Chapter 20

"Welcome, Xena, Gabrielle." Cyan, the newly appointed Amazon Queen greeted the three. Even though she spoke to all three of her newly arrived guests, her eyes were glued to Dari in utter fascination.

"Cyan," Xena returned the greeting, while looking back and forth between the two. "We need you're help. Gabrielle will explain." Xena quickly dismounted her golden mare.

Gabrielle began the tale as Xena led Argo to the stables. Dari, in the meantime, scoped out her newest surroundings. The twenty-first century cop had never seen a picture of an Amazon camp, let alone stood in the middle of one. She peered around, trying not to be too obvious in her perusal. There were several bamboo and straw covered huts forming a circle, with a large courtyard in the center. Scattered throughout the dwellings were larger sized huts; Dari surmised that those buildings were probably used for storage and meetings places.

On the opposite end of the camp from where Gabrielle, the Queen, and Dari stood, was a stable. Dari knew this because that was the direction Xena had headed in to care for Argo.

On the same side of the camp, but down from their present location was another fenced off area. The cop was unsure of what that location was intended, until she witnessed a small group of Amazons enter the ring and begin to spar. Of course, she thought, there would be a place just for combat practice. They weren't called Amazon "Warriors" for nothing.

As Dari continued her appraisal, she caught the faintest glimpse of movement from above. She whipped her head to the side and thought she saw the tip of a feminine looking foot high above in the midst of the trees surrounding the encampment. Dari squinted her eyes in an attempt to focus in on what she had thought she had seen, but the image was gone. Nothing but the green of the swaying leaves against the blue of the cloudless sky remained.

"Don't worry." Cyan stated, having taken in Dari's reaction and noticing where her view was now concentrated. "You're not seeing things. There are Warriors posted all along the Amazon borders."

"Oh. Well, it's good to know that I don't need glasses." Dari smiled tightly, not liking the idea of being watched from afar.

Cyan glanced questioningly to Gabrielle. To which Gabrielle shrugged in reply and continued on with how Dari became her and Xena's traveling companion.

Dari was growing increasingly antsy at just having to stand there in the middle of the Amazon courtyard like some sideshow attraction. Every few seconds another member of the tribe would catch site of the newcomer and slow down from her usual quickened stride to get a better look. Some of the stares were quizzical, others wary, still more were downright lewd, but Dari found them all very disconcerting. She never did appreciate being the center of attention.

Gabrielle could practically feel Dari's increasing agitation, so instead of embellishing her tale with drawn out insights and the usual reverie, she cut straight to the heart of the matter.

When Gabrielle was through, Cyan didn't look any less fascinated. "So we need some clothing. Make her look more like she belongs."

"Did I mention I'm not into the halter top-skirt thing?" Dari insisted again, grateful that the story had reached its apex.

Gabrielle cast a dazzler on her newest friend and squeezed her forearm. "Don't worry, I'm sure Cyan will take great care of you."

The Queen heard her name and dropped her eyes from Dari for the first substantial length of time since their arrival. "Yes, of course." She smiled at Gabrielle, took Dari's hand, and led her across the tribal courtyard.

While Dari and Cyan were gone, Xena returned, looking weary. "What's wrong?" Gabrielle's sixth "Xena" sense was in overdrive.

"I was thinking." Xena explained as she and Gabrielle walked to their hut. "Suppose the entity Dari prayed to doesn't exist in our time, only in hers? I highly doubt from what she's explained that the Olympian gods have survived to her age. So, it has to be some other, higher deity, and if that's true, why haven't we heard of it before? And because we haven't, I'm worried there isn't a way for her to return home, at least not the way I had planned."

"I think there's a way to find out." Gabrielle added, but before she could explain a familiar voice entered the conversation.

"What are you talking about?" Dari was standing in the doorway, her tall bulk nearly filling the frame opening.

They turned to look at her and had to smile. She was dressed in animal skins from head to foot. Fetching, Gabrielle mused, recalling a similar outfit she'd worn when they'd visited the Amazon camp during the frozen season.

Xena stepped up to Dari, the smile gone, in its place a pained look. Gabrielle caught sight of the change in her companion and swooped in to prevent, what might be, unnecessary pain. She stood behind Xena and placed her hand atop the tall warrior's broad shoulders. Xena turned, knowing Gabrielle's touch, and realizing that she would not have intervened unless it was a matter of some urgency. The woman saw the concern and hesitation in her friend's eyes so she backed away from Dari to allow Gabrielle to have her say. "Dari," Gabrielle began slowly, "after your arrival, did you try speaking again to the deity that you had been praying to while you were being chased?"

Dari thought carefully about Gabrielle's inquiry, finally catching onto the implication in regard to her going home. She had been so out of it when she first got here, what with the injuries, not to mention the total shock of being…well… here. But just as the uncertainty filled her mind, a clear image of that night came into view. It startled her at first; it was as if she were back there, only this time as an observer, not a participant.

The cave was the same as it was that night, dark and unfamiliar. Dari saw herself lying in Gabrielle's arms with Xena glowering at the cave's entrance. It was upon witnessing this scene that she remembered. The cop closed her eyes and allowed the sensations to return. She feared that death would come soon, and there were so many things she still wanted to do, had left undone. That was when she prayed. Dear God, I don't want to die. For the second time tonight, please help me to live and return me home. It wasn't too soon after she prayed that Ares, God of War, zapped in and performed his godly feats.

Xena and Gabrielle had remained quiet as Dari thought, but Xena grew concerned at the length of Dari's sabbatical from reality. "Something's wrong." Xena spoke out loud, mostly to herself, but Gabrielle agreed with the statement. The warrior grabbed Dari's shoulders and shook her firmly while saying her name in her most authoritative tone.

"Dari! Dari!"

The strength of the last shake was enough to snap the traveler out of her stupor. "What? What happened?"

"Not sure. We kinda lost ya there for a minute," Xena replied as she and Gabrielle led Dari to the chair. "What was going on in there?" She asked as she raised one of her hands and tapped Dari lightly on the side of her head.

Dari tilted her neck in a full circle to try and relieve the tension that was beginning to build up in the muscles holding up her head. "I was remembering the night I got here. I guess I just got lost inside all the pain I was in." Dari stared ahead into space trying to understand herself what had just happened. "Anyway…" She forced her mind to relent and return to the here and now. "I did recall that I prayed again to God after I was brought here. Only this time I didn't ask for help, I was more specific.

"How so?" Gabrielle asked, now kneeling beside the chair Dari was sitting in.

"I asked not to die and to be returned home."

Xena crossed her arms and stated, "Well, one outta two isn't bad." Gabrielle looked at Xena, scolding her with a glance. She never was humorous when the occasion called for it, but she certainly had a talent for using her wit at the most inappropriate times.

Dari managed half a smile at Xena's retort before she turned to Gabrielle. "Why did you ask me if I prayed again?"

"Xena had an idea that if you prayed to your God under alike situation, maybe you'd be sent back to your time." Gabrielle looked up to Xena to make certain that she had conveyed the crux of the matter. Xena nodded quietly and motioned with her chin for Gabrielle to continue. "But since you already prayed . . . what I mean is." Again Gabrielle looked up to Xena.

The Warrior Princess knew that her smaller friend wasn't fond of delivering bad news; that was more along her territory. So, she stepped in. "I'm not known for breaking bad news easily, so I'll begin by saying I'm sorry, Dari. But I've thought and thought about this, and with you having already prayed to your God-- here --under the same conditions in which you arrived, I just don't see another way that would return you to your own home." She laid a hand on Dari's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. "I am truly sorry."

Dari stood quickly and moved toward Xena. "But I have to return. There has to be a way. Just because I may have arrived here one way, doesn't mean that that's the only way I can return home, right?"

"Xena?" Gabrielle had been thinking.

They both turned to look at the bard. "Yeah?"

"You two wait right there." Without another word, Gabrielle ran out of the hut.

Dari looked around the bare dwelling. There was a straw-filled mattress on the floor, barely big enough for two, a crudely made table, and one chair of similar quality. After assessing the contents of the room, Dari turned to Xena. The warrior had taken the chair and now sat reared back with her ankles crossed on the tabletop. At that moment it became painfully obvious that neither her, nor Xena were good at small talk. Just then Gabrielle stormed back into the hut, scrolls in hand, mumbling to herself. "I know it's here somewhere. Here…" The petite blonde thrust out a piece of parchment in each of the women's directions.

Xena and Dari took the papers, when Xena asked, "What exactly am I supposed to do with this?" She waved the rolled up scroll in front of Gabrielle's crinkled face, knowing that she would be ignored otherwise.

"Oh. What? Oh." Gabrielle exclaimed, never looking up from the pile of parchment on the 'bed'. "We need to find the one with the tale about the Titans."

Xena waited for the explanation to continue, but Gabrielle was too engrossed in finding whatever it was she was after to go into detail. Finally, the warrior had to ask. "What do Zeus's folks have to do with getting Dari home?"

"Not his parents, Xena." The bard replied excitedly. "His cousin, Helios."

"Whoa!" Dari interjected. "Slow down and tell us what you're talking about."

"Here it is!" Gabrielle held up her arm, a scroll tightly clenched in her fist. Looking very proud of herself, Gabby began to read the story.

"This tale begins as many do, with a beginning.

In the beginning, there was nothing. Within this vast void, Chaos existed. But Chaos grew lonely. He wished for more than the emptiness that surrounded him. In his need for love and companionship, more awakened, and the Titans were born. Gaia, Uranus, Hemera, Nyx, Kronos, Rhea.

The Universe was created.

These great entities, the Titans, also wished for more. So, through them sprung forth the Olympian Gods. One of the first to come into being was Helios, the Sun God. To begin every day, Helios would ride across the sky in a grand, golden chariot from East to West, bringing light to the Earth. Helios sees all that is touched by his light.

Soon after Kronos was killed, Zeus came to Helios and asked a favor. "Cousin, since my father's death, as I'm certain you are aware, I have become ruler over the Olympians. And in order to maintain rule, one needs power. Disciplining beings that possess similar strength will be a difficult task. I require something unique. See these…" Before Helios, Zeus brought forth weapons forged by Hephaistos. Holding the gleaming metal high above his head, Zeus evoked. "These are to be my power, my force to impose my will upon the immortals. But they are lacking. I need energy with which to expel this powerful tool. And I need light. Light bright enough to blind even a god. Only the strength of the sun itself can give me what I require. Will you help me?"

Helios pondered Zeus's request for only a moment. From beneath his golden robe, the Sun God retrieved a jewel-encrusted scepter. Reaching out, Helios captured one of the sun's rays and placed it inside. The head of the scepter was now fashioned of pure white light. The multi-blue and clear colored gemstones floated softly within the illumination. The caged handle produced it's own silvery moon-glow. Helios extended the object toward Zeus. "Before dispensing your will, touch this scepter to the metal. Each shall be delivered to its mark by the power of the sun, itself."

Zeus accepted the scepter from Helios. From the Sun God's chariot, he touched the tip of the weapon to the crown of his gift. The scepter began to quake within his grasp, as the jewels swirled inside their lighted shell. The light spread around the jagged edges, encasing Hephaistos's craftsmanship. Once the weapon was fully enveloped in light, the scepter released its hold of the object. Zeus lifted the bolt high into the air and plunged it toward Mount Olympus. It crackled with the electricity it now possessed as it traveled true to its appointed target. Obeying Zeus's command, the bolt hovered over the home of the Gods and released a blinding display of blue-white light. Shards of the weapon splintered throughout the sky. The air grew taut at the sheer magnitude of the force. The ground shook as the bolt exploded into the soft soil.

And the gods were afraid.

Gabrielle looked up with a gloating expression as she finished the scroll, her eyes finally coming to rest upon Xena's intense gaze.

"Sure sounds like the lightning show that got me here, but what has it got to do with getting me back?" Dari asked.

Xena was quiet a moment. Her brain spun. "Ares…" She said, stepping around Dari and leaving abruptly.

Dari turned and found herself standing next to Gabrielle. The smaller woman smiled. "I told you she'd think of something."

"True." Dari shrugged, not understanding what just happened. "Gabrielle, what is going on?"

The bard took a deep breath and searched for a simple way to explain the "parent/child" relationship in aspect to the Gods. After several minutes of silence, she realized there wasn't one. "Ares, God of War, is Zeus's son. To say that their relationship is tumultuous would be a gross understatement." Gabby walked back over to the bed and casually flopped down. "Ares has always been very jealous of Zeus's affection for his other children, especially the illegitimate ones. So, he tries to get his father's attention by, to put it frankly, making an ass out of himself."

"Ah, I get it. Negative reinforcement." Dari said, shaking her head thoughtfully.

Gabrielle leaned back on her elbows and wrinkled up her nose. "Huh?"

"Negative reinforcement. It's a psychology term." As Dari watched the bard, the wrinkled texture of her nose spread to her brow. "Ares gets the attention from his father that he craves when he does something he's not supposed to, so that reinforces the idea that if he keeps doing bad things, he'll keep getting daddy's attention."

"Exactly." Gabrielle beamed at her new enlightenment.

"But I still don't understand what that's got to do with getting me home?"

Gabby sat back up. "My guess, and obviously Xena's too, is that Ares found out where Zeus has the Scepter of Helios stashed and decided to see what kind of trouble he could cause with it."

"And that's what brought me here?" Dari asked.

"Hopefully. If it is, it should get you home." Gabrielle was suddenly saddened at the prospect of Dari leaving, now that there actually seemed to be a glimmer of hope. Gabrielle arose from the bed and walked over to Dari. She lifted her hands and rested them on Dari's wide shoulders, and then brushed at a phantom speck. Her hands slid slowly down Dari's arms. "You know, in this outfit you almost look like you've lived here your entire life."

"Well, I'm not really into the animal slaughter thing, but it certainly beats a skirt and a halter top, that's for sure. I'll survive." For the first time since her arrival, Dari released a little of the tension from inside of her. She was going to get home. It was a sentiment that echoed through her mind.

Gabrielle continued to smile; it was so easy communicating with Dari. "Come, tell me of this friend of yours." She pulled on Dari's hand and led her to the back of the hut.
"Friend? Oh yeah, Sondra." It was freaky how Gabrielle seemed to be able to read her thoughts. Dari's eyes lit up at the mention of her. "She's great, you'd get along fabulously. She's a writer, known worldwide."

"Hmmm, a writer, huh. Just a common bard."

"Sondra's anything but common." Dari had to chuckle remembering her lover. "She's got a temper, too. And wit as slick and stinging as a whip."

"Are you… Are you romantically involved?" Gabrielle held her breath awaiting the answer.

"Yes." Dari didn't see any reason to hold that truth back. Certainly from the way she and Gabrielle had connected so far, Gabrielle knew what a lesbian relationship was. She and Xena were lovers for sure. There was no other reason that Xena got that 'I'm gonna knock Dari upside the head next time Gabrielle touches her' look on her face if not.

"And you and Xena?"

Gabrielle laughed. "I wish-" She blushed deeply. "I mean… well, I don't really know what I mean. I want to, and I was sure she did. There was a lot of touching in the beginning, but lately, she's been more… reserved. And the touches, well, they come less and less these days."

Dari's eyes studied her sadly. "I'm sorry, I thought…"

"Most do, but we're not. We have a really strong bond, and our karmas, souls, and everything else are linked, past and future. But if our connection is ever to go beyond that -- well, only time will tell."

Chapter 21

Xena stepped up to the edge of the cliff on the outskirts of the Amazon's territory. She knew that this place was the closest area to the camp that couldn't be seen by the Amazon Warrior guards who protected their sisters from the trees. She took a deep breath and called out, "Ares."
* * *

The God of War was seated at his throne when he felt, more than heard, Xena. "Ya gotta love her chutzpa," Ares spoke to the room before transforming into a shimmer of tiny rays and disappearing from view.
* * *

"You wanted me?" Ares grinned like the proverbial "Cheshire Cat" as he hopped off of the nearby rock facing toward Xena.

"Not in this lifetime." She smirked. "On second thought, not in any lifetime."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that if I were you." The God smirked back. "But back to business. What do you want this time?"

"I want it."

"I'm a God, not a mind reader, Xena." Ares cast a sidelong glance at his ex-warlord. "What precisely is 'it'?"

Xena raised a dangerous eyebrow. "The Scepter of Helios. I want it."

"Don't we all?" The God of War sat down on one of the boulders that jutted up from the ground. "You know very well the 'Scepter' has never been proven real. And even if it were, what makes you think I have it?"

"And you know that 'real' is merely a matter of perception. None of us were real to the stranger you healed, but here we are, none the less." Xena smiled in the shadows where she stood. Ares always hated it when she waxed philosophic. The War God understood violence, strategy, battle, anything that could be felt, or conquered; but when it came to discussing the theoretical, Ares was way out of his arena. And he knew it.

The God of War snorted loudly in disgust. "You still haven't answered my question, Xena. What makes you think that I have the Scepter?"

Xena walked out of the shadows. "Because it would anger Zeus. And the only reason you need to do anything, is to irritate daddy dearest."

Ares' back went taut. "Well, contrary to popular belief, I do not live to be a thorn in my father's side. And for your information, I do not have the Scepter of Helios. I don't even know where the thing's hidden."

Xena didn't know if the loathing on the God's bearded face was for her, himself, or his father; maybe it was for all three of them. In actuality, Ares anger stemmed from the fact that he had allowed his emotions to storm out of control. Now, thanks to him, Xena was aware of his lack of knowledge, and possession, regarding the Scepter.

"This conversation is over," Ares remarked with a pout as he snapped he fingers and vanished.

* * *
Dari had drawn the younger woman into her arms after Gabrielle's confession that Xena and she were nowhere near lovers. The bard's pain was virtually palpable inside the tiny bamboo structure. Dari ran a hand over Gabrielle's short hair, repeating the phrase "It's gonna be ok, you'll see," over and over again. They were still standing, holding one another, when Xena entered the hut and stopped cold.

"Well, so much for Ares' help," she heard her own clipped voice, noting Gabrielle wouldn't meet her eyes. "We'll stay here and leave in the morning. It's too late now, and Argo needs a rest, as I'm sure we all do." With that Xena turned on her heel and left them.

Dari glanced down and met Gabrielle's worried look. "It'll work out," Dari whispered and gave her a tiny smile. To Gabrielle, it carried a promise.

Chapter 22

Dari jerked awake and bolted upright, her breath mere gasps. She looked around, getting her bearings back. A dream, just a dream, but it had been so real. She spotted Gabrielle asleep beside her and smiled down at the bard. Her eyes took another journey around the room as they became used to the dark. Across the way, sitting up against the wall was Xena, her piercing blue gaze honed in on Dari.

"Another bad dream?" Xena asked with a low growl.

The warrior's voice made a chill run down Dari's spine. "Yes. This one was different though. It wasn't the men chasing me this time; it was something else, someone else, dressed like you all. Very strange dream."

A worried look came over Xena's face, replacing the jealous one that had consumed it moments before. "Tell me."

Dari rubbed her hands down her angular features. "It was a woman, at least I think it was, dressed like these Amazons, like me." She almost chuckled.

"Go on."

Gabrielle shifted into her and Dari quickly glanced down at her and back to Xena. Oh man, she's gonna throttle me soon if Gabrielle keeps this up, she mused sadly as Gabrielle's arm slid around her hips. She went to stand and Gabrielle emitted a small noise of complaint and grasped her tighter. Dari looked back at Xena helplessly.
"She's kind of clingy." Xena stated, nearly smiling.

"The woman in the dream, do you know who she is?"

"I have a good guess. Continue- I need to know exactly what happened."

Dari managed to squeeze from Gabrielle's embrace, and, with a little pat to her rump, left with the sleeping bard mewing a contented sigh. To Xena she said, "Let's walk."

Xena glanced back at Gabrielle before leaving the hut and following Dari. They said nothing as they neared the pond and sat down at the still water's edge.

"First off, I'd like to clear the air on something." Dari's tone was even more serious than Xena's.

"You have no interest in her, just a fondness for her charms, and that goodness she emanates? Right?"

Dari smiled at her feet, and then gave a sidelong glance to Xena. "Close. I didn't mean to get in the middle or anything."

"You didn't."

"Well, I feel like I have, and I'm sorry. I can leave you two and try and get back home myself if you'd like. I think it may be better if I do."

"Well, you're wrong once again, my friend. Don't worry about all that other stuff. Gabrielle gets… she attaches herself to goodness, to a 'way' of being. She's attracted to light, to you because you're light. She falls in love with the goodness of a soul. With Gabrielle, she dives in head over heels, then realizes in the end what the feelings really were."

Dari didn't know if she liked the idea of that. "I don't want to hurt her."

"Won't be the first time. I think she knows that's part of the price she must pay for opening herself up and feeling so deeply. In some way, I think she's used to it by now. No matter how much we don't want to, we all wind up hurting her, me more than anyone. Zeus, I caused her death."

"Everything has its purpose, Xena. You just need to realize why you found one another."

Xena smiled brightly. "We're a lot alike, you and I. And I have figured it out, least I believe I have. Our deaths let us know just how strong our bond was- is. But instead of allowing us to go forward, it seems to have set us in reverse. I'm scared now. I find myself keeping Gabrielle at arms' length. I can't deal with the fact that because of me, she died, and I don't know how to fix it."

"Don't know how?" Dari shook her head. She couldn't believe this woman -- this incredibly intelligent, insightful woman -- could be so dense. "Take her as your lover, Xena, that's how."

Xena allowed Dari's words to sink in before she replied. "It's not so easy as that, Dari. There are things between us, old hurts I'm afraid haven't healed as well as we think they have. She gave up a lot for me, and I in no way have made up for that. I don't just owe her my life; I owe her my soul."

" And yet she's still by your side…"

Xena studied Dari's profile in silence. After a time, she looked back across the water, her mind adrift on a wave of thoughts. "Tell me the rest of the dream."

Dari let the moment pass. She knew enough had been said for Xena to think about, at least for now. "She said that I was sent here for a reason, that I could bring about a new beginning, and to tell you not to get in her way, and to remember the past."

Xena stiffened. Well, her feelings were confirmed. "Alti…" she hissed. "We were warned she'd be back. I didn't count on it being this soon."

"Who or what is she?"

"A shamaness, evil in every sense of the word. Not a good spirit at all. Thankfully, she's in the realm of the dead and can't do us any harm here. Now, in dreams is another story. Not sure how much power she has there. You look okay from the experience, so maybe she has no true powers at all. Only the ability to frighten." She went on to tell her the experiences she'd had with Alti in India.

"So, what do we do?"

Xena shook her head. "I don't know, yet." She stood. "Let's go back."

They walked off. Unbeknownst to them, Gabrielle was hidden in the bushes. The young warrior jumped up and followed her own trail in order to beat the other two to the hut.

Chapter 23

"God, what was that?" Dari sat up in the dark.

"Something Amazon," Gabrielle informed the two fur covered forms at the loud horn blast, rubbing her eyes. In the night she'd moved her furs closer to Xena, and when she looked to her left and down, she saw Xena was still asleep, hand lying partially on Gabrielle's thigh. The young bard smiled and patted the hand.

Xena opened one eye and looked around, grunted, and closed it. Gabrielle, laughing, grabbed Xena's hand and tugged. "Come on, sleepy face. Time to rise and shine."

"Dari, kill it would ya?"

Dari and Gabrielle burst out laughing. "Now now, Xena." Gabrielle soothed, stroking a hand down Xena's shoulder and arm.

"Why do Amazons have meetings in the middle of the night? Gods, even I don't awaken at this time." Xena grumbled, drawing the furs over her head.

"Well, I'm going to see what's up. You two can go back to sleep, I suppose." She grunted as she rose, stretching fully, getting all the kinks out. She missed the warmth of Xena's body heat, and Dari's, the thought entered her mind before she could stop it. Dari only smiled, then lay back down and drew the fur up to her chin, ready to go right back to sleep.

"I hate it when she makes me feel guilty!" Xena growled and sat up after Gabrielle had left the hut. "And just what are you doing?" Xena reached across the space left by Gabrielle and ripped the covers off Dari.


"I'm up, you're up."

"I don't think so."

"Need some persuading, eh?"

"Xena!" Gabrielle poked her head back through the door. "Knock it off. Let her sleep if she wants to. You go back to sleep, too. I'll be right back; you won't even miss me," she stated as she closed the door.

After leaving the hut, Gabrielle headed in the direction of the gathering. The entire tribe appeared to be congregated around Ainia's hut. Ainia was a young Amazon who still lived with her mother. Gabrielle had spoken with her briefly on her and Xena's last visit. All she knew about her Amazon sister was her gift with animals. Ainia seemed to be able to understand what ailed a sick or injured animal and then heal it. Her gift of healing was greatly respected and needed within a community that was so at one with their horses. Gabrielle saw Cyan in the crowd. "What's going on?" Gabrielle inquired.

"You're just in time.

Gabrielle watched as Ainia appeared in the doorway of her mother's hut, a sheer piece of silk covering her heart-shaped face. Even through the veil, Gabrielle could see her radiance. The young woman exuded happiness.

A girl, no more than six years old, approached Ainia, extending a small, chubby-fingered hand towards her. Ainia lifted the veil from her face and took the child's hand. Gabrielle could then see how Ainia had matured. Her face had lost its plumpness and now showed more contours and definition.

The angelic, honey-blonde haired child led Ainia away from her mother's hut and towards a hut across the courtyard. For the first time Gabrielle noticed someone standing in front of the hut where Ainia was being escorted. A tall woman, not quite as tall as Xena, but definitely a warrior, was waiting. Gabrielle didn't know her, but she gave off the same glow as Ainia.

The procession followed the small and even smaller figures until they reached the hut. The cherub in leather, wearing a crown of thorns and nuts, slipped Ainia's fingers into the hand of the warrior. A sweet, small voice announced to the guests, "I fled worse and found better," while passing out small slices of fruit and nut bread.

A cheer rang up through the throng, breaking the spell cast on Gabrielle. "It was a beautiful ceremony, wasn't it?" Cyan asked Gabrielle as Ainia and her espoused entered their home.

"What . . . Oh, yes . . . Yes, it was," Gabrielle replied, still looking in the direction of the hut. "Is that what it was? A bonding ceremony?"

"Yes. You've never been to one?"

"No. I've heard of them, but I've never seen…" Gabrielle trailed off, still in a semi-euphoric state. "They looked so happy … and in love."

"They are, on both counts," Cyan interjected and then added, "Who knows, maybe you'll have a warrior standing across the courtyard for you one day. Cyan smiled down at the little queen.

It took a moment for Gabrielle to catch the insinuation attached to the last statement, but once the meaning sunk in, she stared at Cyan, as a deep crimson blush invaded every square inch of skin.

Gabrielle walked quietly through the hut door. Upon seeing that Xena and Dari had fallen back to sleep, she just stood there, looking at the two of them. Her mind was full, thinking of things she wanted, things she was afraid she'd never have. Gabrielle hastily picked up her furs and quietly laid them down on the other side of the hut. She needed to think, and in order to do that she couldn't be too close to either of the warriors in her life.

Chapter 24

"Good morning." Gabrielle spoke when she saw the others beginning to stir. "Ready for breakfast."

"Fish again, huh?" Dari inquired, feeling the rumblings start in her stomach.

"For that, I should make you eat them raw." Xena gave her a glare. "But it's your lucky day, we're going to be dining with the Amazons."

Dari looked down at her outfit and smirked. "Deer and rabbit on the menu?"

"Let's go, Smarty." Gabrielle grabbed her hand and pulled. Dari let herself be led. They didn't go eat immediately; a quick, sobering dip in the cold water managed to wake them fully.

"I'll never get used to that." Dari sat on a rock shivering.

Xena gave her a hearty slap on the shoulder blade. "Oh come on, it makes you feel alive!" She breathed in deeply and expelled it with a smile. "Feel it?"

"I know of other ways to feel alive, and bathing in freezing water at what must be 4 o'clock in the morning isn't one of them."

"No imagination…" Xena drawled and glanced over to where Gabrielle was dragging herself from the pond. She smirked at her nude bard and looked back to see where Dari was looking, and for once she was not occupied with the vision of Gabrielle.

Xena's eyes followed hers, but she couldn't see what seemed to have Dari's undivided attention.



"What's up?"

"Over there." She pointed. "See it? Isn't it beautiful?"

Xena looked hard, and still didn't see anything but darkness. She watched Gabrielle moving towards them. They exchanged a look and she shrugged. "What do you see, Dari?"

"The sunrise," Dari explained. "Which is unusual if it's as early as I think it is."

Xena's brows knitted, it was pitch black around the pond on the other side, and the moonlight just barely illuminated the water. "Sorry, I don't see it."

Dari's body jerked, and she jumped to her feet. "She's got Gabrielle!" She screamed as she tore off in the direction she'd been staring at. Xena raced after her, followed by Gabrielle, who grabbed her clothes on the run.

"Dari, wait! I'm right here!" Gabrielle called on deaf ears.

Dari reached the vision she had witnessed and stopped in her tracks. It had disappeared, and that Alti woman with it. The body of Gabrielle she'd seen falling to the ground was gone, too. She dropped to her knees and held her head.

Xena came to a skidding stop, bumped from behind when Gabrielle ran into her, watching Dari's actions instead of Xena's. They stared down at Dari; afraid to go any closer and just stepped around her, waiting.

"She's in my head, isn't she?" Her tear-filled eyes lifted to meet Xena's concerned gaze.

Xena was worried. "Somehow she's managed to seep into the conscious world, which is impossible."

"We've learned nothing is impossible, Xena," Gabrielle reminded softly as she finished dressing. She knelt down next to Dari. "We'll get you through this, Dari," she promised.
* * *

Dari leaned towards Xena and whispered, "I would rather have had the fish." Xena smirked and nudged her back into an upright position. She was glad to see that Dari seemed to have recovered from her experience earlier that morning. She also had to admit, she would have rather had the fish, too. She looked up across the table and found Gabrielle staring at the two of them with a disapproving frown. Xena returned the look with an innocent little smile.

* * *
"Ok, so it wasn't like dining at the castle in Chin, but hey, it was food, and it was free, and you didn't have to get wet to eat it," Gabrielle said as they entered the hut together.

"Thankfully we'll be in Amphipolis soon and we won't have to worry about food poisoning from Amazons, or catching fish."

"Xena," Gabrielle warned.

"Hey, I'm not knocking your clan, Gabs, but come on, you have to admit-" she stopped when Cyan stepped inside the room.

"We've supplied you with two horses for your journey," she informed them.

"Thank you," Xena smiled guiltily after a sideways glance Gabrielle's way.



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