A GOOD DAY TO DIE

Written by: Blade Mast and Candace Chellew
BladeMast@aol.com or cchellew@yahoo.com

Part 5 of 7

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

The Amazon nodded and pushed herself back to her feet, eyeing the warrior warily. "Yeah, I'm fine." She took a deep breath, forcing herself to look into those cold eyes. "Xena? What's wrong?"

Xena's eyes narrowed. "Nothing." She looked down at her hand as one drop of blood beaded and grew fat before trailing off a callused tip to splatter on the dusty floor. With a sigh, the warrior turned away from Corien and stepped into Argo's stall, pulling the saddlebags from where they still lay, untouched on the stall divider.

Opening one of the bags, she froze when her hand touched the tip of one of Gabrielle's scrolls. The parchment was dry and brittle from the cold and neglect and Xena was sure that if she were to untie the silken thread and open it, the scroll would shatter in her hands. Fitting. My life with Gabrielle is in these scrolls. With an effort of will she had thought gone, she fought down the urge to remove all the scrolls from the bag and dash them against the ground. To watch them lie in shattered ruins at her feet.

Flipping the top of the bag closed and buckling it, Xena reached into the next bag, intent on finding something to bind her freely bleeding wound so she would not leave a trail from the stables to the slave quarters. She located the rough linen of a forgotten shift and she pulled it out. The faint scent of sun and wildflowers came out with the garment. In a moment of weakness, the warrior brought the shift up to her face and inhaled the scent of Gabrielle clinging to the threads. Oh, Gabrielle. How do you say goodbye to someone you love as much as I love you? You are my life. My light. My redemption. I can continue to walk upon this path I've started, but to what end? She remembered the words she spoke to her lover after the battle with Caesar. 'All this is for a reason. Otherwise, what's the point?' "What's the point?" she repeated aloud, her voice muffled by the shift as she slowly brought it away from her face.

Carefully stuffing the shift back into the bag, Xena removed her own and ripped a large swatch off the hem of the much used garment, coldly and efficiently binding her hand wound. Willing the tears building behind her eyes not to fall, she buckled the saddlebag and set it back with its mate on the stall divider. Reaching out one finger, she briefly caressed the very tip of the scroll that protruded from the bag. "Goodbye, Gabrielle," she whispered.

Then, taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, the Warrior Princess stepped out of the stall and gathered Corien with a look. "Let's go."

******

"Balder's blessings, my brother," Gabrielle greeted each acolyte and priest pleasantly as she made her way back to her room at the temple.

Before the door could shut tight to her room, she dissolved into tears. She sat heavily on the bed and buried her face in her hands. Her sobs racked her whole body. After a few minutes they took their toll, leaving her abdomen sore and her face puffy and red.

She took several deep breaths and tried to calm her racing heart. She stared and the ceiling and spoke to the empty room. "Oh, Xena, I'm sorry. I wish you were here with me right now. I can't tell you how much I miss you."

Gabrielle hugged herself, imagining the arms of her warrior wrapped tightly around her. Another sob escaped her lips. Xena's arms around her had always made her feel safe and secure no matter what the danger. Now, there was no comfort to be found. Even Panacea's embrace was insufficient. She knew the older woman wanted to be a source of security for her, but how could she? Gabrielle couldn't even risk telling her the whole truth.

The reality of the scene Xena had witnessed from the window struck Gabrielle hard. 'She must think the reason I haven't been to see her is that I've met someone else!' she thought in a panic. "By the gods," she whispered, her fingers shakily caressing her lips. She purposefully rose from the bed and began to pace the short narrow distance of her room. 'I've got to let her know that what she saw isn't what she thinks she saw. She's got to know the truth. I can't let her think I'm out here getting involved with someone else and leaving her to rot in the slave camp. She's got to know my plan.' Gabrielle resolved that nothing would make her miss the appointment with Xena at the stables tomorrow.

The bard smiled at the thought of seeing the warrior again. It had been days since she laid eyes on her lover, and she found herself looking forward to the meeting. She entertained the fantasy of throwing herself into Xena's embrace and capturing those beautiful, full lips in a passionate, heated kiss. The battle of tongues, warring for dominance would give way to hands meeting the warm skin of the other. She drew on her memories of how Xena felt under her hands, the soft flesh of the hardened warrior. A moan escaped her lips as she continued to explore Xena's body in her mind. Gabrielle found her legs begin to weaken. She threw herself on the bed, giving herself completely to the vision of her warrior locked in a passion she generated with her hands and mouth. In her mind she heard Xena moan as her tongue traced circles around the warrior's nipple. The fantasy changed as Xena took control. Gabrielle could remember well the feelings of Xena's lips and teeth on her neck, her collarbone and finally the swell of her breasts. Her wetness grew as she imagined the

feeling of Xena's hands on her breasts, swirling each nipple between her strong fingers. She raised her skirt and slowly stripped herself of her underwear, never breaking the vision of Xena hovering over her, paying close attention to every inch of bardly flesh. Gabrielle teased the sensitive flesh she found beneath her hands. "Xena," she breathed as she spread herself. She imagined the long fingers of her lover enter and fill her. She kept the image of her lover's face before her as she increased the rhythm of her fingers. It was only moments before she felt her relief rushing to her. "I love you, Xena," she managed to gasp. Her hand suddenly stopped.

A tear rolled down Gabrielle's cheek. She expelled a long sigh as her orgasm fled.

"That's where I die," Gabrielle said to herself bitterly. She screamed her frustration at the four gray walls around her. "The Fates be damned! I never asked to come back! I never asked for this deal!

Destiny be damned, too! Why me? There are millions of people in the world, get them to rescue the damned slaves. All I wanted was to be with Xena, it's all I've ever wanted. Now, I can be with Xena, I just can't *be* with Xena. I can't even say that I love her."

Gabrielle stopped ... she hadn't even noticed that during her rant she had gotten off the bed and was again pacing madly back and forth in her cell. "I can't even say that I love her," she repeated in a sad whisper.

She felt tears well up in her eyes again. She lifted her head and stared at the ceiling trying to blink them back. Then the words came, the words she had missed the most since her deal with the Fates.

"I love you, Xena," she rolled the phrase off her tongue and savored the sound. "I love you, Xena." She said it a little louder the second time. The third time was even louder. "I love you, Xena." Her mantra was repeated many times until she was screaming at the top of her lungs, "I love you, Xena!"

She sank to her knees sobbing, her throat raw from the exercise. Her entire body shook from the exertion. She held her head in her hands and rocked herself back and forth on the cold stone floor. In the midst of her loneliness and despair she suddenly felt a warmth, a comforting force that seemed to envelope her in a loving embrace. She found herself smiling. She raised her hands and her face toward the ceiling, giving herself completely to the warm embrace.

"Xena?" she whispered. "I can feel you, my love." The warmth shot through her body like an arrow, piercing her very soul. Suddenly she knew she wasn't alone in the room. Her eyes snapped open. She looked around the room. "Xena?"

No one could be seen, but the presence remained. Gabrielle felt a jolt of panic run up her spine. It was quickly overcome by another wave of calmness that filled her mind. She smiled. She knew who was with her now.

She began to speak. It was a hoarse whisper. "Balder, give me strength. I can feel your presence, your love and warmth. Give me strength to complete my destiny. Panacea says you've chosen me, put me here to do something for the greater good. I believe that. I want to believe that. Give me strength to do what I'm put here to do. Please, show me what it is I'm to do. Give me direction. Show me my destiny."

Her supplications continued for several minutes as she swayed to the power of an unseen force. She felt a sense of peace wash over her, and a new energy filled her body and soul. She arose from her prayer feeling stronger and more convinced than ever that she was doing the right thing.

"Balder is my destiny," she said with a conviction she had never felt before.

*********

Gabrielle was early for morning prayers. Aevar was surprised to find her at her post impatiently twirling her quill between her fingers.

"Gabrielle," he yawned and stretched as the early morning light filtered into the sanctuary along with the morning worshippers, "what are you doing here so early?"

The bard smiled at the acolyte. "I just couldn't wait to be here this morning to give my praises to Balder."

Aevar wrinkled his nose at the blonde's unusual enthusiasm. "Are you feeling all right, Gabrielle?"

"I've never felt better, Aevar," Gabrielle's brow creased with concern. "Why would you ask?"

Aevar gave a chuckle. "Usually we have to send another acolyte to fetch you moments before the service starts. I'm just not used to seeing you here so ... so ... awake."

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders happily, "Aevar, I've never felt so awake, and it's all because of Balder."

"Whatever," Aevar took his position at the altar as Gunni and several junior priests began their processional into the temple.

Gabrielle squared her shoulders and prepared to scribe the service. She watched with awe as Gunni and his assistants went about their ritual.

"Hail Balder the Beautiful," Gunni intoned, raising his hands to the ceiling. "Balder the pure, joy of God-Kin and Mortal-Kin, hail. Balder the bright whose radiance lit a golden age, who was slain by darkness and deceit which despised his beauty. Balder, you fell to rise again, an eternal hope of a greater yet golden time. We hail your return."

"Balder, we hail you!" the congregation responded in unison.

"You fall to dark, O Balder, to rise anew! As the sun falls to rise. For in this is creation and promise. Through the turning of day to week, month to year, decade to millennium and on to the great year, and greater yet, we see in the light and light's return, a future golden age, for those who will strive for it," Gunni's voice filled the temple.

"Let us then work toward that light, though in this life it may not be achieved. Yet we must strive for that time of health, strength, beauty and purity now, that our bodies be right dwellings for the Gods and that our life honor them. How glad we are to see the sun. How glad to warm in Balder's light. We are the children of light, and dawn is ever the hope of man."

The congregation spoke as one, "Balder the Bright, may your holy light ever warm us, we hail you."

"Now let us be aware of the God force within us and around us," Gunni concluded.

The congregation knelt as one and made their personal supplications to Balder. Gabrielle could feel the joy at the simple act of kneeling and praying. For the first time since she had arrived at the temple, she abandoned her quill and scroll and joined Aevar at the altar.

Kneeling before the image of Balder she again felt the force she had encountered in her chamber the night before. A peace fell over her like a warm blanket.

She began to speak, "Balder the Bright, may your holy light ever warm me. I hail you."

She rocked back and forth as she repeated the phrase, feeling the words comfort her Fate-bartered soul. She felt a warm hand on her shoulder and leaned into it. She turned slowly and opened her eyes.

Gunni was standing over her, smiling gently at his new convert.

He knelt down and took her hands, "Balder's blessings on you, my child. Welcome home."

Tears welled in Gabrielle's eyes. Gunni pulled the bard into a tight embrace, and kissed the top of her head.

"Now," he said, breaking the embrace and looking Gabrielle in the eye, "back to work, my scribe."

Gabrielle nodded slowly, a little confused by Gunni's sudden shift back into business mode. She rose shakily from the altar and took her position back behind her desk.

Gunni took his place before the congregation and spoke, "In the name of the High Gods. Urd, Norn of the past, we offer thanks for the blood ties of our House and Family. Verdandi, Norn of the present, and Skuld, Norn of the future, may we not be a failing people and a springless Autumn. Grant that we hold by the ways of our forebears and to their memory, with every drop of our blood, and may we speak our own North tongue until the end of days. Now, to our children's children and their children, we send our words as messengers, the way we shall not pass along: Kinsfolk! unseen, unborn, unknown! Since we cannot see your face or clasp your hand, we send our Spirits through time and space in Balder's name to greet you! Go now in the peace that only Balder can supply."

Gabrielle finished her scribing, the last few minutes of the service had ruined her good mood. She mumbled in disgust, "Cursed Norns. Even here I can't get away from the Fates."

********

Gabrielle was headed back to the buffet line for seconds on breakfast when Gunni gently took her arm, and led her to a quiet corner of the dining hall.

"I'm very proud of your progress, Gabrielle," the priest smiled at her. "I can see your devotion to Balder has grown in the past few days."

"This has been a spiritual experience like none I've ever had before," Gabrielle's eyes glistened as she talked. "I've felt Balder's presence, Gunni. I'm ready to become a full member here."

"Well, not quite," the priest shook his head.

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle was suddenly nervous. She had been through several rites of passage and felt she had truly been in the presence of the god last night and again this morning. She had never felt so moved before in her life. After all the searching and false starts with gods and religions, she finally found one that touched her deeply. She finally found one she believed she could give her heart and soul to, and now the priest says she's not ready? She was confused.

"There's still another rite to be done," Gunni responded in a solemn tone.

"Another rite," Gabrielle repeated, feeling a sense of dread. She quickly pushed the feeling aside. If she was going to give her heart to this god, then she was going to do it willingly. "Tell me what it is," she said brightly to Gunni.

"It's a cleansing rite," Gunni began.

Gabrielle had visions of the hulking woman in the bath ready to scrub her tender flesh raw again. She involuntarily shuddered at the thought. "Another bath?" she managed to squeak.

Gunni chuckled quietly. "No, my child, not another bath. This rite is meant to cleanse the soul, not the body."

"Cleanse the soul," she murmured softly. "How?"

"Flogging," Gunni stated simply.

Any poker face Gabrielle had hoped to keep disappeared with the word. She gasped loudly. The stone of the plate she had been holding smashed at her feet as her fingers went limp. Her mind flashed back to the last flogging she had received in the hut at the Amazon village.

Ephiny had told her it would help her find peace, help her release the feelings of guilt and torment she felt at the death of Solan. A death she could have prevented if only she'd listened to Xena about Hope. Ephiny had been wrong. The flogging brought her nothing but more pain. Physical pain on top of mental anguish. She couldn't go through that again, not for any god.

Gunni took Gabrielle's shaking hands into his large, strong ones. "Child, sit down before you fall down."

He led her to a nearby chair where she collapsed into a trembling heap. "Are you okay?" Gunni was concerned about his quivering scribe.

"No, Gunni," Gabrielle shook her head slowly. "I don't think I am."

Gunni knelt before the bard. "Gabrielle, the flogging is nothing to be scared about. It's a joyous rite of passage."

Gabrielle snorted, "Joyous? How is a beating joyous?"

The priest tried his best to explain. "The flogging proves your devotion to Balder. The pain shows your commitment to endure all of the thorns and horrors life brings our way. Balder requires this pain to prove your loyalty, Gabrielle. The pain makes you stronger, and better able to serve Balder. Do you understand?"

"No," the word was out of her mouth before she thought.

The look of disappointment on Gunni's face brought Gabrielle back to the importance of her task.

"Then you're not ready to join the temple," the priest said sadly.

She tried to recover. "Gunni, that's not it at all. It's just something I didn't expect. Please, give me a little time to think and pray over it."

Gunni stared into the young woman's eyes for a few seconds then gave a short nod. "Fine. You pray over this, Gabrielle. Make sure you know you're doing Balder's will, and not your own."

The priest stood and returned to the crowd in the dining area. He turned to say one last thing to Gabrielle. She was nowhere to be seen.

******

Her knuckles were raw, but Gabrielle didn't notice. She continued to pound on Panacea's front door.

Finally, the wooden door moved and Panacea's worried face came into view.

"Gabrielle, you look like you've seen a ghost!"

"I think I have, and he has a thing for leather straps," Gabrielle tried to catch her breath as the older woman led her into her home.

Panacea chuckled softly. "Oh, Gunni's told you about your next rite, I see."

Gabrielle's eyes went wide. She slowly stalked toward the resistance leader. "You knew? You knew this kind of a rite was coming up and you didn't tell me?"

Panacea tried not to laugh at her panicked friend. She raised her hands in front of her and began to back away from Gabrielle's advance. "Now, wait a minute, Gabrielle. I thought you knew what you were getting into, here."

"I thought I did, too!" Gabrielle was nearly hysterical. "I thought Balder was a god of peace and purity. I didn't think I'd have to get beaten to be part of the temple!"

Panacea saw that the thought of the rite had upset her young friend deeply. She approached the bard and slipped an arm around her shoulders. Gabrielle leaned into the older woman. Her eyes misted with unshed tears.

"Gabrielle, this is one of the most important rites into the temple," Panacea stroked the young woman's hair. "It's nothing to be feared, it's to be embraced."

"But, Gunni told me Balder requires pain to prove loyalty," Gabrielle started to recount her conversation with the priest when Panacea interrupted her.

"Gunni," Panacea snorted in disgust. "Don't listen to that Greek-hating, Roman lap dog. He sold his faith just like he sells slaves on the square. Caesar just happened to be the highest bidder."

Panacea led the bard to the sofa and sat down beside her. She took Gabrielle's hands in hers and tried to explain. "Balder doesn't require pain, Gabrielle. For any reasons."

"Then why flog a convert?" Gabrielle began to quietly sob.

Panacea sighed deeply. "Gabrielle, I remember my flogging. It's one of my best memories."

Gabrielle blanched. "Best memories? I don't understand how it could be."

"It was only through the flogging that I was able to finally release all the pain and anger I carried after the deaths of Tiro and my child."

"I still don't understand," the bard shook her head as a tear made it's way down her cheek.

"Look at it this way," Panacea wanted to make the bard understand. "Use the concept of pain as the manifestation of your physical body. You're trapped inside your body like you are trapped inside pain. If you use your will to fight against the pain, it will forever trap you. But if you give into the pain, accept it as part of yourself, you can move beyond it. In essence, move beyond your physical body and into the realm where Balder dwells. By accepting the pain, your body, as a part of yourself that simply is, you can more easily see the spiritual side of yourself. You are more open to the love that Balder shows us."

Gabrielle was silent for several moments as she mulled Panacea's words.

When she finally spoke it was just above a whisper. "Pain has been a constant in my life, Panacea. I've always resisted it, tried to ignore it. Accepting it is something that's never crossed my mind."

"Give Balder your pain, child," Panacea smiled at her trembling charge. "Then you'll be able to live with it."

*******

Argo stamped her feet impatiently. She kept trying to get her master's attention, but the dark haired woman wouldn't stop moving long enough to acknowledge the golden mare. She snorted, but to no avail. Her owner simply refused to stop her pacing. Trying a different tactic, the horse extended her neck and bit down on the first available piece of flesh that passed before her nose.

"Hey!" her master finally took note of her, even if it was to slap her gently on the nose and point a long finger in her direction. The horse snorted her approval, her mission accomplished. Xena rubbed her forearm and spared a half smile for her blond mount. "Sorry, girl."

She approached the mare and rubbed her hand over the grateful horse's nose. "I guess I'm not much company tonight." Argo nickered her assent. "Well, you don't have to agree so quickly," Xena said gently, giving the horse a welcome scratch behind the ears.

Xena felt the stable door move before she heard it. She quickly ducked below the stall's wall.

She could tell by the light footsteps who was approaching. "Xena?" came the voice of her bard. The warrior didn't move. "Xena?" the voice was closer this time as Gabrielle rounded the corner of the stall.

Gabrielle stared down at the warrior crouched near Argo. She gasped loudly at the sight of her lover. The warrior was pale and thinner than the bard had ever seen her. The thin cloak that hung loosely from Xena's body probably hid more protruding bones than Gabrielle wanted to think about.

"By the gods, Xena," she dropped to her knees in front of the warrior. "When's the last time you had something to eat."

"When did we leave Greece?" the warrior gave the same answer as she did when the bard asked about the bath.

A sob hitched in Gabrielle's throat as she reached a hand toward the warrior's face. Xena jerked her head just out of the bard's reach.

"What are you doing here?" Xena said without looking up.

Gabrielle snorted. "I thought I was supposed to be here."

The warrior was up in an instant, nose to nose with her blond companion, "You were supposed to be here for the past several nights and you weren't. Why are you here now?"

Gabrielle took a step back, unable to meet the steady gaze of her lover. "I wanted to explain ... "

"I don't need explanations, Gabrielle," Xena interrupted her. "I need a partner who's going to help me free some slaves. I thought that was you. I thought that was you. Did you bring any food or herbs with you?"

No," the bard shook her head, and looked down at her feet.

"That's just great!" the warrior threw her hands in the air. "Gabrielle, there are people starving to death in that camp that could use even a scrap from the temple's table. They're sick and they need medicine. I need you to work with me, Gabrielle, not against me."

"Xena, please," Gabrielle could see this was not going to be easy. "I am here to help you. But, there's something I need to say to you first."

Xena pulled herself to her full height. She crossed her arms and cocked her head slightly.

Gabrielle knew the look. She nervously swept several wispy strands of her hair over one ear and cleared her throat. "What you saw in the window last night was not what you think you saw. Panacea is just a friend, Xena, nothing else."

"Glad we could clear that up," Xena dropped her arms and returned to stroking Argo's strong neck.

"You've got to believe me, Xena," Gabrielle began to approach the warrior but was stopped by a pair of ice blue eyes.

"I don't have time to play any jealousy games, Gabrielle," Xena snarled. "We're here to do a job. Or have you forgotten that?"

Gabrielle felt a tingle of anger run up her spine. "I have not forgotten that, Xena," she replied through clenched teeth. "Freeing the slaves is still my goal."

"Then start acting like it," Xena snapped.

"Xena," Gabrielle could feel her temper rising, "I am doing my best to get those slaves free."

"By doing what?" Xena was wide eyed. "Cuddling with old women by the fire?"

Gabrielle let out a long, angry breath. "Panacea is the leader of a resistance movement to free the slaves. And she's not old."

Xena ignored the bard's last sentence. "Is she working with Nels?"

Gabrielle's brow creased. "Who's Nels?"

It all fell into place for Xena. Gabrielle was involved with the other resistance movement Nels had told her about.

"Never mind that," Xena said waving her hand. "Gabrielle, you're wasting your time."

The bard went back on the defensive. "I am not, Xena, I'm working for the greater good. Panacea and her group are working to eliminate slavery all together. All you want to do is free these particular slaves. There'll only be more after these are gone."

"Not if we do it right," Xena countered.

"Doing it right, or your version of right, means killing people, Xena," Gabrielle sneered. "It always does."

Xena felt the walls go up. All the tension left her body. Her lip curled upward as she regarded her companion coldly. "How many people have died so far, Gabrielle?" She drew her friend's name out slowly.

Gabrielle began to fidget. She found the hay beneath her feet suddenly fascinating. "None," she whispered.

"What?"

She cleared her throat and dared to meet the tall warrior's gaze. "None," she said louder. "But that doesn't mean there won't be bodies littering this town before you're through." The words came out

quickly. She dearly wished she could drag them back down her throat. She wasn't trying to hurt Xena, but she knew the outcome of so many of their adventures for Xena's "greater good" often included copious amounts of corpses.

"Oh, there are corpses, Gabrielle," Xena sneered, "plenty of 'em. Young men and women whose only crime seems to be the color of their hair. But you and your friends don't think about that, do ya? People, right here in this wonderful town of yours, are starving to death while you and your 'friends' tell stories to each other about the way things should be."

Gabrielle visibly flinched at Xena's words. They didn't cut at her the way she knew the Warrior Princess wanted them to. Instead they strengthened her resolve to help the resistance free the slaves once and for all. She knew slavery was horrible, and it had to end. She wanted to make Xena understand she had found a better way. "Xena, I have a chance to really make a difference here. I can help make this town one where everyone is free."

"Gabrielle," Xena spoke slowly, deliberately, "this is not about you. There are hundreds of people suffering in the slave camps while you and your friend sip tea with slave traders in a valiant, but

misguided, attempt to break the hearts of stone that live in this town, and especially in that temple. I will not sit by and let that continue. What I need to know is, when the time comes, will you be

there?"

The bard felt a hot tear run down her cheek. She couldn't look at Xena. "I can't do it your way this time, Xena. I'm sorry."

She turned and ran from the stable as fast as her feet could carry her, leaving a sad and bewildered Warrior Princess behind.

*******

Xena watched through a crack in the stable wall until the shadows finally swallowed her last glimpse of her golden haired companion. With a soft, sad sigh, Xena pulled herself away from the wall, leaning against Argo with her arms folded across her chest. The war horse whuffled her sympathy, turning her strong neck so that her head could rest briefly against the warrior's. Xena reached up an absent hand and stroked the velvety softness of Argo's nose. "Thanks, girl," she whispered. "I needed that."

Chuffing in agreement, Argo returned to her oats.

"Now what?" she wondered aloud. As much as she tried to tell herself that Gabrielle was gone for good, a small part of the warrior had hoped that this was only a temporary thing. But Gabrielle's words had told her otherwise. The last flicker of hope in her heart guttered and died and she reached up a hand to brush off the tear which traced a forlorn line down her cheek.

"Guess after all this is over, it's just gonna be you and me again, my friend," she said, turning slightly to scratch along Argo's cream mane.

The horse turned again, butting her in the chest.

"Hey! I tried, girl. But it's obvious that this place offers her something I can't." Tipping her head back to stare at the thatched roof, the warrior cleared her throat. "I'm more than willing to accept my part in all this," she said, voice strong and sure. "Being with me has only hurt her. But I swear to each and every one of you. When I get back to Greece, even if I have to climb to the top of Mount Olympus, there's gonna be hell to pay. You've interfered in our lives for the last time."

That said, and feeling slightly better for the promise, Xena returned to the shadows of the stall to await Nels. Without Gabrielle's aid, they'd have to come up with a plan beta. And soon.

*******

Back in her chamber, Gabrielle could only stare at the ceiling. She knew, in her heart, she was following the right path. She knew the resistance was the key to freeing these slaves and bringing true freedom to the people of Gudvargen.

She tried to feel angry with Xena for the words she had said against the resistance, but she only felt sorry for the warrior. She had tried to make her understand that teaching the people of the town true brotherhood would, of course, take longer, but would eventually lead to the end of slavery. Xena, with her slash and burn and ask questions later tactics, could never understand that.

With no more tears to shed, she did the only thing that she could think of to do.

She slid from her bed onto her knees and began to pray.

"Balder, I know I'm new around here, and you may not know me well enough yet to answer my prayers, but I only have one thing to ask. Show these people the error of their ways. Teach them the true love I know a god like you would have them demonstrate. I've read your sacred words, and talked with people who have truly put their faith in you, and I see the love, I see the compassion for all people that you have. Help me to show that love to these people, and in the end free their hearts and their minds, so that they can free the slaves."

She paused in her supplication and spoke her next words hesitantly, "Tomorrow, Balder, I will go through a rite that scares me. I've been told it's a rite that should thrill me but, honestly, it doesn't. I

want to show you that I'm worthy to be your servant. I want to prove my devotion to your ways of peace and joy, but I'm not sure I understand the purpose of this rite. All I ask is that you help me

through it."

With her last words, Gabrielle felt an amazing warmth surround her. It was the same sensation she had felt the day before. "Balder?" she whispered. A tear came to her eye as she felt a sense of peace she had not been able to find in years. For once, she knew things would work out for the best, no matter what.

******

Gabrielle stood at the threshold, wan and sweaty. Her heart beat double time as she warred with her instincts which were screaming 'Run away!'. Gunni smiled at her kindly, reaching out a large hand and laying it on her trembling shoulder, squeezing slightly. "Are you ready, my child?"

As the bard swallowed past the sand in her throat, an audible click was heard. She studied the toes of her boots, just visible beneath the simple white robe she'd been given, for long moments. 'You can do this, Gabrielle. Go in, get beaten, get out. Piece of Baklava, right? It's not like you haven't felt pain before. It's not like you haven't been flogged before, for Gaia's sake!

Of course, the decision to enter the Amazon sweat hut hadn't been hers to make. Not exactly. She simply had no where else to go. Had no other way of dealing with the agony that shredded what was left of her soul.

And here she was, ready for a repeat performance of that disaster. Willingly, no less! Well, at least the ending won't be the same, she thought, wincing as the memories of being dragged from the back of a horse flashed through her mind.

Her stomach did another lazy flip and she gritted her teeth against the bile rising in her throat. Let's just get this over with. Keeping her eyes glued to her feet, Gabrielle nodded, her honey hair fanning over her bowed face like a curtain of spun gold.

Gunni smiled and squeezed her shoulder once more before opening the plain wooden door and ushering the bard through. Gabrielle didn't even notice when he stayed outside the room. All she heard was the gentle closing of the door.

Taking in a deep breath, the bard looked up, then froze in place, entranced. She didn't know what she expected of this room of torture. A dungeon motif, perhaps. Complete with chains and a water drenched wall covered with implements of pain. Her jaw dropped as she studied her new surroundings.

The walls were covered with colorful stone mosaics of the type she'd seen in Rome during their last date with Caesar and his minion. These pictures, however, were much less erotic than the ones she remembered. A beautiful golden sun radiated its warmth from a sky of robin's egg blue. Clouds of the purest white played tag with the sun's bright beams as they spread around the room.

A large circle of lit candles standing tall in elaborate bronze and iron holders decorated the floor. In the center of the circle stood a simple cot covered with pristine white sheets. Four beautiful women stood inside the circle, near the bed. Each was clad as she was, in a simple white robe. Three of the women had silver sashes tying their robes closed. The fourth, the head priestess, Gabrielle guessed, had a sash of gold girding her waist. They all wore friendly, open smiles as she met their eyes in turn.

"Welcome, Gabrielle," the head priestess said, her voice as melodious as spring birdsong. "Balder's blessings upon you and yours. How may we help you today?"

The bard swallowed again. "I wish to know Balder," she said softly, unable to raise her voice much past a whisper.

"And he wishes to know you," the priestess said, smiling warmly. "Come. Join us." With a nod to one of the junior priestesses, the circle of candles was opened, and Gabrielle stepped through. The head priestess stepped up to the bard, encircling her shoulders with a warm, gentle touch. "My name is Ayana. I will be your guide during your spiritual journey. Have you any questions before we begin?"

Questions? She had a thousand of them. Unfortunately, her brain didn't seem to want to cooperate with her vocal cords at the moment. "Um . . .how long will this take?"

"Each person's journey to Balder is different, Gabrielle," Ayana explained tenderly. "The spirit has no sense of time. It will take as long as you wish it to. You are in complete control here. Remember that."

"Can . . . ." Gabrielle cleared her throat and tried again, "can I stop this at any time?"

"Any time you wish. There is no shame in halting the proceedings, Gabrielle. All you need do is ask and it will stop."

Gabrielle responded to the warmth in Ayana's smile and manner. After a moment, she nodded. "I think that's all the questions I have." She looked toward the cot. "What do I do now?"

"If you will remove your robe, you may sit on the bed while we prepare for your journey."

The bard blushed slightly, her inherent modesty still present, even among these friendly women. But when she looked up from her study of the tiled floor, she noticed that no one's attention was on her. Each of the priestesses appeared to be busy with some duty or other. Taking in another breath of sweet, incense-scented air, Gabrielle untied the simple sash at her waist and allowed the robe to fall from her shoulders. She then walked to the bed and removed her boots, placing them on the floor beside her robe. Despite her nakedness, she felt comfortable in the warmth of the room.

Without looking at her, Ayana pulled a simple coverlet over Gabrielle's seated form, allowing the bard to clasp the material above her breasts. At the high priestess' nod, one of the others came forth with an ornate golden goblet. Bowing slightly, the woman pressed the goblet into Gabrielle's hands. The bard looked at it quizzically, slightly fearful. The last rite she had seen involving drinking had the goblet filled with blood. Drinking blood is where Gabrielle would draw the line, Balder or no Balder.

Ayana looked at Gabrielle and laughed, the sound almost bell-like in its musicality. "Have no fear, Gabrielle. It is a simple mulled wine, used to guide you on your journey. Drink as much or as little as you would like."

After a long moment, Gabrielle brought the goblet to her lips, taking the tiniest sip from it. A smile of genuine appreciation creased her face. The wine appeared designed for her palate alone. A hint of cherry melded easily with a hint of apples and other favorites of the golden haired bard. Taking a healthier swallow, she licked her lips. "Mmmm. This is delicious."

Ayana laughed again. "We are pleased you think so, Gabrielle." After the bard had finished the wine, the priestess retrieved the goblet and handed it off to one of the others. "Now, if you're ready to begin, lay back on your stomach. Take deep, easy breaths and relax."

Gabrielle did as she was bade, surprised at how easily relaxation came to her. The wine buzzed pleasantly through her senses, making her feel as if she were wrapped in a soft, warm cloud. The candles flickered pleasingly in her sight.

Her coverlet was pulled gently away from her body. Tender hands descended on her body, slick with heated oils. Strong fingers massaged away the tenseness in her muscles, leaving her feeling languid and safe. Though the hands covered her body intimately, there was no sense of eroticism in the touches.

The bard's green eyes slipped closed as a tiny smile of delight curved her full lips. The oils heated the skin of her body, making her feel as if she were immersed in a hot bath, her skin tingling pleasantly. She sighed in her contentment.

When every inch of her back, buttocks, arms and legs were covered with oil, the hands were removed, leaving the young woman feeling wrapped in a warm, gossamer cocoon.

"Gabrielle," came the dulcet voice of Ayana, "open your eyes."

The bard did so, not surprised when the ring of candles seemed to meld together into one warm and welcoming light.

"What do you see?"

"Mmmm. A beautiful light," Gabrielle replied.

"Yes. Balder's light. Turn your head. Look around. His warmth and light are all around you, Gabrielle. Can you feel him? Can you feel his welcome?"

"Yes," she whispered, entranced.

"Balder is here, with you, Gabrielle. Remember that as you take your journey. Look at the brilliance of his light, the warmth of his love, and become one with him. Is this what you wish?"

"Yes," she whispered again, not shocked when the sound came out as more of a moan.

"Are you ready to begin your journey?"

"Yes. Please. I want to be with Balder." And suddenly, she did. Beyond anything she could remember, she wanted this. It was hard to concentrate. Hard to think of anything but this. Hard to even remember feeling any other way than this. There was only peace. And warmth. And love. A tendril of sadness crossed her bliss. The only thing she could ask would be for Xena to share this with her. The sadness was quickly lost amidst the overwhelming feeling of utter bliss, however.

When the first strike came, at the soles of her feet, Gabrielle did not feel pain. The lashes on her body felt like a lover's caress. No, nothing so sexual as that. More like the touch a father would bestow upon a cherished child. The strikes landed against the oils covering her body, leaving her skin refreshed and tingling. She sunk into the feeling, welcoming it into her soul. She opened her eyes again, noticing that the candles' light seemed to be closer than before.

The second pass up her body was slightly harder than the first and the bard felt herself tensing as the first tendrils of pain filtered through the haze numbing her mind. Ayana's voice stood out like a beacon. "Relax into the pain, Gabrielle. Make it a part of you. Become one with it. You can do this."

The third pass was harder still, pain coming through the swaddling more frequently and with more intensity. She groaned out her displeasure, fighting against it.

"No, Gabrielle. Don't fight it. Relax into it. Let it show you the way to Balder." Ayana's voice was hypnotic. "Open your eyes, Gabrielle. See Balder's healing light shining upon you. Go into the light. Feel it welcome you. Feel Balder welcome you. Move into it."

Caught up in the cadence of the melodious words, sensed more than heard, Gabrielle forced herself to relax. Opening her eyes, she saw the brilliant light of the candles, seeming no more than a hairsbreadth away from her. The warmth soothed her, covering her body and tenderly erasing the pain. She moaned again, with pleasure this time.

"That's it, Gabrielle. Look into the light. What do you see?"

With what was left of her will, Gabrielle concentrated on the light blazing before her. She gasped out as orange gave way to blue, then to brilliant reds, pinks, purples and golds. "It's beautiful!" she breathed, enraptured.

As she stared harder, Gabrielle could swear that she saw faces in the light. Cherished faces. Loved faces. They looked back at her, their smiles of welcome beatific. More than anything, she wanted to join them in their bliss. "What must I do?" she asked the faces plaintively.

The voice which answered was a combination of all the voices, and none of them. The beauty of the sounds brought tears of profound joy to the young woman's face. "See yourself with us and you will be, my child. Join us. Please."

"Balder?" she whispered.

"Yes, my child. Come. Join us. You are welcomed."

Though she felt the lashes stronger on her body, Gabrielle now welcomed them as strongly as she had fought them just moments ago. They gave her strength, focus. She concentrated on the energy the pain gave her, willing her spirit to depart from her body and join with the faces in the light.

She felt a slight tug, and then she was flying free. Heading directly into the light that neither burned nor blinded. She was enveloped in peace and love. She wept with joy.

"Welcome, my child," the voices said, rolling over her spirit like the gentlest wave, making her soar free. A million hands reached out to touch her, not one a stranger. She felt borne up by them, cradled in their love like a newborn in the gentle, strong arms of its father. Time stood still. She could not tell whether she had been here for seconds or years. The Elysian Fields, she thought.

A gentle laugh filled her soul. "This place is known by many names to many different people, Gabrielle. The Fields. Valhalla. Heaven. Nirvana. Infinity. It is everything and nothing. The beginning and the ending. It is love. Hope. Peace. Joy. Beauty. Rebirth. Above all, it is home."

"Home," she repeated.

"It has always been such, and so always will be. All you need do is close your eyes to journey to this place. It is within you, Gabrielle. Your home is within you. Remember this."

At the words, Gabrielle broke down, sobbing. The spell was broken, but she didn't care. Through all her journeys, all her searchings, it all came down to one simple truth. Her home was within her. She had her answer. And she would remember.

******

The resistance leader smiled at her young friend pacing excitedly in front of the fire. Her hands were gesturing wildly, her voice high with enthusiasm as she recounted her experience during her last rite.

Panacea knew the experience well, the light, the initial pain of the leather against exposed and tender flesh and the final release into the warm embrace of Balder and his gentle voice in your ear, welcoming you home.

'I knew she was one of Balder's chosen,' Panacea thought happily to herself. 'I only had to look into those eyes. She's got the fire, the passion, that we need to fuel this resistance. Praise Balder!"

"And you know the best part, Panacea?" Gabrielle's words lanced through the older woman's thoughts.

She focused on the bard and spoke, "What was that?"

"I finally accepted my pain," Gabrielle grinned like a child with a secret. "I can't tell you what a relief that finally was. Instead of letting it go, I took it in, and let it become a part of me. The pain

no longer hurts me. It makes me feel stronger, like I can beat anything that comes my way."

Panacea returned Gabrielle's grin and hugged her tightly. "That's wonderful, Gabrielle." She drew back to look the young woman in the eye. "But remember, Balder's power comes only through love. It's not the acceptance of your pain that gives you strength, it's the surrender of your own will to the power of Balder's love that gives you real strength."

Gabrielle's reply was cut short by an urgent knock on the door.

Panacea rushed to open it, allowing a breathless man to stumble into the house.

"What in Balder's name is wrong, Sven?" Panacea helped steady the man

"They're gonna," he gasped, pointing out the front door. "They're as he bent at the waist to try to catch his breath. "There gonna," his voice rasped as he lost his breath again.

"What?" Gabrielle was at the man's side now. "Who are they and what are they going to do?"

"Gunni," the man began to hyperventilate. With each breath came a word. "Slave!" Gasp. "Whip!" Gasp. "Now!" Gasp. "There!" He pointed toward the city's main square as he gulped another mouthful of air. "Scribe!" He pointed at Gabrielle and finally collapsed.

Panacea checked the now unconscious man. "He'll be better when he wakes up," she turned to assure Gabrielle, only to find herself alone in the house.

She hurried after her friend.

*********

Gabrielle skidded to a stop just short of the town square. Aevar saw her approach and ran to her. "Gunni's been looking all over for you, Gabrielle. Where have you been?"

"Where is Gunni?" Gabrielle grabbed Aevar roughly by the arm.

"Hey!" the acolyte protested. "Take it easy, this is a new cloak, y'know. He's over there by the whipping post, just where you'd expect to find a priest who's about to have a slave whipped."

Gabrielle let out a growl and released the hapless temple assistant. Her stride was purposeful as she spotted the priest surrounded by a crowd of townspeople. As if sensing his scribe's presence, Gunni turned around just as Gabrielle reached him. "Gabrielle," he said urgently as he took her by the arm, "you need to be around where I can find you. These situations go a lot more smoothly when I can find my scribe."

"What's going on here, Gunni?" Gabrielle demanded loudly as she extricated herself from his grip.

Gunni's eyes narrowed. He remembered his last attempt to punish a slave in his scribe's presence. Maybe he could get the temple council to change the rules and not have a scribe present at these events, he thought angrily to himself. No, this time he swore he'd be in control. He would not be deterred. He steeled his resolve and raised his voice so the crowd could hear the accusation against this slave.

"Hear me, good people of Gudvargen," the crowd hushed at his voice. "A slave from the temple has committed a grievous error, an intolerable crime against Balder and our way of life! If this act goes unpunished, Balder will bring ruin to our fair town. For her crime, she will be given forty lashes!"

As if on cue, two guards from the temple brought a struggling, and screaming woman to the small dais where the whipping post stood starkly against the backdrop of snow.

Gabrielle gasped as she saw the slave. "Evadne," she whispered in despair.

One guard lashed Evadne's hands around the pole, hanging her bindings on a bent nail high above her head. The other guard removed his knife and ripped the back of her robe open, exposing her back and buttocks.

Gabrielle rushed to Gunni's side, "What did she do, Gunni?"

"Child, you're supposed to be scribing, not asking me questions," Gunni pushed her away. "Now go, do your job."

A member of the resistance in the crowd refused to let the question go unanswered. "What did the slave do?"

A murmur rolled through the crowd as several other people demanded to know the exact crime the slave had committed.

Gunni licked his lips. "She dared to touch the statue of Balder!" he roared, pointing an accusatory finger at Evadne, who only sobbed in her defense.

"She touched the statue of Balder," Gabrielle repeated slowly. "Why is that a crime?"

"We cannot have Greek pigs, even if they are temple slaves, touching the statue of Balder," Gunni shouted. "It defiles Balder and everything we believe! She knew this and touched the statue anyway! She knowingly disrespected Balder and all the good people of Gudvargen!"

There were some nods of agreement from the crowd and one man shouted, "She must pay!"

"Let the punishment begin!" Gunni motioned to the guard holding the whip.

"No!" Gabrielle cried. She could already hear the whistle of the whip as it cut through the air. A sharp smack of leather against flesh was followed closely by the heart wrenching scream of Evadne. The slave's scream had only just ended when a second crack was heard. Evadne screamed louder than before and wept with the excruciating pain that coursed through her body.

"Gunni, stop, please!" Gabrielle rushed to the priest's side. Gunni raised his hand, bringing the third blow up short.

"Gabrielle, this is justice," he patted her arm lightly.

"No, it's not!" Gabrielle was desperate to stop Evadne's beating. "I know I'm a new convert, but I've read the sacred scriptures. I don't remember seeing anything in there that says a slave cannot touch an image of Balder."

More heads bobbed in agreement around her.

"Besides, I've noticed the statue that you're talking about. It's usually very dusty and dirty," Gabrielle raised her voice to make sure the crowd could hear her. "I thought it was the slave's job to clean the statue. No one else seems to be bothered that it's dirty."

A collective gasp ran through the crowd. "Balder's statue isn't cleaned?" one woman murmured, cutting a glance at Gunni.

Gunni felt the tide begin to turn on him once again. 'Converts are always the worst zealots,' he thought miserably to himself. "Gabrielle you haven't read all the scrolls. You don't know all the things that Balder teaches."

"That may be true, Gunni," Gabrielle nodded. "But I do know something about justice, and this is not it. An accused person should be allowed to speak in their own defense."

The crowd gave a loud shout of agreement.

Gabrielle approached the dais and spoke to Evadne. "Did you mean to disrespect Balder and the good people of Gudvargen by touching the statue?"

Evadne searched desperately for her voice. Her exposed body was chilled to the bone and she was certain she would pass out from the pain. She knew 38 more lashes would certainly be the death of her. "N n n n o," she finally stammered through dry, cracked lips. "I only meant to, to clean the st-st- statue. I only m-m meant to honor Buh-buh Balder. I never meant any dis- disrespect."

"She's a slave who's being whipped, of course she'll say she didn't mean any disrespect," Gunni pleaded with the crowd in desperation.

"Y'know, Gunni," the town's mayor stepped forward from the crowd. "I have read all the scrolls, and I think Gabrielle is right. There's no edict against a Greek touching images of Balder. I see no cause to beat this slave."

Gabrielle thought for certain the priest's head would explode. She had never see so many shades of red pass over a person's face before.

"Release the slave," he said finally, throwing in the towel.

The guards did as they were instructed. Gabrielle rushed to the dais. The guards moved to stop her but backed off when they saw her look of anger and determination. She took off her cloak and gently wrapped it around Evadne. The slave slumped against Gabrielle. Panacea rushed to help the bard hold up her charge. They escorted Evadne back to the temple, with the guards close behind.

********

"Now you just relax and try to get some sleep," Gabrielle said, pulling the coverlet over Evadne's reclining form and tucking it under her body. "That tea I gave you should help with the pain very soon."

"Thank you so much, Mis . . .I mean, Gabrielle," the young girl replied, her eyes shining. "Are you sure you won't get into trouble? For letting me sleep here, I mean?"

"Positive. Gunni can just talk to me if he has any problems. Besides, there's no way I'm going to let you sleep on that dirty nest of straw. You're sure to get an infection or worse." Gabrielle patted the young slave's arm soothingly. "Just rest up and try to regain your strength."

"You . . .you saved my life, you know. Anything I have, anything at all, is yours."

The bard smiled, bending over to place a kiss on Evadne's forehead. "I don't need anything other than you getting better," she whispered, smoothing back the girl's pale bangs. "Now rest up. I'll be right here if you need me."

"Goodnight, Gabrielle."

"'Night, Evadne."

When the slave's eyes fluttered closed, Gabrielle straightened and turned to Panacea, who was leaning against the door, her arms crossed and a bright smile on her face. "You're amazing," she remarked.

The bard blushed slightly. "It's nothing you wouldn't do, given the same opportunity."

"Perhaps," Panacea replied, pushing herself off the door and walking over to stand at Gabrielle's side. Her face crinkled in a delighted grin as she slung a friendly arm across the bard's shoulders. "I thought blood was going to start spurting from Gunni's ears, you know," she said, giggling softly at the image.

"Is was an amazing shade of red he turned, wasn't it," the bard replied, almost proudly. "I think I have a knack for irritating people to the point of hemorrhage."

Panacea exploded in laughter, quickly muffling the sounds with her hands so as not to wake Evadne. "Gabrielle, you truly are a blessing. Not just to Evadne and the slaves. But to this whole town." Her face turned serious. "And to me in particular." The resistance leader looked deep into eyes which almost exactly matched her own. "Ever since I learned about the fate of my daughter, I've been . . .well, I've been very unhappy. Freeing the slaves has given me a goal, but it hasn't given me joy. But you, my friend, have helped me to remember how it is to just feel good." The older woman smiled tenderly, gently cupping the bard's smooth cheek. "Thank you. I mean that. You came along when I needed a friend the most."

Returning the gentle smile, Gabrielle reached up and cupped her own hand over Panacea's. "I could say the same thing about you, Panacea. I've been going through some very hard times in my life recently. You've helped me to deal with those losses. More than you know."

The two women stood side by side, smiling at one another until Panacea, slightly embarrassed, removed her hand from the bard's cheek and looked away.

Gabrielle let the silence linger for a moment more before sliding down the wall onto her haunches. "So, what can you tell me about this initiation thing I'm gonna have to go through tomorrow? Any more surprises? Walking over hot coals? Metal slivers under the fingernails? My eyes pushed out with hot pokers?"

Laughing in relief, Panacea lightly slapped the bard on the shoulder. "Nothing so awful as that, no. Gunni introduces you as a new member and you walk down the aisle. He says a few words, you respond in the affirmative, he gives you Balder's blessing, puts a ring of flowers on your head, and you're done."

Gabrielle winced. "Flowers. What is it with induction rituals and flowers?"

Panacea giggled. "Well, I suppose they're supposed to represent the beauty and purity of the occasion." She shrugged. "They smell pretty, anyway."

The bard grinned in reply. "Speaking of smelling pretty, I think I need a bath. Let's just hope Medusa with the sponge isn't there to greet me."

Chuckling, Panacea rose to her feet and helped Gabrielle to stand. "C'mon. I'll walk over there with you. Then I need to get home and get some sleep. I have an induction ceremony to get to, remember."

Smiling and chatting, the two women made their way to the baths.

*******

Gabrielle found herself at another threshold, sweaty and nervous. She had awakened this morning with a strong sense of foreboding, but the warmth in the smiling faces greeting her from inside the temple abated that somewhat. Now, she simply wanted the ceremony to begin so that it could then end and set her free from all this nervous waiting she was being forced to endure.

Standing behind the altar, Gunni smiled and raised his arms. Hearing the swish of his robes, the congregation turned to face front, eyes attentive to the temple priest. "To all of you, be welcomed to the house of Balder and find blessings in his love."

"Blessings be upon you as well," the congregates answered in unison.

"It is with great pleasure that I announce today the induction of our newest member, Gabrielle."

"Balder's blessings unto Gabrielle!" the congregation chanted.

"Gabrielle, come forward into the house of Balder."

Feeling a bit silly for all the pomp, the bard walked slowly forward in her pristine white robe, her sandaled feet moving noiselessly down the temple aisle. She ascended the first step and stood patiently facing the altar, awaiting Gunni's cue.

"Gabrielle, are you prepared to place your faith in Balder, forswearing all other gods known and unknown?"

"I am."

"Are you prepared to accept all of Balder's laws and commandments as sacred law?"

"I am."

"And are you prepared to go forth from this house to do good works and to spread the words of Balder's beauty and greatness?"

"I am."

Gunni smiled, lowering his arms and picking up the circlet of flowers adorning the altar. Stepping from behind the massive table, he came to stand before the bard. "Then it gives me great joy as Balder's representative on earth to proclaim you a Child of Balder." The congregates broke out in spontaneous applause as the priest placed the wreath on the bard's golden head. "I'm very proud of you my child," he whispered, leaning over to place a kiss on Gabrielle's cheek. Grasping her by the shoulders, Gunni gently turned the bard to face the congregation. "To the good people of Gudvargen, I present you your newest sister in Balder's love: Gabrielle!!"

Applause resumed, accompanied by chants of "Gab-ri-elle!" and "Balder's blessings!" Stunned, the bard looked around, eyes finally coming to rest on Panacea. The older woman was looking on, chest swelled with pride, tears of joy streaming down her cheeks.

Tears welled in Gabrielle's eyes as she returned the loving smile bestowed upon her by her friend. The nervousness washed completely away in this astounding sense of community and boundless love. She felt truly blessed.

Gunni's hands came down on the bard's shoulders once again. "Gabrielle, before I send you forth to proclaim Balder's love, there is one final task you must complete."

The feeling of foreboding returned full force as Gabrielle turned panicked eyes to Panacea. The older woman looked back, stunned, and shrugged as a quiet murmuring went through the temple. "A task?" the bard asked softly.

"Yes, my child. A small one, but required from one such as yourself who has a place within the Temple. Will you place your faith in Balder and accept this task unknowing?"

The bard swallowed, her throat suddenly very dry. The ornate walls of the temple seemed to close in on her. She felt trapped. Panacea, from her position nearby, could supply no answers. Taking in a long, shuddering breath, Gabrielle did the only thing she could. "I will."

Gunni smiled. "Very well. When the service is concluded, come with me and I shall explain it to you." With that statement, Gunni's hands left Gabrielle's shoulders and the priest went back around the altar to conclude the simple service.

*******

The congregation filed silently out, Panacea the last to leave, her bewildered eyes still locked with Gabrielle's. Stepping from behind the altar for a final time, the temple priest laid a hand on the bard's arm. "Come with me, Gabrielle. There's a small ante-room nearby where you can sit and relax while I explain what it is that you must do." Nodding to Aevar to accompany them, the trio walked through the temple proper, stopping only long enough for Gunni to open a small, non- descript door before ushering his newest initiate inside a tiny chamber.

After helping the young woman to sit, Gunni took a standing position beside the chair, smiling down at the bard. "How are you feeling, my child?"

"Um . . .ok, I guess," Gabrielle replied.

"Find peace in your soul, Gabrielle. This is but one simple test of your newfound loyalty to Balder. Prove your love for him now, and you won't ever have to worry about tests again."

"But . . .haven't I proven myself to him already? I passed all the rites. Endured the pain of the flogging and the hunger of the fast. I've studied and prayed and served you well as your scribe. You've accepted me into Balder's family. What more do I have to do to prove to you that I accept Balder into my soul?"

"Just one thing. A simple thing really. One you shouldn't have trouble accomplishing at all." Drawing himself up to his full height, the priest steepled his fingers in a contemplative pose.

Gabrielle wondered if she was supposed to be impressed by this show of benign dignity.

"You see, my child," Gunni began, "when people come to us from the outside, and especially if they are given sacred duties to be carried out in Balder's home, we must insure that their past is truly that. Past. You are reborn into the spirit of Balder, Gabrielle. Nothing else, especially from the time before you were guided here by his holy hand, must interfere with your service to him."

"And what is it that I'm doing that makes you think my past is interfering?"

"My child, you have committed no great sin. The love for others is grand within your heart. However, it is woefully misplaced."

"Misplaced in whom?" the bard asked, beginning to feel anger build within her. Remembering her deal with the Fates, she subdued the emotion, but it was hard. And getting harder with every word that fell from the priest's mouth.

Gunni smiled beatifically. "Your slave, my child."

"My slave? Xe . . .Diana?"

"Diana, eh? I didn't know the slave had a name. But you're right, of course. Diana. Your former slave."

"How is Diana keeping me from performing my duties for Balder?"

"When you spoke up and prevented her just punishment, you were showing your weakness for a past life which exists no longer."

"Just punishment? Beheading a slave for defending a life? What type of justice is that?"

"Balder's justice, young one. Lawfully written and carried out. The law, you should remember, that you swore to uphold in the Temple just a short time ago."

Gabrielle slumped back in the chair. The feeling of being trapped came at her again, doubled in strength this time. She felt boxed in with no chance for escape. Is this how Xena feels? she wondered. No. She can escape at any time. She just chooses . . . . Yes, chooses to stay to help rescue the slaves you're committed to. She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "What do I have to do?" she asked finally.

"As I've said, it's very simple. Sever your relationship with your former slave. Make her no more to you than the ground upon which you walk or the air that you breathe."

Inwardly, the bard shuddered. "I . . .don't know if I can do that."

"If you cannot, you cannot remain within the Temple, my child. It is the will of Balder that asks you to do this. If he is in your heart, as you say he is, then you will do this with no remorse."

Gabrielle dragged a shaking hand through her hair. "Can I think about this?"

"I'm sorry, my child. A fast break is the least painful for all concerned. You have sworn to accept Balder's task unknown. Now that you know of it, will you hold to your promise to him?"

After a long moment, Gabrielle's bowed head nodded. "I will," she said in a strangled voice. Balder have mercy on me.

Gunni smiled winningly. "I knew it, Gabrielle. Balder has chosen well. Aevar, have the guards fetch the slave known as Diana from the mines. Have her brought before us here."

"At once, Gunni," the acolyte replied, bowing slightly and turning from the room.

*******

During the long wait for the arrival of Xena, Gunni retained his beatific smile and meditative pose next to Gabrielle. While trying hard to maintain the same calm fašade, inwardly, Gabrielle was being torn apart. Xena, forgive me. If there was any other way, I'd take it. But I've come too far to turn back now. Once I'm fully accepted into the Temple, I can be that force for change I feel inside myself. Tears welled in her eyes, but she steadfastly refused to let them fall. You can do this, Gabrielle. With all the words you've said to one another, this is only a formality anyway. You were planning on going your own way after this was over, remember? It's just happening sooner than you intended, that's all. Then why did her soul feel like it was preparing to rend itself in two? Why could she feel the ache of it in her bones? Damn you, Balder! Give me a sign! Anything to let me know that this is the right path. She looked deep inside herself as the god had taught her, but felt only pain. Anguish. Ugliness. Is this your sign, Balder? If so, which path do I take? Are you upset with my questioning of you? Or with the path I have chosen to take under Gunni's guidance?

Her heartfelt plea went unanswered as the small door blew open and two guards entered, ushering in a bound and chained Xena between them. Walking her to the center of the room, they pushed her down to her knees in front of Gabrielle's chair, then stepped slightly away, hands on their weapons.

Guessing correctly though he'd never seen this particular rite before, Aevar re-entered the room, scroll and quill in hand, ready to take down the proceedings.

Gunni relaxed his position, looking contemptuously, imperiously, over the bound slave. His lips curled into a sneer. "Are you the Greek slave known as Diana?"

Taking her eyes from the priest, Xena shot a quick glance at Gabrielle, then back to Gunni. "I am," she stated simply.

"And were you bound in servitude to this woman, known as Gabrielle, before you were brought here to serve the people of Gudvargen?"

"I was."

Gunni smiled. It was the expression of a lion with a particularly tasty meal within its sights. "Good. Now that the formalities are over with, Gabrielle would like to say a few words to you."

Unable to meet Xena's questioning gaze, Gabrielle looked around the small room, wiping her sweating palms on the pristine white of her gown. She opened her mouth, then closed it. She tried again, but no words came out. They were all dammed up in her throat. It was as if she could feel her soul yanking them back down to prevent them from being uttered.

Gunni laid a gentle hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Go ahead, child. She can't hurt you, see?"

"It's . . .it's not that, Gunni," Gabrielle whispered.

"Then what is it, child?"

"I . . .I . . . ." She broke off, tucking an errant lock of hair behind her ear. "It's so hard."

The priest smiled warmly down at her. "Just remember your promise to Balder and say the words, Gabrielle. That's all he asks of you."

He asks too much. Anything but this, Balder. Anything. Please.

But the room stayed silent as its occupants waited to hear Gabrielle's fateful words.

The bard stared down at her wringing hands. Maybe she should opt out. Say to Xena the words in her heart, I love you. Three simple words that cried out to be heard. And it would all be over. She'd be dead, but Xena would remain alive, her soul intact. And what of the slaves? her mind demanded. Xena can take care of them. And Panacea as well. The group's all set up. They don't really need me. She took a deep breath, preparing to say the words which would end her life, then stopped as another thought entered her head. But what of Xena and my deal with the Fates? If I die, then Alti's vision will come true. She'll be crucified. You already know the Romans have a presence here. No. If I have to give her up to save her life, then that's what I'll do.

The dam broke in her throat and the words came rushing into her mouth. "Xe . . .Diana, I need to tell you something," she said, looking down into her lap. "You know that I've been looking for something that's been missing in my life for a long time now. And I've found it." She cleared her throat. "Here. With these people. And their god." She lifted her head, but stared over the top of her kneeling lover. "I've been accepted into the family of Balder. I've finally found my home." She breathed in deeply, then let it out. "And because of that, I need to let the feelings I have . . .had. . . for you go. They'll only distract me from my true purpose in life; to serve Balder and his people. And, according to his laws, you can't be in my family anymore." Taking in another deep breath of air, she said the words that would tear out her heart. "Because you're nothing more than a Greek pig."

Gabrielle winced internally as silence greeted her words. If Xena was going to try anything, now would be the time. All she had to do was to remind Gabrielle exactly what country she herself was born into and it would all be over. But the silence continued, drawn out in the chamber that was as small and quiet as a tomb. Finally, Gabrielle's will broke and she lowered her eyes from the top of Xena's head to her face, expecting a look of betrayal, anger, hatred even.

Xena's face was stoic, her eyes unreadable. Instead of the hatred and anger Gabrielle had expected to see at her words, a single tear traced a path down the warrior's dirt stained cheek. Instantly, Gabrielle's mind transported her thoughts back to a dark palace in Chin. 'Say it!' screamed through her senses, together with the sharp sound of a brutal slap on an unprotected face.

A sob welled up from deep in Gabrielle's soul and was expelled as a primal howl. Aevar was so startled that he dropped his quill. Gunni dropped to his knees and gathered the sobbing bard into an awkward embrace, patting her back gingerly. "There, there, child. You did well. I'm proud of you. And so is Balder."

Burying her face in the loose folds of the priest's voluminous robes, Gabrielle cried harder, her voice coming out in uninterrupted and unintelligible moans.

Xena stared at the scene from her place on the floor, her hands clenching and unclenching, her heart empty and cold. As she knelt there, the warrior wished she could feel something. Anything but this all pervading nothingness which seemed to spread from her heart outwards until all feeling was locked into a tiny speck down in the unreachable well of her soul. This is how I felt when Lyceus died, she realized suddenly. The thought did nothing to warm her, but it at least kept her mind busy as her eyes took in the sight of the distraught bard.

Her sobs slowly quieting, Gabrielle pulled away from Gunni's tentative embrace, wiping her eyes with his robe. "I'm sorry," she said finally, though to whom she was speaking, she wasn't entirely sure.

Gunni gave the young woman a satisfied smile as he rose to his feet, dusting off his now damp robe. "There's nothing to be sorry about, my child. The past sinks its talons deep within each of us. But freedom from it is a blessing. You'll see." He turned to the bound slave. "Are there any words you have to say?" he asked, his voice almost, almost, kind.

At the silence from the floor, Gabrielle lifted her eyes to rest her gaze on the beautiful features of her now ex-lover, ex-partner, ex-soulmate. Xena's face was set in cement, her features carved into the mask of the dreaded Warrior Princess. Her walls were thicker than castle battlements and twice as deadly to anyone who dared broach their protection. "Please," the bard whispered, wiping at her eyes with her hands. "Say something. Anything. Please."

After a long moment, Xena rose to her feet, startling the guards who made no move to stop her. Taking in a sharp breath through her nose, the warrior pursed her lips and spat forcefully, the thick fluid landing on the ground between the bard's sandaled feet.

Gabrielle's gasp broke the guards' trance and they stepped forward quickly. Xena allowed their touch as they drove her back down to her knees with forceful hits from their long spears. Her expression never changed. Those cold, empty eyes lanced through what remained of Gabrielle's soul like sunlight into a mirror. The bard shuddered.

If he could have and still maintain his fašade of benign dignity, Gunni would have laughed aloud. This was more perfect than he had dreamed. The slave woman had acted as if he had given her a script to read. Walking over to where she knelt, he threaded his fingers through her black hair, tilting her head back. "You just made your biggest mistake, dog. By rights, I could have you executed, but you're strong of back and body and needed in my mines. Ten lashes for defiling the temple with your foul waste. Ten more for inciting a riot in the mines." His smile was malicious. "We'll see how easily your proud neck bends after that."

Releasing her hair, the priest turned to one of the guards. "Bring her out to the square. Gabrielle and I will join you shortly." He pointed at the other guard. "You, bring the other women slaves back from the mines. It's time they learned a lesson about the foolhardiness of disobedience to the divine will of Balder."

Both guards nodded, and Xena was dragged from the temple, just managing to get to her feet before hitting the hard-packed snow.

Gabrielle jumped up from her chair as if shot, clamping a panicked hand on Gunni's upper arm. "Gunni," the bard begged, "you can't do this. Please."

"It's done, child," the priest replied, prying her fingers from his robe. "You've cut her away from you. You must look upon this as no more than whipping a horse when it refuses to obey. Less, even, for horses are proud and noble beasts. Greeks are nothing more than dirty pigs who deserve the punishment they receive." Straightening to his full height, Gunni smoothed out the wrinkles in his robe. "Come, Gabrielle. Bring your scribing materials. Witness this and write it down as a blessing from Balder." With a nod at her, he left the room.

"Gunni! Noooooooooooooooo!"

Hearing the piercing scream, Gunni stepped back inside the tiny room, his face stern for the first time. "It is done, Gabrielle," he repeated. "Do your duty or I'll have your name stricken from the scrolls of Balder and you'll be banished from Gudvargen forever. Is that what you want?"

A huge part of the bard wanted to shout 'yes!' so badly that she had to clench her teeth against the threat of that word tumbling from her lips. As before, the thoughts of the slaves and Xena dying alone on a cross stood out in her mind and calmed her. "No," she finally said with conviction.

Gunni smiled. "Good. Now get your things and meet me out on the square." His robes swishing quietly as he turned, Gunni left the room for the last time.

*******

Continued..Part 6


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