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As usual, the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Cyrene and Argo are the property of Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended here. The other characters, and the tale transcribed here, are the property of the author.

Once Again:
I extend my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to my loyal, faithful Canadian Muse. As always, her continued support, patience and understanding are more than partially responsible for the completion of this narrative. Without her gentle presence, this tale would not have been born, either.

The Time of the Story:
Some of the events, anecdotes and conversations contained here refer to characters and scenarios depicted in previous offerings by this author. They also occasionally allude to certain episodes and occurrences depicted in the television series. Again, no encroachment or infringement is intended to these copyrighted works, either. And lastly, I had already written Gabrielle's 'short hair' into this story when the news about how it really happened became available. In that instance, I claim 'author's privilege'.

Chapter 1 - 5Chapter 6 - 10Chapter 11 - 14

Soul's Pledge

by Maggie

Chapter Six ~~~

Xena looped the strap of the canvas bag over the large wooden peg set into the round post at the end of the stall. She retrieved two of the earthen mugs clattering within the bag, and grasping the two handles in one hand, poured the fragrant tea from the kettle into the containers. When the mugs were full, she replaced the kettle on the short stool, took one cup in each hand and turned to watch the bard's gentle caressing of the chestnut mare's thick neck. The warrior sipped the tea from the cup in her right hand.

"Sweet girl," Gabrielle crooned to the horse, running her fingers through the animal's silvery mane. She met the tall woman's blue gaze for a moment before turning again to the petite, rust-colored face. "Everything's gonna be OK, you'll see," she told the horse. The mare nudged her soft muzzle against the girl's hand.

The warrior studied the young blonde's wistful expression. There was something very reminiscent in the girl's manner, in her swift affinity with the sorrel. Xena's senses prickled with awareness. She watched her soulmate with renewed affection.

"She's beautiful, Xena," Gabrielle said, her eyes still on the horse's face. "Are you and Lanessa going to be able to save the baby?"

"Technically it's a 'foal'," Xena replied, a tender smile on the golden face. "We'll do everything we can ... Lanessa's had a lot of experience in this sort of thing." The warrior took another sip of tea. The azure gaze swept over the blonde woman's attire. "You changed into your leggings," she said. Gabrielle glanced down at her own legs, then back to the warrior's face, a small grin curling one corner of her smile.

"I thought ... with the snow ...." the girl explained.

Xena nodded in understanding. "Good thinking," she commented. "I may be in mine too, by the time we get done." She handed the bard the other steaming mug.
"Here, this'll help with the chill, too."

"Thanks," Gabrielle said, holding the earthen vessel between her hands. "I hope I got the mixture right." The bard sipped from the cup.

"Tastes fine to me," the warrior told her. "Of course, it's a little smoother than we're used to," the woman quipped, her blue eyes meeting the bard's over the rim of her cup. The two women shared an affectionate smile. Then the bard turned back to the mare in the stall behind her. Xena saw the nostalgia return to the girl's expression. A subtle thought glided into the warrior's mind.

"What is it?" the tall woman asked gently. She watched as the green pools closed slowly. A moment later, they swept up to meet hers. "You thinking about Tympany?"

A warm smile lit the bard's face as she gazed fondly at her partner. "You're really something, you know that? How did you know?"

"Because I know you," the warrior answered, a little grin matching her companion's. "And, there's only one other horse I know you've been ... associated with ... besides that one." The blue eyes glanced at the golden mare in the other narrow stall. Her eyes traveled back to the blonde's. "Besides," she paused. "She bonded with you right away." Gabrielle sent a gentle smile toward the chestnut.

"Yes, she looks very much like Tympany," the girl admitted softly. "The same silvery mane ...." She turned back to the warrior. "And she was that color, too ...." Gabrielle gazed at the smaller mare. "Like a copper tea kettle ... soft and shiny." Gabrielle patted the warm hide.

Xena saw the hurt behind the green pools. "You never told me ... whatever happened to her?"

The blonde head bent, apparently studying the contents of the steaming mug. Finally, the girl spoke. "She died while giving birth," Gabrielle murmured, finally raising her eyes to meet the warrior's. "Father ... and the local blacksmith ... tried to help her. At first it seemed like everything was going along fine, but ...." The girl swallowed slowly, blinking against the tears welling in her eyes. She lowered her gaze to the cup again. "They just didn't know enough about what to do, I guess. " The warrior recognized the girl's sadness.

"We lost the foal, too." Gabrielle blinked away the tears that still appeared whenever she thought of that very sad night. "But then, they didn't have your 'many skills'," Gabrielle quipped softly, a warm smile displacing the sadness.
"You, on the other hand, are ... very talented in that activity." The green eyes twinkled at the warrior's subtle embarrassment. "Right?"

Xena took a slow breath, basking in the warmth of the smaller woman's affection. "We'll do our best for her, I promise you that." The bard's grin widened. "But ... this is always ... tricky ... in the best situation, it's a matter of ..." The warrior's words trailed away when she saw the look of infinite faith in the girl's verdant gaze. Gabrielle's smile was trusting, supportive.

"I know you will ... and you'll bring that ba ..." The girl giggled softly. "Sorry ... the 'foal'," she amended. "... into the world safe and sound." The blonde head nodded firmly. "I'm sure of it."

The warrior let out a long breath, her dark head traveling from side to side. "Gabrielle ...." the tall woman began.

Her attention was abruptly diverted by the chestnut's unexpected change in attitude. All at once, the mare began prancing again, a hoarse, nervous whinny escaping from her throat. Ma'ia's head swung around to inspect her burgeoning flanks. The brown eyes were wide and frightened, the rust-colored ears twitched nervously. The two women turned toward the anxious animal.

Xena thrust her mug into the bard's hands and the girl quickly stepped out of the way as the warrior moved to stand near the mare's head. She wrapped one long arm under the horse's chin and stroked the chestnut's neck. "Easy, girl," the warrior chanted quietly. "Calm down, lady. Calm down."

Gabrielle crossed the barn to deposit the mugs of tea on the stool next to the kettle. When she turned back to the stall, she saw the urgency in the warrior's expression. Almost before she heard the terse instructions, the bard had started toward the door of the barn.

"Gabrielle, get Lanessa back out here," the warrior ordered. She was only slightly aware of the girl's rapid exit from the shed because her attention remained on the sorrel mare's frantic activity.

"C'mon, Sweetie," the warrior pleaded, using her strength to keep the animal from inflicting damage to herself. "You have to settle down. I promised Gabrielle we'd get you through this." She sidestepped the horse's dancing hooves and tightened her grip around the animal's neck.

"Oww ... dammit!" the warrior grunted as her shoulder was slammed against the side of the stall. She pushed back with a determined shove.

"Argo!" Xena shouted. "You can help me out here anytime!" The tall woman shoved with all her strength, forcing the smaller mare sideways and backwardss away from the corner of the stall. "ARGO!"

A loud, shrill whinny rattled against the walls of the wooden building as the palomino responded to her mistress' command. The golden horse thrust her head over the wooden rails of the nearby stall, firmly addressing her frantic descendant. The chestnut's eyes were wide and panicky ... she focused on the other mare's features. A raucous snort was expelled by the sorrel, clearly in defiance of the older animal's urgings.

A noisy, boisterous argument ensued as Argo and Ma'ia exchanged several pointed statements of opinion. Finally the elder equine's maturity seemed to prevail as the young mother-to-be began to respond to the palomino's soothing influence. After what seemed like a long conversation to the warrior, the two animals quieted, the golden mare continuing her comforting nicker until the rust-colored animal's desperate frenzy had subsided.

Xena waited until the sorrel's manner had returned to a semblance of tranquillity before she released the coppery neck and stepped away from the horse. She pushed back the strands of dark hair which had been shaken onto her forehead during her scuffle with the pregnant mare. Xena patted the thick neck one more time and turned her gaze to the golden steed in the next stall.

"Thanks, Argo," she panted. "But the next time, don't wait so long, huh?" Argo guffawed impatiently then went back to the fodder in the bin beneath her nose. The warrior took a deep breath and left the chestnut's stall, rubbing the sore spot in her shoulder as she crossed to the small window in the side of the barn. The warrior spent a long, pensive moment staring out at the moonlight streaming through the dust-covered pane. The tall woman spoke quietly to the glistening landscape.

"Here we go," Xena whispered. "She's counting on me to make this happen." She continued to massage her shoulder. "She's put her trust in me again." The warrior pivoted to study the chestnut's bulging form. "So ... we're going to do that, aren't we Ma'ia?" the tall woman said, a quiet determination in her voice. "We're not going to let Gabrielle down ...." She slowly walked back to the copper-hued horse. "Right?"

Ma'ia's brown eyes were nervous, yet trusting. The warrior smiled warmly. "Yup ... we're gonna get this done."

Argo whinnied confidently.

Chapter Seven ~~~

Before Gabrielle had traveled halfway across the snow-covered yard, she looked up to find Lanessa heading toward her. One of the small woman's hands pulled the edges of her shawl tight under her chin as she struggled with a large kettle which hung from her other outstretched arm. Gabrielle hurried to meet her and relieved her of the iron cauldron.

"Xena said to come and ..." the girl panted.

Without waiting to hear the rest of the bard's message, Lanessa moved past her, quickening her pace as she went. Gabrielle turned to follow, using both hands to try and transport the kettle without spilling the sloshing contents onto the snow in the process. They soon arrived back at the shed. Lanessa pulled open the door, waiting only the moment it took for Gabrielle to enter behind her. Together, they anxiously scanned the interior for signs of the warrior and her charge.

Xena turned to face the two women, raising one slender hand in a quiet warning. Lanessa let her shawl fall away from her head, her brown eyes surveying the young mare with a knowing glint. The slender healer slowly advanced toward the still nervous animal, extending one small hand toward the horse's wavering head.

"Ma'ia," the small female said, her voice soft and relaxed. "You must remain calm, my dear," Lanessa murmured. "Slow and steady ... that's the way." She carefully stroked the rust-colored head. "Easy ... easy does it." The small mare's manner quieted even more as Lanessa continued the gentle massage. Finally she raised her eyes to meet the warrior's.

Xena stepped closer to the stall, one hand still in place on her throbbing shoulder. "Things have sped up a bit in the last half candlemark," she told her friend. "She's not going to be patient much longer."

"I agree," Lanessa said calmly. "The tergic is ready."

Xena turned to follow the nod Lanessa had directed at the bard who still held the large iron kettle. She took the pot from Gabrielle, wincing slightly as the weight of the liquid in the container pulled at the soreness in her shoulder. She smoothly ignored the concern in the bard's gaze as the green eyes clearly recognized the subtle signs of the tall woman's discomfort. But when Xena tried to lift the pot to pour the contents into the metal trough at the front of the stall, she found she had to lower the container and take a quick breath before attempting to lift the canister again.

Without a word, Gabrielle moved beside her tall friend, placing her hands under the thick, iron vessel. The warrior's eyes met hers for a moment as the young blonde sent a small chastising frown at the chagrin in the woman's blue pools. Together they raised the cauldron high enough to pour the mixture into the trough in front of the young mare's nose. When the kettle was empty, Gabrielle purposefully took it from the warrior's hands, her blonde head moving slowly in a silent, but pointed, reproach. Xena lowered her eyes for a moment before looking back to consult with the petite healer.

"OK," the warrior said. "The tergic's in the trough. Do you think she'll take it?"

Lanessa was still stroking the small, copper-colored head. "When she's ready," she said to the warrior's question. "I'd rather we don't have that fight on our hands tonight, as well." She sent a smile toward the tall woman's concerned expression. "But, it's there now, so ... we'll see how it goes."

The warrior let out a relieved sigh. As she watched the gentle ministrations Lanessa performed on the young mare, she felt her own nervousness subside. At the same time, a wave of admiration swept through the muscled warrior. As always, she stood in abject awe of the slim healer and the unprecedented affinity she had always shown for any animal that had entered her vicinity. It was another of the woman's gifts that endeared her to her oldest friend. After a few moments, Xena turned to the bard ... and found herself facing a pair of clearly irritated green orbs. The warrior's brow furrowed slightly.

"What?" she asked, only half as bravely as she felt.

"What happened to your shoulder?" the young blonde queried, one fist perched on her slender hip, a moderately demanding tone in her voice.

The warrior absently rubbed the aforementioned body part. "Well ah ..." The blue eyes glanced at the young horse then returned to the blonde's steady gaze. "Ma'ia and I had a little ... wrestling match. She tried to make me part of the stall." The tall woman smiled, a forced lightness in her tone. Gabrielle's reddish-blonde eyebrow traveled upward. The warrior scoffed away the girl's concern.

"I'm fine ... it's nothing," she announced. She purposely pulled her hand away from the throbbing area, a slim thread of resentment in her tone.

"Uh-huh," the bard muttered. She set the kettle down on the straw-covered floor. "Let's just have a look," she said, reaching for the edge of the warrior's cape.

"Gabrielle," Xena grumbled, intercepting the bard's hand. "I'm telling you ...."

"Oh, stop being such a baby," the bard grumbled back. "If it's nothing, why can't I ...?"
The strong-willed argument was smoothly halted by the lively giggle floating across the shed, emanating from the slender gentlewoman massaging the young horse's face. The two participants in the 'discussion' turned toward the sound. The stubborn scowl on the warrior's face grew more distinct.

"You may as well give in, Xena," Lanessa chided her. "That's one determined young lady." The small woman winked openly at the bard's impish smirk. "Sooner or later, she's going to make you show it to her. May as well get it over with."

Xena sent a grim look toward her old friend. Then the blue eyes swept slowly back to the bard's triumphant twinkle. Finally the muscled shoulders sagged in inglorious defeat. She dropped her hands away from the front of her cloak, rolling her eyes in exaggerated compliance. The warrior's expression darkened considerably when she heard the bard's superior snort.

Gabrielle gently pulled back the side of the warrior's cloak to examine the area of contention. When she had removed the woolen covering, she saw the raw, skinned abrasion covering the top of the woman's shoulder. The bard sucked her lower lip between her teeth, grimacing slightly in sympathy for the warrior's injury, a not-serious, but nonetheless obviously uncomfortable scrape. After a few moments of careful examination, she gently repositioned the leather strap of the tall woman's tunic and pulled her heavy cloak closed again.

"Well?" the warrior griped, pouting slightly. "Nothing, right?" she challenged the bard.

"No, not nothing," Gabrielle countered. "You were right, it's not serious," she said. "But we still need to put some salve on it," the girl stated. "Just in case," the bard continued, overriding the warrior's attempted rebuttal. "I know your cape's rubbing on it, Xena. And that can't be pleasant." The bard found herself trying not to smile at the sight of the warrior's adolescent sulk. "Just humor me, OK? Like always?" The young blonde stood back from her tall companion, her hands on her hips, her blonde head tilted in cheerful confrontation.

Lanessa giggled again when the warrior sighed in capitulation. Xena turned a sheepish grin in her direction.. The healer's brown eyes twinkled in amusement.

Gabrielle pulled the hood of her cape over her head, gathering the edges of the garment under her chin with one hand. She waited until the warrior had pulled up the hood of her cape before capturing the tall woman's wrist with her free hand. The young woman sent a conspiratorial grin toward Lanessa's brown gaze.

"We'll be right back, Lanessa," the bard told her. "C'mon," the girl said to her tall companion, pulling on the warrior's hand with authority. "I promise not to keep you too long." Gabrielle winked at Lanessa who laughed outloud at the look on Xena's face as she allowed the bard to direct her through the door. The warrior's jaw was clenched during the entire trip across the yard to the cottage.

Chapter Eight ~~~

"There," Gabrielle said confidently, wiping her fingers on the cloth in her hands. "That wasn't so bad, now was it?" The bard addressed the quiet warrior seated on the wooden bench next to the table. "Although knowing you, it'll be healed completely by daybreak," she chuckled quietly, turning away slightly to concentrate on cleaning the extra salve from her digits. After a moment, she turned back to her silent companion.

"Hey," the girl said quietly. "You all right? Does something else hurt?" She ducked her head, trying to focus on the pale blue eyes she knew so well.

"You're always taking care of me," the warrior murmured. She looked up at the bard's gentle smile. "Always stitching me up, tending to whatever hacking or mangling I manage to get myself into." The young woman's throat tightened at the glint of sadness she saw in the azure pools. She put her hand on the warrior's sleek arm.

"Someone has to," she joked gently. "You're not so careful when it comes to that." The young face curled in a loving smile.

Gabrielle's composure was more than slightly rattled when the warrior turned toward her abruptly, wrapping her long arms around the bard's slim waist and hugging her tightly. Xena's dark head was nestled so close against the blonde woman's breast she could feel the pounding of the warrior's heart through the heavy material of her woolen tunic.

The bard gazed down at the sinewy form pressed firmly against her. For a moment, she was so surprised by the unexpected embrace, she didn't quite know how to respond. Then she found herself even more concerned as to the reason for her tall friend's vulnerable demonstration. Without hesitating further, the girl returned the affectionate display, stroking the shiny, raven tresses with one hand.

"Xena, what is it?" the bard asked nervously. The result was an even tighter hug from the tall woman's strong arms as Xena's face burrowed closer against the girl's chest. Gabrielle's heart fluttered when she felt the muscled form tremble as a muffled sob escaped the warrior's throat.

"Hey," Gabrielle whispered, her voice shaking. She laid her cheek against the dark hair. "Xena, please tell me what's wrong." The bard swallowed hard. "C'mon ... you're scaring me."

For a long, strained moment, the only sounds in the small cottage were the hissing of the glowing coals in the fireplace and the warrior's shrouded weeping. The blonde woman held her friend close, one small hand sweeping gently over the long, dark tresses. Finally Xena released the trim form and pulled in a deep, shaky breath. Gabrielle opened her arms, her green eyes fixed on the warrior's tear-stained face.

"What is it?" the bard repeated. Her gaze fastened on the shimmering blue pools. As she watched, the warrior's reserve slowly reclaimed her. Xena swallowed hard and drew one hand across her wet cheeks. She reached up and captured the small hand resting on her shoulder, her long fingers closing over the smooth palm.

"You're such a good person, Gabrielle," the warrior said in a low voice, her words halting and pathetic. "And you've always been a good friend." The blue eyes raised to meet the bard's "My best friend." The bronze face softened, an open tenderness warming the chiseled features. She brought the girl's soft hand against her chin. "You're the best thing that's ever happened in my life ... the best thing."

Gabrielle's loving smile returned the warrior's. "Likewise," she told her friend. "No matter what else has happened, that's still true for me, too." The bard's fingers swept away the wetness lingering on the golden face. The warrior's eyes closed, then slowly opened to meet the verdant gaze searching her smooth countenance.

"Now, you wanna tell me what this is all about?" the bard asked softly, covering the hand clasping hers. "You haven't really been yourself since we left ... Najara." The warrior's throat moved in a convulsive gulp. "Please tell me what's going on in that 'many skilled' head of yours."

Xena blinked, suddenly embarrassed at having surrendered to her own desperate fears. Her cobalt gaze traveled over the young woman's anxious expression and she recoiled first at the sight of the girl's obvious concern, and felt even more remorse as she accepted the responsibility for its cause. The warrior mentally chastised herself for once again subjecting her most cherished companion to the anguish of her own unrelenting demons. She swallowed hard and sent a brave smile toward the emerald pools.

"Oh, just the usual collection of garbage," the warrior said, rising from the bench and crossing away from the bard. She wiped her face impatiently, giving her dark head a brisk shake. "I guess I'm a bit unpegged by ..." she gestured absently toward the small shed where Lanessa waited. ".. by the situation with that little mare."

Gabrielle's smile faded as her expression changed. A look of disappointment invaded the young face. "Oh ... I see," she said slowly drawing out the words. "The 'mare' is upsetting you," she said, an obvious tone of resentment coloring her words.

Xena smiled at the bard, a forced lightness in her posture. "Yeah ... it's been a while since I delivered a breech birth ... at least a 'foal' breech."

The young blonde walked slowly toward the tall warrior, resuming the cleaning activity with the soft cloth she still held in her hands. She kept her attention focused on her own fingers until she was an arm's length from the dark-haired figure. When she was close enough, she reached out and touched the woman's arm, her green eyes locked on the warrior's shadowed gaze.

"You know," the bard began softly, "one of these days, we're going to have to talk about what happened ..." She paused. " ... what almost happened ... with Najara." She waited until the warrior's stunned reaction had receded. "And why, exactly, you felt it necessary to leave me with her," the bard finished, her rancor slightly more evident. "Or was it just to 'leave me'?" the girl continued evenly. "We've never really talked about that."

Xena's stomach catapulted sharply upward. She swallowed hard to stem the wave of nausea gathering at the back of her throat. She tried with every morsel within her to drag her eyes away from the soft green pools locked on her face. But somehow, she couldn't find the courage to do it. She felt her hands clenching and unclenching, alternating with the rasping sound of her teeth grinding together. Finally, the tall woman took a deep, wavering breath.

"No, we haven't exactly discussed it, have we?" she answered in a nervous voice. "Well," Xena began. She paused and cleared her throat, trying hard to assume a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor. She was successful until the tilt of the bard's chin intercepted her intentions. She found her resolve completely dissembled by the look in the eyes of her soulmate. She raised one hand and let the back of her fingers touch the girl's soft face. A slow, rueful smile tugged at the tall woman's mouth.

"Let's just say I came to my senses," the warrior finished softly. "I realized how pointless it was to even consider my life going on without you." The little smile widened into a genuine grin, a heartfelt petition invading the clear blue eyes. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said as her hand came to rest on the bard's shoulder. "I guess I don't always take the time to really think things through." The warrior's expression was apologetic. "Something else you already know." Xena's blue eyes remained focused on the girl's face.

"I was just ... I only wanted...." Her words trailed away when she saw the affection beaming from the bard's glistening gaze.

Gabrielle's blonde head traveled slowly from side to side. "You thought you were protecting me ... taking me out of 'harm's way' ... right?" The golden eyebrows disappeared beneath the short, blonde bangs. The bard let out a little sigh. "Well, I guess I can't fault you for that. You've been doing that since the day we met." The girl's eyes twinkled affectionately. She stepped closer and gave the warrior a quick, tight hug. When their eyes met again, the emerald pools held a mixture of understanding and forewarning.

"But, so help me, if you ever do that again ... make a decision like that without talking about it, first ...." The girl poked her friend's firm stomach. "I'll clobber you, I promise." The warrior flashed an effectively 'frightened' grimace.

"OK, it's a deal," the tall woman chortled, returning the girl's embrace. The two women held each other before the warrior pulled back. Her eyes lingered for a few moments on the bard's short-cropped hair. A brief look of remorse shone in the clear blue gaze before dissipating as quickly as it had formed. The warrior's gentle smile displaced the bard's uneasiness. "Listen, speaking of the little mare ...." Xena began.

"Yeah," the girl agreed. "We'd better get back out there before Lanessa sends a hawk for us, or something." The blonde's giggle lightened the warrior's heart. Gabrielle squeezed the muscled arm near her shoulder. "And you were going to change into something warmer, as I recall?" She playfully shoved the warrior toward the small bedroom.

"Yes, I think you're right," Xena said, moving toward the adjacent chamber. She spoke over her shoulder as her hands moved to unlace her leathers. "And get that tin box down, too, will you?" the warrior said, gesturing with her chin. "I have a feeling we'll need what's in it soon." The slender blonde watched the tall form disappear into the smaller room. "I won't be long."

Gabrielle crossed the kitchen to the fireplace, pulling down the metal container the warrior had mentioned. Before she secured the lid on the receptacle, the girl peaked inside at the contents. She wrinkled her nose at the ponderous odor emanating from the milky substance, her young face a study in repugnance and curiosity.

"Oh well," she murmured with a slight shrug. "I guess they know what they're doing." She snapped the lid into place.

Xena followed the bard's example and traded her leathers for a thick, long-sleeved, woolen tunic and a pair of heavy, quilted leggings which she tucked into her high, leather boots. Once the warrior had changed into the warmer outfit, the two friends left the cabin and trudged across the snow-covered yard toward the small shed. The crunching sounds made by their boots echoed loudly in the quiet darkness. Xena carried the square, metal container from above the fireplace tucked under one arm as they trudged across the glistening area.

"By the gods," Gabrielle joked after only a few steps, her breath forming white puffs as she talked. "It's really gotten thick out here." The girl stretched her gait, trying to keep pace with the warrior's long strides.
"Yeah," Xena answered, her breath billowing above her head. "Careful, it's getting really slick, too."

"I noticed," Gabrielle replied, thrusting one hand out sharply as she nearly lost her footing. "Whoa!" she squealed, grabbing a handful of the warrior's long cape. Xena stopped walking and quickly grasped the girl's arm, holding on firmly until the bard had regained her balance.

"Easy there," the warrior chuckled. "Try keeping your weight forward, on the front of your feet." She released the bard's arm but stayed close by, watching the girl's careful steps. "Wanna try again?"

"Yeah, OK," Gabrielle panted, spreading her arms in an attempt to combat the height of the drifted powder. "Now if I could just keep the snow out of my boots," the girl joked. "I'd be a truly happy bard." She turned to the tall warrior whose wide grin signaled her amusement at the small blonde's wobbly progress. The green eyes narrowed.

"Go 'head, laugh," the girl grunted, returning her concentration to the slippery substance under her. "Just remember, warrior ... paybacks are a bi.... YIKES!" The bard squawked as she lost her footing again and landed with a muffled thump, coming to rest squarely on her behind. Gabrielle squinted comically as the snow propelled upward by her boots gently returned to earth in the form of a soft, white cloud that quietly covered her shivering form. When her vision cleared, she glowered up at the laughing warrior who towered over her, her blue eyes dancing in amusement.

"You were saying?" Xena asked in a droll tone. She held out a gloved hand to the girl on the ground. "Here, take hold."

The bard did as requested and was quickly hoisted upright by the warrior's strong grip. The two women spent a few moments brushing the snow from the young woman's cape after which Gabrielle clapped her mittens together in an attempt to clear the icy crystals from the woolen material. Afterwards, the two friends shared a comfortable laugh.

"Here, take this," Xena said, handing the metal box to the bard. She turned her back to the smaller woman then dropped down on one knee, her hands out to her sides. "Climb on," she instructed, smiling over her shoulder at the little blonde. "We'll never get there with you fighting these drifts."

"Xena!" the girl giggled. "No ... I'm too ...."

"No, you're not," the warrior countered, anticipating the bard's objection. "Besides, it's not much farther." She pivoted slightly, halfway facing her small friend. "C'mon, Gabrielle," she said, turning around again. "We're gonna freeze out here in the meantime."

Gabrielle sighed heavily before positioning herself directly behind the warrior. She shuffled closer, wrapping one arm around the tall woman's neck. Xena leaned forward and stood up slowly, taking the bard's slight form up with her. When she was nearly upright, she reached back and captured the girl's legs with her hands. Finally, she stood up completely, settling the blonde woman's weight squarely on her back. She spoke to the girl over one shoulder.


"I guess so," the bard laughed, pulling her legs tight against the warrior's waist. "But I still think I'm too much for you to carry." The warrior's soft laugh floated back over her shoulder.

"Get real," the tall woman joked. "Carrying you is just good exercise." She bent her knees then bounced upright again, jostling the slender figure higher on her back.

"Hey!" the bard squealed. "OK, OK ... I'll shut up. Let's just get there before Lanessa sends out a rescue party." The warrior turned forward and took a long stride, her boots sinking quickly into the deep snow in front of them.

After a few steps, the bard's fertile mind remembered a question she'd meant to pose earlier. She decided their frosty trip could use a worthwhile distraction. She snuggled closer to the warrior's ear.

"By the way," the girl began, "I've been meaning to ask you something."

Xena's tall form came to an abrupt halt as she slowly turned her head around to address her talkative passenger. "Oh really?" the warrior asked drolly. "And you thought now would be a good time for this question?" One dark eyebrow crept upward toward the dark bangs.

"Well ... yeah," the bard answered shyly. "It's something that's been bugging me all night."
Gabrielle ducked her head to meet the warrior's slightly astonished gaze. "Wanna hear it?"

Xena rolled her eyes and let out a little sigh. "Yeah ... if it's been 'bugging' you," she jibed. She leaned forward slightly, repositioning the bard again. "Go 'head. I'm a captive audience," she quipped as she took another long stride into the snow.

"Well," Gabrielle began hesitantly. "You know that stuff we poured into the trough for Ma'ia?" The warrior grunted as her boots fought against the thick drifts.


The bard giggled softly. "Well ... I could've sworn that stuff smelled just like the junk you gave me to drink last summer ... when I had the coughing sickness?" The warrior's concentration was sidetracked as the bard's comment registered in her mind. A small, subtle grin began to invade the stoic expression. Xena let out a tiny, discreet little snort.

"Am I goofy?" the little blonde asked sincerely. "I mean, it couldn't have been the same stuff, could it? The stuff tonight was ... 'horse medicine'." Gabrielle let out a little giggle. "Right?" she said into the warrior's ear. The girl's grin faded when she realized the warrior hadn't answered her.

"I said, it wasn't the same stuff, was it?" Gabrielle asked, her tone decidedly more demanding. "Xena, answer me," the small woman grumbled, a deadly challenge in her tone. The warrior cleared her throat and shifted the girl's weight again in an attempt to buy herself some time. Very soon she deduced her delaying tactics had been in vain.

"You DIDN'T!" the bard exclaimed, pulling hard at the neck of the warrior's dark cape.

Xena gagged when the move tightened the fabric against her throat. She halted her steps, keeping her eyes ... and her 'give-it-away' smile ... facing forward. Finally, she quietly responded to the bard's question.

"Well, it works for people, too," the warrior answered quietly. After a nervous moment, she turned slowly toward the blonde clinging to her back. Xena saw the blatant shock on the young bard's face. She braced herself for the explosion she was certain would happen any minute. She didn't have to wait long.

"YOU DID!" the bard shrieked. "You gave me HORSE MEDICINE!" The trim form shifted unexpectedly, throwing her weight sideways in an attempt to confront the warrior face to face. The untimely move caught the tall woman totally by surprise, completely destroying her normally perfect balance and sent both women headlong into the deep white powder. Luckily, the piles were soft and high, with more than enough substance to counteract any serious damage the flying bodies might have encountered upon impact with the icy drifts.

"ARRGH!" the warrior groaned as she landed, nearly face-down in the snow. She quickly rolled over to one side, turning to locate the slender form which had only moments before been perched on her back. Her search was immediately interrupted by the handful of snow that splattered against her chest, the bombardment having been hand-delivered there, so to speak, by a rather angry little bard. Xena ducked the second round missile and easily redirected a third before collapsing backwards onto the glistening snowbank, raising both hands to protect herself from the bard's icy onslaught.

After a few moments of furious attack, Gabrielle sat back on her heels, her irritation quickly defused by the sight of the tall warrior's hearty amusement. The bard blinked at the sight in surprise; her tall, sleek, dark-haired best friend was lying flat on her back in the snow, her lanky, muscled body visibly quaking in pure, uncontrolled laughter. The young woman found herself giggling in response.

Xena lifted her head to meet the twinkling green pools shining happily from the bard's flushed face. The warrior pulled herself up onto one elbow, scooped up a handful of white powder and playfully tossed it at the girl's chin. Gabrielle deflected most of the shower with a snow-covered mitten but not before a small portion of it had adorned the hood and front panels of her dark cape. The two friends laughed comfortably. Finally Xena sat up all the way, breathing at a more normal rate.

"Admit it," Gabrielle said breathlessly. "You made me drink HORSE medicine." She shook an ice-encrusted mitten at the warrior's smirk. "Didn't you?" the bard said, her grin contradicting her insulted tone.
Xena's blue eyes twinkled as her shoulders moved in an innocent shrug. "Well, it worked, didn't it?" the warrior stated simply. "Besides, the herb doesn't know the difference." The tall form shook with renewed laughter. She brushed a handful of snow at the bard's 'irritated' scowl.
The bard launched her snow-covered self at the warrior, landing squarely on the woman's chest. The taller woman easily accepted the attack, catching the trim form in her arms and rolling to one side, taking the shrieking bard with her. When the intertwined figures had completed two revolutions over the crystal-white surface, any further cavorting they might have attempted was abruptly halted by their encounter with a pair of firmly-planted, totally uncompromising boots. The frolicsome activity ended with the two participants turning to investigate the identity of this hindrance to their enjoyment. The warrior's blue eyes traveled upward, scanning the shrouded figure standing over them.
"Hello, Mother," Xena said brightly. "Fancy meeting you here."
The mature female seemed only mildly amused at the sight before her.

The two women on the ground disentangled themselves and scrambled to their feet, which considering the depth of the snow around them, took considerably longer than it might have on any similar day. The warrior spent several busy moments, dusting off the white powder clinging to nearly every inch of her dark outer garment. The bard was involved in the same chore.
"Having fun playing in the snow, dear?" Cyrene asked drolly. "Good to see you enjoying yourself, for a change." The matron shook her head slowly.
In spite of the chilly temperature, Xena felt a warm blush travel up her neck on it's way to cover her face. Her abashment heightened when she recognized the uncomfortably familiar 'stern look' in her mother's stance.
The innkeeper side-stepped her daughter and approached the bard, pulling the young blonde into a loving embrace. "Hello, Sweetheart," Cyrene said. She hugged the girl for a moment, then took the soft chin in her hand, her dark blue gaze only incidentally noticing Gabrielle's short blonde hairdo.
"Such a nice surprise," the matron said to the bard. "You two decide to pay us a visit ..." She turned back to the warrior. " And I find out about it from one of my customers," the woman said facetiously. Her dark eyebrows skipped under the cap of thick auburn tresses framing her face. A moment later, Cyrene's deep chuckle dispelled the look of chastisement on her child's face. She stepped to the warrior and captured the tall form in a motherly embrace. Xena returned the hug and her mother's happy expression. She put her hand on the older woman's shoulder.
"Sorry, Mother," the warrior said sheepishly. "We sort of got caught by the storm, then Lanessa had a problem with ...."
"Yes, yes, I know all about it," the matron announced, still smiling. "Silvanus told me about the mare and the situation you're facing. But I thought you might all be hungry, by now." The matron draped one arm over the young blonde's shoulders.

"What a great idea!" the girl chirped. She circled the older woman's waist with her arm.
"Now," Cyrene said with authority. "Let's get in out of this freezing weather. We can talk while you girls have some supper." She began to direct the two younger women toward the small cottage.

"Lanessa's still in the barn, Mother," Xena informed her. "I think she could use some food, too."

The trio changed direction, stepping carefully across the mounds of snow on their way to the outbuilding. On the way, Xena bent to retrieve the metal container dropped by the bard during their playful wrestling match. She wiped the snow off the box as she followed the two smaller women's footsteps.

Chapter Nine ~~~~

Lanessa turned as the three women entered the shed. Cyrene crossed the floor to gaze pensively at the small, rust-colored mare, the animal's sides bulging obtrusively in the final stages of pregnancy. She placed a weathered hand on the petite healer's shoulder and the two women exchanged pleasantries. The innkeeper turned her gaze back to the little mare.

"So, this is Ma'ia," Cyrene said calmly. She laid a careful palm on the horse's warm torso. "Getting very close, I understand." Lanessa nodded. "And a breech ... no?"

Xena's dark head swiveled slowly toward her mother, her face showing a subtle question. The older woman turned to address her daughter. "Silvanus told me she's quite special to his little girl." Cyrene's stocky form straightened. "Well, I'm sure you have matters well in hand. Now, let's get you all fed so you can take care of this pretty thing."

The woman scanned the inside of the shed with an inquiring gaze. Her eyes settled on the wooden shelf hanging on the side wall of the shed. She crossed the floor to stand beside the fixture, parting her long cloak to reveal a large, wicker basket which she handed to the warrior. Then Cyrene crooked a finger at the young bard and the girl moved to stand beside her. The matron turned back to the shelf and began to empty the ledge with a purpose, depositing the items into the outstretched arms of the young blonde. After the first few items had been transferred, Xena intervened, trading the wicker basket for the group of tools and equipment her mother had been relocating with steady determination.

Once the shelf had been cleared, Cyrene retrieved the basket, placing the hopper in the now-open space. She lifted one end of the lid, reached inside and produced two deep, cloth-covered plates, handing one to the bard and the other to Lanessa. Her next venture into the basket resulted in two large spoons, two sparkling, white napkins and another wide bowl containing several slices of thick, sweet-smelling bread. She dispensed the utensils to the two women and held out the dish containing the bread to the young blonde.

Gabrielle wiped her hand on the side of her cape and selected one of the thick slices, holding the bread between her teeth while she lifted the cloth covering her plate. Cyrene smiled at the young bard's delighted squeal. She cupped the girl's soft cheek with her palm. Then she offered the bread to Lanessa.

The two small women crossed to the wooden bench, sat down and began to partake of the thick, hearty concoction. Gabrielle plunged the wide spoon into her plate, switching the bread between her lips for a heaping mouthful of the fragrant mixture. She chewed contentedly, closing her eyes in supreme ecstasy. The green pools blinked open, sending a happy twinkle at the matron's obliging grin.

Finally, the innkeeper reached into the hopper one more time, producing a third covered plate, another spoon and an additional large, white napkin. She turned in bemusement to the warrior, still standing nearby, the items from the shelf crowded into her arms. Cyrene let her eyes travel over her daughter's tall form, resting at last on the woman's expectant gaze.

"You'll have to put those things down, Dear, if you want to enjoy my stew."

Xena's mouth dropped open as if to formulate a response, then snapped closed as the bronze jaw rippled in controlled vexation. Closing her mouth with difficulty, the warrior turned away and neatly stacked the items she'd been holding on the floor of the empty stall. With her arms empty, she turned back to her parent, holding out her hands to accept the food. The older woman's dark blue eyes swept over the warrior's slender palms, her face displaying a maternal dismay. The tall form emitted a deep sigh, rolling her eyes in exasperation.

Using one panel of her cape, Xena made a pointed display of wiping the dust and particles of debris from her hands before dutifully presenting them for her mother's inspection. After examining the result, Cyrene cheerfully handed over the platter and spoon together with the last slice of bread. The warrior accepted the food, giving her mother a stiff smile as she crossed to the sturdy wooden stool. Her first bite of stew was postponed long enough to send a warning scowl toward the bard's quiet snicker.

The mature proprietor proudly watched the three women's satisfied consumption of the meal, her worn, wrinkled hands clasped in the middle of the long apron covering her dress. She relished the looks of appreciation shining on the faces of the two smaller women, and gave her daughter's subtle pout an indulgent grin. After a few moments, Cyrene gathered her long cloak, raising the hood over her gray-streaked, auburn hair.

"Well," the matron said briskly, pulling her wrap around her ample form. "I'll be back for the dishes in the morning." She threw an impish wink at the bard. "There's some cake inside ... for dessert." Gabrielle's bright smile flashed. "I'll leave you to your work."

Before her daughter could react, Cyrene stepped closer to the warrior and bestowed a quick, simple kiss on the bronze forehead. She gently brushed back a lock of the tall woman's dark hair. "Good luck," she told Xena, smiling into the clear blue eyes. "I hope you bring in the foal without too much trouble." She moved to the door of the shed.

"Oh and, Gabrielle?" Cyrene addressed the bard, her hand on the heavy latch.

The young blonde looked up.

"Welcome home."

Gabrielle's green eyes softened as she returned the stocky woman's tender smile.

"Good to be here," the girl said quietly. "And thanks for supper."

"G'night, youngsters," the innkeeper chirped merrily, pulling open the door and stepping through the aperture. A moment later, she was gone.

The three women ate in silence for a few minutes. Finally, the warrior's low voice sounded in the musty interior.

"Trust Mother to think of our stomachs," the tall woman quipped. She turned a wry expression toward her partner. "You sure you two aren't related?"

The two small women laughed openly, coaxing a small, crooked grin from the stoic warrior.

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

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

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

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

"Something," the warrior muttered in annoyance. "The question is, 'what', exactly'?"
The bronze jaw tightened at the young woman's continued mirth. She turned away from the amiable embrace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sure," Gabrielle said, sensing the warrior's desire to appease their hostess. She stood up, collecting the tea kettle and Lanessa's soiled kerchief. "New brew, comin' up," the girl chirped. "Can I get you anything else, Lanessa?" Lanessa smiled openly at the young blonde. "There should be a clean scarf on my dresser, if you wouldn't mind. And bring the tea. That'll be fine." The blonde took a step toward the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Now are you ready?"

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


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

Chapter Ten ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agreed?" she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ready?" she asked.

"Let's go," the warrior answered.

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

Soul's Pledge continues ...

Chapter 1 - 5Chapter 6 - 10Chapter 11 - 14

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