A GOOD DAY TO DIE
Written by: Blade Mast and Candace Chellew
BladeMast@aol.com or email@example.com
Part 3 of 7
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
"I have a friend on the outside that I need to meet with."
The young woman's eyes widened. "Queen Gabrielle?"
Xena nodded. "Keep that bit of information to yourself."
"You have my word. But . . .why is she out there while you're in here?"
"It's a long story. Let's just say she's getting a bit of inside information." Reaching through the gap, Xena tugged, more carefully this time. The nails loosened without protest and the board popped free easily. Reaching up, she repeated the same procedure with the board above, soon making a hole in the wall big enough to crawl through. "As soon as I'm out, replace these boards. I should only be gone for an hour at the most, so stay near the wall and I'll knock when I need to get back in."
The warrior nodded. Taking a deep breath, she dropped completely to the floor and eased her large frame out into the icy night. As soon as her boots came free, Xena stood, plastering herself against the walls of the barracks, standing still as a temple statue, icy eyes scanning the perimeter. The snow had been pounded to mud by the tracks of many booted feet and the warrior breathed a sigh of relief, knowing her own footprints wouldn't give her away. She ducked back into the shadows as she heard a heavy tread rounding the corner of the hut. Staying utterly still, she watched as the bored guard completed his circuit and turned the corner, the metal tip of his long spear glinting in the moon's harsh light.
It's now or never. Taking one last look around, Xena breathed deep of the icy air and sprang her body into motion. Four running steps and she was across the compound. A quick flex and release of her powerful legs and she was over the wall, landing softly and freezing as she did so.
The area between the compound's wall and the stables looked to be abandoned for the evening. The glow of a single light emanating from the stable doors beckoned to her and she swiftly traversed the barren ground, pressing her back against the sturdy wall of the structure, head cocked as she listened intently for any sounds from within.
Satisfied that the stable's only occupants were of the non-human variety, Xena quickly darted into the enclosure, scanning the horses until she her eyes rested upon a familiar butter-colored hide. Sensing her master's presence, Argo chuffed softly in greeting. A smile broke over the warrior's stern features as she stealthily crept over to Argo's stall. Ducking beneath the chain keeping her horse in the stall, she quickly came to her friend's side, stroking the warm hide with fond hands. "Hey girl," she whispered. "How ya doin?"
Argo battered the warrior's shoulder in answer.
"That good, huh? At least you're eating better than the slaves." She fondly rubbed between the horse's ears, earning another nudge to the shoulder. "What's keeping your blonde friend, huh?" Argo whuffled in answer, blowing locks of raven hair from the warrior's shoulder.
The minutes passed slowly as Xena groomed the mare and appropriated her healing kit from the saddlebags which had been draped carelessly over the stall wall. She also took the last of their dried meats and cheeses, placing them in the healing kit. "Don't think she forgot us, do ya, Argo?" Xena asked, making herself comfortable on a hay bail behind the mare. The faithful steed had no answer for her and the warrior drummed her nails impatiently on her leg, resisting the almost overwhelming urge to storm the village to see what was keeping her friend.
Almost an hour had passed and the warrior was getting ready to head back to the slave compound when her sharp hearing detected the snow-muffled footsteps coming toward the stable. Easing her way into the deeper shadows, Xena put one hand on her chakram and stilled her breathing, awaiting the identity of her night-time visitor.
Gabrielle traversed the last few steps to the stable and stepped inside, her senses immediately assailed by the scents of damp hay and horses. Looking over the tall stalls, she spotted Argo's unique coloring and, smiling, walked over to the mare, pulling an apple from her satchel. "Hello, girl. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to see you earlier. I've been so busy. Here's an apple. I know you love 'em and your mommy probably forgot to bring you one, huh?"
"That's because her 'mommy' fed her dinner to a starving slave," came a voice from the shadows.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled happily, stepping around the contentedly munching mare.
Stepping out of the shadowed corner, Xena gathered the bard up into a strong embrace, planting a kiss into fair hair. Stepping away, the warrior placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "How're things going?"
The bard pulled completely away, tucking a braid behind her ear and beginning to pace. "Gods, Xena, you wouldn't believe these people! I mean, Balder's alright for a god, I guess. Certainly better than any of the gods you and I have met so far. But his teachings! How a god of redemption and all that other stuff could condone treating human beings like beasts of burden is totally beyond me. I mean, you just can't imagine . . . ."
Reaching out to catch a wildly gesticulating arm, Xena pulled the pacing bard to a stop in front of her. "Gabrielle, the mission."
Gabrielle scowled. "What do you think I'm talking about?" She planted her hands on her hips.
Xena rolled her eyes, then forced herself to calm. "Alright then. How many guards are positioned outside the walls of the slave compound? When are they changed? Where are they positioned relative to the entrance?"
"Um . . .I don't know?"
The warrior sighed. "Gabrielle . . . . You need to help me out here. I may have many skills, but seeing through walls isn't one of 'em." The corner of her mouth turned up in a smile.
The bard looked chagrined. "I'm sorry, Xena. I guess I just got so caught up in this whole Balder thing that I didn't realize . . . . I'm sorry."
"Hey, it's ok. This escape isn't gonna happen over night. Just find out what you can tomorrow and we'll talk more about it then, alright?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Oh, I almost forgot!" Smiling, she reached under her cloak and came out with a handful of fresh bread and cheese. "I managed to get some of 'Balder's bounty' for you."
The warrior gratefully accepted the food, opening up the healer's kit and stuffing it inside. "This is great. Thanks."
"But . . .aren't you gonna eat it? You said you didn't have any dinner."
"I didn't. But there are others in the barracks who need it more than I do. Most of the women are sick and all of them are hungry."
"Xena, you need to eat as much as they do," Gabrielle said, frowning. "You need to keep up your strength to get them out of there."
The warrior laid a gentle hand on her lover's shoulder. "I can afford to do without for a few days. I've done it before. So have you." She smiled. "Oh, and one more thing. Some of the women are suffering from a stomach disease that comes from bad water. I have some herbs for it in my kit, but I'm gonna need more." Pulling the correct herbs from the pouch, Xena held them up to the meager light. "See if you can find more of these anywhere. Bring me as much as you can without being obvious about it."
The bard nodded again. "I'll look first thing tomorrow morning. Anything else you need?"
"Not right now. I'll let you know more tomorrow when we meet, alright?"
There was a long moment of hesitancy between the two. Each looked at the other, unsure, awkward as they hadn't been in a very long time. Finally, Xena grasped Gabrielle by her upper arms and, bending over, placed a soft kiss on her cheek. "See ya tomorrow," she said softly and then, smiling crookedly, was gone.
Gabrielle raised a hand to her cheek, watching the dark streak that was Xena slip across the compound. "Tomorrow," she whispered, tears in her eyes.
Slinging the bulging healing kit over her shoulder, Xena shot across the snow to the stone wall, then jumped straight up, snagging her fingers over the sharp edge and pulling herself up slowly until just her head and eyes peered over the enclosure. She hung there for long moments, patiently waiting until the guard made his circuit, trying mightily to ignore the numbing cold that sapped the strength in her arms. Two guards came around the corner of the squalid building, talking in low tones about nothing, before completing their circuit and starting around the far corner. After staying in place for another long moment, the warrior pushed herself over the wall and fell to the ground, freezing in the shadows for just a heartbeat before darting across the small space that separated the wall from the building.
Corien, nerves strung high by Xena's delay, saw the warrior sneak over the wall and sprint for the hut. Squatting swiftly, she removed the wooden slats and moved back, allowing Xena to slither through the small opening before replacing the boards. "Everything work out ok?" she whispered.
"Yeah," Xena replied, patting her bulging pack and smiling. "How 'bout in here?"
"Quiet. I don't think they noticed you left. Pelta and her cronies are too busy pouting and the others have gone off to try and sleep. We stood guard till you came back."
"Thanks," the warrior smiled, pushing herself up to stand. Removing the kit from her shoulder, she walked across the room to where Iolake waited, holding Helena in a close embrace. "How is she?"
Iolake's warm brown eyes popped open and she blushed slightly. "She's . . .um . . .she woke up a couple times. I gave her some bread we had stored away and cleaned her wounds. She's been asleep ever since."
The young Amazon made as if to move, but Xena restrained her with a hand to the shoulder. "Stay. It's probably the first good night's sleep she's had in weeks."
Iolake relaxed back against the inner wall of the hovel and smiled, settling Helena's sleeping body more comfortably against her. Xena turned to find Corien standing slightly behind her. She glanced over at the cold, dark fireplace, then back into the young Amazon's bright eyes. "Is it against the rules to have that fireplace lit?"
"No. But we ran out of wood a few days ago and none of the guards have thought to replace it."
"Have you asked?"
Corien looked down at the dirt. "No," she said softly, chagrined. "Every time one of us asks a guard a question, we get beaten for it." She looked back up at Xena, her eyes sad and embarrassed. "Not very Amazon of us, is it. Letting women freeze to death because we're afraid of a little beating." She bit her lower lip hard. "My mother would have me banished."
Smiling, Xena tipped the young woman's chin up so their gazes met again. "Your mother isn't here now. I am. You can make up for your inaction by helping me start up a fire and tend to the sick."
The relief which washed over Corien's face was palpable. "Thank you," she whispered.
Nodding, the warrior turned away, spying the crudely made table and chairs which sat opposite the fireplace. Grabbing one of the chairs, she crossed the room again.
"Hey!" Pelta exclaimed, surrounded by her fawning cronies. "What are you gonna do with that chair? We need it!"
"We need the warmth of a fire more," Xena explained, gazing narrow-eyed at the woman.
"You can't just . . . ." Her voice trailed off as Xena effortlessly splintered the chair into kindling while smiling maliciously at her. Pelta's doughy face paled and she sat back down on the ground.
Corien covered her snicker with a cough.
"Be nice," Xena whispered to her Amazon friend.
"Oh. Always." Came the reply, emphasized by a total look of innocence in deep brown eyes.
Suppressing a grin, Xena turned back to the fireplace.
As the dawn light filtered through the sky lights in the temple, Gabrielle suppressed a mighty yawn. The early morning meal in the temple's dinning hall had made last night's dinner look like a modest
snack. With her stomach full, and her body upright much earlier than it had ever been, Gabrielle was trying not to nod off where she stood.
She ran her fingers over the soft feathers on the quill, and examined the finely sculpted tip. It was possibly the finest quill she had ever had the pleasure of holding. The weight was perfect and fit neatly into her hand. Before her was a blank piece of fine parchment, beside that, a full well of ink. Today was her first assignment as the scribe in the Temple of Balder. Despite her sleepiness, she was feeling a little proud Temple of Balder. Despite her sleepiness, she was feeling a little proud of her position of responsibility among these kind people.
Gunni approached the altar, bowed before it and turned to the crowd that had gathered in the temple. He motioned to her to have a seat and begin her work.
"Welcome all, in the name of Balder," Gunni raised his arms and voice in greeting.
"We come in peace, in the name of Balder," the congregates answered in unison.
"Balder receives you in peace and love," Gunni smiled.
The people took their seats as Gunni turned to bow again to the statue of Balder on the altar. He turned back around and spoke. "This is a very special day in the life of our temple and the life of our precious country. We welcome three Hungerd, three warriors, into the special order known as Berserkers."
Gabrielle paused in her scribing to mull the word. 'Berserker? What in Tartarus is that?'
"Berserkers are a special breed of warrior," Gunni answered Gabrielle's question as she hurried to catch up with his words. "They are possessed with the brave heart of Balder as they fight. They have such a true connection with Balder that our god works directly through these warriors, smiting the enemies of our fair land, bringing us peace and justice."
"Praise Balder," the congregation responded in unison.
"Bring in the initiates," Gunni instructed the acolytes manning the sanctuary doors.
The grand wooden doors creaked open to reveal three burly warriors dressed from head to toe in remnants of animal furs. Their faces were obscured by furry hoods, their hands bound in the same soft fur, their boots bound as well in animal skins. Gabrielle thought for all the world that they looked just like wild animals ready to attack. She gasped slightly at the sight of the men, and lost the grip on her quill.
Gunni noticed the motion and gave her a look of concern. She smiled slightly and regained her composure. He nodded to her and turned his attention back to the ceremony.
The three warriors moved slowly down the center aisle of the temple in single file. As each man reached Gunni he took them by the hand. They each in turn kneeled before him. He placed his hand on each man's head and repeated the phrase, "Balder is indeed within you."
The men remained on their knees before the priest, heads slightly bowed, their hoods removed.
"Good people of Gudvargen," Gunni raised his arms, "Balder has blessed us with three of his own, chosen to defend our land, our homes and our god. It is commanded that each member of the community shall swear their allegiance to Balder's chosen. Do you, as citizens of Gudvargen, swear your loyalty, your love and your life to the men before you?"
"We do," the reverent reply of the crowd filled the massive sanctuary.
"Warriors," he looked down at the men, "do you swear your allegiance to Balder, and to defend until your death these people and all people of the Norse land?"
"We do," they said in unison.
"You warriors," he continued, "you only bow here before Balder. You bow to no other, be they god or mortal. Break this commitment and you will die. Do you understood?"
All three heads nodded.
"To seal your consecration as Balder's chosen you must partake in the blood of Balder," Gunni reached behind him, picking up a silver chalice from the altar. He raised the chalice high. "May the blood of Balder bring you everlasting strength and courage." He brought the chalice to the lips of the first man who took a long drink, letting much of the foul liquid run out the side of his mouth.
Gunni stopped and kneeled down to face the man. He slapped him hard across the face. "Do not spill a drop of Balder's precious blood, warrior. You will prove yourself unworthy."
The warrior winced and took another sip, careful not to lose any of it. He grimaced as he swallowed. The other two drank from the cup cleanly, bringing a smile to Gunni's face.
"These men are worthy as Balder's servants on the battlefield," Gunni proclaimed to the congregation, which cheered loudly.
"A feast in celebration of these warriors has been prepared," the priest announced. "Let us give thanks to Balder for his bounty."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and patted her already full stomach. 'Much more Balder praising and I'm going to be as big as the stable,' she thought wryly to herself. The stable, that reminded her, she had some work to do for Xena. She rolled up the parchment and handed it to a waiting acolyte and headed for bounty being served in the temple's dining hall.
Gabrielle picked her way through the buffet line, taking mostly fruits to snack on. Gunni approached her and took her by the arm. He led her to a quiet corner of the room.
"Gabrielle," he smiled. "I've reviewed your scroll from the service. It was wonderful."
Gabrielle blushed slightly. "Thank you, Gunni."
"I've never had a scribe who actually described the scene that took place," he continued. "Usually they do well to keep up with all the words that were spoken. Have you considered becoming a bard?"
Gabrielle smiled broadly at the compliment. "Well, during my time in Greece I did study briefly at the Athens Academy for Performing Bards."
Gunni's expression darkened. "I'm so sorry you had to live among those people," he shook his head. "Such a radiant Norse light, hidden under a bushel among the Greeks. How ever did you survive it?"
It took Gabrielle a moment to remember she had to be careful among these people. If anyone ever discovered she, too, was Greek, she'd be behind the wall with Xena, or worse. "Believe me," she looked solemnly at Gunni, "it wasn't easy."
Gunni gave her an understanding nod and a pat on the arm. "Well, you're home now, and among friends. Soon, we hope you'll become family and open your heart to the love of Balder."
Gabrielle looked around the dining hall and saw nothing but smiling faces; friends and family joined together in a common bond of community and religion. A grin spread across her face. This was the happiest she had been in a long time. These people, and their gentle ways, soothed Gabrielle's tattered soul. There was no immediate threat of violence stalking her at every turn. There were no robbers here, no attackers looking for money or more, and no one was at war.
But, something still nagged her about this god of peace and love. That something, comprised of many somebodies, lived behind the wall on the far side of town.
Her smile faded.
"What is it child?" Gunni showed a look of concern.
"Gunni," Gabrielle began, "there are many things I find appealing about Balder. But, I've lived in so many places where slavery was outlawed. I find it hard to believe in a god that condones enslaving people."
"I understand," he said.
"You do?" Gabrielle's brow furrowed.
"Yes," he confirmed. "You've lived in the midst of these people for so long, they have you fooled into thinking they are the same as you. They're not, Gabrielle. They're fundamentally different. They're not as smart, not as good looking. They have their skills and their strengths, don't get me wrong. They're usually strong and take well to hard labor. They just need guidance, and people to love them and give them the work they are fit to do. That's what we do for them. They are Balder's
children, too, but they have different duties than we do."
Gabrielle nodded slowly feeling it best not to press her questions any further for now. She opened her mouth to speak, but instead of words came a rather large belch.
"My child," Gunni exclaimed, "are you okay?"
"Too much of Balder's bounty, I believe," she smiled weakly, covering her mouth with her hand. "Do you have any herbs that might settle an upset stomach?"
"Why certainly," Gunni smiled at his scribe. He motioned to an acolyte who was standing nearby. "Aevar, fetch me some herbs. Gabrielle has a bit of a sour stomach."
"Thank you," Gabrielle smiled at Gunni, but was unable to suppress another burp.
"Bring a lot of herbs!" Gunni called after Aevar.
Gabrielle smiled into her hand.
The inside of the hovel was black and bitter cold as Xena came to instant alertness, the chill instantly banishing the last of the sleep from her mind. The tight press of bodies sandwiched against her made even the smallest of breaths impossible, so the warrior gently disentangled herself from the almost desperate embraces of her bunkmates, both painfully thin women using her body heat as the only warmth they had. Pressing her body forward with the strength of her arms, Xena eased herself off the cold wooden planking and dropped soundlessly to the dirt floor, wincing slightly as her cold-numbed feet hit the solid ground, causing sharp spikes of pain to rush upward through her rapidly awakening limbs.
The fireplace was again cold and dark, the last of the fire sputtering out even before she fell asleep. Her breath fogged in the chill night air as her night vision adjusted to the faintest light coming from the bonfires outside the building.
Turning, she smiled slightly as she noticed the young Amazons, strategically placed, being used as heat sources by the sickest of the women. Despite their obvious preference of sleeping in a group, the Amazons had willing acceded to her wishes that they each sleep between two women who needed their strength and body heat the most. The young women reminded her a great deal of the Amazons she had met on the Steppes during her quest to find Gabrielle. Earnest to a fault, each was clearly in awe of her, a fact that embarrassed the stoic warrior no end, and more than willing to perform the tiniest duty asked of them by her.
Upon returning to the barracks the evening before, Xena had discovered that young Sarebet had some healer's training and so immediately enlisted her aid in preparing a bracing tea from her minimal stash of herbs. Each of the women suffering the agonizing effects of dysentery were given at least a sip of the hot tea before the water, and the herbs, ran out. The positive effects were almost immediate, and those suffering women had their first good night's sleep in weeks because of it. Sarebet's dark eyes had shone with a quiet pride at the effects of her actions. She had stayed like a water-glued leaf by the beautiful warrior's side for the rest of the evening, soaking up Xena's vast well of healing knowledge like a sea sponge.
Shaking off her reverie, the warrior turned to her hidden pouch, scavenging within the deep folds for the food Gabrielle had appropriated the evening before. Knowing the dried meats would be too tough for the sick women to ingest, she pulled out the dried fruits and separated them into small piles. The weakest of the women would need nourishment before the trip to the mines and this was the best she could offer for now. If she were lucky, Gabrielle would continue to supply her with food from the town.
When she was done, the warrior stood and moved through the silent building gently waking the Amazons and their bunkmates, slipping small morsels of food into the weakened women's hands before moving on. Soon, all the women in the slave barracks were awake and the sickest were fed and cleansed. A short time later, the door slammed open as a single guard entered, his spear threatening in its position before his body.
"Time to get to work, pigs!" he growled, sneering at the half clad women maliciously. "Anyone too sick to work today?" His tone indicated that answering would not be the best of ideas. He frowned slightly when none came forward begging for a rest or some food. Looking up, he caught Xena's piercing gaze and gestured her over.
The warrior came forward, keeping her eyes carefully downcast. She stopped several feet from the guard, waiting patiently.
A large bundle of tangled chains and shackles were thrown at her feet. "Chain these dogs up and make sure the manacles are tight or I'll personally flay you alive and leave you to the wolves, Greek pig."
As Xena grasped the first set of manacles, a young woman stepped forward, standing steady. Looking up, the warrior noticed the warm smile on the woman's face and, breathing deeply, began the long process of chaining the slaves together. As was discussed with the Amazons and some of the stronger Greek women the night before, the weakest of the women were chained in between two stronger slaves who would be able to lend strength and support when energies ran low and the siren song of rest became almost overpowering.
At last, the shackling was over and the warrior stood, waiting patiently as the guard snugged the tight cuffs around her ankles, fastening them securely around her boots. A long, thick chain was then attached to Xena's manacles and run through the bound legs of the slaves to be attached again on the manacles of the first woman the warrior had chained.
His task complete, the guard rose to his feet and gestured to the other guards, who in turn grabbed the arms of the first few women in line and pulled them forward, starting the long march out of the compound and down into the mines.
Gabrielle squinted into the bright sunlight as she stepped from the temple. The chill in the air made her reach for the hood of her cloak and pull it securely over her head. She paused to admire the snow-covered beauty of the town. From the temple steps she could see the main square and its normal hustle and bustle. Just above the low skyline of the village were mountains, patched white with more snow. Gabrielle took a deep breath and watched the warm result dissipate before her.
'Time for some shopping,' she rubbed her hands together and smiled to herself.
As Gabrielle approached the market, every person she passed by stopped and greeted her with a hearty, "Balder's blessings on you, Gabrielle." Several even stopped to offer condolences on the recent loss of her husband. Nearly everyone asked her to come to their home and share a dinner with them whenever she could. She was just a little disconcerted to learn that everyone in town seemed to know her name and her story.
One villager explained, "Why, Gabrielle, Balder brings us people for a reason. When we receive a gift like you, we want to know all about it."
While the explanation seemed innocent enough, she still had her doubts about the ultimate benevolence of the god these people served. At the same time, her heart was warming to these cold climate people. Despite the obvious hardships they suffered while living in such an inhospitable
place, they had kept a gentle nature about them, and were the most hospitable people Gabrielle had ever met.
'I don't know why Xena is so suspicious of people like this,' she thought to herself as yet another villager smiled and greeted her. 'They all seem nice and sincere enough, and dedicated to living peacefully. They may be a little misguided on the whole issue of slavery, but that's something that could change with time. Seems to me people who worship a god of love and peace would see the error of their ways eventually and learn to live in equality with the Greeks. They just need more people to speak out against it, then maybe they'd reconsider.'
Gabrielle wandered among the merchants' booths, browsing the merchandise. A long cloak made of bear skin caught her eye. She ran her hand over the soft fur and thought of Xena. 'I'll bet this will make her stay in the slave quarters more comfortable,' she smiled to herself.
"Balder's blessings on you today, Gabrielle," the merchant addressed her with a smile.
"Balders's blessings on you as well," she returned the salutation with a nod. "How much for this cloak?"
"For you, my child, half a krone," the merchant responded, lifting the cloak for Gabrielle to take a closer look.
'That's all?' she thought with surprise. "That's actually a fair price," she said out loud.
"Why wouldn't the price be fair?" the merchant furrowed his brow. "We'd never cheat any of Balder's children."
"Of course you wouldn't," Gabrielle tried to recover from her faux pas. "I'll take it."
The mines were dank in their humidity, becoming more heated with each step down the long curving path which led deeper into their stifling domain. A young guard, the first touch of whiskers barely upon his boyish face, handed equipment to the slaves as they passed, directing them to the areas from which they were to begin the day's work. Some were given pick-axes to tunnel into the mine's walls, disgorging great chunks of rock and coal. Others were given crude wooden carts with which to carry the earth and rocks as they were mined. Still others were directed to a large clearing, where hole-bottomed sifters and long planked tables awaited.
When at last it was her turn, Xena stood patiently before the young man, smirking inwardly at the look of fear in his face as he held the remaining pointed axe tight to his chest, eyes wide as he looked her strong form over from bottom to top. "What's the matter with you, Nels?" one of the other guards asked, slapping the boy hard between the shoulders. "Give the pig the axe and be done with it! There's work to be done."
"D . . . ." The youth cleared his throat and tried again. "D'you think that's wise?"
The guard scrutinized the tall slave, a leer crossing his face. "She's a big one alright, but a slave like all the rest." Pulling the axe from the young man's unresisting grip, he thrust it into Xena's large hands. Caressing the butt of his whip, he grinned again. "Ain't got the stomach for trouble, does she."
Xena fought to keep her face expressionless as her mind contemplated giving the guard a third breathing hole, somewhat above the other two, with the pointed end of the axe. Then she relaxed, lowering her head and loosening her grip on the weapon. The guard cackled with malicious glee. "See, what did I tell ya, Nels? Cowards, all of em. Now get to work, pig."
The warrior allowed herself to be turned and shoved down the path that was indicated. The hard rock wall had only recently been tunneled in to and Xena sighed, hefting the pick-axe and arcing it into the wall, grunting as she pulled out the now loosened rocks with the curved end of the tool, allowing them to bound to the floor of the mine.
After almost an hour of heated labor, the warrior felt the presence of someone standing behind her, waiting. When she didn't stop her powerful strokes, the figure cleared her throat noisily. "Um, listen. They ordered me to partner up with ya and I gotta move those rocks, but I can't if you're not gonna stop long enough to keep me from getting a hole in my head. So knock it off for a sec, will ya?"
Sighing, Xena stopped her swing, lowering the axe and looking down at the heavily sweating Pelta. "I can do this myself," she said shortly.
"Yeah, I know you can. But Blockhead over there would have my hide for not following orders, so I'll help, if ya don't mind."
"And if I do?"
"Uh . . .well . . . ." A flush darkened the sweating face as the large Greek woman fidgeted, shuffling her heavily booted feet on the wet mud of the mine floor. "Please?" she asked finally, looking up out of the corner of her eye at the stoic expression on the big warrior's face.
An ebony eyebrow arched to hide beneath raven bangs. "Fine. Just don't get in my way."
Swallowing nervously, Pelta bent down and grunted as she hefted the large chunks of rock that Xena had excavated from the wall of the mine and threw them into the small, wheeled wooden cart given to her for this purpose. Xena waited until the space at her feet was relatively clean before she started her labor again, swinging the axe with great powerful strokes that caused sparks to erupt when the metal of the tool hit solid rock. "I know who you are, you know," Pelta murmured between blows of the axe. Her comment unanswered, the large Greek continued. "Your Amazons aren't very good at keeping secrets." She laughed softly, regaining some small measure of cockiness.
"They aren't 'my' Amazons."
"No. But they'd like to be. If you get my meaning." Pelta chuckled again. The sound was cut off as a pair of fierce pale eyes lanced through her. The woman paled and stepped back a pace, lifting her hands in a warding-off gesture. "Didn't mean nothin' by it," she assured the warrior.
Removing her gaze from the blanching woman, Xena returned her attention to the rockface.
"I could help you, ya know," Pelta remarked cautiously, watching the muscles in the warrior's arms and back flex and bulge with each stroke of her axe.
"What makes you think I wanna do that?"
Pelta snorted. "Oh come on, Xena. I wasn't born yesterday, ya know. The Warrior Princess wasn't captured by a bunch of Northern slavers. You got a plan to free these women and I want in."
"Seems to me you aren't in much of a position to want anything," Xena said to the wall.
"Maybe not, but I do have the guards' ears. I can be a big help to you."
Sighing, Xena stopped her cutting, relaxing the tool in her hands. "Pelta, the only thing you are to me is a disgrace. You're part of the reason these women, and others like them, are slaves in the first place."
"Whadda ya mean?" the woman responded with some heat. Warrior Princess or no, Pelta wasn't about to take that kind of talk from anyone. "I'm a slave just like the rest of 'em in case you didn't notice."
"By bullying these women, by keeping the barest necessities of living from them, you're acting exactly as these Norsemen expect all Greeks to act. Like a selfish, self-serving pig." She looked at the big woman sadly. "You're playing right into their hands, and you don't even realize it."
The flush of anger turned to one of embarrassment as Pelta looked down at her dirt-encrusted hands. "Maybe I'm sorry for what I did," she commented softly. "Maybe I only did it cause I knew I'd die if I didn't."
"So you allowed others to die in your place? When you could have used your position to help them?"
The big woman shrugged. "Didn't think about that at the time, I guess." She stared into the warrior's profile. "I heard stories about you, Xena. You changed. Maybe I can too."
Slowly, Xena turned her head to meet the woman's eyes. "Somehow, I think the only reason you're willing to 'change' is so you have a chance to get out of here. You think I'm up to something and you want to ride my cloak-tails right on out of this place."
Pelta shook her head in negation. "I'll prove to you I can change, Xena."
Looking back to the wall, Xena hefted her axe again. "You do that."
The rest of the day was spent in silence.
"And the other man said, 'your boot? I thought that was my dinner.'"
The guard telling the joke doubled over in laughter. His colleague looked bemused. "I don't get it."
The other guard looked up from his amusement and frowned. "Well, you see, the guy thought it was his dinner, but it was really the other guy's boot."
The guard furrowed his brow, "I still don't .." he was interrupted by a motion near the wall.
"Miss, you can't go there!" he called out as Gabrielle approached the wall of the slave quarters.
"Excuse me?" she stopped short at the man's voice.
The guards rushed to her and walked her away from the wall.
"You can't get that close to the slave quarters, ma'am," one guard explained. "It's not allowed."
"Why?" Gabrielle's interest was piqued.
"It's for your own safety ma'am," the other guard intoned authoritatively as he crossed his arms over his chest and rocked on his heels.
"Oh," Gabrielle nodded, accepting the poor excuse.
"Aren't you Gabrielle?" the first guard asked getting a closer look at the town's newcomer.
"Yes, I am," she confirmed feeling a mixture of discomfort and warmth at the keen interest everyone in this town had in her.
"I'm very pleased to meet you," the guard stuck out his hand and grasped hers firmly. "My name is Emmerik."
"Pleased to meet you, Emmerik," Gabrielle smiled while trying to extract her hand discreetly from his grip.
"I'm so sorry to hear about the recent passing of your husband," he said sincerely, not relinquishing the grip on her hand.
"Thank you." Gabrielle gritted her teeth and forcibly reclaimed her hand. Once free she again shot a winning smile at the now blushing guard.
His companion had seen enough. "C'mon," he slapped Emmerik on the shoulder. "We have to get back to our posts."
"I'm off in two hours, Gabrielle," Emmerick was not deterred by his colleague's not so subtle hint.
"Really?" Gabrielle did her best to raise an eyebrow.
"Yes," Emmerick suddenly became shy. "I'd, um, like to buy you dinner or something. Doesn't have to be tonight," he added hastily. "Just, say you'll think about it."
"Does your shift end every night at the same time?" Gabrielle took the opening.
"Yes," he confirmed with enthusiasm.
"And how long is your shift?"
"Twelve hours, every day," Emmerick just knew he was about to go on a date, so he began to gush. "There are only two shifts for guards. They're long hours but that doesn't bother me. I'm as healthy as a horse."
"Yes, well, Emmerick," Gabrielle pronounced his name seductively. "I'll think about it."
She smiled broadly as she turned and headed back to the temple, leaving the love-struck guard to his grumbling companion.
"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered as she slowly opened the stable door. The big dinner at the temple had made her late once again to their appointed meeting time. 'I've got to start taking my meals in my room,' she thought to herself as one of the junior priests related yet another story about his first time conducting a service. She had yawned mightly in an attempt to excuse herself from the increasingly tedious conversation. Finally, Gunni had asked her if she felt like turning in. She smiled her appreciation and headed right for the stables as fast as she could.
She heard a slight rustle from Argo's stall. She approached quickly and opened the stall door. She almost gasped at the sight of Xena. Her hair was starting to frizz, and she was grimy from head to toe after her day of working in the mines.
Xena smiled at her disarmingly, and got up from the pile of hay she had been relaxing in. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself," Gabrielle's hand went to her mouth. "When's the last time you had a bath, Xena?"
"When did we leave Greece?" the warrior gave her a half smile.
"Xena," Gabrielle was concerned now. "Don't they let you bathe?"
Xena didn't want to have to describe the conditions she was living in to Gabrielle, so she just shrugged. "Sure, I just didn't have time before I had to get out and meet you."
"Well, then, that makes me feel better," Gabrielle smiled. She got as close to Xena as her nose would allow her and gave the warrior a quick hug. Xena refused to take the pittance of a hug and drew Gabrielle to her. She kissed the blond head under her chin before allowing Gabrielle to escape.
Gabrielle drew back and smiled shyly at Xena, unable to meet the blue eyes that stared at her.
"Oh!" she reached under her cloak. "I got those herbs you wanted, and some more food from Balder's bounty."
She handed the supplies to Xena with a smile and continued, "And, I got you this." She took off the heavy bearskin cloak she had bought earlier in the day. "I thought you might need it."
Xena took the cloak in her hands, stretched it out and felt its weight. She smiled at Gabrielle. "I don't need it, but I know others who do."
Gabrielle was a little miffed. "Xena, I bought that for you, not somebody else."
Xena lowered the garment and raised her eyebrow at her friend. "Gabrielle, our mission is to help these people. Some of them need this more than I do. If you want to get me something when this is all over I'll be happy to accept it."
Gabrielle looked at the straw covered floor. "You're right, Xena. Sorry."
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "It's okay. Now, did you find out about the guard shifts?"
Gabrielle looked up at the warrior. 'Always back to business,' she thought dryly. "Yes, and I think I have a date with one of them."
"Well," Xena smirked, "that's going above and beyond the call of duty."
The bard ignored the remark. "There are only two shifts, twelve hours each day. First shift starts at dawn."
"Very good," Xena nodded approvingly.
"What's your plan?" Gabrielle was curious now.
"Well, once the sickest of the slaves are feeling better, I'll just take out the guards and replace them with the Amazons," Xena sketched the plan for Gabrielle. "That should make getting the slaves out easier. But, I'll need your help."
"What can I do?"
"Well, I need to be able to lead them out of the camp without arousing suspicion, so I'll need a diversion," Xena explained. "When the day comes to do this, I'll need you to keep the town occupied."
"How am I supposed to do that?" Gabrielle snorted.
"The bard thing, Gabrielle," Xena said. "I've seen you keep a crowd of people enraptured. Just tell them a long, but good, story. That should give me enough time to get the slaves out of the town."
"You leave that to me."
The mines were, if possible, even more stifling than the day before. Xena laid the pick-axe down by her boot as she peeled the dirty, tattered shift away from her sweat-drenched body, allowing what little air there was to circulate against her unclothed skin. She had been working for most of the day with only a miniscule piece of her attention on the task at hand. The rest was focused squarely on the skeletal form of Helena. With hard work and a modicum more food, the young woman had been recovering her health rapidly. But last night, in her dire thirst, she had broken one of Xena's cardinal rules and drank a dipper of water that had not been boiled first. As a result, the agony of dysentery had returned full force, twisting her guts and forcing the air from her lungs. Xena and the Amazon healer had spent nearly the entire night with the woman, feeding her the herbal tea and small crusts of bread. In the morning, she seemed a bit better, though very, very weak. The walk to the mines had been a challenge, but with Corien in front and Xena behind, the young woman had managed the long trek without stumbling.
The youngest of the guards, the one who doled out tools and assignments, still had a bit of compassion for these beasts of burden and, upon seeing the frail state of the young red-haired woman, had sent her to the relatively easy task of sifting the large rocks from the attached dirt. It was a sedentary job and the young woman's glazed eyes lit with gratitude to be given it.
Under Xena's watchful eyes, Helena had managed to work hard almost the entire time, though her features twisted in absolute agony every now and then as gut cramps shot through her like sharpened spikes.
The warrior's internal reverie on the heat was interrupted by a loud, piercing scream from the sifting tables. Looking up, she spied Helena standing on trembling legs, looking down at gore coated hands. The back of her tattered shift was painted with blood which also ran down her legs in a steady stream. Paling, the young woman dropped to her knees, her scream never ending.
Seeing the commotion, one of the guards ran over to the downed woman, aiming a savage kick just beneath her ribs. "Get back to work, pig!" he spat, kicking her again.
Corien jumped up from her place next to the young woman, grabbing the prostrate form and attempting to drag her away from the guard's brutality. "Stop it! She's bleeding! She needs help!"
"Get away from her!" the guard yelled, sending the young Amazon flying with a vicious backhand to the jaw. "Now get back to work, you filthy Greek pig!" He kicked Helena again, grunting in satisfaction as he heard a bone snap.
Helena kept screaming.
Growling, the guard uncoiled the whip from his side, raising it up to land a strike to her unprotected body. His eyes bulged as the whip went taut in his hand, then he stumbled backwards as a great force was exerted upon the weapon. "What the . . . ."
"Why don't you try using that on someone who can fight back," Xena snarled, teeth bared as she yanked the whip away from the startled guard, coiling it in her large hands.
Another guard came at her, spear raised in a killing strike. Flicking the whip out, Xena curled it around the weapon and tugged, dropping the butt of the whip and catching the flying spear. Her grin widened with the weapon in her hands, her eyes shot pale fire at the approaching guards. With her fierce battlecry, the warrior leapt over the heads of the onrushing men to land next to Corien, who was just beginning to rise, rubbing her injured jaw. Grabbing the Amazon's arm, Xena flung her in the direction of the still screaming Helena. "Get her to safety," she snapped, holding the spear at the ready.
The two warriors moved as one to the young woman's side. Corien knelt and drew Helena's trembling body close to her, then standing, started to carry her away. A guard stepped up to intercept the pair and found himself halfway across the mine from a thunderous blow of the non-lethal end of the spear Xena held. "Hurry!" Xena shouted, swinging the staff around her body in savage arcs, keeping the guards from approaching the women.
Nodding, Corien turned and ran to a far corner of the mine, laying Helena's body carefully on the ground, joined by the Healer and two other young Amazons.
As soon as the young woman was carried to relative safety, Xena threw the weapon down to the ground and deliberately relaxed her body. The guards came at her as a unit, bearing down upon the lethal warrior with the butts of their spears.
Her last thoughts were of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle threw open the door to her room when she heard a commotion in the hallway. Acolytes were running in several different directions. She caught Aevar's arm as he went by. "What's going on?"
"Riot in the mines," he said breathlessly. "Gunni's looking for you."
He shrugged and freed his arm from Gabrielle's grip, darting off in the direction of the temple's sanctuary.
'Riot in the mines?' Gabrielle began to worry. 'By the gods, Xena.'
'What would Gunni want with me?' Horrible scenes ran through her mind. 'Oh, no, they've discovered our plan. I've got to get out of here.'
She shut the door and headed for the nearest exit. As she rounded the corner, she collided solidly with Gunni.
"There you are," the priest said, picking himself up from the floor.
'Son of a Bacchae,' Gabrielle thought. 'Well, better make the best of it.' She extended her hand and helped him up. "Fine, you've found me," she said in a resigned tone.
"Yes, and I need you to get your scribing materials and come with me," he took her arm and led her toward the sanctuary.
"Scribing materials?" Gabrielle was relieved but confused. "What for?"
"I'm presiding over the execution of the slave that started the riot in the mines," he told her. "In fact, it's your former slave."
Gabrielle felt her legs go out from under her. Gunni did his best to catch her before she hit the floor.
"Gabrielle, what is it, child?" Gunni was perplexed.
"M ... my slave?" Gabrielle couldn't breath. 'Oh, Xena, no,' she thought desperately.
Gunni's expression turned to one of understanding. "I know you have a soft spot for her, Gabrielle. That's admirable. But insubordination cannot be tolerated. Besides, she's only a Greek. It's not like we're in short supply."
Gabrielle nodded slowly, not really hearing Gunni. She tried to regain her composure.
"Look, if this is too hard for you, I'll get Aevar to scribe for me," Gunni patted her arm as he helped her back to her feet.
"No!" she said too loudly. "No," she softened her tone. "I'll be fine."
"Good, get your things and meet me in the square," he let go of her and rushed out of the temple.
Gabrielle ran to the sanctuary to retrieve her materials, desperately trying to think of a way to save Xena.
Xena could barely stand. After the guards had overpowered her they had forced her to drink an herbal concoction that made the world fuzzy, and her legs almost useless. She fought hard to keep her concentration centered on the matter at hand, but it kept wandering off on its own.
She was now held upright by two burly guards. They roughly kept her standing even though her legs wobbled uncontrollably. Her wrists were bound tightly behind her back. She flexed her wrists against the bindings. Any other time the chains wouldn't have stood a chance, but the drugs had zapped her strength. The Warrior Princess was as weak as kitten.
Through her haze she saw Gunni headed her way, followed closely by Gabrielle. She smiled slightly at the sight of her lover.
"Gabrielle," she mumbled.
"Shut up, you pig," the guard to her right shook her violently.
They forced Xena to her knees. She focused long enough to see a large block of wood directly in front of her. She recognized the dried stains on the block as blood. Her lips twisted into a sad grin.
'Trudged all this way in the snow just to lose my head,' she thought dryly. 'Beats the Tartarus out of the cross, I suppose. Faster, anyway. At least Gabrielle will be safe here.' Her thoughts abandoned her again and her head dropped as the drugs took her strength.
"What happened?" Gunni demanded as he approached.
"This pig here stepped in as we were trying to discipline another slave," one guard explained. "She nearly killed several other guards."
Gunni reached down and roughly grabbed Xena by the hair. Pulling her face upward he leaned in close. "You understand the punishment for your actions is death, slave?"
Xena tried to collect enough spit to give him her reply right in his eye, but she couldn't muster the strength. She sneered and grunted instead.
Gabrielle gasped at the sight of Xena. She thought the warrior looked rough in the stable the night before, but nothing prepared her for the condition she was in now. She had obviously taken a horrible beating at the hands of the guards. Bruises covered her arms, chest and face. Dried blood had caked from the side of her mouth to her chin. She nearly cried at the sight.
"Prepare the slave for execution!" Gunni released Xena and stepped back.
The guards bent Xena forward and laid her head on the block. "Good riddance, pig," one guard spat as he slapped Xena for good measure.
Xena was coherent long enough to have a nice short fantasy about snapping the man in two with her bare hands before the haze reclaimed her mind.
Seeing Xena's head on the chopping block brought back a flood of memories for Gabrielle. She had let one man lose his head by her inaction. She would not stand by now and let Xena's life end here.
Through the mists of her mind Xena heard the bard's voice and smiled.
"Gunni," Gabrielle stepped between the priest and the prone Warrior Princess. "Is this absolutely necessary? Isn't there another way to punish her without killing her?"
Gunni let out a long sigh. "Gabrielle, your concern for the slaves is touching, but it's getting a little trying. No, there is no other way. Any slave who incites a riot is killed. It's Balder's will."
"It's Balder's will to kill a person without a proper hearing?" Gabrielle was pleading with Gunni.
"A hearing?" Gunni almost laughed. "For a slave? Whatever for?"
"She could be innocent," Gabrielle tried reasoning with the priest. "The guards say one thing, but we haven't heard the other side of the story. You should ask the slaves what happened."
Gunni did laugh now. "Child, why would a slave tell the truth about what happened?"
"Have you ever given them the chance?" Gabrielle was getting desperate. "Balder is a god of justice right? How is it justice to execute someone without hearing the full story?"
Gunni opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He looked around at the crowd that had gathered for the execution. Many of them were nodding their heads to one another in agreement with Gabrielle.
Seeing he would lose face if he did not back down, he turned back to Gabrielle. "Fine, we'll do it your way."
He turned to one of the guards, "Bring out the slave that was about to be disciplined before this slave incited the riot."
Gabrielle cleared her throat and shot a sharp stare at Gunni.
"I mean, before this slave *allegedly* incited the riot," he rolled his eyes.
Her smile faded as the guard brought out Helena. The emaciated woman made Xena look positively healthy. She left a bright red trail in the snow as the guards brought her forward.
A collective gasp erupted from the crowd. One woman screamed and fainted.
Gunni tried to carry on. "Slave, tell me what happened."
The crowd had to strain to hear Helena's weak voice. "I ... I was working too slow. One of the guards was coming to beat me." She motioned toward the warrior whose head lolled on the chopping block. "She saved me."
Gabrielle was in shock. "Gunni, why was a woman, who is obviously sick, working in the mines in the first place?"
One man spoke from the crowd, "Yeah, Gunni, that's a damn good question." Murmurs of agreement rippled through the crowd.
Despite the brisk, chilled air, Gunni began to sweat. He had to make some fast decisions.
"Where is the captain of the guards?" he demanded.
One guard stepped forward and bowed slightly to Gunni.
"Captain, this is disgraceful!" he bellowed. "This woman should be in the infirmary, not in the mines. Anyone in their right mind knows that."
The captain looked confused, "But sir, we don't have an in .."
Gunni cut him off and repeated through gritted teeth, "I said, this woman should be in the infirmary."
The captain stared at Gunni for several seconds before simply answering, "Yes, sir."
"If she had not been in the mines in the first place, there would have been no riot," Gunni continued. "See to it that only healthy slaves are taken to the mines from now on. Sick ones will remain in the infirmary."
The guard snapped to attention and gave a salute. "Yes, sir."
He turned back to the guards holding Xena on the chopping block. "Release her. There'll be no execution today."
A cheer erupted from the crowd. Gabrielle smiled and took Gunni's hand. "Thank you."
"Well," Gunni smiled back at her, "you were right, Gabrielle. I had no idea the conditions were this bad in the mines. Rest assured, the guards will be punished, and this woman's condition will get immediate attention from our best healers."
Gabrielle gave the priest a quick hug and thanked him again. She turned back just in time to see the guards roughly pull Xena to her feet and march her off toward the slave quarters. Her heart broke at the sight of her battered friend. Her feet carried her several steps in the direction of Xena. She had to stop herself from running full speed and taking down both guards to get to her.
After Gabrielle had moved a few feet away from Gunni the captain of the guards approached from behind and whispered, "You're not serious about those orders, are you?"
Gunni glanced behind him. "Of course not. Keep that blasted slave drugged, and cut everyone else's rations in half. We'll teach these slaves yet who's boss."
"Yes, sir," the captain smiled, "with pleasure."
The hut was dark, dank and chilled. The remaining embers of an underfed and rapidly dying fire spluttered out their last, briefly haloing two figures surrounding a larger one who was slumped, head down, against the table. "What are we gonna do?" asked the first, lifting Xena's lolling head, then replacing it gently on the tabletop.
"Why are you askin' me? Do I have the word 'healer' stamped on my forehead somewhere?"
"Cut it out, you two." Corien stepped out from the shadows to come beside the others, her hand reaching out to gently stroke sweat-streaked bangs from Xena's head. "You're worse than a couple of drunken harpies."
"She started it," Mala said softly, poking Erissa with her elbow.
"I don't care who started it," Corien interjected, separating the two combatants. "Until Sarebet figures out a way to stop Helena from bleeding, it's up to us to figure out how to get the herbs out of Xena's system."
"How do we do that?" Erissa asked.
"I don't know. I've seen this stuff before. Takes away a person's spirit. And their strength. It's also very addictive." Corien sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. "It's a way to make the slaves take a willing part in their own captivity. Bad stuff." She shook her head, bending down to peer closely into Xena's eyes. The pupils were fully dilated, only the thinnest corona of pale silver-blue surrounding a vast well of utter black.
"Is there an antidote?" Mala inquired.
"Yeah. But I don't know what it is, let alone if we have it." Sighing again, she turned from the table and walked over to the splintered bunks, standing quietly by Sarebet's side as the young healer whispered soothing words to the huddled and writhing Helena. "How's she doing?"
Sarebet turned to face her friend. "I've managed to stop the bleeding, but we've run out of herbs to kill the sickness." Peering over the Amazon warrior's shoulder, the young healer looked at the slumped form at the table. "Guess we're not gonna be able to get any more either, are we." Her tone was one of sad defeat.
Corien followed her gaze to the stuporous warrior, then back to the moaning Helena. 'It's time I made my mother proud,' she thought. Squaring her shoulders, she looked into Sarebet's eyes, her own blazing with purpose. "We'll get them."
Unwrapping one arm from Helena's quivering body, the healer laid a gentle hand on Corien's arm. "Corien, I . . . ."
The warrior shook her head. "When Helena's stable enough, go over and see what you can do for Xena."
"But . . . ."
"No. We have to do this. I have to do this." She looked over at Xena again. "Do you know what the antidote to that poison is?"
Nodding, Sarebet explained the herbs she would need to concoct a tea. "But we don't have them here."
"I'll get those too. Gabrielle should be meeting Xena at the stables tonight. I'll just ask her to pick some up for us." Gently disengaging her arm from Sarebet's grip, the young warrior turned toward the corner where Xena stowed her gear, hoping there would be something she could use to surmount the ten foot wall enclosing the slave quarters.
At that moment, the door burst open and a violent gust of wind blew through the hovel. A young guard, bearing an earthen mug, took one step inside the enclosure before stepping back quickly, using his free hand to fan the air in front of his face. "Damn, but it stinks in here! Who died?" Not waiting for an answer to his question, the guard looked around until he spied Pelta staring at him balefully. "Hey, Tubby. Get your ass over here and give this tea to the tall pig over there."
Holding his commanding glare for another instant, Pelta slowly strolled over to the cocky guard, taking the cup when it was roughly thrust into her hands. "We could use some more wood," she said quietly.
The large Greek was rewarded with a sharp backhand to her jaw. "Listen, pig-breath. When I want you to talk, I'll beat it outta you, ok? Now give the bitch the drink and get it over with."
Shaking the effects of the ringing slap from her head, Pelta nodded once and turned to the table. Setting the mug on the table, she roughly grabbed a thatch of Xena's raven hair and pulled her lolling head back. Near sightless eyes blinked up at her, uncomprehending. Picking up the mug, the large Greek thrust it to dry lips, her own eyes conveying a message to the stiffening Amazons watching her. "Drink up, you miserable pig," she grunted, tilting the cup slightly.
Feeling the first touch of liquid in the back of her mouth, Xena, dazed, coughed and sputtered, whipping her head away from the offending grasp and almost causing Pelta to lose her grip on both the raven head and the mug.
Pelta shot a desperate glance to Iolake, who nodded and moved to kneel beside the struggling warrior, taking one chilled hand between two warm ones. "Xena," she whispered, "c'mon and drink this. It's really important."
Understanding crashed through the warrior's dazed senses and she calmed her struggle.
Sighing in relief, the large Greek slave carefully poured the bitter drink so that it spilled, unnoticed by the guard, down Xena's chin to puddle on the table. Grunting in satisfaction, Pelta turned back to the door and gave the empty mug back to the guard.
Overturning the mug to make sure it was empty, the guard sneered at Pelta. "Good job, pig. Just for that, I might give you a few twigs for your fire." Laughing uproariously at his poor joke, the guard stepped back and slammed the door, leaving the women in semi-darkness once more.
"Thank you," Iolake said from her place beside Xena.
"Didn't do it for you," Pelta grunted, fixing her stare on the Amazon.
"Doesn't matter. Thank you anyway."
A long silence, broken only by the coughs and soft moans from the other slaves, was the young woman's answer.
Gabrielle paced in her room. She couldn't get the thought of a battered and drugged Xena out of her mind. A flood of emotions rolled over her, and several tears escaped her eyes.
'I just can't do this anymore,' she thought to herself. She could feel her frustration level rising, but oddly enough, despite wanting to vent some pent up emotion, she didn't feel any anger. Even when she had seen Xena or the sickly slave, unable to stand or walk on her own, she didn't feel any anger at how they'd been treated. She only felt pity for both of them. As much as she tried to find it, anger was the one emotion that eluded her.
'Doesn't that just top it off nicely?' Gabrielle snorted. 'The Fates say anger is the key to my destiny, but I don't have any anger anymore. I've lost the key to my destiny."
Gabrielle wiped the wetness from her eyes. "By the gods, I just want to be happy again," she said aloud. "Why is that such an impossible request?"
A light knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. "Come in," Gabrielle called out, trying to regain her composure.
The door slowly opened and a short, blond haired woman stepped into the room carrying a tray full of food.
"Master," she bowed her head slightly, "your dinner."
Gabrielle smiled at the girl. "Please, call me Gabrielle."
The woman shook her head. "Slaves are not permitted to speak the names of their masters."
Gabrielle closed the door, and led the woman to the table at the end of the narrow room. She took the tray of food from her and set it down. She turned to the woman and placed her hand on her shoulder. The woman flinched slightly, then relaxed.
"Slaves are to obey their masters, right?" Gabrielle said softly.
"Yes," the woman nodded not meeting Gabrielle's gaze.
"Then call me Gabrielle."
"Yes ... Gabrielle," the slave said hesitantly, and began to back away.
"What's your name?" Gabrielle followed her.
"Evadne," she said slowly.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Evadne," Gabrielle took her hand and held it for a moment. "Thank you for bringing my food to me."
Evadne dared to look up at the woman who was being so kind to her. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again.
"What is it?" Gabrielle prompted. "Did you want to say something?"
There was long pause before Evadne said quietly, "I heard what you did today."
"What did you hear?"
"That you saved a slave's life," Evadne continued her soft tone.
"Yes, I did," Gabrielle confirmed.
The girl couldn't contain herself. She smiled and looked Gabrielle in the eye. "You're one of them, right here in Balder's temple. I didn't know you were working from the inside!"
Gabrielle shook her head in confusion, "Excuse me? One of them?"
"One of the resistance," Evadne advanced toward Gabrielle.
"The resistance," Gabrielle repeated.
It was Evadne's turn to be confused. She backed up a few paces, hoping she had not just made a terrible mistake. "You're not against slavery?"
"I am," Gabrielle confirmed quickly, seeing the look of fear on the slave's face, "but I don't know anything about the resistance."
The quietude of the slave hut was broken when the door slammed open again and several logs and sticks were tossed inside, barely missing the women huddled in the middle of the enclosure for what meager warmth their bodies' heat could provide.
A raven head shot upwards in startlement, followed by the clattering of an overturned chair as a long body tried to rise on wobbly legs.
Iolake rose with the warrior, trying to gently guide her back down into the chair. "Xena, please sit down. You're not strong enough to stand yet."
"Gotta get to Gabrielle," Xena rumbled in a voice rough from disuse.
"Please sit," the young Amazon tried again. "You've been heavily drugged. You're in no condition to sneak out of the camp like this."
Savagely pulling her arm away from Iolake's grip, Xena stumbled across the room, steadying her weakened body against the bunks. She ran a trembling hand through matted hair. "Gabrielle's expecting me."
Looking up from her place at the newly kindled fire, Corien quickly rose and strode to the warrior's side. "C'mon, Xena. You need to sit back down, ok? There's no way you're gonna make it up over that wall in your condition. I'll go in your place."
"No . . . ."
"Xena, please. Let me go to meet Gabrielle. Please let me do this." Her gaze met and held the piercing blues of the Warrior Princess.
Nodding slightly, Xena drew in a slightly shuddering breath and locked her knees against the possibility of collapsing to the cold dirt floor.
Looking over the warrior's shoulder, Corien caught Iolake's gaze. Jerking her chin, she stepped closer to Xena, wrapping one arm around the warrior's narrow waist. "C'mon, Xena. Let's get you back to the chair, alright?"
"I can do it."
"I know you can. But let us help you. You'll get there faster."
Taking one stumbling step on her own, Xena bit her lip and nodded, accepting the aid from both Corien and Iolake. Seconds later, she was seated back in the chair, trying with all her formidable will to hold her torso upright against the profound effect of the drugs she'd been made to ingest.
"Sarebet gave me the names of the herbs we need for the antidote, Xena," Corien said, her heart breaking at the brave woman's struggle. "I'll have Gabrielle get them for us. You won't be like this for too much longer, ok?"
Nodding once again, the proud warrior gave up the fight to remain upright, laying her head down on the table and surrendering to the overpowering urge to slip into the strength of sleep.
Corien and Iolake's gazes met, the latter's eyes filled with tears. "It makes me sick to see her like this," the young woman said.
The young warrior nodded. "Me too. But she won't be like this for long. I swear it."
Their quiet conversation was interrupted by a diffident Pelta who cleared her throat, then thrust a long, thick length of hemp rope into Corien's hands. Tied to one end of the rope were three bent metal hooks, made from the rusted nails holding the hovel together. "Grappling hook for the wall," the large Greek said, her eyes studying her tattered boots. "You'll need it unless you can flip over the damn thing like she can."
Corien smiled, patting the Greek on the shoulder. "I think she's the only one who can do that. Thanks for this."
Mumbling something under her breath, Pelta wandered back across the hut to join her cronies by the fire.
Gathering the rope and slipping it over her shoulder, Corien placed herself at the rear of the hut, tracking the pacing guards and waiting for the sun to set.
Gabrielle entered the stables in a much better frame of mind than she had been in that morning. The young Greek slave's words had given her a hope, and a glimmer of a plan. A plan that could, if she played it right, go beyond Xena's simple rescue of a handful of slaves. Evadne's joy at seeing her in Balder's temple told the bard that no one else from the resistance movement had yet been able to broach the impenetrable wall of religious law. 'But I can,' Gabrielle said to herself, smiling inwardly. If things worked out as she intended, she could be the spearhead that would force these Northern people to realize that slavery was wrong and counter to the teachings of the very god they worshipped. The inward smile showed upon her face. Not only would the current Greeks win their freedom, but never again would a Greek have to look over his shoulder in fear of Northern slavers. 'This is the answer I've been searching for. I've been wondering how my life could make a difference. I think I've found it.'
Stepping into the humid air of the stable with a light tread, Gabrielle reached up a hand to rub her nose as hay chaff rose up around her, tickling her sinuses. Argo spotted the young bard and nickered a welcome as Gabrielle approached, grabbing an apple from her bag and feeding it to the appreciative warhorse.
Patting Argo's strong neck, Gabrielle extended her senses as Xena had taught her. Her nerves tingled as she realized she wasn't alone. "Xena?" she called out softly into the shadowed corners of the stable. "Xena? Are you there?"
There was a long moment of silence. Then a shadow detached itself from the rest and stepped into the dim lighting of the barn. Gabrielle's eyes widened as she took in the unexpected figure. The woman was younger than the bard by at least three or four seasons. Her dark hair was tousled and dirty. Her face was sweat streaked and bruised. Her body, though proud and erect, was slat thin.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle asked.
The young woman bowed her head. "My name is Corien, Queen Gabrielle."
"Quee . . . ." Gabrielle's voice trailed off as she looked more closely. "You're an Amazon?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Corien said with respect. "From Queen Serrestria's tribe. My sisters and I were captured by the slavers." Her dirty cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
Gabrielle beamed. "Then we've found you. Thank the gods." She looked again into the shadows. "Where's Xena? Is she here? Is she alright?"
"She's in the compound with the rest of the slaves, Ma'am. She's been heavily drugged and couldn't come out to meet you. I came in her place."
The bard's eyes widened with shock. Never had she known the warrior to be so incapacitated that she was unable to perform any aspect of a mission. She took a step closer to the waiting Amazon. "How bad is it? Is she alright? What can I do to help?"
Corien held up one hand to stop the questioning. "The guards forced her to drink something after they'd subdued her in the mines. It's a dangerous drug and she's fighting hard to get out from under its effects. We know what the antidote is, but we don't have the herbs to make it. That's why I'm here." Corien handed Gabrielle a dirty scrap of linen upon which were listed the ingredients for the drug's antidote.
Gabrielle's quick eyes scanned the list. Then she smiled, reaching for her pouch. "I've got all the ingredients you need right here. I stopped by the hospice earlier this morning and appropriated some herbs."
The young Amazon took the proffered pouch, smiling as she examined the contents. She also recognized the good supply of herbs needed for the stomach sickness nestled within. "We're grateful to you, Queen Gabrielle. These are exactly what we need." She looked up at the young Queen, a new respect in her eyes. "Xena would want to know how you are. Is there anything you'd wish me to pass on, Ma'am?"
Gabrielle returned the smile. "Tell her I'm fine. I've met some interesting people here and, the gods willing, this should all be over soon."
"I'll be sure and tell her, Ma'am. Is there anything else?"
Thinking for a second, the bard shook her head. "No. That's it."
Corien looked at Gabrielle strangely. She knew of the legendary love Xena had for the Amazon Queen. She would have bet her last dinar, if she had any, that that love was shared. Now, she wasn't so sure. With a heavy heart, she nodded. "As you wish, Ma'am. I've got to get back now. Thanks again for the herbs." At the young Queen's smile and nod, Corien turned and moved deeper into the shadows.
With a final pat to Argo's side, Gabrielle turned and left the stables.
Corien threw the herb bag in front of her as she crawled the last few inches along the dirt floor of the barracks, pulling her legs in behind her as Porfis replaced the splintered board. Standing and retrieving the bag, the young Amazon warrior approached the table, nodding to Sarebet and Iolake, who squatted next to the still slumped form of Xena, tenderly stroking her hair. "How is she?"
"She's been out since you left," Sarebet replied. "I might be wrong, but I think she's put herself into some type of healing trance to work the poison out of her system." Sighing, she stood, stretching her cramped back. "Did you meet with the Queen?"
Corien's brow furrowed. "Yeah. She just happened to have the herbs for the antidote we needed with her. And the medicine for the stomach sickness too."
The young healer beamed. "That's perfect! I knew she'd come through for us."
"I suppose," Corien replied, rubbing her forehead.
"What's wrong?" Sarebet asked softly, one hand on the young warrior's arm.
"I'm not sure. Queen Gabrielle . . . I don't know. She didn't seem 'right' somehow. I can't put it any better than that." She yawned. "Maybe I'm just tired."
Sarebet nodded and led her companion to the wooden bunks. "Try and get some sleep. Iolake and I will keep an eye on Xena."
"You gonna give her the antidote?"
The young healer turned her gaze to the slumped form of the Warrior Princess. "I think we'll just let her do it on her own for now. The cure is almost worse than the drug. I'll keep it just in case, but hopefully we won't have to use it."
"Alright. Wake me if there's any trouble."
"Will do." With a smile and a slight squeeze to the arm she held, Sarebet left her friend to her rest and returned to her vigil over Xena.
This can't be the place,' Gabrielle thought as she paced outside the building where the slave told her the members of the resistance would be meeting.
She had expected a hovel on some far-reaching part of the town. But here she stood, almost in the middle of town, looking at a beautiful home. While the other, more modest, homes were made of wood, with thatched or thick parchment laid roofs, this one was made entirely of beautiful field stone. The tiles that adorned the roof looked to be hand made. The building was obviously home to one of the richest members of the community.
'Evadne gave me the wrong address,' she shook her head and turned to walk away when she heard her name whispered.
She turned back to the house to see the door cracked open. She squinted to try and make out the figure behind the door.
"Gabrielle, come in," the voice beckoned her.
She moved slowly toward the door, still trying to get a glimpse of who was calling her.
She stood hesitantly near the door and opened her mouth to speak just as a hand emerged from behind the door, grabbed her arm, and pulled her quickly inside the home.
It took Gabrielle a couple of seconds for her eyes to adjust in the darkened home. The hand that pulled her in had let go and she could make out a figure in front of her.
Gabrielle jumped slightly as a soft round of applause broke out. She scanned the room and realized there were at least a dozen people standing around her.
The figure that had pulled her in the house stepped forward and extended her hand. "Gabrielle," she smiled, "we are so proud of what you did yesterday. No one has ever stood up to Gunni like that and helped to spare a slave's life."
Gabrielle felt like she was looking into the eyes of her future. The woman had long blond hair, mixed with wisps of unruly grey, swept back from her shoulders. From the lines on her face Gabrielle guessed she had seen a good forty seasons or so. Her green eyes were clear and kind.
Gabrielle felt an air of warmth and confidence from the woman, but also detected a faint sadness. Gabrielle believed the woman, though obviously wealthy, had not escaped the pain of everyday living. The familiar, if older, face made Gabrielle smile.
She felt her tension melt away. She took the woman's hand. "I believe in justice for everyone, including slaves," she replied.
"So do we," the woman gestured at the others in the room. "My name is Panacea. These are the members of the resistance."
Gabrielle nodded to the crowd and scanned the faces. She remembered seeing some of them on the town square yesterday as she pleaded for Xena's life. One by one, the members approached her shook her hand, smiled warmly at her and introduced themselves. The sincerity of each of them touched Gabrielle's heart.
After the round of introductions, Panacea took Gabrielle's hand and led her to a chair. She sat next to Gabrielle and took her hands in hers. "Gabrielle, we hope you'll join our movement to end slavery here in Gudvargen."
"I'll do anything I can," Gabrielle was already enthusiastic about the idea of helping to permanently free the slaves of this town. She had agreed to help Xena lead these slaves in an escape, but the thought that they'd just be replaced by more poor souls tore at Gabrielle's heart. She believed these people had a better solution and was eager to be part of the plan.
Panacea smiled at the group, "I knew Balder sent her to us."
There were murmurs of agreement from the group.
"Wait," Gabrielle's smile faded, and she reclaimed her hands from Panacea's grasp. "Balder? You worship Balder?"
Panacea's brow creased. "Yes, of course we worship Balder. He is the god of light, joy, purity, beauty, innocence, and reconciliation. Why would we not worship Balder?"
Gabrielle was confused. "But, I've been told it's Balder's will that the Greeks be enslaved."
"That's nothing but propaganda and lies perpetuated by Gunni and his church," Panacea spat as passion for her cause overtook her. "That's what we're trying to fight, Gabrielle. Enslaving people is not the will of Balder. Balder wishes us all to be free. We must convince the church and the city's politicians of that fact."
Gabrielle still needed some explanation for all this. "But, Gunni told me of a creation story that guarantees the slavery of Greeks.
"Gabrielle, are you familiar with the sacred writings of Balder?" Panacea got up and walked to a nearby shelf.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head.
Panacea handed her several scrolls. Gabrielle unfurled one and began to scan it.
"As you'll see from those scrolls, there are several creation stories. The one Gunni told you is the one generally accepted in this part of our land," Panacea explained. "In other parts, you'll find no such story is believed, and there are no Greeks held as slaves."
"How did so many creation stories get into the writings?" Gabrielle was perplexed.
"There's often more politics than spirituality when writings are turned into canon, Gabrielle," Panacea shrugged. "Unfortunately it gives the pro-slavery people reasons to keep people in bondage. Our work is to convince them they're wrong, as is their creation story. Besides, creation stories are just that, stories. I don't think any of them are accurate."
"I think we all came from the ocean," Gabrielle offered.
"Really?" Panacea's eyes went wide. "I think that too, but everyone laughs at me when I say it."
The group responded with a few chuckles, and one man called out, "Yeah, Panacea, you also think the world is round."
"See?" Panacea gave a mock sigh. "I get no respect."
Gabrielle smiled at the woman and felt a rush of emotion for her. She immediately liked Panacea and was feeling comfortable in her presence. 'This must be my destiny,' she thought happily to herself. 'I'm here to help end the evil of slavery.' The thought made her not quite as mad at the Fates as she had been.
"How can I help?" Gabrielle was ready to get started on her destiny.
"Well, you're already in at the temple," Panacea began. "That's more than any of us have been able to do in the season or so since we began our movement. You're scribing for Gunni, right?"
"Yes," Gabrielle confirmed.
"You've obviously gotten in good with him since he spared that slave," a man spoke from the group.
"We do spend a lot of time together," Gabrielle replied.
"Good," Panacea nodded. "The first thing you need to do is join the church."
"Join the church?"
"Yes," Panacea continued. "Gunni already respects you. If you became a worshipper of Balder, he'd be more likely to listen to your opinions."
"You're all members of the temple, why not just demand that the slaves be released?" Gabrielle was trying to get a handle on the strategy.
"It will all happen in good time, Gabrielle," Panacea patted her arm. "We can't just march in there and make demands. We have to change hearts before we can change the minds of the community. Demanding our way will only cause unrest and strife. It's better to work within the system. We're making our opinions known quietly. When enough people agree with us, change will come. That's the only way to break the cycle of hatred."
"Break the cycle of hatred," Gabrielle repeated quietly. "That's exactly what I'm here to do."
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