paved path. "I guess you could say it's a kind of 'waiting place' ... between The Elysian Fields and ... Tartarus." Myfia watched the girl's startled reaction.

"Am I .. on the other side, then?" Gabrielle asked, her voice unsteady. She looked from the warrior to the young man and back to the soldier's reassuring smile. Her stomach fluttered when her two companions exchanged a knowing glance.

"Not completely," Myfia said at last. Gabrielle focused her attention on the woman's brown eyes.

"What does that mean ... 'not completely'?" The young bard gulped nervously.

Talus took a short breath and knelt near the trembling girl's knee. "Gabrielle?" the young man began gently, pulling the bard's green gaze to his face. "This area is called 'The Island of Blessed Souls'. It's a place where valued spirits ... rest for a moment, before they finish the journey to ... wherever it is they will spend their eternal rest."

Gabrielle stared, open-mouthed, at the young man's face. She blinked and took in a shallow, shaky breath. After a concentrated effort, the little blonde managed to voice her next question.

"So, how long will I ... stay here?"

Myfia gently stroked the girl's back. "You may not be here much longer." Gabrielle clasped her hands to stop them from shaking. "The first step will be decided by the Sibylla," Myfia continued. "She's already aware that you're here. And she's asked to see you."

Gabrielle swallowed hard and tried valiantly to draw breath into her lungs. She raised a shaky hand to her forehead, her fingers rubbing the furrowed flesh between her eyes. She shook her blonde head briskly and faced the young warrior again.

"What are you telling me, Myfia? I'm getting very conf ...."

Talus stood and extended his hand to the bard. "Don't be frightened, Gabrielle," the young man pleaded. "The Sibylla is kind and just. Trust her judgment."

Gabrielle's gaze moved from the young man's extended hand to his face and back again. Tentatively, she placed her hand in his and bravely rose from the bench. Myfia stood up next to the younger pair and offered the bard a warm, comforting smile. Talus gently placed the girl's hand on his forearm and led her up the steps of the glittering, luminous structure. Gabrielle stared nervously at the elaborate arch over the structure's doorway. Summoning every morsel of courage she could manage, she walked through the opening, her head high and her shoulders back. Whatever awaited her, she was ready.

"My name is Cumea," the tall, lithe woman told her. "I am to intercede for you." The woman was slender, almost fragile in appearance, with long, flowing hair the color of copper leaves during the autumn solstice. Her skin was clear, smooth and very pale. She wore a long, ivory-colored gown, its folds draping to her feet, the edges of the garment trimmed in a wispy, golden pattern. One side of the rippling bodice was gathered over the woman's right shoulder. A thin, golden ribbon twinkled from the folds of the braids in her wavy, russet-colored tresses, matching the narrow cord that encircled her slim waist.

The woman touched the bard's smooth cheek. "Your heart is true, yet you have suffered great pain." Cumea took the girl's arm and ushered her toward the cluster of stones next to the crystal wall. "Let me hear your questions ... your fears. I will try to dissemble them. Come," she drew the bard down onto the granite bench beside her. "We will exchange thoughts."

The bard turned a questioning glance toward the young woman warrior. "It'll be all right, Gabrielle," Myfia promised, smiling warmly. She turned and began walking toward the crystal archway through which they had entered the structure.

"You can trust Cumea," Talus said as he turned to follow the young warrior. The two of them paused to wave in farewell, then quietly disappeared through the opening.

Gabrielle let her eyes sweep over the slender form beside her. There was an uncanny serenity surrounding the woman, a tangible calming resonance. The bard felt the fluttering in her stomach subside. She closed her eyes as the woman's soft hands captured hers. The young blonde took a slow, deep breath and made an effort to calm the disquieting impulses rumbling within her.

After a few moments, Gabrielle began to feel a tranquil sense of peace. It soothed her and wrapped her in a mellow, comforting sensation. She didn't know why or how, but she sensed that she could trust this entity. A complacent smile softened the girl's features as she responded to Cumea's gentle probing of her mind and surrendered to the woman's tender requests. The little blonde let her thoughts flow freely.

A moment later, she opened her eyes to find Cumea's gray gaze fixed on her face. The bard found herself returning the woman's warm smile as the Sibylla stroked her hair. She waited patiently as Cumea closed her eyes, breathed deeply then focused again on the bard's soft green gaze.

"Ask, Gabrielle," the Sibylla said softly. "I'm here to be of help to you ... to calm your fears."

The little bard swallowed slowly, relaxing into the gentle tone in the woman's voice.

Gabrielle began. "Talus and Myfia told me this is a 'waiting place'? A place where ...."

"Where valued souls pause for a time," Cumea finished the bard's statement. " ... on their way to their eternal resting domain. Yes, this is The Aleaen Plain." The slim woman's gaze settled on the young blonde's emerald pools. After a moment, the Sibylla smiled warmly.

"You want to know why Talus is here." Gabrielle nodded, slightly shaken by the woman's response to her mental question.

"Yes, that's ... one of my questions," the bard murmured. She kept her eyes on the slim woman's face.

Cumea brushed back one side of the long, blonde hair from the girl's face. "He asked to return here, when he learned you would be with us for a time. He requested that he be allowed to help you succeed in your quest." The bard's green eyes widened. "Talus feels great amity for you, Gabrielle. He holds you close in his heart."

Gabrielle gulped against the tightness in her throat.

"Your friend Myfia is pausing here, until her spirit feels at peace with what she ... completed during her life experience." Cumea's expression was open and understanding. "She also asked to be party to your petition ... since she has also read the heart of your friend ... Xena." Gabrielle's mouth closed slowly as her mind scrambled to digest the bizarre facts disclosed by the Sibylla. The verdant pools scanned the smooth, crystal floor for a long moment before sweeping back to the slender woman's face.

Gabrielle focused meaningfully on Cumea's gray eyes, her heart pounding furiously under the shimmering garment she wore. The Sibylla returned the girl's stare.

"Yes," the woman said quietly. "It may be possible. Let us go and speak to The Guardians." Cumea rose smoothly from the stone bench, drawing the young blonde up with her. Gabrielle followed, the trembling in her middle returning. All of a sudden, the calm, trusting warmth she had felt began to recede from her senses.

"Cumea?" Gabrielle asked as she followed the tall, slim woman through the sparkling corridors. Cumea turned to face the little bard. "Who are The Guardians? And what do they have to do with my being ... here?"

Cumea's smooth face softened in a warm smile. She stopped walking and took the bard's face in her hands. Gabrielle blinked quickly to forestall the tears gathering in her eyes. The Sibylla lifted the girl's chin to bring the green pools to meet hers.

"You must trust your heart, Gabrielle," the woman said to the bard's tearful gaze. "The Guardians have heard your plea. They know how unhappy you are to have left your friend and how badly she feels having lost you." The bard's eyes grew wider. "They will answer your questions and you will learn their intent." Gabrielle swallowed hard. Cumea took the girl's hand again. "Shall we proceed?"

The little blonde drew a shaky hand across her wet face, squared her shoulders and turned to the slender woman who held her hand. "Yes, I'm ready now." Cumea smiled and led the bard through the twinkling arch.

Chapter Seven

Xena stared unseeing into the fire dancing on the hearth of the Royal Hut. Anyone who had faced the formidable warrior in battle would have been shocked at the disheartened, morose figure slouching before the fireplace. The sleek, leather-clad form showed none of the proud intensity or the astute perception that had become the trademark of her prowess. Instead, her manner portrayed only a somber melancholy and an obvious, encompassing grief.

"It was over in an instant," the warrior whispered quietly. "I had the dagger in my hand ... I was ready to finish it. Before I could move, Gabrielle had her arms around ... that demon and the two of them went over the edge into the burning pit." Ephiny kept her eyes on the slender, dark-haired woman. She found herself releasing the insidious rage she'd felt earlier as the intense level of the warrior's loss became clearly manifested across the smooth, stoic face. Slowly the blue eyes turned to face the Regent.

"I couldn't stop it, Ephiny," Xena said sadly. "It all happened so fast ...." The warrior's stare was bewildered, astonished. "One minute, I was pushing the knife against that .. creature's will ...." The azure pools vaguely swept the darkened room. "The next minute .. Gabrielle was gone." For a long moment, the only noise in the Regal Hut was the crackling flames in the fireplace. Ephiny wiped away her tears with a shaky hand. She returned her attention to the warrior's pathetic stare.

"Why would she do it?" Xena asked, searching the Regent's expression for some clarity. "How could she think ... her life was worth saving that ... thing from what it deserved?" The crystal gaze clouded as the chiseled face displayed the warrior's disabling confusion. Xena turned back to the flickering fire. "And why would she think her life was worth mine?"

"Worth yours?" Ephiny echoed quietly. "To Gabrielle, there was never any other answer, Xena. If it came to her life or yours, she would have made the same choice every time. You meant that much to her."

The tall, blonde Regent focused again on the scroll she held in her hand. Visions of the small, young queen who had so affected their lives formed in the Amazon's mind. A small, loving smile lit the blonde warrior's face as she recalled the early days of their friendship and how even then, the girl had demonstrated a quiet, dignified strength in spite of her youth and relative naiveté. At the time, the Regent admitted, the young blonde had generated mostly irritation and chagrin. But the girl's gentleness and warmth, her invariable decency and honor, as well as the admirable maturity she had shown in times of crisis, had won the Amazon's respect and loyalty.

Ephiny sadly considered the loss of the young woman's friendship and the absence of the quick humor and unfailing consideration she had shown toward anyone she encountered. Hers was a glorious presence that would certainly be mourned, not only by the Amazon Nation but also by any who had been favored by the young woman's essence. The Regent swallowed against the tightness in her chest. After a moment, her attention was drawn to the silent figure facing the fire.

"When was the last time you spoke to Gabrielle?" The warrior swallowed convulsively, as though simply speaking the beloved name caused a vicious, searing pain. She waited while Ephiny considered answering her; it seemed an eternity before she heard the Amazon speak.

"I was with her the night before you two left ... the last time. She seemed happy for the first time in a long while." Ephiny's voice was quiet, reverential. She focused on the warrior's silent profile. "She told me not to worry, that you two had worked things out and she was leaving with you again in the morning." Xena's hands lurched into fists; it was the only way she could stop them from trembling.

"Did she say anything else?" the warrior asked, her voice strained and thin. The clear, blue gaze held an entreaty even the stunned Amazon couldn't ignore.

"No. Like I said, she just kept telling me not to worry about her...that she trusted you and would always ... stand by you." A deep remorse sounded in the blonde Regent's voice. Ephiny stroked the small roll of parchment in her hands, her gaze still showing the effects of her own grief.

"I have to tell you, Xena," the Amazon continued. "I did my best to convince her she shouldn't leave with you ... that she should remain here with us, or even go home to Poteidaia." The clear blue eyes blinked slowly, their owner battling the overwhelming pain and desolation threatening her very existence. "It nearly cost me her friendship, but I felt I had to try, for her own good."

The warrior turned a remorseful gaze to the Regent's. "It's all right," she murmured after a long moment. The dark head turned toward the flames again. "I could never understand why she stayed with me, either, especially after ... what happened when Solan died." The slender form quivered briefly. "But as usual .. Gabrielle forgave me ... and came back to my side."

The warrior's blue eyes closed tightly, sending the pools of tears hovering near the dark lashes washing down the smooth, bronze face. Xena pressed one hand to her mouth, barely muffling the mournful sob that escaped her throat. The lean form shuddered as the sound of her ravaged, tearful moans filled the darkened hut. Ephiny reached out to steady the wavering form, but the inclination lasted only as long as the instant it took for the warrior to recapture her reserve. She withdrew her hand as the muscled frame straightened.

"I know you don't understand how she could ... look past what happened that day," the warrior said thickly. "Maybe we never will." Xena pressed her palms to the sides of her head, trying valiantly to quell the torturous pounding that thundered across her skull.

Ephiny centered her attention on the crisp roll of parchment in her hands, determined to make a concerted effort to afford the warrior princess the wide berth the young queen had requested. She took a slow breath.

"Look, Xena," the Regent began, her tone less hostile. "This is Gabrielle we're talking about." The warrior's gaze was hollow. "This is a young woman who couldn't even bring herself to take the life of the monster who slaughtered her husband." Xena blinked slowly as the Amazon's words began to register in her brain.

"Suddenly that same young woman had killed twice. Twice!" Ephiny said again. "And one of those was her own daughter! When she lost you, too ...." "She never had a daughter," the warrior snarled harshly. "What she had was a ...."

"To Gabrielle, Hope was her daughter," the Amazon said firmly. "No matter what you or I thought, she was Gabrielle's child." The tall Regent's gray eyes held the warrior's blue gaze.

"Even when she finally had to admit what her child really was, a part of her still remembered giving birth ... of that incredible, indescribable ... unbreakable bond that every mother shares with her child." Xena gulped furiously, her breath coming in heavy, dismal gasps.

"I think all of us forgot that ... including me." Ephiny looked away from the mournful azure stare. "Hope was evil, but she was .. and will always be .. Gabrielle's daughter." The Amazon returned her attention to the tear-covered bronze face. "Can we possibly know how she felt when she realized she had to kill her own daughter." The Regent paused to consider her own statement. "I'm not sure I could have done it .. kill my own child. Could you?"

Xena lowered her eyes to the sturdy floor of the Regal Hut.

"And, for the record, she agreed with you ... about Solan," Ephiny continued. "She blamed herself for what happened to him." The warrior's body stiffened. "And she couldn't forgive herself for, as she put it ... 'betraying her best friend'. That's why she asked for the Purification Ritual ... and submitted to it for three full days."

Xena clenched her teeth together.

"So, when you dragged her off through the valley ....."

A strangled, guttural wail emerged from the sinewy, leather-clad form as the warrior crumpled forward. Xena's long arms were wrapped tightly across her stomach to stifle the excruciating pain resulting from her memories of the horrifying event. When she finally paused to draw breath, the cringing warrior clamped her open palms over her ears, shutting out the words that replayed the dreadful scene again in her mind. The primitive whine shocked even the battle-hardened Regent. Ephiny stared at the grief-stricken warrior; any residual antagonism she might have felt for the dark-haired woman was quickly displaced by an encompassing pity for the torment so blatantly shown.

The ugly sound continued unchecked for a long series of minutes. When the warrior's endurance seemed to have been drained from her very being, the eerie discord ended and Xena sagged to one side, toppling from the low stool and falling hard onto the earthen floor of the Hut. The sleek, muscled form was hunched into a tight bundle.

An instant later, the door to the Hut was flung open. Solari's anxious form filled the doorway, her weapon drawn, her expression hard and angry. Another Amazon's equally furious expression could be seen over the dark-haired lieutenant's shoulder.

"Gods be damned!" Solari growled, her dark eyes glinting as they searched the interior of the Regal Hut with a menacing glare. "What's she trying to ...?"

Ephiny quickly moved from her seat near the hearth and blocked the path of her assistant, taking a position that clearly obscured the soldier's view of the totally vulnerable warrior whimpering on the floor.

"It's all right, Solari," Ephiny said, firmly re-directing her lieutenant's intended progress. The Regent moved them both back through the doorway into the dark night.

"We heard a scream .. we thought ...."

"It's all right .. I'm fine," Ephiny crooned, still guiding the agitated female back toward the courtyard. "Everything's OK. Trust me." She pulled the door closed behind her and ushered the small group of warriors away from the Hut.

After a few tense moments, Solari's reason lightened her dark expression. She resheathed her sword, her eyes still searching for the woman who had caused the disconcerting clamor. Finally, the Regent garnered her assistant's full attention by clasping the woman's shoulders with certain authority.

"Solari, it's all right," the Regent said firmly. Ephiny's gaze held the lieutenant's for a long moment. At last, Solari gave the others a quick signal and the rest of the women dispersed, their curious chatter echoing across the courtyard. Ephiny turned back to her assistant.

"Now, do me a favor and prepare the Ritual Hut for the Purification Ceremony."

Solari's dark brows furrowed as she searched her superior's expression. "The Purification? Who's enduring the Ritual?"

Ephiny turned slowly toward the Regal Hut. "The Warrior Princess." She let her eyes rest on the darkened doorway. "And I sincerely hope it will bring her some peace." Ephiny turned back to Solari's open-mouthed stare. "Then, I'm afraid, we have to bury our little Queen."

Chapter Eight

Gabrielle scanned the lustrous chamber carefully. She let herself absorb the character of the room - its size, the sparkling walls, the unusual light emanating from a hidden source. At the same time, the bard heard the warrior's voice repeating the same advice she'd offered many times in the past three summers; 'Pay attention to your surroundings. Survey your position. Be prepared.' She spent several minutes indulging her instincts ... and trying desperately to make some sense of her situation.

When she had finished cataloging the enclosure, Gabrielle turned to search for Cumea. She found the woman standing quietly, an arm's length behind her, a soft, calm smile covering her face. The Sibylla's attention was focused on the long, white table across the room from where they stood. Gabrielle followed the woman's gaze for a moment, then turned back to her companion, her expression showing her apprehension. An instant later, the bard gasped at the sudden change in temperature in the area. Her focus jumped back to the table ... and the three, shimmering figures that had silently appeared there.

Gabrielle's gaze searched Cumea's. The woman's smile was warm and comforting. She met the girl's silent question with a soothing glance. A subtle phrase formed in the young blonde's mind; 'Gabrielle, meet The Guardians'. She turned back to the gleaming trio and gulped.

'Welcome, Gabrielle,' the male figure on the farthest left edge said. 'We have heard your plea and wish to enable you to attain it.'

'But you must respond sufficiently to our inquiries,' the female figure in the middle said. 'Do you object to our solicitation?'

The bard's gaze swept to the Sibylla's. Cumea nodded imperceptibly. Gabrielle turned back to the embodiments.

"Ah ... no I don't object," she answered quietly. "At least not until I know what your 'inquiries' are."

The three figures seemed to confer with each other. The bard watched the triad closely. She realized that even though their statements had registered clearly in her mind, she couldn't say she'd actually heard them speak to her. It had been more like 'sensing' what they'd asked. The girl's keen instincts grew sharp and alert.

'Very well,' the third figure said. 'We will begin.' The bard's trim form straightened.

She took a deep breath and faced the glowing triumvirate.

"Ask away, then." The Guardians seemed to confer again. Finally, the female faced the little blonde again.

'Gabrielle, why did you alter the progression of your life thread?' she asked the bard.

Gabrielle considered the question a moment before turning to Cumea. The slender intermediary met the girl's questioning gaze before answering. "They wish to know why you sacrificed your own life for Xena's."

The bard faced The Guardians again. "She's my best friend ... she meant ... means more to me than any other." The Guardians listened intently. "And, I didn't want The Fates to ... 'sever' her life thread. I felt she was too worthwhile for that to happen." Gabrielle ended her heartfelt answer and waited nervously for the next 'inquiry'.

The light glowing from the three somewhat indistinct shapes behind the long table appeared to intensify as the figures clustered close to each other. After another moment, they separated into three detached entities again. The male closest to the bard addressed her.

'This is the mortal known as Xena ... Destroyer of Nations ... Defiler of Men.'

"No, she's changed. That's all in her past. Now she strives to do good."

'She is a barbarian.'

'She is consumed by hatred.'

"No, you don't understand! Xena has tried very hard to put her past behind her. She's good and noble ... a caring, decent ...."

'Her hands are drenched in the blood of thousands. She is a killer by instinct, by desire.'

'Her heart has known only conquest. She loves only battle ... destruction.'

"You're talking about the Xena of long ago. I'm talking about my Xena ... now ... in this time. She's a loyal friend, someone you can trust .. someone I trusted .. to strive to do the right thing."

The Guardians listened in silence.

"She's very skilled ... has many talents. And I have seen her use them all for the benefit of others ... for what she, herself has named 'the greater good'. She's risked her life .. her very soul ... for the sake of those who are .. defenseless or simply 'in need'."

The gleaming figures conferred, their radiance merging, then separating.

'In Britannia, Xena was so obsessed with Caesar, it didn't matter that you were in danger. She saw only her revenge.'

Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly, trying hard to offset the disabling pain that suddenly weighed heavy on her chest. She clenched her fists together and focused again on the silvery figures.

"What happened to me was ... unforeseen. It wasn't Xena's fault. She was concerned with stopping Caesar, with helping Boadicea's army ...."

'Xena is the reason you were violated by Dahok. She abandoned you to pursue her own despicable plans for reprisal against her enemy.'

"No, no .. I chose to follow her. I made that decision myself. And when she saw what was happening, she came to the temple ... she fought with ...."

'She turned you into a killer. She drew you into her pit of vengeance.'

'You killed your own child ... twice.'

"Hope was evil. She would have brought about the destruction of mankind .. of all that is good in the world." The female Guardian leaned forward, the opaque illumination around her glowing brighter than before. "I couldn't let that happen ... and I couldn't let Xena kill her, either."

'Why was that?' the other male asked.

"Because I let Hope live to begin with." The bard's tears covered her face. "Xena tried to tell me what she was ... but I didn't want to believe her." Gabrielle turned away from the trio, her hands pressed against her mouth to cover her sobs.

"Then Hope killed Solan ... and it was my fault." The bard swallowed against the ache in her throat. "And Hope would have killed Xena, as well." She faced The Guardians again. "She would have brought the horror of Dahok to the whole of the known world!" The bard wiped away her tears impatiently. "I had to stop her ... I had to."

'But why was it necessary to substitute yourself for the mortal Xena. She would have eliminated the demon with the Hind's blood on the dagger.' The question came from the male figure at the far end of the stone fixture. 'Is that not true?'

Gabrielle swallowed heavily, her chin raised high. "Yes, that's true ... it could have happened," she admitted. "But if it had, The Fates would have ... 'severed her life thread'." The Guardians exchanged suspicious looks before turning back to the little bard.

"Ares took me to see them ... he told me Xena's fate was in my hands." Gabrielle searched the gleaming faces. "She's more .... worthy than I am. She has so much more to give ... mankind. I couldn't let her trade her life for Hope's." The trio sat silent. "I just ... couldn't. So I took Hope into the lava pit myself. It was ... I still think it was for the best."

Gabrielle's gaze dropped to her hands, tightly clenched together, fingers entwined. She was only vaguely aware of the heartfelt sigh that escaped from the Sibylla. After a moment, she raised her eyes to the glimmering group again.

The Guardians exchanged glances, as though they were silently discussing the bard's passionate reply. The young blonde watched the trio tensely. She sent a swift entreaty toward Cumea. The slender woman's expression remained supportive. Soon Gabrielle became aware of The Guardians' next inquiry.

'Is this not the same mortal who tried to sever your life thread not four moons ago? Whom you also betrayed and, in doing so, exposed her to the fury of Ming Tien's retribution?'

Gabrielle swallowed hard and squared her shoulders. She faced the trio directly.

"Yes, that's also true," the little bard said bravely. "Xena and I have had some very difficult times during this last winter." She glanced quickly at Cumea who nodded mutely. "But, we still love each other."

The Guardians seemed unconvinced. The bard took a deep breath to gather her thoughts and engage her best skills of persuasion.

"Xena understood about what happened in Chin," the girl began haltingly. "Why I did what I did. She accepted that I believed it was ... to keep her from returning to 'the darkness'."

Gabrielle paused, fighting the memories of the intense, torturous breach that had caused them both such misery.

'And she deceived you concerning the fate of this, her enemy. Did she not?'

"Afterward ... when she admitted what had happened to Ming Tien ... that she had killed him before we left Chin, she asked me to forgive her for ...." The little blonde's breath caught for a moment. "For her lie .. for breaking her word to me. And I did. In fact, we ...forgave each other. We had both made mistakes ... endangered our friendship .. our love for each other. But we were both willing to put those times behind us and go forward .. together. We had found our kinship again."

The Guardians were attentive, allowing the little blonde to proceed at her own pace.

"Look," the bard said, gathering her confidence again. Later, she would recall slipping comfortably into her 'best storytelling mode'. At the moment, she faced The Guardians with assurance and conviction.

"I'm sure it's hard for ... beings like you to understand, but those of us who are mortal never expect our 'fellow mortals' to be perfect, or even without faults of some kind. We accept that about each other ... it's part of being 'mortal' ... of being human." She paused, settling her gaze on each of The Guardians glowing faces.

"When you're friends with another mortal, you stand by them .. in every situation. You try to support them, let them know that, no matter what happens, you'll ... love them anyway. If you're their friend, you do that ... even in those times when they may hurt you, or you hurt them. Friends ... at least mortal friends ... understand about each other's imperfections or 'bad choices'." The girl's expression grew warm and affectionate as visions of Xena's slow-to-appear smile formed in her mind. The green eyes softened. She smiled at her inquisitors.

"It's a totally 'mortal' thing, but it's part of our charm."

When she was sure she had The Guardians' attention again, the young blonde sent an impish grin toward the gleaming figures. "Besides .. you know us 'mortals'. We sometimes do 'unpredictable' things. Like forgive each other's weaknesses." The Sibylla actually seemed to chuckle.

The three luminaries exchanged glances and appreciative expressions. Gabrielle opened her fists, her gaze seeking Cumea's gray pools. The Sibylla's smile beamed support and congratulations. The little bard let out a shaky breath.

'So, in surrendering your life thread, it was your intention to spare the mortal, Xena, from the consequences as depicted by Ares, God of War?'

"Yes," the bard replied staunchly. The Guardians waited patiently. "And yes, I would do it again, if I had to," Gabrielle said evenly. "No matter what happened to me ... I'd do that for Xena." She scanned the three glistening countenances one at a time. "She was prepared to do the same for me ... for all 'mortals'. All I really did was ... take responsibility for my child."

The light surrounding The Guardians had changed to a deep, mellow shade of gold. It filled the chamber and shone warmly within the crystal walls. Gabrielle cast a quick glance at the radiant panels before turning again to her 'audience'.

A small moment of silence filled the chamber. Then the female Guardian drew the girl's attention.

'If this 'friend' means so much to you, young Gabrielle, why did you choose to leave her?'

Gabrielle was momentarily more than just speechless; she was completely without any response of any kind. For the next several moments, the little bard's mind scrambled to restore order to her thoughts, to bring her senses under control. The emerald gaze frantically searched The Sibylla's and Cumea's eyes locked onto hers. Finally, the young blonde heard the warrior's smooth, reassuring voice in her head.

'The truth, Gabrielle. Always begin with the truth.'

Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes, reveling in the sight of her soulmate in her mind. There, Xena smiled warmly ... lovingly ... and the weight on the bard's chest disappeared at once. She faced The Guardians without a shred of uncertainty.

"It came down to her life or mine. I chose hers. I simply listened to my heart."

The Guardians' luminescence flickered slightly, then grew even more intense. The young blonde blinked against the brightness but stood as courageously as before. The shining threesome appeared to have fallen into deep concentration. The bard kept her focus on the brilliant light surrounding the trio. After a moment, she cast one last look at the Sibylla. The woman's eyes shone brightly with her tears.

Gabrielle returned her concentration to the glowing entities again. She tried to calm the pounding in her chest as she sensed that the impending consequences of her statements were about to occur. After what seemed like a very long time, the female Guardian became surrounded by a separate burnished light.

'Gabrielle of Poteidaia', the female Guardian voiced. 'We have ruled on your entreaty and will now pronounce our decision.'

The bard gulped and took a very deep breath.

Chapter Nine

Steam rose from the heated stones encircling the narrow, rattan platform, filling the Ritual Hut with a heavy, stifling fog. The masked Amazon poured another vessel of water on the sizzling boulders, intensifying the oppressive atmosphere. Once the female warrior had emptied the container over the stones, she replaced the ladle on the side of the water vat and turned to the nude figure lying face-down on the platform. The muscled female stepped closer to the still form, raised the stiff, abrasive bundle in her hand high above her shoulder and brought it down sharply across the smooth back of the prone body. The glistening bronze form stiffened slightly in reaction to the blow before returning to its previous unresponsive state. The Amazon brought the bundle down across the exposed flesh again.

The insidious sting of the palm cluster striking her flesh generated very little response from the warrior princess. Her torso and legs already bore the effects of repeated strikes from the rigid, unyielding fibrous bundle employed during the Ritual. Her body was covered with numerous welts and subtle bruises, the result of the deliberate efficiency employed by the Amazon warriors conducting the Purification Ceremony. Even though the warrior's unsurpassed healing powers had been awakened, the strokes inflicted by the switches had left clear and obvious evidence of their encounters. Yet, Xena's response to the biting wands remained subdued and noncommittal. Even as the Ritual entered the fifth day.

Solari lowered the ceremonial sheaf and scanned the warrior's back, taking special care to search for any unusually harsh abrasions. The Amazon shifted her gaze to the stoic face only halfway visible on the rattan mattress. The sky-colored eyes, normally sparkling sharp and alert, registered none of their characteristic awareness. Instead, the crystal pools were cloudy, distant, unresponsive and dull. The sleek, sinewy body glistened with perspiration; the raven's-wing hair fell around the woman's shoulders like a wispy, inky haze. The azure pools blinked, sending a new wave of moisture washing over the side of the smooth face.

A moment later, the thick, heavy door of the Ritual Hut swung open revealing the Regent's form. Ephiny waited until the dank fog filling the interior of the Hut had dissipated enough for her to focus on the two figures shrouded in the mist. The tall blonde's gray eyes settled on the nude, slender form occupying the traditional place on the narrow platform, her gaze narrowing slightly as she inspected the woman's physical state. She raised her eyes to meet those of her assistant. After another moment, the Regent left the doorway, pulling the panel closed behind her. Solari made a final inspection of the bronze back, deposited the fiber packet on the table near the water vat and spread one of the soft, linen coverings over the warrior's motionless form. With a reluctant shake of her dark head, she turned and left the Hut.

Slowly, tediously Xena became aware of the penetrating silence inside the Hut, as well as the fact that she was finally, completely alone. The warrior let out a laborious breath, closed her eyes and spent several minutes pushing the biting pain across her back far into the depths of her consciousness. When she managed to regain her focus, she opened her eyes, rolled to one side, swung her long legs to the side of the platform and stiffly pulled herself upright.

Xena sat befuddled, battling the dizziness and disorientation that resulted from her shift in position. She pulled the coverlet closer around her perspiring body, hardly noticing the prickling soreness still in residence across her shoulders and the back of her calves. The dark-haired woman's senses were otherwise engaged.

The warrior carefully slid forward, eventually lowering her feet onto the earthen floor of the Hut. She spent a moment leaning against the platform until her head cleared. When she managed to move, she shuffled the few steps to the water vat, filled the metal cup and emptied the water over her head. Xena stood immobile, leaning heavily against the wooden barrel. The moisture only partially awakened her sensibilities.

After a moment, Xena used her free hand to splash more of the water over her face and into her mouth. The warm liquid didn't dissipate the rampant thirst that plagued her, but it did gradually reinstate her awareness. The clear, blue eyes stared vacantly at the sloshing surface in the water vat as the rivulets of tears joined the warm water racing down her face. The tall, slender body swayed slightly as the warrior's mind slowly began to clear. Her innate instinct for survival had been submerged long enough.

"All right, Warrior," Xena said quietly, the steam in the Hut floating around her. "It's time to get on with things." She swallowed heavily, scooping more handfuls of water onto the smooth, sculpted cheekbones. "Lanessa was right ... this is not what she would have wanted." Xena's breath caught in her throat for a moment. "Gabrielle wouldn't allow this." The warrior's azure gaze began to sparkle. "And neither will I."

The tall, sinewy form grimly straightened, once again gathering the sleek, muscled strength that had long characterized her carriage. She stood away from the giant tub, drawing in deep, mind-clearing breaths, feeling the confusion in her head receding. Xena braced her legs, plunged both hands into the steaming water and brought her palms up against her face. She shook the droplets away from her long hair, gathered the cloth around her body and stepped toward the door to the Hut. The time had come for her to honor her best friend's memory ... and get on with unfinished business. The warrior pulled open the wooden panel and stepped outside. She didn't need her unusually sharp hearing to determine the topic of conversation between the two Amazons just outside the Hut; in the first instant, she heard the sound of her own name.

Solari emerged from the Ritual Hut, pulling the ornate masque away from her face and over her head. She paused a moment to wipe away the perspiration that had collected under the Ceremonial facade. Her eyes quickly found those of her best friend, the Regent and soon-to-be Queen of the Amazon Tribe. Ephiny motioned to her lieutenant and moved them both away from the door to the Hut.

"Well?" Ephiny asked, her gray eyes questioning.

Solari waved an impatient arm toward the Ritual Hut, settling the Masque of the Purification under one brawny arm.

"Eph," the dark-haired Amazon barked. "This is crazy!" The Regent's gaze was annoyed. "We've been at this for five days ... and nights. And she still shows no signs of being 'cleansed'. In fact, she hasn't responded much at all. I think it's a waste of ...."

"Look, Solari," the Regent began, keeping her voice even. "The Queen ...." Ephiny stopped to gather her control. "Gabrielle asked that we help her mourn and that's what we're doing. It's not important how long it takes. Xena is obviously not the standard, ordinary Amazon. She's ... an unusual subject."

The lieutenant's scowl did not escape the Regent's attention. Ephiny laid a hand on the woman's glistening forearm. "OK?" the tall blonde requested, a sincere plea in her eyes. "For Gabrielle's sake? It's one of the things she asked in her scroll."

Solari exhaled a long, exasperated breath and rolled her eyes. She shifted her weight from one booted foot to the other. Twice she opened her mouth to offer her scathing opinion; both times the look in her friend's eyes silenced her. Finally, the lieutenant lowered her gaze to the masque under her arm and made an effort to keep her tone reasonable.

"Ephiny," the Amazon began. "The Purification is a ceremony of ... atonement ... of making an effort to apologize for one's 'mistakes'. Xena is never going to be able to achieve that ... she'll never 'make amends' for what she's done." Ephiny took an angry step away from her assistant. "Be honest, Eph'," Solari said evenly. "Can you say she'll ever be 'purified', no matter how long she endures the Ritual? Or how many of us wish it were true?"

"Solari," the Regent began. "That's not fair!"

"She's right." The smooth, liquid voice drew both women's eyes to its source. The tall, slender form wrapped in the Ceremonial covering took a slow step toward the two Amazons, her long, thick, black hair being buffeted by the rising wind. The warrior's blue eyes met those of the Regent.

"Solari's right, Ephiny," Xena said evenly. "The Purification's not for me. It's for someone who has a chance of being 'cleansed' ... of finding atonement." The blue eyes closed for a moment before again meeting the Regent's. "I am neither."

Xena focused longingly on the front of the Regal Hut. "I'll have to find another way."

The Regent closed the distance between herself and the warrior. She met the woman's steady gaze with acceptance ... and resignation. Ephiny turned slightly toward her assistant, waved her hand and the woman quietly withdrew. As she passed, Solari stopped next to Xena's shoulder, her eyes on the Ritual Hut. After a moment, she quickly glanced sideways, her dark eyes scanning the warrior's stricken expression. The Amazon took a quick breath.

"I'm sorry, Xena. Truly, I am." The cobalt pools glided up to meet the lieutenant's. For an instant, the two women accepted each other's grief.

"Thanks, Solari," Xena said, her voice constricted by the dryness in her throat. "And thanks for trying the Ritual. Maybe next time." A tiny, grateful smile graced the side of the warrior's mouth. Solari blinked, repositioned the Ceremonial Masque under her arm and walked away, crossing the courtyard toward her own hut. Xena faced the Regent.

"I'll be leaving right after the ...." Xena gulped convulsively. " ... the Burial." The Regent blinked and swallowed hard. "Thanks for everything." The warrior turned, pulled the coverlet closer and slowly, painfully walked toward the hut where she knew she'd find her 'leather suit'.