Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.


This story depicts some scenes of extreme violence and/or their aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

Authors Disclaimer: This story contains some violence, some suffering, some love, some revelations, some tears and some hope. It constitutes Book Four of the Hope Full series.

SPOILERS: For the 4th Season Xena episodes, Sin Trade 2, Family Affair, In Sickness and Hell, A Good Day, Tale of 2 Muses, Locked Up and Tied Down, and Crusader.

Please send any comments burnt or underdone to Belobris@aol.com


By WLMcCord (Bill the Semi Bard) Copyright 1999 (Revised 10-20-2000)

Book Four: The Cross Roads

Chapter One: Nightmares of Hope

Hope/Gabrielle screamed as she was lifted clear of the ground by her hair. A rough hand the consistencey of sandpaper cupped her chin and two dead black eyes with dark rings around them stabbed into hers. The owner of the eyes was a hideous woman whose lips moved in what she thought was a smile. Her breath smelled of rank Indian spices which puffed into the bards face as she hissed her words, making the two Greeks who were one, gag.

"Do you fear me, little girl?" The horrible eyes bored into hers. "Have you seen what Xena is going to do to you?" She grinned like a Bacchae as she spit out the next words, "she's gonna get you KILLED!"

The pain in her head and neck was unbearable and Hope/Gabrielle could not react, could not seem to think straight. Her legs kicked uselessly in mid-air as the woman held her effortlessly off the ground. From somewhere nearby, they heard Xena cry out, "Gabriellllle!"

The snarling smile and sunken eyes of the apparition peered into hers as she said, "Watch, little girl! This is your FUTURE!"

Suddenly Hope/Gabrielle found themselves lying on their back on cold snow and wood. Their arms were being tied down, stretched out on the rough wood and they were nearly naked in the cold. The Roman soldier looked blankly over her as he handed a small iron sledgehammer across her body to the man kneeling at her head. There was no compassion, no feeling on either of the Roman faces as they went about their tasks.

Hope turned Gabrielle's head sideways and there was Xena. She was dressed in rough burlap as was the bard herself and was being tied down on a cross of her own. The Warrior Princess looked battered and her face was bruised, but she was looking at the bard. From somewhere a smile came to her bloody lips and her haunted eyes lit for a moment with joy.

"Gabrielle ... you are the best thing in my life..." she whispered faintly.

As she felt the prick of an iron spike against the menhdi painted palm of her hand, Hope smiled back and said, "...I love you, Xena..."

Suddenly the horrible pain in Hope's/Gabrielle's hair and head returned and they found themselves still being dangled and looking into the evil sunken eyes once more. What was this hideous creature's name? Kenden? No, not Kenden, her name was ALTI! Alti the shamaness; one of Xena's oldest enemies, and at the moment, both the bard and Xena were in her power. The bard's menhdi painted feet dangled and kicked and she was certain that her hair would come out from her own weight at any moment.

Meanwhile Alti held her up and gloated, "That was your future, little girl! How does it feel to know your friend is gonna get you killed?"

From behind them through the pain, they heard Xena scream at Alti with outraged remourse, "You BITCCCHHHH!"

The shamaness laughed. "Here, go back and take a good look this time and FEEL THE PAIN!"

They were back in the cold again, nearly naked, tied to the cross so they could not move. There were iron nails against her menhdi painted palms and the hammers were coming down. Oh, gods, please noooo... There were a pair of metalic thud-clanks and tearing, squishing, breaking sensations in their hands unlike anything either of them had ever felt before. Hope and Gabrielle both screamed in wordless terror and rage and pain and heard Xena doing the same next to them.

Then as the red mist swam before their eyes, her feet were clamped together, one on top of the other and the prick of cold metal came against the top of her foot. NOOOOOO their minds screamed in unison, but then her feet were impaled and spiked onto the rough wood of the cross and the noise wrung from her throat was not so much a scream of pain as a shriek of protest to the earth and sky that someone could do such a thing to another human being...

Then their hair was once again being slowly yanked out by their own weight and Alti was peering at them with a grin of delight. They were in the present again, but this time their hands and feet felt as if they had been chopped off. Catching a glimpse of her feet, Gabrielle saw holes clear through each foot spurting blood and she could faintly feel cool air whistling through them.

Her head was yanked around by the chin to face Alti again..."Give me that pain," the witch snarled, "GIVE IT TO ME!" And the bard screamed in outrage and torment...

The bard suddenly sat bolt upright from the bedroll, looked frantically at her hands, then pulled the blanket aside to examine her feet. Almost she expected to see blood and horrible wounds, but her palms and feet were whole and unmarked except for the menhdi art she had affected since India. Even now, as she assured herself there were no holes, the pain faded away. With a groan she flopped back on the bedroll, sweating despite the frosty-coolness of the pre-dawn morning.

Nightmare, Hope thought tiredly, her heart still racing. By the gods, I'm glad that Alti bitch is dead.

"Hope?" Gabrielle's mental voice was tentative. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, mom. Go back to sleep."

"You had the nightmare again? About Alti ... and the crucifixion vision?"

"Does it matter? Go back to sleep!"

The bard did not do so. "Where's Xena?" She peered through the corners of her own eyes at the guttering campfire and the dawn trees touched with frost.

"Dear Xena's gone scouting, mom. She wanted to check out the town where we are supposed to meet this guy tonight, remember?"

"Oh, that's right ... she was worried about Alti's vision since we are so close to Roman lands..." Gabrielle hesitated. "And now you were dreaming about it..."

"No." Hope's answer was short, but to her mother, her daughter's thought tone was unconvincing.

"Admit it, Hope. Yer as worried about that vision as Xena is..."

"I don't THINK so," scoffed her daughter. "But I sure got Xena worried that time back at Actus when that wanna-be-Warrior Princess-bitch was seiging the city and using Xena's tactics from when she had seiged Corinth back in the stone age..."

"Hope, you know she cares about us ... she was trying to warn us, so we'd be careful..."

"There is no 'US' to Xena, mom. She thinks I'm YOU, remember?" Hope snickered. "Boy, I sure got her that time. There was poor Xena, trying to tell you about this big bad vision she had of you two being crucified and I played you as completely unsympathetic to her. 'Oh, no, Xena. This is just crazy, Xena. I can't believe in this vision of yours, Xena. This hospital doesn't need me hiding in it; I'm going onto the battlements, Xena. I'm coming with you to the dam, Xena. So what if that's the mountain from your vision, Xena? It doesn't mean anything...'

Hope's bubbling laughter surrounded her mother and swirled around like dirt in the bottom of a fish tank. "And every time I said something like that, she got more and more unhappy; more worried." Gabrielle could almost see her daughter's grin of delight. "The warrior-bitch suffers so beautifully whenever she thinks we're mad at her, or doesn't believe her on something important. What great fun."

Trying to change the subject, a sudden thought struck the bard and she spoke without thinking. "Hope, aren't you cold?"

"Huh? Cold? What do you mean?"


Chapter Two: Inner Discussions

Gabrielle was puzzled. "Well, I see a light frost on the ground out there, maybe even some snow. It is only Februrary, you know. It looks cold, and here you are sitting uncovered on our bedroll, in that Indian sari and sandals. The campfire has died down and I can see our breath. Aren't you cold?"

"Nah. Feels a bit brisk maybe."

"But how can that be? It's winter, Hope. And you are dressed for summer..." The bard mentally shivered. "I'd be freezing."

The daughter of Dahak considered. "A gift from dad, I guess. Flames don't harm me much, and I don't feel the cold either. Might as well get something for being his daughter ... but thanks for reminding me of that."

"Reminding you of what?"

Hope wrapped the blanket around herself, had Gabrielle's body take a scroll from her case and sat as if she was reading it. "That I don't wanna give Xena any clues that we are different. Not till I'm ready anyway..."

Dammit, the bard thought angrily, she's right! Why did I mention it? She sighed to herself. I'm slipping. Too long since I've been in control of anything in my life. It's all becoming like an exercize in theory and logic, like it's all a play I'm watching and I don't have anything to do with what's going on out there on the stage. That has to change! Somehow, I've gotta get back in the game..."

"So mother," Hope bubbled teasingly, "remember when I did all that crap about 'Oh, I've lost my favorite scroll, Xena ... I have to go back to Piraus for it...' and she had to go to Arkon for a mission."

If she could have, Gabrielle would have rolled her eyes. Here we go again. "All right, all right..." she thought to her daughter. "What about it?"

"That was so much fun," Hope swirled around with laughter. "She said I could go back for it and meet her later, and I thanked her like you would have, and she said think nothing of it, and I said, 'Okay, I won't...' and went dancing off without even saying goodbye. Oh, ho! I could hear her muttering about that all the way over to Argo."

"Hilarious," thought the bard, although deep u ?_< lYa"z/\&AUn/r nTDp_4t.K;v!#Ey}u_H*8!O^EpidvwԼ۞cՌ_Q䙵¼q*j , Xf@A,w2acD`ڍ t`…#0] TKۤ6، (lv 15+*Tp͠g[oWq[8e1^Xa*ȹ3FJ὎R6HƮcafQV"*$\F樛){^2c ҝuݨàŋ _v$Y \PXB4nWřƱQ;\"֔5W9x0 fkDv,]5V(!Z5ɋ&PKa~\-- :y*zhiyR=$)0j.,>(wN xU8d1׏8TH|"o7 Ce° ,%!}Š#>ĂȎޥ=C_He>׊3CS@l$ar{OS>kDgm~[3v &Ǿq^'!>U Zz|ܸhxk@%˂ɮ=e4$mqR.Z;4N~N*>G0ZL^dn/ȫ Nr+&b.stjW,~H,/#S @5 ʏa2J nr>QHC4*`k  @YwfPw)tf&7%,z&؏(#H}S!`SxUK\M4;͘lg~h0Ѧ*`ݘT,edn't tell her about me, did they?"

"Forget Najara! Xena saved us from Alti, you know! When she cut our hair with that chakram throw!"

"Big deal," said Hope grumpily. "I was getting ready to blast that witch ya know ... in another few seconds she'd have been cold meat..."

"Yeah, sure she would! I was in here too, remember. I know just how messed up that bitch had us!" Gabrielle was adament. "It was Xena that saved us, Hope, both you and me, by getting us out of Alti's hands..."

"Like Tartarus she did!" Her daughter's thoughts were snappish. "It was Naiema who saved us. Xena couldn't hardly wiggle after Alti was through with her!"

"All right, I admit that, but neither could we, remember," thought her mother. "Alti had us in such pain that we couldn't do anything. Neither could Xena. She was reliving when Caesar had her legs broken on the cross, you know..."

"So, see..." Hope said snippily. "Xena didn't save us."

Gabrielle was persistent. "So anyway, you're saying that it doesn't worry you, now that you ... and me, we've both seen Alti's vision for ourselves," said the bard.

"N-No," said Dahak's daughter, but there was an off tone to her thought that Gabrielle could feel. An uneasiness, as if she were not as unconcerned as she was acting.

"Uh huh," said Gabrielle dryly, "and it didn't bother you in the least in the crucifixion vision when those spikes went through our hands and feet?" Gods know it bothered me, she thought with a mental shudder.

"Course not," said her daughter, "anyway, if that happens, it's gonna happen to ... to you, not me."

But yer not sure of that, are you, the bard thought as she felt Hope's uneasiness behind the words and grinned privately to herself. Well, she amended, if I had teeth in this state I would be grinning. If I had teeth? Come to think of it I do, but I just can't chew. I do but can't chew. That's pretty funny.

She felt a faint surprise at at herself; what did she have to find funny about this situation? Here was Xena, being tormented on a daily basis by Hope doing hurtful, annoying Gabrielle-type things and the bard herself was being made to suffer by this treatment as well.

Do but can't chew. Do but can't chew. It rhymes, she thought wildly. I think I'm hysterical. Calm down, 'Brielle, calm down. Forcing herself to focus, she tried once more to affect her daughter. "Hope, just think, what if Naiema DID know something we don't. She was some kind of powerful force, remember."

"Yeah, yeah," her daughter grumbled. "Know what?"

"Maybe she DID know you were in here. She said YOU were destined to help aid in saving Xena's life. What if it's true?

"It's NOT!"

"But Naiema did save us all with her strange powers..." Gabrielle's thought voice was full of wonder. "I couldn't believe it when she spoke to us mentally, just before she sent us to the future to help Xena against Kenden. When she said, 'You are destined to have a roll in saving Xena's life', Hope. What could she have meant?"

"She meant NOTHING about ME," said her daughter scathingly, "because she thought she was talking to YOU, mom!"

"But Hope, she seemed to know you were here ... inside with me. I'm certain of it..."

"Forget it, mom! She had to be talking to you, because there is NO WAY that saving the Warrior Princess from anything is on my agenda!!"

Gabrielle sighed. "If that's true, why did you let Naiema send us to the future to help save Xena/Ominestra from Alti/Kenden then? You could have refused to go..."

"Hah! And maybe not be there to see the Warrior Princess get hers? Fat chance. I've promised myself that I will relish every moment when Xena finally goes down, mom. And I will!"

The bard was about to retort when a voice interrupted them. "Hey, Gabrielle!"


Chapter Three: Poetry and Rabbit

It was Xena, back from her scout. Her skin and cheeks looked rosey from the cold and she had a gray and white furred rabbit slung from her chakram hook. She put her hands on her hips, but her tender smile belied the harshness of her words. "So, I brush down Argo, do all the scouting, get us breakfast on the way back, and I find that my shivering partner hasn't even built up the fire? What am I gonna do with you?"

"I ... I'm sorry, Xena," Hope lied. "I woke up with a ... a poem in mind and just started writing."

"No biggie," said the warrior, piling some wood on the coals and beginning to skin the rabbit. "What's it about?"


Xena looked at her and tsked. "Sad when a fine intellect goes that way. The poem, oh sleepy bard, the poem. What's it about?"

"OH! The poem. Yeah. Sorry. Uh ... it's about..."

The warrior interrupted, and her statement surprised both daughter and mother. "Wanna read it to me?"

Gabrielle was stunned. Since when does she want to hear that kinda stuff, she thought to herself almost jealously. She never wanted ME to read MY poetry to her. But almost instantly she thought, come on, 'Brielle, she thinks Hope is you! It's a compliment!

Meanwhile, Hope was shocked. She gulped. "R-Read it to you?" She temporized, "I, um ... I'm still working on it ... unfinished, ya know."

"Well, when yer finished, maybe you'd read it to me." The warrior filled a pot with snow for melting and put it over the fire.

"Read it... well, uh, sure..." Hope was panicked now, but hid it well. "X-Xena, since when did you want to hear my, uh, poetry?"

The Warrior Princess was sober. "I noticed you were back to writing since we came home from India, and I was glad to see it. Then getting your play produced in Piraus and all, even though it was a con job. I always thought that writing was your strong suit and I was really proud of you, that's all. You don't have to read it to me..." she said almost shyly.

Gabrielle was touched by the warmth Xena was showing; her daughter was worried.

"Thank you," Hope said. Then trying to change the subject, she went on. "Um, anything to worry about in Tarkonus?"

"Looks okay," Xena said cutting up the rabbit and putting the chunks in the pot, "but we'll be careful tonight, anyway. Do we have any spices or vegetables left?"

"I think so," said Hope, glad of the subject change, "I'll get them." She got up and walked to their supply bags and began to rummage.

"One thing, anyway," said the Warrior Princess with a grin, "either that noisy yellow outfit is a lot warmer than it looks, or you must be toughening up. You used to be cold even in the blue dress and top. A year ago in the green outfit you'da been complaining all the time about the cold. Now you never seem to notice it. I'm proud of you."

"I've had a good example to follow," said Hope, silently gritting her teeth as she put some late onions, carrots and spices into the stew.

Xena affectionately mussed the bard's short hair. "And so have I," she said softly. "You have been so good for me, Gabrielle. I thank the gods every day, that you are with me."

"I don't a-annoy you sometimes?" Hope said in consternation. What in Tartarus is this? I do my best to make her miserable and she enjoys it? Gabrielle chuckled to herself at her daughter's thoughts, while at the same time feeling pleased at Xena's words.

"Sure you do, sometimes," said the warrior, "just like I know I irritate you sometimes." She was thoughtful. "This last year has been rough, but we got over it and through it all. But like someone told me once awhile back, '...that's what friends do.'" She hugged the surprised bard for a moment and rested her chin on the blond hair. When she spoke again, her voice was tender. "Maybe I don't say it enough, but ... I feel so happy, so ... privileged to know you. Thanks for being my friend."

"You're welcome..." was all Hope could say as she found herself hugging the warrior back.

As for Gabrielle, impossible as it was, she somehow seemed to feel tears gathering behind her eyes at the warrior's words. "My so dear friend," she thought sadly, "if only I were free to speak and tell you how I feel. I promise you that someday I will; oh yes, someday I will."

Finally Xena stepped away. "Gotta go get Argo her fodder," she said softly. "You go ahead and work on your poem. I'll do the other chores; just keep an eye on the stew." Gripping her friend's shoulder, she walked off humming leaving the two who were one to try and sort out their feelings.

"Oh, Hope," said Gabrielle gently as they watched the warrior stride away. "Don't you see how good, how caring she is? Can't you let go of your hate? It's never too late to change, Hope, it's never too late..."

"Awww, shut up..." her daughter said faintly. But to the listening bard, there was a faint note of uncertainty, perhaps even longing in her daughter's mental voice and hope for the future filled her once more.


Chapter Four: A Trap for the Warrior Princess

The full moon had a ring around it; a sure sign of snow coming soon. The cold dampness in the air confirmed the notion to Xena's nose. She hoped they could get this business over with quickly, and find an inn for the night. She wished they had not left Argo in the woods near the town, but it had seemed more prudent than bringing the horse in. She could not go unnoticed, as the humans could; anyway, they should be back in a few hours.

As they passed through a pool of moonlight in the cold alley, the bard wrinkled her nose at the Warrior Princess and spoke in a low tone. "Phew. Xena, this alley smells like an outhouse. Tell me again why we're sneaking through this freezing, rotten little town at midnight?" She hitched the orange cholla more tightly over her yellow clad shoulders

The raven haired woman rolled her startling blue eyes but whispered patiently. "We're here in Tarkonus because it's a village that has rebelled against Rome. Brutus sent us a message that he wants to meet with us here in secret to discuss a plot to overthrow Caesar once and for all; and he thinks this coming March is a good time."

"And why do we care if Caesar is overthrown or not?" The short-haired blond hissed stubbornly to her friend.

"Because Brutus' message also said Caesar was planning to invade Greece in his next campaign," Xena whispered sharply, "...and there is no way in Tartarus that I'm going to allow that bloody butcher to add our country to his list of conquests!"

"And tell me again, why do we trust Brutus? He's Caesar's second-in-command, for Zeus' sake!"

"Because of the secret prophecy from the Oracale of Delphi, about how when the Ides of March come, they will spell Caesar's downfall from power. The Oracale called us to her before Brutus ever wrote us his note. She has no reason to wish us harm; remember I saved her life when Callisto tried to kill her!" The warrior stopped and faced her friend, even though she could barely see the bard in the darkness of the shadowy alley. "Gabrielle, you know all this! Why are you asking me this again and why NOW of all times?"

"Yes, I know it, but I just want to be sure that this time you're not doing it for revenge on Caesar..." the small blond whispered intently. As Xena snorted with indignation, she went on quickly, "That sort of thing has never worked well for us before, if you remember. I just don't want a repeat of Dahak, or Crassus, or even Phlanagus."

"You know very well the things with Crassus and Phlanagus didn't happen because of revenge," the warrior said. She laid a reassuring hand on her friend's sari-clad shoulder. "The only reason we are here is because of a danger to Greece," she spoke earnestly. "If Caesar is removed from power and someone like Pompey takes over, they'll have no interest in expanding towards us. Even if they did, they could never be the threat that Caesar is. He is a general like no other. Are we okay, now?"

"All right," Gabrielle sighed, running a hand through her short cropped blond hair. "I'm sorry Xena; I didn't mean to nag, I just wanted to be sure why we're doing this."

"Hey, no problem." The tall warrior whispered affectionately. "You keep me on track, and I'm glad you do. Come on now, we're almost there."

Within a few steps they came to a dark door in the alley. Xena looked at her friend, who nodded readiness. She gave three quick raps on the door, paused and gave a fourth.

There was a shuffle behind the door, and a creak as a small window opened in it; a sharp whisper said, "Speak: Who comes?"

Xena whispered back, "Two who seek the High One's friend."

"For what purpose?"

"To constrain his schemes by laying him down." Xena muttered into the hole, looking quickly up and down the dark alley.

"Enter, friends." Said the voice and there came the sound of the bolt being drawn.

As the door creaked open, Gabrielle muttered something about, "Talk about melodrama. If I used this in a story, the audience would laugh me off the stage."

"Shhh," Xena hissed as she led the way.

The bard and warrior entered the cold building, which seemed to be some kind of large warehouse. A single lanthorn gleamed on a table in the middle, and a robed and hooded figure sat waiting. All about the place were large crates and barrels smudged into shadows by the flickering oil flame of the lanthorn.

The man who had opened the door led them forward. As they approached the table, Xena drew her sword in a lightning motion. The scrape of steel made the man leading them jump. Gabrielle shot her a look, and readied her staff.

"All right," the warrior drawled. "Lets see who you are."

"Easy now," the man raised his hands to pull back the hood, revealing a cragy face and brown thinning hair cut in the Roman style. Under the robe he wore a silver breastplate. "It's me."

"Brutus," Xena relaxed slightly and stepped forward. "Why the hood getup?"

"It's cold in here," he said, "I've been waiting awhile."

"All right," the Warrior Princess said, "Lets get to it then..."

"Indeed," said an ironic voice from the shadows behind Brutus. A tall handsome and clean-shaven man in a golden breastplate stepped forward into the dim light. "Let's!"

"Caesar!" Xena breathed. Without hesitating she leaped forward voicing her battle cry. "Alalalalalaaa!"

As she charged, Caesar darted backwards towards the shadows from which he had come. The warrior woman threw herself after him, but suddenly other shadowy forms leaped forward from the dark and something soft and yielding, composed of many tangled parts was wrapped around her almost before she could realize what was happening. A large cargo net! Xena slammed to the stone floor unchecked and saw stars in the darkness.

"By the gods," she thought desperately, "I've done it this time." Many shadowy forms rushed forward to wrap her securely; then began pummeling her with clubs through the net. Blows that she could not avoid. She could not use her sword or chakram; she was helpless and rapidly beaten into senselessness.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle swung her staff at a seemingly endless number of figures that pelted at her from all directions in the near darkness. She laid out several men, tripped another and disabled him with her staff. Then another man grabbed hold of it and jerked the weapon from her hands. She spun and kicked his legs out from under him and he fell with a grunt. She grabbed the end of her staff, but he held on. Before the bard could wrest it from him, two more men piled onto her and slammed her cruelly to the floor beneath them. Out of breath and pinned down, the plucky young woman was quickly overcome and made prisoner.

Xena groaned and came to her senses. Her head ached abominably and she was sure she had at least one black eye; her body felt bruised and battered. She realized quickly that her leathers and boots were missing, and that she was clad only in a thin shift of some burlap material. Her feet were cold. She was seated on a bench and her hands and bare legs were tied securely. She realized that Gabrielle was there beside her, in much the same state.

She tilted her head to the bard. "Are you all right?"

"I've been better..." whispered her friend wryly. "I should have known something was wrong when I heard those passwords. Terrible writing."

"Glad you can laugh about it..." Xena said as she tested her ropes for slackness; there was none. She felt a shiver of fear as she looked about. They were still in the warehouse, but many torches now lit the cold gloom. In addition, many men with Roman style armor and weapons were moving about. Dimly from outside came screams, smashing sounds and weapons clashing.

The warrior was angry. How did I miss them when I scouted? Dammit, did they come into town between the time I scouted and now? Her bitter thoughts were interrupted by the smooth, self-satisfied voice of Julius Caesar, would-be ruler of Rome.

"Ah, Xena. You're back with us; good." The tall man stepped forward, accompanied by a smirking Brutus. "I must say, you’ve disappointed me. You were caught so easily it was hardly sporting."

The warrior eyed at him disdainfully, refusing to speak.

He bent and looked at her closely. "My, my, Xena, that eye is going to be much worse before it gets better, but I'm afraid that getting better will be the least of your worries."

He turned to Gabrielle. "And the irritating little blond as well; I see you have cut your hair." He took her chin in his hand to tilt her head but the bard twisted out of his grasp and glared. "Not a very ladylike style, but then you aren't a lady, are you?" His smile grew cold. "Remember my friend, Crassus? I owe you something for setting him up to die in the arena ... and I always pay off people that I owe."

Gabrielle turned pale and her eyes blinked, but she said nothing.

"Yes, very good, Brutus." Caesar spoke. "My plan worked perfectly. Finally I have rid myself of Xena the Warrior Princess, one of the greatest defenders of Greece. More, with her we take a stronghold full of rebels as well. I trust your men have rounded them all up while they slept?"

"Yes, Caesar," said Brutus. "As with all your plans, it went as smoothly as if on wheels soaked with olive oil. The legion is sacking the place as we speak."

"Good, good. I've wasted enough time here; there are more pressing matters to attend to. I return to Rome with my personal guards, within the hour. See to the rest of this, and follow with the legion as quickly as may be. You are clear on what to do?"

"Yes," said Brutus. "Tomorrow we will torch the town and then crucify the leaders outside of it; the rest will go with us for workers when we march out."

"Excellent." Caesar smiled at Xena. "A good dose of Roman slavery will teach the scum discipline, if not loyalty."

"I'll never be a slave for Rome, you bastard." Xena snarled in helpless rage.

"Oh, never fear." Caesar smiled like a cobra ready to strike, "I never had any intention of inflicting such an indignity on the Warrior Princess and her loyal companion. No..."

He stroked his chin. "If I recall correctly, both of you were supposed to die on the cross before ... but escaped. However..." Xena felt cold seep into her stomach; Gabrielle moaned slightly. Caesar's eyes gleamed in triumph. "You'll find that no one does that the second time around."


Chapter Five: The Evil Vision Fulfilled

"Xena..." the beloved voice came weakly to the warrior's ears, "I love ... you..."

Xena felt like moaning, crying, screaming ... anything to cope with the horror she felt, but she could not. Not in front of that intense green gaze full of love. Damn you, Caesar, for putting us here... No, damn me! I put us here as much as him ... I knew the future and still I came and brought her to this. Damn damn damn....


She swallowed her rising bile, steadied her voice as best she could and forced her bruised mouth into a loving smile. She looked sideways past the rising hammer and the nail pricking the palm of her hand, to the small woman being lain on the other cross.

"Gabrielle. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you, too..." Then she did scream as the iron nails were driven into the palms of her hands; through flesh and bone and into the rough wood scraping against her bare arms.

Then while she was still dizzy with the pain, she felt herself swirled upright into the cold air of the gray morning, and then straight down with a grinding thump as the shaft of her cross went into the readied hole. She screamed again at the tearing sensations in her hands and almost passed out, bearly noticing the lesser thumps and bumps as the chocks were put into the hole to hold the awful wooden implement of her torment upright.

Dazed, she heard the shrieks and groans coming from other parts of the clearing, where the soldiers were stabbing spears into the crucified rebel leaders. She felt ill. No such quick way out was planned for her and her friend; on Caesar's order, they were to die from exposure to the elements. Twisting her head right, she could see the other crosses with the dying rebels hanging on them and the Roman legion beginning to march away through the blowing snow. In the far distance behind, the three jagged peaks of the snow covered mountain she had seen in Alti's vision thrust like daggers into the cold sky.

Dreading what she would see, she let her gaze go downwards to where Gabrielle was tied to the cross. A sort of macabre comedy was taking place with the Roman who was attempting to put the spikes into Gabrielle's hands. His own hands were apparently so numb with cold that he kept dropping the spikes and fumbling the hammer while his two friends laughed roughly at his ineptness. Suddenly a Centurion came running up, shouting and pointing after the rest of the legion that was fast vanishing into the woods.

"Get this cross up, you whoresons," he roared. "The Legion is leaving and our maniple is in the van; we're gonna have to double time to catch up to them as it is!"

The man attempting to nail Gabrielle's hands dropped the hammer yet again and blew on his hands for warmth before reaching for the tool once more. With an oath, the Centurion kicked the hammer aside and commanded again that the cross be raised as it was.

"But Penitar..." the soldier began, "Lord Brutus said to spike her..."

The furious Centurion snarled, "That's CENTURION Penitar to YOU, Militus, and I don't give a diseased rat what that arse-trumpeting catamite of Caesar's said! I'm in command here and I'm telling you to get her up there!"

The man hesitated for a moment and it looked like there might be trouble between him and the Centurion until one of the others spoke up. "Come on, Militus. Listen to the Cent'! It's colder out here than a witches teat in a snow-drift! Y' think she's gonna last more than an hour in this?"

The man called Militus grinned, showing yellowed teeth. "Well, I guess it ain't like she's goin' anywhere with them ropes on her! Come on, guys, lets do it!"

"And the bastard is right..." Xena thought sickly through her pain. She could see that the ropes cutting tight around her friend's wrists, slender waist and legs were more than enough to hold the small woman up with no hope of escape. While she was grateful that the bard had been spared the cruel spikes through her hands, Xena nonetheless watched in an agony of guilt as the soldiers began to raise Gabrielle beside her.

There was a small whistling shriek from her friend as her cross swung up and then came thumping down into its own hole. As Xena watched in torment, the small bard shook her head, and then turned her face toward the Warrior Princess. A strange expression of peace came over her features and her lips moved, but the wind carried the words away to follow the leaving soldiers.

Soon the three soldiers and the Centurian had vanished into the woods as well, and there was silence except for the wind and the soft rustlings of the snow. The warrior and the bard stared sideways at each other across the short distance, and the small blond smiled faintly.

"Oh, Gab ... brielle," Xena husked through parched lips. "I'm so ... sorry..." Then she did pass out.


Chapter Six: The Truth of Gabrielle


Somewhere a voice was calling her name. She knew that voice, that comforting, sweet voice; it brought her back from the cold and pain and darkness as it had many times before ... once even from death.


The warrior grimaced; her eyes fluttered. Her parched mouth opened, and her breath came cold and dry; her tongue felt like a stone.

"Gab...Gabri...eh...elle..." she choked, trying to get some saliva onto her dry tongue.

"Xeeeena. I lovvvve you..." The voice was twisted; cruel and taunting. Xena shuddered and her eyes flew open; never before had she heard that tone with those words from her friend's lips.

Her head hung down and with blurred vision that gradually focussed she saw Gabrielle on the ground beneath her, leaning on her staff. Everything looked normal till you noticed the rough burlap crucifixon garb, which had replaced her yellow sari ... that and the expression on her normally loving face. The small blond woman wore a crooked smile as she gazed up at her warrior friend. The frigid breeze moved her bangs slightly, but the rest of her short-cropped hair was still.

"Ah, there you are. I was beginning to think you'd left me." Her lips twisted as if at a secret joke.

"Gab ... rielle ... you're f-free. Thank the g-gods..."

"I am, aren't I? Now, how is that, I wonder?" The short woman grinned. "How ya doin' up there? Everything okay?"

"Puh...please ... get me down ... PLEEEASE!!" Xena shrieked this last. Somewhere inside she hated herself for sounding like this, but the words seemed to have a life of their own, exploding from her mouth like rocks from a catapult. "Please, oh please; it h-hurts..."

"All in good time, dear Xena." The small blond smiled. "All in good time..."

The nails dug cruelly into the palms of the warrior's hands; her outstretched arms ached with the effort of supporting her battered body even with the ropes around her wrists, waist and legs. A whistling cold wind across the snowy clearing numbed her exposed skin and whipped through the skimpy burlap shift the Romans had left her. She could bearly concentrate on the words being spoken to her.

"Wake up and listen now, Xena. You need to hear this."

"Gabrielle ... p...please..."

"No, no. No, no. Just listen. I want you to think back, Xena." The little blond looked up with burning green eyes at the tortured figure on the cross.

"The clues were all there, but you chose not to see them. Like when I refused to lead Phlanagus and his villagers against Caesar for you cause I said I didn't want to order men to die. You were so understanding; you accepted it though it endangered your plan, but then I went ahead and did it, and Phlanagus got killed along with a bunch of others. That cute boy with the bow lost his blood innocence, and I felt so bad about what I had done that I cried. How'd that make you feel, hmm?"

"What ... do you..."

"Shhh. I'm talking. Remember that little trouble with Tara and the no dance law? We were supposed to be so solemn we wouldn't dance, but I did it several times where the magistrate could see. My lack of control almost blew your plan, but I did it anyway. Then I wouldn't even shout, "Praise Calliope!" to support you and Autolycus, but you didn't even ask me why I was so stubborn. Made you mad and hurt your feelings though, didn't it?"

Gabrielle leaned on the Amazon staff and cocked her head up at the nearly naked warrior as a few snowflakes danced about her in the wind. She seemed unaffected by the cold.

"Then when you went to prison on Shark Island, determined to suffer for your crimes and leave me behind. I came on to the island anyway, cause I wanted to see you suffer there in prison ... then I got tired of that and freed you, so I could continue doing it to you myself. I wanted to be right there with you to see it all happen."

Her supple arms flexed on the staff, as the blond bard put her weight on it for a moment, then relaxed once more and stretched. She smiled dreamily.

"I bet you thought I was in danger when I was caught and it was you that saved me then, hmmm? But I was in control the whole time, even with my neck in the noose about to hanged; I was never in any danger. It was me that saved you ... for me."

Xena's head hung down; her raven hair blowing loose across her face. She blinked hard, trying with difficulty to focus on her friend who was acting so strangely.

"Gab ... rielle ... what..."

The blond ignored her and continued as if talking to herself. "And then when Najara came along. Oh, ho! How I delighted in watching you squirm when I '...took a shine...' to her. She and I would go off together to watch swans and talk about how I needed to leave you because ... you hurt me..." she said this last with a whine in her voice.

"I'll bet you even thought that I didn't know you were eavesdropping on us when I told her how I hated and feared the violence in you. Bet that hurt, huh?"

Xena shook her head slightly. "What ... what are ... you saying?"

Gabrielle looked up brightly, "Oh, you still here? Course you are; where would you go, hmmm?" She continued as if she had never stopped, "And then Najara beat the stuffing's out of you; really messed you up. She was gonna kill you while you were unconscious, but I couldn't allow that ... couldn't let your torture be over, you know. So I talked her out of it, and went away with her. I could have stopped her myself, but it was more fun to let you think she took me against my will. I knew you'd follow to try and get me back ... and you did."

The small woman scratched her nose and grinned. "By the gods, Xena. Even when you saved me from Alti by cutting my hair with your chakram ... afterwards I kept it short, to look like Najara, you know ... you still didn't get it. I knew that would make you think I still admired her ... and torture you a little bit more."

Xena made a sound then; a small sound like a hidden, badly wounded animal trying not to whimper because there were enemies about. The small woman at her feet cocked her head at this and closed her brilliant green eyes for a moment as if savoring something.

"Mmmmm." She looked up again and squinted against the cold breeze. "There was even a time I got sick to make you feel responsible ... remember that swamp we went to when you were trying to find Argo again? How I came down with every kind of rot and fungus on the scroll..." She giggled. "And we came down with the galloping-trots from Joxer's cooking. I even "caught" your lice; not too hard, since I had put them on you in the first place while you were asleep one night."

Xena stared, speechless.

"Then I drank linseed root oil so my mouth went numb and I drooled ... you didn't say anything, but I could see you felt responsible for all my ... suffering."

She smiled her crooked smile, crinkling her eyes; one corner of her mouth going up while the other stayed down. "All of that was fine torture you know ... for both of us ... for all three of us. You and me ... and her... Especially her, knowing what I was doing to you ... in her ... name."

"Damn you ... we for-forgave each other in Illusia..." the warrior whispered weakly. "You said ... you forgave ... me." A tear trickled slowly down each cheek, ran onto her mouth and the salt burned her chapped lips.

"Damn ... me? Me?" The blond sounded incredulus. "Do you know, Xena, yours was the first face I saw when I was born; the first sight in this whole cold world. You were the first enemy I ever knew too. You wanted to kill me almost from the start ... from the very first minute ... and it's 'Damn, me?'"

The blond tossed her head as if she were a horse. Her green eyes seemed to fill with flame although her face remained serene. Xena stared as if her friend had been transformed into a blood-thirsty Bacchae there before her. Her voice trembled and she felt she could not breathe.

"Gab-Gabrielle ... wh-what are you s-saying?"

The small blond woman smiled coldly as she spoke. "You made me, you know, Xena ... through fear! Just like Callisto, and Ming Tien, and Mom; the gods know you affected her! Even that booby Joxer ... even he was changed into something else because of you. Who knows what I might have been if only you hadn't taken Mom away from me; forced her to do the only thing she could to save me from your sword ... forced ME to do whatever I needed to just to survive."

"Mom? Taken you ... away... from Mom? Gabrielle, wh-what...?"

"No," laughed the small bard in a happy voice. "Not dear Gabrielle ... not at all. Do you even get it yet, Xena?"

The warrior woman had thought she was cold before ... even numb. Now she could scarcely draw breath. She felt nothing, could see nothing but those burning green eyes below her. Her mouth opened and moved as if she were trying to speak, but no words came out. Finally as she felt her heart pounding within her, Xena became aware that she was not breathing and forced ragged gasps of frigid air into her tight chest.

"H-Hope?" She choked the words out. "You're ... Hope?"

The small blond grinned wolfishly up at her, rested the staff on her shoulder, and slowly clapped her hands together. "Got it in one, Xena! Very good!"


Chapter Seven: Revelations of Hope

The Warrior Princess was stunned for a moment before she found her tongue. "Noooooo! You c-can't be ... You-You're dead ... Gabrielle, you ... she..." Abruptly Xena realized she was babbling and forced herself with every ounce of her will power, to focus, to be still; to reason. She gritted her teeth.

"You ... are ... Hope ... Ga-Gabrielle and Dahak's d-daughter." She ground the words out past shivering lips in a voice like rocks breaking.

The small woman smiled again, but this time with a savage grimace unlike any the warrior had ever seen on her friend before.

"Yes, Xena. Hope. Not dear Mom, your precious Gabrielle, but her precious Hope. You know, I've been afraid of you for so long. My whole life I guess, but you are pretty dense, I must say. I was sure you'd eventually catch on to me. After all, the great Xena, Warrior Princess, can't be fooled for long! But you never had a clue that it was me here beside you all this time, did you? Did you?"

The warrior woman felt dizzy. "How ... long?"

"Since Poteidaia, Xena. Since that night in the barn when you and Mom killed me and my son." The answer rocked the warrior as if she had been struck between the eyes with a club.

"Where ... where's Gab ... brielle..." she groaned. "You killed ... her?"

"Oh, no. She's right here," grinned the small woman, tapping herself on the chest, "or maybe here..." She touched her trim torso. "Anyway, she's right here where she has been since that night! I'm inside, you see, sort of sitting on top of her running everything and shes down underneath ... somewhere. Suffering. Hurting. Crying. Angry. Ashamed. Clamoring to get out." She chuckled. "It gets noisy in here, believe you me."

"How ... how did you ... do it? I saw you ... die..."

"Oh, that? Well, remember how you and Mom fooled my poor son the Destroyer, into thinking she was me so you could stab him from behind? Then I came in, and he thought I was the one who had betrayed him and he stabbed me with his arm spike. He was dying even then, and you did it." Hope looked coldly up at her.

"That damned spiny monster was dying..." Xena spat out with a surge of strength. "You're breaking my heart."

"That 'monster' was my poor dear son. Oh, you planned it well; I'll say that for you. You fixed it so we were both dying; but you hadn't counted on Mom's tender heart."

Even in her desperate state, Xena felt surprise to see Hope's face soften as she spoke. "Even with all she's been through, Mom is still so ... hopeful and good. After everything that had happened, everything I had done, she still had feelings for me as her daughter. She was ... sorry, even sad, for me. I was her daughter, her 'Hope', and I was dying because of her. We shared a ... bond, I guess. I could always feel her, and I think she could feel me. Like that time in the woods outside father's temple..."

Hope shook her head as if she were shooing a fly. "Anyhow, I stared at her as I was dying, and make no mistake, I was. I knew she was the last thing I would ever see and I kept staring at her. Then, we locked eyes for a moment."

The warrior listened intently, blocking out the pain, the cold wind, the rough feel of the wooden cross against her; focussing on the voice of her enemy.

Hope spoke quietly, almost tenderly. "And when our eyes met, I could feel her! And I knew she felt me, and I managed to ... I don't know, somehow link my mind to her feelings I guess. I found myself floating up, out of my dying body and toward her ... and then I was inside her ... and it was easy. Like slipping on a pair of comfortable old boots." She smiled crookedly up at the warrior. "Once inside, I just pushed her down and ... took over."

Xena became aware that a low growling was coming from her throat; that her whole body was trembling on the cross like a leaf in the wind. Doggedly she willed herself to stillness.

"All right, Hope ... I believe it's you in there ... pulling the strings. One thing I ... don't understand. Why didn't you..."

"Kill you while you slept?" Hope chuckled. "Oh no, no, Xena. I had plans for you ... and for Mom. It would have been easy as eating nutbread, but killing you like that would have been too quick."

"Torture." Xena bit the word out. "You've been ... playing with me out here, trying to drive me crazy with guilt over the pain I ... thought I was causing you, I mean her..." she swallowed, "...and driving Gabrielle crazy inside you ... by what you were doing to me..."

"Right again, Xena. One thing I didn't count on, though. Was how she would affect me." Hope frowned and licked her lips.

"Even holding her down inside, I could feel her ... goodness. Her ... purity, I guess. I became interested in who she was. I decided to be Mom in every way possible, to see what it was like." She held out her hands and examined the short nails. "Except to you, of course." She smiled.

Xena writhed on the cross and tried to pull her hands free; Hope paid no attention. "I had to see if I could figure out why people loved her and she loved them. She even loved me but tried three times to kill me, her only daughter..."

Hope looked up at the straining warrior with something like wonder on her face.

"So, I decided then, that I would travel with you just like Mom did, do all the things she did for and with you. Be better than her even. Helping people, never killing, always being ... nice. By the gods, that part was hard." Hope grinned ruefully, "And finally, I decided no more use of my powers for anything ... I had to be her, react as her, in every way, so you wouldn't suspect me, do you see?"

Xena did not answer, but pulled grimly, trying to free her unfeeling hands from the spikes by main strength. She was not successful. The numbness was replaced by grinding agony and a wave of nausea swept through her. For a moment, blackness shot with tiny swirling lights threatened to send her into a dark pit. Gasping with the effort, she stopped pulling and the blackness receded.

Hope smiled. "So many things Mom normally did were hard for me to get used to, but I think cooking and staff fighting were the worst. Remember all those burned meals after we first got back together? You even joked I must have forgotten how to cook after being so near the flames in Dahak's pit." The petite woman chuckled. "How little you knew."

She twirled the amazon staff through the snowflakes for a moment, then leaned on it again.

"It was really lucky for me, the first few months afterwards that we weren't involved in too many battles. For a while when I was fighting I cheated, you see. I'd let you handle most of the action, and when any attackers came my way, I'd use my mental powers to keep them off balance. "

Xena knew she could not get free; she hung helplessly, feeling the rage induced strength draining out of her body along with fresh blood from her torn hands.

"I did it pretty well too. Just a mental push on one of their feet as they charged, to make them stumble so I could hit them. I don't need much rest, so I did a lot of practicing with the staff while you were asleep. Finally I managed to sort of... let this bodies skills take over whenever I needed them. Mom trained it well."

Hope chuckled. "At first I was afraid you would notice the changes in me, but you never did."

"I had ... things on my mind..." Xena coughed as her body began to shiver.

"Yeah," Hope said, "Like your little vision of this wonderful time. Too bad you didn't get a little further into it, huh?"

The warrior's lips twitched. "I killed ... Alti, before she ... showed me any more..."

"Lucky for me, unlucky for Alti." Hope laughed. "Boy, did Mom feel horrible when I told you I didn't believe in your vision. And I proceeded to go into all kinds of dangerous spots that you were afraid would lead to our twin crucifixions. She knew that my showing my lack of faith in you would cause you to feel even more panic and fear. I even let this cross thing go through to torment you. Course, I didn’t really want those nails in moms … my hands, so I used my power to keep the guy fumbling with the spikes and hammer till they gave up and just TIED me on the cross; they were in a hurry to leave after all. But, oh, Xena, it was wonderful how you both suffered for each other."

A fresh tear slid down Xena's cheek as she spoke raggedly. "Gabrielle. It's not your fault ... I know you can hear me ... Please ... It's not your fault..."

Dahak's daughter laughed. "Oh, sweet Mom can hear you all right. She can see you too, and she's crying up a storm in here. It hurts her seeing you up there and anyway, she doesn't believe you; she's sure it's all her fault."

"Damn ... you ... Hope." Xena whispered brokenly.

Hope smiled Gabrielle's winning smile. "You've said that before. And now, Xena, it's time to go..."


Chapter Eight: Hope’s Final Revenge

"Go ahead ... kill me ... you damned little monster ... get it over with." Xena groaned.

"Oh, no," Hope smiled. "Thats not the idea ... haven't you been listening?"

"Then ... what..." Xena struggled weakly against the ropes and nails. They did not budge but fresh blood ran down from where the spikes entered her numbed hands. She slumped with despair and self-loathing. Oh, Gabrielle, what have I done to us; to you?

Then she felt a trembling in her hands, a sliding as the spikes shivered, causing her fresh torment. Her breath whistled from her mouth in a painful gasp. She was faintly surprised ... she had thought her hands were so numb that they could not have felt anything. Slowly, with agonizing vibrations, the spikes began to pull out of the wood by themselves and come free!

Unbelieving, the tormented warrior looked down at Hope and saw that the blond’s expression was fixed and there was a faint snarl on her face ... as if she were straining against something ... lifting something heavy. The green-eyed woman gave a final grunt and the cruel irons shot from the wood and out of Xena's hands with a metallic clang and buried themselves in a snowdrift. A gout of blood showered from each hand as the warrior yelled at the red blast of agony.

Then the ropes around her wrists, waist and legs whipped and writhed like hempen snakes and flew from her. Suddenly freed, Xena found herself falling through the cold air towards a face-first landing on the hard ground. In her weakened and dazed condition, her usually supple body fell like a sack of clay bricks. At the last moment some unseen force seemed to catch her, breaking her fall so that she landed on all fours instead of smashing down and then she collapsed to the cold earth.

Xena lay there for a moment, hardly able to breathe or move in the agonizing pain as her cramped muscles all went slack at once. When she could breathe again, she raised herself to her elbows and tilted her pounding head to see Hope standing above her. The blond was leaning on Gabrielle's staff with a strange smile.

Teeth bared, the warrior made a convulsive movement, hunching like a caterpillar towards the small woman, but Hope stepped easily back out of her reach.

"No, no, Xena," she smiled. "It's not that easy." She placed the end of the amazon staff on the warrior's back, holding her down like a butterfly on a pin.

Xena felt a surge of weakness wash through her; she slumped to the ground.

"I got nothing left..." she whispered dully, her cheek on the snowy earth. She rolled her eyes up at the small figure of her best friend and her worst enemy. "You’ve had your revenge …go ... ahead ... finish it..."

"Yes, I have, and finish it I will," the short haired blond spoke almost tenderly, "Goodbye ... Xena. I hope..." The green eyes crinkled as she smiled at her own choice of words, "I hope that you and Mom find the peace you are looking for. I know I will."

As Xena watched in confusion, the small woman suddenly shuddered, then rose up on her tiptoes with arms outstretched to the sky. She shrieked as her back arched and a spasm shook her like a dog with a rat. The amazon staff dropped unnoticed to the ground with a wooden thunking. Then she collapsed to her knees in the slowly gathering snow, head down, face in her hands, her whole body racked with heavy sobs.

Hardly knowing what she was doing or why, Xena wormed her way painfully toward the sobbing woman. Pushing her numbed arms ahead of her, she left twin red trails through the snow. As an outstretched immobile hand touched the slender knee, the woman's head came slowly up. Her face was streaked with tears, her mouth slack with crying.

"Xena, oh, Xena..." she moaned through trembling lips. "By the gods, Xena ... It's been so long ... so long."

"Guh-Gabrielle??" The warrior choked in disbelief, reaching up to touch the wet cheek with bloody fingertips. "Is it ... is it ... you?"

"I'm so ... so sorry..." The bard sobbed, fresh hot tears spilling down her cheeks to wash the blood from her friend's hand. "I couldn't fight her ... couldn't break free ... I could see and hear everything ... everything. Oh, Xena, forgive me for what she did. Oh, gods, please, please forgive me."

She cradled the warrior woman's upper body and face against her and rocked like a mother comforting a young child.

"But, Hope ... wh-where is she?"

"Gone, Xena ... she's just ... gone. She spoke to me just now and said, 'Mother, I know you now, and I love you. I thank you for my life and I give you back yours. I'm leaving you and Xena to sort out where you are going for yourselves, as for me, it's time I joined my dear son. Goodbye.' And she then just ... left. She went ... out of me ... Thank the gods, she went OUT of me!" The blond took Xena's bloody hands in hers, and pressed them to her lips. Her flowing tears stung in the open wounds.

"Gabrielle..." the dazed warrior whispered.

"Yes, oh yes. It's me, me ... it's finally... me. Come on." Still crying, Gabrielle hoisted Xena to her trembling legs and supported the larger woman with surprising strength. The snow swirled in the wind and began coming down heavier.

"Lets go find someplace out of this. By the gods, Xena; we've got to get someplace warm."

Limping and stumbling, the two women left the bleak wooden symbols of Roman death behind them in the softly falling snow.


Chapter Nine: Refuge and Realization

Later, Xena lay wrapped in a ragged blanket on the floor of a peasant hut, in front of the merrily crackling fireplace. Gabrielle sat on the floor, wrapped in another blanket. She cradled Xena's head on her lap and gently held the warrior's bandaged hands. The Romans, who had seized the occupants of the hut, had then tossed a torch through the door and left the place to burn. Luckily the hurrying soldiers did not notice that it had landed on the hearth. The torch had burned out harmlessly several hours before the two exhausted friends had stumbled in near dead from the cold.

In a cracked dish on the floor, lay the remains of their simple meal. Some feta cheese and half a loaf of black bread they had found and toasted at the fire. Melted snow provided water for a brew of hot tea from some herbs that had been left behind; it was enough.

Outside, the wind whistled and the soft patter of driven snow sounded against the walls and roof. In the far corner of the hut, Argo nickered softly and stamped once as she munched some hay. Xena was glad they had found the horse wandering near the hut in the woods. The big palomino mare seemed glad to be out of the wind and snow too.

Xena's belly was full; she stared into the warm flames and felt as if she was one big throbbing bruise. She felt sorrow for the hut's owners, taken for slaves to Rome, but was realistic enough to be glad the structure had survived to shelter them. She closed her eyes. Then Gabrielle made a small plaintive noise above her, and the warrior tilted her head up to eye her small friend.

"What... " She coughed and cleared her sore throat; she knew she was going to have a cold out of this. "What's wrong?"

"Your poor hands..." the small blond said softly. She fingered the bandages wrapped around the warrior's palms, and her eyes glistened. Xena rolled sideways into a sitting position, grunting with the effort of not using her arms, and shrugged the blanket back close around her. She faced her friend knee-to-knee and gingerly held out her bandaged hands; the bard took them gently once again.

"Hey." Xena's blue eyes were stern. "We talked about this. I can move my fingers almost normally, though it hurts like Tartarus, so no tendons were harmed. We used that wound salve we found. So as long as the wounds don't get infected, they should heal back to normal, right?"

"But, Xena ... The holes might not heal over ... and the bone underneath has a hole too..."

"So when I go fishing, some of the smaller ones may get away," the warrior said impatiently. "I'll live to hold a sword again. This isn't about my hands. What's really wrong, Gabrielle?"

"Hope," said the bard. She lowered her head, and a tear dropped onto the blanket. "I should have been ... I don't know, strong enough or clever enough ... smart enough to keep her from getting inside me, or once she was in, to throw her out, or to warn you ... but she was so ... I just couldn't get control ... Xena, the things she did to you ... to us ... all those months." More tears dropped onto the fabric. "I feel so ... ashamed."

"Yes. What she did to us." Xena said thoughtfully. The tone of her voice caused Gabrielle to look up in puzzlement.

"You're not even angry," she stated in bewilderment. She wiped at her wet eyes. "I don't understand..."

Xena smiled faintly. "Yes, what she did to us. Think about it, Gabrielle. After all that she did TO us ... then she saved us. Hope saved us."

Gabrielle stared at her friend. "You're not serious ... Xena, are you crazy?"

"No," said the Warrior Princess flatly. "I'm deadly serious. Your 'evil' daughter saved us! We would have died out there on those crosses and Caesar would have won. We would be dead right now if not for ... your daughter..." She smiled faintly, "If not for your 'Hope'."

"By the gods, Xena..." The bard looked stunned. "You're saying..."

"I am saying that I was ... wrong." The blue eyes held vast regret. "Ever since the beginning I've been wrong about Hope."

"But, Xena..."

"No! If I had let you keep Hope when she was born, instead of trying to kill her, forcing you to flee with her and finally to send her away with no love..." The warrior choked back a sob. "Gods! I made her into what she became, Gabrielle, just as surely as I made Callisto or Ming Tien. I drove her away from you and into Dahak's arms ... and then what chance did she have to know anything but evil?"

She grasped the bard's hands, forcing her numbed fingers to close as she looked earnestly into the green eyes. "If there's any fault here, it's mine. Just think Gabrielle, if only I had really listened to you. You could have saved her with your love, just as you said. As it was, because of your goodness and love, while she was inside of you Hope changed just enough for the better, to come through at the end and save both of us. She knew at last how to be good, because of you. You can't be ashamed of yourself for that."

Tears stood out in the small woman's eyes, and she swallowed wordlessly.

Xena lowered her head and looked at their clasped hands. "Gabrielle... when Hercules gave me a second chance, I knew I had to try to make up for every rotten stinking thing I had done in the name of evil, but until I met you, I didn't think I could. There was just so much. But you gave me your friendship and trust, your understanding and joy and your love and you made me hope again. You were the best thing that ever happened to me ... and when I thought you were dead in Dahak's temple, it almost destroyed me."

"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle whispered.

"Then, when I found you alive in Poteidaia," she squeezed the bard's hands again and looked up, "I was so happy ... for about ten minutes. Then I remembered that vision of the future that Alti had shown me." She grimaced.

"You and I dying on the cross..." Gabrielle whispered.

"Yes." Xena looked grim. "Ever since then, day by day, I could feel my joy, my love of life draining away, just knowing that something I would do would get us both killed in such an ugly way. I've been afraid for you, for me, and of the future since that time, dreading it, fearing it...

"Until now," she smiled like a sunrise. "Now that future is gone! It's all ours to make as we choose and it's all thanks to Hope. Do you realize, Gabrielle, that you were the first person to give me hope after Hercules, and now your daughter Hope has given us back our future and ... all our hopes again."

"Oh, Xena..." Gabrielle touched the warrior's cheek, and her voice trembled. "All those years I blamed myself for Hope, for her evil ... for her part in Solan's death, for everything that happened, and now..."

Her voice caught; Xena sat silently listening. "And now I feel like ... like a weight has been lifted from my heart." She sobbed in joy and release then, and it was the warrior's turn to rock her small friend in comfort as her own silent tears of joy fell.


It was still dark but near morning, and the cold winds still blew snow around the outside of the hut. There would be no travel today, or for the next few days. Argo was asleep on her feet, as horses sleep, and a light snore came from her nostrils. Xena found herself nodding in the warmth of the banked hearth. A coal snapped and she came fully awake to find Gabrielle sitting there watching her. The warrior yawned and smiled.

"You still awake?"

The bard nodded. "You know Xena, there's still one thing I can't forgive Hope for."

"And what's that," the warrior asked sleepily.

Gabrielle spoke in a kind of wounded outrage. "Najara or no Najara, I can't believe Hope kept my hair this short. I've never had it like this since I was a kid."

The Warrior Princess smiled wryly and gathered the bard into her arms; kissed the top of her head.

"It'll grow back," she whispered against the blond hair. "I love you, Gabrielle."

The small woman snuggled against her and returned her big friend's hug with affection.

"Oh, I love you too, Xena."

Concluded in Hope Full the Final Book, This March to a Different Drum.

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