DISCLAIMER: The recognizable characters in this tale belong to Rob Tapert and Co., RenPics, Studios USA, MCA/Universal and anyone else who has an investment in Xena: Warrior Princess. I am just borrowing them for use in this story. No profit is being made from this and no copyright infringement is intended. This is all just for fun and to keep me busy and out of trouble.
BETA (and partner in mayhem) TRANSLATION: Still not ours, although after a year, they should be.  And besides, we treated them much better.  They are much happier with us, honest.  They followed us home... can we keep'm, huh? Huh?
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks: To Phil who won't let me list her as a co-author and without whom the story wouldn't be anywhere as interesting and it certainly wouldn't be nearly as long. She did all the research which I then twisted to suit my purpose. She also did all the beta reading which required hours and hours of time picking up all the letters I dropped along the way, of which there were many. I have to live up to the PITA DIVA reputation somehow. Also thanks to Les and SueG for keeping the clock ticking and reminding me that the deadline was LOOMING and for their encouraging words along the way. And thanks to Steph, who suggested the premise which we managed to take to Pluto and back before returning it to the Academy.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) Translation: Well, dang... there goes my anonymity.
Co-author... uh uh. I think I wrote one line every 100 pages or so (and provided suggestions for a name or two along the way). I admit I did help add a little humor. Be warned there is one line in there (not one of mine either, dang it) that is absolutely 'spew worthy' and no, I'm not telling you where. However, I will tell you that you can get a cheap replacement keyboard at Radio Shack... tell them you know me. I get quantity discounts now.
Beta... yep, I picked up all those dropped letters but she put them back in the right places. And I did voice checks on everyone but one like, fab blonde... D doesn't need like any help channeling that one like, bitchin' character.
Researcher... oh yeah. I have 147 "favorite places" links listed that we used for the story. I admit to sending her off on tangents to work in certain punchlines and character cameos (which I think ended up working out great). She also was kind enough to indulge me and hit some history highlights I thought y'all might enjoy. The overall idea was to try to get this sucker to 602 pages but alas, we fell a little shy of that goal. Okay, so that was MY goal. I say shoot high... why not? It's not like I was writing this thing. <.g.> Anyway, we fell a bit short because....
Special Thanks: To the readers of the Valiant Series I appreciate your patience and indulgence while I wrote this. Randi and Gwen were glad for the extra honeymoon time. I *have* already started on the next Valiant story and hope to have it out for your reading pleasure posthaste.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) Translation: ... she threatened to tell everyone who has been waiting on the next Valiant story exactly how to get to my house. YIKES!
Author's Note: This monstrosity is directly the result of a phone call that started out with the simple phrase, "I can't write a story about vampires or bacchae... I *am* one!" Now a year, 400 some-odd pages and $3,000 worth of phone calls later, this is the end result of that conversation.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) note: Still a vampire, still not a writer... my job here is complete. Thanks to Steph for the invitation... this was quite a ride. But, don't ask me again... she will beat me senseless. <.bg.> No comments from the peanut gallery are necessary, thank you very much.
Oh, one more thing... please read the story. I would like to know that the $3,000 in phone bills and the fact that I ate a cold dinner at least 3 times a week, due to the timing of said phone calls, was not in vein. HA! Little bacchae joke there.... Okay, very little bacchae joke there.
Beta (and partner in mayhem) note #2 (the really, really important one): Thanks D... you gave me my season 7(and 8 and pretty much 9 too). You ROCK!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To avaliantheart01[at]gmail.com

Blood Bond
The Second Pint
or His… ahem… HERstory bites and draws blood

By D (a.k.a. Bacchae Bunny)

 

Chapter XXXI

"Oh, Xena... do I have a story to tell you."

Gabrielle chuckled as she read those words in her diary, clearly remembering the day they were written.

The Renaissance was widespread and when she got wind of a bardic competition in Brittana, I mean England, Gabrielle reminded herself, she decided it was time to put her dislike of the place aside and go check it out. Time those memories were replaced with something better she mused to herself as she finally set foot on the shore, mentally crossing her fingers that that would be the case.

The place had much changed in the centuries since she had been in this place and yet it still had a wild untamed feeling for all the veer of civility it wore. Gabrielle made her way slowly towards the city, attracting as little attention as she could manage. A lone woman traveling the countryside was still seen as an invitation to take liberties from by brigands and thieves, though there were a few more safeguards against them in this time and place. Still, Gabrielle had no desire to become a target for them, even though she could clearly and easily destroy anyone who tried.

Finally she arrived in the city and cautiously made her way to the palace courtyard where the competition would be held. Lots of people were milling about and Gabrielle found herself near the registration table. She'd told herself that she was simply coming to listen, but she felt her blood stir in the most pleasant way as the atmosphere soaked its way into her consciousness.

A thrill skittered down her spine in the most pleasant way and before she had time for second thoughts, Gabrielle found herself entered in the challenge.

The morning and afternoon passed agreeably and Gabrielle enjoyed herself in a way she hadn't in years. Many storytellers took the stage – some good, others not so. But all of them were entertaining... even if only as they ran from the stage to avoid being pelted with rotten fruit.

Due to the lateness of her entry, Gabrielle was scheduled last and there were a number of entrants. So it was nearly sunset when a young man... the next to last entry, got up.

He was clearly a crowd favorite, judging by the applause he received when he was introduced and even Gabrielle was carried along on his tale of intrigue and woe. When he was finished, the crowd cheered and whooped until Gabrielle wondered if she should even bother. Then the master of ceremonies signaled for silence and the crowd quieted down.

"That was fine, Will," smiling at the young man who looked insufferably pleased with himself. "Now," the MC said, "We have one more bard, a late entry... please welcome Bard Gabrielle."

The applause was polite, but the silence was filled with expectancy. Aside from the fact that the crowd favorite, Will, ALWAYS went last, the fact that the interloper was a woman was almost unheard of so publicly in this day and age. Storytelling wasn't something most women chose to do, at least outside the home.

So they waited patiently and each of them found themselves captured by verdant green eyes and a slight smile as Gabrielle turned her gaze to the audience, attempting to make contact with everyone. Then she opened her mouth to speak.

The tale she told them was a simple one – her own story in her own words. Or part of it at any rate. Parts of it were too personal to share and others were simply unbelievable. She told of a faulty, human warrior hero, who didn't always make the right decision, but did always try. She told of her companion, left alone because of those decisions and her quest to find the warrior. Lastly, she told them of their triumphant reunion and all the joy it entailed.

There was dead silence when Gabrielle finished and she stepped back, feeling more drained than she had in many years. Without warning, the crowd favorite, Will, jumped up on the stage and lifted her arm in triumph. Stunned, the crowd raised its voice in roaring approval.

Gabrielle found herself surrounded by the many performers who were all eager to congratulate her. The master of ceremonies had to push and shove people out of his way to reach the middle of the stage where Gabrielle stood, talking to the performers and accepting the adulations of the crowd.

He held up a hand for silence.

"Ladies and gentlemen... I believe we have our winner. Bard Gabrielle."

Cheers rang out over the square again and the MC let it roll on for several long moments before raising his hands again.

"On behalf of their majesties, I present this year's purse to Gabrielle. Congratulations!"

Gabrielle accepted the small pouch with a smile and a nod and the performers surrounded her once again. More than once she felt hands reaching for the purse, but Xena's patiently taught lessons on pressure points came in handy for more than just seasickness and healing.

Eventually, the crowd began to disperse back to their homes and the villages surrounding the castle. Gabrielle took a moment to look around before a touch on her elbow caused her to turn around.

"Yes?" She paused. "Will, right?"

"Yes, Bard Gabrielle," he started, then halted at the shake of her head and upright hand. "I'm sorry... I...."

"Will, take a deep breath, all right? My name is just Gabrielle; not Bard Gabrielle, not Mistress Gabrielle, not Lady Gabrielle, or any other title you can think of. Just plain Gabrielle."

Will smiled at her. "All right then, just plain Gabrielle. I was wondering if you might like to come home with me."

Blonde brows rose to an equally blonde hairline and warm green eyes turned to ice. "Excuse me?"

"Wha... oh... OH!!" He shook his head and chuckled a bit. "No, no... I'm sorry, Gabrielle. That's not what I meant... at least not that way. Sorry. For a bard, I have a terrible habit of not conveying what I mean very clearly in normal speech. Let me begin again."

Gabrielle nodded, noting the blush that covered Will's face. He sighed. "I think that is the reason I normally win," he muttered to himself. He looked back at Gabrielle and motioned her to a seat before assuming on himself. "When I talk, I make all kinds of gaffes – say things I shouldn't or don't mean to say and generally embarrass myself greatly." His eyes took on a shine. "But when I tell stories...."

Gabrielle waited before finishing his thought. "When you tell stories, you become someone else. You tell their stories with their words."

"Exactly!" Will said excitedly, thrilled that she understood. "I disappear into the background as the characters emerge." He hesitated. "But you didn't do that. You became a part of the story. It was so real... so personal... like you had really experienced it. I'd like for you to teach me."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Will, it's not something that can be taught. Technique, sure. Cadence, absolutely. But the stories have to be a part of you. And you can't just tell them. You have to live them, experience them, believe in them so much that they become your truth."

Will gazed at her for a long self-conscious moment. "That story was true wasn't it? You're one of the people in your story."

Gabrielle had no need to answer. The truth was evident in her eyes when Will looked at her.

He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood. "Well, my invitation stands. You're welcome to come stay with me... or not. I'd like to spend some time getting to know you, I mean, as a friend. I mean...."

Gabrielle finally took compassion on him. "I understand, Will, really. Trust me... when you've been around as long as I have, you learn to gauge the signs. That is why your first offer took me so by surprise. It just didn't seem...." She waved him off. "Nevermind. Buy me a drink and then we'll see what we can do.

"Aren't you afraid that people will talk, Will? I mean, I'm just passing through."

"Gabrielle, I assure you that anything people think about me having you stay in my house will only improve any reputation I have. I'm considered the local idiot... another reason I think the humor me by letting me win the bardic challenge. Preparing for them keeps me busy and out of trouble."

"You don't have a whole lot of confidence in yourself there, do ya, Will?"

He shrugged. "Never had much reason to. All my life, people have told me how stupid I am. Kinda hard to get around it when it is all you ever hear."

Gabrielle bit her lip, remembering all too clearly her life before Xena and the core of confidence Xena had managed to plant deep in her soul.

"I'll tell ya what, Will. I'll come stay with you for a while. Maybe... maybe we can find your truth."

The walk back to Avon wasn't a long one, but it was fully dark by the time they reached Will's home. "C'mon in. It's not much, but it's home."

Will lit the candles, handing one to Gabrielle and keeping the other for himself as he walked around the house lighting others. The cottage was small but neatly kept and Gabrielle looked around with pleased surprise. The main living area contained a good-sized sitting room with a large fireplace at one end. The kitchen where she now stood took up the other part of the main room and it had a large fireplace as well.

Off to one side were two doors and Will opened one bashfully. "This was my parent's room. It's not much, but I've tried to keep it clean."

"Are they dead?" Gabrielle asked kindly.

Will laughed. "Oh no. My father was called to be a conner for the king. I saw them today, as a matter of fact."

"And they won't mind...?" gesturing to the room in front of them.

"No. They're not here and I wasn't kidding when I said your being here could only enhance my reputation." The young man colored. "I just hope you don't mind some of the things that will get said about you for being here... alone with me, I mean."

Gabrielle placed a tender hand on his arm, causing him to blush even further. "Will, if there is one thing I have learned in my life, it's not to let what other folks think of me become a concern. I have to do what is right and best for me; the rest of it just falls to the wayside."

Will thought about that for a long moment before smiling at her brightly. "I like your philosophy, Gabrielle. Goodnight."

Without waiting for her response, Will closed the door and went into his own room. Gabrielle looked around the tiny room with its neatly made bed and strong, plain furniture and nodded her head in satisfaction. This could turn out to be a very pleasant interlude.

"Will, I'm telling you... that is NOT how it happened."

The man threw up his hands in disgust. "But Gabrielle, there's just no drama... no tragedy."

Gabrielle sat back and rubbed her tired eyes. They had been working steadily for several weeks. Or rather, she had been relating stories to Will and he had been twisting them around to 'give them dramatic flair' as he called it. To Gabrielle, it was just messing up the facts.

"Will, why does there need to be drama? Or tragedy? Isn't life hard enough without adding more ugliness to it as a form of entertainment?"

She rose from the desk. "This was a classic love story, Will. Feuding families, petty intrigues and a girl determined not to live without her beloved. To the point she was willing to die rather than be wed to someone she didn't love, or watch the one she loved do the same."

Gabrielle started pacing. "A boy who went so far as to cause time to repeat itself until a way was found to stop his beloved from committing suicide. Not only that, but until a way was found to finally bring them together."

"And it happened, Will. I was there. That day repeated itself for eight straight days until every single detail was taken care of. And the couple did live happily ever after. Rare, I know, but it does occasionally happen and it did this time. I know. We went back and visited them several years later. They were still as happy and in love as they had been the first time I met them."

Gabrielle blew out an exasperated breath. "Why is it so hard to let them live happily ever after?"

She turned and looked at him for a hard moment before moving to the window. "Is happiness worth so little anymore that you can just throw it away for the sake of drama?"

Will scrubbed his eyes and began speaking softly. "No, it isn't but the truth is, Gabrielle, true love is so, so rare...." He held up his hand when she would have spoken. "Let me finish, please."

Gabrielle nodded and resumed a seat on the couch. Will walked to the window and stood looking out with his back to the room.

"True love is so very rare Gabrielle. Most of the world will never see it, much less be fortunate enough to experience it for themselves. It's like a faery tale. If you end up liking your mate, your marriage is generally considered a huge success."

He sighed. "And the sad truth of the matter is tragedy appeals to people because it reminds them that things could always be much worse than they are. Knowing that your neighbor is worse off than you tends to make you feel better about yourself. It's a terrible fact of the human condition, but it is also a very true one."

"Besides," he continued in a tone so soft Gabrielle had to strain to hear him. "You told me to write what I know. And I certainly have had my share of heartache in the romance department."

Gabrielle put a hand to the back of her neck and rubbed it. "All right, Will. You do what you want with this one. I'll sit down and see if I can come up with a REAL tragedy for you."

Will wondered what Gabrielle was doing. It seemed to him she was simply sitting staring out into space for hours at a time. He had no way of knowing she was reviewing centuries' worth of memories trying to decide which tragic event she could share with him.

She reviewed her life at home, in Poteidaia before she'd met Xena. Boring, perhaps, but somehow a missing lamb really didn't qualify on the tragic scale. Xena's 'death' by Callisto's dart; Xena's death by the tree; her own near death by being burned alive. None of them tragic because of their ending.

Her murder of Meridian; her rape by Dahok; Hope; her betrayal of Xena and Solon's subsequent death; the months they had spent hurting and almost hating one another. Very tragic and far too personal to share. Just thinking of those memories made the bile rise in her throat.

Hope's final death; Eve's destruction. Still not things she felt comfortable sharing. And there was no way she was going to share Xena's final act. She had exposed far more of that story than she'd ever planned to share and she wouldn't use it as the basis for yet another tragedy, although after all the time that had passed, the recitation of that story was as likely to make her mad as it was to hurt.

Her mind continued to wander through history, remembering the many different people she'd met along the way. Finally near noon on her fourth day of contemplation, Gabrielle sat up straight and reached for pen and paper. She knew what story she wanted to tell... very tragic and very true.

For days she sat, filling sheet after sheet of heavy paper with her long, fine strokes. Will wondered if she stopped for anything. She was writing when he got up in the morning and was still at it when he fell asleep at night.

Finally, after several weeks of writing, Gabrielle turned from her chair with a satisfied smile on her face. She gathered the manuscript into her hands and held it for a long moment.

"Now, the events in these pages actually happened. I was there, so I know. This is a first hand account of what I saw and the things I know." She looked up at Will's earnest face. "If you decide to use this, you're gonna have to change things so that the true story is hidden. I have some ideas on how you can do that, but I'll let you read the true history first."

Silence reigned in the house then except for the occasional rustle of paper as William read. Gabrielle waited until she was sure he was completely engrossed in the tale before she disappeared to take a bath. She figured she was due a long soak after the hours she'd put in to crafting the story she given to Will.

Will was quietly setting the table by the time Gabrielle arrived back at the cottage. She still had a thing for the great outdoors and she was so glad Will had a bit of a creek running through his property. She loved a hot bath, but so much of her time in the last few weeks had been spent thinking of her life with Xena that she felt compelled to bathe as she had during that part of her life. Besides, she had really needed to feed and that gave her the opportunity to do both without causing talk.

The smell of stew was thick in the air and Gabrielle seated herself at Will's indication. He placed a bowl at each place and set the bread between them. Then he began eating, all without saying a word.

Gabrielle left him to his silence, respecting this need to process the story she'd given him. How many times had Xena done the same thing, though with Xena, it had been as much in her nature to simply be quiet as anything else.

Will finished his bowl and rose to refill it, judiciously checking Gabrielle's as well. When he resumed his seat, he stirred the stew and cleared his throat to speak.

"That was a true story?" his voice was slightly hoarse.

"Yep," Gabrielle said succinctly. She didn't want to influence his thinking.

"Um... well... uh, you were um... you were right about the tragedy involved. I would never have come up with something like that in a million years of thinking. It probably would have driven me to drink, actually," he offered with a wry smile.

She raised her cup to him and he returned the salute.

"It's a powerful story though. Do you really think we can change it enough so people don't recognize the basis of truth in it?"

"Oh yeah. I've been thinking about it for a while. Let's finish dinner and we can sit down with a pen a paper. Then we'll see what we can come up with."

Will rushed his meal, obviously anxious to get into the creative process. As soon as he was sure Gabrielle was done, he removed their bowls and brought the paper to the table. With a jar of ink in front of him and a sharpened quill in his hands, he sat ready for her comments.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Well, the first thing I think we should do is add the Fates... make them witches if you like, but they need to be a consistent theme throughout, tying things together."

"Oh, I like that... a little mysticism and occultism is just the thing to add an edge. What else?"

"How 'bout we make the feudal lord a king? And instead of revenge, make the motive greed?"

The quill was moving swiftly as Gabrielle made suggestions and Will struggled to keep up.

"You want intrigue... instead of two sisters, have a husband and wife. The wife wants her husband to become king and convinces him murder is the only way to achieve it. The Fates... the witches could insure that the act will drive him mad."

"Oh, I like this a lot. What shall we call it?

"Well, where do you want to set it? That will make a difference in the names that get chosen. Only...." she paused. "You can't put it in Germany. That's where this happened. We need to remove it from its origins."

"Hmm... Scotland maybe? We could call it... Mac... something. MacDuff? MacDonald? Macbeth?"

Gabrielle thought about that for a long moment. "I like that... Macbeth, Lady Macbeth... has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?"

Will grinned big. "Yeah, it really does. Bet we could stir up some nice rumors about the name too." He laughed heartily. "Thanks, Gabrielle. I think I have found my voice. This is gonna make us famous. They'll be putting this play on everywhere... indoor theatres, in the park, maybe even open air theatres by the sea.""

Gabrielle smiled. "I'm glad, Will. You've been very kind to me and a good friend. Will you do something for me though?"

"Anything, Gabrielle. Name it."

"Keep my name out of it. All I did was put you on the right path, but these stories are gonna make you famous. I don't want to be famous, Will. I can't be."

Will gazed into the green eyes across the table and suddenly saw an ancientness there that he hadn't noticed before. Whatever her secret was, it was one she had carried for a long time and he felt himself nodding his agreement.

"I feel funny taking your stories, though. I expected we'd share credit...."

Gabrielle clasped her hands over his.

"Will, I'm giving you the stories. You can take them and rewrite them anyway you want to. Give them your special touch of dramatic appeal, all right? It'll be my pleasure to say I knew you when."

Shakespeare flushed. "You're a very special woman, Gabrielle. Thank you."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I just do what I do, Will. It's the only way I know to be."

"Well, I'm glad to have had the chance to know and work with you, even if it has to stay between us."

"Trust me when I tell you it's better this way. You're destined for great things, William Shakespeare."

He blushed again and rose rapidly, trying to cover his embarrassment. In his haste, he knocked his wine over, landing cup and liquid squarely in Gabrielle's lap. She stood and grabbed her napkin, brushing the stain briskly.

"Out, damned spot! I just washed this outfit!"

"Sorry, Gabrielle. I...."

"Don't worry about it, Will. It'll come out with a bit of scrubbing. Let me go change and we can get back to work."

"Where will you go now, Gabrielle?" Shakespeare asked her as they walked together back towards the town where they had met a year earlier. Gabrielle was not competing, but she had promised Will that she would stay long enough to watch him win.

"Germany, I think. I have a hankering for a good beer and they make the best I've ever had."

"Really?"

"Yeah. You should make a trip over and try it."

"Maybe one day," Will commented. "Thanks to you, I have so many ideas... so many stories I want to tell, it's gonna be years before I get done telling them."

"I know how you feel, Will. That's why I know you'll succeed."

Shakespeare won the contest and he split his winnings with Gabrielle. She tried to refuse, but he wouldn't let her and rather than make a scene, she accepted the purse gracefully. Then she hugged him tightly and kissed his cheek, disappearing into the fog of the night.

Gabrielle was happy to set foot on solid land again, though sea travel really didn't bother her much, thanks to Dite's talisman. But she needed to feed again and she really was looking forward to a good beer.

She made her way into Munich. It hadn't been quite a century since her last visit, so she was shocked speechless to see a credible likeness of herself set up in one of the market squares. Gabrielle approached a vendor who looked hard at her, turning and deliberately studying the statue before looking back to Gabrielle.

"You a descendent?" the man asked, motioning to the statue. "Never seen anyone who looked like her come through here before."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno. Who is she?"

The man shook his head. "I don't rightly know her name. It's not mentioned in any of the stories. But she's the one who convinced Duke Wilhelm IV that beer needed to be nothing more than barley, hops and pure water. Made all the difference in our brewing process and our beer."

Gabrielle rubbed the back of her neck remembering clearly the fight she'd had to convince them and the gratitude they'd responded with when they had tasted the difference. She had never counted on a statue, though. She looked up and realized the man was waiting for her response.

"That's an incredible story. Um, where can I get one of these beers?"

The man pointed. "Tavern's three buildings down. Got the best beer in town."

Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks, friend... for the tip and the tale."

"Anytime, pretty lady," doffing his cap and giving her a half bow.

Gabrielle moved towards the tavern when her talisman ring began to glow and tingle. It was the pre-arranged signal she and Dite had agreed upon to indicate a safe time for Gabrielle to visit Olympus. She smiled. It had been a long time since she'd seen her friend the love goddess and she missed the somewhat ditzy, blonde presence as a constant in her life. She was looking forward to the opportunity to see Aphrodite again.

"But first, I'm gonna have that beer."

Chapter XXXII

"Ooo, Sweet Cheeks!" Aphrodite cooed excitedly as she wrapped Gabrielle in a fierce hug. "I can't tell you how totally stoked I am about having you here. I have missed you sooo much!"

Gabrielle returned the hug fiercely. It had been forever since they'd seen one another and it felt so good just to be back with someone who knew her, knew things about her that no one else could and someone that she knew and trusted.

For long moments, they simply held one another, until Dite finally pulled back to take a good look at Gabrielle. She ran a hand through the long blonde hair, gently tracing the plains of her face before coming to rest on Gabrielle's shoulder.

"You look really good, Sweet Thing. Totally radical." She tugged on Gabrielle's hand and drew her over to the chaise, plopping down and patting the space beside her.

"I just can't get over how different you look... so strong, so bodaciously fit, so... I dunno, at peace, maybe?"

"Maybe," Gabrielle answered. "I've learned to live my life to its very fullest. I've made some great friends, done some fabulous things, experienced a lot of new discoveries first-hand. And I know now, without a doubt, where Xena is... well, relatively speaking. I just have to wait for her to get there."

Dite shimmied. "I sooo cannot tell you how I am like, looking forward to *that* reunion. Gives me the tingles just thinking about it."

The love goddess was so completely lost in her fantasies that she missed the shadow that crossed Gabrielle's face at the mention of her reunion with Xena.

"So," Gabrielle said after a few minutes of silence. "What happened? I mean, I didn't actually expect to ever get to come back here... not with Ares here and knowing the way the rest of the Pantheon feels about me."

Aphrodite picked at the silky material on the chaise. "Well, Ares isn't, like, ya know here... stirring up more of those radical war things in Turkey or some such. As for the others," she shrugged gracefully. "It took 'em a little while to, you know, get over the bitchin' and moanin', but they did eventually realize that Xena did them a totally awesome favor."

Gabrielle looked up at her in surprise. Dite looked up through her lashes, easily reading the unbelief on Gabrielle's expression.

"No kiddin', babe! The move to Rome did some totally awesome thing to their power bases. They had you know, centuries of massive power they wouldn't have otherwise. It was a majorly bitchin' rush while it lasted. Besides, Artemis was absolutely whacked over the fact that her Amazon babes found a new place to like, flourish."

"And the rest?"

"They really don't have the power to waste worrying about something that happened nearly two millennia ago that was ultimately a good thing for them, ya know?"

"So they just don't care?"

"Nah, not really. They mostly just get together with some of the other gods, ya know, like I do with Ch'uang. They spend a major amount of time just rehashing the past."

"Do they know about me?"

Aphrodite shook her head. "No one has said a word and trust me, babe. I woulda heard. These chicks gossip worse than a bunch of old hens after a night with a rooster."

Gabrielle couldn't help the laughter that bubbled up, though whether it was due to the expression falling from Aphrodite's lips or the comical look on her face as she said it, it would have been hard to say. Regardless, she laughed until the tears streamed down her face and Dite couldn't help but join in, though she didn't know *why* she was laughing except that the sound of Gabrielle's laughter was infectious.

Finally the laughter slowed with only the occasional giggle or hiccup to mar the silence. It took several attempts, but eventually Gabrielle was able to look at Aphrodite without sputtering back into laughter again.

"Whew!" she said with a grin, waving her hands in front of her face to help cool the flush she'd developed with all her laughing. "Gods, I needed that. I haven't laughed like that in... ever."

Dite chuckled. "Me either. But what were we like, laughing about anyway?"

The question was enough to nearly send Gabrielle back into the throes of laughter, but she quelled the urge with supreme effort. Taking a deep breath, she turned to Aphrodite. "Well, *I* was laughing at the visual you gave me... Somehow picturing Athena and Artemis and the rest as chickens strutting around in the yard was just not something I ever expected to hear coming from your lips."

Aphrodite sat there for a long time thinking about this with a very serious face. Finally she nodded. "Okay... whatever. Now," brightening and changing the subject, "I have a totally gnarly surprise for ya."

Gabrielle blinked. "A surprise. Aphrodite... you didn't have to...."

Dite covered Gabrielle's mouth. "I know I didn't. But trust me, Cutie. This is one rockin' surprise. You're gonna love it... I promise. Now, close your eyes."

Gabrielle gave her a look and she waved her hands impatiently. "Close 'em and no peeking." Dite rose and reached for Gabrielle's hands. "C'mon. It's in the other room."

Gabrielle walked slowly, holding onto Dite's hand and trusting the goddess not to run her into anything. When they crossed the threshold, Gabrielle heard the slight whirring noise of the world wide god web and figured maybe Aphrodite had news of Xena. She clenched Dite's hand in reaction.

"Whoa, babe! Chill! You're gonna damage the merchandise holding on like that. Take it easy, will ya? It's not Xena," she started, then felt the slump of the body behind her. Aphrodite turned and pulled Gabrielle into her arms and simply held her as the tears slid down her cheeks. Tenderly she wiped the wetness from Gabrielle's face.

"Im so sorry, Gab. I never thought about this raising your hopes. I would never, ever tease or set you up like that."

"I know, Dite. I'm just so tired of waiting. I don't think I realized how long eternity was until just then. I feel like I have been alone forever and sometimes...." She stepped back from Aphrodite and wiped her eyes before opening them. Dite sucked in a breath at the loneliness that was apparent in the depths of those green eyes.

"Sometimes I wonder what will happen to me if I don't find her. Aphrodite, I'm not sure I could bear that."

"Oh you will, Little One and I for one am sooo totally looking forward to that rockin', reunion," wiggling her hips and shimmying just the slightest bit. "I am expecting serious love vibrations and a way gnarly power surge to be headed my way over that one."

Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "Yeah, well, I'm still waffling between kissing her and killing her when I do find her."

Aphrodite snorted, glad to see Gabrielle's sense of humor reasserting itself. "Well, if you kill her first, you can kiss and make up later." She paused in thought pinching her lips between her fingers. "Though, you could skip the fighting and go straight to the making up... although I'm betting a good fight would make the making up even more delicious. On the other hand...."

"Dite!!"

Aphrodite stopped her vocal musing when Gabrielle said her name so emphatically. "Hmph?" she hummed against Gabrielle's hand on her lips.

"Please, you're making my head spin with all the coulds and could nots. I have to find her first. Now," deliberately changing the conversation, "where's my surprise??"

Dite squealed and clapped her hands together. "Oh, this is so cool. Check this out."

She led Gabrielle over to a small marble table near the god web. "I know you've been hiding your scrolls whenever you pass through Greece." She put her hands behind her and began pacing allowing her glasses to appear when she resumed speaking.

"I've taken them, a few at a time and transcribed them, putting them into book form for you. Then I put them back where you hid them." Dite looked directly at Gabrielle. "I, you know, figured you like, had them there for a reason."

"You read my scrolls?" Gabrielle swallowed, never having thought that anyone would ever read her scrolls. She'd made sure to put them in the one place she was sure no one, not even the gods would look.

Dite shook her head. "No, not really. I mean, not much. I mostly saw bits, um... little things. The um, the god web scanned them in and when I was done with everything I could, you know, find, I printed them up."

"Why?" a hoarse whisper. She knew very well how personal some of those scrolls had been.

"Why what?" She turned and noted with alarm that Gabrielle was sporting a pallor instead of her normal healthy complexion. "Gabrielle?!?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes and focused on breathing. When she felt her world equalize, she opened her eyes and gave Dite a tremulous smile.

"I'm sorry, Aphrodite. You just caught me a little off guard. I never thought anyone would ever *find* my scrolls... much less *read* them. There was some really personal stuff in there. That's why I hid them in the...."

"... tomb Hephaestus created. I know. I wondered why you went in there. When I found the scrolls, well, I thought it would be a radical surprise for you." Dite took off her glasses and faced Gabrielle squarely.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I didn't mean to upset you. I was just tryin' to do something nice for ya."

Gabrielle covered Dite's hands. "You *did* do something nice for me. I just wasn't expecting anything like it. I'm sorry I hurt your feelings going off like that. I know you better than that. Now, can I see them?"

Dite looked at Gabrielle for another long minute, seeing her color return. Then she walked over to her desk and removed four large, leather-bound volumes. Then she came back to the marble table and set them down with a loud thump.

"You've written a lot there, girlfriend, you know that?"

Gabrielle nodded, too stunned by the intricate tooling on the covers to say a word. She let her hand run over each cover, noting the different insignia Aphrodite had inscribed into each one. Finally, she drew a shuddering breath.

"Thank you, Aphrodite. These are... fantastic. Can I... share them with you?"

Dite smiled and clapped her hands, bouncing around like a little kid in her excitement. "I was sooo hoping you were gonna share, cause it was mega hard to be good when I was puttin' these things together. You've had some gnarly adventures."

Gabrielle caressed the cover of the first journal. "I really have and I've met some of the most interesting people." She opened the book to the first entry and noted it was dated in the upper right corner.

"You put them in order?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, how else would you read it? That's how I got to see bits... you know, looking for the dates and stuff. You could get a massive amount of info on one of those scrolls of yours, ya know."

Gabrielle nodded and smiled. "I know. Xena used to tease me about that. She said I could get more stories onto a single scroll than should be physically possible," she added with a chuckle. She looked up at Aphrodite. "How did you get it all into four journals? I've done a lot in the centuries I've been around."

"No kiddin', babe! I will not tell you the massive amount of ink and paper it took to copy those scrolls. But it was worth it, if you like them." Aphrodite looked down bashfully. This was probably one of the most intensely personal and intimate things she had ever undertaken that didn't involve sex in some way. She was a little unsure given Gabrielle's initial reaction.

Gabrielle rose from her chair and moved around to where Dite sat hesitantly, opening her arms and embracing the love goddess when Dite clasped her in a hug.

"I love them, Dite and I love you as well. Thank you for looking out for me," she said softly.

Gabrielle didn't see Aphrodite catch the tears that fell from her eyes. But she felt the light kiss brush the top of her head and heard the whispered words, "That what friends do for each other, Gab!"

After a lengthy embrace, Dite had her emotions under control and pulled back. "Now, c'mon. I wanna read the good stuff!"

Gabrielle laughed and soon the two of them were pouring over the journals.

"I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this... how much I needed this."

"Me too, bardic babe! And I can honestly say I sooo haven't had this much radical fun or laughed so hard in like, ages. Now you be careful, will ya? I know my bro has been way busy with his war stuff lately. Otherwise, he'd have, you know, popped in on me."

"I will, Dite. Thanks for caring. It means a lot to me."

"Well, make sure you come say good bye to me before you leave, if you can, all right? Time's gotta be getting close."

Gabrielle nodded. "I hope so. I'm ready for this to be over."

Aphrodite pushed the bangs off Gabrielle's forehead. "I know," was her soft response.

Gabrielle sighed as she overlooked the city. Even from here she could smell the coppery scent of blood and felt her teeth elongate in response. It wasn't something she wanted to feel, but it had been so long since she'd had the chance to hunt and feed, it was an involuntary reaction. The fact that humanity seemed to be at war with itself again simply exacerbated the problem.

Gabrielle hadn't been to Gaul in a very long time and nothing she saw now changed her attitude of the place. Poverty was rampant and many people looked filthy and gaunt... as though they had been run into the earth and hadn't eaten properly in years.

Gabrielle had to be careful as she hunted. She didn't want to cause problems in what was clearly a troubled society, but she needed the blood. She found a small pig and drained it, then carefully cured the meat to leave on some unfortunate's doorstep.

The troubles this country now known as France was suffering through were staggering, but still she had wanted to do her bit to further the greater good. So Gabrielle had traveled the countryside, doing what she could to alleviate the stress of the common people all around her.

Many thought her an angel and she didn't correct them, letting them think that a mythological creature had come to ease their distress.

So it had taken her a very long time to reach the center of the city that had stirred her hunger and she'd had to travel back out into the country under the cover of darkness to fill her need.

Finally sated and sure that her gift had been accepted by a family that had shown her kindness, Gabrielle headed into the city to see what she could do there to help.

She found a tavern, clean with a decent house wine and sat down to rest for a bit. After a bit of time, a group of French revolutionaries came in, loud and strident.

"Barkeep! Dinner and wine all around!"

The man behind the bar nodded and within minutes the group was served. Food and drink had calmed them all somewhat, much to Gabrielle's surprise. Her experience had taught her that spirits tended to make men rowdier and more rambunctious.

Without intending to, she found her senses sharpening and she easily honed in on the quiet conversation now flowing at the nearby table. She ordered a meal to keep them from becoming suspicious of her motives, though her dress made her stand out anyway.

With a mental shrug, she directed her attention to the revolutionaries, nodding her thanks to the waitress as she set the meal in front of her.

"I'm telling you, we have to fine a way to stop the Scarlet Pimpernel. Too many of the highbrow aristocrats are escaping because of him and his league. If we want this revolution to be successful, they all have to die!"

"C'mon, Pierre. The streets run red with their blood now. What difference does it make if a few get away? The country is ours. They will never get it back from us!"

A smack to the back of the head made the speaker bite his tongue and he glared at Pierre who returned the look without flinching.

"Idiot!" he hissed. "Until we get them all, there is always a chance that they will return and try to recover what they think is their rightful place." Jacques nodded slowly, then Pierre continued speaking.

"Chauvelin has been ordered to find the Pimpernel. He has put the word out into the streets. One million francs for the Pimpernel, dead or alive. Five hundred thousand for any other league member. We can be patriotic and get rich at the same time."

Gabrielle's mind went back several months, to a time when she was working in a costal town.

When she had left Greece, Gabrielle had headed north and had walked until she reached the sea. Then she had turned her steps westward, determined to conquer the unreasoning dislike she still harbored towards Gaul and its inhabitants. She remembered far too easily what the land had been like under the Romans and she hoped sincerely that time had changed that.

She wandered near the coast for a while, finding plenty of families in need and realizing that they were in the midst of a revolution by the tales that floated across the countryside now and again. But there were so many to help that she hadn't made it into the city to confirm it. Given what was rumored, she really wasn't sure she wanted to.

Late one evening in July, she stood on a high cliff looking north towards England. She had much better memories of that country now and was reminiscing about her time spent with Will. He had surpassed her expectations and had become the most famous and prolific bard that country had ever seen. She was glad. He had been a good friend to her and had managed to turn many of the stories she'd shared with him into something greater than what she'd thought they could become.

Some were even stories he'd told her in the raw stages of their infancy and she was amazed at how polished the finished products had become.

Out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of a British schooner approaching the coast. There was something furtive in its movements and Gabrielle easily dissolved into the shadows she was so familiar with.

The boat was hidden in a natural cove that kept prying eyes from seeing unless they knew exactly where to look. The men who exited the boat were dressed for stealth and secrecy and Gabrielle watched with interest as they made their way cautiously towards the city.

For several days she watched, wondering what had happened to the men, until finally, on the fourth night, they returned bearing one with them who walked blindfolded and gagged with arms pulled behind him and bound.

Gabrielle stepped out from the shadows, bringing the little parade to a sudden, unexpected halt.

"Step aside, m'lady," a cultured English voice commanded, brandishing a sword in her direction. "I have no desire to harm you, but you will not stand between us and the success of our mission."

Gabrielle batted the sword aside as though it were of no importance and even less threat. "You tell me your mission. I will determine whether your night will end in success or failure."

The masked man flung his cape back from his dark shoulders and laughed aloud. "A delicate flower such as yourself, my dear lady? Somehow...."

Whatever he had been about to say was cut off when two silk-clad arms flashed out and the man crumpled to his knees. Half a dozen swords were heard being drawn from the sheaths, but no one moved when they heard Gabrielle's words.

"I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. So tell your boys to put their swords away and we'll talk. You've got about twenty seconds left before your brain shuts down. Make your choice."

The man sputtered and signaled his men who immediately sheathed their weapons and stepped back a pace. Gabrielle walked forward again and her hands again rushed forward towards the man's neck. He gasped and fell forward, his arms catching him bare inches from the ground.

"Now that I have your attention... who are you and what are you doing?" Gabrielle walked over to the man who was bound and calmly untied the ropes holding his hands behind him.

The prisoner released his own gag and blindfold, then turned his attention to the group still standing silently around him. One rubbed his throat conspicuously and the others deferred to his action. The man caught sight of Gabrielle and gently clasped her hand, raising it to his lips for a kiss.

"Madame," he said with a deep voice and a French inflection to his words. "I am the Marquis du la Noire. And this gentleman who has saved my life from the mobs of Paris is none other than the Scarlet Pimpernel, if I am not mistaken."

The man still rubbing his throat rose stiffly to his knees and was then aided by one of the other of his band to stand on shaky legs. The second man waited until his leader had his balance, then stepped back respectfully.

The first man swirled his cape back over his shoulders and extended an arm to the Frenchman. "I am indeed, sir," he confirmed with a hoarse voice. Then he turned to Gabrielle. "My apologies, dear lady. I of all people should know better than to judge a book by its cover. Will you walk with us? I would be glad to explain our mission to you, but we need to get the Marquis to the ship with all due haste."

Gabrielle considered. The Pimpernel's men had made no move against her, though they had certainly wanted to and except for misjudging her delicacy, Gabrielle snorted at *that* particular thought, he had been quite the gentleman. Yet her doubt of him was plain, though she sensed no real danger from him. It was simply a bizarre situation and her bard's curiosity won out over whatever sense of danger the band of men had been projecting.

She nodded her consent. Without another word, the men formed up around the Marquis and the Pimpernel took Gabrielle's arm and placed it within his own. Then he began to tell his tale.

He finished just as they reached the ship and he was much winded for the telling. Gabrielle stood silently while he caught his breath, appalled at what she'd been told. Finally, the Pimpernel was able to speak again.

"Now do you understand why we do what we do? And why we make it look like a kidnapping? We can't do any good if we are locked up or dead."

Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "Yeah, I supposed being dead could put a real crimp in your plans," thinking of the times it had caused her more problems than it had solved. "I will keep your secret, Pimpernel and wish you success in your efforts. I may not agree with the government, but I know I don't agree with wholesale slaughter."

"Neither do I, dear lady. Neither do I."

And since that time, Gabrielle had had several occasions to run into the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and though she never directly contributed to their cause, she made sure he was aware of any goings on in the capital city that were relayed to her by the many travelers she met on her way.

This however, was the first time she herself had made it in and she wondered even now why she had finally come. It had been dark when she arrived and she was curious about the overwhelming scent of blood that made her hair stand on end.

When morning arrived, her curiosity turned to revulsion and for the first time in centuries, Gabrielle was physically sick to her stomach as she saw people cheer while others were beheaded. The memories the vision of the guillotine stirred in her were horribly unpleasant, but the peoples' rejoicing was sickening to a degree that Gabrielle could not abide.

She turned and pushed her way out of the press of bodies, shuddering each time she heard the blade fall and choking back bile with every glad cry that arose afterwards.

In her haste to leave, she didn't notice the short military man standing at the edge of a platform with a hand tucked into his waistcoat as he callously watched the proceedings. And she never saw the dark eyes of the taller man that flanked the general search the crowd, wondering what had suddenly caused his pulse to race. Only one had ever done that to him and she had been dead for nearly two millennia.

Ares shook his head, putting the delicious sensation down to the blood that flowed so freely through the streets of Paris. The purge was going quite well and soon the man who stood next to him would be ready to create a new empire.

"C'mon, Napoleon. We have plans to make."

The general looked at his mentor for a long moment before nodding his agreement. He had learned much from this man who was called after the ancient Greek god of war. But soon it would be *his* time and the world would tremble when it heard the name Napoleon Bonaparte.

Gabrielle waited for the Pimpernel, wanting to say goodbye and to warn him of the escalated price on his head. He thanked her for her warning and they parted as friends. It wouldn't be until years later that she learned his identity, as well as his whole story.

She turned her footsteps back towards Greece, having determined that she was ready to travel to the new land now known as the United States of America. It was there she was sure that she would find Xena again. There was something about it that called to her... had done so even when she was crossing through it the first time. Besides which, Dite had practically confirmed it when they had traveled together briefly through it.

Gabrielle let her mind process all the places she'd traveled in that wild, untamed land and speculated just how much of it had changed in the centuries since she'd visited. She hoped not much. She wanted Xena to experience the beauty she'd seen.

Now her thoughts focused on Xena, wondering how she would react to being so far out of time and place. She would be disconcerted, certainly and confused, but would she be angry? Upset? How would she communicate? Would she make friends or would she try to do everything on her own?

Gabrielle smiled. Knowing her warrior, she'd find every challenge she possibly could while she tried to figure out how to get home.

The sound of music drew her attention and Gabrielle walked off the road and looked around to find where it was coming from. What she saw was something of a surprise and she made her way over to the young man who sat alone on the stage, apparently oblivious to the rest of the world.

She sat under the shade of a tree and let the music wash over her. There was a quality that spoke to her and brought to mind several of the events of her life. When it was over, she still sat, eyes closed, allowing the peace the memories had brought her to flow through her like sweet wine. She felt the youth approach, but waited until he blocked the sun before she allowed her eyes to flit open.

"Did you enjoy the concert?" the boy asked with a hint of arrogance.

"Yes, I did," she answered placidly. "You play very well."

"I wrote the piece myself."

"Well, it was lovely. I enjoyed it very much. Is there a story behind it?"

He tilted his head. He was used to a much different reaction, but strangely, he appreciated the honesty of this one. He smiled and offered Gabrielle his hand.

"Yes, there is actually. My name is Richard... Richard Wagner."

Gabrielle accepted his hand and let him pull her to her feet. "Well, Richard Wagner, it is nice to meet you. My name is Gabrielle. Perhaps you'd share the story with me? And then I'll share a story with you. Who knows, maybe you'll find something to write about from it."

Wagner laughed. "Come, Gabrielle. I think my maman would love to meet you."

And the teenager led the way to his parents' home.

Chapter XXXIII

"Well, that was a lot different story than the one I saw when you played," Gabrielle said to Richard as they reached the front door. He opened it and motioned her inside.

"Really?" he said before he called out, "Maman? Maman, I'm home and I brought a guest."

A robust woman waddled in, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. "Richard, what have I told you about yelling in the house?" swatting him on the behind as he bent to kiss her cheek. "Introduce me to your friend, dear."

Wagner laughed again. "Yes, maman. "This is Gabrielle. Gabrielle, my mother, a true terror in the kitchen," laughing louder when she swatted at him again.

"Be nice, young man, or you'll do without supper and I made your favorite. Go wash up. Hello Gabrielle and welcome to our home. You will join us for even meal, yes?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I'd love to, thank you, if you're sure it's not an imposition."

"Pshaw, absolutely not, child. Richard is something of a loner, so if he took the time to make your acquaintance, there must be something pretty special about you."

"She sat and listened to my music maman," Wagner said as he pelted back down the stairs. There were water marks on his face and his hands were still fairly damp. His mother shook her head in despair. He was almost a man and still there was so much of the little boy in him.

"She listened with the expression of one who understood what the music was saying. Though now she tells me that what she saw and what it said was not the same thing." He ushered them into the kitchen where so many lovely smells were emanating from and fairly making Gabrielle's mouth water. Once more she was thankful she was still able to thoroughly enjoy this part of her humanity.

Frau Geyer set the dishes on the table and motioned them to a seat. A smile coming to her face as a hearty hail was shouted from the door. She looked at Gabrielle and rolled her eyes. "Men! No wonder I can teach the boy no manners," she joked good-naturedly. "Excuse me, please. My husband Ludwig is home."

In a moment she returned with a stout man trailing behind her and he grinned as he saw Gabrielle. "And who is this charming fraulein?"

The bard extended her hand and the man accepted it graciously and placed a kiss on her knuckles. The action drew him a smack from his wife and a chuckle from Gabrielle and Richard. "I'm called Gabrielle," she answered with a smile.

"And what brings you to our humble haus, Gabrielle?" Ludwig asked. They all resumed their seats and began to dish food out onto their plates.

"Richard's invitation," she replied honestly, though it brought a smile to her face.

"You are not German," a statement, though the question in the words was clear.

"No, actually, I'm Greek. I've just traveled the world a bit."

"Have you now? Sounds like a dangerous thing to do."

Gabrielle shrugged. "Sometimes, but it has also given me the chance to meet some interesting people and do some fascinating things." Not to mention spend hundreds of years watching the time pass while I waited to catch up with Xena. "Besides, I've learned to take care of myself pretty well."

Ludwig looked doubtful, but was too polite to say anything aloud. Instead he nodded and shoveled another mouthful of food in, smoothly preventing him from speaking without appearing rude.

The business of eating took precedence for a few minutes, but once it slowed down, Richard spoke up again.

"Tell me, Gabrielle. What did you see in the music if not war and triumph?"

Gabrielle smiled at Wagner's youthful enthusiasm. It had been a while since she'd felt so old... or so young. She chewed carefully and set her fork on her plate, then folded her hands and leaned her chin on them.

"It was more a feeling, Richard." Gabrielle closed her eyes. It's the feeling of an approaching storm. A meadow, holding its breath, waiting for the onslaught. The storm arrives and everything bows before its fury, but eventually it passes and life returns to the meadow once more."

Green eyes opened and beheld the wonder of the three faces looking back at her.

"What?" honest confusion coloring her voice.

"Even I did not see those things and I told Richard the story he based his piece on," Ludwig said. "That was amazing."

Gabrielle shrugged a little self-consciously. "I guess I've always seen things a little bit differently."

"Are you a poet, Gabrielle?"

"No, Maman," calling her as she had been introduced to her. "Not exactly. More of a... bard. A storyteller."

"Can you share some stories with us, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle thought for a moment, wondering what to share. Then she smiled. "Have you ever heard the story of the Rheingold?"

"You make it seem so real, Gabrielle... like you were really there."

The food had grown cold long before and now they sat in candlelight while Gabrielle told them her story of the Rheingold.

Gabrielle chuckled. "It all comes from knowing how to weave a good story, Richard... to believe in what you're telling so much that it makes everyone else believe too."

"Can you tell it again and go a little slower this time? I'd like to take some notes. I think I could tell the story with music." He blushed then stammered. "If you don't mind, that is."

"I don't mind, Richard. The difference in your craft and mine is that your work leaves things open to the imagination of the listener. Mine leads them along the path I want them to follow, creating the picture I want them to see."

"You should be a philosopher," Ludwig grumbled.

Gabrielle laughed aloud at the thought. "Like Plato and Socrates were, you mean?" She shook her head. "No thanks. I used to have to have their conversations interpreted for me when they waxed philosophical. It made my head hurt to try and think in circles."

Maman laughed at this pronouncement. "Oh, I can see you'd fit in very well with Ludwig and his group of friends."

Ludwig glowered, but couldn't stop the twinkle in his eye. "Well," he said as his glare dissolved into laughter. "It is getting late. You will stay with us, or...?" he asked Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow.

"Of course she will stay with us!" Maman said adamantly. "She is our guest!"

"I know Maman," Ludwig said, "But I didn't know if she already had a place to be or someone who was expecting her."

"Oh," Maman replied, crestfallen. She turned to Gabrielle. "You are most welcome in our home."

"Thank you, Maman. I accept your invitation, as long as you're sure...."

The woman brightened considerably. "I'm sure. Come."

Gabrielle gestured to the still laden table. "But...."

Maman waved her hands. "It is of no matter. Ludwig will help me. And tomorrow you can tell your story again and maybe share some others?"

Gabrielle smiled. "I can do that. Thank you, Maman."

The following morning, Richard raced down the stairs anxious to talk to Gabrielle again. He'd never heard a storyteller who could paint such beautiful pictures with just words and he was looking forward to hearing more.

Already he had an inkling in the back of his mind of how he'd like to tell the tale of the ring trilogy, as Gabrielle had called it. It would make an intriguing opera, if he could just get all the pieces in his hands and weave them together.

So as soon as breakfast was over, Richard and Gabrielle sat down in the shade outside where they could see the fields being harvested and smell the rich tang of earth as it was being shorn of its fruits.

And Gabrielle told Wagner the story of the Rheingold once more.

Richard scribbled furiously as Gabrielle slowly went over each point of the story, making notes of things he wanted to compose around.

"So the Valkyrie were like Odin's harem?"

Gabrielle snorted, thinking of Xena's expression at that particular description. "Not exactly. They were like... angels, I guess would be the closest description. It was their job to bring Odin's warriors to Valhalla to receive their reward."

"And they had horses that flew?"

"Oh, yes... magnificent creatures. They made it easier for the Valkyrie to find the warriors and bring them to Valhalla for judgment."

"What did you think of Odin?" Richard asked.

Gabrielle's eyebrow raised and she gave the question careful consideration. "He was a weak god; at least that is how the stories portrayed him. He is presented as somewhat gullible and spineless."

Richard though about it, then nodded. "And the Rheingold?"

"Well, that is one reason I think he ended up being seen as such a weak god. He couldn't take care of it and when it was stolen from the Rhein maidens, it unleashed a monster they never expected."

"Grinhilda."

"Yes. The power of the ring was that it made you invincible. It also stole that which you valued most. Since she valued her beauty...."

"... she became a hideous monster."

"Exactly. And it took a hero to take the ring from the monster and restore it to the Rhein maidens again."

"And was there a test... you know, for the hero?"

"Of course. Don't all good stories make the hero pass a test first?" Gabrielle said with a smile. "The test in this tale was one of fire... the hero had to cross through a ring of fire to claim the damsel that lay sleeping in the middle of it."

"Why? What key did the damsel hold that the hero needed to rescue her?"

Gabrielle's eyes went unfocused and her mind went back to the reality she had lived through. Remembering the dreams and the lost look in Xena's eyes. Remembering the joy that flowed between them when their lips met.

She turned back to Richard and blinked the past from her eyes. "She held the hero's heart."

Wagner nodded, but didn't comment. Already he had pictures forming in his mind, the basis for the opera he would one day write brewing in his imagination.

Gabrielle stayed with Richard and his parents for a couple more days, sharing stories of her own experience and legends she had learned as a child in Poteidaia.

Before she made ready to leave, Ludwig pulled her aside and offered her a small sum of money. Gabrielle looked at him questioningly.

"We, Maman and I, wanted to be sure you were taken care of, Gabrielle. We've never seen Richard as animated as he has been for the last few days around you. You've given him something and we didn't know any other way to say thank you, except to offer you a little money to help you in your travels."

"Ludwig, you took me in as a stranger, offered me your food and shelter with no thought of repayment. I can't let you do this. Your friendship is all the payment I need."

"I understand your feelings, Gabrielle. We value your friendship as well, but Maman and I don't feel right about letting a beautiful, young woman like yourself travel alone without providing for some sort of shelter for you along the way. Please. We'd feel better about it."

Gabrielle looked into his eyes, seeing genuine concern in them. There was no way she was going to show him her skills were more than they seemed. She had taken great pains to do her meditation and practice in privacy. Much like her bacchae behavior, her martial skills were hidden from the rest of the world except when she was called on to defend herself or someone in need. She was tired and not presenting herself as a target meant she fought less. A circumstance she was more than happy with after centuries of conflict.

She nodded slowly, seeing relief pass through his gaze. "Thank you, Ludwig. I... appreciate your concern. It's been a long time since someone besides me has looked after myself." She paused, not wanting to reveal too much. "Thanks."

Ludwig wondered at her statement, but clearly recognized he'd pushed as far as she would allow. So he nodded his acceptance of her words. And when morning came, the family stood outside the door of their home and bid Gabrielle godspeed on her journey.

Gabrielle reached the base of Olympus and wondered what had happened to Dite. She talked to the goddess nightly since she'd reached her homeland, knowing that Dite could hear her even if she couldn't respond. Usually the portal she used was open in expectation of her arrival, but it remained steadfastly shut. She started to knock, then realized that her blood was fairly tingling beneath her skin.

Gabrielle moved to an outcropping of rock and settled down to wait.

The tingling stopped suddenly and almost immediately Aphrodite appeared.

"Hey, there, Cutie. C'mon up." She took Gabrielle's hand and pulled her to her feet. "I tried to ya know, reach ya, but we like, didn't think about a way to keep you from here if something radical came up. Ares was here. He's been so majorly busy lately. Wars in Turkey. Civil unrest all over. A war in... what was... oh, you know, the United States and a totally nasty revolution in France. This is the first time he's been back here in like, ages."

Gabrielle nodded. "It's all right, Dite. I should have realized when you didn't answer there was a problem. I just... I promised I'd come say goodbye."

"You're leaving? Have you like, felt Xena or...?"

Gabriele shook her head. "No, but I'm ready for a change of scenery." She paused. "It's a gut feeling, but I think the time is close."

Dite put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and steered her towards her living quarters. "If it's any kind of consolation, babe, I think your gut's pretty much dead on the money."

"But you haven't seen her yet either?"

"Nope, but I totally believe it is just a matter of time... and really, not that much. Course, everything's pretty relative for you these days."

"That's the truth," Gabrielle acknowledged as she dropped onto a lounge chair. "It's been entertaining and I've met some of the most interesting characters...."

"But...?" Dite questioned offering Gabrielle a drink a sinking onto her own chaise.

"But I'm ready for it to be over. Given my choice it wouldn't have happened at all."

"Which part?" Aphrodite flinched at the look Gabrielle gave her. "Well, I didn't" she shrugged, "you know, know if you meant the bacchae part or the Xena part."

Gabrielle paused thoughtfully. "Ya know, the bacchae part was never an issue when Xena was alive. You had to tell me about it, remember? I think eternal life would be okay, even as a bacchae, as long as I had Xena to share it with." She hesitated, then added, "And you too, of course. I don't think I could have done this without you, Dite."

"Yeah, ya coulda, but I am so way glad you didn't."

Gabrielle grinned and opened her arms. Aphrodite slid from her chair to Gabrielle's and heartily accepted her embrace.

"I'm gonna miss you so much!" Gabrielle whispered into the hug.

"Me too, Cutie. But I'll be keeping an eye on ya and you can still, ya know, talk to me every night. Who knows? Maybe I'll even surprise ya sometime and answer," said with a shaky chuckle.

"I'll count it as a promise, Dite."

"Good," the goddess said. "You do that. Now, how long can ya stay?"

"Not long. I really do want to get started." Gabrielle gave Dite a look. "You know how I feel about sea travel."

"Ring working okay? You don't get radically seasick anymore, do ya?"

Gabrielle clasped Dite's hands as they trailed over the ring looking for flaws. "The ring is fine, Dite. I'm just not real big on the 'weeks on the open ocean' thing."

"Ah... gotcha. Don't blame ya... I'm sorta attached to the pop right in method myself."

Gabrielle looked at her wryly. "Dite, I'm pretty sure we'd ALL choose the pop right in method if it was an option open to us. Unfortunately, as far as I know, it has never been a possibility for me, so I have to do things the old-fashioned way."

Dite ran her hands through Gabrielle's hair, ending with a light touch on her chin. "You listen careful to old Dite, all right now?"

Gabrielle nodded, wondering why the conversation had suddenly become so serious.

"You take good care of yourself, especially now, 'kay?" Dite sighed and moved away from Gabrielle, walking over to the window and looking out with sightless eyes. "I dunno what Ares is up to, but he hasn't been himself since... well, you know. And he has been working himself into a frenzy, stirring up wars everywhere to accumulate every ounce of power he can muster. He hasn't said, but I think he is...." Aphrodite shook her head.

Gabrielle padded over to stand behind the goddess and out a hand on her shoulder. "You think what?" She pushed gently on Dite's shoulder, urging Dite to face her. "You think he knows what happened to Xena? You think he is looking for her??" Gabrielle's voice had dropped to a harsh whisper.

Dite shook her blonde head. "No... I don't think so. I think... I think he is looking for her replacement. Or something that comes as close to what she was as he can find. That is why it is doubly important for you to be careful. You have the same fire, the same warrior strength that Xena did... does... will have...." She waved her hand. "Whatever. You use it differently, channel it differently, but the strength is the same and that's what he needs. It's what he wants."

"And if he finds me...."

"If he finds you, it won't be hard for him to figure out that Xena is probably an immortal too."

"And he would destroy the world to find her."

"Yep."

"Well, I'll keep as low a profile as I can. I am ready to find her and come home. I think I've earned a rest."

Aphrodite smiled sadly. "You let her find you and get you home. I'll make sure you get your rest."

Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed Dite lightly on the cheek. "You've always been a good friend, Aphrodite. I'm proud to say I know you."

Dite teared up and smiled. "That has to be one of the totally nicest things you've ever said to me, Sweet Cheeks. You're just trying to radically screw up my face, aren'tcha?" She dabbed at her eyes self-consciously. "Look at that. I'll be days trying to get rid of the red nose and eyes."

Gabrielle smiled. "You can still wow 'em, Dite."

Aphrodite laughed as she wiped her eyes again. "You're such a sweet talker, Gab. No wonder you do the bard thing so well."

"Well, that and I have LOTS of practice. Now," changing the subject rapidly, "Can we have one more night of girl talk before I head out?"

"Ooo, what a radical idea," Dite squealed, snapping her fingers and depositing the two of them in a huge hot tub, complete with pink bubbles and hot chocolate with marshmallows.

"Ya know what I miss most... aside from the obvious, I mean," Gabrielle asked as she sipped her chocolate. Dite shook her head as she swallowed her own cocoa.

"I miss sensible clothing. It was so nice when I could wear my Amazon clothes."

"Ooo, or that hot little velvet number you had. Va-va-va-voom!!" Dite said, waggling her eyebrows in Gabrielle's direction.

Gabrielle felt the flush run up her face and rubbed the back of her neck. She cleared her throat. "I mean, have you seen some of the outrageous costumes women are wearing these days?"

"Oh yeah. They are so bogus." Dite laughed. "I've noticed you wear them as little as possible."

Gabrielle giggled. "Yeah. Just long enough to introduce myself and get established. Then I go back to the trousers."

"I noticed. You totally wouldn't believe the envy vibes I felt from the women who saw them."

"Really? Wonder how long it will be before sensible clothes are fashionable again."

Gabrielle left the following morning, never knowing how close she'd come to being discovered.

"Hey, sis," Ares said as he walked into her chambers. As the centuries had passed and their powers had depleted, the Olympians tended to respect each others need for space and didn't pop into one another's area unannounced. Dite was personally convinced it had less to do with respect and more to do with the fact that no one wanted to waste the energy when they could walk, especially since no one had the strength for a fight besides her and Ares and they were simply too busy.

She looked up at him and removed her glasses, nonchalantly changing the screen on her world wide god web. Gabrielle had just exited the portal from Olympus and she'd been monitoring her progress.

"Whassup, bro?" cheerfully, noting the distracted look on his face. "You all right?"

"Hmm? Yeah, yeah. Déjà vu," Ares said shrugging off the tingling feeling he'd briefly experienced. "I just stopped by to say goodbye. I'm gonna be gone for a while."

"Really? Where ya headed now?"

"Couple places. Gotta keep those war fires stirred ya know."

"No, thanks and I totally don't wanna either," Dite answered lightly, though the feeling in her gut told her this could be bad news. "You gonna like, pop back and forth?"

"Nah, I need to travel conventionally for a while... you know, save up my strength for the important stuff."

She opened her arms and they embraced for a short time. For all their head-butting, they held a deep and genuine affection for one another.

"Well, you be careful out there. Not like the world is a totally gnarly place to be some days."

"I know. I'll talk to you and you do the same?"

"Count on it, bro."

"You can call me if you need me."

"Ditto, bro... right back atcha."

Ares didn't have a reply, so he kissed Dite's cheek and turned from the room without another word. Aphrodite watched him go, staring at the empty doorway for long moments after he disappeared through it. Then she focused her attention back on the god web, carefully tracking Gabrielle's progress while she busied herself with her many other concerns.

"So that catches you up to the present, Xena," Gabrielle mumbled softly to herself as she closed the journal. "Not like you can hear me," she said as she absently rubbed the cover, "but I felt like sharing anyway."

She looked around the deck, noticing the barest darkening at the horizon.

"I'm looking forward to being on land again. I wish Leo had figured out that flying machine. I think the heights issue would have been easier to bear than weeks at sea." She laughed to herself and shrugged.

"I hope it doesn't take long to find, you, Xena."

She returned her gaze to the horizon as the wind blew loose wisps of blonde hair around her face.

Chapter XXXIV

Xena focused her eyes across the horizon as the sea breeze caressed her face. The town lay behind her and here she could concentrate on the warmth in her soul that was Gabrielle to her.

"I hope it doesn't take long to find you, Gabrielle," she whispered to the wind and let her thoughts roam. She had some interesting stories to relay to the bard, but more than that, Xena missed Gabrielle with a soul-aching intensity. It reminded her greatly of the weeks she had been without the bard's presence in her life after Gabrielle had taken Hope into the pit.

Only this was worse. This had been going on for years and she knew that for Gabrielle it had been an eternity alone. Xena looked down at the fox and panther that had joined her on the hill overlooking the ocean.

"I'm gonna have to think of something really incredible to do for her when I finally find her." She chuckled at the look the panther cut in her direction. "I know. But I'm gonna try anyway."

Xena looked down at herself. The time she had spent in California had changed a few things – given her another piece of her puzzle, brought some old acquaintances into her life and.... She glanced down at herself again. Even given her better clothing. She kind of liked the new duds, though she still missed the freedom of her old leathers.

She let her mind drift back over the last few years.

It was cold in January, but Sutter had wanted a mill built and Xena was glad to get out of the confines of the stinking cattle town. So for the last couple months, she'd been billeted about fifty miles away from the settlement town working on building a new mill.

It wasn't bad. The pay was all right, the food was decent and it was so nice to be outdoors and using muscles that were used to a different work out. Besides, it was a lot easier to feed out here undetected.

Idly, she wondered what had happened to her sword and chakram, feeling confident that Gabrielle would have taken good care of them. She felt a passing twinge of concern that the bard wouldn't have them with her and they would have to travel back to Greece to recover them. Part of her hoped for that; it would give her some much-needed time alone with Gabrielle. The other part simply wanted to return to the home and time she knew and understood. Then she and Gabrielle could take some time together... maybe they could visit this land. She'd like to see it before there were so many people around.

Xena realized that she had no doubt about the fact that Gabrielle would forgive her. She did wonder what sort of price she'd pay though. Not that Gabrielle was vindictive, but knowing the bard as well as she did, she was going to be frustrated at the very least. And that frustration was liable to take many forms before it was extinguished.

Gabrielle was also liable to be very angry as well, Xena knew and she almost hoped she was. Gabrielle would be more likely to forgive her faster if she was angry. Her anger would burn hot and fast and then be gone. If she was only hurt or upset, it could be a long time before Xena was out of the doghouse. Xena didn't want to be in the doghouse. It was cold there.

Xena recognized that she had no doubts about their finding one another either. It was taking longer than she hoped, but she was now sure in the very depths of her soul that it would happen.

She smiled and finished dressing, wrapping the palms of her hands carefully in leather strips before pulling her gloves on. Then she walked outdoors, ready to put in another day of mill construction.

She wasn't sure why it caught her attention, but Xena recognized the somewhat shiny rock for what it was as soon as she picked it up. She gazed at the nugget thoughtfully before slipping it into her britches pocket and continued her work.

A few minutes later she spotted another and then another. By the end of the day, her pockets were full of gold nuggets.

The following day, they were out again and this time Xena saw that she wasn't the only one who'd noticed the glittering surprise the riverbed seemed to hold. But the boss, Marshall, seemed determined to not only keep them busy finishing the mill, but also in keeping the gold a tightly held secret. Xena had to wonder how long it would last.

She didn't have long to wonder.

Almost overnight a new shanty town sprung up and people began streaming in infected with 'gold fever'. If Xena thought Sutter's original town had been bad, this was magnified a thousand fold. The crowds, stench, noise and lawlessness nearly drove her away, but she stayed, clinging with tenacity to the belief that her answer was here somewhere.

Out of necessity, Xena found herself playing the part of a lawman and she was very good at it. Amazing how universal the pinch was when is came to working on the bad guys. Not surprising, as it was much what she had been doing while she spent years wandering the length and breadth of Greece with Gabrielle.

It wasn't something she planned. More, it was something she fell into and did such a good job at it that the Federal Marshal made her a deputy, having seen her in action and knowing she was capable of getting the job done.

She had been at the job for a number of months when she finally found what she had been seeking.

It was the darkest part of the night and Xena was out alone. It was time to feed again, something she'd noticed was occurring much more frequently with the influx of humanity and the increasing tensions they brought into her life.

She had to go quite some distance out of the town to find any wildlife, but eventually she found a trail she could track and it led to a den of bears. Okay, a little wilder than I'd like. Xena stood still, hands on hips, simply breathing and listening. Then she found a scent she recognized and followed it as quickly and silently as she could. It didn't take long for the jackrabbit die at her hands as she rapidly drained it of its life force.

She felt the second presence more than anything and her hyper-alert senses allowed her to pinpoint the intruder almost immediately. Xena place the now dry rabbit on the ground and turned yellow eyes to the spot where her unwelcome visitor stood unmoving, watching her.

"Hello, Xena."

The voice was low and deep and Xena tilted her head in recognition. She closed her eyes, willing the burning away. She shivered a little and opened her now bright blue eyes, focusing on a spot in the darkness that finally stepped forward to establish its identity.

"Cecrops?"

"Hello, Xena. It's been a long time."

"A lifetime," she said, still without moving.

Cecrops moved closer to her with his arm extended in greeting. "More like an eternity," smiling when she took his hand. "I never expected to see you here."

"It's a very long story."

Cecrops smiled turned wry at her words. "I have as long as you need to share and possibly, I can fill in some bits for you as well. Come. Let's sit down and exchange stories. I have a feeling this could take a while."

He waited for her to seat herself crossed-legged on the ground before he seated himself across from her in the same fashion. He folded his hands, propping his elbows on his knees and resting his chin on his hands. Xena kept her hands loosely clasped in her lap, not sure where to start her story. So she waited, hoping Cecrops would speak first.

"It's been a very long road for me to get here," he said in a soft, musing voice. "I've seen the world – actually been around it a couple times now. Visited some interesting places and taken part in lots of history. Met some fascinating people and made the acquaintance of a lot of beautiful women along the way." Cecrops grinned rakishly at Xena.

"Love 'em and leave 'em?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, one of the perks of immortality. I know there's no future in it, so I don't invest everything in any relationship."

"Isn't that like cheating?"

"Not really. Come now, Xena. I've been alive and ALONE for over two thousand years and the only immortal I've encountered turned me down flat in favor of remaining faithful to someone who condemned her to a life alone. Somehow I don't think you have a right to criticize me for a dalliance now and then."

He never saw her straighten and it was only the searing pain in his jaw that clued him into her fury. He pushed her away from him.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Xena?" he said through clenched teeth, trying not to move his jaw too much. He rose and stood to his full height. She stood and went nose to nose to him, poking him in the chest to emphasize her words.

"Gabrielle?? Who do you think you are?"

"Someone who's been alone for a long, LONG time and could understand her loneliness as well. She's a beautiful woman, Xena and you left her alone. She didn't owe you fidelity. You made her fair game."

Xena's fists clenched and unclenched as she struggled not to put the pinch on a man she had once called friend. She lost the battle with her self control.

"How dare you...." She swung and connected with his nose this time, showering both of them in warm blood. Though satiated from her earlier feeding, she felt her teeth grow with the scent and rage now flowing in her veins.

Xena growled and lunged and for the first time, Cecrops raised a hand to defend himself. He felt she had a very good chance of actually killing him if she drained his body of blood and as tired as he got of living sometimes, he had no desire to die at Xena's hands in such a manner.

He caught her, spinning her away from him while holding her against his chest. "Xena, she turned me down. She's quite capable of taking care of herself and as far as I know, she has remained faithful to you and what the two of you shared together."

The rage died as quickly as it had flamed and Xena slumped in Cecrops arms. He eased an arm away from her, gingerly wiping the blood from his nose and sniffing. He grasped his jaw, wincing when he heard the bones grate together.

"Well, another perk of immortality is the ability to heal quickly," he said with a chuckle.

He released his hold on her. "Come. I know a place to go get a good stiff drink and a hot meal. Let's go trade stories. And I'll tell you about Gabrielle."

Xena stood still simply breathing, reigning in the emotions which were closer to the surface than she wanted them to be. Another moment and she drew a deep breath and nodded her head.

The Grass Valley Saloon was like nothing Xena had ever seen. She hadn't been in this town except to pick up the occasional troublemaker and she'd never stayed around long enough to visit. Something about the place just made her skin crawl.

So she entered with her warrior hackles up, giving her goosebumps and making the hair on the back of her neck stand straight up.

The interior was... gaudy was the first word that came to mind. The furniture was something that would be found in a palace – velvet, gilt mirrors, chintz curtains. Xena even spotted what appeared to be a Persian rug on the floor. And even though it was very early morning, the sconces that lined the walls flared with light so the stage could be clearly seen throughout the saloon.

Xena looked at Cecrops, the disdain visibly written on her face. He shrugged nonchalantly.

"The food is good."

"Damn well better be," she muttered. "I hate these kinds of places."

"Xena? You mean you never...?"

"No, not really." She shrugged. "And once Gabrielle came into my life, I wouldn't have anyway."

Cecrops gingerly shook his head. "You've both got it really bad, you know." He dropped his hand on hers and left it there, even when he felt her stiffen under his touch. "She's grown into a beautiful woman."

"She always was," Xena retuned quietly, as a server approached their table.

"Two specials and a pot of coffee," Cecrops said with a grimace. Maggie was a favorite and they had shared companionship many times since his arrival in the small town. She looked with concern at his bruised and busted face before she nodded and winked. Xena was a well-respected person in the territory and Cecrops had shared with Maggie the fact that he and Xena were old friends. He had in fact been out several times to find her, wanting their first meeting to be private. Maggie was glad he had finally been successful since this would hopefully mean an end to his nightly hunts, though she did wonder what had caused such damage to Cecrops' handsome visage.

"Tell me," Xena commanded with soft fierceness.

"It's been a few centuries, but I ran into her and we traveled together for a while."

Silence for a few minutes as Xena thought about his words. Then Maggie returned with their plates and coffee, coming back with a wet towel for Cecrops' face. He stroked her cheek and thanked her, then began to cautiously eat his food.

Xena mostly pushed hers from side to side of the plate. "How was she?" she asked after a while.

"Alone. Though she made friends wherever she went and had the favor of at least two goddesses that I'm aware of."

"Aphrodite?"

"Yes and Ch'uang-Mu... Chinese goddess of the bedroom."

"She was in China?"

"Then, yes... but she had already traveled much of the world. It was one of the things we enjoyed discussing... our experiences in different lands." He paused and chewed his food, pointing at her plate. "You really should eat. Even if it's just for appearances."

Blue eyes bore into him with searing intensity.

"Then again, maybe not." He shrugged.

"She was taken surprise by her immortality... and the reason behind it. Were you?" he asked with a bluntness that was unexpected.

Xena thought about it for a bit, then shook her head. "Not exactly. It was...." she shrugged. "It wasn't something I thought about much." She signaled the waitress over and waited for Maggie to bring the bottle and two glasses to the table before she resumed speaking.

"I was aware of the... possibilities... though." She opened the bottle and poured two shots, swallowing one and refilling her glass to sip at the second glass.

"Does it bother you?" he pried, knowing her was pushing his luck, but figuring he was out of harm's way as far as her killing him was concerned.

"Not if it means I can be with Gabrielle again," she said without hesitation and the look in her eyes made him swallow any other questions he had about that particular subject.

Cecrops pushed his mostly finished plate away from himself. He opened his mouth to change the subject when he was interrupted by a shrill screech. He and Xena looked up to see a dark haired, dark eyed woman sauntering down the stairs. Halfway down, she stopped and bent over, shimmying just the slightest bit.

"Hello boys! Here comes trouble!!"

The majority of the crowd whooped and hollered and even Cecrops grinned as much as his broken face would allow him. Xena simply froze.

"Callisto?" she muttered, rising to her feet. By this point, the woman had reached the bottom of the stairs and wiggled her way through the crowd to stand in front of Xena. There was no hint of recognition in the brown eyes that faced her, but Xena knew who the woman was, even if she went by a different name now. They were that same eyes she had seen a lifetime ago in Greece. The same eyes that had held accusation in them whenever their eyes had met. There were some things... some souls... that once encountered, were never forgotten, no matter what shape they took.

Dark eyes trailed up and down her body until Xena felt the need for a bath. She simply returned the look with a sneer.

"My, my. Aren't you a big girl, dear? I'm Lola Montez, proprietor of this fine establishment. All my friends call me Lola. And you do want to be my friend, don't you?" She waited for a response and was greeted with silence. Anger burned bright in the brown eyes at the slight, but she shrugged as though it was of no consequence. "Your loss."

Then she hollered and took the stage, ready to perform her nightly review for the lonely men who flocked to see her dance.

Xena dropped a few coins on the table to cover her tab and started out of the Saloon. Cecrops hadn't missed the interplay between her and Lola and followed as rapidly as he could pay his own bill. He caught Maggie's eye and she nodded her understanding before he walked out the door into the cold night.

"Xena?" he called out. "Hey, Xena... wait up," he said to the rapidly retreating figure. He bent over at the waist, a little dizzy from the lack of air his slowly healing nose was allowing him. "Have mercy in an old man, Xena. I can't move like I used to."

Xena turned around slowly. "I dunno. You seem to be doing all right."

Cecrops caught his breath and slowly stood upright. "You want to tell me what happened in there?"

"Not really," Xena replied shortly. Her emotions had been rubbed raw and she was ready to fight. He held up his hands in supplication.

"All right. All right. Come on back to my place and you can tell me what you've been up to and what you're doing here in California."

She regarded him steadily. Cecrops had never struck her as being a stupid man, though the centuries of immortality had made him a little more lax about things. Still he didn't seem completely suicidal, his earlier behavior not withstanding and she had promised to share her story.

Finally she nodded at him and motioned for him to lead the way.

Cecrops actually had a fairly comfortable home on one of the quieter streets in town. It wasn't much to look at on the outside, but the inside had three small rooms and he motioned Xena to a chair in front of the fireplace, seating himself in the other after he stirred the embers up into a blaze.

"Now, I have two questions for you," he said in a low tone. She nodded and waited for him to continue. "First off, why are you here without Gabrielle?"

She looked at him askance, as though he had lost his mind. He knew the story of their separation... why did he need her to repeat it again. Cecrops held up a hand to forestall the retort he could see forming in her eyes and on her lips.

"Let me rephrase – I know *how* you were separated. Are you here looking for her, or...?"

Xena shook her head. "Not exactly. I know she's alive... I've felt her. But I don't know where she is. I'm... the ritual that brought me here can take me home, back to Gabrielle before this started. But first I have to find all the totems. All the pieces of the puzzle that were used in the ritual that brought me here."

Cecrops nodded his dark head slowly. "That makes sense, I guess. But why here? Why now?"

"The scroll that gives the ritual lists items that each represent different traits of a warrior and where they were originally found. Keto said that the mishandling of the ritual scattered the totems to the four winds and I would have to travel to the original location to find each one."

Cecrops nodded his relative understanding. Specifics weren't necessary yet. "So?"

"So, I'm here looking for the next item on my list. Only...."

"Only?"

"I've scoured every bit of earth and water within a hundred miles looking for this thing." Her shoulders slumped. "I don't know where else to look."

"What are you looking for?"

"It's a ...." She rose from her spot and stood with her back to the fireplace. "A bone fishhook. About this big," holding her fingers about three inches apart. "From the description, it reminded me a lot of something the Amazons used to wear for decoration." She turned and looked at the flames. "But there aren't any Amazons here.

Cecrops reached up to his neck and removed his kerchief. Then he lifted a leather cord over his head. "Something like this, you mean?" he asked softly.

Xena swung to face him, clamping her jaw shut to keep it from swinging on its hinges in sheer surprise. Dangling from Cecrops fingers was exactly what she had just described to him... that for which she had been searching for more months than she wanted to remember at this point.

"How...? Where...?" Xena lifted slightly shaking hands to touch, clenching them into fists to stop their motion. She hesitated and Cecrops extended it to her.

"The Amazons are in the British colonies now known as Australia and New Zealand. Gabrielle moved them to the Australian continent more than fifteen hundred years ago. Then around five hundred years ago, several of them migrated to New Zealand."

"And you know this because...?"

"Gabrielle shared the tale just before she left China. I eventually traveled that way and spent a little time there. When I got to New Zealand, I was gifted with that necklace. Now I think I know why." He closed his larger hands over Xena's. "Keep it. It was meant for you. I was merely its guardian."

She smiled... the first genuine smile he had seen from her since they'd made land in Greece so many centuries ago. He tapped her cheek. "You should do that more often." She raised an eyebrow at him and he held up his hands in defeat. "Or not," he continued with a chuckle. "Now I have one more question."

"All right," she drawled, slipping the necklace over her own head and tucking it into her shirt.

"Those are great pants. Where can I get a pair?"

She looked down at her denim trousers and smiled. "I made these myself."

"You sew?"

"I have many skills," she said with a smirk, "and I was tired of cloth pants that wore out so fast. My friend Levi got the material for me from France, I think he said."

Cecrops reached out a hand, then stopped and looked directly at her. "May I?"

She nodded and he touched the material lightly.

"These are fantastic. Are they comfortable?"

"Yeah, they are."

"You think you could hook me up with your friend Levi? I can't sew, but I'd love a pair of these pants."

"Yeah. C'mon into town and I'll introduce you. He's a nice kid."

"Should I ask how you met?"

Xena shrugged. "Some men just aren't cut out for drinking. He's one of them."

"Got into trouble, huh?"

"Oh yeah," Xena said, chuckling a little at the memory. "When he sobered up, we got to talking a little and I found out he was a tailor. As thanks, he found me some material I could be almost as comfortable in as I was in leather. Though he was a little put out at first that I made the pants myself, I think."

"He got over it?" Cecrops asked with a chuckle.

"He got over it. And then he asked if he could borrow the design to make them to sell. He thinks he can make his fortune selling denim pants."

"You gonna let him?

"Sure, why not. He helped me out... if Levi Strauss wants to make his fortune with denim pants, I say more power to him."

Cecrops laughed heartily. "Stranger things have happened, my friend. Believe me... I've seen them." He paused. "So where to now?"

Xena shook her head. "I'm not sure. I've been here for so long searching...."

"Got kind of focused?"

"Yeah, something like that."

"I don't suppose I can talk you into hanging around, can I?"

"No. I need to get moving. I've... it feels like I've done nothing but waste time and I still have to find the dagger of Helios before I start searching earnestly for Gabrielle. I... I want to have everything in place when I find her, so we can go home together."

Cecrops cleared his throat. "And if she doesn't want to go back and relive the last two millennia again?"

Xena looked down at her hands, clasping them together as she acknowledged the very real possibility of that happening. "Then I guess we'll figure out a way to make it work here."

"Her choice, huh?"

Xena nodded. "Yeah. She deserves that much."

Cecrops rose from his spot and extended his hand. "I wish you much luck, my friend. And if you do decide to stay, look me up. I kind of like it here."

Xena nodded again. "We will." She motioned to his face. "I, uh...." But his upraised hand stopped her speech.

"No apologies, Xena. Had I been in your place it would have been much worse. I envy you, you know and I wish you much success on your journey."

She took his hand and shook it, then walked out the door, ready for the next step in her journey home.

Chapter XXXV

Gabrielle's first step on her journey into the new world was mired in mud to her ankles. The constant rain had created massive sludge in the streets and Gabrielle spared a wistful thought for the short skirts and calf high boots she'd once been able to wear so freely.

She looked down again at her sodden skirts and shook her head. She would need to establish herself as a rich eccentric soon, so she could get back to the comfort of her silk trousers. She'd learned early that people excused what they saw as odd behavior if you had money and manners enough to be considered eccentric. And after nearly two millennia of living, Gabrielle had plenty of both to spare.

The Captain of the ship took her to the most fashionable hotel available in that time and place. It would be easy to establish herself here as it hosted many cotillions and balls that included the movers and shakers of the day.

As it happened, Gabrielle began meeting people right away and was readily accepted into their circles of society.

Not long after her arrival, Gabrielle chanced upon a middle-aged man who felt it improper for her to be walking the streets at dusk unescorted and took it upon himself to walk with her back to her hotel. She bit her tongue at the sheer antiquatedness of his attitude and allowed him to accompany her once he introduced himself to her.

Everyone knew Davy Crockett and Gabrielle had actually had the pleasure of making his wife's acquaintance several days prior. When Mr. Crockett realized to whom he was speaking, his conversation became much more animated.

"Miss Gabrielle, my wife Elizabeth has spoken of nothing else since meeting you the other day. Perhaps you would be gracious enough to be a guest in our home?"

"Mr. Crockett, you hardly know me. Why would you want me to be a guest in your home?" Always before when this question had come up, it had been to place Gabrielle in the role of teacher or bard. So his candor surprised her somewhat.

"We would like you to come as a friend." He paused thoughtfully. "I am going to be leaving for the Texas territory very soon to join a legion of men there to help fight for independence. I'd like to know that Elizabeth had someone to look out for her while I was gone."

"But why me?"

They had reached the lobby of the posh hotel and stopped to finish their conversation.

"Miss Gabrielle, I learned a very long time ago to be a keen judge of human nature. Trust me when I say that you and Elizabeth would be very good friends." He clasped her hand. "Please promise me you'll think about it."

Gabrielle nodded. "I'll think about it, Mr. Crockett. It would be nice to have a real home and friends for a while," she murmured in afterthought.

He wondered about the statement, but the gentleman in him let it pass without comment. He squeezed her hand and bid her goodnight, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

The following afternoon, Gabrielle attended a garden party where Elizabeth Crockett was one of the women in attendance. She made it a point to speak to the seemingly older woman and after a bit of time decided that it would be a nice change to be welcomed somewhere as a friend, especially when Elizabeth hesitantly but excitedly extended the invitation herself.

For the first few months, it was interesting, though the society thing tended to wear on Gabrielle's nerves pretty quickly. She met many people and was warmly welcomed into their midst. But Gabrielle realized that the life of a social butterfly was not one she was happy living, especially seeing the conditions those around her and outside of the social circle were forced to survive in. Then came an event that changed all that.

Gabrielle had been brought into the Crockett household just before the holidays and she secretly found the customs regarding such more than a little strange. Especially Christmas... it seemed to have less to do with the birth of a child who hadn't even been born in the winter of the year than it did the fact that people wanted to celebrate and exchange gifts. She wondered why they hadn't simply kept it a solstice celebration and then realized it was a religious thing. She rolled her eyes and bit her tongue and partook in little of the merrymaking.

Instead she found time to sit and remember other lifetimes and holidays and Davy found her in the garden on solstice evening simply looking up at the heavens.

"Miss Gabrielle, are you all right?" his voice cut through the darkness.

"Yes, Mr. Cro... Davy. I'm fine. Just doing a little remembering. Thanks for asking though."

He continued to stand behind her silently, not having been invited to join her and not wanting to intrude. Finally he cleared his throat. "The holidays are always the hardest after you've lost someone dear to your heart. I'm glad you were able to share them with us instead."

"Thank you for having me here," she said noncommittally. "It's nice to be among friends."

The silence remained between them, Gabrielle feeling that Davy had more to say and was content to let him take his time. It didn't take long.

"You know I am leaving after the holidays," he stated, waiting for her to nod. "With your talents as a sharpshooter, I was wondering if I could beg a favor?"

Davy had seen Gabrielle practicing her martial forms one day and had asked for her to teach him some of the moves he'd never seen before. In exchange, he'd taught her to handle a rifle and had found to his surprise that she was as good a shot as he was. He wondered where she'd learned, but she hadn't offered any information and he hesitated to ask.

Now she turned to look at him in the darkness, her eyes glowing eerily in the moonlight. He cleared his throat.

"If something happens to me and I don't plan for it to," he added hastily. "But if something does, I am asking you to take Elizabeth back to Tennessee... to my family. They'll take care of her."

Gabrielle nodded and Davy accepted it for a promise, neither of them realizing that she would be called upon to fulfill it in a little more than three months time.

It took a couple months to get to Tennessee once they got word of Davy's death and another month for Gabrielle to be comfortable feeling she had satisfied the promise she'd made to Davy. But she eventually took her leave from Elizabeth and her family and decided to do some exploring as long as she was finally out and about.

It was summer and she glad to be out of the crowded city and back into wide open space. It wasn't like anything she remembered, even her first visit so many centuries before. It was also wonderful to be without the restrictions that society placed on women especially and to be able to hunt without worrying overly much about being caught was a blessing of untold value. Not that she needed it often, thankfully, but it was still an occasional necessity.

Gabrielle was enjoying the freedom of traipsing through the mountains alone, when without warning, an odd little man stepped in front of her and instinctively she reached for weapons well-hidden on her person. She stopped, realizing her mistake almost immediately and giving the man a second look. Her jaw nearly dropped in recognition.

"Joxer?" she whispered.

The man cocked his head, the pot that he wore as a hat slipping to one side before he reached up a hand to stop its motion. He resettled it, then extended a hand towards her.

"Name's John Chapman, but folks 'round here all call me Johnny Appleseed. You like an apple?"

"Not from you, buddy," Gabrielle muttered. "You don't know the power of an apple seed."

He looked a bit startled at her answer, but swallowed and bravely continued on. "Oh, but I do. I've made it my job to spread them all over the country," he said, not understanding the strange look Gabrielle was giving him. "Please, take one," trying to press an apple into her hands.

"No, thanks," she answered adamantly. "I don't share that kind of thing with anyone but Xena."

He blinked hard once, twice and held up his hands. "All right. If you change your mind, I'm planting orchards all over. You're welcome to help yourself."

"Thanks," Gabrielle said as she moved away from him.

"Hey," he called just before she was out of sight. "What's your name?"

"They call me Gabrielle."

He opened his mouth to speak again, then shrugged his shoulders. She was nowhere to be seen. He turned his steps westward again and walked away... whistling.

Gabrielle walked from the middle of the country down to the far coast, adding a few twists of her own to the newly established Mardi Gras celebration when she reached New Orleans. Some debauchery was meant to be shared and this reminded her so much of the Bacchanalia party she and Xena had attended so long ago... when things had changed for them in ways they wouldn't realize for years.

It was a bittersweet experience and it drove her to continue her search.

She turned to the east and followed the coast, appreciating the clean, bright beaches and the water that reminded her so much of a combination of hers and Xena's eyes. The natives she met were friendly and curious, reminding her of her first trip through this land centuries prior.

It didn't take long for things to become increasingly uncomfortable, though. There were so many inhumanities and injustices being perpetuated on some people simply because of the color of their skin. Gabrielle tried to help, but so many of them had been beaten down, she was only able to bring minimal comfort and aid to those who were slaves.

The plantation owners and slave masters thought she was a little touched that she cared so much about the human property in their possession, but her natural charm made them accept her into their circles. She wasn't able to change anyone's minds though and the slaves, for the most part, didn't have the heart or the strength left for revolt.

She remembered well the story Xena had finally shared with her about her own slavery... when Xena had been given a choice by the Fates and had chosen the darkness for Gabrielle's sake. About how beaten and hate-filled Gabrielle had become because of the circumstances of her slavery.

Gabrielle easily saw the hate, fear and despair the slaves around her held for their masters, but it was the look in one little girl's despondent black eyes that brought it home to her and made it personal. The stripes on the girl's back were unbearable for the bard and the slave master found himself on the wrong side of an immortal's ire.

When she made it back to the capital, she found much had changed, though quite a few people remembered her from her previous time there. That opened doors for her and she found that the question of slavery was a concern for many. She was a little surprised by the amount of divisiveness that the discussion caused even among family members.

But what was most disheartening is that no one seemed to be *doing* anything to change it. It was all just talk. So despite her desire to find Xena, she felt the need to be proactive about this particular issue, easily remembering how close she'd come to being a slave herself. And she began traveling northward, putting in place the necessary means to provide a way out of slavery for those with the courage to leave.

Soon, Gabrielle was setting up the Underground Railroad.

It took a lot longer than Gabrielle expected it would to put things into place and even longer to travel back to the South and begin convincing slaves that they had rights and liberties too. Several times she was nearly caught and had to fight her way free. That brought a smile to her face as the memories washed over her.

Fortunately, her clothes were so different from what anyone had seen her in that no one recognized her and she escaped with her human cargo in tow. And it was all worth it the first time they realized they were truly free.

Gabrielle felt a sense of accomplishment like she hadn't experienced in years. Step by step, person by person she was making a difference and she felt confident, given the rumors that were making their way through both Northern and Southern states that the winds of change were in the air. The trickle could soon become a deluge.

"I should have known you'd be in the middle of all of this." The deep male voice was familiar and Gabrielle's head came up and tilted while she tried to place the sound that tickled the outer boundaries of her memories. A chuckle brought realization, even as the voice spoke again. "Hello, Gabrielle. It's been a very long time."

She turned towards the shadows from which the sound was emanating, waiting for the speaker to step from the shadows and coalesce into a live human being. She knew it wasn't one of her regular contacts. After half a dozen trips to show folks the way through to freedom, she knew everyone along the route. But the voice didn't set her alarm bells ringing and she figured she could wait until he was ready to reveal himself.

Gabrielle was glad she'd finished her feeding and was now cooking the rabbit that had sated her bloodlust. She was beginning to think she should have recognized the voice and she didn't want anyone, especially friends to be exposed to that side of her. Aside from Cecrops, she'd managed to keep her secret for almost two thousand years.

That thought sparked a connection and she recognized the voice just as the form of large, muscular man crossed into the light.

"Hercules!"

He opened his arms and she moved into his welcome embrace. It was like coming home to family... to a favorite big brother that had been gone for years.

He felt her silent sobs and the tears trickled down his face in sympathy. He continued to hold her as her crying slowed and she gently pulled back to look at him briefly with wet green eyes.

"Better?" he smiled crookedly at her. Gabrielle chuckled.

"Yes, thanks." She cleared her throat with a bit of embarrassment and rubbed her nose as she dropped her eyes again. "Sorry. I don't usually fall apart on people like that."

"And just how many folks do you go back as far with, hmm?" He pushed a bit of blonde hair back off her forehead and let his hand trail down her cheek, casually wiping a bit of blood off her chin before cupping it gently and raising her eyes to his. "C'mon, Gabrielle. If anyone in the world understands how you feel, I do. I imagine you were due."

"You ever fall apart?"

He took her hand and led her back to sit beside the fire, gently removing the rabbit from the flames before it burned.

"May I?" he asked, holding it up and waiting for her nod. He took a plate from his kit and held out his hand for hers. Then he divided the meat, gave her a portion and sat back to eat. He took a bite and his eyes widened. "Wow! This is great stuff."

Gabrielle picked at her food while watching Hercules devour his share. She looked at him, noting the years had been kind to him. He wore the uniform of a high-ranking Union soldier and she wondered what had made him want to don the colors of a fighter. Finally he put his plate down and took a deep draw from the canteen he carried.

"Are you ignoring my question?" Gabrielle asked as he remained silent.

"No," he said. "I was trying to figure out how much to share."

Gabrielle nodded and waited, knowing he had lived through as much time as she had.

"I learned a long time ago that I sometimes have to take a break from humanity for a while; otherwise it gets to be too much. So yeah, I have, but it's been a while. I take some time for me now."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I've done the same thing, but like you said, it's been a while."

"Would you like somewhere to go... a place to get away for a while?"

She hesitated. "Is that why you came? To give me a chance to diffuse for a while?"

"I know I'm no Iolaus or Gabrielle," Herc said with a smile, "but let me tell you a story."

Gabrielle blushed and motioned for him to continue.

"My latest incarnation is of a Union Colonel. War is coming, Gabrielle and I need to... I dunno. It is just important for me to be a part of this fight." He drew a deep breath. "I have eye and ears all over and several years ago I got the first murmurings of the presence of a short, blonde woman who freed slaves. They referred to her as the Liberator. Her description was so familiar to me, I decided to track her down and see if my suspicions were correct."

"You knew I was immortal?"

Hercules nodded. "Dite told me and I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I wouldn't have wished this on anyone."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I'm used to it... most of the time and if it gives me the chance to reunite with Xena, it'll be worth it."

They sat silently for a bit, each lost in their own thoughts.

"Gabrielle...."

"Hercules...."

They chuckled as they spoke simultaneously and Herc gestured at the bard. "Please, ladies first."

She cocked and eyebrow at his words, but ruined its effect by smiling at him. Then her smile turned sad. "I am so tired of war, so tired of injustice. For everything I do, things just mushroom a hundredfold in its place." She sighed. "I'm sorry, Hercules. You don't need to hear my whining."

He sat up and clasped her hands in his warm ones. "Gabrielle, I've done my share of whining. Every now and then I travel back to Greece and have a bitch fest with Aphrodite. Believe me, I know how you feel." He paused. "Do something for me?"

She tilted her head in question.

"Let me take you to my hideaway. I have a place in Banff that no one knows about... no one can find. It will get you out of the war."

"But...."

"Please Gabrielle. I promised Aphrodite I would look out for you if I could find you. I know a little of what you have been through to get to this point and you deserve some rest. This war... it's going to be especially ugly."

"War always is, Hercules. What makes this one worse?" asked a touch sardonically.

He shook his head. "I don't know if you remember the Thessolian-Mitoan war...."

"I *died* during the Thessolian-Mitoan war," Gabrielle answered fiercely. Then her expression softened in memory. "It was the first time I got to see what Xena truly felt for me... heart and soul."

Hercules hesitated. He hadn't known... so many things. He cleared his throat. "Well, this war will be much like that one, I'm afraid. Brother against brother, families divided. It has the feel of Ares handiwork."

"Why are you so sure it's coming?"

"The same reasons you are, Gabrielle. We've lived long enough to recognize the signs. Wishful thinking won't make it go away."

"I know," she said softly. "I just keep hoping that someday...."

"Me too," he commented. "But until then, Gabrielle, please. It's the least I can do for you... and for Xena."

"Have you seen her?"

"Yes, a few years ago. She was searching for a way back to you. I guess she hasn't found it yet, huh?" He grinned at her, trying to lighten the sadness he saw in her eyes. "Maybe when it's over, we can look for Xena together."

"I'd like that," she said finally. "It would be nice to just be for a while. And it would be nice to have a friend who understands... everything."

"So you'll let me take you to Banff? And you'll wait for me to come back once the war is over?"

"Yes. I've done all I can do here for a while. The Underground Railroad is in place and the word is being spread to the slaves. I can't make them use it – just provide the means and opportunity. Besides, I have no desire to run into Ares. Not now... I have come too far to let him get in my way now." She looked at Hercules closely. "How are you gonna get away from the Army with the war coming and all?"

He shrugged. "Family emergency. With my record, it shouldn't be hard. I haven't taken any leave, so...." He smiled at Gabrielle. "No problem."

"Can we start tomorrow morning?"

Now his smile became a full-fledged grin. "Yeah. I think we can."

Travel was slow since a majority of it was done on horseback through rough and rugged terrain. Much of it was accomplished in silence as Gabrielle had long since become accustomed to traveling alone. Nights around the campfire were spent talking, sharing stories and bits of their lives and experiences. Eventually, Hercules got around to asking Gabrielle about her immortality.

"Did it bother you... finding out... the immortality, I mean...."

"Finding out I was Bacchae?" She looked at him squarely and he met her eyes hesitantly, then nodded. "Yeah. Still does. Only the fact that I have the chance to find Xena because of it makes it bearable."

"You don't feed very often, I've noticed," Herc commented curiously.

Gabrielle shook her head, glad she was able to wear it down again now that they were away from the trappings and finery of society. She preferred the freedom of travel they enjoyed together now more than any she could remember for the last several hundred years. Civilization had become increasingly backwards to her way of thinking and it felt so good to get back to the basics she knew and understood so well.

"Aphrodite made me a talisman that keeps the hunger at bay for long periods of time. It doesn't make it go away, but it does keep it under control."

Hercules nodded. "I'm glad."

Gabrielle nodded her head slowly. "So am I. Thank you for allowing me my dignity about this."

Hercules chuckled. "Not that I wouldn't have anyway," he said lightly, "but do you realize the trouble I would be in with Xena AND Dite if I thought to tease you about something so personal? I wouldn't want to be me."

Gabrielle laughed. "Neither would I," she agreed with a shudder. "But I still appreciate it. It's not like I can explain this to anyone and even if I could...."

Hercules held up his hands. "You've said enough Gabrielle. I'm sorry I brought it up. I just... I was just curious. I've never met anyone... I mean, you're not like any bacchae I ever dealt with before and the fact that it made you immortal...."

Gabrielle smiled wanly. "I know. It makes my head hurt if I think about it too long. I am glad for the immortality... at least I hope I will be soon. I would have been happy without the bacchae influences, though."

"I understand the sentiments, if not the actual feelings behind them. I can't imagine...."

"Don't please. It's not pretty, or pleasant. Not something I'd wish on anyone." She paused. "You didn't get to talk to Xena about this?"

He shook his head. "No. My time with Xena was very short and the conversation filled with other things." He paused a moment, not wanting to reveal too much but knowing Gabrielle deserved some hope. "I think she has a real chance of succeeding at her quest Gabrielle and I think it might make a difference in how she approaches things from now on."

"How so? I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, Herc."

"Let's just say I'm betting that this experience will change Xena's outlook on the greater good."

Gabrielle blushed but didn't say a word. Hercules just smiled.

"Get some rest, Gabrielle. Even immortals need that now and then and tomorrow's gonna be a long day. We start crossing the mountains into Banff. My cabin lies nestled in the deepest recesses there."

"No wonder you can keep this place hidden," Gabrielle exclaimed a few days later as they finally crested the last mountain and crossed into the hidden dell when Hercules' cabin sat dormant and empty. They had brought some foodstuffs with them, but a majority would come from the wilderness around them. Gabrielle was thankful that eating was an activity she participated in by choice.

"There is plenty of wildlife and game around when you need it and a number of things grow wild in this area as well," Herc pointed out as they neared the cabin. "You should find most of it familiar, strangely enough and I'll take you out and show you what I've found around before I leave."

Gabrielle nodded, her eyes sweeping back and forth as she took in everything around her.

"There's a hot spring up here as well and I'll help you dig out a garden plot before I leave too, if you'd like. I got good at that; my mother was big on gardens."

"I think I'd like that. It is beautiful here, Hercules. Thank you for sharing this with me."

"You're welcome anytime, Gabrielle. It's nice to have a kindred spirit to appreciate it."

Hercules stuck around for a couple weeks helping Gabrielle get settled in before he left to return to his duties as a United States Colonel. He'd extracted a promise from the bard that she would wait for him and once the war was over, they would travel together to search for Xena. Hercules, for one, didn't want to miss that reunion.

Gabrielle watched him out of sight before she turned back to the small cabin to retrieve her journal, quill and ink before going back out into the sun to write a bit.

Dear Xena, (she wrote)

I found Hercules, or rather, he found me and it has been nice having his friendship around for the past few months. I will miss him while he is gone to war, but not like I continue to miss you, even after all these years. I hope you are not involved in the war... Herc has promised that we will begin searching for you in earnest when it is over if you haven't managed to find me first.

I hold out hope now that you are looking for me and for a way for us to be together again. As beautiful as it is here, I am ready to go home. And I won't be home until we are together again....

Chapter XXXVI

Oh, Gabrielle, I think you could like it here... the openness, the freedom. We could call this home if you wanted. Though anywhere you want to be will be home for me. A hard lesson, but one I fully appreciate now.

Xena had crossed mountains and valleys and now walked through the open field, heading back to the plains that meant home to her here... at least until I find Gabrielle.

She was searching for her tribe, knowing they would be coming together for the summer festival very soon. She wanted to talk to Keto. The instructions for finding the dagger were less than clear and she found herself becoming needlessly frustrated over the vagueness of the directions she was following.

When she reached the camp, there was a solemnness to it that was unexpected. Slowly, she and her animal companions made their way through the village, returning the quiet greetings of those who knew her until she reached Hotassa's home. She called out with quiet respect.

"Hotassa? Keto?"

Hotassa stepped from the closed doorway, taking Xena's hands gently when she realized who called for her.

"Zee-nah. Come," motioning the warrior into her home. And instantly Xena became aware of the reason behind the pall, the very somber air that hung over the village. Keto lay dying.

Xena knelt down beside the dying shaman, taking his cold hands in hers. Keto opened his dark eyes and stared at her, smiling as recognition dawned.

"Zee-nah."

"Keto."

"Waited... for you," the shaman said slowly with a great deal of effort. "Knew... you would... come."

"Why didn't someone send for me?" Xena asked, looking first to Keto, then to Hotassa and Kya.

Kya was the one who answered. "Father said no. Is his time to go to his fathers. Your path along different road."

Xena turned back to Keto. "Is that true?"

Keto barely nodded, closing his eyes with the effort. "Zee-nah defend Cheyenne. What you seek will come to you."

Xena nodded, though she didn't understand all the Keto was saying to her. Instead she squeezed his hand gently. "Thank you, Keto. You've been a good friend."

Keto gave a brief smile. "Kya help guide you now."

"Good journey, my friend," Xena said before she rose to her feet and stepped from Hotassa's home, leaving the family to say their goodbyes in privacy.

It was another few hours before the family emerged, the shaman's body wrapped and ready for the pyre. The village gathered to speed him to his fathers beyond and for a week, everyone remained in mourning.

At dawn following the period of mourning, Kya approached Xena's dwelling, where the panther and the fox kept their own watch in front of it. Here they felt most comfortable and it was easy for them to remain a visible part of the native society. The cat lifted its lips and snarled at the shaman, growling low in its throat. Kya hesitated, then knocked on door frame.

"Zee-nah?"

The panther rose and stretched, then paced in front of the door, causing Kya to step back a pace but not leave. Xena stepped from the doorway, hair dripping from her recent bath.

"Kya?" She looked at the panther. "Etor, sit."

The panther growled at her but did her bidding and she motioned for Kya to take a seat at her fire. Xena stirred the embers to blaze and set a pot of water on to heat. Then she seated herself across from Kya and waited for him to speak.

And he did. He told Xena of the injustices that were being perpetuated by the Union soldiers on the native peoples in the white man's quest for more land and riches. How the Indians were being forced from the lands they had claimed since the beginning of time by the white man's greed.

She was impressed at the difference maturity had made in his outlook and demeanor. His concern now was for the good of his people and he had finally come to terms with the fact that the quest he followed as a youth was not his destiny in life.

Xena sat and listened quietly as Kya described in detail the suffering of his people and those of the other native nations, nodding her understanding, but able to keep her anger to a minimum. When he relayed the inhumanities visited upon innocent women and children, however, her reaction was swift and hard.

"Kya, can I have a small band of warriors? I think I know a way to... well, if not fix it, at least harass them enough to make it really hard for them."

"I will ask. Will be some willing."

Thanks, Kya." She hesitated then plowed ahead. "Do you know what Keto meant about my search for the dagger?"

He nodded. "Dagger with person, like staff. But dagger move from place to place. Keto foresaw."

Xena just shook her head and muttered. "It is never easy with us is it, my bard?" She turned to Kya, whose face was a picture of confusion. "Sorry, talking to myself." She extended her hand. "Thanks, Kya. I appreciate your help."

Kya took her hand and held it in his own, looking earnestly into her eyes. "I am glad. Owed sorry for...." He looked down.

"I understand, Kya. We're even, all right?"

Kya nodded and released her hand and she turned and added tea leaves to the now boiling water. "Good." He paused a moment. "Zee-nah?"

"Yeah?"

"Why you wear this?" pulling lightly on her denim trousers.

She sighed. "Long story. My skins got torn up while I was searching for the fishhook. These were the most comfortable alternative."

Kya screwed up his face in distaste. "Look bad, um... hard. Come. Hotassa fix."

Xena chuckled. "It's all right, Kya. They're not that bad."

He wrinkled his nose. "Yes, very bad." But he chuckled and waved to her as he went back to his own fire.

Xena moved her tea from the fire to the stone to let it cool a bit. She was not surprised to see Hotassa standing at her fire, waiting for the warrior's permission to join her. Xena waved the older woman into her circle and Hotassa approached with a smile.

Xena took a moment to study the older woman, dismayed to see what the ravages of time had wrought on the woman who had become a surrogate mother to her in this time and place. The sadness that the recent loss of her mate had brought only enhanced her frailty and yet there was a strength of will there that Xena could easily sense.

Hotassa held out the bowl of sweetened, cooked cornmeal and Xena accepted it with a smile. She had developed an odd fondness for the food and had missed it during her time away from the tribe. In exchange, Xena offered the older woman some tea and though taken aback by the unprecedented gesture, Hotassa nodded her agreement.

They sat in silence while Xena ate and Hotassa sipped at her tea. After a bit, Xena set the bowl aside for her two animal companions and directed her full attention to Hotassa.

"How are you, Hotassa?"

"I am ready to go to ancestors, but not yet my time." She turned and picked up another bundle which she had set aside while Xena ate. "This yours. Keto said."

Xena took the soft hide from the native woman, wondering what Keto had done for her. She couldn't quite contain the gasp that escaped her lips when she opened the leather and found a full set of warrior's clothing, beaded and decorated pants and shirt that effectively marked her as not only Cheyenne, but as part of the shaman's family.

"Hotassa, these are beautiful. I can't...."

Hotassa folded the warrior's hands over the clothing possessively. "Yours," she reiterated. "Keto said. Will need to fight white man."

Xena accepted the clothing with a nod, knowing that Keto was right. If she could maintain her identity in the white world, she could go and hear things that other warriors of the Nations would not be privy to. Then she could use her knowledge and figure out the best way to keep the white man from destroying her tribe.

Years passed while Xena organized hit and run raids on forts and encampments belonging to the soldiers who were trying to force the native tribes onto reservations. She was able to involve many of the different tribes – there was always a warrior or two anxious to bloody the nose of the Blue Coats they felt were oppressing their people.

The War Between the States made it easier for them, as there were very few troops to enforce the laws Washington found it convenient to pass. Hotassa died during this campaign and Xena took days to grieve for the woman who had taken her into heart and home when she had first arrived in the strange land she later came to know as the United States. Xena was grateful that Hotassa's passing had been painless and in her sleep and that she had died of what was considered extreme old age. Xena was glad for the time she had known the older woman and honored her pyre by singing her soul on its way to its next destination.

Once the war was over, however, more and more troops began flooding the west, moving the Indians to reservations and allowing white men to claim and fence the land. So the Native tribes stepped up their harassment and that led Xena to Fort Riley in late September of eighteen hundred and sixty-seven.

The fort was more than just an Army encampment; a small town had grown up around it. Xena crossed the threshold into the town saloon and stood a moment to let her eyes adjust from the daylight outdoors to the dimness of the interior.

Once she could see, Xena made her way to the back corner and took a seat, leaning her chair back on its hind legs against the wall. One of the girls came over and Xena ordered the special without even looking up. The woman tried to get the warrior's attention flirting and being coquettish but flounced off in a huff when Xena closed her eyes and fell into what appeared to be a light doze.

A man who was sitting one table over chuckled and picked up his drink, moving to sit across from Xena, only to find himself on the floor when the chair slid completely out from under him. Amazingly, he managed to fall without spilling a drop of his whiskey.

"I didn't invite you to sit down."

"Oh, well," the man stoked his mustache debonairly. "I just thought...."

"Don't," she said, all without opening her eyes.

He cleared his throat. "Perhaps I should start over," he muttered mostly to himself. He picked up the chair and put it under the table. Just then, the lady cum waitress slapped a plate down in front of Xena, stomping off when she still didn't get a response.

"You really know how to win friends and influence people, don't you?" the man asked as Xena dropped the front legs of her chair onto the floor and picked up her fork, stabbing it into the stew and shoving a bite into her mouth before looking up. When she did, it took all her self control to keep from choking.

The man took advantage of the fact that Xena's mouth was full of food to introduce himself. "I'm, uh... I'm Brett Alias, gambler. They call me the King of Queens," he said, smoothing his mustache again. Xena burst into laughter.

"I don't doubt it," gesturing to the dandified clothing the gambler wore.

Brett shook his head. "I have GOTTA come up with a better nickname," he mumbled under his breath. "May I?"

Xena looked at him another long moment before she pushed the chair out enough for him to grasp and nodded her head. She wiped a hand on her pants and reached across the table. "Xena," she said succinctly, then resumed eating without another word.

He nursed his drink while Xena finished her food, then motioned to the bartender for another round when Xena pushed her plate away from her. She accepted the drink though she didn't partake.

"So, Prince of Poker, whaddya want?"

Dark bushy eyebrows rose into Brett's hairline at the new moniker. He shook his head and withdrew a deck of cards from his coat pocket. "Thought maybe I could interest you in a game. I need a bit of a stake to take to the Calgary poker invitational in July."

"You looked at me and saw sucker?"

"Um, no... well, not really... I mean...." He sighed. "I saw you stake a game a few months back...." Brett's suavity flew right out the window when ice blue eyes pinned him to the wall. "Ya see, I lost the dagger I was gonna put up...."

"Dagger??" The word cut through the air like a razor-sharp blade.

"Oh, yeah," he answered slyly. "Very valuable. A family heirloom... wavy silver blade, gold handle and older than the hills. A real collector's item."

Xena's eyes didn't show any change, but inside she was jumping up and down for joy. This was the first clue she'd had in years as to the location of the Dagger of Helios she was seeking. She looked at him with a bored expression and pursed her lips before speaking.

"Uh huh... so what happened?"

"I got snookered by an Army Colonel who came through here a couple weeks back. Name of Custer."

Not even the twitch of an eyebrow gave away Xena's thoughts. Custer had been the cause of several of her hit and run skirmishes with Union forces and was one reason she was here now. Silence fell while Xena considered the information. Finally she nodded to herself and grinned evilly at Brett.

"I'll tell ya what there, Duke of the Deck. You go get that dagger back from your Army friend and I'll trade you a five thousand dollar stake for it."

Brett's eyes got so big Xena was afraid they were going to fall out of his head.

"Fi... fi... five thousand dollars??" His whisper was harsh but subdued. "Why?" He got a crafty look in his eyes. "Why is this worth so much to you? Maybe I should wait for a better offer."

Xena removed her hands from her glass and wrapped them around his, squeezing tightly enough that Brett swore he could hear his bones creaking. "Maybe I'll just go find this Custer myself and not worry about a middleman."

"All right! All right! I'll go get the dagger and meet you in Calgary at the end of June. I hear they have a mustang roundup around that time too."

Xena arched an eyebrow, but she didn't say a word.

Brett chuckled and shrugged. "Just a thought... or not," he added when her expression didn't change. "So, do we have a deal?"

Xena let him sweat a minute before she gave him a crooked grin. "Yeah, we've got a deal."

She threw the whiskey back like a pro and slapped the glass back on the table upside down. Then she dropped a bill on the table to pay for her food. "Thanks for the drink. I'll see you in Calgary in nine months. Don't be late."

"How do I know you've got the money?"

"You don't," she answered. "You're just gonna have to trust me," she said, standing and moving towards the door in a singular, fluid motion.

"Hey," he called out just as she reached the doors. Xena stopped but didn't turn around. "How will I know where to find you?"

She turned then and flashed what could only be described as a completely sexy grin. "Don't worry, Bet Baron... I'll find you. Oh and a word to the wise... find somewhere else to be."

And she disappeared into the sunset without another word.

"Damn woman...." he muttered again before signaling one of the girls over. "What did I just get myself into?"

Then he forgot to worry about it as he became occupied with other, more pressing concerns.

Xena watched Brett leave the confines of the fort town early the following morning, headed north. Then she gave the signal to her warriors and they attacked the fort itself. Before the sun had set, the fort was burning, razed to the ground by Xena and her war party. The remnants of the town were scattered, mostly unharmed except for the few men who had raised weapons against the band of natives who were causing the destruction of their homes.

The Indians had escaped mostly unscathed and were now hiding in the low hills they had called home for years before they'd been forced off their lands. They were in high spirits, though they calmed immediately when Xena edged her pony into their midst.

Using hand signals mostly and a few words, Xena sent them all back to their tribes, advising them to lay low for the duration. Havoc of this magnitude would be answered with swift retaliation and she wanted them all home to protect their tribes and families.

They nodded their understanding and silently pledged to return to the field of war whenever she beckoned them. She offered her pony to Kya's son Kepo. He looked at her questioningly for a moment, before finally giving it voice.

"Zee-nah? Why? You need."

She nodded absently, then continued. "Yes, but the people need him more. I am going north for a while. I'll find a new horse there."

"Not coming home then?" he asked sadly. Kepo had grown up on the tales of Xena's quest and he secretly found them romantic. Though it was never spoken of, it was obvious that she was unlike other humans. In the thirty plus years she had been part of the tribe, she had not changed – physically at least. Kepo suspected that difference was one of the reasons she was always on the move and only came into the clan's encampment for brief, sporadic bits of time.

"No. The totem I am searching for should be in the North by summer. I need to be there before it is."

Kepo took the reins in his hand and with a final look at Xena's determined face, headed their feet towards home.

Xena watched them in the distance, until they became mere specks on the horizon. Then she looked down as the fox and panther stepped out of the hillock they been nestled in waiting for her. She smiled. It had taken them a while to accept that she was a warrior well capable of defending herself, but once she'd convinced them, they let her handle her own battles unless she asked them to help. Though they did stick close to the action and occasionally got involved just because they could.

"C'mon, guys. We've got a long walk ahead of us." And they turned their steps towards Calgary.

The winter weather made travel difficult and several times they were forced to hold up with a frontier family to survive. Xena didn't like doing that though, so they mostly kept a slow steady pace on their way north. They arrived in Calgary just ahead of spring and still some weeks before the poker tournament and mustang roundup.

She found a boarding house on the outskirts of town that allowed her to work off her room and board by helping out around the place. Not that she couldn't afford the room, but the opportunity reminded her vaguely of her mother's inn and the time she had spent making things better for Cyrene. She sighed, wishing she had done more, often. But she applied herself wholeheartedly to her tasks and before long the boarding house took on a brand new appearance.

As the end of June approached, so did warmer weather. Xena, for one, was glad to see the change. The winter had dragged on and on in her opinion and, though the heat made her sweat profusely now, she breathed deeply, enjoying the fresh air that smelled of green, growing things.

Rosalie, her elderly landlady, stepped from the kitchen with a glass of lemonade in her hand. She looked around in amazed gratitude and handed the glass to Xena. She watched in bemusement as the warrior drained it in a very few gulps, then handed it back to her empty.

"My goodness... maybe I should have brought the pitcher with me," Rosalie teased lightly, watching as a crooked smile briefly flitted across Xena's face.

"I'm finally working up a real sweat, Rosalie," Xena quipped, before pulling the last weed on the garden she and the landlady had planted together several weeks earlier.

"I know and I can't tell you how much I appreciate...." Xena held up her hand to stop the woman's gratitude. Rosalie gave a tiny shake of her head. "Regardless, you've been a lifesaver, Xena. I wouldn't have... anyway, thank you."

Xena gave the woman another fleeting smile. "Works both ways, Rosalie. You took in a perfect stranger."

"Best gamble of my life," Rosalie chuckled. "Speaking of... you still going into town for the tournament?"

"Yep. I've got a friend coming in and I'd like to see about getting me a horse."

"From the round-up?"

"Yep."

"You ride?"

Xena shrugged. "Yeah, a little."

"Well, you be careful. Those mustangs are wild. Some of them break to the saddle and some...."

Xena bent down and picked up the tools she'd brought with her. "Don't worry, Rosalie. Me and horses understand each other well."

They stepped into the house and the landlady pushed Xena into a chair with a gentle nudge on her shoulder. "Sit. Dinner is ready and you have to be starving having been out in that garden patch all day."

Rosalie set a loaf of fresh bread at Xena's elbow, then jumped back when the warrior abruptly stood. She held up her filthy hands.

"Think I better wash them."

"Goodness gracious! I think you're right!" Rosalie said with a chuckled. "You get cleaned up and I'll put the pot roast on the table."

Once the meal was well underway, Rosalie broached the subject she'd been dreading. "You're leaving soon, aren't you?"

The startled blue eyes that met her tired brown ones held their own answer and a question as well. Rosalie chuckled softly.

"You're a tumbleweed, Xena," answering the question. "Never staying long in one place. I've seen it before... I even experienced it a time or two in my youth." She hesitated. "You've done so much for me, let me...."

"No, Rosalie. We're even." Xena allowed her personality to flow from her eyes forcefully. "All right?" she added with a quiet voice.

Rosalie nodded, realizing that Xena felt as indebted to her for her home and friendship and she herself did for all the work the warrior had done. "All right, we're even. But you be careful going into town. The round-up by itself tends to be somewhat wild and who knows what kinds of things will happen with all those gamblers there besides."

Xena smiled. "I'll be careful and I'll even come show ya my new horse before we leave."

Rosalie laughed merrily. "You're so sure then?"

"Oh yeah. You bet I am."

Xena was astounded at the changes a day's absence had wrought in the town, but she walked purposefully towards the hotel she suspected Brett would choose for his lodging. She'd used her knowledge of his ancestor Autolycus and had figured out exactly where he would be if he had the funds. The men were simply too similar for him NOT to.

Even in the early dawn hours, folks were milling about, most of them men and many of them coming from the saloon. Still they had sense enough to get out of her path and Xena smiled to herself. I still got it, she smirked, before crossing the threshold of the Palace Hotel.

There was no night clerk around the front counter, though Xena easily heard the scuffling in the kitchen as workers began preparations for the morning meal. She pulled the register over to her and ran a long finger down the page, stopping and smiling when she reached Brett's name and room number.

She took the steps two at a time until she reached the second level and she stopped in front of the door marked twelve. Then she knocked... loudly.

A moan and groan was heard from within and she smiled sardonically as she heard Brett stumble and cuss as he floundered to the door. When he opened it, he squinted into the dim light provided by the sconces on the wall trying to see who had the nerve to disturb him so early. His eyes widened when he realized who it was.

"You're late," she growled, before pushing into his room. The woman in his bed gasped at the intrusion. Brett reached for his wallet.

"Honey, why don't you go down and get us some breakfast? Xena and I have a little business to take care of before the game starts this morning."

The woman dressed rapidly and snatched the bill from his hand before stomping out, slamming the door behind her forcefully. Xena snickered.

"You couldn't have waited until a decent hour?" Brett asked, before swallowing hard from the ice in her eyes. "No," he chuckled nervously. "I guess you couldn't. Look, I'm sorry I was late, but Custer gave me a hell of a time getting the blade back."

"Do you have it?"

The look he gave her was almost insulted. He grasped his bag and opened it. "Do I have it, she says," muttering as he rummaged around. "I am Brett Alias. I always get what I go for," he answered cockily as he withdrew a wrapped object.

Xena reached for it and Brett pulled it away. "Uh, uh, uh. Show me the money first."

Xena growled. "Unwrap it."

Brett hesitated, wanting to protest until he saw the fierce look in her eyes. He carefully undid the binding and let the soft cloth fall away from the blade. "All right?" he asked a little more politely.

She nodded and reached into her vest, taking the dagger as she tossed Brett a wad of bills. "Nice doing business with you, Count Cardula."

Brett looked up from where he was counting. "Uh huh... you too."

She left him still counting. Then she went out to find her a bit of breakfast before the round-up.

It was still early when Xena made her way out to the corral that held the wild horses that had been driven into town for the round-up. Mustangs reminded her of the pinto ponies the tribes had running free around the encampments and the thought brought a sad smile to her face.

Many of the horses were chestnut in color, some darker brown, a few black and a couple red. She stood quietly at the fence just watching them, when an odd flash of color caught her attention. Xena watched in awe as a cream colored mustang slowly separated itself from the pack and wandered close enough to be clearly seen.

Xena sucked in a breath. Except for the size and the slightly darker mane and tail, the horse reminded her of Argo. The mustang stood still and majestic, simply looking at Xena. Xena smiled in reflex.

"Well," Xena started, then ducked her head to be sure. "Boy. You sure do remind me of an old friend. Any chance we can be friends?"

She chuckled soundlessly, watching the golden nostrils twitch in thought. "Gabrielle would love you. You're much closer to the ground than Argo was." Xena circled the corral, picturing that introduction with a smile, letting her mind imagine... possibilities.

Chapter XXXVII

It was close to three years after the end of the war before Hercules was able to return to his sanctuary in Banff and when he arrived, he almost didn't recognize the place from the changes Gabrielle had wrought in her time there.

Gone was his tiny, one-room cabin and in its place stood a three room home. Gabrielle had added a private bedroom and a bathing room that had real hot and cold running water. He simply stood and marveled as she showed him around the place.

He hugged her hard again, just as he had when he'd first come over the final ridge and found her out in the small garden patch.

"This is wonderful, Gabrielle. You've turned it into a home. How did you manage?" He noted the large logs that made up the walls of the new rooms and remembered all too well the struggle he himself had had building the original room alone. He saw too the furniture she had added, including a neat writing desk for herself at an angle near the fireplace.

She gave him a look. "After nearly two thousand years, I hope I've learned to work smarter. Besides, I had plenty of time and little else to do," said without a hint of reproach, though Hercules took it as such.

"I'm sorry it took so long, Gabrielle," Herc said as he scrubbed a hand across his face, trying to hide the weariness and disillusionment he felt so deeply. She pushed on his shoulder lightly and he took the hint, easing himself into a kitchen chair he had crafted himself many years before. Gabrielle moved the tea kettle into the center of the stove and took a seat beside him and covered his hand lightly with her own.

"Hercules, it wasn't a problem, really. War is rarely short-lived in mortal terms and I used the time to catch up on a lot of things... my writing, for one. Do you know how many stories I was able to go back and flesh out from my journal entries?" She laughed softly. "I didn't realize I had been so busy."

Herc chuckled. How well he understood *that* feeling.

"Besides," she continued with a smile. "I created a new writing instrument. It made things even easier for me. Wanna see?"

Hercules knew what Gabrielle was doing and he appreciated the effort. So he matched her enthusiasm in his answer. "Sure!"

The kettle started hissing as she rose and he motioned her away. "Go get your new quill. I can pour up hot water." He grabbed his saddle bags from where he had dropped them by the door when he came in and rummaged around inside until he found what he was looking for. He stepped back to the counter just as Gabrielle came back out of the bedroom.

Gabrielle set down what appeared to be a stick of wood before going to a cabinet and retrieving the honey. Herc's eyes lit at the prospect and he brought both cups over to the table setting one at each place before picking up the odd writing instrument she'd laid down.

Gabrielle grabbed two spoons from the drawer and handed one to Hercules before resuming her seat. She watched with fascinated eyes as he studied the object, finally managing to pull it apart and realizing....

"It's a quill with no feather!" he exclaimed with delighted astonishment. "This is very clever, Gabrielle. It must last much longer than feathered quills... even those with metal tips like this."

Green eyes sparkled in merriment. "It's even better than you think. I call this a fountain pen. It actually sucks up and holds the ink so it doesn't need to be dipped into the well as often. The only thing I have had to change since I crafted it has been the metal tip. It wears down to a nub after a while... at least it does the way I use it." She giggled and Hercules chuckled in sympathy.

He understood then that she was much changed from the chattery, impulsive child she had been when they'd first met, nor was she the tired, pursued warrior she had been during the twilight. She was even different from the woman he'd found helping escaping slaves get out along the Underground Railroad.

The woman before him had a poise and confidence that her many years on earth had given her. And now there was also a peace about he that he suspected had long been missing. He decided it was time to share some of his news, but he was roundabout in his methods.

"How do you like the tea?" he asked as she took her first sip.

Gabrielle took a second sip and held it on her tongue, letting the flavor waft into her senses. Finally she swallowed and nodded. "It's very good, but different from anything I've had in a long time. It reminds me of... spring and sunshine and... blackberries."

Hercules swallowed his own gulp, then winced at the burning as it went down his throat. It brought tears to his eyes and he drew a deep breath. Without a word, Gabrielle stood and pumped him a glass of cold well water, then waited patiently for him to drink. He chugged it down gratefully and set the empty glass on the table.

"Thanks," he croaked. "That wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done."

"You all right?" she questioned gently. "You need a little more?"

He held up a hand. "No. I'll be fine in a minute. Please sit." Herc waited until Gabrielle resumed her seat. "Xena is a very lucky woman," he said as she blushed then continued on before she could respond. "Let me tell you what took me so long to get back here."

Gabrielle nodded and picked up her tea, sipping it gingerly and waiting for Hercules to speak.

"The war was only four years long, but the ugliness... the senselessness of it...." Hercules scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "Gabrielle, it reminded me so much of the Trojan, or the Thessilian-Mitoan wars. It was vicious and really I'm not sure it managed to do anything except divide a nation and get a lot of people killed."

He drew a deep breath.

"I saw so many lives and homes destroyed and near the end... Gabrielle, have you run into any old friends?"

"You mean besides you and Cecrops?"

Hercules shook his head. "No, not other immortals. Reincarnations of souls you've known before."

"No, not re... wait. I did run into a funny little man thirty-odd years ago. He wore a pot on his head and he reminded me of Joxer. So much so I had to consciously realize that he wasn't. Is that what you mean?"

"Uh huh." Herc scratched his head. "Near the end of the war, I was riding with a general named Sherman. He was a brutal man, burning everything in his path, but he was also a big reason the war finally ended. His tactics caused the Southern forces to become trapped between Northern ones."

Gabrielle nodded her understanding, the harshness of war all too familiar to her.

"When we reached the sea in Georgia, we turned and headed back north. In North Carolina, I came upon a Rebel soldier who was no longer fighting. He had gone home to protect his mother and all he wanted was to be left alone."

Hercules looked at Gabrielle, the anguish now apparent in his eyes. "Gabrielle, it was Iolaus. As sure as I am sitting here, I recognized his soul." Here he chuckled. "And his fierceness. Some things just don't change."

Gabrielle smiled sympathetically. This had obviously rocked Hercules to the core. "So what happened?"

"I convinced Sherman to leave him alone. He wasn't any danger to us. And his mama fed us... well, we provided the rations and she cooked one night. We almost didn't get the troops to leave the next morning."

"That good?"

"Oh yeah. The tea you're drinking is one of her special blends."

"Umm, it's good. So then what?"

"Well, as soon as Lee surrendered and the Confederate units were dispersed to go home, I asked for extended leave. The last leave I had was when I brought you up here, so there wasn't a lot anyone could say, especially since all the others had had leaves during the war. Some of them more regularly than others."

"You went back to North Carolina." Gabrielle made it a statement and not a question.

"Yeah. I felt I owed Isaac and his mother."

"Because of Iolaus?"

"Mostly, yeah." Hercules paused and drew another deep breath. "I'm glad I went, Gabrielle. The months hadn't been kind to either of them and they were trying to eke out a living on land that was singed and battered and bruised."

He chuckled as he remembered the looks of astonishment on both Isaac's and Mama's faces when he knocked on the door and Gabrielle laughed in delight when he shared the experience with her.

"So you stayed long enough to help them get back on their feet?" Gabrielle asked when her curiosity outweighed the silence that had fallen between them.

Hercules shook his head. "No. I convinced them to move west. To get a new start." He grinned at her sheepishly. "And then I helped them move. We had quite a wagon train by the time we pulled out. There were a number of folks who wanted a fresh start."

Gabrielle nodded sagely. How many times had she been glad for each new chance she got? And after war... she knew only too well how desperate people were to put that kind of unpleasantness behind them and sometimes the easiest and best way to do that was to simply start over somewhere else.

"So where did you go?"

"Well, we rode a ways. There was so much destruction until we reached almost the middle of the country. Isaac decided he wanted to try his hand a being a lawman and Mama said she wanted wide open spaces. So we headed down into Texas. An old Army buddy is the Federal Marshal in those parts and I told Isaac I'd talk to Daniel about making him a deputy."

"And...?"

"And Daniel made Isaac a deputy Marshal in a little town called Nocona Corners. Beautiful place. Already has a stable and livery with a blacksmith, a dry goods store, stagecoach office, marshal's office, a church, a saloon, a mill and Mama set up a boarding house."

"No school for the children?"

"No teacher... yet. But if you'd be willing...."

"Hercules, what makes you think I can teach children English? I still write in the now dead language of ancient Greek. Or history... I haven't been in this country that long, relatively speaking, ya know. And Xena did all the math when we were together. I hated math... still do."

Hercules covered Gabrielle's hands and waited for her to calm down. He didn't realize he would throw her for such a loop with his suggestion and wondered what was behind it.

"Gabrielle, even if you agreed to do it, it wouldn't be this year. I'm tired. We wouldn't leave here til next spring anyway. Okay?" He waited for her to take a deep breath and nod. "Besides, you read and write English better than most that were born to it... you told me about Shakespeare, remember?"

Gabrielle smiled, remembering fondly the times she and Will had spent creating with words.

"And you've lived history... even if it wasn't American history. And that is short enough you can learn it over the winter if you want." He hesitated. "Gabrielle, I didn't commit you to anything. Honestly, I would never do that. I didn't mention your many skills to anyone."

Gabrielle drew a hand over her eyes. "I know you wouldn't and I'm not sure why that spooked me so bad. It's not like I haven't done that during my life." She paused. "Maybe it is the fact that I have been alone here for the last few years. I haven't interacted with anyone."

"Well, I did mention the fact that I had a sister who I had moved out of the war's path and Mama told me to bring you to visit. She wants to meet you."

"Oh, she does?"

"Yep. She didn't believe me when I told her my sister was a wee bit of a thing."

"You didn't?!"

"Sure I did. Gabrielle, you *are* a wee bit of a thing next to me. And you'll like Mama. She Irish and spunky and as fine a woman as you'll ever hope to meet."

"Uh huh. Did you at least bring me some books to study?"

"Yep and I brought books just for reading too. Figured it would help pass the winter months."

"True. I can quote a few of the ones here," Gabrielle said with a wry smile.

"And when spring comes...."

"Yes?"

"When spring comes we'll take a trip to Texas. If you like it we can stay a while; if not, well, we'll figure that out when the time comes."

He waited until she nodded and rose before he spoke again. "There's one more thing, Gabrielle. Something I think you should know."

She looked up from where she was rinsing her cup and Hercules stood and stepped up beside her to do the same. Gabrielle arched an eyebrow at him and waited.

"I think if we go to Texas you have a better chance of finding Xena."

Hercules didn't miss the flare of hope that lit her eyes. The tone of her voice remained cool though.

"Why? Some insight or just a gut feeling?"

He shrugged nonchalantly. "A little of both, I think. I've heard some rumors – rumors about hit-and-run raids that the Indians are perpetuating on the white settlers, trying to keep them off Indian land. Not all, but a lot of them have a very familiar feel. The tactics are similar to what Xena was using as a warlord."

Now the hope flared into a dangerous fire. "You think Xena has reverted to being a warlord again?" Gabrielle asked in a perilous purr.

Herc shook his head and noticed the slight relaxation of the bard's rigid posture. "No!" he said emphatically. "No," he reiterated in a softer tone. "Gabrielle, when Xena was brought to this country, she was adopted into the Cheyenne nation. They are a nation of fierce, proud warriors and Xena looks at them as part of her extended family. For years the white man has made and broken treaties with all the native tribes. I think Xena is just using the skills she has to the Cheyenne's best advantage."

"Why not unite all the tribes against the whites?" Gabrielle asked pragmatically. "They'd win with Xena leading them."

Hercules nodded his agreement. "Yes, they would. But there is a lot of conflict between the tribes and many of them would never accept a woman as their leader in a war party. Especially one who's untried."

Gabrielle burst into laughter and Hercules joined her heartily.

"I know, I know," he said when he caught his breath. "Knowing her like we do makes that absurd in the extreme. But they don't and there just isn't time to convince them all. But thank you for the laugh... I haven't done that in years."

"How did you find all this out?"

"About the raids? Or Xena's involvement in Indian affairs?"

"Yes."

Herc chuckled. "Well, Xena told me a little about her involvement with the Cheyenne tribe when I saw her. She was explaining her quest."

"Did she tell you what her quest was exactly?"

"I just know there are a number of sacred objects she has to find before she can attempt to return to the Greece she was taken from."

"But we were in Ja... Japan."

Hercules shrugged broad shoulders. "I dunno. She seems to think she can go back to Greece. I think she's got enough determination to find a way to do just that." He hesitated. "You're part of that, you know."

"You think so?"

Hercules shook his tawny head. "Uh uh. I *know* so."

Gradually the days settled into a pattern and it wasn't long before the warmth of summer turned to the coolness of fall. Together Hercules and Gabrielle took in the garden produce and prepared the cabin for the coming winter. Hercules stood amazed more than once at Gabrielle's strength and determined capabilities, but instead of saying anything and making her self-conscious about them, he simply shook his head and got back to work.

When everything around the cabin was done and ready for the coming storms, Gabrielle decided to approach Hercules about hunting.

"Hercules, would you be terribly offended if I asked you not to go out hunting with me?"

He took her hands in his and chafed them lightly. "Gabrielle, I know you need to feed and I would never embarrass you... well, you know what I mean. If you're more comfortable out there alone, I know there are still things around here for me to take care of. But be careful, will ya?"

She smiled impishly at him. "I always am," she said saucily, conveniently forgetting what Xena had always referred to as the 'Gabrielle Effect'.

"Uh huh," he teased. "Like I haven't heard some stories."

Gabrielle smacked his muscular arm. "Be nice to me," she growled.

He laughed and absently noted that he tended to do that a lot around her. That went a long way to explaining the extreme changes he'd noticed in Xena and he put that thought aside to ponder more when he was alone.

"Go on," he said with a pat on her back. "I'd like some venison steaks."

Gabrielle's eyes twinkled. Since the weather hadn't turned completely cold, most of the furs and all of the ones she had tanned were still put away. She decided to yank Hercules' chain... just a little.

"Oh you would, huh? I'll see what I can do, though it's not usually what I go looking for at this time of year. In the meantime, the furs and bedding probably needs to be aired out. See ya."

Then she disappeared down the slight path and into the woods beyond.

Hercules watched for a while, his eyes remaining on the spot where Gabrielle stepped into the trees for long moments after she was lost from sight. "Now I wonder what she meant by that. She's got that 'I'm up to something' twinkle going. Poor Xena," he said, chuckling to himself as he moved towards the lean-to that served as the storage shed. "She's gonna have a hell of a time trying to keep up with Gabrielle anymore."

Hercules sat outside on the tiny porch when he saw Gabrielle's blonde head pop through the opening in the trees. He thought about letting her struggle with her burden herself after the surprise he'd been handed earlier in the day, but his nature wouldn't let him and he got up and jogged over to the tree line.

"Did you get another bear?" he asked with a small smirk.

"Yep and I got you your deer too."

An eyebrow rose on his forehead. "You didn't have to...."

I know," she cut in, "but I could." She shrugged gracefully. "So I did."

He noticed a skin pouch on her waist and figured she must have drained the blood she needed for the coming winter. He shuddered, but pushed the thought aside, knowing she hadn't chosen the destiny she'd been handed. Besides, he'd never her take more than she needed and from what he'd seen in the short time he'd been back in Banff, she put back into the earth at least as much as she used.

"Well, thank you, Gabrielle," he said, focusing his mind on other things. "How 'bout I take this stuff and start preparing it and once you get cleaned up, you could maybe, um... cook us some steaks?"

"You saying I stink?"

"Nonononono!" Hercules said, backpedaling a bit as Gabrielle took a step forward. "Just thinking you might like a soak after lugging this big old bear back."

Gabrielle let him worry for a moment as she continued to advance. She giggled when she reached him. "Nice save," she said. "And you're right, I would."

"Cook?" he ventured.

Gabrielle walked by him laughing. "That too."

Hercules was very thankful for Gabrielle's hunting skills when the weather suddenly dropped from chilly to frigid. His bed was a stuffed mattress on the floor in the main room and he noticed an immediate difference when the furs she had captured became rugs and blankets and window coverings. He couldn't believe how much snugger and cozier the cabin became with the addition.

Winter passed pleasantly enough for the two immortals. There was plenty to keep them occupied and they respected the silence as much as they indulged in conversation. Gabrielle studied American history and Hercules found out she was better at math than he was. Hercules decided it was nice to have family to share with again, even if only for a little while and Gabrielle came to the conclusion that having an older brother was nice, especially one who respected your skills.

Days turned into weeks and then into months and eventually the storms went from fierce blizzards to lazy snowfall to spring rain. Finally the weather cleared enough that traveling down out of the mountains and into Banff was not treacherous and after making sure everything was well-tended and put away, they began their journey back to civilization with only a single glance at the cabin that had been their sanctuary.

"What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked Hercules as he stepped from the small office. Banff was not too greatly changed since Gabrielle's arrival years ago – a few more shops, but it mostly retained its rustic flavor and appearance. Hercules walked slowly, allowing Gabrielle to soak up the renewing of connecting with humanity on a personal level again.

The first thing Gabrielle noticed was that many of the women in this small frontier town wore trousers much like she herself had on, though they were certainly not stylish or well-fitting. Then she realized that since many of them had come to climb the mountains, they simply had to wear smaller versions of men's pants to be able to do so safely. Maybe there was some hope for society after all. She couldn't imagine anyone not choosing trousers over the confining garb that was considered fashionable for women if they were given the chance to choose.

She looked in many windows, fascinated by the changes a few short years had brought. Then she remembered the pen she had crafted from necessity. Probably that same need was behind many of the new gadgets and contraptions she saw in the small town.

"Ya know," Hercules commented, breaking in on her thoughts. "Maybe you should market that fountain pen of yours. I imagine that could become quite popular." He looked around. "Not here necessarily, but in the big cities." He shrugged. "Something to think about."

Gabrielle nodded. "Maybe, but that still doesn't answer my question."

"Huh?" he blinked. "Oh, I sent a telegraph off to an old friend in Calgary. Asked him to have a couple good horses ready for us." A blonde brow rose and he answered what he felt was an obvious question. "So we don't have to walk all the way to Texas."

"Uh huh... and how is he gonna know when to have them ready and waiting?"

"Well, he'll be in town for the mustang round up and we should arrive pretty close to then as well. "Whoever gets there first will wait for the other."

"And you're sure he'll get that telegraph thing you just sent?"

"Yep... in two to three days if there are no lines down the man in the office said."

Gabrielle let her eyes follow the long thin wires that were strung precariously high above her head and tracked them through the mountainous area until they were well out of sight. She shook her head. "If you say so. I've seen enough strange new things in my life not to discount something just because I don't understand it."

Hercules grinned and clapped her on the shoulder. "That's the spirit." He took her arm. "Now c'mon. I'd like a hot meal and a bed tonight. We start a long walk into Calgary in the morning."

Gabrielle laughed infectiously and soon Hercules joined her without understanding the reason why. When she was able to draw breath and wipe her eyes she looked at him seriously. "Herc, I have walked the diameter of the world several times in my lifetime. Walking from here to Calgary will be a day in the park."

Of course, he never mentioned that walk in the park was gonna be mostly through the mountains, Gabrielle groused silently as the duo approached Calgary. The walk had taken longer than Gabrielle remembered, though in all fairness she was so anxious to get there she didn't recall much of the trip in.

They weren't in Calgary yet, but they had slowly started seeing the occasional ranch with its accompanying outbuildings. To Gabrielle's surprise, Hercules turned down a long lane without a word and she kept pace beside him. Just as the sun reached its zenith, Hercules removed his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead before raising his hand and knocking loudly on the front door.

An older woman came to the door, wiping her hands on a towel, then squealing and opening her arms to the big man when she recognized him.

"Harrison Tillman!" addressing Hercules by the moniker he wore in his present incarnation. "What are you doin' here? Phillip got your telegram and was making plans to meet you in Calgary next week." She looked past his broad shoulder. "You gonna introduce me?"

"Oh, yeah... sorry Maggie. "Maggie, this is my sister, Gabrielle. Gabrielle, this is Maggie Atkins. Maggie and her husband Philip and I knew each other in the States before the war."

"Nice to meet you, ma'am."

"It's Maggie, child, though you must be older than a child to be Harrison's sister." Maggie looked at Hercules. "Sure do wish you'd share the secret of your eternal youth though. We seem to get older every year and you still look as good as you did the first time I met ya."

Maggie stepped back and gestured them inside. "Ya'll come on in and be comfortable. I'll call Daddy in from the field." She stepped onto the porch and rang the heavy iron bell that hung from the side of the house. "He'll hear that and be right in."

Sure enough, it wasn't long before Phillip was stomping his boots just outside the kitchen door. And after another surprised round of greetings and introductions, they settled into visiting.

"So what brings ya by here instead of meetin' me in Calgary?"

"We made better time than I expected, actually. Thought maybe we could just pick up the horses and leave from here. It's a long ride into Texas."

"Can you stay a day or two? Visit a little bit?"

Hercules looked at Gabrielle who nodded ever so slightly in agreement. He smiled. "We'd love to, thanks."

The rest of the day was spent catching up, though Philip promised them a tour of the ranch and the mustangs he was taking to the round-up in Calgary the next week. And with the early morning light, he did just that.

The spread was beautiful, nestled into the heart of the valley and framed by the craggy mountains that stood majestic behind it. There were a few trees and a stream, but what captured Gabrielle's imagination was the vast space around them. Similar to what she had known in Banff, yet not the same at all. What seized her attention however, were the wild horses running circles around each other in the corral. They were beautiful in a fierce rowdy way that simply awed her in a way she hadn't felt in a very long time.

Gabrielle edged the horse Hercules had purchased for her up to the corral, close enough to brush the fence post with her leg. The mustangs ceased their movement, only their breathing making their sides quiver. Gabrielle sat completely still, simply watching, feeling her breath catch as one mustang separated itself from the pack and stepped forward towards her.

The two men sat back a little simply watching the tableau that was taking place before them. Hercules had felt Gabrielle's start and quickly realized the reason behind it.

The horse approaching her bore an uncanny resemblance to Argo. It was a little smaller and its mane and tail were a little darker, but the similarities were astounding.

"I'll be damned," Phillip muttered sotto voce to Hercules.

"No kidding," Herc mumbled back.

"No, you don't understand. That 'stang... I have never seen one that color before and until today... until right now, he has been the meanest, orneriest critter I have ever had the displeasure to meet." The two men watched in silence as the horse eased up beside Gabrielle and not only allowed her to pet him, but actually encouraged it.

They remained that way for sometime before Gabrielle whispered in the mustang's ear. He whickered and shook his head and she laughed aloud. The horse nudged her gently and she kissed his head on the white mark between his eyes before moving back to where the two stunned men sat watching her.

"What??" she asked, looking at herself for marks.

Hercules just shook his head with a smile. Phillip cleared his throat. "Wow," was all he managed to whisper.

Gabrielle grinned real big and started to make her way back towards the ranch house.

"Oh!" she exclaimed and stopped the big horse in its tracks, turning to face the two who had yet to move. "His name is Shamrock." Then she continued on her way, grin still plastered to her face.

Hercules laughed heartily and clapped Philip's shoulder as the two friends watched the mustangs scurry away at the rolling sound. Then they turned and headed their own horses for home.

Phillip waited until he thought she was out of hearing. "Well, I'll be damned," he repeated again.

Chapter XXXVIII

"Well, I'll be damned," the grizzled cowboy commented as he came up to lean on the corral fence next to Xena. "Ya know, you're the second beautiful lady to tame him this week. Must be a trend." Then he was forced to step back from the fence when the horse reared in his direction.

Xena snorted and so did the horse. The man just chuckled at the similarities between the two until he was pinned with ice blue eyes. Then he swallowed his laughter with an audible gulp. The horse whickered and Xena smirked.

"First of all, this horse isn't tamed. He's his own spirit." She gave a small smile when the horse nodded his agreement. "And secondly, I'm no lady." Her feral grin made the man straighten uncomfortably, but he held his ground and extended his hand.

"Name's Phillip Atkins." He motioned to the horse. "This here's Shamrock."

Xena raised and eyebrow as she clasped his hand. "Xena," she said briefly. "You gave a wild, untamed horse a name because...?"

"Oh, no ma'am. *I* didn't. We had a friend and his sister visit last week. She and the horse took a shine to one another. *She* named him Shamrock."

"I see," Xena drawled slowly, clearly confused. "So why didn't she keep him, if they got along so well?"

"Because they were leaving out for Texas and she needed a horse that had already been trained and was ready to make the trip."

Xena nodded, accepting the explanation, then she turned her attention back to the mustang. "Shamrock, huh?" she asked, rubbing his head. He pushed harder under her hand and she laughed soundlessly. "How much?" she asked the cowboy without removing her eyes from Shamrock.

"Well," he considered, "He's got good tone and speed and he is such an unusual color... I won't take a penny less than two hundred."

Xena looked at the horse carefully, then put her hand on the top rail and lightly leaped the fence into the corral.

"You can't...." Phillip sputtered, then simply stood back and watched as Xena gently lifted and examined each hoof. She walked around the mustang, talking to him in a low tone that no one else could understand. The horse stood stock still, allowing the examination, even when she opened his mouth and checked his teeth.

"Two hundred, huh?" she said with her back still turned to Phillip.

"Yes, ma'am. I think he's worth every penny."

Xena wrapped her hands in the dark blonde mane and leapt onto the mustang's back. The horse trembled but stood still, waiting to see what this strange new human had in mind. Xena sat confidently, giving the animal a chance to adjust to her weight. She eased one hand into her shirt pocket, pulling out a handful of bills and counting out two hundred. She extended her reach towards the cowboy who stared at her with astounded eyes.

The horse stutter stepped nervously and Xena gently urged him to take the sidestep necessary to bring her body along side the fence.

"Your price," she said briskly, when Phillip made no move to take the money from her. Slowly he raised his hand and felt the warmth of the paper as the transfer was made. He looked at her fully then and Xena let her eyes show a feral joy she hadn't felt since coming to this strange land decades ago.

"Do we have a deal?" Xena asked softly. She sat straight on the mustang's back, sure of her seat and confident in her abilities. Her hair blew away from her face in the light, early morning breeze and her eyes reflected the glow of the dawning sunlight.

Phillip merely nodded his head, mesmerized by the living portrait of feminine fierceness before him. She accepted his word with a slight lift of her head. Then she leaned down into Shamrock's neck and whispered into his ear.

"All right, boy... let's see whatcha got. Let's RUN!"

She nudged him with her knees as she spoke and Shamrock took off like the wind. Around the corral he ran, stirring the other mustangs until he was leading a parade. Xena angled him towards the fence, hoping he would clue into what she was thinking. A grin crossed her face when she felt the mustang gathering himself as the fence approached. Xena leaned down into him and Shamrock pulled his legs up, clearing the fence by a good foot and leaving Phillip staring at their dust with his mouth agape and his eye bugging out of his head.

"Well," he drawled at last. "I'll be damned."

Xena laughed in sheer pleasure as the headed out of the town proper and into the outskirts. She pulled up in front of the boardinghouse with a flourish and Rosalie stepped out to see what was causing such a commotion so early in the morning. Her eyes widened perceptibly when she spotted Xena sitting so comfortably on top of a mustang, looking for all the world as though she'd been born to the saddle. Except....

"Come with me," Rosalie said abruptly.

Xena slid down from Shamrock's back, though she kept a hand in his mane as she followed Rosalie to the barn. Xena had spent a lot of time cleaning out the old place out and now it was clean and repaired and nearly empty, save the few odds and ends Rosalie had insisted be stored there.

Now they went in with Shamrock walking obediently behind Xena. She wondered about the oddness of that, then accepted it as a gift not to be taken lightly... especially not knowing how long it would last.

"Wait right here," Rosalie asked and move further into the barn.

The barn was mostly dark in the early hours of the morning, even with the barn doors open wide, but Xena breathed deeply of the clean scent of hay and fresh wood. Shamrock nudged her gently in the back and Xena chuckled lightly as she scratched his ears.

She could easily hear the bumping and groaning coming from the dark corner and wondered what on earth.... Then she saw Rosalie struggling and rushed over to help her.

Rosalie's face was a little flushed from the exertion and she was happy to have Xena relieve her of her burden. "Take that outside, please. I have a couple things to go with that and you'll be all set."

Xena took the heavy wooden box and stepped back out into the morning sunshine. She put it carefully on the ground and turned to see if she could help Rosalie when the older woman came through the doors struggling with a smaller box. Xena was quick to take that from her as well and stacked it on top of the bigger one.

Rosalie leaned against them and removed a kerchief from her bodice, wiping away copious amounts of sweat from her face and forearms. Then she blew out a disgusted breath.

"I surely don't recall this being so heavy before."

Without a word, Xena crossed to the well and pulled up the bucket. Then she grabbed the full dipper and brought it back to Rosalie. Rosalie accepted the dipper and drained it, patting Xena on the arm with a smile.

"You're a sweet one, Xena. Remind me a lot of myself in my younger years. C'mere." Rosalie pushed off of the boxes and picked up the flat iron bar she'd brought out from the barn with her. She handed it to Xena and gestured to the wooden crates. "Open those up for me, will ya?"

Xena pried the lid off and set the smaller box aside. Then she lever the second one off and stepped back.

Shamrock, doing his bit to help, lipped at the straw that was visible, but he soon abandoned the stale straw in favor of Xena's clean hair. She ducked his lips playfully and scratched his neck, then froze when she saw what Rosalie had removed from the crates.

On the lid sat a western leather saddle that though used, looked as though it had been well-cared for. Rosalie set the oilcloth it was wrapped in on the straw and casually moved over to the smaller box and took out bridle, reins, bit and various other sundry parts that Xena needed to saddle Shamrock.

Wide blue eyes blinked and her mouth worked, but before Xena could get sound to come out, Rosalie started to speak softly, her back turned to Xena.

"When I was a much younger woman," she reminisced, "I had a best friend that I loved very much. We did everything together. Neorah and I, we... I... well.... Anyway, when we were sixteen, my folks married me off to a much older man and Neorah, she ran away from home and headed west, swearing she would never suffer my fate. Marriage, ya know."

Xena nodded but remained silent, wanting to hear more of Rosalie's story.

"Horace, my husband, was a kind man, but we didn't love one another. He lived for three years after we wed and once my period of mourning was over, I came out west, hoping against hope to find my Neorah."

Silence fell as Rosalie got lost in her memories. Xena waited patiently.

"It took me almost a year to travel out here on my own, avoiding Indians and white men alike. From the little I'd heard they were equally vicious and even as young and stupid as I was I knew it was best not to be a woman caught alone out here."

"So why do it?" Xena asked logically. "Were things that bad for you as a widow?"

Rosalie shook her head with a sad smile. "No. Horace left me comfortably well off. But I needed to find Neorah." Her eyes pinned Xena's. "You can understand that."

"This area was empty when I stopped here. I just couldn't go on any further. And that first year... God, I didn't think I'd survive. I built the barn alone and it took me until after the first snows. It was... it was rough." She swallowed hard. "For five long years, I worked the land and built me a little place. The Indians left me alone because I respected the land and their way of life. Very few white men came through until they built the fort and even then, they didn't come out here unless they were passing through to the ocean."

"What happened?" Xena asked when silence fell again.

"Neorah," Rosalie answered with a tremulous smile. "Out of the blue one fine spring morning almost thirty-five years ago, the most beautiful sight I have ever seen came riding up to my front porch." She laughed. "I was out back in the garden when I saw a rider come up the path. I picked up the shotgun Horace had taught me how to shoot, having learned real quick to be safe rather than sorry."

Rosalie never felt the tears fall from her eyes, but Xena felt her own tearing up at the joy that shone in her face. She blinked rapidly and focused her attention on keeping her breathing even.

"The rider dismounted and walked towards me, even though I had the gun still raised. I asked what they wanted, told them to get off my land. She stopped, just out of arms reached and lifted a hand towards her hat...."

Rosalie trailed off again, remembering the day her life had changed so drastically. Then she sighed and turned her attention back to Xena, who had a faraway almost pained look in her eyes. She laid a tentative hand on the warrior's arm and waited until the blue eyes tracked to her own.

"We had twenty-five wonderful years together before she... before...." Rosalie bit her lip and turned away. "Even after all this time," she whispered, "it still hurts."

Finally she lifted the bridle and bit and put them in Xena's hands. "These were hers... well, her horse's," Rosalie said with a small smile. "I'd be honored if you'd consider them yours and...." She looked at the horse. "He got a name yet?"

"Shamrock," Xena said gruffly. "Name he came with."

Rosalie held up her hands defensively and tried not to laugh. "Yours and Shamrock's," she continued. "You need them and I'd like you to have them. Please," she added when it looked like Xena might refuse. Xena nodded and moved to outfit Shamrock in his new gear for the first time. Then the day got *really* interesting.

"Guess you're glad he's a fast learner," Rosalie commented that evening as she put the stopper back in the bottle of witch hazel. Xena's hands and arms had cuts and scrapes that were already healing, though if Rosalie noticed, she kept such things to herself.

Xena merely grunted her agreement. Her butt was sore. It had been a long time since she'd ridden such a strong-willed horse and it had taken Shamrock a little while to accept the new tack. But a few well-placed words after their first battle of wills and he settled down right. Xena spent a good bit of the morning learning his gaits and teaching him different commands. She felt satisfied with their work and turned him back towards the house at a fast clip when without warning he threw her cleanly out of the saddle and unfortunately landed her in a briar patch.

She climbed back on a little warily and put him through his paces again. Once she was satisfied they were communicating again, she directed him back to the house. Everything was fine until they reached the yard. Then without warning, he stopped dead and arched his back, jumping and curling in a wild, graceful dance.

Then she realized that he was bucking and twisting because he enjoyed it... it was his way of playing with her. But she supposed that free spirit had to express itself somehow. Xena held on tight and just hoped that mostly it came in the form of running and not this creative dance he seemed so enamored of. She wasn't sure she could handle all that enthusiasm, despite her immortality. Especially since the panther and the fox tended to bring out those traits in Shamrock and they seemed predisposed to appearing in her life at the most inopportune moments.

Xena left Calgary with good memories though they didn't last long. Almost the minute she crossed back into the United States from Canada, ugly rumors reached her ears about Union atrocities and she set out to find out the truth.

What she found was beyond her understanding, worse than anything she had done during her warlording days in Greece. Union soldiers had killed Indian women and children and that put Xena on a warpath that would bring her in contact with a despised enemy.

Xena's first glimpse of Custer sent proverbial chills up her back... something she'd not felt since.... India? The Steppes? Rome? The familiarity of it made her spine tingle in a most unpleasant way and she initially tried to put it aside as malevolent feelings towards a soldier she considered to be without competence or honor. But it niggled at her and she began comparing it to the other times in her life she'd felt it. It was reminiscent of Ares, but....

Xena cast her mind back nearly two thousand years and remembered what Naima had said about karma and the circle of life. Then she realized why this union soldier felt so familiar to her. The colonel known to the world as George Armstrong Custer was in actuality the reincarnation of Alti's soul. And Xena set out to defeat her in the lifetime she now lived.

For several years, Xena had dogged Custer's steps, harassing him and his troops at every turn. She organized raiding parties that plagued Custer's efforts across the plains. Fort Riley had been razed because of his desire to channel the Indians onto a reservation and she had only just missed catching him there. It was the Battle of Washita that made it personal for Xena though.

The fact that soldiers killed defenseless women and children made her blood boil and it made Xena want to bring the skirmishes to an end once and for all.

Various Native nations had joined her periodically to drive the troops from their land, but Xena was having trouble convincing them to join forces and with one another to drive the white man out completely. They felt their hatreds for each other were too old and deep.

Finally she went to Sitting Bull, with whom she had developed a friendship over the last few years as they'd fought together against the white man. Crazy Horse, whom she met on her trek back from California, had introduced them. Crazy Horse was like a duplicate of Palaemon, being something of a dashing rogue, a ladies man with an almost identical facial scar. Once he understood that she was a warrior of no small skill and not a woman to be wooed, Crazy Horse had accepted her as a friend and brave. Sitting Bull had never questioned her motivations, accepting her introduction by Crazy Horse and appreciating her Cheyenne warrior marking and skills. Several times she had been invited to share around his fire and he'd found her thoughts succinct and insightful.

Now when she approached him for a meeting, he couldn't refuse and he listened carefully while smoking a pipe which they shared. His gaze went inward for a while once she finished speaking and he thought about what she'd proposed. Finally he nodded.

"Join me for Sun Dance. See what spirits think."

Xena nodded. She felt confident that the spirits were in agreement.

The following morning the rites for the Sun Dance began and for four days Xena fasted and meditated except when her physical presence was required for some ceremony. Just before dawn of the fifth day, she escaped her self-imposed exile and hunted, knowing she needed the blood sustenance for the trial ahead.

Xena was already deep in a trance when the blades were inserted into her breasts. For hours she simply hung still reviewing her life with Gabrielle while those around her struggled and fought to get free. The medicine men couldn't understand the small smile that graced her face. Finally, though, she slid free from the blades and only the silent tears on her face gave any indication of the excruciating pain she felt, though they never knew the real cause.

When the day was over, she had Sitting Bull's agreement. The tribes would join together to fight the Union Blue Coats at Little Big Horn.

Runners were sent out to the Nations and men gathered very quickly, including a very surprising visitor for Xena.

The appearance of a white man in their camp was stunning, but the enthusiasm with which he was greeted by Xena and Crazy Horse caused a dead silence to fall over the entire assembly.

They had been preparing for war – arrows added to quivers, axes honed to razor sharpness, guns checked and loaded and the buzz of conversation hung low across the encampment. When the stranger approached the camp, he drew everyone's attention, then Xena looked up and caught his eyes and the small grin on his face that he produced on sight of her.

"Hercules?" she whispered, before launching into a run and engulfing him in a hug.

Hercules wrapped her in a fierce embrace and lifted her off the ground until he felt her shrink away from him. He drew back to look at her face, concerned.

"Problem?" he asked softly, well aware of the eyes on them.

She shook her head and hugged him again, though it was much lighter than the first. "I'm just a little sore," she answered vaguely. "C'mon," she said with a smile as she pulled away again. "There's someone here I want you to meet."

They turned to find Crazy Horse waiting. Hercules extended his hand and Crazy Horse simply looked at him a long moment, before engulfing him in a hug.

"Harrison! I have not seen you since we fought with Red Cloud in Wyoming."

"Crazy Horse! How are you?"

"Good, my friend. You?"

Hercules smiled. "The same. Glad to find friends here," though his look at Xena conveyed more than his words.

"Happy you are here, Harrison. Come." Crazy Horse led the way.

The eyes of the whole community followed them until they reached Sitting Bull's fire. And conversation started up again slowly as the Chief invited them to sit down. They sat and talked until the shadows grew long and Sitting Bull found a friend in the man named Harrison Tillman.

Once the sun had completely set, Xena and Hercules took their leave from Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and walked away from the camp out into the darkness of the plain. Without a sound, two animals came up on either side of Xena, subtly pushing Hercules further away from the warrior. He looked at Xena with a raised eyebrow. She chuckled softly.

"Etor, Melo, this is an old friend... Hercules. Herc, these are my spirit guides."

Hercules knelt down to bring himself eye to eye with the animals. "It's nice to meet you. I'm glad Xena has had you and hasn't had to be alone." The panther stepped into Hercules' personal space and growled, showing its canine teeth in a full, snarling smile. The fox crossed in front of the cat, putting itself between the panther and Hercules. The cat held Herc's eyes for another full minute before turning its face into the fox's neck and nuzzling with a faint purr.

Hercules stood slowly and looked at Xena who has silently watched the entire tableau. "They're mates?"

She nodded, "Since before I found them, I think."

"Ya know," he commented casually, "They remind me of y...."

"I know," she cut in. "Me too."

They walked on again in silence. "Would you excuse me a few minutes? I need to...."

Hercules held up his hands. "Go ahead. Etor and Melo can keep me company til you get back."

Xena nodded and slipped into the darkness without a sound and Hercules sat down and turned his attention to the two animals. The panther sat facing him and the fox curled up in its embrace. Hercules stared at them for a time, then turned his attention to the darkness, feeling as though he had intruded on something intensely private when they began grooming on another. He never heard Xena come up until she seated herself next to him, clearly visible in the moonlight.

"Do you know who Alti is... who she was in the lifetime that was so long ago for us?"

"I know some. I've heard stories. Why?"

"I've seen her in this lifetime. She is the soldier known as George Custer."

"You're sure?"

"Yep."

"I met him once, during the war. He was a total ass."

"Yeah, well, soon he is gonna be a dead one. We're gonna wipe 'em out, Herc. They've killed enough, killed women and children and it ends here. But Custer especially dies."

"Why?"

Xena shrugged. "It is part of my destiny... my karmic circle. I defeat Alti in every life we cross paths in."

Hercules looked a little lost at her surety, but decided to let it pass uncontested, having other things of importance on his mind. He was composing a way to bring up his topic, when Xena beat him to the punch.

"So what brings you here, Hercules? I got the distinct impression from your arrival that you were looking for me."

"I was." He looked down at his clasped hands then back out at the flat plain of darkness that stretched to infinity. "I found Gabrielle." Xena's grip on his arm made him flinch with the bruising force she applied when she grasped it.

He waited, but she didn't say a word, her jaw clenched so tightly he could hear her teeth grinding together.

"She, um... she's a beautiful woman, Xena, but time and the world have worn on her... a lot."

"She's always been a beautiful woman, Hercules. Even when she was still a cute kid," she whispered, though Xena's hold grew noticeably tighter. Hercules surreptitiously flexed his hand to keep the blood flowing to it. He cleared his throat and continued without looking in her direction.

"I took her to Texas... to stay with some friends I have there. It's given her some stability and she's well thought of there. She's the school teacher in a little town called Nocona Corners."

Hercules heard Xena swallow, but it was the only sound she made. He looked at her and watched her jaw clench and unclench, knowing she was fighting an emotional battle to stay focused. He'd given her the impetus she needed to make the coming fight swift and furious. Herc nodded to himself and returned his gaze back to the blackness and kept a silent watch, waiting for the sun to come up.

Morning brought battle. The Indians spotted the Blue Coats in the same instant they were seen and they prepared themselves for the coming fight.

Xena mounted Shamrock and prepared to lead a mounted charge against those who were coming. Her gut told her Custer would be among them and she had a burning need to finish her business with Alti so she could finally reunite with Gabrielle... especially now that she had all the totems save one. With the chakram she suspected was still in Gabrielle's possession, they could go home.

Hercules gathered up his borrowed weapons and prepared to join the warriors who were on foot. Sitting Bull had introduced him to the war chiefs and he had been made welcome to join the many braves who would fight on foot. He felt Xena's regard and he gave her a salute from his chest which she returned with a smile, before giving her war cry and leading the mounted troops to meet the enemy. He felt himself wishing for a horse so he could fight by her side once more and then a far bigger problem became his immediate focus.

Custer was not a stupid man and he had divided his forces into a three-pronged attack and unexpectedly, one of those prongs came over the horizon towards the encampment and the warriors who remained there. The war chiefs rallied the braves and soon they were engaged in the battle. Hercules spared a prayer for Xena, then focused his attention on the fight that lay ahead of him.

Meanwhile Xena and the rest of the mounted warriors pursued Custer and his battalion into the hills, knowing they had the advantage in both numbers and knowledge. This was their home they were defending and many of them had grown up learning their skill at arms in this very valley. So it was with many glad voices raised that they now fought to drive the white man from their territory once and for all.

Xena honed in on Custer, wanting him to know where his death was coming from. He was a little separate from those in his command, as though his being in charge would make a difference in whether he lived or died.

Pompous little prick, Xena thought to herself before turning Shamrock and heading directly towards George Armstrong Custer. She blocked the other sounds of battle, negligently killing those who thought to get in her way and letting this one Blue Coat become her entire focus.

Custer caught sight of the brave headed at him so recklessly and he raised a pistol to shoot him. Before he got the gun to firing level, however, he realized two very important things. The brave was no brave at all, but a woman with startlingly blue eyes. And she was now leaping from her horse and taking him off of his.

Custer lost his gun along with his balance and was barely able to roll to his feet before the first blow rattled his brains. He fell and she kicked him and he reached for his remaining pistol while shaking his head.

"Die, Injun!" he yelled as he pulled the trigger, his smile a grimace when Xena fell to the ground unmoving. The bloodstain blossomed on her chest and he reached for the knife strapped to his leg and grabbed the dark hair in his fist.

"I've never taken a woman's scalp," Custer sneered, "but I'll make an exception in your case."

He never saw the blow coming, but the pain that exploded in his throat was telling as her foot connected with his throat and he landed on his butt from the force of her kick. His breath grew raspy as he struggled to pull air into his lungs and Custer recognized to his bemusement that he was going to die. He looked at Xena with a mixture awe and fright when she snatched the blade from his hands.

"Y-you... should be... d-dead!" he wheezed as his eyes fastened on the big red spot on her chest. "I-I-I shot... you... at p-point... blank... range!"

She looked down at her chest and felt a wave of lethargy flow through her at the blood loss. "Damn you, bitch! That hurts!"

Xena punched him and watched his head snap back, then drew the blade up Custer's face, leaving a thin trail of blood in its wake. "I don't kill that easy," she remarked. "You of all people ought to know that by now."

Custer stared at her trying to focus even as his breath grew subtly shallower. Xena waited, knowing revelation would come and recognized the moment it did.

"Xena," Alti drawled. The warrior could hear just the faintest hint of the telltale rasp that her voice had carried in their original lifetime. "How...? You can't...."

Xena smiled cruelly. "Oh but I can...I have many skills," she said coldly.

Alti forced her body to stand. "So do I," she growled, gathering her waning life force in her hands and channeling it, hitting Xena in the chest again. The warrior flew back and landed on the ground a second time. "At least if I have to go I can take you with me."

Alti fell to her knees and punched Xena's face, then reached for the knife. "Say your prayers, Xena."

The warrior jerked upward and pulled out of Alti's grasp shaking her head to clear it of the dizziness that the blood loss had caused.

"Why won't you die?" Alti hissed, even as Xena swung the knife towards her. She sliced through the blue uniform and cut into the skin on Alti's upper arm. Then she spun and kicked the shamaness in the gut, watching as she fell to the ground.

Xena clenched Custer's hair in her hand and twisted hard as she moved the blade into position. "Nice as this has been, I've got other places to be," she said.

"I'll see you in hell," Alti said, then screamed as Xena removed her scalp. Silence soon followed, but she, like those of her regiment, was not alive to appreciate the peace that shrouded the battlefield at their deaths.

Xena stood and raised Custer's scalp to the sun and her war cry was echoed across the plains by the warriors who had survived the day with her. She whistled; Shamrock ran to her and she leaped astride the mustang as he headed back to the encampment, followed by his compatriots.

What they found when they got there was astonishing. Yet another band of Blue Coats had attacked the main camp, but they were being held off by the foot troops that had not left for battle... instead the battle had come to them. Now with the return of the mounted warriors, the Blue Coats were being forced to retreat into the hills and the war chiefs were pursuing them to wipe out the last of the enemy.

Xena rode the where Sitting Bull stood, directing the warriors. She dropped the scalp at his feet. "Custer is dead," she said succinctly. "And now I must leave. Duty calls me elsewhere."

He motioned to her bloody chest, but she waved him off. Sitting Bull shook his head, but motioned his acceptance of her diagnosis nonetheless.

"Go find beloved. Search over soon."

Xena's eyes rounded with questions. Sitting Bull chuckled at her expression.

"Vision quest during Sun Dance revealed many things. Now go, brave warrior. Your place not here now."

Xena nodded and stood in the stirrups, looking for Hercules. She gritted her teeth against the pain and the dizziness and guided Shamrock through the maze of bodies living, wounded and dead before she reached him.

"Where is Nocona Corners?"

"Let me get my stuff...."

"Hercules, you've got no horse and I'm not gonna wait. Where is she?"

"A little town in the northeast part of the state."

She extended a hand with a grimace and he took it, knowing she bore him no malice but that her patience had finally run out. He just hoped she'd be all right alone.

"Thanks, Hercules. You've been a good friend and I appreciate...."

He held up his hand. "We'll see each other again. Good luck, my friend."

She nodded and wheeled her horse around, headed southeast and giving Shamrock his head. Herc watched until she was out of sight.

"You're gonna need it."

Chapter XXXIX

It was only when Shamrock stopped walking that Xena opened her eyes to near darkness. The loss of blood combined with the day's heat, Shamrock's rocking gait and the exertion of the battle had caused Xena to drift into a state of disassociation. By unspoken common consent, the three animals kept a slow steady pace and the cat searched for a spot to make a lair.

Fortunately, the country they were currently in had hills and mountains... some of which had caves. It was to these that they headed.

When they stopped, Xena looked around in confusion, her mind not clear enough to understand where there were... or why.

"Whassa matter, boy?" she slurred. "Ya loss?"

She studied the area, trying to wrap her focus around what was happening. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, she was having trouble thinking coherently.

She slid from Shamrock's back, her knees buckling when her feet touched the ground. A sharp pain lanced through her chest and she put her hand up, pulling it away covered in blood. Her legs slid out from under her and she sat down on the hard-packed earth rather abruptly.

The fox nuzzled her hand, licking it clean. Xena realized that she needed blood to replenish what she had lost and to help speed her recovery. The problem was her ability to hunt. She wasn't sure she could remain cognizant long enough to find what she needed.

"Gotta do this... gotta get... to... Gabrielle."

She made to stand and instead slipped to the ground unconscious.

Hercules helped bandage the wounded and saw to it that everyone was on the trail away from the Union soldiers before he headed for the nearest outpost. There was a little town a few days' walk from his current location and he had a promise to keep.

He bid Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse goodbye and headed east, hoping to get to his destination quickly.

The vagaries of weather made him a few days later than he'd hoped and he briefly considered skipping his errand altogether. After all, given Xena's anxiousness to get to Gabrielle, she could very well have run her horse to its very limits which would put her to Texas in a very few days. On the other hand, he had told Gabrielle that he would let her know if he found Xena as soon as he could, so she could make some preparations.

He stepped into the telegraph office, pulled one of Gabrielle's fountain pens from his shirt pocket and began to write:

GABRIELLE *STOP* X HEADED YOUR WAY *STOP* BANFF FOR SUMMER *STOP* GOOD THOUGHTS *STOP* H

He reread it twice before he nodded in approval. Then he took the message to the clerk and handed him a few pennies. He watched with satisfaction as the message was sent out across the wire, then he walked back out into the town, intent on finding a hot bath and a soft bed.

July in Nocona Corners made Gabrielle wish for the forests and trees of home. It also made her long for the cloth and leather outfits the Amazons had introduced her to. Though, she admitted to herself with a smirk, Xena had a lot to do with the increasingly lack of material her clothes were made with. Her ego had preened every time she caught *that look* in Xena's eyes and a new outfit with less material was a sure fire guarantee to bring that look out. She hadn't done it often, but they both always enjoyed the results.

"Miss Gabrielle! Miss Gabrielle!"

Gabrielle came out of her reverie, spinning to find Dominic running down the street waving a paper at her. He skidded to a stop in front of her and she waited patiently for him to catch his breath. Finally he extended his hand to her.

"Here ya... go, Miss... Gabrielle."

"Thanks, Dominic," she said, taking the paper and glancing at it before she turned her attention back to the boy. "C'mon. Let's go see if Mama has some lemonade." Dominic smiled and did his best to contain himself to a walk.

Gabrielle laughed and tousled his hair. "G'wan. Tell Mama I said it was okay."

Dominic grinned broadly. "Thanks, Miss Gabrielle. You're the best."

Gabrielle chuckled and left him to his enthusiastic run as she strolled towards the boarding house. She took a good look around her, seeing the town she had called home since Hercules had brought her here with new eyes. It had grown some since they'd first arrived, but it was still a cattle town and in many ways reminded her of the home she'd had lifetimes ago.

Mama had taken her in immediately, treating her as one of the family and making sure she was looked after. It tickled Gabrielle's sensibilities in a way; after all, she'd been on her own and taking care of herself for a very long time. But Mama had deigned that it wasn't proper for Gabrielle to be without family, so she'd simply made Gabrielle part of hers. And Gabrielle had discovered it was much easier to go along with Mama on most things than to put up an argument.

Part of Gabrielle appreciated Mama's overtures as something she'd been without for more years than she cared to remember. It was nice to know that people cared about you for yourself and Gabrielle had a whole town full of people who felt that way about her. Thanks to Mama's acceptance, she had carved her own little niche here and was a respected member of the community.

Part of her, though, just wanted Xena to find her and go home. She and Hercules had searched together for a while, but nothing had come of it. She'd gotten involved with the school and the town and when he'd asked her to remain behind this time, Mama had backed him up and she'd agreed.

Now she had in her hands proof that her search was nearly over and her patience was finally going to be rewarded. Though she fumed a bit to herself, acknowledging that their reunion would have already happened if she had been with Hercules. Still, she couldn't quite contain the grin that slid onto her face at the prospect of being in Xena's arms again.

"That must be some news," Mama remarked as she handed Gabrielle a glass of cold lemonade. Mama had carefully tended the two lemon trees Hercules had found for her in their travels and she made good use of their fruit. "I don't think I've ever seen you so happy."

Gabrielle accepted the glass with shaking hands and Mama motioned Dominic out of the kitchen. Then she took Gabrielle's cold hand in hers and led her to the table. She looked at her flushed face and then patted her hand.

"I'll be right back."

Mama stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room which had a small bar on one wall. Mama's boarding house was a little unconventional. Her dining room was a restaurant that was open to the public for lunch and dinner and the bar was actually a bar that served alcohol... to a point. If Mama or Sal decided you had enough, that was it. And they never let anyone have enough to get drunk. Mama had learned that costly lesson early on.

Strangely, it didn't put a damper on business, though that had a lot to do with the great food Mama served. It didn't hurt that Gabrielle told stories for an hour or so three nights a week either.

Now, however, the dining room was closed and Mama went behind the bar and grabbed a bottle of clear shine. Sal cocked an eyebrow in question, but Mama waved him off and he kept wiping the glasses.

Mama re-entered the kitchen, noting Gabrielle's faraway expression. She picked up her still nearly full glass of lemonade and poured in a generous dollop of liquor. The recipe was an old family one she'd brought with her from North Carolina and though the climate differences changes the taste slightly, Mama's shine still packed quite a punch.

"Drink," she commanded softly, pushing the glass into Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle did, consuming huge gulps that made her swallow her tongue as soon as her body realized what she was ingesting with such fervor. Tears came to her eyes as she coughed and gasped for air. Mama rubbed her back and waited for her to settle down again.

"Whaddya do that for?" she asked Mama in a hoarse whisper, eyeballing the water she set before her with distinct suspicion.

"I figured to err on the side of caution. I didn't want you goin' into shock and you were showin' signs of it. Now," she said without pausing for breath. "Tell me the news."

Instead of answering, Gabrielle passed over the telegram to Mama as she picked up the glass to drink. She'd never explained much of her story – just that she was searching for someone who'd been missing from her life for a long time. Mama had her own suspicions, but she figured Gabrielle would share when the time was right for her.

Mama smiled as she read the words printed on the page and then passed the paper back to Gabrielle. "Good news, then." She smiled. "I am so happy for you Gabrielle. I know this is somethin' you've been searchin' for for a long time.

Gabrielle nodded but didn't speak. The compunction to share with this woman was overwhelming, so she simply kept her mouth shut and nodded. There was no way she was going to spill her guts when she was so close to recouping everything.

"I'll miss Harrison, though," Mama continued, unaware of Gabrielle's wandering thoughts. "He's been a good friend to Isaac and me since we met."

"Who has, Mama?" Isaac asked as he came in the back door. He leaned over and kissed her cheek before moving to the counter to fix himself a glass of lemonade. "Hey, Gabrielle!"

"Hey, Isaac," she replied even as she pondered his likeness to Iolaus. Sometimes it was simply uncanny and she had to catch herself from referring to him as such. He had become a good friend though, once he'd gotten over his crush.

"Harrison," Mama was answering his question. "He's gone up to Banff for a while. I was just mentionin' to Gabrielle here how much I'd miss him."

"Yeah," Isaac replied. "He's always finding some adventure or other to get involved in."

"Hmph," Mama answered eloquently. "Always findin' trouble for you two to get into, you mean."

Gabrielle hid a giggle behind her hand. The truth was Isaac was a LOT like his ancestor Iolaus and he and Hercules still got caught up in all sorts of escapades.

"Mama," Isaac whined, blushing furiously.

"Don't even," Mama said, cutting him off with a wave of her hand. "I still can't look at honey without laughin'."

Isaac blushed even harder and Gabrielle finally let loose the laughter that was dying to be released.

"You'd think I'd learn," he muttered as he lifted the glass to his lips and drank.

Now Mama laughed. "Yes, but then where would Gabrielle get story material from?"

Isaac looked up with a horrified expression on his face. "You wouldn't...."

Gabrielle stopped giggling, though she couldn't quite wipe the smile from her lips. "No, I wouldn't... but it sure would be easy to." She shrugged. "You two make it sooo simple."

Finally, Isaac chuckled ruefully. "I guess we do. But it sure is fun... mostly." He looked between the two women. "Any idea when he'll be back?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "He said through the summer, but I don't know what he'll do once he gets there. That's been home for a long time. He may stay until next spring."

"And what about you, Gabrielle?" Mama asked quietly when Isaac moved to retrieve the pitcher of lemonade. "Will you be stayin' once your beloved arrives?" She smiled slightly at Gabrielle's startlement. "C'mon, Gabrielle. I'm not so old that I've forgotten what the sparkle and flush of love looks like."

Gabrielle's eyes dropped to the table. "I'm not sure," she stated honestly. "We have a lot of things to talk about. I'm sure that'll be one of them."

Mama patted her hands. "Well, I hope you decide to stay, but whatever you decide, I want you to know I am happy for you."

"Thanks, Mama. That means a lot."

"What does?" Isaac asked as he resumed his set, setting the pitcher and a plate of cookies on the table.

"Having you all as my family, Isaac. Now if you two will excuse me," she added as she stood, "I have a couple things I need to take care of at home." She patted Mama's arm. "Thanks for the lemonade."

Then she disappeared out the back door and down the lane that led to her tiny cottage.

Her house was small and very reminiscent of the cottage in Banff though this one housed the few mementoes she'd collected. But Hercules had insisted she have her own private space and he, Isaac and a few of the townsmen had gotten together and built an adobe house similar to the log cabin as soon as he'd convinced her to make Nocona Corners her home for a while. Its furnishings were spare, but she was comfortable enough with what she had.

So now she had a place that was as much a home to her as any had been and she went to make things ready for Xena's imminent arrival. Not that she had a logical reason for it; she was fairly certain Xena wouldn't be noticing much of anything when she got to town. At least, she hoped not... feeling the tiniest niggling bit of doubt. After all this time, Xena did still feel the same about her, right?

Gabrielle forcibly put the doubts aside and began preparing her house to become a home to share with Xena, at least for a little while. She wanted some time alone with her soulmate to reconnect on every level, before they made any decisions about their future... or their past.

So she did her busy work, cleaning and polishing until everything was just so. Then she settled back to wait, hoping the next few days would pass swiftly.

Days turned into weeks and weeks became months and still there was no sign of Xena. Gabrielle went from the heights of joyous hope to the depths of depressed despair until it became obvious to everyone in town that she'd lost her sparkle and zest for life.

But she gritted her teeth and tried to put the utter disappointment aside during the day, digging in her heels and continuing to teach the children when the school year rolled around. She stopped telling stories, however and many nights she roamed the countryside alone, searching for a reason to stay.

Finally, a week before Samhain, Mama came to her home, determined to do what she could to help make things right.

Xena awoke after a long sleep. She was inside a small cave, but she couldn't have said how she got there. The last clear memory she had....

"Gabrielle??" she called out, sitting up swiftly and then regretting the action as the world went dark again for long minutes. She laid there simply content to breathe, letting her mind wander as she tried to put the pieces back together.

She remembered the fight with Custer, Alti, her mind cheerfully supplied. The gunshot... Xena put her hand on her chest. Her deerskin shirt had a hole and it was hard and crusty from the blood that had soaked it and subsequently dried.

Well, I had to have been here at least a day or two. Let's get up and see where we are and get some nourishment, Xena.

Xena slowly rolled to her knees and paused, waiting for her equilibrium to catch up with her body. She idly wondered just how much blood she had lost to have affected her so drastically. She stood on shaky legs and fell into the wall, almost blacking out again, before sliding back to the ground using the wall to ease herself into a sitting position.

She sat there for countless minutes before she noted that the fox and the panther stood in the opening. The cat carried a large jackrabbit carefully in its jaws and it crossed the cavern floor to drop the still warm animal in Xena's lap.

She felt her canines extend themselves and without ceremony Xena sank her fangs into the rabbit, draining it in seconds. Then she leaned her head back against the wall and let the bit of blood seep into her system. It wasn't nearly enough to replace what she'd lost, but it might be enough to keep her on her feet. She looked at her two spirit guides.

"Thanks, guys," she croaked out hoarsely. She set the carcass to one side and slid up the wall slowly. "Let's go see if we can find some more game, some water and something to burn. I need to get my strength back and get to Gabrielle."

When she stepped from the cave, she noticed several things immediately that made her heart heavy. The weather was much cooler than she remembered it and the grass all around her was brown. Shamrock had cropped it short in all directions as far as she could see and he had somehow worked himself out of the saddle, though by the condition of the girth strap, it had taken a while and hadn't been a very pleasant experience.

Xena leaned against the mouth of the cave as another wave of vertigo swept through her. "How long have I been out?" she muttered to herself. Finally she straightened and moved towards the saddlebags that lay with the abused saddle near the entrance to the cave.

They were more worn than she remembered but still intact and she pulled them to her, opening them carefully. She didn't want any nasty surprises. What she got were musty clothes and old trail rations. The pemmican she'd carried was soft and odd to the taste, but the jerky still tasted like jerky and she chewed it slowly. The water skin was bone dry and her bow was broken so she hoped her reflexes were up to hunting. With a little more haste, she opened the second bag, gratified to see the careful packing of the totems had paid off. Not one thing was broken, though the staff was quite scuffed up.

Xena let the wave of relief wash over her. She gradually made her way to where Shamrock had wandered near the cave entrance when he'd seen her emerge.

"C'mon, guys," she said at last. "Let's find some game."

Shamrock knelt at her command and Xena slid into his back, hefting the skin and her knife before signaling the mustang to stand. Then they took off at a slow pace in the direction the cat led.

Etor led them to a small herd of deer and with Shamrock's help they managed to separate two good-sized deer from the rest. Xena fell on them as a starving person would, incisors extended fully and soon both animals were drained. Now, feeling exhausted, but no longer weak, Xena placed the remains on Shamrock's back and began leading the mustang back towards the cave.

Etor led them by a burbling stream and Xena dismounted as quickly as her tired body would allow her. She filled the empty skin, then stripped off her clothing and sank into the cold water with a sense of unerring relief. She drank until she'd quenched her thirst, then scrubbed the dried blood from her body, glad beyond words to remove the itch from her skin.

When she stepped from the water, she realized her clean clothes were still at the cave and she really had no desire to put on the ones she'd so recently removed. Xena looked around, noting the barrenness of the landscape and shrugged. It wasn't that long of trek and nakedness had never been an issue for her before.

They reached the cave without incident and Xena removed the deer from Shamrock's back, patting the horse and promising him a good grooming later. Then she pulled her cleaner clothing from her saddle bags, smiling a little as she slid the denim pants up her long legs. They'd worn to an even more comfortable point over the years and the last she'd heard, Levi was doing quite a business with them. She slipped the shirt over her shoulders and buttoned it with shaky hands, then turned to see what sort of fuel she could find for a fire.

It took her a while, but she was finally satisfied with the chips and wood she'd found. She butchered the three carcasses and laid them out for smoking, putting the hides aside to tan. She began the smoking process, saving a large portion of raw meat for the fox and the panther to share between them, which they did with gusto. Xena wondered again how long she had been out of things. Then she took the hides to the stream and washed them well, stretching them out when she returned to the cave.

Then she sat back to wait for the meat to smoke and the hides to cure. Never realizing when she fell asleep again. Only knowing when she woke up that it had been several days by the coldness of the fire and the dryness of the new hides. But she felt better than she had in a very long time and she stretched before she climbed out from under the white buffalo robe she still carried.

With much more energy and enthusiasm, she rebuilt the fires, then began working on the hides. It took a few days, but soon they little party was ready to travel again. Shamrock had been groomed til he shone, though the saddle was no longer useful. Xena flipped the saddlebags over his hindquarters, then vaulted aboard herself.

"You guys coming?" she asked the panther and the fox. She'd noticed they'd stayed pretty close to her and she rather hoped they would choose to travel with her to Nocona Corners. She wanted Gabrielle to meet them and visa versa.

Xena chuckled when the fox tried to scramble up Shamrock's flanks, causing the mustang to whinny and shy away from it. Only the panther's low growling kept the horse from bolting completely, sensing that the cat would have no compunction in making escape a painful prospect. Xena bent over, reaching a hand down until Melo could grab hold and be lifted up in front of the warrior.

"Behave, Etor," Xena rumbled lowly, grabbing the reins and pulling Shamrock back under control. "We've got a long way to go yet and a short time to get there. I just hope we're not already too late." She squeezed Shamrock's sides with her knees. "Let's go, boy... YAH!" And they raced from their past towards their future.

Gabrielle had taken to wearing her trouser outfits again except when she was teaching. Not that anyone saw them... for the most part she was cloistered in her home, or out away from the town where no one went in the darkest hours. Besides, she figured she wasn't going to stay here past the current school year, so it really didn't matter if they did see or what they thought.

Her only regret was that it was only October, so she was committed to staying in Nocona Corners for another seven months. Once school was out, however, she had decided to travel back to Greece. Xena had made it clear so was no longer interested in being part of Gabrielle's life, so she was going to go home and ask Aphrodite if she could simply remain in Olympus. She was tired in her very soul and there was nothing left to fix that.

The knock on her door in the early evening surprised her. Most of the townsfolk were either at Mama's restaurant or in their own homes. So she opened the door hesitantly, only to find Mama standing on her front porch.

"May I come in?" Mama asked, her brogue showing itself just slightly. She showed no astonishment at Gabrielle's choice of clothing. She simply waited with understanding in her eyes.

Gabrielle nodded and opened the door wider, motioning the older woman in and to a seat on the small couch. Gabrielle's home was an eclectic mix of things, Mama decided and reflected the younger woman's personality in an odd way. An old leather-bound book sat on a table nearby and Mama wondered what secrets it held. She took a seat and waited for Gabrielle to do so.

The bard didn't sit, crossing instead to the fireplace and stoking it, poking at the wood until the flames were literally jumping up the flue. Then she stood, keeping her eyes focused on the flames.

"Did you need something, Mama? Something I can do for you?"

"No darlin'. I was hopin' I could do something for you."

"Nope," Gabrielle said without turning from the fire. "I'm good."

"You're lyin'" was Mama's rejoinder.

"It no longer matters, Mama and there is nothing you can do."

"Your beloved is here then?"

Gabrielle didn't answer, but she didn't need to. Mama knew; she more than most was aware of the despair created by the desertion of the one you'd entrusted your heart to. It wasn't something she shared, but it did make her understand Gabrielle better than most. The difference for her had been Isaac; he'd given her a reason. And as far as she knew, Gabrielle had no one... save her brother Harrison.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "You have been a good and dear friend to me, Mama. I think it's only fair to tell you that I'll be leaving in the spring."

"But...."

Gabrielle held up a hand. "When the school year is over, I'm going home. There's nothing left for me here anymore."

"You can't know that. Time heals...."

Gabrielle laughed ruefully. "Time heals nothing! The pain is always there, even if it is only a dull, throbbing ache." She looked Mama full in the face as she said these words and for the first time allowed her to see the oldness of her eyes. Eyes that had seen and done more and lived alone for far longer than a human being should be permitted.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Mama said as she rose from her seat. She laid a hand on Gabrielle's cheek, grateful when the younger woman didn't pull away, though she didn't lean into the contact either. I would like to ask a favor of you, if I could."

The request was so stunning, Gabrielle nodded. "If I can," she replied.

"It's two-fold," waiting for Gabrielle to nod her agreement again. "First, I'd like for you to help me with Samhain. We have the fall carnival for the kids coming up...."

"I'll help you with the preparations, Mama."

Mama shook her head and took Gabrielle's hands, leading her to sit down on the couch. "Gabrielle, I want you to do more that help us get ready. If you're only gonna be with us a few more months, let us give you some good memories to take with you. Don't shut us out."

Gabrielle withdrew her hands as gently as possible and walked back to the fireplace. "No promises, Mama. I can't."

Mama nodded, understanding more than Gabrielle was aware of. "Will you try?"

Gabrielle bit her lip and closed her eyes. She really was so very tired, but what would it hurt her to make a little effort for these people who had been so kind to her? When she opened her eyes, there was resigned acceptance in them and she nodded at Mama.

"I'll try," she said simply.

"Good," Mama answered approvingly. "Now, will you tell me where I can get a pair of those trousers? They look sinfully comfortable."

All Hallow's Eve arrived and with it came a stranger into the small town of Nocona Corners. Classes were scheduled for half a day to let the children prepare for Halloween festival that evening. Gabrielle crossed from Mama's to the general store as a cream colored mustang pulled into the stables on the other end of town.

Xena eased off the horse, both rider and animal a bit weary from the pace they had set. Then she stepped to the blacksmith to see about a price. Once that was settled, she turned the conversation to more personal interests. The warmth she felt in her belly told her she was almost home and she hoped this man could point her in the right direction.

"Hey, Smithy, I'm looking for a friend... woman about this high," she described, holding her hand at shoulder level, "green eyes and red-blonde hair. Her name is Gabrielle."

Xena watched his eyes shutter, though his face gave nothing away. He shrugged nonchalantly and she knew something was up.

"May wanna check with the lawman, across from the general store. He might know of her whereabouts. Though it's a mite early for him to be into the office yet."

Xena nodded. "Much obliged," was all she said, moving back to the stable area and grooming Shamrock carefully before she left. Then she hefted the saddlebags and headed down the street.

Gabrielle walked back from the general store with Sammy helping her carry the grocery items she'd picked up for Mama. Then together they, Dominic and Little Sal made their way to the schoolroom for the day's classes. She dismissed the tingling in her gut as anticipation over the coming night's activities.

Xena stepped into the street and noticed the general store. She headed that way, anxious to find the lawman. Somebody had to know something in this town and he was gonna be her best bet.

The door of the office was locked and Xena figured as early as it was she might do better to find some breakfast. She crossed to the general store and went straight to the counter, sliding the bags to her feet.

"Morning," the shopkeeper greeted her politely.

"Morning," she responded in kind. "I was looking for a bit of information."

The man crossed his arms and leaned casually against the counter. "Well, I don't know how much help I can be, but let's hear it."

"I'm looking for a woman named Gabrielle," watching the walls go up in his eyes. "Bout this tall, green eyes and red-gold hair."

"Hmm," the man appeared to consider. "Probably wanna talk to Isaac. He's our local deputy marshal," said with a hint of pride. "If he ain't left yet, he'll be over to Mama's. That's the boardinghouse directly at the end of the street."

"Appreciate it," Xena muttered, slinging the saddlebags over her shoulder again and headed for the boardinghouse.

Part 5

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