A GOOD DAY TO DIE
Written by: Blade Mast and Candace Chellew
BladeMast@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 2 of 7
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Again the bard looked out over the empty desert of snow. What is she seeing? What about this place frightens her so? And then it clicked. By unknowing osmosis, Gabrielle's mind became entangled in the same vision. The same, save for one fact. Xena was dying alone. By the gods. No wonder she didn't want to come here! This is the place of her death! Oh Xena, I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have forced you to come with me. You knew about this place, didn't you? Her thoughts pulled up short. Wait. That can't be right. Xena's alive right now, which means that that witch Alti didn't show her this vision. She couldn't have. When Alti showed her the vision of her death, Xena lost! But Xena's here now! Her mind whirled in confusion. Alright, Gabrielle. Think. Focus. In the vision the Fates showed you, Alti used the vision of Xena's death in the future to kill her in the present. But since Xena's not dead in the present, it means she defeated Alti, right? So she couldn't have seen that vision. Because it would have killed her. So what changed? The answer hit her as if she were struck by one of Zeus' lightening bolts. I changed! Because I agreed to the deal with the Fates, Xena was able to defeat Alti! That's it! It has to be! That's my destiny! To save Xena from dying on the cross! Everything fell into place within Gabrielle and her heart thundered in her heart, joyous at her discovery. It all makes sense now! Because I came back, Alti wasn't able to show Xena the vision of her death! Which means I somehow save her from that death! And the Fates' warning about my anger makes sense too. Xena was about to be crucified by Caesar. I'm sure of it. And because of Caesar, I lost my blood innocence, allowed Crassus to die when I could have prevented it, and did the same for Phlanagus. The Fates know of my hatred for Caesar. If I give into my anger, I'll lose Xena. And if I'm too close to Xena, her anger will fuel mine and we'll both lose!
Though horribly erroneous, Gabrielle's thoughts brought her a profound sense of relief. It all made sense to her now. Her sense of purpose was stronger than ever.
They both snapped from their reveries at the same time.
They said each other's names at once.
Xena turned her blue eyes upward to meet the green ones staring at her just a short distance away. The gaze was too intense for either of them and they both suddenly found more interesting things to occupy their vision amongst the bright white landscape.
Gabrielle glanced back to find Xena staring at the ground, trembling slightly.
She swallowed hard and leaned forward. "Xena, are you okay?"
Think, Warrior Princess. Xena felt a small rush of panic. Gotta make it good. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. This place," she stopped to gather her thoughts. "It reminds me of a rather bloody battle from my past. Another killing field where plenty of innocents died at my hand."
She spit out the last sentence, truly feeling the anguish of her past sins. Her lie wasn't a big one. The cold climate did remind her of how she slaughtered an entire band of Amazons and took immense pleasure in what proved to be an all too easy battle. The chill of the air, and the chilling actions of her past, gripped her. Here she was, on the terrain of her death, and still so far from redemption. She looked over at her companion who continued to gaze at her with a look of compassion. But the bone deep love, the love that Xena depended on to take her down that awful path to redemption; that look was missing. So very far from home. And her heart broke a little more with the truth of that statement.
Gabrielle saw Xena's heavy sigh more than she heard it. The thick vapor of breath the warrior exhaled dissipated slowly. Gabrielle's heart cried out for her lover, but she clamped her emotion tight. Instead, she coaxed out a small feeling of joy. Maybe Xena's remorse for her crimes would finally be the redemption she needed. Her purpose was clear. She could help Xena find salvation, and save her from her death on the cross.
Gabrielle's silence was deafening. Xena stole a glance at her friend to see if she'd even heard her. The bard's gaze had softened and Xena noted she almost looked happy.
"Xena, one day the horrors of your past will no longer haunt you," Gabrielle said softly.
Xena snorted and thought wryly to herself, 'Yeah, when they drive those long, cold nails through my hands.'
"Don't laugh, Xena," Gabrielle stood tall, her gaze lancing out at the fiercely beautiful tundra. "We'll find the key to your redemption. Together."
Gabrielle stepped around the warrior.
'Key to my redemption,' Xena turned the phrase over in her head. 'What in Tartarus does she mean?' After a long moment, the warrior shook her head and stepped after her friend, her boots cutting deep furrows through the unending drifts.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered into the bowed golden hair, "you need to ride Argo." She shot a glance toward the perplexed stable hand, then rolled her eyes.
"No way, Xena. She's your horse. You ride her."
"Excuse us for a moment," the warrior said to the confused man, placing an uncompromising grip on the young bard's shoulder and steering her out of earshot. "You need to focus, Gabrielle," she hissed. "I'm a slave here, remember? Slaves don't go riding horses while their Masters walk through the snow."
Gabrielle shrugged off Xena's grip. "Don't tell me what I need to do, Xena," she whispered hotly. "I know how important this mission is, just as much as you do."
"Then start acting like it." As green eyes lanced through her own, Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, you've been acting very strangely since we got off the ship. We need to concentrate on why we're here. Making a scene in front of the locals isn't helping our case any."
"I do not make scenes."
A raised eyebrow.
After a long moment, Gabrielle expelled a frustrated breath of air. "Alright. I'll ride your horse. But you better make sure she doesn't buck me off in the snow just to see me wet."
What I wouldn't give to see you wet right now. Xena shook off the thought. "Fine. Let's get going then, alright?"
The day passed in a long, slow monotony of blinding snowdrifts and bitter wind. Xena's body, clad only in a short shift and threadbare cloak, was beyond numb. Her leather boots, perfect for delivering lethal kicks and towering flips, were useless against the frozen tundra upon which she trod. Her lips were blue with the cold, her eyes set in a frozen squint to protect them from snow-blindness and a headache pounded sickly in her temples. Her hands and feet had long since lost any feeling. Frostbite was becoming more of a worry with each step she took. Mercifully, her mind was a total blank as she relied on pure instinct to get her through the journey, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other.
From her perch atop Argo, Gabrielle looked very much like a Queen surveying her domain. Her heavy, fur-lined, hooded cloak and thickly insulated boots kept her warm and dry. She was in love with this place and her bright smile showed it. So different from Greece, she thought, knowing that if they were home, this trip would have probably been broken up by five bloody encounters with road bandits, the saving of at least one screaming baby from a well and assorted other difficulties. Here only . . .peace. Interrupted infrequently by riders, heavily cloaked against the elements, bearing smiles as beatific as the one she'd warn since the beginning of their journey this morning. Each rode in, greeted her warmly (ignoring her half-frozen slave who had a hand firmly wrapped around the chakram sewn into a hidden fold in her cloak), inquired on her state of health and that of her horse, pressed some trinket or other (mainly food) into her hands and left with a warm goodbye and best wishes for her journey and safety during it. I've found paradise.
Gabrielle's paradise was Xena's Tartarus and it was steadily getting worse. The threat of hypothermia and frostbite loomed more dangerous the further into the country they traveled. The sight of a system of caves in the near distance, their narrow entrances dark against the blinding snow, caused the warrior to feel the first warm thought in many hours. "We'll head for those caves and call it a day," she remarked, her voice hoarse and raw from the cold.
The bard peered disappointedly down at her companion. "But, Xena, it's still light out. We could travel much further today." She clearly didn't want the day to end.
"Gabrielle, in this part of the world, days last much longer in the winter. We could probably travel the whole day through in some type of light. But we're not going to. Argo," she said pointedly, unwilling, especially now, to admit her own desperate need for warmth, "needs rest."
Gabrielle considered pressing her argument, then relented, noticing for the first time the bedraggled misery of her companion. "Alright," she conceded after a long moment, gently nudging the plodding war-horse in the direction of the caves.
After determining their temporary shelter to be free of hibernating animals, the warrior dragged their gear from her horse and into the spacious cave, her legs wooden, her feet almost immobile blocks of ice. She was almost afraid to remove her boots to see how much this day's travel had cost her flesh. "Clear some space for a fire while I hunt up some dry wood," she commanded, not waiting for an acknowledgement before stepping back out into the frigid air. Divesting Argo of her saddle and tack, Xena dug a furrow into the deep snow and sprinkled the trough with a good layer of oats for the horse. She poured some water from one of their skins into a depression in a large rock and softy stroked the chilled hide of the mare as she drank her fill. It would be replaced with snowmelt later. "Sorry about this, girl," she murmured, throwing a heavy saddleblanket over Argo's tall, broad back. "There isn't enough room for you in the cave. I'll come out and check on ya later, alright?"
At the horse's answering nicker, Xena gave a chilled half smile and turned, intent on finding at least some wood dry enough to start a fire.
When the frozen warrior returned to the shelter of the cave with an armload of firewood, she noted that Gabrielle had stowed their gear, cleared out a fire circle and set out their bedrolls on opposite sides of that circle. The bard met her curious glance with a challenging one of her own, but Xena was simply too cold, wet, tired and hungry to make a comment. Going to the circle, she dumped the wood unceremoniously to the ground. A slight gasp issued forth from her furrowed lips as she squatted down to arrange the pieces. Trying to strike her flint was an exercise in futility. Her fingers, resembling nothing more than un-jointed blocks of wood, refused to grasp the flint-stones, and her first try caused them to both fly out of her hands and into the silently waiting wood. She sighed.
Gabrielle stepped in and grabbed the flints before Xena could get her stiffened muscles to cooperate. "Go strip off your wet clothes," the bard commanded, her voice carrying none of the warmth it had when she was speaking to the Native Peoples. "I'll get this fire going and get us something warm to eat."
Without acknowledging the comment, Xena lowered herself to the ground with an uncharacteristic lack of grace. Throwing off her cloak, she fumbled with the frozen laces of her boots, refusing to give up the exercise even though the rawhide was becoming more stiff and tangled with each attempt.
Seeing her difficulty, Gabrielle finished with the fire and batted the warrior's hands away from their task, her own warm, supple fingers making short work of the stubborn laces. After a few hearty tugs, the boots came free, disclosing swollen, blanched feet.
Not good. I've got to get them warmed up gradually or I could lose them. Xena had been lucky during her warlord years in the Steppes. Most of the men in her army, Borias included, had lost bodyparts to frostbite. She was in distinct danger of doing the same unless she could restore warmth and circulation to the affected limbs. When Gabrielle stood to remove the warrior's shift, Xena shook her head. "Leave it. It's not that wet and I don't have anything else. It'll dry out soon enough."
Blowing out a breath of frustration, the bard rose and went to their saddlebags to remove some food. Returning to the fire with the food and cookpot, she sat down next to the warrior. "Why didn't you tell me things had gotten this bad?" she asked, indicating Xena's feet warming slowly by the fire.
The warrior shrugged. "Wasn't anything you could do about it."
"You could have ridden with me, Xena," she remarked heatedly, throwing up a hand to forestall the lecture. "And don't tell me those people we met would have been upset with that. They're the nicest people I've ever met! They were concerned about us, Xena."
"You, Gabrielle. They were concerned about you. To them, I don't exist. Even Argo is more important than I am here. I'm nothing but a slave and you don't treat slaves as if they have feelings. They're property. Nothing more."
Gabrielle thought back upon the day, realizing that her companion was right in her assessment. "Maybe that's true," she finally assented quietly. "But even property is taken care of if it's valuable enough to you."
Xena looked up from the study of her feet, her eyes warming slightly. Gabrielle caught her gaze and a hint of her sunny smile came to her face before fading as the bard turned back to the fire, busying herself with dinner.
The smell of good food soon permeated the air and Xena winced, biting back groans of pain as her frozen limbs began to reawaken under the fire's gentle ministrations. Her stomach rumbled low in her body. Gabrielle had just retrieved their plates then a sound came from outside the caves. Xena stiffened, reaching for her cloak and the lethal chakram hidden within.
"'Lo, neighbor! Might I share shelter?" came a voice from just outside the entrance. The sound of a heavy body dropping from a horse into the deep snow followed the call.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. The warrior quickly turned from the fire, replacing Gabrielle and grabbing the plates from her hands. Reaching down, she deftly removed a thin iron collar from its hiding place in the saddlebags and slipped it around her neck. Then she nodded.
"Come in from the cold and be welcomed, friend," Gabrielle said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and biting her lip unconsciously.
A large man ducked beneath the shelter's narrow opening, drawing the hood back from his head to reveal long blonde hair, a thick beard and smiling blue eyes to the two woman. "Balder's blessings be upon you, young miss," he said to Gabrielle, smiling and stamping his booted feet to free them from the clinging snow. "It's a cold night for travel. I've brought some food to share if you'll allow my presence at your fire."
The bard smiled warmly. "I have plenty of food. Please join us . . .er . . .me. My name is Gabrielle."
"Well met, Gabrielle," the man said, grasping the bard's hand gently. "Mine's Norjaad."
As the man threw off his cloak, Xena finished loading the plates, keeping her eyes down as she handed them off to Gabrielle and Norjaad. There would be no food for her this night. The man took the plate with a grunt. "See to my horse and bring my things inside, slave," he ordered imperiously, his warm personality changing instantly. "See to it that he's well groomed. And take care with my possessions. I have no patience with clumsy slaves."
Resisting the urge to snap the man's neck and be done with it, Xena instead nodded, looked longingly at her still wet boots, and stepped out into the snow, barefoot and cloakless. The snow lanced through her half-frozen feet like shards of splintered glass and she winced into the emptiness of the night, white teeth bared in a grimace of pain. The bitter wind numbed her exposed skin immediately and she stumbled over to the panting horse, divesting him of his saddle and tack before brushing him down with numbed hands. Shivers wracked her body in violent spasms as she proceeded about her tasks.
After checking on Argo and resting her head in the faint warmth of the horse's strong neck, the warrior grabbed Norjaad's possessions, almost dropping them twice when her limbs began to refuse to cooperate. Uncharacteristically stumbling yet again, she made it back into the warmth of the cave, laying the man's belongings near to his seated form, keeping her face carefully vacant. She resisted narrowing her eyes when she noticed he was casually seated on her bedroll.
Not looking up from her food, Gabrielle casually waved Xena back to the chilled mouth of the cave, far from the radiating warmth of the fire. "That'll be all," she said, her voice as cold as the air blowing outside.
Suppressing a surge of anger at this betrayal, Xena forced herself to retrace her steps back to the cave entrance, gingerly sitting down on the cold, naked stone, the chill seeping into her bones like fetid water into a sponge. She forced herself to remember their roles here, to remember that Gabrielle was putting on an act for their guest, but deep down inside, she felt the unshakable bond of trust she had with her lover begin to weaken. Stop that, she told herself sternly. Believe in her or all is lost. As the deep cold settled into her, she fought against the hypothermia-induced lethargy, forcing her eyelids to stay open, forcing herself to stay conscious, forcing against the siren song of sweet oblivion. This is not good. Not even shivering anymore. Gotta stay awake. Gotta stay awake. Focus. Stay awake. Reaching out with her senses, she focused in on the softly spoken conversation Gabrielle was having with Norjaad.
"What brings you so far out into the wastelands?" Norjaad asked, peering at Gabrielle inquisitively over the rim of his mug of hot tea.
Gabrielle bit her lip again, hoping her non-rehearsed story would be enough to placate him. Here goes nothing. "I married very young. My husband took me to live far away from my family. He liked being alone. I hated it. He died in a hunting accident a few weeks ago, leaving me nothing but the clothes on my back and that slave over there. So I decided to come home. I'm headed to the village of Gudvargen to sell my slave so that I'll have enough money to eat through the winter."
Norjaad's eyes deepened with compassion. "Such a hard life for one so young. Balder blessed you with your husband's death. You deserve to know your family again."
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed. "I just want peace." She sighed, knowing the statement for truth.
Norjaad looked at the young woman sadly, then gazed across the cave into the fierce blue eyes of her slave. He stiffened, convinced he had just looked into the face of death. Blinking, he opened his eyes again and breathed a sigh of relief. The slave's eyes were half lidded and vacant, the pupils well dilated by the drugs she was apparently on to keep her subdued. Taking the time to study her carefully, he smiled. The wet shift she wore did nothing to hide the strong body, nor the voluptuous curves, from his vision.
Gabrielle caught the look and narrowed her eyes slightly at the staring man. Norjaad saw her out of the corner of his eye and blushed slightly. "Sorry about that," he said with an abashed grin. "I think I've been on the road too long, Balder forgive me. My wife would have my head for thinking impure thoughts about another, even a slave."
"I understand," the bard replied, smiling warmly and collecting the mugs and plates, placing them beside the fire. She was very much enjoying both the warmth of the fire and the conversation. With what they had been through together, no topic seemed safe with Xena. It felt good to just sit back and talk with someone with whom she shared no past.
The conversation's words began to blur in her mind as Xena fought hard against falling asleep. Her body systems were starting to shut down, trying to preserve what little heat was left for the vital functions of the heart and brain. Her breathing was slow and shallow. She didn't seem to have the energy to expand her ribcage enough to deepen her breaths. She was lightheaded and lethargic. She smiled internally at the irony of it all. That she would die here, in a cave, scant feet from the lifesaving warmth of the fire, her lover, her light, sitting those same feet away, totally oblivious. Well, Alti, you were wrong about this one. I'm not even gonna make it to the cross. Her heart warmed slightly, the internal smile working its way to her frozen facial muscles. At least Gabrielle will be safe. I've managed to avoid the vision. Not a bad reason to die. Dragging her gaze over to the fire one last time, she let her eyes rest on Gabrielle, the firelight bathing her soft features, caressing them in a way that the warrior longed to do, but couldn't. She stared, enraptured, for a long moment, her heart gathering all the love she had ever held for her partner and sending it out through her eyes. Goodbye, Gabrielle. I'll always love you. With that thought, she closed her eyes, the last vision of Gabrielle in the firelight following her down into the sweet nothing of oblivion.
Having caught Gabrielle hiding a yawn behind her hand for the third time, Norjaad stretched and smiled. "I've kept you up long enough with my boring stories. You've had a long journey and it's best if you got some rest, eh?"
Gabrielle blushed slightly at being caught. "It's not your stories at all, Norjaad. They're wonderful. But I am a little tired. I did a lot of riding today."
"Thank you for the warmth of your company and the fire, Gabrielle," the young man said sincerely. "You've made my long journey all the brighter for it. Balder's blessings on you." He moved to stand.
"Must you leave so soon? I mean, it's very cold out there. You're welcome to spend the night by the fire if you want."
"That would be very much welcomed," Norjaad responded with a beaming smile. "I'll just get my gear and bunk down."
Within a very few minutes, the young man was nestled beneath the furs of his bedroll, snoring softly into the still air of the cave. Gabrielle smiled fondly, sipping the last of her tea, replaying the conversation in her mind, savoring its nuances. Snapping out of her reverie, she put the empty mug on the cave floor, turning her gaze to the windblown entrance. Her heart froze in her chest. Xena was clearly unconscious, her skin as white as marble, her breathing undetectable beneath the thin shift now frozen to her body. "By the gods," Gabrielle breathed, shooting up to her feet and rushing over to where the warrior lay. "Xena?" she whispered, grabbing a frozen shoulder and shaking the unresponsive woman. "Xena??" Oh Gabrielle, what have you done???? Touching Xena's chilled, unresponsive flesh brought her back in time to when she held her lover's corpse on Mount Nestos, begging, pleading with her to come back. Her hand slipped up to Xena's neck, feeling for a pulse and finding none. Tears sprung up to her eyes. You've murdered your best friend! "Xena, wake up. C'mon, wake up!" She shook the unresponsive shoulders again, beyond terrified. "Please don't do this to me, Xena! Please wake up!"
Gabrielle's shouts woke Norjaad, who rolled to his feet and joined Gabrielle. "Hypothermia," he pronounced. He detected a pulse but it was faint and thready, more of a convulsion of her heart rather than a true beat. "She's alive, though barely."
"What do I do? I don't know how to treat this!" Gabrielle's green eyes rolled in panic. "Help me, please."
Norjaad rose an bushy eyebrow. "She's just a slave, child. Hardly worth the effort."
The bard grabbed the front of his shirt. "She is to me!" she hissed, forgetting herself for a moment.
The young man's eyes widened slightly. Then he relaxed. "I've heard of such things happening," he said, "though Balder frowns upon friendship between slave and Master."
"She's . . .she's all I have." She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remember her role. "Since my husband died, I mean. Please, Norjaad. If you can help, please. I need to get her to Gudvarten. I'll starve this winter if I don't."
The explanation placated the man and he nodded, gathering Xena's unresponsive body in his arms and walking her over to the fire. "You need to try and warm her up gradually. When she's awake enough, try to get her to take some tea. Don't let her get too close to the fire. She won't be able to feel the heat on her skin and it could burn." He looked at her speculatively. "The best way to warm up someone like this is through body heat. Skin to skin contact. If that makes you uncomfortable, I could do it." The thought was both repulsive and exciting to him.
"No. No, that's ok. I'll do it," Gabrielle assured him.
"Alright. I'll set up some water to heat and leave you to your privacy then. If you need anything, just call out."
"Thank you, Norjaad."
"Think nothing of it, young miss. Glad to help." That said, the young man set a pot of water on the fire and retired to his bedroll, courteously turning his back to the two women.
Oh Xena, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry. Please don't leave me. Please. Reaching down, Gabrielle plucked at the frozen cloth, grimacing as it came away from Xena's skin with a faint tearing sound. With a great deal of effort, she managed to pry the cloth away, pulling it up and over the warrior's lolling head. Setting it as close to the fire as she dared, she then removed her own garments. Pulling on Xena's arms to get her to sit up, the bard quickly slipped behind her lover, allowing the warrior to collapse back against her chest. Then she grabbed the thick furs of her bedroll, draping the fire-warmed material over them both, shivering as the icy flesh of the Warrior Princess numbed her own. "Wake up, Xena," she whispered into one frozen ear. "Please wake up. Don't leave me like this, please. Don't do this. I l . . . ." she stopped. Damn it! I can't even tell her I love her! Damn you, Xena. Don't you dare die on me! I love you, damnit!
She rubbed Xena's arms briskly, trying to restore circulation to them. The warrior's body was heavy against her and she strained to remain upright. "C'mon, Xena. Wake up. I'm right behind you. Can you feel me? Come back to me, Xena." She remembered the last time she had said those words, leaning over the warrior's sarcophagus. "Please come back," she whispered as she did before. Her heart dropped to her feet. She had reason to come back then. She knew you loved her. She has no reason now. You left her to freeze to death in nothing but a shift. Self revulsion filled Gabrielle. She wanted to scream. To lash out at something, anything. At the Fates, for forcing this deal on her, at Ares for forcing the Fates' hands. At herself most of all. For allowing the only person she had ever really loved to die without knowing that.
"Xena," she whispered coaxingly, "if you just wake up and come back to me, I promise we'll leave here as soon as you're strong enough. We'll go back to Greece, ok? I know you hate it here. I know I've been distant, acting crazy. That won't happen anymore, ok? I promise. We'll just go back, get on that ship, and head back home. Ok? Please?"
When there was still no response, Gabrielle slipped out from behind Xena, allowing the warrior to fall back against the thick cloth of the bedroll. Lifting the warm skins, the bard crawled back beneath, covering Xena's body full length with her own. Propping herself up on her elbows above the warrior's broad shoulders, she took in the peace of Xena's unconscious face. The bard's tears fell on the cold flesh of that beautiful countenance. Using her warm hands, she cupped the warrior's strong cheekbones, running a thumb softly over one sculpted brow, just looking down at the cherished face, needing desperately to see the blindingly blue eyes that lay hidden beneath the closed lids. "C'mon, Xena. I know you're in there. Open your eyes for me. C'mon. Open your eyes. Let me see those beautiful baby blues. Damnit, Xena, open your eyes!" She squeezed the warrior's face tightly in her frustration, leaving faint red traces in the marble-white skin.
Then she felt it. A faint tremor in the long body beneath her. There it was again. Soon, the tremors ran together without stopping, wracking the warrior's body in violent spasms, her body temperature warming enough to allow the shivering reflex to kick in. The bard jumped off of Xena's body with a yelp, then realized the shivering for what it was and a smile crossed her tear-stained face. She continued to rub her hands over the chilled body, restoring warmth and circulation.
The blue eyes opened, dazed at first, then becoming more aware. They focused on the blonde head above them. "G...Gabrielle?" Xena whispered through chattering teeth.
"Not . . .dead?"
Gasping in a sob, Gabrielle put a hand over her mouth. "No, not dead. You're alive. With me."
"Yes, but you're warming up." She collapsed against Xena, her sobs taking over. "Oh, Xena. I'm so sorry. You almost died because of me."
Xena tried to wrap her lover in her trembling arms, but couldn't find the strength. "It's alright," she whispered. "Alright. Here now."
Gabrielle's sobs tapered off quickly, her sense of duty to the warrior coming to the fore. "Norjaad said you were to drink some tea once you woke up. Do you think you can?"
"Ok. I'll be right back." Reaching over the fire, the bard grasped the pot of water and poured it into a mug already dusted with herbs. She waited a moment as the tea steeped, breathing in the fragrant aroma. Satisfied, she returned to the warm nest of blankets, helping Xena to sit up and supporting her as she raised the mug to tremoring lips. "Be careful. It's very hot."
Xena took the tea in tiny sips, almost slumping in relief as the hot beverage exploded in her empty belly, sending tingling tendrils of warmth through her insides. The flavor was soothing to her jangled nerves and the tremors began to subside slowly. She finished half the mug before relaxing back against Gabrielle's strong body. "Good."
"Thank the gods," the bard breathed. "I thought I'd lost you."
Gabrielle let out a relieved laugh. "I don't know if you heard what I said before, but I meant it. As soon as you're strong enough to travel, we're going back to Greece."
"What?" Xena twisted her head around to meet Gabrielle's serious eyes. "We can't do that. The Amazons, remember?"
"No, Xena. That doesn't matter anymore. None of it does. We need to get out of here." She put a gentle finger over the warrior's protesting lips. "Hear me out. Something's happening to me. I don't know what it is, but it scares me. It's almost like someone's reading my mind and filling in all the empty spots in my soul. Only they're making me forget about the most important thing in the world to me. You. By the gods, Xena, I didn't think about you even once while I was talking to Norjaad. Not once! I left you there to freeze to death and I didn't even realize it!" She wiped the tears falling freely down her cheeks. "I won't do that anymore. The greater good is you, Xena. Your life is more important than the rest of it. We're leaving."
"No, Gabrielle. You're wrong. The greater good is saving those slaves from these people." The tea had warmed the warrior, her words came out with less effort as her shivering subsided almost completely. "If there is some sort of outside force working on you, you can fight it. Especially now that you're aware of it. You can do this, Gabrielle. You're the strongest person I know."
"I can't do this, Xena. I won't. I won't lose you again."
"You can, Gabrielle. We can. We'll get through this together."
The bard slumped against the long body in front of her. "I don't trust myself anymore," she whispered.
"I do. I'll trust you enough for the both of us, alright?"
"You could be making a big mistake."
Pulling herself upright, Xena twisted on the furs to face the distraught face of her lover. "Then it's a mistake I'll make willingly. I love you." Closing the minute distance between them, the warrior claimed the bard's soft lips in a kiss of promise. Easing her lover back down onto the ground cover, Xena covered Gabrielle's body with her own. "Sleep now," she whispered.
What in the name of Balder?' Norjaad thought as he stared down at the bedroll.
Xena and Gabrielle were entwined in one another's arms. Gabrielle's head rested in the crook of Xena's arm.
'I know I told that young lady to warm her slave with her own body heat, but this has gone too far,' he thought with a twinge of disgust.
His boot was just about to connect with Xena's side when he felt strong hands on his ankle. Tremors ran through his body as he hit the ground on his back. He looked up to see the searing blue eyes of the slave looking down on him. He noted briefly that the slave was naked. He saw muscles ripple as Xena grabbed him roughly by his collar and brought him to his knees. He felt her fingers on his neck. A progressive numbness, starting with his feet, began to claim his body. She spoke to him, but he couldn't believe what she said. 'Cut off the flow of blood to my brain?' he tried to comprehend his approaching death while a haze filled his mind.
"Xena, what are you doing?" he heard the voice of the slave's young companion and silently thanked Balder.
Xena stared down at the crippled Norseman and realized her sleepy mistake. She quickly released Norjaad from the pinch. He dropped limply to the ground, gasping for breath and any coherent thought.
"Sorry, Gabrielle," the warrior shrugged and whispered urgently. "He snuck up on us while we were asleep, and, well, you know what happens when someone does that."
Gabrielle shot a look at Xena and was about to respond when heavy hands fell on her shoulders.
Norjaad was back on his feet. He shoved Gabrielle out of the way, and with a mighty backhand, gave Xena a solid slap across the face.
Xena nearly choked on the bitter, metal taste of her own blood filling her mouth. She snapped her head back toward Norjaad and spit the foul tasting liquid onto his face.
Enraged, Norjaad hit Xena again, harder this time with his full palm.
Xena swallowed the result of that blow and turned her eyes on the man, who under any other circumstance would no longer be in need of his lungs. She spread her lips into a feral smile. One more hit would be all it would take for this man to meet the god he loved so much.
A head full of blond hair came between her and Norjaad. "Norjaad, please, stop!" Gabrielle pleaded.
"This slave must be taught a lesson, young woman," Norjaad's ruddy features were even redder with rage. "She could have killed me."
"I know, and she'll be punished," Gabrielle began.
Xena raised an eyebrow suggestively behind her friend and occupied herself with a different vision while Gabrielle did the bard thing on the Norseman.
"You have to understand," Gabrielle continued. "My husband won her in a card game from a Roman nobleman. Xena used to be a gladiator. She was severely injured in one fight and was about to be executed since she was no good for the games anymore. My husband thought she would make a good slave, and well, he was right. She is a good slave, but only he could control her. I have to use drugs to keep her subdued. If you'll remember last night, she was a little too out of it to drug."
Norjaad was buying the story. 'A gladiator, huh?' He shivered involuntarily. He slowly realized the slave could have killed him at any moment if it had not been for Gabrielle. He stole a glance at the woman, who studiously kept her eyes on the ground. Norjaad felt safer moving a few steps away.
Gabrielle turned to Xena, "You, sit." she commanded. A small smile that only Gabrielle could see crossed her lips, as she complied. The bard ignored it and moved to their gear and found the herbs she needed. She mixed them with water that Norjaad had already warmed over the fire.
She roughly shoved the mug under Xena's nose and ordered, "Drink it. All of it. And no spitting any of it out this time. And put this on." Gabrielle tossed Xena's shift into her lap.
Xena kept her head down and accepted the warm mug. She smiled into the mug as she drank the warm, delicious concoction.
Gabrielle approached Norjaad. "Are you okay?" she asked with concern.
"I think I'll live," he smiled back.
"I apologize, again," Gabrielle said with sincerity. "She can be unpredictable at times."
"She'll be a hard one to sell," Norjaad warned her. "You should keep her subdued at all times if you expect to make enough money off of her to live through the winter."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at him, "Thank you for your advice. I will."
Norjaad looked back at the dark haired slave, whose head now lolled listlessly from side to side as the drugs took effect.
"And you be careful with her," he whispered to Gabrielle. "A woman like that can only bring you pain and sorrow."
"Well, she can be someone else's pain and sorrow when we get to Gudvargen," Gabrielle replied with an inward shiver.
"I'll leave you to your journey then, Gabrielle," Norjaad bowed slightly. "I am headed the other direction. When you get to Gudvargen, look up a man named Gunni. He is the priest of the temple of Balder. I'm certain he can find a place for you to stay while you do your business in town."
"Thank you, Norjaad," Gabrielle was grateful for the man's kindness.
"Looks like your slave is calm again," Norjaad motioned toward Xena who was relaxed on the bedroll. "You won't be needing me to protect you anymore, so I'll be on my way."
Gabrielle almost laughed out loud at the thought of the Norseman standing any chance against Xena. Instead, she smiled at him and wished him a safe journey as he left the warmth of the cave. Once Norjaad was on his way, Gabrielle turned to Xena, ready to give her a piece of what was left of her mind.
She came up short when she saw Xena, reclined on the bedroll, her shift barely covering the patch of hair that Norjaad had so earlier been treated to close up. Her eyes followed a trail from the tantalizing spot to the blue eyes staring her way. Xena's half smile was charming and thoroughly disarming.
Gabrielle felt the air rush from her lungs as she took in the beauty of her lover. 'She was a step away from chatting with Hades last night, and now she looks so beautiful and radiant,' Gabrielle marveled as she tried to catch the breath the sight of Xena took from her. 'Focus, Gabrielle. This is not the time to let your hormones do the talking.' She took a deep breath. "Are you trying to drive me crazy?" Gabrielle put her hands on her hips.
Xena sighed and rearranged her shift. "Gabrielle, I'm not sure I have much to do with your current state of mind."
"What it Tartarus does that mean?" she shouted, knowing full well what her friend meant. Xena was onto her and she knew it.
"You know exactly what I mean, Gabrielle," Xena sat up on the bedroll, her eyes blazing.
Desperate to not walk down this road with Xena, she changed gears. "You almost blew our cover by nearly killing that nice man."
Xena let her change the subject for now, but was determined to press her point later. "Gabrielle, he came at me when I was asleep. I was acting on reflex, you know that."
"Your reflexes might just get us killed," Gabrielle spat.
"They nearly got him killed," Xena stood and shook her head. "Besides, Gabrielle, what harm would it have done if I had killed him. It might be dangerous to just let him go on after all he's seen here."
"What harm?" Gabrielle felt a familiar surge of anger. "Xena, whether you like these people or not, that man has a wife, and maybe children. Taking him away from his family .. that would have been the harm! Don't you see that? Why is it so easy for you to just kill whenever it serves your purpose?"
Xena could stand it no more. She stood nose to nose with the bard and measured her sentences through clenched teeth. "Gabrielle, if you'll remember, it's my ease of killing that has saved your life over and over again. Don't go getting sanctimonious on me now."
"Sanctimonious?" Gabrielle took the challenge and held Xena's gaze. "What's so sanctimonious about revering life, Xena? What's so sanctimonious about choosing life over death? What's so sanctimonious about refusing to kill?" She punctuated her last three words by poking the warrior in the chest.
Xena grabbed the offending hand, and held it tightly. "But, Gabrielle, you have killed," she continued to hold the bard's intense stare, trying to provoke the bard to a state of anger she had not seen since her return from the pit.
Instead of anger, Xena saw resignation as Gabrielle's eyes softened and grew wet. "I will never do it again."
"You can't make that promise," Xena said matter-of-factly, still trying to push a button she knew was there.
"I can't kill, Xena," Gabrielle was exasperated and teetered on the edge of blurting out the whole story of her deal with the Fates. "I can't."
Xena saw something more in Gabrielle's eyes, the something that had eluded her ever since her partner's return. "You can't kill." She repeated the words slowly, and something in her mind clicked. "You can't kill," she said it again thoughtfully.
Gabrielle's expression turned to one of pleading. "Xena .. ., " she began.
"That's it, isn't it?" Xena's mind was spinning full speed.
"Xena, I can't talk about this," Gabrielle began to back away from the warrior.
"What can't you talk about, Gabrielle?" Xena advanced on the retreating bard.
"By the gods, Xena. I can't talk about any of this," she stumbled on a rock. She regained her balance and retreated back to the fire.
By the gods? Yes, that's it, the gods. The pieces fell into place in Xena's mind. Gods were at work here. She should have smelled them long ago. "Gabrielle, are the gods involved in this somehow?" Xena sat beside the bard and tried to take her hands in hers.
Gabrielle resisted the contact and put her hands over her mouth. "Stop, Xena, please," she was begging. "Please, let's just go on our way and not talk about this."
Gabrielle tried to get up and walk away, only to find herself rooted to the rock by strong hands on her shoulders. Xena decided to test her theory.
"Gabrielle, look at me," she said softly.
Gabrielle complied slowly, her fear openly showing in her eyes.
"Gabrielle, do you love me?" Xena asked gently.
Tears rolled down Gabrielle's cheek as she tried to find anywhere in the cave to focus on except Xena.
"Gabrielle, answer me," the warrior prompted.
"I can't say, Xena," Gabrielle openly cried now.
"You can't, or you won't?"
Gabrielle's eyes pleaded with Xena to drop this line of questioning. Her heart beat a million times a minute. She could see Atropos' shears hovering around her life thread. "I can't," she said breathlessly.
Xena had nearly put it all together. "You said last night that something is happening to you, Gabrielle. I'd bet all the dinars in Greece that gods are involved in whatever it is that's happening with you. I've watched you do some strange things over the past few months. Times when you should have been angry you've been either flippant or joyful. You seem to take immense pleasure during fights. You've been careful to control your anger. That's got to be part of what's going on."
Xena looked to Gabrielle for some confirmation, but found the bard staring at the fire, tears dripping onto the dusty floor of the cave. The warrior took her lover's silence as affirmation and continued as more pieces fell into place.
"But, things have been especially strange since we got here. There's something about this place that changes you. Last night, you said you didn't think of me at all. I think there's something here that has some manner of power over you. That worries me."
Gabrielle hugged her knees to her chest making herself as small as possible. She was unable to meet Xena's eyes. Everything she said was true, but she feared for her life if she opened her mouth.
Xena's tone became softer as she spoke. "The most troubling part is you won't say that you love me and we haven't made love since you've been back Gabrielle, whether I never hear you speak those words to me again, or feel your body against mine, I know, without a doubt that you love me. You show me in a million small and big ways every single day. You show me when you look at me, when you talk to me, or when you just sit beside me in silence. I feel it, Gabrielle. I don't need to hear it."
Xena gathered the crying bard in her arms and rocked her gently. Gabrielle so wanted to tell this woman that she loved her, but was grateful that Xena knew the truth, even if she couldn't speak it.
"We'll figure this out together, Gabrielle," Xena whispered into her hair. "If it's the last thing we ever do, we'll figure it out."
Another half days journey put the pair on the outskirts of Gudvargen. They had passed the trip in relative silence. Gabrielle was relieved that Xena had figured out most of the deal she had made with the Fates without her having to say a word. It would make it easier when the time came for Gabrielle to go her own way after this mission. Even though Xena had told her she didn't need to hear the words, Gabrielle was certain she couldn't stay with the warrior and not say the words. She
did love Xena, and would eventually blurt out her feelings, then where would she be? Elysian Fields, she thought dryly to herself. She had made up her mind that she couldn't live with that danger. She would have to move on. At least now the warrior would know some reason why she'd have to leave.
She gazed down at Xena who was doing her best to slog through another drift of snow. Her heart went out to her lover, suffering so much to save a band of Amazon slaves.
Xena's mind was working on two problems at once. She was still trying to piece together which god might be involved and what exactly the consequences were for Gabrielle if she welched on the deal with whatever god or goddess. She was also scanning the town from hill where they now stood overlooking Gudvargen. She could see a small encampment on the northern end of the town. The squat buildings, and squalid conditions, compared to the more luxurious homes and businesses on the south end of the city made her certain that was where slaves were kept. She motioned for Gabrielle to join her. She slid off Argo and approached Xena.
"When we get into town, we'll go to the priest Norjaad told you about. We'll ask him about where you can sell me," Xena began her plan.
Gabrielle was captivated by the sight of Gudvargen. The snow-covered town fairly glimmered in the sun. The neat rows of homes and businesses seemed to beckon her. She felt herself pulled to the town for some reason. She could hear Xena speaking to her, and had to concentrate hard to keep up.
"We'll need to check our progress every night," Xena was going on. "You see that low building there just south of the slave quarters?"
Gabrielle tried hard to focus. She saw the building and nodded.
"Those look like stables," Xena noted. "That's where we'll meet after I'm sold. If it's not suitable we can find another place later, but for the first night at least we'll meet there right after dinner. Got it?"
"Hmm?" Gabrielle's mind had wandered.
Xena wrapped her fingers around Gabrielle's forearm. The warmth of the touch snapped Gabrielle back to reality. "What?"
Xena exhaled loudly. "Gabrielle, get a grip. To make this work I need you to pay attention and stay with me."
Gabrielle extricated herself from Xena's grip. "I'm paying attention to you, Xena. You said we'd need to check our progress each night."
"Yes," Xena sighed. "Meet me each night there," she pointed to the building, "at the stables. All right?"
"Right," Gabrielle replied, turning her eyes back to the glistening jewel before them.
Gabrielle was oblivious to the stares she and her partner garnered on their way into town. Xena noticed each one and tried her best not to make eye contact with any of them. Instead, she busied herself with the lay of the land, noting distances, taking in the location of certain buildings, and mapping the entire town in her head.
One of the villagers finally dared to speak with the pair. "A good evening, and Balder's blessings on you, young woman," a thin grey haired man called out to Gabrielle. Xena held Argo's reins. The man passed her by without a glance and patted the horse's nose. "A beauty of a horse you have here," he noted.
"Thank you," Gabrielle responded from atop the golden horse.
"I've never seen you in these parts before," he continued. He extended his hand and Gabrielle shook it, "I'm Songerd."
"Pleased to meet you, Songerd," Gabrielle smiled and slid off Argo. "My name is Gabrielle, this is .. " she motioned toward Xena who gave her a piercing stare. She quickly realized introducing Xena would not be a good thing, "my slave. I was hoping to sell her here and maybe pass the winter in your village's good company."
Songerd turned to regard the tall, dark-haired woman for the first time. He walked a full circle around Xena taking in every feature of her strong, muscled body. "She looks like she'd fetch a nice price," he commented. The man stood behind Xena and placed his hands on her shoulders. It took all of Xena's strength to not put the man on the ground for the impertinence of his grasp on her. Her fierce internal struggle resulted in only a small flinch. "She doesn't like to be touched, does she?" the man noted.
"No, sir," Gabrielle confirmed.
"Well, we'll beat that tendency right out of her shortly," he said matter-of-factly.
Xena openly smirked at Gabrielle, who was trying to get any image of Xena being beaten out of her head.
"During our journey, we met up with a man named Norjaad," Gabrielle shook off the beginnings of those horrible thoughts. "He told us Gunni the priest at the temple of Balder would be happy to help us."
"Ah, Norjaad," Songerd nodded his head. "A fine man and a faithful disciple of Balder. Yes, Gunni will be happy to see you. The temple is just down this street. You can't miss it."
Songerd was right. There was no chance of missing the temple. The opulent building stood tall at the end of the town's main road. It dwarfed all the other structures around it. Four gold-lined domed turrets formed the corners of the building. The temple itself was stone, but was covered with colorful ceramic mosaics depicting what Gabrielle assumed were scenes from Balder's life and work. "Wow, isn't this an incredible temple, Xena?" Gabrielle gasped, taking in the beauty of each detail of the building.
Xena surveyed the building, noting all the exits, any vegetation that might impede an escape, areas where enemies might wait in ambush, and places atop the building where archers might perch. She grunted. "Not a very defensible building. Any ragtag army could take it easily."
Gabrielle stared at the warrior.
"What?" Xena narrowed her eyes at her companion.
Gabrielle merely sighed as she tied Argo to a nearby post and headed for the building's entrance.
The opulence of the temple didn't stop. Finely crafted carpets covered the cold stone floors. Hallway pillars were lined with gold foil. Rubies and diamonds were encrusted into the walls, making them shimmer in the natural light that filtered from open windows in the ceiling. More
colorful mosaics lined the walls as they made their way to the temple's spacious sanctuary.
Xena was careful to let Gabrielle lead the way. She stayed several paces behind her acting the part of the good slave. Every nerve ending was alert. She watched each shadow and caressed the chakram sewn into her cloak. She could have it out at the first sign of danger. She jumped a little as a man rose from one of the benches in the temple and approached them.
"Welcome to the temple of Balder, my child," he took Gabrielle's hand and shook it warmly.
"Thank you," she replied and bowed her head slightly. "I didn't bring a gift for Balder," she continued apologetically.
"Why, my child," the man responded with a broad smile, "Balder expects no gifts. Your presence in his temple is all it takes to please him."
Xena felt the bile rise in her throat as she fought to keep her breakfast down. All these nice people would certainly be the death of her. She tried not to laugh bitterly at the irony.
"I'm looking for Gunni, the priest," Gabrielle said to the man.
"And you have found him, my child," he bowed slightly as an introduction.
"We met a man named Norjaad during our travels and he told us to look you up when we arrived," Gabrielle explained. "He said you'd be willing to help us."
"We?" Gunni's expression became perplexed. "Why do you say we?"
"Why, I was referring to myself and .. my slave," Gabrielle stammered, finding it hard to get used to Xena not even being noticed.
Gunni looked up and took in the sight of Xena for the first time.
"Ah," he nodded. "That's a good slave you have. The best always go unnoticed."
He turned back to Gabrielle. "Norjaad is a fine man, a wonderful disciple of Balder. You were fortunate to pass time with him."
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed. "A fine man, indeed."
"What sort of help is it you seek, my child?" he led Gabrielle to a bench and sat beside her, leaving Xena to stand in the corner.
"Well, I was hoping to sell my slave here and maybe make enough money to pass the winter in your town," she explained.
Gunni took a good long look at Gabrielle. He noted the fine fabric of her garment. She obviously had not been wanting for money at some point. There would only be one reason why a woman would travel with a slave and be worried about making it through the winter on her own.
"You've had a loss recently, yes?" he prompted.
Gabrielle's eyes became wet as she thought of all the things she had lost recently. She didn't trust her voice and could only nod.
The priest wrapped his arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her close. Xena tensed at the contact, but saw Gabrielle relax and lean on the cleric for support.
"It's hard to lose a husband," he said softly, "and a home. You are more than welcome to stay here with us at the temple. You can do some work around here to pay for your room and board. That way any money you make off the sale of your slave will be yours to spend anyway you please."
Gabrielle looked up at the priest, grateful for his hospitality. "That would be wonderful," she smiled. "Thank you for your kindness."
He stood and took her hands in his and pronounced, "Well then, welcome to the house of Balder, my child. I know you will find happiness here."
Xena fought the urge to take the man's head off with her chakram. Alarm bells went off in her head as she saw Gabrielle smile warmly at the man. 'Focus on the mission, Gabrielle, please,' she tried to send her thoughts to her companion. Gabrielle was oblivious once again to the presence of Xena.
The warrior cleared her throat to try and break the mesmerizing look between Gunni and Gabrielle.
Gunni took Xena's hint before Gabrielle could and said, "Ah, yes, the matter of your slave."
He walked around Xena and gave her the same appraising scrutiny that Songerd had done earlier.
"She looks strong and healthy. I'm sure they can use her sort in the mines," he concluded.
"What's the process for selling her?" Gabrielle was curious.
"We'll take her into the square," Gunni began to explain. "The town magistrate will have a look at her and offer you a price. Slaves are community property here. We house them on the other end of town. Strong ones, like this one, are used to work in the mines. The weaker ones do smaller jobs around town. There are even some blond Greeks, if you can believe it. They're used as house slaves, since they're far more pleasing to look at."
'Blond Greeks.' The phrase turned in Gabrielle's head and she shivered internally.
"I'll give you 30 krones for her," the Zorund, the town magistrate, said after fully inspecting Xena to make sure she was up to snuff.
Gabrielle's mind turned slowly. Certainly she had not heard him right. "Excuse me?" she stalled for time to figure out what the man was offering her.
Zorund took her stall as a bargaining tactic. Putting his hands on his hips he sighed, "Fine, 40 krones, but no more."
Gabrielle's confusion grew by the minute. Forty crones? What would she do with that many old women? She looked around the crowd. There were plenty of old women standing around, but would those be the ones?
The magistrate tapped his foot, drawing Gabrielle's attention back to the matters at hand.
She cleared her throat. "Sorry," she began with a pained smile. "What exactly would I do with 40 crones?"
The man raised his eyebrows. "Why anything you want, my child."
Zorund was confused. This young woman was peculiar. "Yes. Shopping, food, clothing, anything."
Gabrielle kind of liked the thought of 40 old women doing the cooking, sewing and shopping. She smiled to herself.
The official's confusion grew and changed to frustration. "Look, feel free to talk to your money all you like, but I doubt it'll talk back."
He pressed the 40 krones into Gabrielle's palm.
She opened her hand and stared at the coins, slowly realizing that these krones were money, not people.
"Stupid, stupid," she muttered to herself.
She heard Xena exhale several short breaths through her nose and knew the Warrior Princess had let her hang out to dry among the Norsemen.
She leaned over to her friend. "Laugh it up, slave girl," she growled under her breath.
Xena bit her lip and met the bard's eyes. Gabrielle could see love radiating back to her, along with a non-verbal apology. Gabrielle nodded her acceptance.
She turned back to Zorund who waited in consternation for the strange woman to finish conferring with her slave.
"So, the price good for her?" he queried sarcastically.
"I was not asking her permission, sir," Gabrielle approached the man. "I was telling her to be nice."
She shot a sidelong glance at Xena who cocked her head, pursed her lips and shot Gabrielle a sarcastic half smile.
Gabrielle kept her face neutral and told the magistrate, "She's a fighter and you must be careful to keep her drugged and subdued at all times."
"The the deal is done?"
"It is," Gabrielle confirmed.
Zorund nodded in satisfaction and brought up two fingers to beckon a short, well-muscled man to his side. "Johann, see to the slave."
Johann stepped up to the trio, placing the heavy cuffs and chains down in the snow. Reaching up, he detached Xena's collar from around her neck and handed it to Gabrielle, smiling. "Yours, Ma'am. You might wanna keep it in case you're ever in a position to own another slave."
The bard returned the warm smile with one of her own, accepting the chilled iron collar, fingering the inside that was still slightly warm from being around the warrior's neck. "Thank you."
Retrieving a heavy iron collar from its place in the snow, the short man placed it around Xena's neck, locking it tightly. He stepped back as if to admire his handiwork. "You were bought and paid fairly for, slave. You are now owned by the good people of Gudvargen. Do you understand that . . .beast?" The last words were said with venom.
Forcing herself from allowing the sneer she felt from showing on her face, Xena slowly raised her eyes from their study of the snow to meet the cloudy gray eyes of her new captor. "I do."
The blow to the back of her legs that followed was something the warrior expected, but she allowed it to bring her to her knees anyway. The blow to the back of her head was also expected, but instead of allowing it to drive her completely into the snow, as intended, she simply allowed her neck to roll with the blow, scarcely feeling what was intended to be a telling slap.
"You don't have the right to even look at me, you heathen scum! Do you hear me?" Johann raged.
Xena kept her eyes on his boots. "I hear you." That earned her a kick to the abdomen. It was all she could do to hold her lethal instincts in check as she tightened her gut and let the kick connect. The redness of rage blossomed behind her eyes and she grit her teeth against action, instead picturing the strutting little rooster writhing in the snow, his blood darkening the pristine whiteness of the ground-cover in ever increasing circles. It was enough to calm her down and she felt the tension leave her body.
"Hold your hands out," Johann ordered.
Xena did as she was bade, consciously keeping her fists loose and non threatening. Heavy iron cuffs descended, locking over her naked wrists. She felt her ankles lifted next as manacles were locked over her boots. The warrior felt a harsh tug on her arm and briefly considered letting muscle-boy try to lift her dead weight off the ground, then thought better of it, jumping to her feet easily and without his assistance, letting her natural power radiate around her briefly before submerging it back into herself. Her eyes tracked over the snow until they took in the familiar furred boots of her lover. A long, slow perusal of the body hidden to her behind the heavy boots, and then she locked onto a mildly horrified green gaze. She let her eyes say her words for her. By Gabrielle's reaction, the warrior knew her message had been received.
Paybacks are a bitch, Gabrielle.
Gabrielle ran her hand over the smooth, cool surface of the altar. She looked up to take in the statue of Balder that took up most of the small space behind the railing that surrounded the altar. Balder looked like a benevolent god. He was sitting with his arms outstretched. Animals and
children surrounded him. A plaque with some writing on it ran the length of the finely carved statue.
Gabrielle bent down to read it. "Balder: the god of light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation." 'What a great god to have. The Greeks seem so bent on gods that always to have a streak of vengeance in them,' she thought to herself. 'Even Aphrodite, the goddess of love, has a petty way about her.'
Her thoughts were interrupted by a light touch on her shoulder.
She turned around to find Gunni standing behind her. "My child, I hope you find your accommodations pleasing?"
She had been shown her room after she got back from selling Xena. It was not much bigger than a closet, containing a small single bed and a table and chair. It was, however, warm, which seemed a luxury for such a climate.
"Yes, Gunni," she smiled. "My room is fine. I thank you again for your kindness and hospitality."
"It is always our pleasure to help the seekers of this world," he smiled back and bowed slightly.
"Seekers?" Gabrielle asked furrowing her brow. "How do you know I am a seeker?"
"My child, don't you see?" He took her hand and led her to a bench. "Balder has brought you here."
"How do you figure?" Gabrielle was a little skeptical.
Gunni sighed slightly. "Tell me you've found happiness, Gabrielle. Tell me you've found your destiny?"
Gabrielle studied the floor and said softly, "I have found neither of those."
"But you have," Gunni replied. Gabrielle looked up to meet his eyes. "Here, Gabrielle, this is your happiness. This is your destiny. Tell me you haven't felt it?"
Gabrielle had to admit she had felt something for this place, for this god. There was an undeniably attractive quality to god who claimed light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation, as his
"Tell me more about Balder, and how he makes his followers happy," Gabrielle implored.
"Balder brings light to the darkness we all live in, Gabrielle," Gunni launched into his conversion talk. "We all live in darkness of some sort, whether we lie, cheat, steal, fight, kill, or hate anyone. We are all brothers and sisters in Balder, my child."
Gabrielle couldn't help but see a glaring contradiction in his words. The question was out of her mouth before she could stop herself. "If you love everyone as brothers and sisters, why do you keep Greeks as slaves?"
"Greeks were not kept as slaves where you were born?" Gunni asked sincerely.
"Um," Gabrielle searched for the answer, "no. My family comes from south country where slavery was outlawed."
"Heathen gods," Gunni nodded sympathetically. "I see where you question comes from, then."
Gabrielle inwardly sighed with relief.
"You were not taught properly on how the world was created," he concluded.
She remembered Xena's lesson on creation and began to tell it to Gunni. "I learned that Odin, with the help of his two brothers, killed the giant Ymer. He then used his body as a ground for the new world..."
"No, no, no," Gunni interrupted. He sighed. "My child, you have much to learn."
"Then tell me, why are Greeks kept as slaves?"
"Back when the world was new, Balder was lonely and decided to make beings like himself to worship him and pay him homage. He took of the world to make these beings. From the snow that blanketed the land he made their pure white skin. From the sky above, he made their eyes. From the shining sun he made the hair on their bodies. From the wolf he gave them courage and a strong sense of unity among themselves. From the insects he gave them a sense of industriousness. And from the mole, he gave them a sense of humility," Gunni was warming to this often told tale.
"Balder looked down on these new beings and was pleased. They had the best traits of all his previous creations and none of the bad. They looked upon him and worshiped the greatness that he was. They formed tight knit communities and worked hard and well.
"To keep his new people loyal to himself, he gave them laws and high holy days to worship him and praise his name. One of these laws pertained to the sacredness of their bodies. During the festival of Balder, the people spend the time in ritual purification of their bodies, temples to the god. The days are be spent fasting and praising Balder. No sexual unions take place during this time so that bodies are kept pure."
Gabrielle sat in rapt attention while Gunni got to the heart of the story.
"One day during such a festival, Heranh, one of the most favored of the god, was visited by Loki, the trickster. Loki infused vile thoughts into Heranh's head, asking the man why he should refrain from sexual intercourse while his god was busy cavorting with the maidens in the field. Because he was the favored by Balder, Heranh tried to resist Loki's words, but eventually he was overcome with lust and jealousy against Balder. Loki smiled and led Heranh to a beautiful spring field. In the middle of the field stood a magnificent doe. Loki made the doe beautiful to Heranh's heart, and so filled with passion with this creature was the man that he mounted the beast for many days of bliss, ignoring Balder's commandments."
Gunni could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. He rose from the bench. He raised his voice and with animated hand gestures, preached the rest of the story to Gabrielle.
"When he found out what happened, Balder was very angry. He took Heranh to him and demanded to know why his laws had been broken. Overcome with sorrow, yet still jealous of the words Loki had spilled into his mind, Heranh refused to say. He also refused to repent his deeds. This made the god angrier. He was so angry that he cursed the issue of the union between Heranh and the beast. He took away the sun from their hair, replacing it with the color of a midnight sky as a reminder of the times when evil walks the earth. He did the same with their eyes. When the sun touched their pure white skin, it would darken to the color of the earth during the spring thaw and become sallow in the winter. Into their hearts he placed the anger that he felt on Heranh's betrayal and refusal to repent. Into their loins he placed the lustful impulses that led his most favored away from him. Into their souls he placed the great sadness that came from not knowing their god."
"He commanded his people to spurn these unclean ones. They were no more than the beast from which they were born. They, like the beasts, were to be used to carry heavy burdens. They were to be tamed and kept in eternal servitude, serving out the penance that Heranh refused."
Gabrielle was too wrapped up in the story to realize she was one of the people Gunni was talking about. She leaned forward on the bench hanging on Gunni's every word.
"Because they were born with anger and hatred, some of these unclean people revolted against their true masters and escaped, heading south to a place where the color of their hair and eyes and skin would not set them apart from the others. Because they were filled with lustful thoughts, their numbers grew rapidly."
"Balder sent some of his people to recapture these beasts before they could become any more numerous. But they grew and grew in number. One day, a savior will come who will gather a great band of men to reclaim the people and their descendants. Then Balder will be glorified, the world will return to its natural order and all will be reconciled to him."
His last phrase hit her like an unseen attacker. "You .. mean .. " she stammered. "One day, someone will amass an army to take over Greece?"
"Yes," Gunni said with joyful enthusiasm. "Then the world will be at peace. Those godless beasts will be back where they belong, under the righteous rule of Balder."
"That's justice?" Gabrielle was feeling a little nauseated.
"Gabrielle," Gunni's eyes grew soft as he knelt before her, "that's not only justice, that's love."
"How is that love?" Gabrielle really wanted to understand.
"Gabrielle," Gunni was patient with his new charge, "these people have a darkness inside of them, a curse from birth. It's not their fault. They can't help their nature. But, we as followers of Balder, are called to love everyone. So we do. We love the Greeks, despite their darkness."
"How does keeping them as slaves show them love?" Gabrielle knew she may press the point too far, but really needed an answer.
Gunni let out a short breath. "We love them by giving them work, something to do with their hands so they won't harm others or themselves. We love them by giving them a place to live, food to eat and the satisfaction of doing an honest day's work. Away from here, in Greece, they fight one another, worship their pagan gods and engage in other filthy practices. Here they are loved and cared for."
Johann's grip bit cruelly into Xena's arm as he wheeled her around and headed down the small hill to where the walled barracks of the slave quarters resided. Walking through deep snow with her legs chained narrowly together was difficult, but the warrior refused to give the man the satisfaction of seeing her stumble as she concentrated on shortening her normally lengthy stride. She appraised the high stone walls as they came into closer view. At least ten feet tall, maybe more. Easy enough to jump, but almost impossible to lead a group of slaves over, especially if they're in the condition I expect them to be.
A tall iron gate barred the enclosure's only entrance, an armed guard standing just to the inside, obviously awaiting the new arrivals, an unpleasant smile on his broad, florid face. "New one for ya," Johann called out to the waiting guard, shoving the warrior in front of him.
A rattle of the key in the lock, and the large gate opened, rust squealing in its hinges. "Get in here," the guard snapped, pulling Xena inside the enclosure with a heavy tug to her manacled hands. A nod to Johann, and keys were tossed to him. Stooping, the guard removed the chains binding the warrior's feet, tossing both the manacles and the keys back to Johann before straightening up and shooting Xena a glare meant to freeze hearts. "Don't try anything stupid, beast, or I'll kill you where you stand. Understand me?"
"Yes," Xena replied softly, keeping her eyes carefully upon the snow-crusted ground.
"Let's go." Grabbing the chains between Xena's hands, the guard led her to the ramshackle hut that housed the slaves. The warrior eyed the oblong structure, noting the warped, weathered boards and the large gaps between them and sighed. Doubtless the interior was no warmer than being outside. She was allowed to keep her threadbare cloak, for which she was grateful, for in addition to providing meager warmth and protection against the elements, it still had her chakram sewn inside. She smiled a small, private smile at that thought, allowing herself to be led to the structure, her steps much easier without the ankle bindings.
As he approached the crude wooden door, the guard jerked Xena to a stop, yanking on the chain to turn her to face him, a sneer plastered over his thick, rubbery lips. "I don't know what your life was like on the outside, beast, and quite frankly, I don't care. It's only by Balder's blessings that you've lived long enough to be returned to your rightful duties here. Balder made you to serve us, and that's exactly what you'll do." His eyes traveled her length appraisingly. "You're a strong one alright. You'll work in the mines every day from before sunrise to after sunset. You eat once a day, and be blessed at that. At night, you're confined to this hut unless otherwise commanded. You follow all the rules, and you'll probably live a couple of years. Screw up once, and you'll die. Understand?"
"And don't even think about trying to escape, slave. It's been tried before. No one's ever succeeded. I don't think you'll be the first."
Xena hid the dark smile that came to her lips. Oh, I wouldn't be too sure about that.
"Lift up your hands." The guard grabbed the chains and, taking a key from his belt, unlocked the manacles, freeing the warrior's wrists. Tossing the chains to the ground, he captured one wrist, her right one, and looked at appraisingly, turning her hand over. "You were a fighter."
The guard grinned. "I'll enjoy seeing you taken down a few pegs." Grabbing her arm in one hand, he opened the door with the other and shoved her inside. "Enjoy your new home, pig." Laughing, he slammed the door behind her, rattling the entire building.
Conversations which had been going on inside the hovel came to a halt when Xena was shoved through. The warrior's nostrils flared with the sudden assault of scents of disease and death which permeated the enclosure despite the icy air being blown through the building through the wide spaces in the walls and the holes in the roof. The women in the shelter all stared at the new arrival with expressions ranging from blankness to jealousy. All of the women were touched by the hardship of their lives in some way, either with the bloated bellies of severe malnutrition, the scabs of lice and other skin diseases, the broken bones and bruises of abuse, the sickly pallor of dysentery, or the bent and wasted bodies of heavy labor and little rest.
Xena looked around the interior of the enclosure, noting the warped, rotting boards which ran like shelves, stacked four high, around the perimeter; sleeping space for the women, no doubt. No blankets or furs of any kind were seen on these platforms. Obviously, the women slept where they landed without any type of body covering or comfort whatsoever. A crude table with several chairs sat at one end of the long building. A small fireplace, cold and dark, sat at the other. In between the two stood an empty space where the women who weren't in their bunks congregated.
After carefully meeting all the gazes thrown her way and answering with a silent, but well understood, message of her own, the warrior walked over to one of the walls, peering through a wide space in the boards, assessing the compound.
The tall, well built stone walls enclosed the compound in a rough square. A bonfire burned in one corner, over which several armed guards were currently warming their hands and talking among themselves. During her walk to the hut, Xena noted six guards patrolling the perimeter of the enclosure, the heads of their long spears glinting in the moonlight. Four more men were clustered around the bonfire. As she had guessed, the barred gate at the front of the enclosure marked the only exit from it. From her appraising glance, the towering walls look sturdy and well built in marked contrast to the squalid hut she now occupied. She bit back a sigh at the chances of gaining escape for these women, hoping that Gabrielle would see something from the outside that she couldn't from the inside.
While making her appraisal of the building's exterior, Xena felt a presence ease its way up to her and stand patiently just behind her right shoulder, keeping a respectful distance from her. Finishing her perusal, the warrior turned slowly, looking down to meet the expectant, awed gaze of a young woman, an Amazon by the look of her tattered clothing. "Yes?"
The young woman smiled and stepped in slightly closer, pitching her voice low, for the warrior's ears only. "You're Xena, aren't you."
A raised eyebrow greeted the young woman's question.
"Um . . .well . . .my sisters and I . . .well . . .you fit the description and all and, well, your eyes . . . ." the young Amazon blushed to the roots of her fair hair. "I'm sorry if I was mistaken," she said, making as if to bolt from the warrior's intimidating presence.
"You weren't," Xena replied, a faint undercurrent of amusement coloring her dulcet tones.
The Amazon grinned and blew out a sigh of relief. "Thank the gods. We knew someone would come by to rescue us." A fair brow furrowed. "Um . . .you are here to rescue us, right? I mean, you didn't . . .no . . . you couldn't have been . . .could you?"
Another raised eyebrow and a faint smirk.
The young woman blushed again. "Of course not. You're the Warrior Princess. You don't get captured unless you want to get captured. Right?" The brown eyes were imploring.
"What's your name?"
The woman looked at her blankly for a moment, then blushed yet again. "Oh, how stupid of me! I'm so . . .um . . .my name's Iolake. I'm . . .um . . .and my sisters, obviously, from Queen Serristria's tribe just outside of Crete."
"Well, Iolake, why don't you introduce me to your sisters?"
"Well, yeah! Sure! That'd be great!" As the young woman turned, Xena rolled her eyes and followed the Amazon through the hut to where five more young Amazons stood expectantly. Iolake came to a stop and gestured to her companions. "This is Erissa, and Mala, and that's Corien, Sarebet and Porfis." She beamed. "And this is Xena."
Xena resisted rolling her eyes again at the obvious looks of hero-worship shining from the faces of the young Amazons. She nodded to the group as a whole, carefully looking them over. Though tired and thin, the Amazons seemed in relatively good shape despite their captivity. They were very young, appearing to be in their mid-teens, though each stood with the proud, erect bearing of true Amazons despite their tender years. She could tell that their enslavement embarrassed them, Amazons not being known to allow themselves to be captured. "What can you tell me about this place?" she inquired softly.
"Each morning we're expected in the sanctuary for prayers," Aevar, one of Gunni's acolytes, was teaching Gabrielle the ropes for her stay at the temple. "That takes place at dawn."
'Dawn?' Gabrielle inwardly groaned. 'This is going to kill me.' All she showed Aevar was an understanding smile and a nod of her head.
"Gunni tells me you'll be scribing for him," Aevar displayed a little jealousy.
"Yes," Gabrielle confirmed. After Gunni discovered that Gabrielle was literate, he appointed her to take down his sermons for each week's services.
"You will learn much about Balder's goodness from Gunni," Aevar assured her.
"I'm certain," Gabrielle was doubtful she could find much good in a god that stood for love while enslaving people .... her people.
"Also, while you're staying at the temple, you must wear the garments of an acolyte."
He handed her a heavy, woolen dress, followed by an equally heavy cloak.
"That should keep me warm," Gabrielle remarked.
"None of Balder's children go cold," Aevar smiled benignly, "or hungry. Dinner should be served in about an hour. Make yourself at home until then."
Aevar bowed slightly as he took his leave from Gabrielle.
She turned to survey the wide expanse of the sanctuary. No expense had been spared t o deck the hall out in colorful carpets and tapestries. The finest wood had been used to form benches, altars, and pillars. Gabrielle stowed her cloaks on a bench and decided to take in the rest of the building.
As she left the sanctuary and entered the narthex of the temple she was brought up short by voices. She recognized one as Gunni's but was shocked to see whom the priest was conferring with.
'By the gods, a Roman soldier,' Gabrielle was near panic.
Gunni and the soldier were carrying on a pleasant conversation, both smiling broadly. The priest turned at the sound of Gabrielle's boots on the dusty floor of the narthex. Gabrielle turned to make a hasty retreat but was stopped by Gunni's voice.
"Ah, Gabrielle," he motioned her to join them. "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine. Thaddeus, this is Gabrielle. She's just joined us here at the temple as my new scribe. She lost her husband recently and Balder sent her to us."
Thaddeus clasped his hand and crossed his chest with it, touching his shoulder in the Roman greeting. "Pleased to meet you, Gabrielle. I'm sorry for your loss."
Gabrielle bowed slightly, trying to keep a look of sheer terror from her face. Certainly all Roman soldiers had heard stories of a woman named Gabrielle. Maybe she was safe without the 'Xena' that usually came attached with such stories.
"Pleased to meet you, too," she managed to keep her voice even, "and thank you."
"Thaddeus is a royal guard," Gunni informed her. "He often works directly with Caesar."
"How exciting for you," Gabrielle gave him a smile as her heart tripled in rhythm.
"Well, everyone believes Caesar is a heartless tyrant. I can tell you first hand," he paused for effect, "all the stories are true."
Both he and Gunni laughed heartily. Gabrielle could only smile weakly.
Gunni turned serious. "I was saddened to hear of your defeat in Greece."
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
Thaddeus' face fell. "We ran into a tough band of rebels," he explained. "Their legions were enormous."
Gabrielle almost smirked at his face saving lie.
"I hear they were led by a woman," Gunni repeated this piece of information with a sarcastic air.
Thaddeus tensed visibly. "That's a damned lie," he spat. "The Roman army could never be defeated by a woman."
Gabrielle silently thanked any god listening for macho revisionist history.
"I thought that was lie when I heard it," Gunni replied, glad to have his suspicions confirmed.
"Well, I must be going," he clasped Gunni's hand. "Gabrielle, nice to meet you. This man will take good care of you."
"I'm sure he will," Gabrielle smiled and accepted Thaddeus' handshake goodbye.
"Balder be with you," Gunni called after Thaddeus.
"I'll tell Jupiter you said hello," Thaddeus called back with a grin.
"Heathen!" Gunni yelled good-naturedly.
"Godless bastard!" Thaddeus returned the taunt.
Gabrielle gawked at the scene. Gunni turned back to her. "Close your mouth, child, you'll catch flies." He laughed heartily as he walked past her.
It took a second for Gabrielle to get her feet to move. She ran to catch up with Gunni.
"Gunni, why is there a Roman soldier in these parts?"
Gunni stopped and turned to face her. "Why, Gabrielle, the Romans are our best trading partners. They send us supplies like food, clothing, and building materials in exchange for the diamonds we mine. Just between you, me and the altar railing, our diamonds, and the slave labor of the Greeks, are the only things that keep Caesar from trying to conquer us. Well, that and the unending abundance of snow we seem to have. I believe Caesar prefers warmer climates. Like Greece." He cackled loudly at that last thought.
Gabrielle shivered despite the warmth of the temple.
"Well, what about that last little exchange between you two?" Gabrielle furrowed her brow in confusion.
"Oh, that," Gunni waved his hand in the air. "They've agreed not to import their gods and we've agreed not to export ours. As long as the trading relationship stays strong, I could care less what pagan gods they worship."
Gabrielle's stomach interrupted the conversation. She grinned sheepishly.
"Child, when did you eat last?" Gunni's face contorted into a look of concern.
"Early this morning," she answered.
"Let's get some food in you," he took her by the hand and led her to the dining hall.
Iolake was happy to be filling Xena in on the Tartarus they called home. "Well, the guards come to get us about two hours before sunrise every morning. They chain us all together by our feet and take us down to the mines, which are about two miles south of here. Um, we work there all day and then they bring us back."
"How are you treated in the mines?"
"Very badly," Porfis interjected. "If you don't do your work, they beat you. If you do do your work, they beat you. You're only allowed to ask for water twice during the whole day but a lot of us don't even bother asking, 'cause they don't let you . . .um . . .you know . . .go to the bathroom."
"How many guards?"
"About thirty or so," Corien said, tucking a loose strand of dirty hair behind her ear. "With four more guarding the entrance to the mines. The ones inside have swords and whips, and the ones outside carry spears."
Xena smiled slightly and nodded her appreciation of the detailed description. Corien beamed back at her, straightening slightly with pride. "What happens after work is finished for the day?"
"They lead us back the same way," Iolake explained. "The guards unchain us once we reach the gate, then we're locked back in here for the night."
"Is there any time that you're allowed to wander the compound?"
"Very rarely," Corien said. "Sometimes in the summer, when it's warm out, they'll let us come outside. But it's only for an hour or so, then they herd us back in here."
"The summer?" Xena asked, raising her eyebrow. "I had thought that you were the Amazons that Velaris captured a few weeks ago."
"Velaris? We weren't captured by Velaris, Xena." This was Iolake. "We were taken six months ago while returning from a trip to Athens. I don't know who captured us, but the guy sold us to the Romans, who took us here."
"Romans? There are Romans here?" Xena's muscles knotted with a sudden tension. Her gaze became frigid, intense. "Answer me, Iolake. Are there Romans here?"
Frightened, the young Amazon took a step back. "Um . . .no . . .er . . .yes . . .I mean, not all the time, no. They just come in and dump off slaves. Then leave. I think. We don't know a whole lot about what goes on outside the walls."
I've been tricked. Velaris never had any Amazon slaves stolen from him. But why? Then it came to her, the thought bright white against the darkness of her mind. Caesar. He paid Velaris off to send me on a wild boar chase so I'd be out of Greece while he and Pompey played soldier boy. A dark smile spread over her full lips. Didn't work out quite the way you planned, did it? In her mind's eye, she could picture the stupefied look on Caesar's face when he viewed the destruction of his army. Never send a boy to do a man's job, Caesar. I would have thought you'd have figured that out by now.
Seeing the expression on the warrior's face, the Amazons stepped further back as a group. "Uh . . .Xena?" Iolake asked timidly.
Why here, of all places? Why did you want me here, Caesar? In response, Alti's death-vision came into her mind, all muted blues and grays and windblown snow. "I love you, Xena." Gabrielle? Oh no. No. Godsbedamned! Caesar, you bastard! The blood froze in her veins as her powerful fingers curled under into tight fists, the blunt edges of her short nails digging into the callused flesh of her palms. All this time you've spent thinking of ways to avoid the vision, and instead, you walk right into it. Hades damn you to Tartarus, Xena. When will you ever learn? She looked around the barracks wildly through unseeing eyes. You have to get out of here. You have to find Gabrielle and you have to get out of here. Now. There's no time to waste. With the war in Greece over, Caesar could be just days away. Her muscles tensed further, her battle hardened body preparing to take her through the stone walls if necessary.
Swallowing against the dryness in her throat, Corien, the oldest and most experienced of the young Amazon teens, took a step forward, reaching out a trembling hand to touch Xena's knotted forearm. "Xena?"
The gentle touch broke the warrior from her fevered thoughts. Her mind cleared as she brought her eyes down to meet the wide, frightened gaze of the young Amazon standing next to her. Realizing what she was doing to the young woman, she consciously softened her intense stare, relaxing her muscles fractionally. The greater good slammed through her senses. I can't. I can't just leave them here. She sighed heavily, the weight of the world settling once again on her broad shoulders. I can't tell Gabrielle either. It would only hurt her and distract her from the mission. No, I have to keep this to myself. Perhaps I can still find a way to avoid what I've seen. Perhaps.
Her musings were again interrupted, this time by sound of the wooden door squealing open and a large sack of food being thrown in, breaking open and spilling its meager contents as it hit the floor. "Your nightly feast, pigs," the guard laughed as he slammed the door shut once again.
There was a mad scramble for the food, which looked to consist of a few crusts of dry, moldy bread and some foul smelling cheeses. Corien managed to dart her way through the fray, coming back with a handful of bread and cheese. Smiling shyly, she handed Xena some of the food.
The hut became silent again. Xena looked up from the food in her hands, spying a large woman staring at her maliciously, her arms stuffed with a large majority of the food. Three women, obviously compatriots, stood behind her, the smug grins on their faces.
"That's Pelta," Corien whispered to Xena. "The guards give her and her cronies extra rations to make sure the rest of us behave. She takes her job seriously, but she usually doesn't bully those who can fight back."
Xena nodded almost imperceptibly, then narrowed her gaze at Pelta, challenging.
The large Greek handed her food to her companions, then stalked across the room on legs almost as thick as tree trunks. Standing nose to throat with the warrior, Pelta planted ham sized fists on her thick waist. "You haven't earned the right to eat our food, pig," she spat.
Smirking, Xena casually lifted her arms, and in a move too quick to see with the naked eye, jabbed the pressure points in Pelta's beefy neck, causing the woman to drop to her knees, paralyzed. "Haven't I?" she asked in a silky smooth voice.
Turning casually, ignoring the gasping woman, she looked at the stunned Amazons standing behind her. "Corien, Iolake, collect the food from our friends over there and give it to the women who don't have any.
Nodding, the two Amazons strode across the hut, easily taking the food from the deflated bullies, efficiently distributing it to the women too sick or too slow to get it for themselves. Many of those women looked at Xena, tears of gratitude shining in their eyes.
"You . . .you can't do that!" Pelta gasped, a trickle of blood flowing from her nose.
Xena cocked her head. "I believe I just did." Squatting in front of her captive, Xena sneered and reached up to wipe the blood from the large woman's face, rubbing it reflectively between her thumb and forefinger. "You don't wanna make me angry, Pelta. Things get ugly when I get angry." Wiping the blood off on Pelta's tattered cloak, she stood again, towering over the still paralyzed woman. "Now," she continued conversationally, "you promise to play nice and I'll let you go. And if you don't . . . ." She pretended to inspect her fingernails.
"I . . .I promise! Just take it off! Please!"
Squatting again, the warrior grinned. "Good girl," she said, patting one beefy cheek. Lashing out, Xena reversed the pinch, moving away as the woman collapsed to the floor gasping. After a moment, Xena pulled the woman up easily by one arm, thrusting her lips into one dirty ear. "If the guards get wind of our little 'conversation', Pelta, I suggest you find a place to hide, because the things I'll do to you will make you wish you were dead. Got me?"
Taking a shuddering gasp of air into her lungs, the large Greek bully nodded.
Xena smiled crookedly. "Good." Standing, she bore the woman up with her, steadying her on her feet until she could stand on her own without assistance. "Now run along and play." A helpful shove sent Pelta in the right direction. Xena looked up. "As for the rest of you. The food gets shared equally, or you'll have me to answer to. Do I make myself clear?"
All the heads in the hut nodded in affirmation.
Turning back to Iolake, Xena retrieved the small bit of food accorded her, then walked over to the beds along one wall, stopping in front of an painfully thin young woman with hair that would have been a luxurious fiery red if it weren't so brittle and dirty. Ducking her head, Xena sat down beside the huddled and shivering woman. "What's your name?"
"Helena," the young woman replied, her deep green eyes glassy from illness and extreme malnutrition. She looked miserably down at the tiny crust of hard bread in her dirty hands, as if unsure what is was or what to do with it.
"Well, Helena, if we could get you to sit up a little, I have some more food for you."
With Xena's help, Helena struggled to come to a seated position, leaning heavily against the warrior's strong body for support. "Oh no, I couldn't," she protested weakly. "That's your food."
"You need it more than I do," Xena replied tenderly, brushing the lank hair from the woman's face. Gently cupping Helena's chin in one hand, the warrior's eyes narrowed as she saw the collection of weeping scabs around the woman's mouth and the torn lips held together by a crust of dried blood. "Iolake, get me some water and a clean cloth."
Receiving the requested items, Xena set about cleaning the woman's face of dried blood, noticing as she did so that Helena's few remaining teeth were badly rotted and seated tenuously in swollen, bleeding gums. "When was the last time you ate?"
"I . . .I don't remember," the embarrassed woman said, eyes downcast. "The bread is so hard and my mouth is so sore. I just don't have the energy to fight for it anymore."
"That's easily enough fixed," Xena replied, tearing the crust from her bread, then breaking the remaining piece into small, bite sized chunks. Trickling a small amount of water on each of the pieces, the warrior waited patiently until they were soft enough to chew, then handed one to the woman resting against her. "Try this."
The young woman reached for a softened piece of bread with a shaking hand, wincing slightly as she brought it up to her mouth. After a moment, her eyes brightened and she smiled, causing one of the scabs in the corner of her mouth to open. "Thank you," she whispered, swallowing her first food in many days. Soon, all the food was gone and Helena's color improved just slightly because of it. Xena eased the waterskin up to the young woman's lips and she sucked from it greedily, allowing the water to spill down her chin. She finally pulled away, breathing heavily. Her gaze became shy as she looked up into the intense, pale eyes of the warrior. "Are you an angel?"
Xena smiled crookedly, recapping the skin. "No, just a friend."
"Can I at least know your name, friend?"
"Not just yet," the warrior replied, scooting her long body back until she felt the wall behind her. Drawing the young woman close, she rested the red head against her shoulder, stroking the brittle hair soothingly. "Try and rest."
"Thank you," Helena murmured, nestling into the warmth of the warrior. Within seconds, she was asleep, enfolded in the long arms of her savior.
If Gabrielle thought the sanctuary of the temple was lavish, the dining hall made it look like a drab Greek tavern. The long table in the middle of the hall was made of a fine wood, so highly polished that you could see your reflection staring back at you. Elaborate figures depicting the life of Balder had been hand carved into the sides and base of the table. A chandelier of fine glass and china was suspended over the table by a golden chain. The hundreds of candles held by the chandelier gave the room a bright warm glow. More fine rugs and tapestries decorated the room, along with solid gold religious symbols. Each room she had been in contained a large hearth with a roaring fire to warm the area.
Most of the acolytes and junior priests were already seated for the meal. Gunni showed Gabrielle to a seat and held her chair for her. After settling in on the nicely padded chair, she looke around the table to find the most beautiful utensils before her. The cutlery was made of solid silver, as were the plates and cups. Fine china serving bowls were in the middle of the table holding an abundance of bread.
'This must surely be what the Elysian Fields look like in Autolycus' mind,' Gabrielle thought as she ran her hands over the cool surface of her silver plate. Her musings were interrupted by a line of servants that streamed from the kitchen. Each carried a tray filled with food. As they passed each person on the table they deposited a serving of whatever they were carrying. Before long Gabrielle's plate was brimming over with mutton, and vegetables of every kind. Her mouth watered as she dug into the feast.
"Mmmmm," she intoned with her mouth stuffed full, "'his is gweat."
"Child, you act like you've never eaten before," Gunni smiled broadly at his new scribe.
Gabrielle at least had the decency to look embarrassed. "Sorry," she said swallowing her last bite. "It has been awhile since I've had such good food."
"All of Balder's children take part in his bounty," Gunni assured her.
"Even the slaves?" the question was out of her mouth before she had a chance to think. She desperately wished she could get the words back.
Gunni's brow furrowed. "My, my, child, but you are concerned about the slaves. That's very admirable. Balder would approve of you and your compassionate streak," he said softly. He returned to eating his meal, and quietly chatting with the junior priest next to him. Gabrielle noticed he had not answered her question.
She looked around the table to see that no one was looking her way. She slipped several rolls and some cheese into the pocket of her cloak. 'Just in case some of Balder's children didn't have the feat I'm having.' She thought of Xena, and a part of her ached to see her lover.
The food trays had passed several times before Gabrielle and the rest of the temple staff were sated. Gabrielle noted it seemed to be the custom to remain at the table and pass the evening with pleasant conversation. She had tried to excuse herself several times, feigning tiredness. Each
time she was bade to stay by Gunni or one of the acolytes. Feeling she could not turn down her host's hospitality without arousing suspicion, she stayed.
It seemed like an eternity before one of the junior priests decided to call it a night. That seemed to be the cue for people to begin heading off for bed. After bidding goodnight to everyone she made her way toward her room, and out a side door nearby.
Quietly she waded through the snowdrifts toward the solitary light of the stable.
Once she was sure that Helena was deeply asleep, Xena gently maneuvered the young woman to her side on the hard pallet, then beckoned to Iolake. "Keep an eye on her. If she wakes, try to get more water into her and, if you can, clean the sores around her mouth. With the right treatment, they may heal."
As the young Amazon nodded and replaced Xena's presence next to Helena, the warrior quickly crossed the room to stand beside the other Amazons. Peering outside, she realized that full dark had fallen. It was time for her to meet with Gabrielle. "How often are the guards changed?"
"Twice a day, that we know of," Corien responded.
"Just now when the food was thrown in, and again in the morning when we're taken to the mines."
"Do they come into this hut at any other time?"
"Not unless there's a problem."
"Good," the warrior replied, nodding. She turned to the three remaining women. "Bunch up and carry on a conversation."
As the women did as they were bade, Xena stooped behind the group, followed by Corien. Slipping her hands through a large gap in the wall boards, she tugged experimentally, wincing slightly as the iron nail groaned with the gentle abuse.
"What are you doing?" Corien asked.
Continued... Part 3
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