Comments to Redhawk. Constructive criticism gladly appreciated.
Part IV: April, 1429 A.D.
The rider, weary and dusty from the road, pulled up short at the village tavern. The sun was setting, casting shadows in the waning light of dusk. It was going to rain soon, typical spring weather for northern France, and was most likely going to muddy things up for a day or two.
Long, slender hands caressed a belt pouch, gauging weight, considering options. Should be enough for a couple of nights' lodging and meals. With a final nod, Xena of Amphipolous dismounted and tied the reins of her steed to a post. She stretched the kinks in her back, settled there by long hours of riding in armor, and strode for the door.
She wore a soft undertunic that was long sleeved and a dark beige color. Above that was a sleeveless chainmail shirt that dropped to her mid thighs with a surcoat of maroon. On her shoulders, knees and shins were metal guards, leaving her bracered arms free to maneuver. A maroon cloak was attached at her shoulder, fluttering in the breeze created as she walked. Xena stopped at the door, slapping at the dusty clothing before entering the tavern.
It wasn't much lighter inside than out. And, for all of that, it didn't take long for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior. A fire played in the fireplace to one side, the bar to the other. The tavern was occupied by about a dozen farmers from the area. Her presence was sized up in silence by the other patrons before the muted conversation resumed.
The dark woman removed her cloak and walked to the bar, gesturing for the barkeep. A dour looking fat man waddled over, glaring at her. Used to such treatment in this day and age of male domination, she ignored his rudeness. Xena pulled the pouch off her belt and plunked it down with a solid clink on the bartop. "Gimme an ale."
The 'keep's eyes narrowed and he licked his lips in greed as he complied. The eyes widened as he watched her drink down the cup in seconds and hand it back.
"More. It gets mighty dry on the road."
"Pay up first."
Xena shrugged and pulled a gold coin out of the pouch, flipping it to him. "That oughtta cover tonight's expenses," she drawled. "Now...." She held the cup out again. "More."
The fat man studied the coin suspiciously before biting into it to verify its authenticity. Satisfied, he poured the warrior another ale.
This one she sipped at, draping the cloak over the counter and turning to lean elbows against it. She scanned the room again as she drank, finding no threat. This was an out of the way little village. Too far away from the hustle and bustle of war and its excitement. There wasn't even a local garrison nearby.
There were eleven men seated at the tables, ranging in age from early twenties to late forties. Farmers all, they wore ragged and dirty homespun clothing. A girl moved among them, most likely the 'keep's daughter, filling their cups from a pitcher and deftly dodging the occasional groping hand.
Xena turned back to the 'keep, waving him closer. "You got any rooms here?"
"No," the man answered haughtily. "And I wouldn't have your kind under my roof, if I did!" He looked the warrior up and down. "It's not proper for a woman to be dressed as such. Pretending to be a man... Pah!" He sneered and spat on the floor. "God'll strike you down, harlot."
Pale blue eyes narrowed. Within seconds, the 'keep was on his toes, his throat held in a strong grip. "You can't get that lucky, you filthy pig," she informed him as she brought her face close to his.
Silence filled the room as several pairs of eyes watched the entertainment. The 'keep struggled to be released only to have the hand tighten further, fingers digging painfully into his flabby neck.
"Now, here's what I say is going to happen," Xena said quietly. "I'll give you decent gold and you're going to let me stay in your barn for two nights. And you're going to feed me dinner for two nights." She peered into hateful, frightened eyes. "Sound like a plan?"
Despite his fear, the 'keep's eyes darted to the apparently well-endowed belt pouch still on the counter. His mind worked overtime as he considered how much he could use the gold she carried. Despite his religious convictions, he was a man of practicality. Unconsciously, he licked his lips in greed and stiffly nodded his head.
The dark woman released her captive, purposefully wiping her hand off on his shirt with a grimace. I suppose it's too much to ask to have a bath around here. Oh well, there's bound to be a stream nearby. She turned her gaze upon the other patrons, raking them with blue fire. Everyone in the room suddenly had other things to be looking at and talking about. Xena smirked and returned her attention to the 'keep.
Another gold piece landed on the countertop with a musical clatter. "There. Two nights."
The fat man rubbed his throat and nodded before reaching out to snatch the coin. "If you wanna go sit down, I'll have your dinner brought out." He crooked a thumb at the tables.
Xena nodded as well, scooping up her cloak. With a quick movement, she reached behind the counter and grabbed a small keg. She grinned at the man's sour look before swaggering towards a table on the back wall.
The dark woman got to the table and poured another cup of ale from the keg. She tossed her cloak across another chair and sat down, leaning the chair back on two legs, back braced against the wall. Alright. Have something to eat, take care of the horse, get some sleep, she thought to herself. Tomorrow I can do those tack repairs. Sharpen the weapons. Her hand idly fondled the dagger hanging from her hip. It'll be good to get a break from the road.
Her ruminations were interrupted by someone approaching her table. She looked up, eyes running appreciatively over the girl's body. She looked to be about nineteen with long light brown hair pulled back in a disheveled ponytail and deep brown eyes. She was balancing a tray that held three platefuls of food.
The girl stopped at her table and struggled to set it down for a moment, almost tipping the food to the floor. Xena was up in a flash, her response saving the meals from hitting the floor and the girl from a beating. "Thank you!" the girl breathed, brown eyes darting to Xena's and then away, shyly.
"You're welcome," the warrior smiled in return. She helped the girl rearrange the plates on the tray, their fingers brushing lightly against each other. Xena's smile widened at the pretty blush that suffused the girl's face.
"Jeanne! Get back to work!" the 'keep bellowed from across the room.
The girl jumped, almost flinching at the shout. Swiftly, she slid a plate and spoon in front of the chair that Xena had been seated in. And then she was gone, the tray a little easier to handle as she moved to another table to deliver a farmer's dinner.
Xena slowly sat back down, eyes narrowed and watching the 'keep. Probably beats her, she thought, picking up her spoon and beginning to eat. But, she'd been down that road before, helping some girl in Jeanne's apparent position. And, unless the victim was willing, it did no good to get involved. Once a victim, always a victim, until they change their minds. Her pale eyes followed the girl's movement. Pity, too. She's a beauty.
The girl came to her table only once more during the evening to retrieve the empty plate. She made a show of wiping down the table as she grinned shyly at the warrior. "So, where are you heading?"
Xena leaned back in her seat and sipped her ale. "I'm off to the Dauphin Charles to help him gain his throne."
"Really?" the girl breathed. "They say he's put his army in charge of a woman. Are you her?"
Chuckling, the Immortal said, "No, not me. Her name's Jeanne La Pucelle."
As she had suspected it had begun to drizzle soon after she'd gotten herself and her steed to the barn. It was now mid-morning, and the rain continued on.
Xena's morning had been quite productive. Her horse, Hero, was munching on a mash after a thorough brushing and hoove cleaning. The dark woman had enjoyed an extensive drill, as well. She was currently wearing two swords again and it buoyed her spirits as they weaved in and out, intricate patterns flashing in the air.
But, her spirits weren't lifted enough. Next week was the anniversary of her bard's death and it was affecting her. Some years went by fine and others did not. Xena was pretty sure that it was the rain, the greyness of the weather, the attitude of the tavernkeeper. They all conspired to make it a lonely day. The Immortal could usually count on one really bad anniversary every decade or so. And it looks like this is going to be it.
Xena had set her bedroll up in the loft and that's where she sat, sharpening her dagger. Hero's tack and her repair kit lay to one side, next on her list of things to do. She was wearing her undertunic and little else despite the coolness in the air, long legs crossed at the ankles in front of her as she studied the edge of the blade. Nearby, draped over the edge of the loft was her chainmail, slightly dented and rusted in some places - another chore to do later on.
Her brow raised at the sound of someone stealthily opening the barn door below and stepping inside. Making note of where her swords were in relation to herself, Xena resumed sharpening the dagger. With her keen hearing she tracked the individual across the barn floor, stopping once at the Hero's stall before moving on. She heard the horse nicker softly at the visitor.
And then the ladder creaked as the individual quietly climbed up it. Xena's face settled into what her bard had always referred to as 'Warrior Mode'- a vague, distracted, regal look that suggested ultimate boredom. She continued to sharpen the dagger, one eye watching the top of the ladder. If it had been anybody out to rob her, they would have done it during the dark of night, so she wasn't concerned.
A pair of brown eyes peered over the edge of the loft at her, light brown hair damp from the rain outside.
Pretending to have not seen her visitor, Xena said, "You might as well come on up. You've made enough noise to get here." She peered down the edge of her dagger again. Apparently satisfied, she wiped it with a cloth and sheathed it, raising an eyebrow at the girl on the ladder.
Blushing, the girl continued up until she was standing in the loft a few feet away from Xena. She was wearing a long and tattered grey dress, a satchel across her shoulder. Her head hung sheepishly, though dark eyes continually peered at the warrior before dashing away. "I... uh... I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay," she said softly.
Xena smothered a grin. Sure ya did, kid. You wanted to see the big, bad warrior-lady. "I'm doing fine, thank you." She looked away, retrieving another dagger for perusal, blatantly dismissing the girl.
But the girl didn't leave. If anything, she edged a bit closer. Fumbling in her satchel, she pulled out a piece of wizened fruit and held it out to the dark woman. "Um, I thought you might want something to eat," she said in a hesitant voice. "It's not much. This is from last year's harvest."
Xena studied her with pale blue eyes, brow furrowed slightly. What must she see? What did Gabrielle see? She delved back into the deep past, putting herself in the place of this girl, of Gabrielle. Coming up with nothing, she mentally shook her head. Far too long ago.
Mistaking Xena's puzzlement for anger, Jeanne took another step forward. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to offend."
An eyebrow raised in surprise. "I'm not offended." She reached out and the girl took the final step that put her within range, taking the wrinkled apple from her. "Thank you."
Jeanne blushed prettily and knelt down in the straw. "You're welcome."
The warrior found herself drawn to the girl and it disturbed her. Gods be damned, she told herself ruthlessly, if I'm going to be plagued with a foul mood, let me get it over with! But the attraction was still there, interrupting the mood she'd been developing. It wasn't the same as the many times over the centuries she had been attracted to others. This was different somehow, more intense.
Xena unconsciously scowled as she used her dagger to slice the fruit in two. She looked up into curious brown eyes and her scowl faded. "Here," she handed half the apple to her visitor. Their fingers brushed together as they had the night before and again the girl blushed. The dark woman felt the stirrings of desire in her belly.
The two ate their slices of apple in silence, though it wasn't an awkward one. When she was finished, Jeanne removed the satchel and set it down near the warrior's bedroll. "There's three more in there. I thought maybe your horse might like some."
Xena smiled. "I'm sure he would. Thank you again." She cleaned off the dagger and checked its edge. And then she began to sharpen it, as well.
The girl studied her for a bit, taking in the well muscled legs, broad shoulders, ebony hair. "Have you been a warrior for long?" she asked quietly.
"Sometimes for as long as I can remember," Xena answered with a slight smile.
"You don't have many scars. That means you must be very good."
The dark woman snorted. "Or very lucky."
Jeanne tilted her head. "Don't you get in a lot of trouble? I mean, for wearing men's clothes and fighting with swords?" The straw rustled as she stretched out her own long legs, leaning back a bit and propping herself up with her hands. "They say it goes against God."
Surreptitiously running her eyes up the long, slender frame hidden beneath the dress, Xena replied, "Sometimes there's trouble." Oh, yeah.... There's trouble, alright. She sighed deeply and forced herself to focus on the dagger and stone. "Usually they change their minds."
"Change their minds? How come?"
With an evil grin, Xena looked over at the girl. She twirled the dagger, allowing the hilt to spin in her palm for a second before flipping it through the air to imbed itself in the wall. With a shrug, she said smugly, "They see the error of their ways."
Jeanne let out a delighted laugh. "I'll bet they do!" She watched the warrior gracefully rise and retrieve the dagger. "How long did it take for you to learn to use a sword?" she asked, using the distraction to scoot a little closer to the bedroll.
Pulling the dagger out of the wood, Xena studied the tip carefully, hearing the shuffle of movement behind her. Hmmm.... Not quite as timid as I thought. The dark woman spun the dagger in her palm again before catching it and returning to her seat. "Not long. I had need at the time." She decided to forego the sharpening. Probably cut myself, what with all the distractions. Instead, she opted to sprawl onto her bedroll on her side, propping herself up with her right elbow.
"Need? That's all it was?"
The dark woman chuckled. "It was a pretty big reason at the time. Someone was threatening my home and I helped defend it." She plucked at the hem of her undertunic, pleased to see the girl's attention following her hand. There it is again, that blush. What exactly are you thinking, eh?
Jeanne's brown eyes were glued to the warrior's hand and leg. "Did you win?" she asked distractedly. Then she shook herself, blushing and looking up to Xena's face. "Of course, you did. Or you wouldn't be here now."
"We won. And I lost," the warrior said cryptically. At the confused look, she smiled. "I lost my brother in that battle," she explained.
Jeanne reached over and touched the hand resting on a thigh. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. It was a long time ago."
They sat that way in silence for a few moments. And then the girl's skin flushed as she realized what she had done. She started to pull her hand away, only to have it taken into a strong grip and she gasped.
"It's alright. Really," Xena said softly. She loosened her hold and settled their hands on the bedroll before her, noting that the girl allowed the continued contact. Definitely interesting. Maybe today won't be so bad after all. Her long fingers caressed the back of the girl's hand, gently passing over work roughened knuckles.
Jeanne watched the play of those fingers on her skin in apparent fascination, any fear gone. "It's so soft!" she exclaimed, eyes darting up to meet pale blue. She scooted a bit closer, emboldened by the contact. "Not like a man at all."
"Nope. Not like a man." The warrior watched the girl's evident amazement with humor. "You've been with a man before?" She watched Jeanne blush prettily.
"Well..." The girl looked quickly around to see if anyone else was there. "Yes. Twice," she blurted in a whisper. "Have you?" Before Xena could answer, she rolled expressive brown eyes and smirked. "You must have! You've a lot more experience in the world than I!"
The dark woman chuckled. "I've been with a couple, yes."
"Were they...." Jeanne frowned and chewed her lower lip. "I mean... You know.... Did it.... Did you like it?" she asked in consternation.
Xena considered the options this girl had for lovers. She remembered the farmers in the tavern, the girl's ham-handed father. Pretty bleak. "It depends on the man, Jeanne. Some men do care whether or not their partners are enjoying themselves."
"You know my name," the girl said with a soft smile.
She squeezed the girl's hand. "Yes, I do. I heard your father call you last night."
The light brown head shook. "He's not my father." She dismissed the topic by asking another question. "What's your name?"
The warrior blinked. Not her father? Husband maybe? "Xena. My name's Xena." No. Husband isn't right, either. "If he's not your father, who is he?"
Jeanne shrugged, her mind on other things. "He raised me from a babe, he and his wife. They said my mother died in childbirth." She moved forward again until she was lounging on her side, facing the warrior, their hands linked together between them. The girl stared intently into Xena's eyes. "Have you....?" And then she ducked her head and shook it.
"Have I what?"
"Nothing. It's nothing, really." Her skin was crimson and she tried to pull away from this dark woman who fascinated her.
But Xena wasn't having any of it. She held onto the girl's hand with an iron grip. "It's okay, Jeanne. I won't get angry." The warrior looked into fearful brown eyes. "Really. Have I what?"
The girl dropped her head sheepishly and mumbled, "Have you ever... um... been with a woman?" Her skin was on fire with embarrassment and terror that this strong woman would take offense and beat her. Or worse, tell the 'keep what they had been talking about.
"Yes, I have."
Startled, Jeanne looked up into a gentle smile. "You have?" she whispered, eyes wide.
Xena's smile widened. "Yes, I have. A couple." She loosened her hold on the girl's hand.
Unable to help herself, the girl sat up and eagerly leaned towards the warrior. "Was it...? Was it different than with a man? How did it feel? Did you like it?"
"Yes, very good, and yes," the dark woman chuckled. "Why are you asking me these things, Jeanne?"
"Because I..." the girl swallowed and ducked her head. "I... I couldn't sleep last night. I kept... um..." She chewed her lower lip and stared at their two hands twined together. "I wondered... I mean, I know what a man feels like." She groaned and pulled a bit away from the warrior. "This is so stupid."
"It's not stupid, Jeanne. It's just natural curiosity." Xena reached up and brushed the light brown hair away from the girl's face, brushing the cheek and gently grasping the chin to tilt her head up. "It's okay. You're a young girl who's curious about life and all it has to offer. There's nothing wrong or stupid about that."
Brown eyes studied blue. "Can I... Can I kiss you?" the girl whispered.
Xena's eyes narrowed and blinked. She considered her options. She could tell the girl no, send her on her way. But what would that do to her? She obviously has an attraction as well. Would she see it as a major rejection? And, truth be told, Xena didn't want to deny the girl. The bone deep loneliness that she had lived with every day since her bard had passed on was calling out for solace. Had the girl been a little more experienced, a little less meek, they'd probably already be rolling in the hayloft and having a wonderful afternoon. You know you want her. You've wanted her since last night. So, what's stopping you?
"Jeanne," the dark woman began, pulling her hand away from the girl's chin. "I don't want to hurt you. I'll be here tonight and then I move on."
A cross look flickered on the girl's face. "I know that. And that's what makes you safe." She cocked an eyebrow at the warrior. "I'm not a child. I've thought this through. I want to," and her eyes heatedly scanned Xena's body, "touch you, to have you touch me. And then you'll leave and it'll be my secret. Something to keep me warm at night." Her smoldering eyes returned to the pale blue fire.
Well, that puts a whole different perspective on it, lady. "Yes."
The girl looked slightly puzzled, still concentrating on what she had just said. "Yes? Yes, what?"
Xena's mouth quirked in a smile. In a low voice, she repeated herself. "Yes, you can kiss me."
Jeanne blinked and stared for a split second as the information filtered through her mind. And then her face lit up in a wondrous smile, even as her skin flushed. Swallowing her fear, she reached out and caressed Xena's cheek, amazed as the woman closed her eyes and leaned into the touch. "So soft," she murmured.
The dark woman turned her head, brushing lips across the palm of Jeanne's hand. "Yes, it is." She brought her own hand up to the back of the girl's hand and ran it along the arm, up the shoulder. Her long fingers tangled in light brown hair and she guided the young woman closer to her. Their breath mingled and she whispered, "Very soft."
The following morning, Xena finished cinching the saddle on her horse. It was still cool and a little damp from a sprinkle of rain during the night, but the sun peeked out from behind grey clouds. It promised to be a good day for travel. She patted Hero's neck, her mind on the day before.
The early afternoon had gone extremely well. The warrior closed her eyes, playing back carnal memories. A shiver of desire coursed through her and she smiled. Mmmm. The girl was good, she thought. Definitely someone to visit again.
And that evening at dinner. The flirting she'd endured! The steamy looks, the not-so-innocent touches. Gods! She's lucky I didn't take her right there at the table! An image of Jeanne's guardian, looking on in horror, brought a smile to her face. That'd serve the filthy pig right.
But the best part had been late at night, when the worst of the rain had stopped pelting the roof of the barn. When a certain, amorous young lady had snuck up into the hayloft and warmed her bedroll. Silky caresses, slick and wet, heated exchanges as skin enflamed skin, panting breaths fogging the cool air.
Xena shook her head with a lecherous grin. Hoo boy! She looked at her steed. "I gotta get outta here," she told him, reaching for her saddlebags and bedroll. "Or I'm not going to be able to hold myself back."
The dark haired woman grinned at the girl leaning in the barn doorway. "Oh, yeah," she drawled, attaching her bags to the horse's saddle.
Jeanne pulled the door closed and sauntered over to the older woman. "I'm glad I caught you," she said, hips swaying and a seductive smile on her face. "I couldn't let you leave without a proper good-bye."
Finished tying the knots to keep her gear in place, Xena stepped out of the stall and intercepted the girl. Wrapping long arms around her, she murmured into light brown hair, "You couldn't, eh?"
Teeth nibbled at the dark woman's neck. "Mmmm... Nope." Kissing and licking her way up to an ear, she whispered, "I want to give you something warm to remember on those cold nights when you go off to fight for God and country and the Dauphin Charles."
Xena growled, grasping the girl's head in both hands and tilting it. With a savage lust, she claimed the lips that were torturing her, demanding, receiving. The girl moaned in her throat and hands roamed the warrior's long body. The dark woman pushed Jeanne against the stall wall, crushing her between wood and armor.
Both were too involved in what they were doing, what they were feeling to notice the barn door crack open. An eye peered into the barn, watching their passion.
Early Winter, 1460 A.D.
Xena trudged along the road in the morning light, pulling her dark brown cloak closer around herself against the bitter winds. It was going to snow soon and she needed to find shelter to sit it out. And, if her memory served her correctly, somewhere around this stretch of northern France there was an abbey that would take her in. For a small donation.
And, if the abbey was no longer there, she could still shelter in its ruins. For free.
She hadn't been back in this neck of the woods for almost thirty years. Not since the botched battle at Compiegne where the woman general, who had become known as Joan of Arc, had become captive to the English. Xena had 'died' in that battle and had to disappear for awhile, lest someone began screaming of witchcraft and devil worship.
The smell of wood smoke assailed her and she checked the wind, searching for the direction. Satisfied that it was still on this road, she continued on.
As the first flakes began to dance about, the warrior crested a rise and found the source of the wood smoke. As she had remembered, the Abbaye des Vierge was near, a small complex that was apparently still occupied. Smoke rose invitingly from a chimney and she could smell baking bread. Xena continued forward, a spring in her step as she hoped for a warm welcome.
The dark woman pulled the bell at the outer gate and removed her hood. The flakes were fatter now and thicker, swirling about and speckling her ebony hair. She looked out over the fallow fields, wondering idly if this year's had been a good harvest. The sound of wood on wood caught her attention, and she turned back to the gate to see a small portal open in it.
An aged eye peered out at her. "Yes, my child?"
Xena bowed respectfully. "Sister, I've come to ask for shelter against the storm. I'm alone and have no horse. Might I enter?" She parted her cloak a bit.
The eye studied her for a long moment, taking in the unmistakable form of a sword. "Your weapons will have to be removed. Are you willing?"
"Yes, sister. I mean no harm."
The dark woman could almost hear the gears grinding in the nun's head as she considered. Finally, the woman closed the portal. Xena could hear the rustle of metal locks and bolts being thrown. And then the door opened.
The small nun waved Xena into the abbey. They were in a small covered alcove that led into the main courtyard. The old woman indicated a chest on one wall. "Place your weapons there, girl." And then she closed and proceeded to lock the gate.
Xena did as she was told, divesting herself of a sword and several knives. Her bow was too long for the chest, so she leaned it against the wall, placing the pouch with spare string and wax in the chest as well.
"I'll take you to the Abbess. She will decide whether or not you'll stay, girl," the old woman explained. "Until then, your weapons will be safe here." She waited for the warrior's acknowledging nod and turned into the courtyard, hobbling towards a door leading into the main building.
As Xena stepped into the courtyard, it hit her. Her stomach tightened in on itself and her heart rate accelerated. The snow fell in crystal clear flakes as she slowly turned around, scanning the empty courtyard, searching out windows, trying to locate the Other. And then there was a scream from one of the buildings to the left and she jerked her attentions towards it, taking one step.
And was stopped by the wrinkled hand of a nun. "Don't mind her," the woman muttered, clearly embarrassed. "She does that sometimes, when we have visitors."
"Who is it?" the warrior asked.
The little nun frowned. "It's the Devil incarnate."
"You'll be required to attend prayers in the evening and morning," the abbess continued sternly. "And comport yourself with honor and integrity while you're under the Virgin's protection here." Her eyes raked up and down the tall woman before her, mouth pursed in disgust at the men's armor, the well worn sword belt that showed evidence of recently shed weapons. What is the world coming to today?
Xena nodded deferentially. "Of course, Mother. And, perhaps I could offer a small donation to the Abbaye des Vierge? In thanks for the graciousness and hospitality you've shown me?" She chuckled to herself as the woman before her raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"Well, certainly a donation to the abbey would be appreciated, my child," came the agreement, the voice softened somewhat.
Again the dark head nodded. And then, the tall woman stepped forward, reaching into her belt pouch. She settled three gold coins on the table the abbess used as a desk, pretending not to have heard the startled gasp.
"Th.. thank you," the nun choked a bit. She abruptly sat in her chair, waving vaguely for her visitor to do the same.
Xena hid her grin as she followed suit. They spent the afternoon in conversation, the abbess questioning the doings of the world that she saw so little of and the Immortal asking about the strange woman who screamed when visitors arrived.
Xena returned to her small cell after the evening prayers, wondering why in the world anyone would want to spend so much time on their knees for a god that didn't even show his face. She looked about the room idly. A tiny bed, not much more than a cot. A small table with a candle. The required wooden cross hanging on the wall. A small barred window that overlooked a field.
She wasn't with the rest of the cloister, though the room suggested it. The main body of the building was the chapel. The living quarters for the nuns were to the right with all the public rooms and 'guest' rooms to the left. The warrior was in the same wing as the mysterious screamer.
According to the abbess, the prisoner they held was either a woman possessed of the Devil or the Devil himself. She'd been at the abbey for as long as the abbess could remember, and she'd been there for twenty-three years. Having been to the chapel and seen the other residents of the abbey, Xena was fairly sure that the woman imprisoned was the Immortal she was feeling.
The dark woman's brow furrowed and a low rumble came from her throat at the thought of spending who knew how many decades in a nunnery, walled up into a small room with only a slot for food to be passed through. She shook her head. One way or another, it was going to stop. And soon.
To further appease the nuns, Xena had changed into a simple gown of blue, a shade darker than her eyes. It had a high neckline which kept the sisters from being too scandalized. Her cloak remained on, however. It was far too drafty in the abbey to not have some protection from the cold.
Xena waited a good amount of time, to ensure that the residents had wandered off to their tiny beds. And then she put out the candle in her room and opened the door. She peered into the hall and, after detecting no one, slipped out of the cell and moved towards the stairs.
It didn't take long to locate the prisoner. The abbess had informed her that the mystery woman had been placed in a second floor room right next to the chapel. A hole had been cut in the adjoining wall, the prevailing theory being that continued exposure to God's word would drive the Devil out of the poor soul. And so, the prisoner dealt with prayers four to six times in a day and choir practice daily. Then there were also the three official services during the week and any holiday offerings.
Xena shook her head. No wonder she screams when she feels the Quickening. Imprisoned on holy ground with no chance of freedom. Absolute torture! Up ahead in the hall, she saw the food slot. It was one hand high and three hands wide, just enough space to comfortably accommodate a food tray. To the left was a low wooden bench. It was here that the occasional nun would kneel and keep a prayerful vigil during particularly holy days. The dark woman bent to take a peek into the room.
The first thing she noticed were the windows, covered in a lattice work of iron and nothing else. Wonder how many times she's frozen to death over the years? she thought with concern. Because of the snowfall, it appeared a lot lighter outside than usual and it helped her pale eyes adjust.
It was a small cell, much like the one she occupied. The mattress on the bed was in tatters and the wooden frame appeared quite old. There was no table nearby, but Xena could just make out a cross hanging on the right wall.
The smell of mustiness, excrement and spoiling food assailed her nostrils even as she heard the muttering. As her eyes adjusted completely, she saw a figure huddled in one corner, dressed in tatters and rocking back and forth. The dark woman focused on the sounds, trying to make sense of them.
"Blessed art thou... Harlot! Deliver me from evil... Bastard child... No no no... Hail Mary, full of grace... Mama...?"
The disjointed mumbling continued on as the dark woman leaned her forehead against the wall, eyes closed in sympathy. By the gods! What torture! And no way out... She opened her eyes. "Hey, what's your name?" she whispered.
There was no break in the litany. The miserable wretch continued rocking and uttering prayers and curses alternately.
A little louder, Xena said, "What's your name?" She could tell that the other woman had heard. There was a noticeable pause in the motion that suddenly increased in tempo.
"Our father, who art dead, hallowed be thy harlot," the woman continued a bit louder, as if to drive out the audible presence of her visitor.
Xena sighed and stood up. There was no talking to this person. She'd been through far too much for far too long. It'll be a wonder if she ever regains her sanity!
The dark woman stepped back and studied the doorway that had been bricked over. Well, they did a damned good job. She leaned closer and pried at the mortar. Too good. She straightened and looked up and down the hall, ignoring the crazed woman's talking.
Chapel behind that wall... What's behind the other one? Xena moved down the hallway in silence, opening the next door further down. Another 'guest' room met her perusal, empty of any occupant. She slipped inside and examined the connecting wall. While its stonework was a lot older, it was just as sturdy as that in the hall.
The warrior smacked the stone in frustration. She turned and leaned against the stone, sliding down to sit on the wooden floor. Well, now what? Xena wished she had her sword to sharpen. It always helped her focus when she was working on a problem.
The dark woman sat like this for several minutes. Can't pull the grating out of the window - no horse. Sisters will notice if there's any tampering with the hole. And I sure as Tartarus ain't gonna hang from the chapel ceiling...
"Damn it!" she breathed out explosively, hitting the floor next to her with a fist. She felt the resulting shudder of the wood plank along her rear.
Wood. The floor's wood. Not sure why that thought was important, she mentally chased after it even as her hand caressed the woodgrain. The floor's wood. The floor on the first level is stone. This one's wood. Slowly, pale blue eyes raised to peer up at the ceiling of the room. The wooden ceiling.
She chuckled as she rose to leave the room and find the stairs.
Xena spent the next three days at the abbey, weathering the snowstorm and then enjoying the cloister's hospitality. Every day she was summoned to the abbess to be pumped for information from the world. And every night she worked on the floorboards of a certain third floor storeroom.
And now it was time to be moving on. She'd had a filling, if not particularly edible breakfast of porridge after morning prayers and had dressed herself once more in her men's clothing and armor. Stashed with her gear were special letters to a monastery three days away that the abbess had asked for her to deliver. Xena collected her weapons at the gate and, with a final thank you and wave, she departed the Abbaye des Vierge, heading south along the road.
The land was spotted in snow. It was still too early in the season to expect it to stick for long. Another week or two, however, and all would be white. Definitely not good when it came to leaving tracks.
The dark woman ranged out about four hours walk and began circling the abbey. She passed two farmhouses and a tiny hamlet before finding something suitable - a burned out cabin with a partial roof. Xena studied it from all angles and inspected the interior. After a careful perusal of the surrounding plot, verification that no one had been here in quite awhile, she nodded to herself smugly. This'll do fine.
Several days passed as Xena waited. She took a chance and delivered the letters, hitching a ride with a farmer to get to the monastery in record time. In the interim, she worked on the dilapidated farmhouse, preparing it for a somewhat lengthy stay.
The sky had been slate grey for the entire day, heavy clouds filling it to the horizon. Today's the day, the dark woman decided.
She cached more food away, traded for from a nearby farm. She'd been sure to hit each farmhouse and hamlet only once. The coming storms would keep people separated for a good portion of the winter. It might be months before anyone made the connection of the 'Devil incarnate's' escape and the dark warrior woman who had stayed at the abbey.
Xena waited until the sun had fully set before starting out. The wind had picked up by the time she arrived back at the Abbaye des Vierge. The overhead cloud covered blocked the moonlight and all was dark. No lights were shining in the abbey, attesting to the fact that the occupants were snug in their tiny cots.
As she edged towards the exterior wall on the right, the dark woman's only concern was the Quickening. Once the captive felt it, she'd scream. And then there'd be a bit of a wait to see if anyone would respond.
The warrior moved past the entry gate, sliding along the wall. At the corner, she ducked around and continued her path. The cold wind whipped her cloak.
Feeling the sudden turbulence in her stomach and heart, she listened for the expected scream. The piercing sound filled the night, and Xena used it to mask the noise of the grappling hook she tossed over the wall. After waiting a few minutes with the scream not repeated, she began scaling the wall.
It didn't take long for the intruder to make her way into the abbey. The only locked door was the entry gate. All else was open. Within minutes, she was prying the floorboards up from the third floor storeroom.
Xena peered into the hole, listening to the other Immortal mumble her bastardized prayers. Well, here goes nothing. And she dropped lightly into the prison.
The dark woman wrinkled her nose and nearly gagged. The stench was horrible - a potent mixture of fouled water, rotting wood, decaying food and excrement. It doesn't smell nearly this bad out in the hall. And the expanded view of the room did nothing to raise her level of respect for the abbey's care of its prisoner.
As she had previously noted, the mattress was in tatters. What padding left was filthy and moldy. The wooden bedframe was falling apart - whether by age or abuse of a crazed woman trying to free herself made no difference. There were no other pieces of furniture. No other clothing. A pot in one corner was overflowing into a sticky, smelly pile of urine and feces. Fortunately the cold weather had driven off all the flies that would normally have been collected around it. As Xena's senses completed their adjustment, she looked for her quarry.
The imprisoned Immortal cowered in a corner on the inside wall, light brown hair pulled over her face. She was sniffing and snuffling as she continued her ranting. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Hell, I shall fear... Fear.. No one! Fear no one! For I am the messenger! The prophet of God! The harlot... slimy little bitch...."
Cautiously, Xena approached her with hands held out and open. "Hey, it's okay. I've come to get you out of here." She could barely make out the eyes wild with fear through the matted hair.
She continued to speak in a soothing voice as she edged nearer the terrorized woman, the response not promising. The prisoner began clawing at the wall, as if trying to dig her way out. Her prayers became louder and more agitated as she alternately praised God and cursed everything around her.
Realizing the woman was damaging her hands, the warrior decided to make her move. If the other Immortal raised much more of a fuss, somebody was going to come check on her. So, with a lightning flash movement, she was beside the woman who raised a shriek as she saw the fist come out of the darkness. And then she slumped into unconsciousness.
Xena stood still and listened. She allowed several minutes to go by before deciding that it was safe to move. She bent and scooped up the other woman, surprised despite herself at the feather light weight. She shook her dark head as she returned to the hole in the ceiling. How many times did you die in a year? A month? A day?
It was almost dawn before Xena arrived at her camp with her charge. At some point during their travels, the woman in her arms had awakened. Whether it was the unaccustomed warmth from the dark cloak wrapped around her thin frame or a vague memory of being held safely, the Immortal didn't become hostile. The dark woman's only clue the woman was conscious was the sudden stiffening of the body she cradled. And for whatever reasons, the stranger remained calm and didn't struggle. She had relaxed and lay limp in Xena's arms, eyes firmly squeezed shut. After nearly an hour, her breathing deepened into sleep.
The woman remained unconscious after their arrival, as the cold grey light of dawn brightened the snowy countryside. The warrior took full advantage of this by stripping the rags from the emaciated body and sponging the stranger clean with water heated at the fresh fire. Her face was grim as she noted the ribs easily counted beneath the muscle, the rawness of infected skin not kept clean. There were even abrasions on the girl's hands and face which she had apparently pounded on the walls with regularity.
There were two terrors known to Immortals. The first was being in a position to continue to die again and again - like being trapped underwater or buried alive. The other was captivity. Life imprisonment meant an eternity, and the more inhumane the treatment, the worse it was.
After getting the woman cleaned up, Xena dressed her in a robe and put her to bed under a mound of blankets. Exhausted, she wrapped herself in her cloak and drowsed nearby.
They stayed at the camp for well over a month. The first week showed no change in the stranger's behavior. In the mornings, she awoke and relieved herself in the corresponding corner of the hovel they resided in - after that first day, Xena was sure to set up a chamber pot. The woman would eat whatever was set next to her, but would sit in a corner, rocking and mumbling the entire time. If the dark woman got too close, the stranger's voice would raise until she was cowering in the corner and screaming her curses and prayers at the top of her lungs.
As time went by, the behaviors changed. The decent food and care began having an affect. The woman filled out some. Her ranting and mumbling faded away. After almost a week, she was merely sitting in her corner, dark eyes lucid as she watched her savior's every move. Xena refused to be silent, thinking that a human voice not raised in condemnation or prayer might be helpful. She spoke of her childhood, of Gabrielle, of all the other gods she knew of. The dark woman dredged up myth and legends from a thousand years to entertain the woman, to get her brain to function again.
In the third week, the warrior began to supplement their food supply with the occasional rabbit or chicken. She left for a few hours every morning to hunt, bringing back fresh meat for their supper. When it was necessary to pilfer from nearby farms, she was sure to leave gold or silver as compensation for the loss. It was during one of these excursions that she surprised her charge.
The weather was good - sunny and crisp - and she was able to pick up a rabbit nearly outside the makeshift doorway to the hovel. Upon returning, she found the woman curiously poking through her gear. Xena stood at the edge of the doorway and watched.
The woman had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Her feet were covered by rabbit skins that the dark woman had fashioned into slippers for her, and she still wore the gown she had been dressed in. She pulled each item out of the pack and studied it before setting it aside. The warrior's eyes sharpened as the Immortal pulled out a spare dagger. Pale blue eyes watched her peruse the blade closely. The woman then tried to awkwardly spin the blade in her palm, but it fell to the ground. With a frown, the brown haired woman picked it up, dusted it off, and set it aside as well.
Eventually, the stranger came across a small mirror wrapped in linen. Xena smiled at the gasp as the woman saw her reflection for the first time in who knew how long. Thin hands played across the face, tugged at the wild unkempt hair in dismay. After long moments of self rediscovery, the woman set the mirror down and reached once more for the comb that had been discarded earlier.
The dark woman stepped away from the door and made some noise. By the time she entered their camp, her charge was back in her corner, watching her with dread. The items from her pack were still scattered nearby as she'd had no time to put them back. Xena smiled faintly at the noticeable absence of the comb.
"Find what you were looking for?" she asked mildly as she stepped over to the fire. With quick, sure movements, she spitted the animal and set it to cooking.
The woman looked everywhere but at her, fidgeting nervously.
Xena chuckled and she stowed her things back into the pack. "I don't mind. Just put stuff away when you're finished." Her task completed, she looked at the woman. "And let me know if you need help with your hair. It'll be quite a job untangling it with that comb."
There was a slight gasp and the woman began rocking back and forth in fear. The warrior sighed and returned to the fire, turning the rabbit.
A month had passed. The women sat quietly by their fire after dinner. Xena was sharpening a dagger she had used that day to skin a small deer. She had lucked out with that one. They had enough meat now to last several days. As was her custom, the warrior's focus was on the weapon, and she had gone silent.
The other Immortal did as she always did, sitting and staring into the flames. Her hair was no longer snarled. She'd spent the better part of a week working on it while Xena was away. Huge clumps had ended up in the firepit, old dead hair as well as what was literally pulled out of her head in the attempt to get through the knots.
The warrior felt brown eyes regard her and she continued her task with a slight smile. "You can ask whatever you want, you know. If I haven't taken your head yet, I probably won't."
"You're name is Xena?" a raspy voice asked.
She spoke! Dark brows shot up in surprise and she stopped the stone on her blade. "Yes. It is." There was a pause and blue eyes studied the other woman intently.. "What's yours?"
"You don't remember me," the woman said cryptically. "But I remember you."
Xena frowned and studied the dark brown eyes across the flames. She put the stone and dagger away, trying to place where she'd met this Immortal before. But nothing came to mind and she shook her head with pursed lips. "No, I don't remember you. Wanna refresh my memory?"
The woman's gaze returned to the flames. "I sinned against God and he punished me." There was a long silence, and then her eyes focused back onto the warrior. "You were my temptation, my fall from grace."
"I've been accused of a lot of things, but that one's a first," Xena responded. "Are you going to tell me your name?"
"Would it really make a difference if I did?" the woman reacted.
The dark woman shrugged and leaned back against the wall she was leaning on. "Well, it might help. If I'm the cause for your fall from grace, I'd like to know when and where. Perhaps an apology is in order."
"No," the woman said so softly that Xena could barely hear. She said in a louder voice, "No, I sinned in my heart long before you became a temptation. There's nothing to apologize for." Brown eyes looked up from the fire. "You should ask God for His forgiveness, however."
"Yeah, well, I'll take that into consideration."
"You don't know who I am, do you? You don't know of what I'm speaking of." A slight look of amazement flickered across the pretty face.
Xena shook her head. "No. I don't. Would you care to enlighten me?"
"My name is Jeanne. I was a bar wench at a tavern." She began to rock softly as her eyes lost focus and she concentrated on her thoughts. "I had impure thoughts of you. I pursued you. And God, in His Almighty wisdom, sent the 'keep to punish me for my harlot ways."
Thinking back over all the many centuries that she'd partaken of a barmaid during her travels, Xena's eyes narrowed and she blew out a snort. "Mind telling me when this was supposed to have happened?"
But, the woman ignored her, preferring to continue weaving her tale. "And then God spoke to me, whispering reminders of my evil ways, telling me it was time to be His prophet, to spread His word." She tilted her head and considered the fire with a puzzled look. "But, the nuns at the abbey couldn't understand. Their minds were too small for His word."
The dark woman wondered how much of this was what Jeanne had picked up before her imprisonment, and how much was acquired later on. Talk of gods, regardless of the faith, always irritated her. Hers, at least, had never done a thing for her. Or anybody else she could find. She shook her head.
Seeing the movement, Jeanne returned to the present. "And did the Dauphin Charles regain his throne with your help?"
A vague remembrance caressed Xena's mind.
"I want to give you something warm to remember on those cold nights when you go off to fight for God and country and the Dauphin Charles."And a barmaid from thirty years past crashed into her memory. The warrior sat suddenly forward and stared at the other Immortal. "Jeanne?"
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