A GOOD DAY TO DIE
Written by: Blade Mast and Candace Chellew
BladeMast@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Part 4 of 7
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Acting like a drugged inmate was certainly more difficult than actually being one, Xena observed as she consciously shortened her strokes with the pickaxe. She had come out of her healing trance well before the dawn of this new morning, feeling refreshed and hyper-alert, as she always did when she finally broke through the confining waves of this poison or that.
She leaned the axe against one leg as she dragged a hand through sweat-soaked hair. Her stomach voiced a complaint, reminding her that she hadn't eaten in well over two days. She called upon her reserves of strength, pleased that the powerful drugs hadn't taken them away.
As if attracted by the sound of hunger, the youngest of the guards, Nels, approached the warrior bearing a wooden mug. "Time for your medicine, pig," he said in a voice too high pitched to be menacing.
Xena turned a half-lidded stare on the young man, reaching out a deliberately shaking hand to capture the mug.
Nels moved slightly to block the views of the other guards as he grasped Xena's other hand and led it to cradle the bottom of the mug. He stared into her eyes intently, trying to convey a silent message.
Xena brought the mug up to her face and sniffed. Raising an eyebrow over the rim, she returned the young guard's gaze, saying nothing. Her calloused palm scraped against something that felt like folded parchment secured to the bottom of the mug. Her eyebrow arched higher.
"I said drink, you Greek dog," Nels said threateningly, his hand moving toward the whip secured at his side.
Still silent, the warrior quaffed the drink, noting that it was exactly as it smelled, clean water. Palming the parchment, she handed the mug back to its owner. Swallowing, her eyes rolled back in her head as her shoulders slumped slightly. Her arms came down to hang loosely at her side.
She's good, Nels thought to himself as he spared Xena a sharp nod before returning to his compatriots, a smug, malicious grin on his still boyish features.
Certain that the guards' attentions were elsewhere, Xena used the fingers of her right hand to open the tiny square of parchment. Squinting in the gloom of the mines, she read the hastily scrawled note. Stables. Full moon-rise. Tonight. Eyebrow arched again, the warrior faked a cough, swallowing the note in one gulp. Her stomach issued forth a demand for something more substantial. Ignoring the summons, Xena shouldered the pick-axe, returning to work.
Gabrielle went back to the temple feeling a new purpose had dawned in her life. She smiled as she walked in the chilly sunlight, and reflected on the meeting with the resistance group. Panacea had made a big impression on the bard. Her grace and confidence were enchanting. Her dedication to ending slavery was clear, and admirable. Gabrielle hoped she could learn a lot from the woman.
Gabrielle was happier than she had been in a long time. She embraced the long lost emotion, wrapping herself in it like a favorite cloak. She returned every smile from each person she passed as she returned to the temple, and even called out, "Balder's blessings on you, today," to many of them. She knew, in her heart, that soon these people would see the error of their ways and turn collectively from slavery. She was happy with her new role in that bright future.
The only apprehension she felt was at joining the church. She wanted to go into this new experience honestly, yet her feelings for the religion around Balder were mixed. How could the followers of such a good god visit such atrocities on fellow humans? How could these people really believe it was any god's will that others should be held as slaves? These points troubled Gabrielle, but she was convinced it was her destiny to help change the minds of these otherwise good and kind people. It was the strength of that conviction alone that made her decision to join the church of Balder an easy on to make, even if it was mixed with doubt.
Once at the temple, she made a beeline for Gunni.
The priest turned from his duties at the altar and smiled at Gabrielle.
"Where have you been this morning, child?" Gunni asked. "You were missed at morning prayers."
"I'm sorry, Gunni," Gabrielle looked at her feet. "I needed to get out and think."
"Think?" Gunni raised his eyebrows. "What about?"
"About my future," Gabrielle looked him in the eye. "Here."
Gunni's grin widened. "Child, are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Gabrielle could only nod. She meant so much more by her words than she could ever tell Gunni. She was ready for her future in Gudvargen, and how she planned to change the world these people lived in.
"You want to join the temple?" Gunni wanted to make sure his new scribe was serious.
"Yes, Gunni," Gabrielle confirmed. "I know now that Balder is my salvation, and my destiny."
"Praise Balder!" Gunni exclaimed. "Gabrielle, the moment you set foot in this temple, I knew you'd become one of us. I knew Balder brought you here."
"I wasn't sure when I got here," Gabrielle confided, "but, now I know, Gunni, this is where I am supposed to be."
"Aevar!" Gunni called to the young acolyte at the far end of the sanctuary. "Good news! Gabrielle is joining the temple of Balder!"
"Wonderful!" Aevar called back.
"Tell the staff to prepare the ritual feast!" Gunni instructed.
"Feast?" Gabrielle asked.
"Why, yes, child," Gunni turned to her. "Whenever a new convert makes a decision for Balder we hold a feast to welcome them."
Gabrielle laughed to herself. Food seemed to be the only thing on the minds of these people. She quietly wondered if Balder as also the god of obesity.
"So, all I have to do to join is eat?"
"No, the feast is just the beginning," Gunni took her hand in his. "However, you'd better stock up at tonight's feast, Gabrielle."
"Because tomorrow you fast from sun up to sundown."
"Fast?" Gabrielle gulped. "You mean, I can't eat for a whole day?"
"That's right," Gunni patted the hand he held. "You must purify yourself before you can be accepted into Balder's temple."
Gabrielle didn't even hear his last words to her.
'No food for a whole day?' She reclaimed her hand from Gunni and clutched at her stomach. 'How will I survive that?'
Gabrielle slowly picked her head up from the bed. She moaned loudly as the dizziness took hold. Her head fell back onto the pillow. 'I'm going to die,' she thought miserably. Her stomach rumbled loudly in agreement.
'Why do they call this a fast?' she wondered to herself. 'This is the slowest day I've ever lived through.'
She checked the window again. The sun refused to set and end her misery.
The feast had been the most massive display of food she had yet to see at the temple. Delicacies of every nature filled the table, and subsequently her stomach. As she waddled back to her room for the night, she smiled, feeling that her overeating would make the next day pass quickly.
The day had started well. Her stomach was still satisfied as she rose for morning prayers. Gunni then informed her that she must spend the day in her chamber, reading the sacred writings of Balder and learning more about the god she was about to swear her allegiance to.
She had managed to focus on the words for several hours, before the headache and weakness of a deprived appetite took hold.
She let out another moan as her stomach voiced a new complaint.
'Will this never end?'
"Pick up the speed a little. They're not gonna wait for you to strike. Again."
"Very good. Again."
"Aha! Gotcha that time."
"A little too quick for ya, huh? And you call yourself an Amazon. Hah!"
Crack. CRASH! "Oof!" Thud.
"Never let an enemy goad you into fighting foolishly." Smirking, Xena reached down and pulled the panting Amazon up to her feet, handing her the crude wooden staff she had rescued from the wood pile.
Karna, one of Pelta's cronies, turned from her post at the front of the hovel, her eyes wide. "The guards are coming!"
Xena tossed her staff to Corien who placed both near the crude fireplace. The warrior slumped down into the chair, laying her head on the splintered table, assuming a drugged, harmless posture.
The door flew open, letting in a blast of arctic air, and a guard stepped through, thrusting a small, tattered bag into Pelta's waiting hands. "Enjoy your feast, pigs," he cackled.
The large Greek looked down at the food in her hands. A few crumbled crusts of moldy bread and less than a handful of rotting cheese constituted the whole the bounty. "Is this it?"
"You're on half rations because of your brave friend over there," the guard sneered, gesturing with her chin towards the seemingly comatose warrior. "Next time we want to beat one of you pigs, maybe you'd better stop that behemoth or you'll suffer worse."
"How are we supposed to be expected to work if all we get is this?" Pelta demanded, lifting the meager food to the guard's face.
"Not good enough for you? Fine." With a thunderous kick, the guard forced the food from Pelta's hands. Grinning madly, he crushed the bread and cheese beneath his muddy boots, fouling it further. "Eat up, pigs." Laughing insanely, the guard slammed the door behind him, leaving the inedible food to litter the floor.
All of the slaves went hungry that night.
Through her half starved haze Gabrielle heard a knock on her chamber door.
"What!" she lifted her head from the pillow long enough to bark.
The door creaked open and Aevar stuck his head in. "We're ready for you, Gabrielle."
"Ready for me?" She spoke without moving from the bed.
"Yes," he said, coming over to the bed. "Your fast is over."
Gabrielle found the energy to sit up. "Over? As in, finished?" She wanted to make sure she had heard right.
Aevar tried to keep from laughing at the new convert. The joy at the news that her trial had ended was plainly etched on her face. He remembered the difficult time he had experienced during his fast before joining the temple. He wondered if he looked this relieved when it had ended.
"Yes," he confirmed. "We're waiting for you to begin the feast."
"The feast," she repeated. Her stomach rumbled at the word.
Aevar grabbed her hand and pulled her from the bed. "C'mon," he laughed, "or your stomach will get there before you."
"If it can keep up," Gabrielle smiled at the young acolyte and headed for the door.
The smell of the food assaulted her senses before she ever got to the dining hall. Gabrielle's mouth watered as she feasted her eyes on the copious amount of food that crowded the table. The priests and many of the senior members of the temple were waiting patiently for the guest of honor to make her appearance. With her eyes focused solely on the food, she completely missed Gunni as he approached her. He grabbed her arm as she passed by.
She fought hard to tear her eyes away from the fragrant reward her stomach was demanding. Finally she was able to focus on the priest.
"What?" she said breathlessly.
"There's a little ceremony to perform before we dig in," he smiled at his zealous scribe.
The disappointment that crossed Gabrielle's face was clear.
"My child," Gunni's brow creased. "The fast is not meant as a torture, but a ritual to bring you closer to Balder. You did use the time to read the scrolls and think about the commitment you're about to make, didn't you?"
Gabrielle began to feel a little guilty. True, she had spent some time with the scrolls and was fascinated to learn of the life of Balder and how he had been tricked and killed by Loki. Balder's rebirth was much anticipated by these people as the ultimate liberation. That had been the key for her in her new found fight against slavery. The scrolls were clear that the liberation was meant for everyone, Greek and Norse alike.
Once the hunger pangs had grown too much to bear, however, Gabrielle's mind began to drift. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, she had chosen to stare at the ceiling in her room and pray for sundown. Now, she was beginning to wonder if she had missed the entire point of the fast.
"Of course I did, Gunni," Gabrielle replied, not quite meeting his eyes.
"Good," Gunni nodded.
He turned to the assembled crowd.
"Brothers and sisters, we gather here this evening in honor of Gabrielle," he motioned toward the bard. "Following her decision to join the temple, she has spent her day fasting and reading from the sacred writings."
Gabrielle smiled at the crowd as a few of them made eye contact with her and smiled their approval of her decision.
"I know before we eat, you'll all want to speak to Gabrielle and encourage her on her journey toward full membership in the temple," Gunni continued. A murmur of agreement rose from the crowd.
Gunni took his place next to Gabrielle as the crowd began to form a line and approach. Gabrielle groaned inwardly as she surveyed the crowd. She lost count at about 60. Standing only feet from a table full of tempting morsels that were sending a siren song to her aching stomach, Gabrielle tried to smile and listen to the words of each guest as they took her hand. 'This is Tartarus,' she thought miserably.
Her legs were beginning to wobble as the last person gave her Balder's blessings on her spiritual journey. She found the strength to get to the table only with Gunni's hand on her elbow.
As she stuffed a variety of foods into her mouth, Gunni leaned over and said, "I'm very proud of you Gabrielle."
She tried to respond, but only succeeded in spitting out several bits of food onto the priest.
Gunni laughed and gave her a warning, "Don't eat so fast, Gabrielle. You'll make yourself sick."
Gabrielle only nodded as more food found her way into her mouth and finally her suffering belly.
She let out a long, satisfied burp. She nodded an apology to Gunni who smiled.
"Get used to being speechless for a little while," he told her.
"What?" she spoke with a full mouth.
"Your next rite is silence."
"Silence," she let the word sink in. "As in, I can't talk?"
"For how long?" Gabrielle thought going without food was tough, how could a bard go without talking?
"Only for a day," Gunni said.
"A day," she repeated.
"Starting now," he informed her and walked away.
Gabrielle started to reply, but quickly put her hand over her mouth.
'I can do this,' she thought to herself. She reminded herself of the ultimate goal of joining the temple ... freeing the slaves. Not just freeing the slaves she and Xena had traveled here for, but freeing the slaves once and for all. 'I've got to start taking this more seriously,' she thought as she picked her way through the massive buffet. 'If I have to remain silent for a day, I'll use the day to read more of the scrolls and learn more about this religion. The only way I can help change these people's minds is to learn how to speak their language, right?' She nodded at her own thought and resolved to make more of this rite than she had the fast.
'Oh, no.' She suddenly remembered Xena and her meeting at the stables. 'I can't very well go there and talk to her, not while I'm sworn to silence. We never did work out those hand signals we talked about so long ago.' She smirked to herself. 'She won't miss me for one night.'
Beyond frustrated, Xena paced the length of Argo's stall. "It's not like her to be late. Where in Tartarus is she?"
Argo snuffled noncommittally, nudging the warrior with a judiciously applied headbutt to one broad shoulder.
"Oh. Sorry girl." Picking up the curry comb, Xena resumed her task of brushing down her beloved warhorse. After a few strokes, however, her arm dropped to her side once again as she paced to the stall door and peeked over the top, breath frosty in the frigid night air. "She could be in trouble, Argo. It's one of the things she's best at, after all." Sighing, she turned from the door, striding to the opposite end of the stall, tapping the comb against one callused palm. "Then again, if I go after her and she's not in trouble, she'll get upset with me." She turned to the horse again. "Ya know, Argo, this was a whole lot easier when I was a warlord." An evil smile overspread her face as she pictured herself riding into this pissant little town with her army at her back. She'd burn it to the ground, free all the slaves and ride out again, Gabrielle flung over her saddle like a trophy of war. Her smile faded as the vision did and the warrior sighed, resuming her pacing once more. "Sometimes this 'doing good' stuff is for the Bacchae."
Tired of waiting for her master to resume the brushing, the usually patient mare nickered and turned to some particularly tasty hay stalks, munching contentedly as her ears whisked back and forth.
Looking out through a space in one wall, Xena could see the moon risen high in the sky. She sighed again, beating against the wooden wall lightly in frustration. The young guard was due to enter the stables soon. Xena wanted Gabrielle gone by then; the chance of them meeting one another not one she wanted to take.
Hearing a noise a split second before Argo did, Xena slipped silently into a shadowed corner to await the identity of her night-time visitor.
Nels looked carefully around the exterior of the massive stable, checking once again to make sure he wasn't observed before slipping inside. "Anybody here?" he whispered. Only the gentle sounds of horses answered his call. Taking a deep breath, the young man pressed further into the structure, walking toward a large, pale horse he had never seen before. Opening the door to the stall, he slipped inside, coming to stand beside the mare. "You're a big one, aren't you beauti . . . ." His words were cut off as he felt an agonizing pain in his neck. His limbs became like jelly, dumping his body to the ground unceremoniously. A hot voice, low timbered and full of malice, ground itself into his ear.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have thirty seconds to convince me not to just walk out of here and leave your frozen corpse for the stable hands to find in the morning."
"I'm here to help you," he gasped past the spikes of pain exploding in his head.
"How do you propose to do that," the unseen voice asked wryly.
"I'm part of the resistance. Please, I'll tell you everything if you just let me go. Please." He tasted the hot tang of blood as it rolled into his mouth from his nose. "Please," he whispered again.
"Resistance from what."
"Slavery! We want . . .to free . . .the slaves . . . ." His breath was coming in short gasps now. The pain in his neck flared again, and when it was over, his body crashed bonelessly to the ground as he fell face first into the hay covered floor, gasping sweet air into his starved lungs.
Pushing the young guard onto his back with the toe of her boot, Xena crossed her arms and stared down at him. "Start talking."
Rubbing at his nose and widening his eyes as his fingers came away covered with blood, Nels met the searing glance of the woman towering above him. "I'm part of a resistance movement," he explained, struggling to come to a sitting position on the hard ground. "There's about thirty of us. Mostly younger men and women. We don't believe in slavery; don't believe the stories our parents and the church teach us about the Greeks." He looked up at the warrior earnestly. "We've heard stories about others like us in the village, but they're mostly older people who want to plan and organize everything to death. We can't afford to wait. Not anymore."
"And why is that," Xena replied, raising one sable eyebrow.
"One of our members does odd jobs for the Temple guards. She overheard Gunni talking to some Roman a week or so back. It seems that sometime around the next full moon, the Romans are going to be coming here to see their newest creations in action."
"And who are these newest creations?"
"They're called Berserkers."
"Berserkers? Here??" Xena's mind whirled at the implications.
"Yes. There are legends of them in the Temple writings. Apparently, they're a group of fierce warriors who use the emotions of their victims against them. Gunni just inducted a new batch into the Order a few days ago. We've heard that the Romans are coming to see these monsters in action against the Greek slaves. That's why we can't afford to wait. We need to get the slaves out as soon as possible."
Xena forced her breathing and heart rate to calm as she listened to the young guard's words. There was something entirely too circular about these events. It smacked of other-worldly influence. "Why me," she said finally.
"Why you what?" the guard asked, not sure if he was being addressed or not, but taking the chance that she was talking to him. This was a woman he certainly didn't want to anger again.
"Why come to me with this?"
"I saw you fight the guards yesterday. You're no ordinary slave. Part of me wonders if you're even a slave at all." Piercing blue eyes lanced through the young man and he felt his blood turn to ice water in his veins. He swallowed past a suddenly arid throat as he waited to die.
"What do you want from me."
Nels blew out a sigh of relief. "As I've said, I want to help you. We need somebody on the inside in the slave quarters to at least try and get the women strong enough so that when the attempt is made, we're not rescuing a bunch of corpses. Even though you haven't been here long, it's obvious that the rest of the women look to you as their leader. I figured if you could find a way to sneak out of the camp to meet me here, you'd be the person we need to keep the slaves alive until we can rescue them." He smiled. "It seems I was right." Struggling to his feet, Nels pulled a small sack from his shoulder, pressing it into her hands. "It's not much, but it's all I have right now. I know you're all on half-rations. This is my dinner. A few of my friends threw theirs in as well. I'll continue to get you as much food and medicine as I can. I'll also try to keep you up to date on our plans." He looked up at her again appraisingly. He cleared his throat. "Will you do it? Will you help us?"
After a long moment, Xena nodded, favoring the young man with a small smile. "I'll do it."
The guard returned her smile with one of his own, so open and sunny it lanced through Xena's heart with the memory of a Gabrielle she hadn't seen in almost a year. "I knew it," he exclaimed happily, holding out his arm. "My name is Nels, by the way."
Xena grasped the proffered hand. "Xena," she offered.
The young guard gasped. "The Warrior Princess???"
"Some call me that."
A tremor ran through the guard's slight frame as he realized just how close to death he had truly come, not only here in the stables, but also back in the mines when the warrior defended her friends. "By the gods," the young man breathed, totally unaware that he was speaking aloud. "I'm shaking hands with the Warrior Princess."
Xena tightened her grip against his arm. "Don't go spreading that around," she warned.
"Oh. No. Of course not." The warning cut through his awed haze. "I won't breathe a word of it to anyone. You have my promise."
"Good," the warrior replied, releasing Nels' hand and stepping away. "When can I expect to see you again."
"Is . . .is tomorrow evening alright?"
Xena smiled again. "Perfect." She turned the awe-struck guard in the direction of the stable entrance. "Now go before you're missed. I'll see you tomorrow."
The young man could only nod as he walked from the stables on a cloud of air.
Rolling her eyes, Xena bit back a wry grin and slipped back into the shadows to plan her retreat back into the slave compound.
A cloaked figure stood in the shadows of an expansive home, peering through an unshuttered window, taking in the direct view into the Temple interior. Vibrant green eyes followed a golden haired woman who was surrounded by smiling acolytes. A knock sounded on the door of the home and the figure turned slightly. "Enter."
Another cloaked figure entered the house, striding the length of the main room and coming to stand beside the other figure.
"Missed you the other night," the first figure intoned in a quiet voice, turning its attentions back to the view of the Temple.
"Couldn't be helped. I was busy collecting some information you might find interesting."
A fair eyebrow raised. "Do tell."
The newcomer gestured toward the Temple interior. "It's about your newest golden child. Lariel, is it?"
"Her name's Gabrielle."
"Ah yes. Gabrielle. You know the slave she saved from execution the other day?"
"Yes. What of it?"
The newcomer smiled, displaying perfect white teeth which gleamed in the muted light being given off from the Temple's interior. "It appears your Gabrielle sold that slave for use in the mines. That woman wasn't just any slave, Panacea. It was her slave."
Slipping the hood from her head, Panacea turned to her guest, her face a mask of horror. "Please tell me you're kidding."
The man shrugged. "Wish I could. Topis was in the square when the slave was sold. Your friend got forty krones for her. Pocketed it easy as you please and let the guards drag the woman off to the barracks. Not one peep of protest."
"Balder's mercy," Panacea moaned, running her hand through her hair.
The man nodded. "And now she knows the names and faces of our group. Under the circumstances, I thought it best if I skipped the meeting. If something happens, at least one of us will be around to rebuild."
Panacea's head turned slowly to the Temple interior once again, her hand still tangled in her own hair. As if she was aware of her silent watcher, Gabrielle also turned her head, warm green eyes staring out into the darkness. Panacea met those eyes and saw warmth, compassion and an innocence that strained mightily to hold against the burden of some shattering knowledge deep within the depths of green. The older woman let out a held breath, a sense of sharp relief flooding through her. "There's got to be a reason for this," she said softly, almost to herself. "I think she's telling the truth when she says she wants the slaves freed."
"You trust too easily, my friend."
"Maybe so. But I get the feeling that it won't be misplaced with this one."
Her companion shrugged. "If it's all the same to you, I'll keep out of sight for now. I'm afraid I'm just not as trusting."
"Fine." Dismissing her visitor from her thoughts, Panacea turned back to the window to continue her study of the ornate temple and the golden figure within. "Gabrielle," she whispered, "we're gonna need to have a long talk real soon."
'Don't talk. Don't talk. Don't talk.'
Gabrielle had developed a short mantra to help her get through her day of silence. The chanting in her head did nothing to ease the difficulty of not opening her mouth to speak. She knew this rite of passage would be torture but she was astonished at what turned out to be the hardest part: she missed the sound of her own voice.
Unlike the forced solitary confinement during her fast, she was assigned to go through her regular duties during the day, scribing for Gunni and the other priests. Not being able to verbally respond to anyone during her day was killing the talkative bard.
'Too bad Xena's missing this,' she thought dryly. 'She'd get a kick out of a silent bard.'
She thought back to the warrior's words as Ares clapped his hand over her mouth at the temple of the Furies. "Sometimes that is the only way to shut her up," Xena had said. 'Yeah, Xena, but seconds later you were prompting me to do the bard thing,' she remembered. 'I'd kill to do the bard thing right now.'
Killing was really the only thing on her mind during the afternoon services. She seriously considered ending her deal with the Fates right there in the temple by wrapping her bare hands around Gunni's neck. Slavery was the topic of his address to the congregation. Gabrielle was
charged with the task of recording his words. She broke three quills during the first paragraph alone.
"A Greek is like a wild horse," Gunni began his speech. "Both a wild horse and a wild or natural Greek is dangerous even if captured, for they will have the tendency to seek their customary freedom, and, in doing so, might kill you in your sleep. You cannot rest. They sleep while you are awake and are awake while you are asleep. They are dangerous near the family house and it requires so much labor to watch them and keep them away from the house."
There were murmurs of agreement from the congregation.
Gunni continued. "Above all you cannot get them to work in this natural state. Hence, both the horse and the Greek must be broken, that is, break them from one form of mental life to another, keep the body and take the mind. In other words, break the will to resist."
Another quill disintegrated in Gabrielle's grip.
"Why was the wheel barrow invented?"
"I don't know, Gunni," the junior priest shook his head. "Why?"
"To teach Greeks to walk on their hind legs," Gunni answered giggling at his own poor joke.
Gunni elbowed Gabrielle who sat beside him at the dinner table. "Get it?" He was close to hysterics now. "To teach Greeks to walk on their hind legs," Gunni repeated the punchline and collapsed into a giggling fit. He completely missed the look of pure disgust on Gabrielle's face.
'I'm glad I can't talk, or I'd give him a piece of my mind,' the bard thought sourly, noting most of the other priests and acolytes were reveling in Gunni's humor. She briefly entertained a fantasy of snapping Gunni's "hind legs" with her staff. Looking around the room, she caught the eye of Evadne as the slave went about her serving duties. The bard smiled apologetically at her. Evadne gave a short nod of understanding and went back to clearing dishes.
'The resistance sure has its work cut out for it,' she thought. 'The prejudice runs deep here. I need to have a long talk about strategy with Panacea.'
"Oh, Gabrielle," Gunni wiped the tears from his eyes. "Welcome back to the land of the speaking."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and motioned toward her mouth.
"Yes, my child," Gunni confirmed. "You can speak."
"Oh, thank the gods," she blurted out.
"The gods?" Gunni's brow furrowed.
Gabrielle realized her error and tried to recover. "I mean, the god. Balder. Thank Balder."
Gunni continued to eye her suspiciously, "Indeed."
She smiled weakly at him.
"Well," he cleared his throat. "I hope you learned a lot today about the nature of those Greek beasts you seem so fond of."
Gabrielle struggled to keep her expression impassive. "Yes," she nodded. "I also learned a lot about the nature of some of Balder's followers." Gabrielle was treading close to dangerous ground, but she found she couldn't help herself.
"I hope you learned we are full of compassion for these beasts," Gunni prodded.
"Oh, you're full of it, all right," Gabrielle deadpanned.
Gunni smiled widely at the perceived compliment.
She put her napkin over her now empty plate. "May I be excused? I'm feeling tired."
"Oh, but your next rite begins immediately," Gunni placed his hand on her forearm as she started to get up from her chair.
"My next rite," Gabrielle repeated. 'What now,' she groaned to herself, 'I have to not eat and not talk at the same time?'
"The ritual bath," Gunni told her, "to cleanse your soul, and your body for Balder."
She thought of Xena and the appointment at the stable she had already missed the night before. "Do we have to do that right now?"
"Yes," Gunni pulled her to her feet and led her toward the door where several female acolytes waited. "It's tradition. Right after the day of silence comes the ritual bath. Now, off you go."
Gabrielle sighed deeply, letting the warm water wash over her naked body. Three acolytes gently pushed the bard into a reclining position in the expansive tub. She felt the day's stress begin to melt away. She let her mind drift away from her anger over Gunni's words and tasteless jokes and let herself enjoy the gentle ministrations of the acolytes.
Hands were all over her, gently massaging her arms, legs, breasts, and torso.
'I could get used this,' she thought contentedly, as the heavenly massage continued for several minutes.
Gabrielle thought she'd fall fast asleep when there was a sharp pain in her ear.
She jerked her head away and tried to locate the source of the searing pain. She found herself nose to nose with rather large, toothless, old woman.
Gabrielle screamed and scrambled to the far side of the tub. She looked around the room to find all the comely acolytes gone, replaced by one rather large, unappealing, frump of a woman, who insisted on smiling to show off her empty mouth.
"Here now, child," the mass moved toward Gabrielle's side of the tub. Gabrielle tried to become smaller and wondered how long she could hold her breath if she went under. "We must get you clean before we present you to Balder."
The woman raised her hand and produced a sponge. She lunged again for Gabrielle's ear. She grabbed it firmly and twisted the sponge into it. Gabrielle tried desperately to get away, only to find herself firmly pushed back into the water.
"Why do they always struggle during this part," the woman muttered to herself under her breath. "You'd think they'd want to be squeaky clean for Balder."
Gabrielle felt the rough treatment given her ears applied to her back and sides. She squirmed away, only to find herself being dragged back toward the hulking woman. "Be still, silly child. We must get you clean."
Gabrielle thought her skin would come right off her body. "I think I'm clean," she gasped to the woman.
"Not yet, you're not," the woman grunted as she moved to roughly scrape Gabrielle's legs with her sponge.
"Unless Balder wants a clean skeleton," Gabrielle said through clenched teeth as she desperately tried to reclaim her leg, "I think I'm clean."
The woman leaned back from the tub and regarded her charge. "Fine," she threw her arms up in the air. "Gunni will hear that you're not ready to be inducted into the temple."
The woman rose and turned her back to Gabrielle. The bard considered her options. She had to become part of the temple to help the resistance end slavery. She had already endured a fast and a day of silence. She was not about to give up now. But, by the gods, this soapy sadist would certainly be the death of her. She groaned loudly, her decision made.
Later, she gingerly laid her aching body on the bed in her chamber. She was bright red from the scrubbing the woman had forced on her. Just the thought of water was painful. For days afterward even seeing water poured into a cup made her flinch. "I'll never bathe again," she moaned and fell into a fitful sleep.
In the muted light of the stable interior, Xena sat slumped on a hay bale. She had given up her pacing earlier that night, conserving what little energy she managed to still possess after a week of enforced fasting. It was obvious Gabrielle was choosing to stay away for a second night in a row. "What's going on with her, Argo?" she asked the contentedly eating warhorse. "She hasn't been herself since I found her again, but I thought this was important to her." Her head dropped as she peered at her folded hands. "Even if I'm not anymore."
Sighing, she lifted her head again, leaning it back against the corner of the stall, wincing slightly as a piece of splintered wood jabbed at the back of her tender scalp. Hoping to clear her thoughts and maudlin emotions, she took a bracing breath of the chilled night air. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. She smelled horses, hay and . . . . She sniffed again, then lifted her arm. She winced. "Ya know, Argo, I think I've revised my position about liking the smell of warrior sweat in the morning." Dropping her arm, she slumped back against the wall again. "Gods what I wouldn't give for a bath right now." The sound of someone entering the stables turned the warrior into a statue, only the sparkle of deadly eyes glittering in the dimmed lighting.
"Xena?" Nels queried softly, carefully picking his way around scattered stable implements. "Are you in here?" Hearing nothing, the young man walked over to the stall of the horse he had seen the night before and entered. The pale mount eyed him suspiciously for a moment before returning to her meal. "You seen Xena tonight pal?" he asked, stroking the massive beast's side.
"Her name's Argo," came a voice from a shadowed corner.
Nels jumped back, holding a hand over his pounding heart. "Yah! You could scare the life out of a person doing that!"
Xena rose to her full height and stepped out of the shadows, a smirk on her face. "And you call yourself a soldier," she chided gently.
The young man blushed to the roots of his pale hair. "Yeah, well . . . .you could probably frighten Hercules himself doing that!"
The corner of Xena's mouth turned up in a smile, acknowledging the compliment.
Running a hand through his close cropped hair, Nels met the warrior's piercing eyes. "We . . .um . . .need your help."
"You've probably been wondering where all the male slaves are?"
"I had assumed they were kept at a different location." Xena sneered. "Wouldn't want your beasts of burden breeding on you."
Nels blushed again. "Well, something like that, yeah. They're kept in a barracks on the other side of the caves that house the mines. The town's scared to death of them. There's about thirty men who guard the compound. Conditions there are, if you can believe it, even worse than in the women's camp."
"I thought as much. Where do I come in?"
"They usually do all of the heavy tunneling into the caves. This morning, Gunni ordered all the men to be kept chained in their barracks until the Romans come. He also gave the guards some drug for the slaves to take and now they're all very sick. The other guards are just laughing about it, but there's one who's in the resistance like I am and he came to me asking for help. He doesn't know what to do. Those men are dying, Xena."
"What are the symptoms?"
Closing his eyes, the young man tried hard to remember what his companion had described to him. "Well, first these awful sores opened around their mouths. And rashes on their bodies that are open and oozing this foul smelling stuff. They're all vomiting and passing blood and water from their bowels."
"It sounds like a reaction to the drugs they were given."
"Yeah, that's what we thought too." Nels looked up and met Xena's eyes again, his own suddenly shy. "I've heard . . .um . . .that in addition to being a great warrior, you're also a well known healer."
"I know something about it," Xena replied, stepping closer to the young man. "If you can point me in the direction of the barracks, I'll see what I can do to help."
"No!" Nels shouted, putting a hand up to halt the warrior. "No, it's too dangerous. I can't even get near it. Gunni's tripled security around the perimeter since he issued the order to keep the men chained up. No one can get within fifty yards of the building!" At Xena's raised eyebrow, Nels blushed again. "Well, maybe you can, but it's still to dangerous. If you get caught, the women and the men would die. We need you here. And safe." His green eyes were deadly earnest as he looked at the warrior. "Please. All I need from you is the names of the herbs, if there are any, that will help the men. I'll slip them to our guard and he'll take care of the rest." He looked down at the toes of his scuffed boots for a long moment. "I know you don't have very much respect for me. After all, I'm one of the people keeping your kin caged like animals." He was startled by a warm, gentle grip on his shoulder.
"On the contrary, my friend. I have a great deal of respect for you and the others like you. You didn't start this mess, but you're determined to rectify it. That takes a lot of bravery."
Nels blushed yet again, then looked up to meet Xena's warm gaze, his eyes wide with wonder. "You really think so?"
Xena favored him with a half smile that made the guard's knees go weak. "I do."
When Nels could find his voice again, he continued. "Then will you help? Do you know some herbs that can make the men better?" At Xena's nod, he produced a piece of parchment and a quill, which he handed to her. "I want to make sure I get the names right."
Nodding, the warrior accepted the quill and parchment and proceeded to write down the names of the herbs he'd need. "Try these. Boil them up in clean water and give them to the men in a tea. If this doesn't work, tell me tomorrow and we'll try something else."
Nel's face lit up in his sunny grin as he received the parchment back from Xena. "Thank you!" Stowing the items back in his bag, he looked up at the warrior again. "I've got some more food and medicine for you. Is there anything else you need?"
"A bath," Xena replied before she could force those mutinous words back down.
The young guard laughed. "*That* I can do," he exclaimed. "One bath, coming right up." He turned to exit the stall and was stopped by a grip on his arm.
"That . . .won't be necessary, Nels."
"Necessary, no," he replied. "But with all you're doing to help us, it's an easy thing. When the men were tunneling in the caves, we found some mineral baths. C'mon. There's even soap and towels there."
Rolling her eyes, but inwardly excited at the prospect of being clean for the first time in a month, the warrior obligingly followed the young man toward the stable entrance, almost bumping into him as he stopped suddenly.
"Um . . .there's just one problem," Nels stammered.
An elegantly arched eyebrow met his statement and he fought hard not to blush yet again.
"Well, you see . . .um . . .sometimes the guards bring their . . .um . . .girlfriends back there." The fight was over. His entire body flushed a bright red. "There shouldn't be anyone around this time of night, but if anybody sees us . . .um . . . ."
Smiling, Xena covered her head with her cloak's hood, then reached one long arm out and curled it through one of the guard's, bringing their bodies in close contact all along one side.
'Oh god,' Nels thought as his insides turned to water.
Chuckling silently, Xena allowed the trembling young man to lead her into the mines.
Xena leaned back against the smooth stone, a sensual moan escaping her lips as her body tingled with the warmth of the water caressing it. A strangled sound came to her ears and she grinned slightly, sparing a moment of pity for the overwhelmed young man hiding behind one cave wall. When she had seen the steaming pool, the immodest warrior had merely dropped her garb and stepped into the water, almost giving the poor guard heart failure as her naked body was displayed in the dim lighting of the cavern. Clearing his throat, the young man had pointed out the soap and towels in a suspiciously high voice before retreating to the safety of the cave.
The life giving water entering her pores, the warrior sighed again blissfully, wishing only that Gabrielle were with her to share this slice of the Fields. She grimaced slightly at the memory of their last shared bath; both of them itching and covered with goat dung.
Suppressing a shudder, Xena grabbed the herb-scented soap and proceeded to give herself a good washing, working hard at eradicating the month's worth of encrusted dirt from her body. She frowned as her hands traced lathered pathways down her body. Her ribs were extremely prominent, as were her hipbones. Thighs which were normally overlaid with thick bands of corded muscle were suspiciously thin. Her normally well sculpted calves had lost some of their tone. Running her hands over her always prominent collarbones, she felt the deepening hollows and frowned again. Even her breasts were smaller. 'I need to start eating more. And exercising. A two mile walk twice a day and jumping over a wall isn't keeping me in the shape I need to be in to get the slaves out of here.' Working the soap into her tangled, matted hair, the warrior promised herself that she would step up the workout regimen she had started with the young Amazons. For this to work, she had to be at her peak.
It took three washings before Xena was finally satisfied with the state of her hair. The lice incident had made her particularly fastidious over that part of her personal hygiene and it killed her not to be able to wash it. Her cleansing completed, the warrior once again leaned back against the pool's rim, closing her eyes and allowing the warmth of the water to fully enter her body. The siren song of sleep pulled at her, but she resisted it, wanting to remain awake and aware of every wonderful feeling so she could relive it in meditation when she was freezing inside the barracks.
Nels fidgeted slightly from his spot against one cave wall. There had been no sound from the adjoining chamber for some long moments now and the young man began to worry. He cleared his throat. "Xena?" When there was no answer, he tried again, a bit louder. "Uh, Xena? Are you alright in there?" When again there was no response to his summons, the young man gathered up his courage and peeked around the corner, standing frozen as his eyes were treated to the stunning display of the Warrior Princess standing up from her bath, water cascading in sheets down her gloriously naked form. All the spit dried up in his mouth as the blood ran from his body into one suddenly very awake area. A groan sounded before he could prevent it, and he quickly brought his head back to the safe side of the wall, panting slightly and trying mightily to quiet the area that was clamoring for attention.
Xena chuckled, a low and melodious sound that did nothing for the young man's attempts to calm himself. Wrapping a towel around herself, she looked down at the dirty, threadbare shift lying by the side of the spring. She spared a thought of taking soap to the tattered garment, but discarded it immediately, realizing that the cloth would probably disintegrate the moment it touched the water.
A disembodied arm shown forth from the spring's entrance, its hand bearing a clean shift. "I . . .um . . .got this for you. That rag you're wearing isn't gonna hold together for too much longer."
Smiling in gratitude, Xena strode over to the garment, releasing it from Nels' sweating grip. "Thanks." After she had slipped it on over her head, the warrior twisted her long mane to release some of the trapped water before running her fingers through it to settle it into some semblance of order. "You can come in now. I'm decent."
After a long moment, the young guard appeared at the entrance to the spring, his cheeks high in color and his hands cupped not-so-casually over his groin. His eyes darted around the cavern, settling on everything except for the vision standing scant feet away.
Xena took a moment to study the young man. He was handsome in a boyish sort of way; not exactly the bad boy type she was normally attracted to, but earnest enough to do in a pinch. A suspicious tingle ran through her loins and she frowned, pushing it back from whence it came. 'Great. First I'm wishing I was a warlord again, and now this. Next thing you know, I'll be raising my chakram and yelling 'take the village'!' Snorting softly at her own gallows humor, Xena picked up her cloak and drew it around her. "Thanks for this," she said softly.
The young man's eyes finally met her own and they were bright with need. He ran a trembling hand through his hair. "Um . . .you're welcome." He cleared his throat. "Any time."
Smiling warmly at the guard, Xena closed the distance between them, pressing a soft kiss to one smooth cheek before threading her arm through his and steering him back through the cavern. "Let's go. It wouldn't do for you to be missed."
'I'm never going to wash my face again,' Nels thought as he allowed Xena to escort him out of the caves, willing his legs to move stiffly through the humid air.
"Why do you want to end slavery, Gabrielle?" Panacea handed the bard a warm mug of tea and sat in a chair opposite the plush couch that Gabrielle now occupied.
Gabrielle took a long sip from her mug and let the warm liquid wash through her system. The walk to Panacea's spacious home from the temple was a short one, but the biting wind made the trek almost unbearable. The tea, combined with the nearby crackling of a roaring fire in the fireplace, warmed Gabrielle up quickly.
She pondered Panacea's question and furrowed her brow. "Because it's wrong," she stated simply.
Panacea chuckled softly, bringing a worried look to Gabrielle's face. "What?" the bard asked.
"Gabrielle," Panacea put her own mug on the low table between them, and leaned toward the bard, "of course it's wrong. I want to know exactly why you want to end it."
Gabrielle warmed to the question. "Well, no one deserves to be forced into servitude. Everyone should be free to make their own decisions about their lives. If one wishes to be employed as a servant or a laborer they should be paid fair wages, treated with decency and allowed to make their own choices. No one has the right to enslave another, despite whether or not they believe some god sanctions it."
"You really believe that?" Panacea queried.
"Yes," Gabrielle said earnestly. "With all my heart."
Panacea got up from her chair and walked to the fireplace. She turned her back to the bard before speaking again.
"Then why did you sell your slave in the square a few days ago?"
Gabrielle nearly dropped her mug. She focused on the table in front of her long enough to put the warm mug down with a loud thump.
The noise made Panacea turn around. She raised an eyebrow when she saw the look of panic that crossed Gabrielle's face. Panacea's heart sank.
"So it's true," she said, disgust filling her voice. "You owned that slave and sold her on the square for 40 krones. I trusted you, Gabrielle, and you betray me. Are you working for Gunni? Are you trying to infiltrate us and expose the resistance?"
Panacea was nearly in hysterics. Gabrielle rose from the couch. Raising her hands in front of her, she approached the older woman to try and calm her down.
"Panacea, please, listen to me."
Panacea moved to the other side of the chair she had been seated at earlier, keeping a sharp distance between herself and Gabrielle.
"Why should I listen to you? You're nothing but a slave trading liar."
"Panacea, she was not a slave," Gabrielle blurted out. Realizing she couldn't tell Panacea her true mission in Gudvargen she revised her comment. "Not really."
"Not really a slave," Panacea repeated, trying to understand. "What does that mean?"
Gabrielle sucked air in between clenched teeth and grimaced. "Well, she was owned by my late husband."
"That makes her your slave, then," Panacea interrupted.
"But I gave her her freedom," Gabrielle injected.
"You," Panacea repeated slowly, "gave her her freedom? By selling her to Gudvargen?"
Gabrielle sighed. She had to make Panacea understand.
"Please, Panacea," she gestured toward the chair, "sit down and let me explain."
Panacea eyed Gabrielle with suspicion for several seconds, then grudgingly put herself in the chair. She crossed her arms and legs and nodded for Gabrielle to continue.
Gabrielle paced in front of the fireplace for a few seconds getting the story straight in her head.
"My husband only owned one slave and that was," Gabrielle paused as she searched for a name to call Xena, "Diana." Well, she looks like Xena, Gabrielle thought miserably to herself. Hope the rest of the story comes out better.
"I didn't like owning any slaves at all," Gabrielle continued. "He thought just owning one was a good marital compromise." Gabrielle gave a short laugh and looked at Panacea.
Panacea remained motionless and showed no expression.
"Yes, well," Gabrielle cleared her throat. "When my husband died, I told ... Diana ... that she was free to go. But, she refused. You see, over the years we had developed a very good friendship, and she didn't want to leave me on my own."
Panacea shifted in her chair, but remained impassive.
"Diana was once a gladiator," Gabrielle continued, telling Panacea the same story she had told Norjaad in the cave. "She was severely injured in a fight and since she was no good for the games anymore was about to be executed. My husband won her in a card game with a Roman nobleman and saved her life."
"By making her a slave," Panacea snorted. "Some savior."
"It's true she didn't come to us by choice," Gabrielle said earnestly. "But in the end she chose to stay. She was never mistreated, and she showed some surprisingly useful skills, like healing."
Gabrielle stopped her pacing and returned to the couch.
"She knew that I didn't like slavery," Gabrielle told Panacea. "She knew that when my husband died I would set her free. Instead of going, she offered me an opportunity to help end slavery. She had heard of Gudvargen and the slaves that are kept here. Her plan was for us to come here, and sell her to the town so she could help the slaves, by being their healer and taking care of them. My mission on the outside was to start a resistance movement to change the hearts and minds of those who hold slaves here."
During the course of Gabrielle's explanation, Panacea unfolded her arms and listened intently to the young woman who reminded her of herself so long ago. The idealism and sincerity that emanated from Gabrielle was palpable to the older woman. She felt her anger slip away. It was replaced by compassion, joy and understanding at the words she heard.
"Since I've found you and your group, I don't have to start from scratch," Gabrielle was continuing her story. "I want to join you, Panacea, and help you end slavery. Diana is inside the camp helping the slaves. I want to be here, helping the people of Gudvargen see the error of their ways."
A smile crept slowly across Panacea's face. She rose from the chair, and took Gabrielle by the hands. She urged the young blond to stand and moved her toward the fireplace. She embraced Gabrielle warmly. The hug was returned.
"I knew there had to be some explanation," Panacea whispered. "I just knew it."
She released her hold on Gabrielle. She smiled and stroked the younger woman's hair. "I knew Balder sent you here. I've been praying for you to come."
Gabrielle's smile faded. "I'm having a little trouble with the whole Balder thing."
"Trouble?" Panacea's brow creased with worry. "What kind of trouble could you have with Balder?"
"Well, so far I've been through three of the silliest rites I think I could ever endure."
"Silly?" Panacea's expression turned to shock. "Gabrielle, the rites of passage into the temple of Balder are not silly."
Gabrielle sighed. "Panacea, I had to fast for one day, not speak for another, and I think several layers of skin were removed from my body last night by a woman who enjoys her work far too much."
Panacea was obviously disappointed. "Gabrielle, you must take the rites seriously or you'll never truly understand Balder."
"Why must I truly understand Balder?" Gabrielle was confused. "I thought all I needed to do was be accepted at the temple. I have to accept the religion as well? I'm not sure I can do that, Panacea."
"You must try, Gabrielle," Panacea urged. "The only way to end slavery is come to Balder with an open and pure heart. You have that. I can sense it. If you do not take Balder seriously, all our work will be in vain."
"I've read many of the sacred writings," Gabrielle told her. "But I'm not sure I understand what you see in Balder."
It was Panacea's turn to pace in front of the fire. She desperately wanted Gabrielle to understand what Balder meant to her, and all the members of the resistance. She had to show Gabrielle how devotion to this god would lead to ultimate freedom for them all.
"Balder is the most beautiful of gods," she began. "His name means 'The Glorious,' for that is what he is. He was killed by darkness and deceit, but will live again when all are free. Don't you see, Gabrielle, Balder is the key to freedom not just for the slaves, but for all of us. None of us are truly free until we are all free."
Gabrielle reached out and put her hand on Panacea's forearm to stop the older woman's movement. She motioned to the chair.
"Tell me about your experiences with Balder."
Panacea sank into the chair and prepared to tell Gabrielle her story.
"I was once a lot like you, Gabrielle," she studied her hands as she spoke. "I was innocent and kind, and thought only good thoughts about people."
"That's not me at all," Gabrielle interrupted her. "Not anymore."
Panacea's green eyes met those of the bard.
"Oh, but it is you, Gabrielle," Panacea insisted. "I can tell you've had trouble in your life, and it's forever changed you. But, there's still a large part of you that clings to that earlier innocence. I lost that ability long ago."
"No you didn't, Panacea," Gabrielle shook her head. "I can still see that in you."
The older woman smiled sadly. "Thank you for saying that. Others say they still see it, too, but I don't. That's all that matters."
Gabrielle took a seat on the couch. "Go on with your story, please."
"I was born in a village not far from here. My family owned Greek slaves. It's not like it is here where the town owns all the slaves. These slaves worked our land and lived with us on the property. Our slaves were allowed to marry one another and have children. I grew up with the young slaves as my playmates," Panacea smiled at the memory.
"There was one special friend, Tiro," her smile grew melancholy. "We fell in love. I grew up knowing that it was wrong for a Norse to love a Greek in that way, but, y'know, love is love. You can't just order it around like, well, like a slave."
Panacea met Gabrielle's eyes again and shrugged. Gabrielle smiled her understanding.
"We knew we couldn't let anyone know of our relationship," she continued. "But, one day, I got pregnant. There was nothing to do except tell my family the truth. Needless to say they were less than pleased."
"They split you up?" Gabrielle was engrossed in the woman's story.
"Worse than that," Panacea was fighting back tears. "My father went into a rage and killed Tiro on the spot."
Gabrielle gasped and rushed to Panacea's side. She dropped to her knees and took the woman's hands in her own. "I'm so sorry." Gabrielle felt a rush of empathy for the older woman as she remembered Perdicus and horrible fate he had met.
A tear fell from Panacea's eyes. It was not the first time she had cried for her love lost so long ago and she was certain it would not be the last. She took a deep breath and continued.
"I wanted to run, to spare my child the same fate. But my father held me captive, just like one of the slaves, until I gave birth to our child."
She paused and squeezed Gabrielle's hand to gather strength for the next part of the story.
"When my baby girl was born, my father took her from me, without even letting me see her," more tears began to fall. "He sold my baby into slavery that very afternoon."
"I searched high and low to find out where my baby had been taken. Finally, some sixteen years later, I found out she was here, in Gudvargen. I came here to get find her and maybe buy her back just so I could have a little piece of my Tiro back in my life."
"What happened?" Gabrielle prompted the nearly distraught woman.
"I got to see her," the memory of the emaciated whip of a girl she had seen incapacitated Panacea for several seconds. She tried to catch her breath. "She had been beaten, starved, neglected and unloved her entire life. I arranged to buy her, but before I could make the deal she was beaten to death in the mines. They told me she had talked back and had become violent and they had to ... they had to .. " Panacea could no longer go on and broke down in racking sobs.
Gabrielle reached her arms around the woman and held her as she cried.
It was several minutes before Panacea composed herself. "I swore from that moment on I would fight to end slavery in this town. That was a little over a year ago."
The story touched Gabrielle deeply, but one question remained unanswered.
"Where does Balder fit into all this?"
"Balder gave me the strength to carry on, Gabrielle," Panacea said earnestly. "I was ready to die after they killed my child. I didn't want to live anymore. First Tiro, now my baby. It was more than I could bear. Only through Balder was I able to find the peace that had eluded me since Tiro died."
"Peace?" Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "That's something I don't think exists, really."
"But it does, Gabrielle," Panacea leaned forward, her face only inches away from the bard's. "Balder is peace. Balder is hope."
Gabrielle flinched openly at the older woman's last word. A sneer crossed her face. She rolled the word around in her mouth and spat it out. "Hope."
The younger blonde stood and headed back for the fireplace, keeping her back to Panacea. "I had hope once, Panacea. I know what it's like and I don't think I ever want hope again."
Panacea was perplexed. "But, Gabrielle, without hope, what's left?"
"Nothing," the bard whispered to the hot embers in the fire. Gabrielle reflected briefly on the fire that had changed her life forever. That fire had burned away a joy and innocence that she longed to have back. All that remained was the burned out shell of her soul. The Fates may have restored her blood innocence, but they could never give her back the parts of her that were consumed by that evil fire.
A tear slipped from her eye and rolled down her cheek. "Nothing is all I have left," she said softly.
Gabrielle felt a warm hand on her shoulder. She leaned into Panacea, accepting the comfort she offered. But, no more tears came. Gabrielle found she only had one tear left to shed for the hope she lost, both figuratively and literally.
"Give Balder a chance, my child," Panacea whispered as she stroked the bard's hair. "You'll find peace again, and hope. You'll see. And in the end, we'll all find freedom."
"Freedom," Gabrielle repeated the word. It finally hit her, that's what she had been seeking her entire life. She had always longed to be free, from her family, from Potedaia, from the boredom her life had become there. She found that freedom in Xena, only to have it brutally taken away by Dahak, and now The Fates.
"That's what I want more than anything," Gabrielle told Panacea.
"Then give your heart to Balder."
"I will," Gabrielle stated firmly, her decision already made.
Xena rubbed her arms beneath her cloak as she watched Nels slog his way through the deep snow toward his home. Yet another day had passed with Gabrielle failing to show up, and the warrior was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Or, barring that, at least make sure that her partner was safe and healthy.
To that end, Xena had borrowed and donned the thick fur cloak Gabrielle had purchased for her days ago and, sweeping her dark bangs back from her forehead, drew up the deep hood, effectively concealing her features from view.
Taking care to make sure that no soldiers lurked about, the warrior stepped from the warm safety of the stables and began her stealthy trek across the open fields between the stables and the town proper. She gave out low voiced greetings to the few people she passed on her way, a look from her glittering pale eyes assuring them that the heavily cloaked stranger was in no mood for casual conversation.
The poorest section of town was the closest to the stables and it was through this that Xena crossed, keeping close within the shadows of the tiny, poorly maintained homes. It was apparent to the warrior that Balder didn't see fit to bestow his multitude of blessings on those with little money. She chanced a look into some of the dark homes as she passed by, taking in the wretched living conditions and cold fireplaces.
From the doorway of a hovel slightly ahead of her, Xena saw two men step outside, speaking in loud, frightened voices, their words vaporing in the cold, snowy air. The warrior stayed where she was, effectively hidden, to listen to the words the men shouted to one another. A piercing scream came from inside the home and Xena stiffened as the men looked toward the doorway with wide, panicked eyes.
"I'm telling you, Linder, she's going to die if you don't go to the temple and ask for help!"
"I won't do it, Phan. If it is Balder's will that she's to die, I'll have to accept that, much as I don't want to. But I'll be damned if I'm going to go into that temple and beg that hypocrite for aid I know he won't give me anyway! All he'll do is look down on me and ask why I haven't tithed my life savings to him! I can't do that!"
The scream came again.
"You're gonna have to do something, Linder."
Straightening, Xena stepped from the shadows, striding over to the two arguing men as another blood-chilling scream rent the night air. "What's the problem."
"Who are you?" the taller of the two men asked, a suspicious glare on his wind-chapped face.
"A friend. Why is that woman screaming in there?"
The shorter of the two turned to the warrior, his entire face a plea for help. "It's . . .it's my wife. She's having our baby, but it's not coming. She's been like this for hours and she just started bleeding horribly. Is there anything you can do?" Linder found himself speaking to the air as the tall figure pushed past him and into the stale confines of his tiny home.
Xena strode into the one room house, pushing past the two women surrounding a third who was squatting over a nest of hay. The hay stalks were bathed in a pool of blood which was running down the woman's bare legs in torrents.
"Who are you?" one of the women demanded, trying to pull Xena's body away from the bleeding woman. "How dare you come in here?"
"What's your name?" Xena asked the young woman squatting over the hay, ignoring the other.
"Melanie," the young woman said before another cramp hit and she screamed once again. Her face was deathly pale and she seemed on the verge of passing out from the pain and blood loss.
"Well, Melanie, I believe I can help you, if you'll let me. Will you?"
"Yes," the woman sobbed. "Anything. Just please save my baby."
Squatting next to Melanie, Xena reached out her hands and felt the woman's heaving, cramping belly. She cocked her head, then prodded some more. "Your baby is sideways inside you." Reaching one hand down, the warrior gently probed Melanie's straining vaginal vault. Blood was spurting from the placenta which had slipped over the opening. "We're going to have to cut the baby out from your belly."
"What?" the midwife huffed. "That's not possible! You're gonna kill her! Just who are you, anyway??" Reaching down to pull of the stranger's hood, the midwife was stopped by a band of iron circling her wrist.
"It's the only way to save the baby's life," Xena ground out from between clenched teeth. "Now are you going to let me do what I have to or do I walk away and leave you to watch them both die?"
The entire group paled. "Please!" Melanie screamed. "Please just do it! My baby!!"
Xena looked up to Linder, who nodded.
"Fine. I'll need a knife, a candle, some thread and some clean towels. Do you think you can do that for me?" she asked the midwife.
Chagrined, the older woman nodded, bustling off and returning a short time later with the requested items.
Standing, Xena stepped out of the house to clean her hands in the new fallen snow. Shaking them off to dry them, she returned inside the hovel. "Lay her down on her back, then move out of my way."
When all was prepared, Xena knelt down next to the writhing woman, taking the knife from the midwife's hand and passing it back and forth through the flame of the candle. "Now, Melanie, you're going to feel no pain. I just need to relax and breathe deeply for me, alright?"
"Y-yes," Melanie groaned, stiffening in agony as another intense contraction shot through her rapidly tiring body. "Oh God, it hurts," she moaned.
Handing the knife back to the midwife, Xena pushed up the sleeves on her cloak and, extending the first two fingers of both hands, hit the pressure points in Melanie's thigh and upper abdomen. The young woman relaxed immediately, her body slumping back into the hay.
"I . . .I can't feel anything! What did you do?"
"Just relax. You'll be fine," Xena replied soothingly, retaking the knife from the midwife. "Now just breathe deeply and calmly and this will all be over with quickly." When the young woman was fully concentrated on her breathing, Xena put the knife to flesh, cutting a smooth line into Melanie's hard abdomen. Another cut and she was inside the uterus and placenta. Putting the knife on the hay, she reached inside, and with a few good tugs, retrieved the slippery bundle nestled within Melanie's body.
The baby was limp, his skin the color of pale ash. Clearing the blood from his mouth with one hand, she propped his head in her large hand and bent down, covering his mouth and nose with her own mouth. She expelled tiny puffs of air from her lungs into the baby's system, pleased when she could feel the rib cage expand fully with each breath. Pulling away slightly, she gently rubbed the baby's sternum. "Come on, little one. Breathe for me." Removing her hand from his tiny chest, Xena again bent her head and breathed into his mouth and nose. "Come on and breath, little one," she whispered.
A weak cough answered the warrior and an unseen smile crossed her features. "That's it. Breathe again. Show your parents how strong you are." Turning the baby over in her hands, she gently tapped between his shoulder blades and the infant coughed out a mouthful of thick fluid. A gurgling cry pierced the silent air, accompanied by a release of held breaths by all the adults in the room. Turning the baby back over, Xena was pleased to notice the gradual return of color to the child. Another cough, more expulsion of fluids, and the newborn gave a loud, gusty cry. "That's a good little man," Xena said. Passing the knife through the candle again, Xena cut the umbilical cord and tied it off with a piece of thread.
Grabbing a clean cloth from the stunned midwife's hands, Xena cleaned off the now howling infant, then swaddled him in another towel before handing him off to his mother. "Here's your son, Melanie. Say hello."
As the sobbing new mother acquainted herself with her new baby, Xena delivered the lacerated placenta and proceeded to sew up the wound she'd created. Then she released the pressure points. After checking on the infant one more time to assure herself of his continued wellbeing, Xena rose and told the midwife how to care for the wound. Then, with one last look at the new family she'd help create, she turned toward the door, her task complete.
She was stopped by a strong, trembling hand on her arm. "Yes?"
"Please," Melanie's husband said, his eyes wet with tears of joy, "by Balder's mercy, what is your name? My family and I will give praise to you every day of our lives for this miracle you've given us."
From deep within the recesses of her hood, Xena smiled, covering the man's trembling hand with her own. "That won't be necessary. Just think of me as a friend who was glad to do what was necessary and leave it at that." Removing his hand from her arm, the warrior gently urged the new father back toward his family.
He went, but not before taking one last look at the back of the stranger's imposing form. "We'll never forget you for this," he whispered before continuing on to his wife and newborn son.
Stepping out of the house, Xena cleansed her hands in a snowbank and continued on her way through the town of Gudvargen. The houses became more ornate as she walked and the temple slowly came into view slowly over the crest of a small hill. Xena had a feeling she'd find Gabrielle there and so set her sights on the large, grandiose building, keeping to the shadows of the homes she passed and freezing in place when townspeople passed by.
Even with the last house before the temple, Xena chanced to look over into the partially opened window. What she saw there froze her in her tracks. The reddish gold of her partner's shining hair was unmistakable as it glowed in the cheery light of a roaring fire. The warrior's icy eyes narrowed when she realized that that beloved head was pillowed on the shoulder of another woman who was holding Gabrielle in an embrace. Xena's hand moved of it's own volition to the carefully hidden chakram at her side, oblivious to the fact that the razor sharp metal was biting deeply into her callused palm.
Pale eyes narrowed further as the other woman pulled away slightly, bestowing a kiss to that fine golden hair. Gabrielle lifted her head after the kiss, smiling at the woman through her tears. Their foreheads gently rested against one another.
Forcing herself to relax the coiled muscles in her body, Xena calmed her raging heart through sheer force of her formidable will. After a long, last look at her partner, her best friend, her lover, Xena released her chakram and turned from the scene, her head bowed as she trudged out a return path to the slave barracks across town.
Gabrielle felt a strange sensation travel down her spine, lifting the hairs on the back of her neck. Pulling away from Panacea's warm, comforting embrace, she turned toward the window, her head cocked.
"What's wrong?" the resistance leader asked, noting her young friend's stiffened posture. "Gabrielle?"
Her stomach churning, Gabrielle walked over to the partially opened window, looking out into the cold winter night. Something attracted her attention to the ground outside the house, and as her gaze turned in that direction, her stomach clenched sickly. A spattering of fresh blood stained the new fallen snow beneath the window. Droplets trailed into the near distance. Looking up again in the direction of the blood trail, the bard could just see the faintest hint of a shadow as it detached itself from the rest. Her heart constricted in her chest. "By the gods," she whispered, the sound coming out almost as a moan. "Xena."
Every fiber in Gabrielle's body screamed at her to run out the door and catch up to Xena. Her mind whirled. 'Go to her!' her brain screamed at her. 'She's got to be worried about you, since you've skipped so many meetings at the stable. Now, she's seen you in the arms of another woman. You know what's she's got to be thinking right now! Go! Explain it to her!'
Despite the internal berating, Gabrielle stood motionless, her breath fogging the glass in front of her. She absent-mindedly traced her finger through the moisture.
'No,' she thought resolutely to herself. 'If it's truly freedom that I want, it has to include freedom from Xena.'
The simple statement tore at Gabrielle's heart, but she knew it was right. Xena's plan to free the slaves would most likely result in the deaths of many of the people of Gudvargen. She couldn't stand the thought of even the guards within the slave quarters being taken from their families all for the sake of freeing these particular slaves. There would only be more slaves to follow. No, her plan was better. If she could help the resistance change the town's whole attitude toward slavery, then no one had to die.
"I can't do it your way this time, Xena," she whispered to the retreating form in the darkness. "I'm sorry."
"What are you sorry for, child?" Panacea had only heard Gabrielle's last few words as she approached her at the window.
Gabrielle turned to Panacea, her eyes glistening from tears she needed to shed at her decision. 'Later,' she thought.
Collecting herself back to the matters at hand, the bard spoke, "I'm sorry for not taking this more seriously. From here on out, I want you to know, Balder has my heart and my soul."
Panacea smiled and gathered Gabrielle in a strong embrace.
Xena pulled herself into the dark barracks, carefully keeping her right hand curled to prevent the foulness on the hovel floor from entering into the deep gash in her palm. Cold had numbed the still bleeding cut, but the warrior knew that the painful ache wasn't far off. She entered the barracks with no other intentions than to attend to the wound and get some sleep, refusing to replay the scene she had just viewed. Her heart was colder than the winter wind which howled through the barracks. Her expression matched it perfectly.
As she gathered up to stand, Xena noted the relieved expressions of the small band of Amazons who stood near her entrance to welcome her. "Thank Artemis you're back, Xena," Iolake said, carefully looking over the warrior's long body. "We were worried. Corien went out to look for you and . . . ."
The young woman's speech was halted by a steel grip around her wrist. "What did you say?" Xena ground out.
"Corien...she went out to look for you," Iolake stammered, her eyes wide. "We didn't know what happened to you! You could have been hurt! When you didn't come back . . . ."
"Son of a Bacchae!" Xena hissed, releasing her grip on Iolake and whirling back to the rear of the building.
"Xena, wait! Where are you going?"
"To get your friend before she winds up dead." Stooping down, the warrior brutally ripped the planks from the wall once more, dropping her body down and crawling again out into the deep cold of the Northern night.
Corien stepped into the stables, carefully avoiding the scattered hay stalks which would crunch under her boots. Listening carefully from her place in the shadow of a stall, she heard nothing but the noises of horses. Satisfied that she was alone, the young warrior stealthily made her way to Argo's stall, figuring to begin her investigation of Xena's whereabouts there.
She had made it to within ten feet of the large stall when she felt a large hand clamp over her mouth and another bite down on her shoulder. Her eyes widened as she was spun about to stare up into the blazing pale eyes of an angry Warrior Princess. "Just what did you think you were doing?" Xena hissed, holding the young woman in an uncompromising grip.
Corien's eyes widened further until Xena removed her hand from the young Amazon's mouth. "You were gone for hours, Xena," she whispered. "We began to get worried. So I . . . ." Corien's eyes dropped to the ground, "well, I came out here. To look for you."
"I can take care of myself," Xena intoned dangerously.
Brown eyes raised once again. "I know that, Xena. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to try and help a friend who might be in trouble." When she saw Xena's intense eyes soften just slightly, a wave of relief flooded through the young Amazon. She carefully let out a held breath.
Xena let up a bit on Corien's shoulder, but still kept her hand there. "Corien, the best way for you to help me is to make sure those women are safe when I'm not there. I can take care of myself. They can't."
The dark head nodded. "I understand. I won't do this again. I promise."
Releasing the young Amazon's shoulder, Xena nodded as well, stepping back. "Let's get back to the barracks before we're both missed."
As the warrior turned, Corien noticed Xena's right hand and the two trails of blood slowly working their way down the tall woman's fingers. "Xena! Your hand!"
Xena looked down at her bloody hand as if seeing it for the first time. "Oh yeah," she muttered, half under her breath. Ironic. No matter where I go or what I do, I always seem to have blood on my hands. At least this time it's only mine. Her eyes went cold again as she remembered the reason for this particular blood. "C'mon," she said roughly, grasping Corien hard by the upper arm, "let's get outta here."
Corien felt herself being yanked almost off her feet at the warrior's unthinking tug. As she struggled to catch up to her arm, the Amazon tripped as her boot hit a stall mucking tool. As her feet slipped out from under her, her eyes widened as Xena continued on, seemingly oblivious of Corien's plight. She grunted as her shoulder slowly pulled free of its socket. "Xena," she gasped, scrabbling along the hay-encrusted floor as quickly as she was able. "Xena, stop. My arm . . . . Xena!"
Snapping out of her daze, Xena looked down, realizing her unwilling passenger was no longer with her. Almost as if she were viewing the scene from some great distance, the warrior watched as she released her grip on the young Amazon's arm.
Corien brought her arm in tight to herself, rubbing the abused shoulder and looking up at Xena.
"Are you alright?"
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