Characters that have appeared on the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess are (c) copyright 1995 by Renaissance Pictures/MCA/Universal/USA Studios. "The Child" (c) copyright 1997 by WordWarior.
This story is a sequel to "Truth or Dare", but you do not have to read that story to understand this one. Written in early 1997, only the events of the first season and part of the second were available to the author. There is some violence, and it is "alt" fiction. At the end of the story is a small dictionary for the fictional language used in "The Child". If you want to contact the author please email email@example.com
"No, no, no! It's hop, slide, turn, swish! Hop, back and step, step, twirl!" said Gabrielle, demonstrating awkwardly. Dancing wasn't one of the bard's strong points.
They were alone on the road, more than a mile from the nearest village. Their voices filled the forest spaces, their steps carefree. Even Xena had felt her vigilance slip over the past couple of days as they took their time traveling the forgotten road. No highwayman or warlord could make a living attacking on a route so little used.
Xena sighed then tried again. "Hop, slide, turn, swish!" she said, doing an exaggerated imitation of Gabrielle. The bard smiled sarcastically in return. "Hop, back and step, step, twirl," finished Xena, twirling gracefully, ending with a flourish.
"Much better! But during the slide, you have to sort of move your hips, like this," said Gabrielle, undulating. "You're supposed to entice your partner. Make me, y'know, want you as a woman."
"Uh huh," said Xena. She slid, moving her hips provocatively. "That's ridiculous. You know, I never have any trouble at all enticing you, Gabrielle. Why in the world would I need this stupid dance?"
"It isn't about hitting the pallet, Xena," Gabrielle said with a shake of her head. "It's about the music and the courtship. It's an expression of love and longing all told in dance!"
Xena slid again, moving her hips seductively. "That, my friend, is all about hitting the pallet and you can't tell me otherwise.
Gabrielle laughed. "Actually, when you do it, it sort of is, isn't it? I don't know why, but it never seemed quite so... provocative... at the festivals in Poteidaia. It just seemed like harmless fun."
"Uh huh," said Xena, practicing her hop, slide, turn and swish. "I think wild animals are more subtle than this."
"You are impossible!" said Gabrielle laughing.
Xena smiled, opened her mouth to speak, then suddenly snapped her head to the side, holding up one hand to forestall any comments from Gabrielle. The warrior listened to the forest, instinctively reaching over her shoulder for her sword. She gestured for Gabrielle to wait, handing her Argo's reins.
Fully focused now, Xena slipped into the forest, her movements lithe and silent. She heard it again. A small screech that didn't match the sound of any animal Xena knew. This was a human sound -- chilling and eerie, but human.
Carefully she moved through the underbrush, passing tall, gnarled trees, gauging the direction of the sound in the long pauses between and adjusting slightly each time it was repeated. Finally, she noticed a break in the forest through the tapestry of branches. She knelt down and parted the leaves on a tall bush to reveal a hidden clearing. She frowned at the sight that met her eyes.
Two decaying bodies lay in the grass, swarms of insects buzzing in clouds above them. Xena could just make out a few of the details. One was a woman with long, pale, blonde hair, matted with blood near the scalp. Her clothing was strange, foreign, like nothing Xena had ever seen. The skirt of her dress was hiked above her waist, dried blood clotted on the inside of her thighs. The other body was male. He had the same peculiar hair and style of clothing as the woman, but his body had been mutilated; chopped apart, the pieces scattered around the clearing.
Xena's eyes grew dark, her nostrils widening, anger tightening the muscles on her face. What monster did this? she wondered. She hadn't heard of any attacks in the area, and knew from experience that this was one of the most peaceful stretches of road in Northern Greece. And although trouble can be found anywhere there are people to cause it, this went beyond the ordinary highwayman or warlord. These innocent-looking travelers had been tortured, raped, and brutally murdered. This was malicious carnage, nothing less.
She was about to turn away when she heard it again: The high-pitched screech. She had forgotten about the sound in the shock of discovery. But now she looked closely at the edges of the clearing until she found the source.
Rocking back and forth, her face raised to the heavens, arms holding her knees tightly, was a small child -- a girl, not much more than three winters old, with unkempt, white-blonde hair and huge, sky-blue eyes. Her mouth was open in a silent scream that intermittently found a voice. As Xena watched, the child began to shake violently then screeched once again.
How long she had been there, Xena didn't know, but the bodies were at least three days dead, probably more. How had the girl survived all this time? wondered the warrior. And how am I going to help her? She's probably lost her mind completely and by now is more animal than human.
Knowing there was nothing else to do, Xena slowly stood, making her presence known. The girl stopped rocking, lowered her head until she could see the intruder, then stared unflinchingly at the warrior.
For long moments, neither of them moved. They simply stared, each caught by the other's eyes. Xena felt trapped by her own stillness, afraid any movement would make the child disappear, as if she had never existed. The warrior knew she had to do something. She had to get through to the one whose gaze held her with such power. For never in her life had Xena seen such tortured eyes.
"It's okay," said Xena in a low, soothing voice. "I'm not going to hurt you. It's okay..." Slowly Xena stepped into the clearing. The stench from the bodies made her flinch as she drew near, yet she never looked at them, maintaining eye contact with the child at all times. The girl continued to stare unblinking at the warrior, a snarl distorting her lips, her eyes almost colorless. It was the face of a three-year-old who had discovered hatred -- adult-sized hatred. Hatred, Xena thought, which was far too big for that tiny body.
When Xena was only a few feet away, the girl screamed once then threw herself into the brush. Xena wanted to pursue her, but stopped herself. Chasing her down would make the child feel threatened. Xena deliberated for a moment, staring at the spot where the girl had vanished, the warrior's eyes squinting thoughtfully. After several moments, she turned away, deciding instead to get Gabrielle. She didn't want her companion to be alone on the road in case the madman who had caused this brutal scene still lurked in the area. Besides, the child would most likely return to her parents' bodies. They were all she knew. And if she didn't come back, Xena could track her.
"By the gods...!" gasped Gabrielle. She turned away from the clearing, dropped what she was carrying and vomited into the bushes. Xena rubbed her back, wishing in some small part of her that she could feel the same horror. Having killed so many, her heart had hardened at the sight of death. Still, she thought, this does feel different. There was something unclean about the scene. It was sordid, messy, and disturbing. Whoever had done this appeared to have found joy in the torturous taking of these lives. And the victims, with their strange clothes and unusual looks, appeared so innocent.
"Give me the spade. We need to bury them," said Xena. Gabrielle gestured behind her and Xena retrieved the small, lightweight shovel. Without glancing at the bodies, she began to dig, her eyes secretly searching the bushes for a glimpse of the child.
There was no sign of her anywhere.
Gabrielle looked at the shallow hole Xena was digging. The bard had tried to help, but every time she had neared the bodies, she had become sick. Finally, Xena had told her to wait at the edge of the clearing, while she continued the gruesome chore alone.
"I feel better now, Xena. Let me finish that up," said Gabrielle.
"It's almost done."
"I want to help."
"All right," said Xena hopping out of the grave. She handed her friend the shovel then moved toward the bodies.
"What are you doing?" asked Gabrielle as Xena crouched next to the woman.
"Looking. Maybe they have something on them that will give us a clue as to who they were. That child has to belong somewhere. Relatives, friends... someone must be missing her." Xena searched the clothing of both corpses, but found no answers to the mystery. "Who are you?" she quietly asked the woman. "Your child... Do you have a sister or a mother who could take care of her? Love her?" She waved away the flies that swarmed above the gaping wounds. "Where did you come from?"
Gabrielle glanced up from her digging. "Xena? How deep are we going to make this?"
Xena looked over at the hole. "That's enough," she said. "Will you be able to help me? Put them to rest?"
The bard swallowed. "Yeah. I'll help," she said.
Gabrielle tied a scarf around her face and stepped out of the grave. She walked over to the man. Xena was gathering his severed arms and legs, throwing them into the pit.
"We'll arrange the body later, once we get all of him in there," the warrior said calmly, seemingly oblivious to the gruesome nature of their task. Gabrielle saw something fleshy in the grass and bent to pick it up. Her face drained of color and she fell back, the nausea returning. She closed her eyes and fought the feeling.
Xena looked at her friend with compassion. No one should have to see things like this, she thought bitterly. Especially Gabrielle. "Gabrielle? Are you--"
"I'm fine. I'm fine," said the bard. She took several deep breaths, opened her eyes and reached toward the thing on the ground. Before she could grab it, Xena's hand was there.
"I understand," said the warrior, tossing the dead man's genitals into the grave. "Tell you what. Let me do this, okay? You go check on Argo."
Gabrielle smiled weakly. This was one time when those words were the sweetest sounds she had ever heard.
When Xena finished arranging the man's corpse in the grave, she went to get the woman. Her body, Xena noticed, was intact. With a grunt, the warrior lifted the carcass, dropped it next to the man, then shook her hands free of a few clinging maggots.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I don't know who you are. I can't mark your grave, or tell your people where to find it. I wish there was something I could do. The most I can promise is that I will keep your child safe. That's what matters now, isn't it? The child. I give you my word no harm will come to her."
Xena reached for the shovel when something caught her eye. Where the woman's body had just been, lay an ornate silver medallion. The warrior picked it up, examining the intricate scrollwork. It appeared to tell a story in detailed, though strange-looking pictures. Xena tried to decipher the tale, but it was no use. Maybe Gabrielle will have better luck, she thought. She turned the token over in her hands and found herself fascinated by the artistry of the piece. It looked quite valuable, and she wondered why the murderer hadn't taken it. Surely he would have searched the bodies. Nothing of the strangers' possessions had remained in the clearing so Xena assumed the assassin had stolen their gear. But he missed this. Or did he leave it behind as a sign? Did it belong to the victims or the killer? Still puzzled, she tucked the amulet into her cleavage.
Suddenly, something slammed into Xena's back. A wild animal was ripping and tearing at her; pulling her hair, raking small nails across her face.
The child had returned.
"Flik tunan! Mekt min mama bjkir!" screamed the child.
Xena protected her face from the flailing hands, then gently pried the girl from her back. The toddler continued to scream strange words, writhing and beating on the warrior with all the strength in her small body.
Xena murmured softly, trying to quiet her rage. "Shhh... I'm not going to hurt you, please, hush, little one," she said. Trying not to be too rough, she trapped the youngster's arms against her small torso and looked into the girl's eyes. The child was hysterical, not breathing, her mouth again open in the silent scream. "It's going to be okay," assured Xena. "Just take a deep breath. Breathe, little one, please," she said, knowing her words were meaningless to the girl. She demonstrated what she wanted, taking deep breaths, nodding her encouragement, and rubbing the child's back with her fingers.
The girl stopped struggling and stared into Xena's eyes without blinking. Xena continued to take deep breaths, her own eyes unwavering, trying to communicate through the intensity of her gaze. At last, the child imitated Xena's breathing, the action calming the girl. Xena allowed one small arm to go free, keeping hold of the other. "Min mama," the child said, pointing to the grave.
"Yes, little one. Your mama. I know."
"Mama erd Papa," she said.
"Mm hm. Your mama and your papa. I'm sorry," said Xena.
"Mama..." the girl whispered, straining to free her other arm, her eyes on the grave.
Xena placed a hand on the side of the child's face, turning her from the sight. "No, don't look. You've seen enough. You don't need to see them in the ground."
The little girl looked again into Xena's eyes, tears spilling onto the child's cheeks. She reached tiny arms around Xena's neck, burying her face in the warrior's chest, sobbing soundlessly.
"Sshhh... there, there," said Xena, holding her awkwardly. After a moment, the warrior relaxed, rocking the girl gently, rubbing her back in soothing circles. Xena glanced around the clearing. "Gabrielle?" she called quietly, not wanting to disturb the child. There was no response. "Gabrielle?" she said again, a little louder. Nothing. "Gabrielle!" she tried a third time, giving her voice more strength.
"Gahb-yell," imitated the child, her tears spent as suddenly as they had begun. Startled, Xena smiled at her. The girl looked at the warrior's face, then reached one small hand up to touch her cheek. Curiously, she traced the scratches her own nails had made, then dropped her eyes. "Yah s¿rten," she whispered.
"It's okay," said Xena, understanding her apology. The warrior placed a finger under the girl's chin and raised her face to hers. "Yah s¿rten," she said, nodding her head toward the grave.
The child nodded sagely. "Min mama erd papa," she said sadly.
Xena found herself awash with emotion. Anger at the person who had caused this child such pain. Remorse that she and Gabrielle hadn't arrived sooner, perhaps in time to save them. Fear at the prospect of taking care of the girl, even for a little while. And worry that the bard had yet to answer her call. "Gabrielle!" she shouted over her shoulder.
"Gahb-yell?" the child asked, poking a finger at Xena's chest.
Xena looked at the girl, surprised. "What's that? You think that's my name? You are a bright one, aren't you?" she said. Where is Gabrielle? she wondered, glancing around quickly. Her eyes were drawn back to the child who was waiting patiently for a response. "Xena," the warrior answered. She pointed to herself and said her name again, slowly. "Xee... nah."
"Seeee-neh," the girl tried.
"Xee-nah," the warrior repeated.
"Pretty close. Good girl," said Xena, nodding.
"Were you calling for-- oh!" said Gabrielle, pushing through the bushes behind the child. "Um... is she...?
The girl spun in Xena's arms, screaming. Gabrielle backed up, surprised. Xena pulled the child's face toward her own but the girl wrenched away, ducking to grab the warrior's thighs in a tight grip. She made herself as small a target as possible, folding herself into Xena's lap.
"Should I leave?" mouthed Gabrielle.
Xena shook her head 'no.' then returned her attention to the child. "Here, you. C'mon, get up. It's only Gabrielle," she said, pulling the small figure up until their eyes could meet. "She's my friend. Understand? My friend. Gabrielle."
"Gahb-yell?" asked the child, looking into Xena's eyes. She was still frightened, but even as the warrior watched, the girl calmed herself, seeming to find something in the woman's gaze that spoke to her without need of language.
Xena smiled, then gave a nod toward the bard. "Yes. Gabrielle."
Cautiously, the child watched as Gabrielle approached.
"Um... hi, little girl. I won't hurt you. Promise," the bard said, smiling tentatively, her generous heart apparent in every nuance.
"Szeeneh, t¿r Gahb-yell?" asked the girl, turning back to the warrior.
"Xena? How did you do that? How does she know our names?"
Xena stroked some stray blonde hairs out of the girl's face, then wiped away the evidence of her tears with her thumbs, smiling as she did so. The child's serious expression didn't change, her eyes still locked on the warrior's. "She's very quick. Smart. Isn't that right, little one?"
Gabrielle watched, chuckling in amazement. "Looks like you're working miracles here. But you called -- did you need me for something, Xena?"
"Szeeneh," said the child.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, realized the picture she and the child made and said sternly, "Yes. Take her off my hands, while I finish burying her folks. And keep her with you. She shouldn't see this."
Gabrielle reached down, but the child grasped Xena's neck in a chokehold, her small arms quivering with strength. Gabrielle shrugged. "I think she'd rather be with you."
Rolling her eyes as if it was torture, Xena sighed. "All right, whatever. I guess you'll have to do the dirty work. I'll take her over by Argo. You know, distract her. Don't start shoveling until we're gone."
"No problem," said Gabrielle, grinning from ear to ear.
"And wipe that silly smile off your face. This wasn't my idea," said Xena with a growl.
"Uh huh," said the bard, her smile increasing. Xena threw a last, withering look her way, then picked up the girl and left the clearing. Gabrielle watched them go. With a shake of her head, she picked up the shovel. "Szeeneh," she said, chuckling.
"K¿rtik!" said the child, pointing at Argo.
"Argo," said Xena. "The 'k¿rtik' is called 'Argo.'"
"Ah-goo," she said. "Ah-goo." She reached out a hand and stroked the mare's mane. Argo snorted and the child's eyes widened. "Ah-goo -- ach-oo!" she said, imitating a sneeze.
Xena laughed. "No, Argo is saying hello. I think she likes you." Xena reached into the saddlebag and withdrew a water skin. She popped the stopper and offered it to the child who grabbed the neck with both hands and drank sloppily, obviously needing it desperately. Xena inwardly chastised herself for not thinking of it earlier. Of course she's thirsty, she thought. What else does she need? Food. I have to get her something to eat. What do little kids eat? She doesn't still need her mother's milk, does she? I hope not.
She set the girl down which immediately caused the child to burst into tears, her arms outstretched. Sighing, Xena picked her up again, which stopped the flood. "Ah-goo!" the child said imperiously, reaching toward the horse. Xena shifted her to the other hip so she could search the saddlebags while the girl petted the mare with clumsy hands.
Rustling through the food pouch, Xena found a wedge of cheese. "Hungry?" she asked, showing the girl the food. Greedy hands grabbed at it, as huge, sky-blue eyes widened appreciatively. "I'll take that as a 'yes'," Xena said, breaking off a bite-sized piece. The child shoved it in her mouth then reached for more. Xena shook her head 'no.' "Chew what you've got first. Don't want you choking."
"Murble!" the child said, her mouth full.
"Yeah, I'll give you murble -- in a bit. First let's get you cleaned up. You're a mess."
The girl's face and hands were filthy with dirt and her parents' dried blood. Xena wet a cloth and scraped away at the crusted residue of the child's days without supervision. The warrior's brows came together in a frown as she thought of what would have happened had she and Gabrielle not arrived when they did. "You're lucky we found you, kid," said Xena. "You couldn't have lasted much longer, I'd imagine."
"Murble?" the girl said, opening her mouth to show she had finished her cheese. Xena broke off another piece and popped it in the child's open mouth.
"There. Murble. Whatever that means. Cheese? Or maybe 'more?' Or maybe 'gimme the food, mean lady?' Wonder what language you're speaking. And lots of words for one so young. Your parents must have been very proud of you, smart stuff."
The child chewed seriously, her eyes never leaving Xena's.
"So what's your name?" asked Xena, realizing that the girl had learned her own, Gabrielle's and even Argo's but they hadn't gotten hers. "That's right, Xena, babble away and expect her to understand." She thought a moment. She pointed to herself, "Xena."
"Szeeneh," said the child, impatiently. "Murble!"
"In a minute. Xena," she said again, pointing to herself. "Argo," she said, pointing to the horse. Then she pointed to the child and raised her brows in a question.
The girl just stared, silently chewing.
Xena tried again. "Xena. Argo." Once more, she pointed at the child and raised her brows. "Name? Have you a name? Xena, Argo, hmm?" she said, her finger on the child's chest.
"Ilsa," the girl said, pointing to herself, then wrapping her fist around Xena's finger.
"Ilsa. Very nice. Okay, Ilsa, that deserves some murble." She handed her another small piece of cheese. "Now we're making progress," she said, with a smile. She held up the cheese and said, "Cheese."
"Cheese," repeated a voice from behind her. "What do I win?" Xena turned to see Gabrielle step back onto the road.
"Gahb-yell," said the child.
"Hiya, little girl," said the bard, smiling.
"Ilsa. Her name is Ilsa," said Xena.
"Ilsa," said the child.
"Ilsa," said Gabrielle.
Xena sighed. If this was going to be the depth of conversation for the next couple of days she was almost going to miss Gabrielle's stories!
"What should we do? Or do you want to keep her?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.
Ilsa was curled up in Xena's lap, quietly asleep. Every time Xena had tried to move her, the child would awake crying until the warrior would reluctantly let her remain.
"Not funny, Gabrielle," said Xena, absently stroking Ilsa's hair.
Gabrielle beamed at the warrior's unconscious affection toward the girl. "You know, she won't even let me touch her. I don't think she dislikes me or anything, she's just decided to attach herself to you."
"Well, that's going to have to change. I can't have a child hanging on me. And our way of life is no good for one so young. We have to find her a home. Fast."
"Maybe my folks would take her in," said Gabrielle, doubtfully. Her parents were pretty set in their ways, and probably wouldn't welcome a strange child to disrupt things.
Xena gave Gabrielle a sarcastic half smile. "Uh huh. I'll bet."
"Well, it was a thought. How about your mother? Would she take her?"
"I don't know. She has her hands full running the tavern." Xena frowned. "We should be able to find a young couple who hasn't been blessed by the goddess."
"I guess you didn't find any clues as to who her people were, huh?" asked Gabrielle.
"I did find this," said Xena, taking the silver token from between her breasts. "Forgot all about it when the kid showed up. Here." She handed it to Gabrielle.
The bard examined the face, turned it over and stared at the other side. "Huh. Pictographs. Unusual though. I don't recognize any of these characters and the style of drawing is really different."
"Yeah. So what do you think it means?"
"I don't know. Beautiful though, isn't it? Someone sure took a lot of care making this." Gabrielle eased closer to the fire to get a better look, then shook her head. "I have no idea what it's saying. I'll bet this big guy is a god, though," she said pointing to one figure. "But not like any of the gods we know. Look, he's holding something in his hand... maybe a weapon or a tool... hmmmm..." Gabrielle continued to stare at the medallion, then turned to Xena, surprise on her face. "Do you think there are others? You know, gods besides our own?"
Xena frowned. "Hope not. Last thing we need are more gods."
"No, really, Xena, think about it. What if there are more gods than just ours? Imagine that, huh? And I don't mean that 'one god' we've heard about -- I mean real gods; gods you can see and talk to. We should show this to a priest or an oracle or something. It could be really significant!"
"I have enough trouble dealing with the gods we know. I don't want any others noticing us."
"Yeah, well, it was just a thought." Gabrielle handed the token back to Xena who replaced it in her cleavage. The bard's eyes danced. "Got any other surprises in there?" she asked wickedly.
"Just a dagger, a toothpick, several dinars and an open invitation for you to come explore," said Xena, smiling. Gabrielle returned her smile and for a moment, the present faded away for both women. Xena looked into Gabrielle's sparkling green eyes and was reminded again of the events in the not too distant past.
A few months ago, the two of them had been trapped in a cave-in. Xena had received a head injury which surely would have killed her had it not been for the strength and determination of her friend. But more than that, it had been Gabrielle's love for the warrior that had rescued them both.
Xena's eyes continued to hold Gabrielle's gaze. Silently, they shared anew the wonder of having discovered this love in each other. Nothing had been the same since. "C'mere, you," Xena said softly, wanting to be close.
Gabrielle scooted next to the warrior and leaned against her, wrapping her arms around Xena's bicep. She stared at the sleeping child, frowning. "What are we going to do with her?"
Xena was lost in thought. Something about the memory of the cave-in and its aftermath was tweaking her mind. Gabrielle's earlier words had started her on this path. What had she said? Xena mentally reviewed their conversation. "You mentioned going to an oracle..."
"Because of the token. Right. But that won't help--"
"No," said Xena. "Not to look for other gods. We need an oracle who can tell us about the child. Where she comes from."
Gabrielle sat up straight, recognizing the speculative look in her friend's eyes. "Who do you have in mind?"
"There's only one person I know who might be able to help us." Xena ran her thumb along Ilsa's cheek then looked at Gabrielle. "Widgie. We'll take her to Widgie."
Widgie was the healer who had led Xena through the dark results of the head injury and temporary blindness into health and Gabrielle's arms. A talented mountain of a woman, Widgie was a gifted healer, a master cook, and an accomplished oracle.
Gabrielle grinned. "Why didn't I think of that? Of course! Widgie will help us. She'll know where to take her. That's perfect!"
Xena looked at Ilsa then back at Gabrielle. "Don't get your hopes up. She might be able to give us a starting point, but I doubt she'll know much more than that."
"Oh, I understand. Still, it'll be nice to see her again, don't you think?"
Xena twisted a bit, trying not to disturb the child. She reached out a hand to caress her friend's face, smiling at Gabrielle's shining expression, then gave her a tender kiss.
Gabrielle looked at Xena thoughtfully. "You are in a sentimental mood tonight," the bard said. "That kid is getting to you, Warrior Princess."
Xena attempted a frown but it never reached her eyes. She gave up trying and chucked the bard on the nose. "You're pushing it."
Gabrielle smiled and nestled her arms around Xena's waist, as the warrior encircled hers. Both women stared down at the sleeping child, their thoughts unshared, but each comforted by the other's presence.
"Time to get some sleep," said Xena softly.
"Yeah. I guess so," said Gabrielle.
"For her protection, we should sleep separately tonight. Put your blankets on one side of her, I'll be on the other. No one should be able to get past us that way."
"That makes the most sense," said Gabrielle, hiding her disappointment that she wouldn't have Xena's warmth to snuggle against in the night.
Xena gave her a squeeze and leaned her cheek against Gabrielle's soft hair. "It'll just be until we find her a home."
Pausing a moment, Xena mumbled, "How do parents deal with having kids around all the time? And when do they ever get a chance to make more?"
Xena lay in her bedroll, staring at the stars. She glanced over to make sure the child was still asleep. Secure that she was, Xena relaxed, trying to puzzle out the events of the day.
Unbidden, her mind went immediately to Solon, her son. She had given him up as a baby to avoid placing him in danger -- and more importantly, to make sure he never grew up to be like her. It had torn her apart to see him again earlier that year, after almost a decade without him. But she'd had the strength to say good-bye, to leave him with his adopted centaur family.
And now this. A girl who should have no claim on her heart. Just a child, she thought dismissively. Nothing to me. I'm going to find her a home and be well rid of her. Gabrielle is all the family I need. All I'll ever need.
Xena closed her eyes, hoping her dreams were kind tonight. She was exhausted and wanted only to sleep. Her thoughts began to drift and she could feel her body relax, her mind slowly fading into oblivion when suddenly, something touched her blankets. She instinctively twisted to face the danger.
Large blue eyes stared at her under tangled blonde hair. "Szeeneh?" the girl asked tentatively, pulling on the warrior's blankets.
"Go back to bed," Xena whispered, her voice stern.
A tiny hand touched Xena's face. "Pleten, Szeeneh? Yah b¿rmik."
Xena groaned, closing her eyes momentarily. With a sigh, she nodded to the girl. "All right. Just this once. Can't have you b¿rmik, can we?" Xena lifted her blankets and the child crawled in beside her, wrapping small arms around her waist, resting a sleepy head on her breast. "What am I going to do with you?" whispered Xena.
Ilsa raised her head to look at the warrior, her expression, serious and almost wise. For long moments they stared into each other's eyes, each taking the measure of the other. Then Ilsa lowered her head, closed her eyes and fell asleep in Xena's arms. Within minutes, Xena was asleep as well.
Gabrielle peered out of sleep-filled eyes. It was much earlier than she usually awoke. She took a deep breath, stretching her tired muscles. She could feel the small effects of the shoveling from yesterday. A hawk cried overhead and the bard watched as it swooped after a sparrow, narrowly missing it. She smiled, pleased that the sparrow was clever enough to escape.
Though the morning was still chilled, it was already warming. It had been an unusually tepid winter, and Gabrielle was grateful that even this far north, the weather was holding.
Lazily, Gabrielle sat up and battled the cobwebs in her brain. Glancing to her left, she felt a quiver of panic deep inside. The child's blankets were empty. Her lethargy forgotten, Gabrielle bolted to her feet. She looked over at Xena, still deep in slumber. A tiny blonde head nestled against the warrior.
"Oh, this is just too cute," the bard murmured, relaxing. She padded quietly over to the pair.
"Don't say another word, Gabrielle," said Xena, clearly but quietly. It was her most threatening voice, yet it only made the bard's grin grow larger. Xena opened her eyes and frowned at her friend's expression.
"Thought you were still asleep," Gabrielle whispered, then added with concern, "How's our new friend? Did she sleep through the night?"
"No. We battled several nightmares. I hope that doesn't keep up. She needs to sleep. She's a kid. They need lots of rest, don't they?" She paused. "You know anything about kids?"
Gabrielle shook her head 'no.'
"Great," said Xena, trying not to wake the child as she eased the chinks in her neck. "Help me untangle myself from this brat, okay? I want us to get an early start."
Gabrielle had never heard the word 'brat' used with such affection before. She shook her head, knowingly. "Just keep trying to convince yourself that you don't feel anything, Xena. Maybe even you'll believe it one day."
"This has nothing to do with 'feelings,'" said the warrior, slowly extricating herself from the girl. She scowled at Gabrielle.
"Oh?" said the bard, fighting her smile into a neutral expression.
"This isn't a joke, Gabrielle. Somehow, you are going to have to 'make nice' with her and get her to leave me alone," said Xena. "These woods could be hiding a madman, and I won't be much use fighting him if I have that," she said with a curt gesture toward Ilsa, "clinging to me at a critical moment."
"I hadn't really thought about that. I'll try to get Ilsa to change her loyalties," said Gabrielle, her humor gone.
"Thank you. Now I'm going to try to find some breakfast. We'll need a good meal to get us started. Widgie is a long way off and the sooner we get a handle on this, the better."
Efficiently, Xena slipped into her armour, grabbed her sword and chakram and disappeared into the woods. Gabrielle watched her leave, then threw some sticks onto the embers. She glanced at Ilsa, frowned, then leaned over to grab her staff. Just in case, she thought...
"Mama!" called Ilsa as she wrestled frantically out of the blankets.
"Ilsa, calm down, it's okay," said Gabrielle, turning from the fire. She sat next to the child and reached for her.
Ilsa scrambled away, her eyes huge, quickly filling with tears. "D¿vek Mama erd Papa?" she said, looking around the camp. Then her face registered the memory of the days just passed.
"Yah s¿rten, Ilsa," whispered Gabrielle, remembering the phrase Xena had taught her earlier that probably meant 'I'm sorry.'
Ilsa looked at the bard with suspicion. Cautiously, the child approached Xena's blankets, peered under them and frowned. Her frightened eyes swept the campsite then looked again at Gabrielle. The child's face drained of color. "D¿vek Szeeneh?" she whispered.
"Xena had to go--"
"Szeeneh!" Ilsa screamed. "Szeeneh! Szeeneh! Szeeneh!" Her entire body trembled with emotion, her fear an almost palpable thing. "Szeeeeeee-neh!" she screeched and once more her voice went silent, though the scream was held on her face.
Gabrielle was at a loss. She couldn't approach her without upsetting her, but she had to calm the child somehow. Wearing as warm an expression as possible, Gabrielle inched toward her, murmuring soothing sounds as she did. Ilsa skittered back, the blue of her eyes almost disappearing into her upper lids. The bard wondered if the child could actually be in danger of having a seizure.
"Szeeeeee-neh!" Ilsa screeched again.
"What the--" said Xena, crashing through the underbrush. Ilsa stopped screaming and ran to the warrior, grabbing her leg and holding on so tightly it threatened to cut off the circulation. "What happened here?" Xena asked Gabrielle.
"She woke up and noticed you were gone," Gabrielle said, her heart still not beating a normal rhythm.
"That's it?" grumbled Xena, reaching down and prying the child off her leg. "C'mere, kid," she said, lifting Ilsa into her arms. The girl threw her arms around Xena's neck and continued to sob, babbling in her incoherent language. The name 'Szeeneh' was peppered throughout in plaintive wails.
"I'm sorry, Xena," said Gabrielle, helplessly. "Gods, that was frightening. I tried to make friends with her, you see, but she was so scared when she realized you were gone--"
"It's okay, Gabrielle. I understand." Xena thought for a moment. "Look, we still have to get her used to being around someone other than me. But we should do it together. It was a mistake to leave you two alone. I should have known she would react this way. After all, everyone she's ever loved has left her. My disappearing on her first morning just fed those fears. Stupid of me."
Gabrielle shook her head sadly. Ilsa was still clinging to Xena's neck, her sniffles audible. The bard watched as her friend held the child gently, the warrior's expression thoughtful. Gabrielle smiled ruefully. "You know, Xena, I'm not used to being this unpopular. Kids usually love me."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, seeing her insecurity. "It's not you," she said sympathetically.
"I know..." said Gabrielle, only half convinced.
"She'll come around. No one can resist you for long. Aren't I proof of that?"
Gabrielle smiled, then grew pensive. "Will she always be so... damaged?"
Xena sighed, stroking the child's hair. The girl's sniffles had disappeared and she clung comfortably to Xena. Her small arms held onto the warrior's neck, her head buried happily in her chest. Every few seconds she'd look up and stare at Xena's face, as if to reassure herself that the woman still existed. "I don't know. Could be. For all I know, I'm holding another Callisto in the making."
Gabrielle shuddered. "By the gods..." she whispered.
"That's why it's so important that we find her the right family. I won't let that happen again. This time, I have the opportunity to change it. This time, I can make a difference on the side of good, not evil. I will not fail this child. Ilsa is not Callisto. She can't be. I won't let her be."
"Szeeneh?" said Ilsa, staring once again at Xena's face.
"What, Ilsa?" she said, glancing down at the child in her arms.
"Dah kar min mama," the girl said, then kissed Xena on the cheek. "Min Szeeneh-Mama."
Xena looked down into trusting blue eyes. Tearing her attention away, she stared plaintively at Gabrielle -- worry, fear and wonder all vying for control of the warrior's expression.
"Uh oh," said the bard quietly. "I'm thinking that's trouble, right?"
Xena's face hardened. "We've got to get to Widgie and fast. I can't be the one to hurt her again. Please, don't let me hurt her..." she added softly, almost as if in prayer.
Xena rode stiffly on Argo, her eyes constantly in motion, sweeping the once peaceful forest with the knowledge that it could be hiding a particularly dangerous enemy. Ilsa sat in front of her, one small fist gripping a finger of the hand that held her, the other on her left thigh, in imitation of the warrior. Gabrielle walked alongside.
"I think I should try to touch her now," said the bard. "She's kind of a captive up there. It seems like a good time."
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle. She could see that the child's avoidance was causing the bard distress. "Yes, let's try that." Leaning toward the girl, she said, "Ilsa?"
"Gabrielle would like to touch you." Xena held out her own free hand and touched Ilsa's knee, saying at the same time, "Gabrielle. Understand?" She pointed to the bard, then touched the child again. "Gabrielle."
Ilsa looked up at her confused. "Nahk. Ilsa."
"Okay, that's not working. Gabrielle, hold out your hand."
The bard complied. "I won't hurt you, Ilsa," she said as unthreateningly as possible.
Xena reached out and touched Gabrielle's hand briefly. "See? Nice lady. Nice Gabrielle. Gods, I feel like an idiot."
"C'mon, Xena, don't give up. I think it's working!"
Ilsa was staring at the proffered hand. She looked up at Xena, who nodded, smiling, then looked back at Gabrielle. Slowly, she reached toward the bard, her small features puckered in a worried frown.
"Good girl, Ilsa. Just touch her. She won't hurt you."
Ilsa touched Gabrielle's finger then quickly withdrew.
The bard beamed. "Thank you, Ilsa!" she said.
Xena rubbed the child's belly and whispered, "Atta girl, Ilsa. See? Didn't hurt at all, did it?"
"Szeeneh erd Gahb-yell," said Ilsa. "Dah kar min mama," she said, patting Xena's hand, "erd... min papa?" she asked pointing to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle tried to stifle her laughter at having been dubbed the child's father.
"Nice going, Pops," said Xena wryly. "I think we just made some real progress."
They traveled south without incident, leaving the forest and its dangers behind. They avoided the populated areas, knowing how skittish Ilsa was around strangers, and made their way toward the small village where Widgie and Jorgos lived.
A few miles from Widgie's, they noticed the extent of the damage done by the forest fire they had survived when trapped in the cave. Acre upon acre had been burned and they hurried to get through it, the eerie quiet of a dead landscape bothering both women.
"Look, Xena, the trees are trying to come back," said Gabrielle pointing to several green shoots pushing their way through the charred ruins of the once great forest.
"Yeah, by spring there'll be all sorts of growth here."
When they arrived at the mouth of the cavern, Gabrielle stopped and stared. "They've cleared so much..." she whispered, noting that many of the boulders which had blocked them in were now placed in neat piles away from the cavern. The villagers had done a lot of work in the intervening months. "I want to go in."
"Why?" asked Xena, startled.
"I just do. I want to see it. Without the fear. I want to see the place where I kissed you for the first time."
Xena smiled. "All right." She brought Argo to a halt. The horse looked at the cave and backed up nervously. "Whoa, girl," said Xena, settling the mare. "You can stay here, Argo." She patted the horse's neck. Ilsa leaned forward and did the same. With Argo stilled, Xena set Ilsa on the ground then jumped off behind her. The child held up her arms but Xena took her hand instead. "I can't carry you all the time, kid. C'mon."
The three of them walked toward the entrance of the cave. Light streamed in and illuminated the cavern. Almost all the rocks that had tumbled inside had been cleared.
"It seems so harmless, doesn't it?" said Gabrielle, her voice echoing eerily.
"Look, you can see where we had the fire pit," said Xena crouching by a darkened circle. She picked up a few bits of charcoal, running them between her fingers. Solemnly, Ilsa mimicked her action.
Gabrielle walked toward the far wall. "Here's where you were injured. There's still some..." She didn't finish her sentence. Instead, she turned from the sight of the dried blood and looked at Xena, healthy and whole, busily cleaning the charcoal off the girl's hands.
"This place is kinda spooky," mumbled Gabrielle. "You came so close to dying here..."
"Let's go," said Xena.
They left the cavern and returned to the bright sunlight, both breathing deeply. "Not the most romantic of beginnings," said Xena, dryly.
"Oh, I don't know. It was to me. In a way. I mean, you really needed me. I had a chance to know what it's like to protect you and care for you. And we both finally got out in the open what had been building for an awfully long time. That we loved each other. Really loved each other, as women. Strange, though. That we got to that point by playing a silly kid's game."
"Truth or dare, I remember," said Xena, smiling. "Okay, my sentimental friend, off we go. Widgie is probably wondering what's keeping us."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yeah, most likely she's already predicted our arrival."
"I imagine so," said Xena. "C'mon you!" Xena hoisted Ilsa onto the saddle then hopped up behind her. "Wonder what the kid thought of this little detour."
"I don't know. I do know that if she wasn't with us, I might have been tempted to relive some old times in that cavern," said Gabrielle suggestively.
"Hmmm. Yet another reason to ditch the brat," said Xena, but even as she said it, she tickled Ilsa under the chin, causing the child to squirm for a moment, then once again gaze adoringly in her hero's eyes.
Good thing we're not playing truth or dare now, Xena, or you'd have to face some things you're trying awfully hard to avoid, thought Gabrielle.
"This be her then, aye?" said Widgie, waddling out of the inn to look at the travel-stained visitors. "The child what I sees in t'vision?"
"Hello to you, too, Widgie," said Xena dryly.
"Whoosh. 'Tis niceties y'be wantin' then, aye? Th'day's best t'you both, then. How be you?" asked Widgie with a jiggle and a shake. Standing over four inches taller than Xena and outweighing the warrior by hundreds of pounds, the oracle/healer smiled broadly at her guests. She still wore chains and strings of clinking, clanking jewelry, nestled among which was the virilis token Xena had given her on their last meeting.
"We're doing great," answered Gabrielle, smiling broadly. "How about you, Widgie? Are you and Jorgos well?"
"Aye, that we be, bard. Jorgos!" she shouted.
A tall, thin man ambled out of the inn. "Aye, wife?"
"Take th'horse so's I can feed these'un."
"Aye." Jorgos winked at Gabrielle, nodded to Xena and grabbed Argo's reins as the warrior and child dismounted.
"You'm be wantin' food, t'ain't so?" asked Widgie. "T'so," she answered herself.
"Yeah. And then we have to talk," said Xena her hand on Ilsa's head.
"Aye, there be plenty of time for talk, bold one." Widgie looked at the child, who stared back at her from behind the protection of Xena's muscled thigh. "The wee one. She be th'one I saw then. No mistakin' them eyes and that 'ere hair, t'ain't so? Where'd y'find her then?"
"Her parents were murdered," said Xena, extricating her leg from Ilsa's grip so they could follow Widgie into the inn. "They were about three days dead when we came along. The girl was uninjured but..."
"Oh no," piped in Gabrielle. "She seems to be handling it pretty well, actually. I mean, she doesn't sleep well, lots of nightmares, and she never smiles, but she's very sweet and really smart."
"Another sharpie then. Like her warrior?"
Xena bent down and picked up the child, who had been dragging her feet. "She's just afraid. Who can blame her?"
"T'isn't blame I'm speaking, bold one."
"Yah hilket Ahgoo. Ahgoo. Pleten?" said Ilsa in a small voice.
"Sorry, kid. Got some business to talk with Widgie first. We'll go see Argo later."
Widgie turned and stared at Xena and the child speculatively. "Gone that far, aye? Yer in deep, warrior."
"We have to find her people. Give her back," said Xena with steel in her voice. "That's why we need you. To find out where she comes from."
"Aye, 'tis th'question, t'ain't so?"
"Can you answer it? Do you know?" asked Gabrielle.
"Food first, bard. Fill up on stew and nutbread, aye?"
"Oh, aye!" said Gabrielle, enthusiastically.
The scent of the noon meal wafted through the halls of the Inn and both women found themselves anticipating the feast. Widgie was, without a doubt, the best cook either of them had ever met.
Xena took the plate of stew from Widgie and cut the chunks of potato, chicken, and vegetables into tiny, child-sized pieces. Ilsa watched her hungrily. She reached out a hand to grab a morsel and Xena gently knocked it away. "Not yet, kid. Just hold on."
The child didn't seem to mind the rebuke. Instead she gestured toward the bread. "Brder!" she said eagerly then turned to Xena, and self-consciously added, "Pleten?"
One corner of Xena's mouth curled in a smile. She reached out a hand, stroked the girl's hair once and winked. "Okay. Because you asked nice." Tearing off a bite-sized piece, she popped it in the girl's open mouth.
Widgie watched the scene with knowing eyes. "You be changed, warrior," she said.
Xena bristled. "What? Just because I'm not letting the kid starve? Sentimental hogwash. My only interest is giving her back to--"
"Aye, ye've mentioned that. More'n once. I've ears, t'ain't so?"
"Psst... Widgie," whispered Gabrielle. "Xena's a little touchy about Ilsa. You know, that she might actually feel something for the child." It was said just loud enough for Xena to hear.
"Gabrielle..." the warrior said dangerously.
"Just an observation, Xena. Go on, finish what you were doing," said the bard with false innocence, watching her companion prepare the child's meal.
Xena shoved the plate of stew in front of Ilsa, slapped a spoon in her small hand and turned away, angrily.
Ilsa looked at the plate, then at Xena. Her eyes filled with tears. "Szeeneh-Mama? Kar dah raekje t'nig?"
"Huh?" asked Xena quizzically, turning back. She immediately noticed the girl's brimming eyes. "What are you upset about now?" Ilsa's tears spilled onto her cheeks. Xena buried her head in her hands. "Gods, I wish she'd stop babbling in that language of hers. Can't understand a thing."
"Szeeneh-Mama... Yah s¿rten. Yah s¿rten..." said Ilsa in a tiny voice, reaching out to touch the warrior's arm.
"Oh for the love of...!" said Xena, looking over at the child. Her expression softened immediately at the girl's abject sorrow. "Why are you 's¿rten?' Huh? You didn't do anything. What's the matter?" Xena raised the girl's face with a finger trying to see the answers in her eyes.
Ilsa blinked away her tears then reached out her arms. Xena pulled her into her lap and settled the child comfortably against her. "Well if this isn't -- Widgie you have to help us. She's so dependent on me! I can't have this. I simply cannot have this!"
"Calm yerself, warrior. Ye've just settled th'sprite. Won't do t'upset her again. She's not knowing yer words, so she's reading yer body, yer eyes, yer moods. She's reading yer turmoil, bold one."
Xena dropped her chin on Ilsa's head, her arms holding the child protectively. "Yah s¿rten, Ilsa. Xena s¿rten, not you, sweetie. Not Ilsa. Me, Xena."
Ilsa twisted to see her face then said, "Murble brder?"
"Ah ha! Betcha 'murble' does mean 'more', and not cheese. Yeah, have all the brder you want." Xena grabbed the child's stew plate and some bread and began to feed her.
Xena was sitting beneath a large oak, tossing acorns to Ilsa who, though she tried very hard, wasn't able to catch them. It didn't seem to bother the child, though, as she scrambled to pick them up then flung them awkwardly back at the warrior. Gabrielle sat on the porch with Widgie, watching the two play their game.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Gabrielle said with wonder. "She's trying so hard to pretend she doesn't care, but that kid has got a foothold on Xena's heart like nothing I've ever seen."
"Aye. 'Tis obvious to all but the bold one. And how're you holding up? Be yer green eyes seein' a wedge atwixt you and yer warrior?"
"Huh? Oh no, not at all," said Gabrielle. She thought for a moment. "Funny, isn't it? I'm not. Really. I mean, I suppose if someone had told me this would happen I might've felt a little... you know... threatened. We've been so happy since we left here. We were all we needed. Off adventuring. Loving. Just being together."
"Aye. Yet you say th'sprite ha'not interfered?"
"Oh, she's... We're very aware she's there. We can't... do, um, certain things that we used to. You know, when there was just the two of us."
"T'so? And why not? Th'wee one ne'er sleeps?"
"Well, not much. She has these awful dreams. And she panics if Xena's not right there with her when she wakes up. At first it was just for one night. But because of the nightmares, well, it's just easier to let Ilsa sleep with Xena..."
"Leaves you in t'cold, t'ain't so?"
"It's okay. It's only until we find her a home."
"Aye. So 'tis no bother to you, then."
"No. No bother," said Gabrielle wistfully, watching as Xena laughed at the child's frantic attempt to catch an acorn.
"Hey! You caught it! Good one, kid!" wafted Xena's voice as she clapped for the child.
"So then, ye'd have no interest a'tall if'n th'sprite were to get a deep afternoon's nap in a nice wee bed," said Widgie slyly.
"Oh no, I'd--" Gabrielle whipped her head around to look at Widgie's sparkling eyes. "What are you saying?"
"Ye've mentioned th'dreams of her'n afore, t'ain't so? And wee ones, they needs t'sleep, aye? T'ain't healthy fer th'sprite t'go 'thout no sleep."
"How would you... I mean, it wouldn't harm her, right? Whatever you're thinking of doing? We wouldn't want to take any chances or anything."
"There's no harm in a healing sleep, aye? I've treated many a wee one in my time, t'ain't so? T'so."
"I'll have to discuss it with Xena, of course."
"Maybe now is a good time," said Gabrielle beginning to rise, but Widgie held her back.
"Let'er be a bit, bard. There'll be time enough, aye? I've to discuss things w'the both of you. I needs Xena's mind fer that, and she be too distracted when th'sprite is about, t'ain't so?"
"You planned this all along, didn't you?" observed Gabrielle with a rueful smile.
"T'so. Th'wee one's stew were made w'restful herbs. Sprite needs t'start healing."
"Huh. You're very sneaky, Widgie."
Widgie jingled and jangled and clanked with silent chuckles. "Aye, I be that, t'ain't so? T'so!"
"She went out like a candle," said Xena. "Strange, huh? She usually needs me to hold her for a long time before she finally lets herself go." Ilsa had become groggy so the warrior had put her to bed at Widgie's suggestion, then joined the other two women on the porch.
"'Tis odd indeed, aye bard?" said Widgie with no hint of guile or humor.
"Yeah," said Gabrielle. "C'mon, Xena, sit here next to me. Plenty of room."
Xena settled herself on the padded bench where Gabrielle was lounging. She crossed her long legs and put an arm around the bard's shoulders, drawing her near. "Now, Widgie, before the kid wakes up. Let's talk," said the warrior.
"Aye. 'Tis th'time for't, whilst th'sprite sleeps.
"I suppose we should discuss this whole thing first," said Gabrielle, leaning her head against Xena's leather-clad breast.
Puzzled, the warrior glanced down at her, then a slow smile lifted one side of her mouth. "Think she'll sleep long enough, Gabrielle?"
"Count on it. Now c'mon, Widgie, hurry up and tell us what you know."
"I'll do so. But try t'keep yer mind w'me fer a moment or two, bard, aye?" Widgie said with a jiggle and a shake.
"Speaking of where my mind is, have you shown her the medallion, Xena?" said Gabrielle, then added slyly, "I'd be happy to get it for her..." She playfully snaked a hand toward Xena's cleavage.
Xena shook her head with a smile and removed the token from between her breasts. "You can put it away later." She handed the amulet to Widgie. "Found it under the mother's body. The killer either missed it, or lost it. I don't know which."
"Ha'ya not shown it t'th'sprite, then? If'n she knowed't, I'd say 'twas the mother's, aye? If'n not, then th'beast's."
"I was afraid it would set her off again. Either way. But I suppose I should've taken the chance."
"'Tis no real mistake then, warrior, t'ain't so? Gi'me a whisper o'time here, whilst I concentrate," said Widgie, holding the token and closing her eyes. For a while, all three women were still. Xena and Gabrielle watched as Widgie sat silently, holding the mysterious medallion. When nothing had happened after several minutes, they glanced at each other and shrugged their shoulders. The bard snuggled just a bit closer to the warrior.
Suddenly, Widgie began to shake. Tiny trembles flickered across her, setting her jewelry into a cacophony of tinkling music. Xena and Gabrielle both leaned forward, their attention now focused on the oracle. After several minutes, Widgie opened her eyes.
"Aye, 'tis as I thought. She be from th'north."
"The north? We just came from there," said Xena. "There are no people like her in those parts."
"Not th'north you know, warrior. Th'far north. Land of ice. There be tribes of people there what lives'n darkness half th'long year. And 'tis said th'sun ne'er sets'n th'greening months."
"Um... just how far north is this place?" asked Gabrielle with trepidation.
"Several moons away."
The two women on the bench glanced at each other in surprise. "We can't do that," said Xena. "We can't just head north for moons and hope we run across her people. We can't. I won't have that child hanging on me for moons of hard travel." Softly, she added, "I won't put her through that."
"Xena's right. If we did that... well, who knows if Ilsa could even survive such a journey? And I've heard tell of mountains so tall they're forever in snow and living above the clouds. How are we supposed to cross those?"
"It's impossible," said Xena. "We'll have to find her a nice local family that might want to take her in. Are there any here in the village that you know of?"
Widgie had remained silent through their discussion but now spoke in a strong, clear voice. "And did I say t'take th'sprite there, then? I just says where she be from, t'ain't so?"
"Oh. So what good does that do us?" asked Gabrielle.
"She be o'th'Scandia. Some calls'em th'Ice People. They'm a blonde and beautiful folk, though they's differnt'n us'n in ther ways. Yer sprite come down from th'north w'her tribe. Explorers they be. Th'wee one be borned on th'road three winters back, near th'start of ther journey. They'm been wandering long. Stopping in t'villages and learnin' other peoples. But they be tired o'th'south. They's had many troubles hereabouts and they misses ther cold home. So'm, they be going back."
"What are you saying?" asked Xena. "That they're still nearby? These Scandia? Her whole tribe is within reach?"
"Aye, t'so. They'm left Greece, but be not far north as yet. They've not reached th'snow mountains. I seen'em in t'vision. I seen'em grieve f'th'lost lambs what got separated and never found. Th'sprite and her kinfolk. They be her people, warrior. Have y'the stomach to give'er back?"
Xena's expression hardened. "Of course I have. It's all I've wanted. To return her to her own folks. She has nothing to do with me, Oracle. Nothing."
"Aye..." whispered Widgie, her small eyes sad. "She's no claim on ya."
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "We'll start at once. Get Argo and--"
"No," said the bard, strongly. "We're not leaving yet. We need some time together, Xena. Just us. With Ilsa asleep, this is the perfect opportunity."
"What are you talking about? We're not going to hang around here while her people are on the move. Now you saddle Argo and I'll get--"
"Warrior -- listen t'th'bard. Ye've lost no time here. They'm be resting at festival, ye'll not miss'em fer want of an hour or two w'yer lady, aye? 'Sides. Th'sprite be sleeping sound. She be needing that more'n a horse ride, t'ain't so?"
Xena glared at Widgie then fought back her frustration. "Yes. She does." For a moment, they locked eyes. Then the fight left Xena in a breath. She turned to Gabrielle, her eyes filling with tenderness. "Gabrielle. You've been very patient about all this. You're right. We don't need to leave right away. An hour or two alone would be... well, yes, we could both use some time together."
"Thank you, Xena. I just need to be with you, y'know? Just us. I need you to look at me like you used to. With importance."
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her close. She closed her eyes, resting her chin on the bard's head. "I hadn't realized I'd stopped. Nothing's changed, Gabrielle. Nothing. You're always important to me. The most important thing in the world."
"I know. And it isn't that I don't love little Ilsa, too -- I do! And watching you with her, well, it fills my heart. But sometimes -- and this is so selfish -- sometimes, I want you to myself. I wish we could have both..."
"We can. I promise you, we can. Until she's back with her kin, I'll do whatever it takes to give us time for each other even with her there."
Gabrielle untangled herself from Xena's hold, stood and held out her hand, wordlessly. The warrior took it and the two women walked into the inn.
"Jorgos!" Widgie bellowed. "Give'em a room! Now!"
Xena rolled off Gabrielle's nude body and lay gasping, sweat glistening on flesh tattooed by bars of sunlight peeking through the slats in the shutters.
"Gods, I needed that," said Gabrielle with a satisfied smile. Lazily, she turned to Xena and nestled into her arms. "How did we survive so long without it?"
Xena chuckled. She stroked the bard's hair with sluggish fingers and kissed her on the forehead. "It hasn't been that long."
"No, I meant before the first time." Gabrielle looked around. "Huh. I hadn't even noticed before -- I was a little... preoccupied -- but this is the same room where we..."
"Yeah. I suspect Jorgos is a romantic."
Gabrielle ran her fingers across one of Xena's sculpted cheeks. "You're so beautiful. I wish I could have your child."
"That would be quite a trick," said Xena sarcastically.
Gabrielle giggled. "I guess Ilsa has me thinking about things like having kids, raising a family..."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment. "Do you have any regrets? You've probably always wanted children..."
"Regrets? When I'm in your arms? An impossibility," she said, nuzzling Xena's breast.
"Sometimes you steal my breath," Xena said, her voice low.
Gabrielle smiled. "Truth is, I've never really thought too much about having children. I like them. But I'm really happy right now. I love going on adventures, helping people, telling stories, and mostly, just being with you, Xena. You're what's important in my life."
The warrior raised herself on one elbow, held Gabrielle's eyes with her own then leaned down to capture the bard's lips. She had no words to express what she felt and hoped that her kiss would speak for her.
Gabrielle melted into Xena's strong arms, a willing prisoner of desire. And as passion flamed they joined again in long, lingering caresses and breathless, mindless peaks.
The afternoon sun had changed the patterns of light from the shutters when both women felt their heartbeats finally slow. They were silent for long minutes, content to be close and wordless. Then Gabrielle said in a small voice, "What if we don't find them?"
"The Ice People. The Scandia. What if we travel all that way, into the north and they're not anywhere we look? Maybe they're farther away than Widgie realizes. Or what if they decide to leave the festival early and we miss them entirely?"
"Don't worry, we'll find them. We have to. I'm not going to fail the kid."
"But just pretend for a minute. Pretend we can't find them. Then what?"
Xena turned her head away, and looked out the narrow slats of the shutter. "Then we'll figure something out. We'll find her a home. Somewhere."
"Maybe we should keep her..." said Gabrielle.
"What?" asked Xena, snapping her head back to stare at the bard. "What are you talking about? We can't keep her!"
"She's just a kid! She should have a family. Live in a house. Have brothers and sisters. Be normal. What could we offer her?"
"Fat lot of good love'll do if a warlord grabs her. It's out of the question. The last thing I want is some kid growing up around..." Xena stopped speaking.
"Yes? Around...?" the bard pressed.
She met Gabrielle's eyes with an icy stare. "Around me, okay? I don't want that little girl thinking I'm someone to admire."
"Yeah, that would be horrible, wouldn't it? Admiring a woman who's strong, self-reliant, and dedicated to the greater good. Gives me shivers just thinking about the damage that kind of role model would do to a little girl," said Gabrielle, dripping with sarcasm.
"You know what I mean, Gabrielle," said Xena, sternly.
"I don't." The bard held up a hand to forestall the warrior's next retort. "This has to do with Solon, doesn't it? With your son. You gave him up so he wouldn't grow up to be like you. You can't allow yourself to think that might've been a bad choice, yet keeping Ilsa would make you have to think about all sorts of things, right? Well, remember -- that was ten winters ago. You were a different person then. Ilsa doesn't have a warlord caring for her, like Solon would have. There are no marauding armies outside the nursery tent. No, now there's just us -- two women who love each other and love her. That's a lot to give, Xena. More than many children ever have."
"I don't want to talk about this. It's out of the question."
"Why? Why are you so against it? Give me one good reason."
"One? I can give you hundreds. But instead, use your imagination. Think of some of the things we've done, and try to put Ilsa into the picture. Imagine if we'd had her at Troy, when fires burned the city and arrows fell like rain. Imagine if she'd watched while I was beaten and jailed by a village that wanted me to pay for murders I hadn't committed. Imagine she'd seen me lead an army of destruction when I thought my father had been threatened. Imagine her tiny legs trying to escape the giant sandals of the angry Titans--"
"Stop, Xena! I get your point, but I still think we could do it. Somehow. There's a lot of love in both of us. And love is stronger than evil."
"Stronger than Ares? Imagine what he would do if he saw that I could be manipulated through a child. And I'm only warming up. Imagine what tortures Callisto would commit if she captured her. Why, Callisto alone could--"
"Enough," Gabrielle said, not even wanting to think of the tortures Callisto might think up for Ilsa. "Please... stop. I'll drop it. We should get ready to leave. We have to start going north. We have to find her people."
"Yes. We do," said Xena, her voice hard, but her eyes still seeing the torturous visions of her own imagination.
"I'm sorry, Xena," Gabrielle said, rising. "I'm sorry I made you think about those things. I know how much she means to you already."
"Yeah," Xena mumbled. "Too much."
North. The word repeated itself in the minds of both women. As they traveled, they had long discussions on what it would be like to live in a land of ice with endless days in summer and forever darkened winters. It was almost beyond their imagining. A few days after leaving Widgie's Inn, the weather turned. The cold bit into their exposed flesh, causing each of them to wonder how far north they would have to journey before they found the Scandia. As they neared the next village, Gabrielle recommended stopping to buy some cold weather gear, just in case. Xena readily agreed.
The moment they reached the outskirts of the town, Ilsa became agitated. She began babbling in her incomprehensible language, tugging on Xena's arm and pointing away from the small collection of buildings that made up the bulk of the village. Xena tried to understand what the child wanted but soon gave up and curtly told Gabrielle to figure it out.
"Ilsa?" said the bard, placing a hand on the child's knee as she walked beside Argo. "Try again, okay? Say it slowly. K¿rten." Both she and Xena had been building a vocabulary in the language of their little ward, though it was difficult at times. 'K¿rten,' they had decided, meant 'slow' or 'short'.
Ilsa's large blue eyes pleaded with Gabrielle. "Gahb-yell-Papa," she said plaintively, pointing at the village. "Dat lerkt -- flik tunen!" When Gabrielle shook her head in confusion, Ilsa made a scary face and raised her hands, making talons of her fingers. "Yah b¿rmik ep flik tunen!"
"Her people must've had a bad experience at this village," said the bard to Xena.
"Yeah, the thought had crossed my mind. These small villages can get nasty. I razed more than one in the old days and some of them were surprisingly good at fighting back. If the Scandia wandered into a place like this and didn't know the language, well, I suppose misunderstandings could've happened."
"Wonder what 'flik tunen' means?"
"Ja, flik tunen!" said Ilsa, pointing again.
"Bad people, maybe?" guessed Gabrielle.
"Actually, I have a vague memory of her calling me something like that when we first met. It might be stronger. Some phrase or idiom her people use."
"Huh. You know, she learned our names so fast. But she hasn't picked up anything else of our language. I find that really strange. Kids are usually so quick about that stuff."
"Yeah, I noticed that too. Personally, I think she understands more than she lets on. Sometimes I get the feeling she knows exactly what we're saying," said Xena, rubbing the child's stomach to calm her agitation as they entered the town.
"Could be. Hey, Xena, I see some food stalls over there. I'd like to have a look around, in case they have something interesting." Widgie had provided them with plenty of provisions but Gabrielle adored sampling local specialties. "I'll meet you at the store in a bit, okay?"
"All right," said Xena, her eyes sweeping the suspicious stares of the townspeople as she approached. Ilsa twisted her body so she could bury her head in Xena's stomach, both hands covering her face. "What in Tartarus did these idiots do to your people, kid?" Xena muttered as she approached the general store.
Xena lithely dismounted and carried Ilsa into the mercantile, her nerves on edge, muscles tingling with adrenaline. She was already regretting having allowed Gabrielle to go off on her own.
"What are you wanting here?" asked the shopkeeper, his hand on a long dagger at his belt.
Xena glanced at him and held his stare. After a few moments, the man dropped his eyes. "We need clothing for a trip north. Furs and leggings. Have you any?" she asked in a controlled voice.
The man scowled. "I do not."
Xena glanced around the store and spied a table in the back, piled high with various furs and cold weather gear. "And those are...?"
"Not for you. They're for locals only," he answered, staring at Ilsa. The child was shaking so badly Xena was having trouble holding onto her.
"I see," Xena said, wandering over to the table. She glanced through, picked out two parkas and two pairs of warm leggings. She then spotted a pile of smaller clothing and found Ilsa some outerwear as well.
"What are you doing? Didn't you hear me? I said they're not for sale."
"I heard you. I just don't believe you," Xena said calmly, picking out some rabbit mitts. "I'll take these. How much for all of it?"
"Who do you think you are?" said the man, his face reddening with anger.
"My name is Xena. And I'm your customer."
"Xena...!" the man gasped. "The Warrior Princess?"
She stared without acknowledging his question; her eyes heavy-lidded, her mouth drawn into the beginnings of a sneer.
"You're too late," the merchant said, his voice filled with hatred. "We've already been taken by that warlord scum Makerous and his thugs. Your army will have to look elsewhere for plunder." Unconsciously, his eyes drifted again to the child, clearly showing his disgust.
Xena could feel his enmity toward the child she held, as if it was a physical force. "I'm just here to find warm clothes for my friend and my kid. Now how much?"
The man stared at Ilsa, who cowered further into Xena's body, hiding her face in the warrior's shoulder. Her trembling arms were locked onto Xena's neck, the small nails digging into her skin.
"What are you doing with a child of the Ice People? Calling it 'your kid,'" the merchant said, derisively. "Don't you know better than to touch one of their kind? Get out of my shop before you call the demons on all of us! I'd rather deal with Makerous than with Scandian scum. Or," he added pointedly, "someone who'd mix with their kind."
Xena's eyes grew dark. A muscle twitched in her jaw. She smiled. "I'm going to ignore that remark, merchant. You see, it made me angry. And you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. In fact, I don't think your little store would survive me being angry and I really do need the furs. So I'm going to draw on my loving nature," she said with deliberation, "and pretend you didn't say that."
The merchant backed up a step, staring at the child and her leather-clad companion. After several moments of inward struggle, he seemed to come to a decision. "Five hundred dinars," he said.
"You really aren't a smart man, are you?"
"Four hundred dinars but you and that... Scandian... have to leave town as soon as I get my money."
"I'll give you forty dinars. And that's only because I'm feeling generous today, seeing as how friendly you've been." She counted out the money and dared him with frigid eyes to refuse.
He grabbed the money and quickly stepped away. "Get out. You have your furs. Go."
Xena walked slowly toward him until his back was against a wall. Calmly, she put Ilsa on the ground. The child grabbed her leg and held on. Xena leaned in until her face was inches from the merchant. She could see the beads of sweat popping out on his forehead, the color draining from his face. She held up her hands. "These are my hands. You can't see the blood anymore, but it's there. Layer upon layer. My hands are thick with it. And it doesn't matter to me if I spill a little more. I'm funny that way. Now it occurs to me that you don't know a lot about women. Only a fool would insult a woman's child. So I'm going to assume you're a fool. Naturally, even a fool would want to apologize to my little girl for saying what you did. You see, my hands are thirsty and I don't know how long I can keep them from crushing your worthless skull."
The man's eyes darted back and forth, trying to keep an eye on both hands. He swallowed once and said in a very small voice, "I'm sorry for what I said about the girl and her people."
"Well, isn't that nice of you? I'm wondering. When they came through here, what did they do to get such a poor reputation?"
"They... uh..." he said, still staring at her hands. Xena twitched a finger and he jumped. "They made camp outside of town and some of the folks around here, well, they decided to run them off. They couldn't talk right and looked strange. The women acted like whores, flaunting their looks and some of our boys here... well, winters are long. The Scandia men didn't understand. We offered to pay, but they were fierce -- growled like beasts and looked like murderers, all of 'em." He paused and Xena inched her hands closer. He continued in a rush. "We went out there to warn them off and things happened and a couple of the women and kids got killed and that made them all angry. So more got hurt. That's everything, I swear."
"I see. What an unreasonable people they are. I can understand why you dislike them so."
"It was an accident. We didn't mean to do anything but scare them."
"Uh huh. A fine, hospitable town you have here. One last question and I'll be on my way."
The man was trembling now, as Xena's hands inched closer to him. "Yes?" he said, his voice cracking.
"If I camped nearby, do you think you'd be able to scare me?" Her hands were on each side of his head now, only a hair's breadth from touching him. He closed his eyes and Xena glanced down, noticing a stain spreading across the front of his pants.
"No. No one could scare you. No one would try," he said, all strength gone from him.
"That's nice to hear." With lightning speed, Xena moved her hands forward, millimeters in front of his face and clapped them once loudly. The man screamed and fell in a dead faint. Nonchalantly, she looked down at Ilsa. "C'mon kid, up we go," she said, lifting the child into her arms. Xena grabbed the bundle of clothing, and left the store.
"Xena!" shouted Gabrielle as she approached the warrior. The bard's hands were empty. "This place is really creepy. No one would sell me anything." Gabrielle glanced at the bundle of furs. "I see you managed to get everything though. Did you have any trouble?"
"No, not really."
"Huh," said Gabrielle, a quizzical look on her face. "Strange. Wonder what the problem was with the food then?"
"Maybe they're short on supplies for the winter. C'mon. I want to put some distance between us and this town before we make camp."
"Good idea. This place is weird," said the bard, glancing back at the suspicious stares following their movements.
Xena said nothing as she tied the furs on Argo then settled herself and Ilsa on the mare's back. Gabrielle took up her position by the side of the horse and they headed north once again.
Xena was worried. After the trip to the village, Ilsa stopped speaking. For the rest of the day, whenever they ran into anyone on the road, she panicked, burying herself in Xena's protective arms. By the time they stopped to make camp, the child was an emotional wreck.
As they set up for the evening, Xena told Gabrielle the story the merchant had relayed, and both women grew increasingly anxious about the greeting they would get when they met up with the Scandia. Finally, they decided they would deal with it when the time came. There was nothing they could do about it now.
The spot they had found for their camp was a rocky, unattractive little bolthole with one spectacular advantage. It had a hot spring that they could use for washing and bathing. As soon as they had laid their blankets and stoked the fire, Gabrielle stripped and eased herself into the steaming pool carved into the rocks by the spring.
"Absolute bliss," she sighed. "Xena, you have got to get in here. I can actually feel my muscles relaxing."
"In a second," said Xena. She was undressing Ilsa, happy at the chance to bathe the girl. "Now you behave with your Papa, okay? Be a good girl." Ilsa stared at her solemnly, shivering in the small wind that whipped through the pass. Xena picked her up and lowered her into the pool. The child's eyes widened at the sudden heat. Gabrielle grabbed her and held onto her as Xena began to undress.
"Splish splash, Ilsa!" said Gabrielle, slapping the water. Somberly, Ilsa imitated her. "Splish splash!" the bard said again.
Xena slipped out of her leathers and placed them in a pile with her breastplate and weapons. The wind kicked up and she felt goose bumps crawl across her skin, making her eager to get her nude body into the warmth of the hot spring. She was about step in when something shiny on the ground caught her eye and she noticed the silver token, which had fallen when she had undressed. She picked it up to toss it on her pile of clothes when she heard Gabrielle swear. Ilsa was scrambling to get away from the bard, her eyes glued to the medallion.
Quickly, Xena slipped into the pool and caught the girl just as she made a dive for the token. The warrior watched as the child grabbed the amulet, her face undergoing a series of emotions. Finally she turned to Xena and said, "min mama..." Before Xena could do or say anything, the child tugged on the warrior's hair. Xena bent down, thinking she might have something more to say, now that she was speaking again. Gravely, Ilsa placed the chord of the medallion over Xena's head, settling it around the warrior's neck.
Ilsa continued to hold the silver token. She stared at the face of it, her eyes shining. Reverently, she brought it to her lips, kissed it, then let it fall between Xena's breasts. She stared up at the warrior for long moments, her eyes bright. "Now you really Mama," she said, speaking in Xena's tongue for the first time. Too bemused to react, Xena remained motionless as Ilsa raised herself up, placed a small hand on each of the warrior's broad shoulders, leaned over and gave her new mama a kiss on the cheek. Then, in another first, Ilsa looked her in the eyes... and smiled.
"Gabrielle...?" whispered Xena, staring at Ilsa.
"I see it, I see it! She's smiling! And she spoke Greek! By the gods, Xena, it's like a miracle or something."
Ilsa dropped into Xena's lap, looking very pleased with the reactions she was getting. She hit the water with her hand, looked at Gabrielle and said, "Splish splash, Papa. Again!"
Xena was too stunned to react, so Gabrielle splashed around, making Ilsa giggle with delight. The warrior sat quietly, watching both of them, her hands loosely holding the child, keeping her from dipping under the water while she played.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and slipped below the surface, which caused Ilsa's eyes to widen. "Papa?" she said. Suddenly she giggled and squirmed as the bard tickled her submerged feet. "Papa! Stop!" she squealed cheerfully. Gabrielle surfaced with a smile, wiping the water from her eyes and grinning at the child. Ilsa twisted to look at Xena. "Mama play?"
Gabrielle watched as the warrior made no response. "Xena? Are you okay?"
Xena shook her head slightly and focused on the bard. "What?"
"Mama play?" asked Ilsa, tentatively.
"Play what, honey?"
"Oh. Sure. I'll play. What are the rules?"
Gabrielle laughed. "You're not even here, are you? No rules, Xena. Just splashing around."
Xena nodded and skimmed her hand on the water to deliver a facefull to Gabrielle, which caused Ilsa to squeal appreciatively.
Gabrielle sputtered and rubbed her eyes. She grinned. "Now you're in for it!" she said and all three were soon lost in a shower of flying spray and laughter.
"...and... and greten teeth! Rowr! And he eat dem all!" said Ilsa, finishing her incomprehensible story about a run-in with a bear, embellished through the mind of a three-year-old.
"Ate them all? Everyone?" said Xena with mock horror.
"Ja! 'Cuz... 'cuz... 'cuz he is fjuktil! And... and I b¿rmik of him, but not you, Mama. You never b¿rmik, nahk?"
"Sometimes, but usually I'm pretty brave. Strong, too," said Xena making a muscle for Ilsa to feel. The child squeezed the warrior's bicep, her teeth gritted with the effort. She smiled up at Xena in wonder. Then, not to be outdone, Ilsa crooked her own small arm, and trembled with the strain as Xena circled her soft bicep with gentle fingers and an exclamation of parental awe.
"What does b¿rmik mean again?" asked Gabrielle, having finished cleaning up after dinner. She joined her two companions sitting comfortably near the fire.
"Scared or frightened. Something like that," said Xena.
"You b¿rmik, Papa?" asked Ilsa, concerned.
Gabrielle smiled. "No, sweetie. Just asked your mama what it meant, that's all."
Ilsa nodded her head then scrunched her face in deep thought. "Mama? Are dere bears in Valhalla?" she asked.
"I don't know, honey," said Xena.
"What's Valhalla?" asked Gabrielle. Xena shrugged, clueless.
"Valhalla where udder papa is," said Ilsa.
"Ah! Like the Elysian Fields," said the bard.
"Dere bears in ella...snafeedz, Mama?"
"There could be, I suppose," said Xena, then added quickly, "But not mean bears. Only nice ones."
Ilsa pondered this a moment then crawled into Xena's lap. She touched the token that Xena still wore and stared at it. "Min udder mama... she... she aeriken. You do dat, Mama?"
"Aeriken? I don't know what that is," said Xena.
"Aeriken. Aeriken," repeated Ilsa, frowning. "La na na la na!" she sang off-key.
"Sing? You want me to sing?" asked Xena, humming a bit to demonstrate. Ilsa nodded solemnly. Xena's eyes sparkled at the child and she gave her a quick squeeze. "All right. Let me think... what should I sing?"
Gabrielle moved to Xena's side and put an arm around her waist. Xena drew the bard nearer and began to sing in clear, sweet tones. She sang of ancient battles fought for love. Of forbidden cities lost to time. Of quirky sprites who played games on mortals. Of gods and men and myths of old. Into the night, the three of them sat, surrounded by the warrior's music, content to be close and with each other.
When the moon was high, Xena put a very groggy Ilsa in her blankets, kissed her forehead and sang a final lullaby as the girl drifted off to sleep. Xena rose, took Gabrielle's hand and led her to their blankets where she made love to her with quiet passion.
In the morning, they once again headed north.
On the third day, the blizzard began. Icy blasts and whipping snows pelted them relentlessly. Thankful for their furs, they bundled themselves up and pushed onward against the driving winds. Ilsa's teeth chattered alarmingly, her tiny body convulsing in frozen tremors. Xena realized the small coat she had purchased for the girl didn't have the warmth of her own or Gabrielle's. So Xena rigged a sling that held the child against her body, then fastened her parka around them both, knowing her own warmth was the best protection she could provide. Ilsa, safe and cozy as she clung to Xena, protested every time she had to leave her cocoon.
"You're spoiling her rotten, Xena," said Gabrielle as they made a stop for lunch. In the midst of the storm's fury, they had found a small valley that was protected from the worst of the tempest. It was covered with soft snow and was several degrees warmer than the exposed land surrounding it. The wind didn't reach them there and they reveled in being away from its bite. Even Argo seemed happy as she pushed the snow aside with her nose and cropped the short grass.
"I'm not spoiling her. She was cold. Would you have her freeze?" snapped Xena.
Gabrielle smiled. "I don't mean that. I mean now."
Xena looked down and realized that she was feeding Ilsa like a mother bird as the child remained snuggled in her cozy nest against the warrior's chest. Xena smiled sheepishly. "I guess it just seemed easier..."
"Uh huh. I'm surprised you don't chew her food first before feeding her," quipped Gabrielle, evoking an old wives' tale that tried to explain the evolution of the kiss. It was a story children told each other in disgusted tones to describe where adults had gotten the idea to put their mouths together.
"Lovely image, Papa," said Xena shaking her head with a smile. "I suppose now you'll want me to feed you that way."
"As long as we skip the food part, I'd love it," said Gabrielle.
Xena leaned over and bestowed a quick kiss on the bard, then opened her jacket, pulling Ilsa out of her harness. "C'mon you," she said, quickly bundling the child in her own little coat. "Walk around a bit. Shake out those legs. Play in the snow."
"Papa play?" asked Ilsa, looking hopefully at Gabrielle.
"Sure, son," said the bard in a deep husky voice. "Let's toss the ball around, huh?"
Xena rose, chuckling. "We'll all play," she said, gathering a handful of snow and lobbing it at Gabrielle.
"Snowball fight!" the bard announced, ducking Xena's next throw as she quickly molded a missile of her own. She whipped it at Xena who caught it in mid-air. "You're no fun!" said Gabrielle.
Ilsa laughed delightedly, picked up a tiny handful of snow and threw it a couple of inches. Xena moved closer and managed to get dusted by the girl's next wild toss.
"Got me!" she said. A snowball beaned Xena on the back of her head. She whipped around to see Gabrielle laughing gleefully. "That's gonna cost ya," the warrior said with a slow smile.
"Uh oh!" said Gabrielle, running. A snowball hit her in the back of the knee and she fell face first onto the cushioned ground. Ilsa stumbled through the drifts on tiny legs then jumped on Gabrielle's prone body. "I'm under attack!" said the bard, spitting snow. "Save me, Xena! I'm b¿rmik!"
Xena lifted Ilsa off Gabrielle, threw her into the air then caught her, making the child giggle with delight. "Again!" the girl shouted and the warrior obliged.
Gabrielle quietly made another snowball. Just when Ilsa left Xena's hands in another toss, she threw it. Without taking her eyes off the child, Xena caught the snowball, threw it back at Gabrielle then caught the falling child.
Gabrielle wiped the snow from her face. "I deserved that," she said matter-of-factly.
They never quite made it out of their small valley that day.
Over the next week, a pattern began to develop. The blizzard passed, but Xena insisted that they find protected campgrounds, even if it meant stopping long before sunset. The sense of urgency that had surrounded them from the start of the journey disappeared completely. Somehow -- and Gabrielle couldn't pinpoint the moment -- it had turned into a leisurely saunter instead of the driving push to find Ilsa's people.
After yet another day of delays, Gabrielle approached Xena as Ilsa slept.
"Excuse me, stranger, but what have you done with Xena and is she ever coming back?" the bard asked by the light of their campfire.
Xena was mending Ilsa's coat and glanced at her partner quizzically. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about my friend -- Xena. You know her, the woman who didn't want to waste even an hour at Widgie's once she found out where the Ice People were? Where did she go?"
"You're pushing it, Gabrielle."
"Yes, actually, I am. I want to know what's going on. First you drive us like you're possessed and now you're dragging your heels at every opportunity. Have you changed your mind? What are you doing?"
"I'm taking us to the Scandia. Now let's drop this--"
"Oh no. We're not dropping anything. We stopped today when the sun was directly overhead. And that was only after a late start. Gosh, Xena, is four hours of travel per day too harsh a pace or something?"
Xena looked ready to explode. "I don't appreciate your questioning my decisions. The child can't--"
"You're carrying the child. She's either in your coat as you walk or sitting with you on Argo. Don't lay this at her feet. And as for 'questioning your decisions' -- haven't I earned that right by now?" Gabrielle paused. "Look, I'm not trying to push you into anything, honest. I just want to understand. I want to know what's on your mind." She put her hand on Xena's arm. For a moment, she thought the warrior would shake it off.
Instead, Xena sighed, her face losing its fierceness. Her eyes grew vulnerable, and she laid her hand on Gabrielle's. "I can't do it," she whispered.
Gabrielle leaned toward her, her expression concerned. "Can't do what, Xena?"
"I can't face it. I don't want to let her go, Gabrielle. I love her so much. It's as if she's a part of me -- a part of us. Our child... our daughter."
The bard squeezed the warrior's arm, comfortingly. "I feel it too, Xena."
"I know we have to let her go. We must. But the nearer we get to the Scandia, the more I realize my heart is breaking. Oh, Gabrielle, how did I let this happen?" she asked, all the pain and heartache she felt reflected in her eyes. "How did I get so attached? She's just a kid."
"Yeah. A kid who calls you 'Mama' and me 'Papa.' A kid who willingly gives us unconditional love."
Xena leaned her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard reached up and stroked the warrior's lean cheek. "It isn't just that, Gabrielle. There's so much more."
"Tell me. Tell me what you're feeling," the bard whispered.
"For one thing, it's seeing her with you," answered Xena in a muffled voice. She raised her head and looked off at the horizon. "I watch you with her. See the two of you playing and laughing and it... Do you know what it's like to see the two people you love most in the world enjoying each other? Loving each other?"
"Of course I know," said Gabrielle. "The sight of you with Ilsa, well, sometimes I want to cry it's so beautiful."
Xena turned to smile at the bard. "She's like a miracle, isn't she?"
Gabrielle nodded. "The changes I've seen in you, because of her, well, they're incredible."
"I feel them too. At night, I hold you both and sing songs and my heart is full. It's like we're a family. A real family. Just the three of us."
"I know. I didn't think anything could be better than what we had before, but being part of a family... I would've thought it would take away some of the closeness between you and me. But it hasn't. It's simply added to it. It's made me love you even more."
"Yeah," said Xena, her eyes sparkling. "Like when we're just sitting together, quiet and lost in our own thoughts, I marvel at how wonderful it is to be able to touch you both. I can feel you, my two loves, and you're mine. I belong." Xena was silent a moment then looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "It's tearing me up inside, Gabrielle. I've never felt this way before and I don't know how to handle it," Xena said, her voice anguished.
"Okay," said the bard, holding her, comforting her. "Let's talk about this. What are our options?"
"We have no options."
"Not true. We can keep her, you know. We can."
"I mean it, Xena. Just indulge me for a moment here. Forget all that stuff you said before about the dangers. Things have changed. We've both changed. Let's think about this. Seriously think about it."
Xena took a deep breath and tried to smile. "All right. How can we keep her?"
"Well, we could find some place to settle down. Live like a family. Everyone else does it, why can't we?" Gabrielle thought for a moment then brightened. "We could go to the Amazons! They'd take us in. They'd welcome us."
"Well... it's true that they wouldn't turn us out. I guess it wouldn't be too bad to raise her as an Amazon..."
"Of course not! It would be wonderful!" said Gabrielle, seeing the possibilities. "And I'm the Queen, so she would be a princess! Ilsa, Amazon Princess. Oh, I like the sound of that, Xena."
"It would be kind of nice to settle down for awhile," said Xena. "Just until she's old enough, of course," she added.
"Oh sure. And if you were needed somewhere, you could go off any time and feel secure that Ilsa and I were protected and cared for," said Gabrielle, sensing her thoughts. "We'd be part of the Amazon community. And Ilsa could grow up strong and proud. Oh Xena, I want this so much! This could work. Really!"
Xena furrowed her brow, her mind swimming. "It might work at that," she said slowly. "We don't know anything about the Ice People. Maybe they were at fault in that village. Maybe they're a terrible people who would hurt Ilsa."
"Right! We don't know anything about them. I mean, who's to say what kind of treatment Ilsa would get if we left her there?"
"I won't have her hurt," said Xena between clenched teeth. Absently, she grabbed the amulet around her neck, stroking it with her thumb. "She deserves the best. A smart little kid like that. And so likable and loving. Why, she has no protection at all." Xena stared down at the medallion, her eyes unfocused. "It's my duty to see that she's loved. And where could she find that better than with us?"
"Exactly!" said Gabrielle, squeezing Xena's arm. "We could get a house, and have a garden. And Ilsa could make friends and I'd work on my stories. It's like a dream."
The warrior had stopped listening. She was staring at the medallion, as if for the first time. "Such strange pictures," she mumbled.
"On the token. So interesting and dynamic."
"Uh huh," said Gabrielle, suspicious of this change in focus.
"And they're hers. They belong to her, these pictures. They're part of her history, part of her people. Can we take that away from her? She'll never know who she is if we keep her."
"She'll be our daughter. That's enough."
"But she'll never know her people or their stories. Never see the land of her birth. She'll always be an outsider. Different. Instead of being with her own kind. And who are we to judge these people? Look at this," said Xena, holding the amulet in front of Gabrielle. "Look at the love that went into the making of it. Monsters don't do that. Beasts don't cast their gods in silver and wear them around their necks. These people care. See how this figure holds the other?" she said pointing to a male and female etched on the back. "The Ice People know how to love. Do you think Ilsa's parents deserved what happened to them?"
"Of course not. But what happened to her parents doesn't tell us what kind of people they were."
"Could monsters have raised a little girl like Ilsa?"
Gabrielle was silent. She looked toward the sleeping child. "I guess they had to be pretty good people to have had a daughter like that, huh?"
"Yeah. And besides, it wasn't a Scandian who murdered them. It was a Greek! One of our people! At least, I assume it was. Judging by what happened in that village, it was probably a mob of bigots who feared them for their differences."
"Well... okay, you're probably right," conceded Gabrielle.
"Remember what Widgie said? She said they'd grieved for their lost members. You don't murder them and then grieve. No, they lost three of their own, and they grieved as loving humans do."
Gabrielle looked down at her hands helplessly. She was sick to death of thinking about the Scandia; tired of wondering what kind of people they were.
"Her kinfolk. Thinking they'd lost her," said Xena, her voice far away. "Lost the little girl who'd been born on the journey. A part of them and of their people. How do we steal her from them? How do we deny Ilsa her family and live with ourselves afterwards?"
"But, Xena -- we don't know any of this. We don't know who the Ice People are. You said it before, what if they'll hurt Ilsa!" said Gabrielle, making a last effort.
"I don't think--"
"But you don't know!"
"No..." said Xena, softly, "I don't know..."
Gabrielle took the warrior's face in both her hands and stared into her anguished blue eyes. "It's more than the Scandia, isn't it? What are you really thinking?"
A muscle twitched in Xena's jaw and she pulled away from the bard's touch. "You know as well as I do that it wouldn't work. There are too many problems. We can't just forget about Ares and Callisto."
"Well, no, but the Amazons--"
"Don't have a prayer against gods. And what about the rest of my enemies? I spent ten winters making people hate me. Many of them would give anything they have for the chance to destroy me through my child."
"We won't let them," said Gabrielle, trying to believe that they could keep Ilsa safe from every danger.
"What if something happened to me? What if I was killed and you were left alone with a child to raise? It isn't like there's no danger in my life. It isn't like death hasn't stalked us before."
"I'm not helpless, Xena. I could take care of myself and Ilsa, if something happened. You would, if I died. So why wouldn't I?"
Xena looked at the determination in the bard's eyes. "Yes, you would."
"Exactly. Besides, if you're really worried about that, you could give up that lifestyle and just live with us."
"And how long would I last sitting around a hut, watching you be Queen while I played nursemaid to a kid?"
"I'd make you co-Queen or something..." Gabrielle laid her head on Xena's arm, the tears that had threatened to fall, silently tracing her cheeks. "Xena, don't let this dream fade. I want it so much. You're so happy and you deserve to have this much love and joy in your life. And I deserve it, too. Can't we just try?"
Xena stroked her companion's cheek, knowing that it was impossible. Gabrielle knew it too, Xena could tell. They both wanted it desperately, but the dangers were too real. "Oh, Gabrielle. I'm so sorry."
"There's something else, isn't there?" the bard asked softly.
"It's me. What if we solve everything else and one day the darkness inside me breaks out, like it did at Widgie's a few months ago? What if I am out of control and filled with hatred? What if I... hurt... the child...?"
"Oh, Xena, you wouldn't!" said Gabrielle. She knew Xena would never hurt Ilsa -- knew it was just fear talking.
Xena stared at her with tortured eyes. "You can guarantee that I won't? I can't. The time at Widgie's taught me some things about myself. Yes, I can control it more now. Better than I ever have. But I'm also aware that it is inside me, always waiting for my control to slip. I can't take that chance, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle sat for long minutes staring at the pain on her friend's face. Finally, the bard let out her breath on a sigh, her shoulders slumped in defeat. "There are too many risks, aren't there?" she said. "Too many chances for Ilsa to get hurt or worse. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to her."
"Neither could I," Xena said, all softness gone. "No more delays. Tomorrow we go north."
They traveled now with purpose. Xena drove them forward, stopping in the villages to ask if anyone had seen the Ice People, and following the trail of information. Finally, they pulled within a day's journey of the Scandia camp. Ilsa's people were resting there for a week, in observance of a religious holiday.
Xena pushed her small family until Argo began stumbling in the dark. Begrudgingly, she admitted that they could get no closer that night. The Scandia were just a few miles down the road. If they got an early start they could be at the Ice People's camp around mid-day.
"That gives me time to scout first," said Xena.
Gabrielle nodded. The change that the warrior had undergone since they had made their decision to return Ilsa frightened the bard. Xena was only perfunctorily responsive to the child. At times, she acted as if the girl was no longer with them. Xena was withdrawn, stoic and uncommunicative. When she did speak, it was often in harsh tones.
Ilsa had instantly picked up this change and had returned to being the silent, frightened child they had first discovered. Gone were her smiles and laughter, her playful use of her new language and her snuggling closeness to Xena. Gabrielle tried to give the girl the affection she no longer received from her beloved 'mama,' but it wasn't the same. Much as Ilsa loved and enjoyed her 'papa,' she had given her heart to Xena. And the warrior was no longer accepting that gift.
"Okay, scouting's good," said Gabrielle, wondering how she could broach the subject uppermost on her mind.
Xena didn't respond. She blew on the tinder she had gathered, fanning the small flames of their evening campfire.
"Not much of a fire, is it?" said Gabrielle. "There's not much fuel around here."
"I saw some scrub about a quarter mile back. I'll go get us some firewood," said Xena.
"Wait," said Gabrielle. "I'll get it. You stay here. Formulate plans. That kind of thing."
Xena shrugged. "All right. Take the kid with you."
"No, it'll slow me down if I have her tagging along. You watch her. Won't take me long. Oh, and Xena? If you don't show that kid some affection before I get back, I'm going to take her and leave your life forever. You're acting like a sullen, stupid wretch and I've had it up to here. Back in a few," said Gabrielle, jogging away before Xena could stop her.
Xena stared furiously at Gabrielle's retreating figure. Doesn't she understand anything? wondered the warrior. She glanced over at Ilsa. The child was sitting alone on her blanket, her arms around her knees, her head resting on them. The girl was staring at Xena out of the corner of her eyes. Quickly, Ilsa looked back at the ground.
Xena immediately busied herself settling their campsite. She silently cursed Gabrielle for running away without letting her speak and then cursed herself for not having picked up the scrub as they had passed it. Finally, with nothing more to do, she sat on her blanket and fiddled with a loose string on her boot.
"You okay?" she asked Ilsa, without looking at her.
The child's head nodded slightly.
"Not talking much anymore, are you?"
She shook her head 'no'.
"Suit yourself." Xena dug in her pack for her leather repair kit.
Ilsa glanced over again. She raised her head, her eyes filled with tears. "Why Mama hate Ilsa? What I do?"
Xena froze. She turned to the child. "What are you talking about? I don't hate you."
"Praevak," mumbled the child.
"Praevak? I don't know that word. What does it mean?"
"Mean praevak," she said stubbornly.
"Praevak. Your talk not your face. Different."
"My talk... You think I'm lying? You're calling me a liar?" asked Xena.
Ilsa walked over to Xena, all the self-righteous anger of a three-year-old in her step. She pointed at Xena's face and said, "You say love. But you stop. You stop! You stop love!"
Suddenly, Xena realized what she had been putting the girl through over the past few days. Gabrielle was right. "By the gods..." Xena whispered, wishing she could kill some passing thug to release some of her guilt and anger. She composed her face and looked at Ilsa. "C'mere, Ilsa," she said.
"No!" shouted the child, backing away.
"Don't be stubborn. I want to talk to you."
"Talk, talk, talk. Stupid words." She switched to her native tongue and spoke passionately for over a minute in halting, childlike phrases.
Xena listened silently. Though she picked up a word here and there she was unable to discern exactly what the girl was saying. "Ilsa...?" she asked softly when the child appeared to have had her say. "Little One? Please. Let me explain."
Ilsa stood, still out of reach, but she looked Xena in the eyes.
"I have to tell you something. It's important. Do you understand 'important'?"
"Good. You're very smart." Xena took a deep breath. "I've been... I haven't been very nice lately, have I?"
Ilsa scowled and shook her head 'no.'
"I know. You think I've stopped loving you, don't you?"
The child looked at the ground and nodded.
"Well, I haven't. I still love you. More than I can possibly tell you." Xena inched forward on the blanket, shortening the distance. "I've had some things on my mind lately. I wasn't paying attention to you and I'm sorry. Yah s¿rten, sweetie. That's my fault and it was wrong of me."
Ilsa looked up, listening.
"Could you... maybe... come a little closer? I really need to hug you. It hurts not to hold you, Ilsa," said Xena abjectly.
Ilsa shuffled her feet. She looked for long moments into the warrior's eyes, which were naked with need. The child closed the distance between them and reached out her arms. Xena gathered her up and held her closely. Unsuccessfully, she tried to halt the tears that spilled onto her cheeks. "I love you so much, my brave little daughter," she whispered.
Ilsa leaned back, staring at Xena's tears. "Mama has hurt?" she asked.
Xena smiled, wiping her face quickly with the back of her hand. "Not any more, honey. I'm just happy that you wanted to hug me."
"Then why you not hug before?"
Xena shook her head, smiling ruefully at her own stupidity. "I don't know. I wanted to. But I was worried," she said. And selfish, she added silently. Thinking of my own pain and not yours.
Ilsa settled herself in Xena's lap, in her favorite position. She touched the medallion, which hung between the warrior's breasts.
"How much do you remember of your people?" Xena asked. Ilsa looked her quizzically. Xena tried again. "Your people. Your kin. Aunts, uncles, brothers or sisters... oh this isn't working," she mumbled. "Ilsa. You came here with more than your mama and papa. There were lots of you, right?"
"I Scandia," she said with pride.
"Right. You're Scandia. How much of the Scandia do you remember?"
Suddenly her face lit up, as she thought she understood. "Oh! Per Rolf and Tanda Marya. Sigbj¿rn, Yahn, Turid, Arne, Agnes, Uut... um... Nils, Agga, Mikten erd Flikka... T¿r erd Narvig... um..."
"Lots of people, huh?" said Xena, smiling.
"Oh ja! Lots of!"
"And they loved you, didn't they?"
"Not like you, Mama," she said grabbing Xena around the neck and burying her small face under the warrior's chin.
Xena lifted her eyes to the sky, desperately trying to hold onto her control. "That's wonderful, sweetie, and I love you, too, but these people, Per Rolf and Tanda Marya and Arne and the others, they took care of you and loved you, right? They weren't mean to you. They didn't hurt you, right?"
Ilsa raised her head, looking solemnly in Xena's eyes. "No. No hurts. Not mean."
"Good. Good," Xena said, smiling. "That's important." She paused. "Would you like to visit them? Your people? The Scandia?" Ilsa nodded her head 'yes.' Xena tried to sound excited. "That would be fun, wouldn't it? To see all your friends? Your aunts and uncles?" Again, Ilsa nodded. "Tomorrow, that's what we're going to do. We're going to visit the Scandia and you'll get to see everybody again."
Ilsa's eyes grew wide. "Real?"
"Real. Would you like that?"
The child smiled brightly. "Oh ja! Real? Ja-hah!"
Immediately, she began speaking in mixed languages about who she would see, how happy she would be to show off her new mama and papa, the games she could play and on and on. Xena tried to listen, but her emotions were churning too wildly to make sense of any of it. Instead she nodded at the appropriate times, smiled often and interjected an occasional "Wonderful!" or "That'll be fun."
Gabrielle watched the warrior's face from her hiding place behind a tall rock. She had already stashed some firewood in a secluded nook earlier, knowing that Xena and the child needed time to be alone. The bard let her tears flow freely, not feeling the need to fight them like her friend.
The next day dawned clear and sunny. Xena took off early to scout. Ilsa wanted to go with her, but the warrior told her she couldn't. It might be dangerous. Finally, amid the child's desperate tears, Xena rode away from camp. She was back within a few minutes. She had changed her mind, she said. They would all go. Quickly breaking camp, they packed Argo. Xena put Ilsa into the sling on her chest and fastened her parka around the girl.
"Shouldn't she wear her own coat today? If we are attacked, it won't do for you to be hampered with her," said Gabrielle, reasonably.
"It's too cold. When we get closer to the camp I'll go off by myself and you two can wait behind. For now, she's warmer like this."
Gabrielle didn't say anything, but she knew it had very little to do with the weather, which was milder than it had been for days. The bard knew that Xena needed to feel the nearness of the child one last time.
They set a good pace and soon found themselves on a cliff, overlooking the Scandia camp. They could see activity below, and people going about their business. Children played a game using sticks and a leather ball near the edge of camp. Voices were raised in greetings to one another. Women were stringing lanterns around one large tent, appearing to be preparing for their holiday celebration. A group of five men came from the east, carrying two deer on their backs. The men were large, much taller and broader than the local men of the region. Most of the hunters had burly beards with light-colored hair. Even from this distance, Xena could see that the Scandia were a handsome people. And they had every appearance of a normal, happy community. The warrior could sense no evil or corruption in them. Rather, they seemed tight-knit and caring.
"Come on," said Xena.
"Isn't this where we split up?"
"No, we can get closer," she said, rubbing her cheek on Ilsa's head, which poked above her jacket.
"Scandia...!" whispered the child.
"Yeah. There they are," said Xena. "Your people."
Ilsa looked up at Xena and frowned. "They bad?" she asked, touching the warrior's drawn mouth with one small finger.
"No, honey. They're not bad. Let's go, huh?" she said, clucking to Argo.
Without hurrying, Xena, Gabrielle and Ilsa made their way toward the camp of the Ice People.
"You stay here," said Xena, looking at a protected but small cave about half a mile from the Scandian camp. Beyond this point, there were no more hidden areas. The Ice People had chosen their spot well. Easy to defend, difficult to infiltrate, thought Xena. Her respect for them grew.
"Okay," said Gabrielle.
Xena looked down at the small head that peeked out of the top of her parka. "You stay with Papa, okay?"
"Go with Mama," she said, holding onto the straps of her sling.
Xena smiled. "I'd love that, honey, but for just a little while, I need you to stay with Papa. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"We can play stones and bones," said Gabrielle, talking about a silly game the two of them had invented.
Ilsa peered over the edge of the parka at Gabrielle, then back at Xena. "Mama play too?"
"No, Mama has some business first," said Xena, untying her coat. "But I'll be back to get you and Papa. Then we'll see your friends." She untied the sling and handed the child down to Gabrielle, who immediately bundled Ilsa in the girl's small jacket.
Xena turned Argo's head to leave, hesitated then hopped off the mare. She gathered Ilsa into her arms, gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Love you, Ilsa."
"Love you, Mama."
Xena handed her back to Gabrielle, jumped on Argo and looked over her shoulder at the two of them. "Love you too, Papa," she said with a wink.
Gabrielle tried to speak, but couldn't find her voice. Instead she nodded, waving. Ilsa solemnly waved good-bye, her small hand peeping from the sleeve of her jacket. Xena turned and clucked at the mare. Within seconds she had disappeared around the bend.
Xena made a wide circuit of the camp, looking at all the approaches. The Scandia appeared to have learned a lot of lessons in their travels. Nothing was unguarded. However, inside the protection of the camp they were boisterous, playful, loving and sociable. Xena found a small rock promontory where she could spy on a section of tents. She marveled at the amount of happy activity going on. Women ran back and forth, speaking animatedly, handing each other various foods to taste and exclaim over. The children played loudly and no one seemed to mind. One of the men jumped into the game with the stick and leather ball to the delight of the youngsters. Two more huge, bearded males and a lanky female joined them and soon it spread through the camp. In between tents, around campfires, over wood piles, the game continued, with half the population playing along.
In direct contrast to the frivolity of the camp, the guards were indeed as fierce a group as she had ever seen. The men were giants, easily standing several inches above six feet. Almost every man wore a thick, heavy beard to protect his face from the cold. A particularly large man with flaming red hair had been making his way from post to post. Xena saw him light into a young guard because the boy had sat down while on duty. Chastened, the youthful sentry had looked more vigilant than most by the time the redhead had left.
Though the majority of the defenders were men, a few were women. They were also tall and fierce-looking, handling their weapons with ease and reverence. There wasn't a slacker among any of them, male or female. The only thing to do, realized Xena, was approach directly and openly and pray they wouldn't attack before she'd had her say. Hopefully, someone would recognize Ilsa and realize that the two Greek women were there on a mission of peace.
Xena scrambled off her perch and headed down the promontory. She had left Argo in a small grove of beech trees, near the cave where Gabrielle and Ilsa waited. The warrior was anxious to return to her companions, to reassure herself that nothing had happened in her absence. She hadn't liked leaving them alone in potentially hostile territory, but she had needed to get a feel for the land, the guards and especially, the people themselves. She had been reassured by what she had seen and was now ready to start the next phase.
She reached the base of the small rock formation and saw a troop of Scandian guards approaching. Very deliberately, she removed her sword and chakram and placed them on the ground, stepping away from the weapons, her hands in plain sight. Cautiously, the red-bearded 'captain' led his men toward her, their weapons at the ready. Xena waited quietly, not wanting to appear hostile in any way.
"Dah har restig fur t¿r fjerken?" the captain asked in a reasonable voice.
"Yah s¿rten," said Xena. "Yah vaek..." she stopped. I was what? she asked herself. How do I explain myself in a language I barely know?
"Dah tala Scandia?" he asked surprised.
"Nahk. Well... a few words. Uh... k¿rten," she said, remembering the word. Now we'll find out if it means slow or small, she realized.
The red man nodded his head thoughtfully. "D¿vek Griken lart t¿r 'k¿rten' Scandia?"
'D¿vek' means 'where is' or close to it, thought Xena. 'Griken' could be 'a Greek' she realized, 'lart' I don't know, 't¿r' is 'your'... bet he's asking where I learned his language, she reasoned. "Ilsa," she said. "Ilsa of the Scandia." She lowered her hand to approximate the girl's height, showing them that her teacher was a child.
Red looked her over suspiciously. He made a gesture for her to open her parka. She understood, knowing it was just a precaution. He was looking for more weapons, she reasoned. Xena complied, holding the edges of her coat open so he could see she was unarmed. Suddenly the captain's face swelled with anger. He spewed forth a stream of words Xena didn't understand, though it was obvious no child would know them. The only phrase she caught was 'flik tunen.' Ferociously, he grabbed Xena by the neck with one enormously powerful hand and lifted her off the ground. She tried to pry his hand away, but his grip was rock-solid. With his free hand, he grabbed Xena's Scandian medallion and ripped it off her neck. He held it up to his men, said more angry words then spit in Xena's face.
Xena could feel herself beginning to lose consciousness as no oxygen reached her brain, the chokehold threatening to crush her windpipe. As spots danced before her eyes, Red threw her to the ground. She choked and gasped, but before she could recover, she was thrown onto her stomach. Her hands were wrestled behind her and were quickly tied by rough, hemp ropes. She was hauled to her feet and prodded into walking, a guard on each side, both with a grip as unbreakable as their leader's. There was nothing for her to do but go along and try to appear as unthreatening as possible. Hopefully, someone in the camp had learned a little Greek. Somehow, she had to communicate with these people. She had to tell them that she had come to return their lost child. As long as Gabrielle and Ilsa were safe, the situation could be salvaged, she thought.
Gabrielle was worried sick. Xena had been gone for hours. It was getting dark and there was still no sign of her. About half an hour earlier, Argo had wandered riderless up to the cave. Something had gone terribly wrong. The bard began to formulate a plan.
Xena looked up as a middle-aged woman entered. She carried a small plate with a variety of foods -- some strange, some familiar -- and a flagon of mead. She placed both by Xena.
"My hands are tied, I can't eat," said Xena, reasonably.
The woman stared, startled at being spoken to. "Yah kan inte tala Grik," she said, warily.
"Is there someone who can?" asked Xena. "D¿vek... Grik tala... man, woman, person, somebody?" she finished, frustrated.
"Rolf kan tala Grik. Dah hilket Rolf?"
"Ja!" said Xena. "Yah hilket Rolf. Pleten!"
The woman nodded, smiling slightly. "Dah tala Scandia, nahk?"
"Nahk. Yah kan inte tala Scandia," said Xena, repeating the words the woman had used to tell her she couldn't speak Greek. "K¿rten Scandia. Yah s¿rten," she added, using up the bulk of her vocabulary.
The woman smiled again, "Ja-hah," she said. Then she reached over, patted Xena on the shoulder and said something that appeared to mean she would get Rolf. The warrior breathed a sigh of relief.
A few minutes later, a tall, handsome young man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair entered the tent. His face was beardless which showed off the sculpted perfection of his jaw and chin. There was a wariness in the man, yet at the same time, she could see the sharp intelligence in his eyes.
"I am Rolf," he said.
"Hello, Rolf. I am Xena. You speak Greek?"
"Ja. Some Greek. Enough to trade."
"I see. I'll try to be clear. I didn't come here to harm your people."
A muscle clenched in his jaw and his eyes narrowed. "You say this. But you wear Thor's Amulet."
"I found it. There was a family. Scandia. The mother and father had been murdered. I buried them and found the amulet."
"You did not do the killings then?" Rolf asked.
"No. Another did the killings. I think many. A village, perhaps. A... lerkt. Lots of people. The killings... they were very bad," she added, not letting her gaze stray from his.
"And the child?"
"Is safe. I have her. That's why I'm here. To bring you back your child. Ilsa of the Scandia."
Rolf's eyes filled with wonder. "Ilsa is alive?" he asked. "My brother's child -- she lives?"
Xena smiled. "Yes, she lives. Safe and unharmed. She is a... a very dear little girl. Bright, too. She can speak Greek now."
Rolf grinned. "Ja, she was always special. In her... mind... she thinks much. Ilsa... lives... Excuse me, I must tell Marya, my wife. She will be most happiness."
"Wait!" said Xena as he turned to run off. He glanced back and she nodded toward her hands, still tied behind her back. "I won't run away. But I am hungry. Untie me? I'll stay here. You have my word."
Rolf hesitated. Then regretfully, he shook his head 'no.' "There is much trouble if I do this," he said and left the tent.
Xena leaned back against the tent pole, sighing. "Thanks a lot, Rolf." She glanced around the darkening tent. In her mind, she sent out a prayer to her friend. Gabrielle, she thought, if you can hear me... stay where you are. Don't do anything rash. Take care of Ilsa, forget about me. I can get out any time I want. Just don't endanger the child.
She hoped that somehow, Gabrielle would hear her thoughts. She glanced down at the food, slipped one hand easily out of her bindings and grabbed a baked potato. She had no intention of escaping. She didn't want anything she did to cause alarm. It was important that these people trust her, so that she could determine if she could trust them.
Gabrielle put another blanket around Ilsa. "That better?"
"Still cold," Ilsa said, her brows drawn together pitifully, her bottom lip thrust out. She looked like she was about to cry any second.
The bard frowned. She didn't want to start a fire, in case the smoke would give them away this near the Scandia settlement. But it was very cold and the child's teeth were chattering. Gabrielle looked around and her eyes fell on Xena's sling.
"I know! I'll put you in my coat. Like Mama does! Would you like that?"
Though she nodded her head, Ilsa's pout remained. Gabrielle smiled. Quickly, she took off her parka, donned the sling and helped the child into it. It wasn't as good a fit as it was on the taller, stronger Xena, but they weren't going anywhere. Not while it was dark. Once she had the girl settled, Gabrielle put her coat back on and fastened it. It was a very snug fit but the child's comforted expression was enough to make it worthwhile. The bard felt two small hands reach up to her shoulders. She looked down and received a wet kiss on her chin.
"Thank you, Papa. Love you, Papa," Ilsa said, then snuggled deeper into the warmth and closed her eyes.
"D¿vek Ilsa?" asked a very beautiful young woman the moment she walked through the tent door.
The woman looked behind her. Rolf entered.
"This is Marya. My wife," he said. "We want to know where is Ilsa."
"I told you. She's safe. And I'd be happy to get her, but you'll have to let me go," said Xena, stubbornly.
Rolf and Marya spoke together for a moment. She gestured toward Xena. Rolf sadly shrugged his shoulders. Marya said something in rapid Scandian and Rolf brightened, nodding agreement. Immediately, Marya left.
"She is going to get headwoman," said Rolf. "And she get Thor's man. And, if she finds, Sigbj¿rn."
Xena nodded. She recognized the name Sigbj¿rn as one of the people Ilsa spoke of. "You're Ilsa's uncle? You're Per Rolf? And that was Tanda Marya?"
"Ja. You know of us?" he asked, surprised.
"Ilsa spoke of you, yes."
"She... was unhurt when my brother was..."
"She was unhurt. I'm sorry about your brother and his wife. What happened to them was... it was monstrous. Yah s¿rten, Rolf. Not all Greeks are like that."
Rolf nodded, his eyes distant. "Lars was a good man. And Ingrid was a much loving woman. Both were strong. It is not right that they be taken from us."
Xena was silent, allowing him his grief.
"Tell me of the child. Is her soul darkened now?" he asked, concerned.
"No! No, not at all," said Xena, pleading for understanding with her eyes. "Please trust me on this. Her soul is... it is pure and filled with light."
Rolf smiled. "I think maybe you have fell for her litten, ja?"
"Ja," said Xena with a half smile. "More than a litten."
Rolf seemed to make a decision then walked over to her. He hunkered down and looked her straight in the eyes. "You are warrior, nahk?"
"I am a warrior, yes."
"And with warrior's heart? Er... bravery? That is the word?"
"Yes. Bravery. I have bravery."
"If a man touched where you wanted not to be touched, you would fight him?"
Xena scowled. What the Hades was this about? she wondered. She narrowed her eyes and sneered at Rolf. "Let him try and he would never live to try again."
Rolf laughed. "Even if you are maybe captive?"
Xena smiled dangerously. Leisurely, she took her hands from behind her back and showed him that she was not a prisoner at all. "I am never a captive, Rolf. Unless I want to be. Understand?"
Rolf leaned back in surprise. "You had ropes on you!"
"A minor detail."
"How long you are free?"
"Since I got here."
"And you are not escaping?"
"No. Let me explain something, Rolf. I came here to find out what kind of people you are. You see, I've grown rather fond of Ilsa. And I won't see her harmed. She watched her parents die. That is enough hurt for one life. So until I make sure you Scandia are the kind of people worthy of her, Ilsa is staying hidden. Got that? And right now, I'm not too crazy about her Uncle Rolf."
Rolf grinned from ear to ear and clapped his hands. "Oh yes! You have a warrior's heart. I was... er... testing. Is that it? Testing? Yes, I was testing. To know who has been with Ilsa. So much hurt from the killing of Lars and Ingrid -- that needs strength to fight. Bravery. I must testing to see if Ilsa has help."
Xena glared at him. "A dangerous test."
"Yes. I, too, have bravery. But I also have Marya. To touch you with Marya near? Not so brave as that!" he said with a laugh.
Xena smiled begrudgingly.
"You and I... friends, nahk? We are friends?"
"We can be friends, Rolf. But I'm not giving up Ilsa until I meet more of your people."
At that moment, Marya entered the tent with an older woman, a tall, lean man and the redheaded captain of the guards. "Ah! You ask they come," said Rolf. "Such power. Xena, this is Marya, that you have met. And this is Agga, our headwoman; Bosse, man of Thor; and this giant is Sigbj¿rn the Flame-haired, General of the Scandian army." Rolf turned to the group and spoke at length. He pointed to Xena's free hands and Sigbj¿rn's face grew red with anger. Rolf laid an arm across his shoulders and settled him a bit, then continued to speak to the group.
In rapid Scandian, they discussed the situation. Xena noticed the deference they paid to the headwoman when she finally spoke. Everyone but a brooding Sigbj¿rn nodded agreement.
The headwoman stepped forward, looked straight at Xena and said, in an obviously rehearsed speech, "Xena da Grik. Velcome to da camp off da Scandia. Ve off da Ice Pipples grit you."
Gabrielle was up and ready at first light. Ilsa was strapped into the sling and Argo was saddled. The bard was so off-balance from the bundle in front of her that it took five tries before she was able to successfully mount the mare. Idly, she wondered how Xena had made it look so easy all that time.
"We find Mama?" asked Ilsa in a small voice.
"Yes. Now please, Ilsa, no sound, okay? Be very quiet." She knew her own tension was carrying through to the child, but there was nothing she could do. Gabrielle was afraid. She didn't know what lay ahead or what the Scandia had done to Xena. She only hoped she could talk her way past the guards so she could put her plan in motion.
"Hush hush," said Ilsa in a loud whisper. She put both hands over her mouth.
Gabrielle couldn't help smiling. "Well, you don't have to do that. Just stay still and we'll be fine."
Ilsa nodded, removing her hands.
"Here goes nothing," Gabrielle murmured then clucked to Argo. She rounded the bend and headed straight for the two guards at the end of the path.
Xena was growing anxious. The small group of Scandian representatives had been questioning her via Rolf throughout the night. Now the sun was well up on the new day and the warrior worried that Gabrielle would take it in her head to plan some sort of 'rescue.' Xena needed Gabrielle safe and far away. She especially needed the bard to guard Ilsa. If the Scandia got the child then Xena's hope of controlling the transfer was lost.
"And this 'god', this Ares, he speaks to you? You are a shaman of Ares?" translated Rolf for Bosse, the chief priest of Thor.
The Scandia had been fascinated by everything about the Pantheon and had questioned her relentlessly on this topic. What any of it had to do with Ilsa, Xena couldn't figure out.
"Hardly," said Xena, wearily. "Ares just has a lot of... interest in me. He continues to try to seduce me back to him."
"Seduce?" said Rolf, shocked. The others murmured questions and he translated. There were shocked faces all around. "Your god is your lover?"
"No. Well, actually, he has made love to my body, but I wasn't in it at the time."
Rolf smiled. "Now we see the problem of my unknowing of your language. Could you say differently to help my understanding?"
Xena felt like screaming. There was no point to any of this. Not with Gabrielle wondering what had happened to her. Calming herself, she said, "An enemy of mine switched bodies with me after she died. And while she controlled my body, she made love to Ares."
Rolf shrugged and translated. Bosse asked a question. "The shaman," said Rolf, "wants to know this: Did he know it was not you inside and did your body bear his child?"
"He knew. And my body was... unaltered when I got it back."
"Ah. Agga wants to know this: Have you godly powers because of this sexual favor?"
"No, and it was no favor. Look, I need to get back to Ilsa."
"You left her alone?" asked Rolf.
"Of course not. She's a child! No, I left her with my companion. But they expected me back a long time ago," explained Xena.
"If we let you go, how do we know you will return with the child?" asked Sigbj¿rn through Rolf. "Actually," added Rolf, "Sigbj¿rn phrased this much differently. But I think maybe this is better, no?"
Xena could guess Sigbj¿rn's question. "You will know I'll return because I will give you my word. I didn't come all this way without planning to give Ilsa back to you. But I have to know what kind of people I'm leaving her with. I had heard stories that I didn't want to believe. I need to know they're untrue. Look, Rolf, I'm worried about Ilsa and Gabrielle. I'd like to check--"
There was the sound of shouting from outside the tent. Xena recognized the voice that loudly proclaimed, "Lay off, buddy! Is this how you treat a woman in my condition? Now take me to Xena!"
Sigbj¿rn muttered something to a guard, who ran off immediately.
"Your companion?" asked Rolf, amused.
"Yes, that would be Gabrielle..." said Xena, deflated.
Rolf looked out the tent flap then turned back to Xena. "She is very heavy with child. It is not a wonder you were concerned. I am hoping Sigbj¿rn's men were gentle with her."
"Pregnant..." said Xena, putting her head in her hands.
"Ja, much girth she has," said Rolf indicating a rounded belly.
"Great," mumbled Xena.
"And another thing!" said Gabrielle as she was brought into the tent. "I am not a 'grik!' I am Greek. Got me? I am-- Xena!" she said, spying the warrior. Xena noticed how carefully the Scandian guards were handling the bard.
"Gabrielle. So when's it due?" asked Xena, dryly.
"Oh Xena! You're okay! You are okay, right?"
"I'm fine. But I think you're giving birth."
Tiny hands were pulling on the edges of Gabrielle's jacket. The bard smiled sheepishly, and untied her coat. A very frightened Ilsa peeked out.
"Ilsa!" gasped Marya, tears of joy instantly springing to her eyes. Ilsa looked around the room until she spied Xena.
"Mama!" she cried, reaching toward the warrior. Xena walked over, removed the child from the sling and gave her a big hug.
"Mama?" said Rolf.
"Mama?" repeated the others.
Xena shrugged. "Yeah. The kid's idea."
Ilsa looked at Gabrielle and smiled. "Thank you, Papa. For bringing to Mama."
"Papa?" they all echoed.
Gabrielle squirmed as every eye turned to her. "That's... a funny story, actually... You see, we were--"
Xena and Gabrielle were seated on cushions while the Scandia held a discussion among themselves. Ilsa was contentedly sitting on Xena's lap, hanging onto the strong, protective arms that circled her.
"So what are they like?" asked Gabrielle.
"They're okay," said Xena.
"Well, I've only been a prisoner so far. Hard to judge when you're confined to a tent."
"Rolf is kinda cute," said Gabrielle.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, one eyebrow raised.
"In a 'guy' kinda way," she hastily added. "Not my type."
"No, he's not," the warrior replied with mock jealousy, then smiled. "Actually, he appears to be a good man. Wasn't crazy about him at first, but he grew on me."
"He seems to like you," said Gabrielle then frowned. "This isn't another case of--"
"He's married to Marya. They're Ilsa's aunt and uncle."
"Oh! Of course. That's nice."
The women were silent for a few minutes, watching the Scandian representatives discuss the situation. Xena kissed Ilsa on the top of the head, hugging her closer then turned to Gabrielle and said, "Why pregnant?"
"Well... Ilsa was cold and I realized that in that sling thing, well, you always looked pretty pregnant when you wore it. And I figured they wouldn't hurt a pregnant lady. I was hoping to infiltrate, pretend to go into labor, and then sneak you out of here."
"Oh, wonderful plan, Gabrielle," said Xena sarcastically. "No one will pay any attention to a pregnant woman in labor."
"It was Ilsa's idea," Gabrielle said, shaking her head with a chuckle. Xena didn't smile, her attention back on the Scandia. Gabrielle frowned. "You worried, Xena?"
"Yeah. Now that you two are here, I've lost my bargaining chip. They can just take Ilsa and send us on our way."
"Isn't that what you wanted?"
"No. I wanted to get to know them. To find out if I could trust them. Learn who would take on the role of parents, that sort of thing."
"You said they seemed okay. Why are you still worried?"
"Just being cautious," said Xena, looking down at Ilsa and stroking her hair. The child looked up and beamed.
"Uh huh," said Gabrielle. "You sure you can do this? Say good-bye? That's what's really bothering you, isn't it? The idea that you're going to have to part soon."
Xena's face reflected her internal struggle for control of her emotions. "Of course that's what's wrong. I can't stand this, Gabrielle. I can't. I look at her and see that face with all that love and trust... and I'm supposed to just hand her over and walk away? What's that going to do to her? How is she ever going to trust anyone again? First her parents, now us. It could destroy her... Sweet, little Ilsa," whispered Xena. She leaned down and kissed the girl's cheek. Unaware of any problems, Ilsa happily planted a sloppy kiss on the warrior's jaw in return.
"I feel the same way. But what else can we do?"
"I don't know. I have to think about this."
Gabrielle looked compassionately at her friend, knowing there was nothing to think about. Nothing could change the course of events that had been set in motion that long ago day in the clearing. The bard turned her head away, so that Xena wouldn't see the beginnings of her tears. She doesn't need me falling apart now, she thought. She needs to be surrounded by strength, because I fear hers has reached its limit.
"So all have spoken to each other and have decisioned," said Rolf.
"Oh?" said Xena, her voice tight and controlled.
"Ja, we are to take Ilsa now and you are free to leave. But if you would like, you may stay with us for festival. We thank you for returning our child to the Ice People."
"There's no need to 'take' her yet. Let her get used to the idea of staying here. She's grown quite attached to us over the past few weeks," said Xena, reasonably. "I think it's going to be very difficult for her to say good-bye."
Sigbj¿rn positioned himself next to Xena, his hands ready to grab the child. Xena stood, holding Ilsa close, looked him in the eye and stared him down until he backed away.
"Please, Xena the Greek, do not make for yourself trouble. We are friends, yes? You must trust me. I am caring for what you say, but I am not the decision. The Scandia are not wanting unpleasantness. We are simply taking our child back. It is what you want, yes?" said Rolf, pleading with his eyes.
"Not yet," said Xena, moving toward him.
"Yes, I understand," said Rolf softly. He glanced at the others and quietly added, "And I am in agreement with you. I will once again plead your--"
Xena heard an oath and whipped around to find two men grabbing and subduing Gabrielle. Instantly, four huge guards grabbed Xena as Sigbj¿rn ripped Ilsa from her arms, the warrior unable to hold on for fear of hurting the little girl in the struggle. The child's scream filled the tent. Xena grappled with her captors, her eyes glued to the girl. Two more men joined in holding the warrior. Sigbj¿rn carried Ilsa under his arm toward the opening of the tent.
"Nahk!" shouted Rolf, trying to take Ilsa from Sigbj¿rn, but the bigger man swatted him aside easily.
"Maaaa-maaaaa!!!" screamed Ilsa, her small arms straining toward Xena. The child's eyes were wild with fear while Xena continued to fight her captors. The girl's desperation lent the warrior strength even she hadn't known before. Quickly, three of Xena's guards were sent flying across the tent. But before they hit the ground, more strong hands grabbed her, pinning her arms and legs.
Gabrielle was struggling against her own guards who were tying her hands as she kicked and swore.
Rolf continued to speak volubly to all gathered, with Marya adding her voice to his. The headwoman angrily said something to Sigbj¿rn who shouted at her, shaking his fist. He gave some last instructions to his guards then ducked out of the tent. Ilsa, still held under his arm, grabbed the edge of the canvas, screaming for her mama in throat-tearing shrieks. Xena was wild-eyed and savagely threw four more guards off her, but several muscled warriors immediately took their place, overwhelming her with their numbers. Her legs were lifted out from under her and roped together. Ilsa's hands were pried off the tent edge and she was gone.
Xena was thrown to the ground and tied hands to feet, her mind hearing only the fading screams of her child.
"What are we going to do?" asked Gabrielle, in a small voice.
Xena was silent, trying to work her bonds free. Unfortunately, the Scandia had learned their lesson and escape was no longer a simple matter. They were tied together to a tent pole, the bonds tight and confining. Xena couldn't reach the bard's hands to free them. In small, restricted strokes, she rubbed her ropes against the pole, hoping the rough wood would help shear through them. She glanced at Gabrielle and frowned. The warrior didn't trust herself to speak. She could feel the black rage settling over her. What she wanted to do was find her sword and kill every last Scandian until Ilsa was safe in her arms again. There was no way on earth she was going to let these people have her daughter.
"Are you mad at me, Xena? For letting Ilsa get caught?"
I'm livid, Xena thought. Of all the bone-headed, idiotic things you could have done, bringing her into the center of the Scandia without first finding out what sort of monsters they were, ranks right up there at the top. "I'd rather not talk about it right now," was all she could manage to say.
"I should have realized you wouldn't need my help."
"I said..!" Xena growled, "I'd rather. Not. Talk. About it."
The bard grew silent while Xena continued desperately trying to escape her bonds. "Okay," said Gabrielle.
"Damn them all to Tartarus!" said Xena, the ropes cutting a bloody path into her wrists with each move. The warrior welcomed the pain. Anything, she realized, to drive away the sight of Ilsa's panicked eyes, or to drown the child's screams as she was carried off to the gods knew where.
"You don't think they'll hurt her, do you?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena lost the last of her patience. "If you don't shut up I'm going to--"
"Xena! I'm concerned too!"
"So concerned you brought her right to them!"
"I knew that's what you were thinking! I said I'm sorry! It was a mistake, okay? I'm not the almighty Xena who's used to storming castles and leading armies. You disappeared. I was worried. I'd hoped I could rescue you. But I couldn't leave her alone in the cave, so I took her with me!"
"What made you think," said Xena in a dangerously controlled voice, "that I needed 'rescuing?' Huh? For Zeus' sake, Gabrielle, I can take care of myself! I don't need you rushing in, putting everyone in danger because you want to play Warrior Princess!"
Gabrielle was shocked into silence. She stared at Xena, who continued to struggle with her bonds, her wrists raw and bloody. "Is that what you think I was doing?" the bard asked quietly. Xena didn't answer. "Well, believe me, that never entered my mind!" said Gabrielle self-righteously.
"No? You could've fooled me. You rode Argo into the camp with Ilsa in your coat and some trumped up plan about going into labor. What else am I supposed to think?"
"That was-- I was--" Gabrielle stopped. Had she, somewhere in her secret heart, imagined herself as the rescuing hero? Trying to plan something outrageous, as Xena always did? Attempting to foil the Scandia with Ilsa there, right under their noses? "By the gods... what if you're right?" she whispered.
Xena stopped struggling and looked over at the bard. "I just wish you'd stayed away," she said. "I told you to guard Ilsa. That's all I wanted from you. As long as we had her, there was nothing they could have done."
"You're right," said Gabrielle in a small, defeated voice. "I guess I... when we visited the cave near Widgie's I remembered how it felt to save your life. To be the strong one. I thought our relationship had moved beyond the 'wait here, Gabrielle' stage a long time ago and I couldn't stand that once again, I was left behind while you went off to save the day."
"But this is different!" said Xena, exasperated. "You had Ilsa to look after! You're the one who tried to persuade me that we could keep her. That everything would be okay, that we could keep her safe. Now the first chance you have to prove it to me, look what happens!"
"What have I done?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice.
Xena sighed. "Nothing that we can't fix. This is just a setback. Once I can work these ropes loose, we'll find Ilsa and leave this place far behind."
Gabrielle began to struggle with her own bindings. "You're right. We'll be okay. We just need to..." The bard stopped on a sob. Damn it! she thought. Now isn't the time to cry. But she couldn't help herself, knowing that her own pride had put Ilsa in real danger.
Xena looked over at the anguished face of her companion. "Gabrielle... it's okay. Really. We'll all be fine. Now, please, don't cry..." she said tenderly, all thoughts of blame disappearing.
"I'm sorry. I'm just..."
"I know. And I'm sorry I blamed you for everything. I should've warned you that I'd probably be taken. I suspected as much, but didn't want to worry you. That was wrong of me. If you'd known that might happen you wouldn't have worried so."
"Yeah, well, still... I should've been more patient."
"Fine, we both made mistakes. Now let's forget about it and try to get out of here." Xena could feel the ropes heating up from friction. Just a few more minutes, she thought.
"Xena... I hate myself for this, but I have to ask. Maybe I'm just feeling particularly vulnerable right now, but..."
"Will losing Ilsa take some of the love from your heart? Will you be wary of giving yourself to others?" Gabrielle paused. "Will you be less in love with me?" she added softly.
Xena frowned. There was so much pain and torment in the question. "Does my love for you appear so fragile and finite?" she asked. She leaned over and gently brushed her lips against the Gabrielle's. "No matter what I feel about Ilsa," she said, taking another sip from the sweetness of her mouth, "you are first in my heart." The bard's lips parted and Xena lingered for a moment, then whispered, "Gabrielle. You are always first and infinite." Xena's kiss deepened. They were connected only by their lips, unable to hold each other. But for now, with the forgiveness and warmth it represented, it was enough.
"So, Xena, you are a lover of women, ja?" said a voice from the back of the tent. Xena broke off her kiss and twisted to see Rolf walking toward them.
"You have a problem with that, Rolf?" she asked dangerously. Xena had no idea where he had come from, and she wasn't fond of being taken by surprise.
He approached them, then sat cross-legged between them. He leaned in and said conspiratorially, "If I did, I should be in great trouble, for I, too, am a lover of women." He winked at Gabrielle.
"This how you treat all your 'guests'?" Xena asked, indicating their bonds.
"No. I am shamed by this," said Rolf seriously. "It was not my idea or wish. Sigbj¿rn wields great power. He is fearing you."
"Oh? What exactly is he afraid of? I've told your people that I came here simply to return the child. But I needed to be sure first. Where is the threat in that? And where is Ilsa?"
Rolf glanced toward the tent flap, then back at Xena. "Sigbj¿rn is... was... my brother's guardian. The Ice People all have parents but also guardians. This way, there are many who love and protect us. Sigbj¿rn was hurt very badly by Lars becoming missing. He failed. He is protector but did not protect. The headwoman, she is also shamed by Sigbj¿rn but he is controlling the army, yes? Now there is great debate and power is being traded. Sigbj¿rn controls the soldiers, the headwoman controls the people. The people will win."
So Sigbj¿rn had pulled off a military coup, thought Xena. Interesting. If he was acting alone, then her opinion of the rest of the Scandia might have to be amended.
"Sigbj¿rn is not understanding his mistake," continued Rolf. "He sees only that you wear Ingrid's amulet when you arrive. It is a powerful token. Most religious. Ingrid, Lars' wife, was a Chosen. She was a Chosen of Thor. Oh, confusion now," said Rolf, shaking his head. "Thor is the Thunder God. The wielder of Mjlnir, the sacred hammer. He is most very powerful. My brother, when he marry Ingrid, honors our god. Because Ingrid is Chosen, you see. She is married to Lars, my brother, and through him, to Thor, our god."
Xena nodded, finally understanding the questions about Ares.
"Does Thor appear to you? Is he real? Can you talk to him?" asked Gabrielle.
"Only to the Chosen is he appearing. By wearing the amulet, you became a Chosen, Xena."
"Me?" said Xena surprised. "No, I don't get along well with gods. Besides, the only reason I wore it was because Ilsa wanted me to."
"Ilsa is also Chosen. When she is older, she will have amulet of her own. And only the Chosen can decide who else is Chosen. Oh, this is confusion, no? I'm sorry that my words are too few to explain."
"You're doing just fine, Rolf."
"Actually, you're amazingly good," said Gabrielle, smiling at him. "Xena told me you wanted to be her friend. That's very nice of you."
"Thank you, beautiful woman," said Rolf with a twinkle in his eye. "And now, this is not polite of me to speak and you are both uncomfortable." Rolf removed his knife from its sheath and sliced through the bonds of both women quickly and efficiently. "It is with deep apology that I am not doing this sooner. My mind is torn by the troubles."
Xena rubbed her wrists and stared speculatively at him. "I doubt Sigbj¿rn gave you permission to do that. What's going on, Rolf?"
"I am working now on my own," he said. "Marya and I have spoken and have agreed to not let you be treated ill. You will stay with us. In hidden. But not in hidden for long. Just until Sigbj¿rn has defeat and I am talking to the elders. Then you will stay openly."
"You're really putting your neck out. Why?" asked Xena, suspiciously.
"I see how Ilsa is with you. I see the love between you. No one could have brought her back with joy in her heart after what happened except someone willing to give her own heart fully. And Ilsa had two women who did this. Mama and Papa. Xena and Gabrielle. This must be honored."
"Thank you for understanding, Rolf. Now please, where is Ilsa? Is she okay? Does Sigbj¿rn have her? I can take him, you know. As long as he isn't physically holding onto Ilsa, I can take him down and you can grab her, then we'll--"
"No, please, Xena. This is not the way. Ilsa is safe. My word is on that. But we must hurry. The guards, they did not see me enter but they are vigilant and are to be checking you every few minutes. Come now with quiet."
Rolf showed her the hidden flap at the back of the tent that he had used to sneak in. He led the two women out into the camp. Quietly, they circumvented the meeting places and throughways, dipping in and out of the shadows. Eventually, Rolf stopped at one of the tents, opened a back flap and gestured them inside.
Marya greeted them silently, smiling her welcome. She indicated a place for them to sit then brought them food and drink.
"You may ask me questions, if you'd like. About the Ice People of Scandia. We have many stories to share."
"Stories? I'd love that!" said Gabrielle.
"We are a people born of a frozen land who--"
"Where is Ilsa?" Xena asked, breaking Rolf off in mid-sentence. "Where is she being kept?"
"Kept? Like prisoner? No, she is not kept," he said, confused. "She is sleeping. Very difficult this day is for her. I will give Sigbj¿rn much speech about his actions this morning. I am not grateful for this approach."
"What is your position among the Scandia, Rolf? Are you his superior?" asked Gabrielle.
"Superior? Oh no. I am an artist. It was me who cast the amulet you wore, Xena. I am a worker in metal and wood."
Gabrielle glanced around the tent and noticed that his art graced many surfaces. "You are very talented! Amazing!"
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
"Where is Ilsa?" broke in Xena. "You never answered--"
Before he could speak, a small voice called out from a screened corner of the tent, "Tanda Marya? Yah lingen Mama..."
"Ilsa?" whispered Xena.
"Ja. Marya and I, we are Ilsa's new parents. This is why Sigbj¿rn shamed us. Ilsa is our decision to make, not his. And Marya and I, we have made a resolve. We want you to be her guardians, Xena and Gabrielle."
Xena leapt up from the cushions and tore away the screen. A very sleepy Ilsa was rubbing her eyes, her mouth quivering, seconds from crying. "Ilsa? Sweetie? It's Mama..." whispered Xena.
Ilsa took her small fists away from her eyes and looked up. Instantly, her face was a picture of wondrous joy. "Mama...?"
"Ja," said Xena, gathering the child in her arms. Mother and daughter held each other silently, Ilsa's arms strong around Xena's neck. Xena laid her cheek next to the girl's and closed her eyes.
"I was b¿rmik, Mama. Next time I hold tighter."
"Ssshhh, sweetie, it's okay. It wasn't your fault. Sigbj¿rn didn't understand, that's all. Everything is going to be okay now. You're safe. Mama's here."
"Don't let go," Ilsa whispered, holding onto the warrior's neck with all the strength in her small arms.
"I won't. I won't let go," Xena said, fighting tears. Unobtrusively, Marya laid a warm hand on Xena's shoulder and said something to Rolf.
"My wife, she is saying thank you for the child's life." He paused, listened some more to Marya and smiled. "She says, she is good with a sword and will stand by your side if anyone tries to take you away from her until you are to leave. But she hopes maybe you will not leave. That maybe you and Gabrielle will stay with the Ice People and be true guardians to Ilsa. I will add now, in my voice, that this would please me most overmuch. There is much room for you here. And I am successful with my art. Two more mouths is not much to feed."
Gabrielle looked at Rolf in wonder. "You would do that? Open your home to strangers, offer to support us, all for Ilsa's sake?"
Rolf walked over and said, "If this is not custom to you, I am apology in advance." He then gathered the bard in his arms and gave her a great bear hug. "There. You are no longer a stranger, for our hearts have beat near. You are family now." Marya walked over and hugged Gabrielle, adding her own heart to the new family.
"Xena... I think Ilsa is going to be okay," said Gabrielle softly.
Xena kissed her child on the cheek and said, "Yeah. I guess she will." She tried to smile. She wanted them to know that she accepted them as parents for her daughter. But some things are too difficult for even the strongest of warriors.
"I need a favor, Rolf," said Xena, still holding Ilsa.
Rolf had just returned from speaking to the council of elders, who were now back in power. Sigbj¿rn had been reprimanded and stripped of his authority as leader of the military for his insurrection. He had humbly agreed to abide by their laws, having been made aware of his errors in judgment.
The council had agreed to let the two Greek visitors remain in their encampment for as long as they wished. A formal apology had been sent to both Xena and Gabrielle, which Rolf took great delight in translating. Now, the new family had just finished their meal and were relaxing by the fire.
"You may have whatever I own, Xena. What is it you wish?"
"I need the amulet back," said Xena. Ilsa squirmed to get away, so the warrior plopped her on her feet. The child ran on chubby legs to a corner of the tent filled with beautifully hand-carved toys and began to play.
"Yes, it is to be returned to you. Sigbj¿rn is to be apologize for his many acts against you, including for the theft. He did not know that Ilsa had chosen you as disciple of Thor. You will, of course, want to appear in the festival."
"Yes. Yes I do. As a Chosen, I must," Xena replied slowly. Gabrielle gave her a suspicious glance, but knew better than to ask any questions when that particular expression graced the warrior's face. "Just to be clear," continued Xena, "could you describe this festival and what my role will be?"
"Yes, of course. It is still strange to you, no?"
Rolf described the Seven Rituals of Thor in detail. Xena nodded encouragingly as he spoke of the different ceremonies: the Reading of the Runes, the Dance of the Valkyries, the Loki Games, the Celebration of Odin and the Decoration of Yggdrasil. Though Gabrielle was fascinated, Xena could barely control her impatience, waiting for him to get to the final, and seventh, ceremony: The Triumphal of Thor's Chosen. Unfortunately, he didn't know many details, as only the Chosen are allowed in, but he did know that the Thunder God himself was expected to appear. That was what Xena had been waiting to hear.
"So you have decided to stay with our family?" asked Marya, through her husband.
"We're still discussing it," said Xena with a smile. Gabrielle eyed Xena speculatively and was about to speak when the warrior turned to her. "Aren't we, Gabrielle?"
"Uh... yeah. No decisions yet," said the bard.
"You will be giving much thought to remaining, yes?" said Rolf.
"Yes, Rolf," said Xena sincerely. "It really is a very generous offer and I can't tell you how much your friendship here has meant to us. And your invitation to take us into your home, well, it's extraordinary."
Rolf's handsome face lit up in a smile. "Not so very. You get a new family and I get two more beautiful women in my house. What man would not like this?" Marya playfully slapped his arm when he translated with a grin.
The love between the two of them shined forth so strong, Xena found herself grinning as well. "Better watch this one, Marya," Xena said. "He's too charming for his own good."
"Now you flatter me," he said and repeated her comments for his wife. Marya clucked her tongue at him and said something conspiratorial to Xena.
"What'd she say?" asked Gabrielle when Rolf's cheeks reddened.
"She... my wife, her sense of humor is..."
"Yes?" asked Xena, an eyebrow raised.
"She said that you may have me for the night, Xena, if she gets Gabrielle," said Rolf sheepishly.
Gabrielle was shocked while Xena laughed appreciatively, winking at Marya. "Oh, I do like you," the warrior said. Just then, Ilsa fell on some blocks, hitting her knee. She scrunched her face in a plaintive wail, peeking at the adults to see who would notice. Xena looked over, started to rise, then sat back down. "Perhaps you should go, Marya," said Xena, pointedly. The Scandian woman nodded her understanding and went to take care of the child.
Gabrielle looked from Xena to Marya and back. She saw Xena fighting the urge to find out if the child was seriously hurt. Knowing that it was the first step on a long road, Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and squeezed. Xena hesitated then covered the offered hand with her own and smiled sadly at the bard. "I'll be okay," she said.
"I know," said Gabrielle. "But there's no reason to go through this alone."
nodded, put an arm around the bard's shoulders and continued to keep her eyes
anywhere but on the child.
"Xena and I have discussed the situation and though your offer is more than generous, it is with deep regret, tinged with sorrow and --"
"We're leaving after the festival," said Xena, starkly, cutting off the bard's flowery declaration.
"I was getting there," said Gabrielle, sotto voce, to Xena.
"It was taking too long," replied Xena in kind.
"You are sure of this?" asked Rolf, his face reflecting his sadness. He turned to Marya and told her what had been said.
"We are," said Xena. Ilsa was asleep, taking a nap before the festival. The Ice People were all decked out in their finest, the buzz of excitement was everywhere. Only Xena and Gabrielle had not caught the fever of the day.
"May I ask," said Rolf hesitantly, "if there is any more I can offer? You will be leaving a hole in the heart of our family. Marya and I are most pleasured by your being here and Ilsa--"
"I'll take care of Ilsa," said Xena, her voice devoid of feeling. "I won't leave her without... I'll take care of it."
"We really are sorry about leaving," said Gabrielle, jumping in again. "We've loved staying with you. And if circumstances were different... well, Xena has her reasons for needing to get back home."
"Then it is not in my control," said Rolf, sadly. "And I reach past this heaviness in my heart to wish you both a safe journey."
"Thank you," said Xena. "We'll leave at first light tomorrow."
Gabrielle stared at the warrior in surprise. "Tomorrow? So soon? But Ilsa won't--"
"I told you. I'll take care of her. Now let it go."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned away from Xena. She walked over to the small pallet where Ilsa slept. Stroking her soft blonde hair with one hand, the bard gazed down at the child whose dreams didn't understand tomorrow's loss.
"Good-bye, Ilsa," she whispered, kissing her lightly on her forehead.
Thor's Chosen were gathered in a small makeshift temple near the edge of the Scandian settlement. The festival had been building to this moment and the entire tribe was gathered outside. They had indulged in food and spirited drink for hours and were now feeling a religious buzz unequaled in ordinary lives. Surely their god would appear tonight! Surely he would not forsake the Ice People in their time of need! For they had a long journey back to their homeland and required his blessing.
Xena was inside the temple, being dressed by several women who were servants of Thor. No animal skins or furs were allowed past the tent walls and the warrior had had to surrender her clothing at the entrance. Now she was lost in copious folds of rare and treasured cloth, created just for the Chosen. Cut low across her breasts and high on one leg, Xena wondered exactly what the Thunder God had chosen her for.
When everyone was ready, a hush fell across the room. It was time. Bosse stepped in front of the crowd. He wore black robes sprinkled with fine metal threads and around his neck was an amulet similar to Xena's. He walked to the fire pit, threw something in it which caused a great rushing of flames and a cloud of black smoke.
Bosse spoke to the small crowd in sepulchral tones, imploring the Thunder God to make an appearance. Xena couldn't understand his words, but the intent was clear. Everyone in the temple waited apprehensively to see if once again, a god would walk among mortals.
Suddenly, there was a shimmering light. It grew in brilliance until Xena had to shade her squinting eyes. The other Chosen fell to their knees in supplicance, so the warrior lowered herself to the ground. It wouldn't do to be the only one standing, though she felt no love or worship for this god.
The light shifted and shimmered and then, accompanied by a gasp from every mouth present, a god stood before them.
"I am Thor, God of Thunder, Wielder of Mjlnir!" he said, his voice rumbling across their skin.
Xena looked up, startled. She'd understood every word! But how is that possible? she wondered. She glanced around and it was obvious everyone else had understood as well. She looked back and found her eyes riveted on Thor. His presence was commanding, awe-inspiring and regal. His hair and beard were of a rich gold and his eyes a piercing blue. He had appeared as a man, but his power made him difficult to see, his radiant aura almost blinding. He swept the room with his eyes and noticed Xena's stare. Quickly, she bowed her head again, but internally, she berated herself for jeopardizing her mission. The Thunder God may not have taken kindly to a mortal's stare.
"You who are my Chosen," Thor said at last, "come before me with gifts, awaiting my blessings. This pleases me, people of Scandia. Thus, I give you your first bounty. The path home is made safe for thirty days. For thirty days, you shall find no tragedy or death. This I give to you as your god," said Thor.
There was a joyous murmur in the crowd. Thirty days! Thirty days free from worry and stress! No marauding villagers, no murders for being different, no fear of strangers. It was the most generous gift a god could give.
"I hear, among you, desires and wishes and dreams. I will choose five who may present these to me. Five among you will have your heart's wish," said the god.
Again the crowd of Chosen stirred as everyone prayed to the depths of their soul to be in the lucky five. Xena sat quietly, knowing that she must be one of them. It was her only hope. But how to make it happen? she wondered. In her mind, she thought of Ilsa. She saw again the look of terror on her daughter's face as she had been ripped from her mama's arms by Sigbj¿rn. Though she barely knew how to go about it, Xena closed her eyes and prayed.
"Within nine months you will bear a child, Turid, and she will be strong and you will name her Inga. In five years time, she will receive my amulet, for she has been chosen," said Thor, to the fourth supplicant. The woman backed away from the god, almost fainting when she returned to her place. Her barren life would soon be a thing of the past, for she will finally have a child to love.
Again, Thor swept the crowd with wintry eyes. Xena knew that there was only one more wish to be granted. Slowly, she raised her head and met his gaze. Then deliberately, she stood.
The Chosen gasped, burying their heads deeper into the floor of the tent. A few whispered among themselves, greatly disturbed that the outsider might be the ruination of them all.
"Silence!" thundered Thor.
All tongues stilled, though Xena could feel the nervous quaking of the people around her, vibrating with fear.
"Come forward," said Thor, gesturing to Xena. With a straight back, she walked boldly toward the god. He held her eyes with his, exerting his control, but her lips quirked in challenge as she told him wordlessly that she would not succumb. "You are Xena," he said, "a Greek, a Chosen of Thor through Ilsa of the Scandia. I know you, warrior, and I know what you would ask of me."
Xena tried not to let him see her surprise. Her own gods seemed unable to read minds, yet it was obvious Thor was seeing deeply inside her. "Will you do it?" she asked.
Thor smiled. "Closer, woman," he said, and Xena could feel his mind reaching into her thoughts. She stepped to within a few feet and stopped. He towered over her, one hand gripping Mjlnir, the other hooked in his belt. Unlike the Chosen, he was wearing leather and fur, the clothing adding to his bulk. He reached out and touched Xena's cheek with one finger. The warrior willed herself not to respond even though the touch of this god was passionate and primal. How could he appear so cold and yet his touch have such heat? she wondered.
"Speak your wish," said Thor.
"You said you knew it. Why do I have to speak?"
"Haven't you the courage, Xena?" he asked, smiling.
She bristled, then realized that this was his aim. Again, she struggled against her arcane urge to run or fall to her knees. He may be a god, she thought, but he's not my god.
"But I am your god," he said, reading her thoughts. "Right now, I am your only god. You are my Chosen. Until the amulet is taken from your neck, you belong to me, body and soul. Now speak."
Xena wanted to take the amulet and fling it in his face. She didn't like his brand of power. It was too overwhelming; his will too strong in the face of her need. Consciously, she concentrated on her reason for being there. "I want you to protect the child, Ilsa. Protect her from the pain of my leaving," said Xena.
"And how would you have me do this?"
"You're a god, figure it out," she said. His eyes narrowed, and she realized that she was close to overstepping the boundaries. She needed this god. Why was she antagonizing him? She took a deep breath and spoke with sincerity. "Please help her. Help her to accept my absence." She paused. "Take away her memory of me."
The god was silent for a moment, looking at Xena thoughtfully. "And what gift do you offer me in return?" he asked.
"Anything," she answered, her eyes lifeless.
"If I asked for your soul in supplication, would you worship me?"
"If I asked for your body to bear my child, would you welcome me?"
Xena's eyes hardened. "Yes."
"If I asked for your life, would you die for me?"
"Yes. Now what do you want?"
Thor smiled. "So filled with pride. What I should ask is your allegiance to the Scandia. Your blood would make a valuable addition."
"Is that what you want?" asked Xena.
"Perhaps. Of course, you would have to give up your dalliance with the Greek bard. What good would you be if you did not reproduce?"
White-hot rage flashed through her and she fought the urge to leap at him with her sword. He watched her struggle and laughed. "So predictable, Xena. This has pleased me, this game we've just played."
A game? she thought. "You have a god's sense of humor, Thor," she said dryly.
"And you are not fond of gods, are you?"
"No. I'm not."
"Yet your god, Ares, is quite fond of you."
"You know him?" she asked surprised.
"The heavens are not so large that we do not know of others. But that is not for mortal speculation."
"So what gift do you ask?" asked Xena, growing tired.
"Revenge," he said simply.
She looked at him quizzically, not understanding. Suddenly her mind was filled with the scene in the clearing, the dismembered body of Lars and the bloody corpse of Ingrid, Thor's Chosen. "You want me to find their killers?" Xena asked.
"Find and destroy," said the god, showing her in her mind the faces of the people who had done this.
Xena saw the carnage now as it had happened. She saw the mob of villagers chasing the family, catching them and then, drunk and bigoted, making sport of their deaths. She saw them taking turns as they raped Ingrid. She saw them hacking and slashing at Lars, who was unarmed and defenseless. And she saw two large, sky-blue eyes watching from the safety of the trees, unnoticed.
"Stop!" she said, able to handle everything but the sight of Ilsa's silent witnessing. "What will you have me do? Kill them all?"
"It is my wish," said the Thunder God, calmly.
"You're no better than Ares!" said Xena, fighting her own need to avenge herself on the people who killed her daughter's parents.
"I ask you not to turn to darkness or war, Xena. I ask only this one act. Am I the same?"
"One act or many, I've changed!" said Xena, pushing down her rage. "I cannot be commanded by a god -- any god -- into returning to the warlord I once was. I will not do it."
Thor looked at her speculatively. "I am not asking for your soul. And the blood that will touch your hands that day will be washed clean from you. This I promise. But I need you, as my messenger, to let the world know that Thor's people will not be sheep led to a slaughter. Ingrid was my Chosen. There were reasons why I did not interfere at the time of her death, but it is my desire that her death be avenged. This is my price, Warrior Princess. My price for the memories of the child."
Xena looked into his icy eyes and saw in them the warmth and love he felt for his people. She saw the pain he had felt when his Chosen had been killed. She saw the torture he still felt that the child had seen this. And suddenly she knew he wanted to grant her wish. Wanted it almost as much as she did. "You'll do it anyway, won't you?" she asked in a whisper.
"No," he said.
"But you want to. Why won't you--"
"They killed my Chosen."
Xena saw the depth of his conviction. He needed her help, as much as she needed to know Ilsa would be protected. "All right, Thunder God. I agree. I will do as you ask. I will take your revenge."
Thor nodded once. "I grant you your wish. The child will be protected. But isn't there something else? Something more you should ask?"
Xena looked at him in surprise. "No. That is all I would ask of you," she said.
"What about you, Xena? Do you not want my... protection?"
And there it was. Everything within her grasp. Thor was offering to take away the pain of parting from both of them. She wouldn't have to feel the heart-tearing separation. Wouldn't have to see Ilsa's face in her dreams. Wouldn't have to spend her life wondering if she had made the right decision, or thinking about where her child was now, what she was doing, if she was safe, what kind of woman she would grow up to be... wouldn't have to feel at all.
And wouldn't remember. She wouldn't remember the smiles they had shared, Ilsa's loving touches, the snuggling hugs. Wouldn't remember sitting by the campfire singing songs or listening to Gabrielle's stories as a family. Wouldn't remember the snowball fight, or the feel of her in the sling, warm and cozy. And she wouldn't remember the wonder of hearing herself called 'Mama' for the first time.
"No, there's nothing else," Xena said, resolutely.
"Bow to me, woman. Give your heart to Thor until tomorrow. Then, before you leave, remove the amulet and place it on the child's neck. All will then be forgotten."
There was no sleep for the warrior that night. After the festival finally ended, she had returned to Rolf's tent, exhausted but satisfied. Gabrielle was instantly by her side and they spoke in low tones long into the night about Xena's meeting with Thor and its repercussions. The bard shed a few tears, in both pain and joy and Xena wearily held her, comforting the one who wanted to comfort. Gabrielle eventually fell asleep, but Xena's mind refused to let her rest. She left her companion alone in the blankets and noiselessly approached Ilsa's small cot. The child was sleeping peacefully, a tiny smile flickering on her lips.
"You dreaming, kid?" Xena whispered with a smile. "Looks like a nice dream, too. That's good. Dreams should be things to smile about." Delicately, she ran her fingertips down the girl's face, marveling once again at the satin texture of cheeks so young. "You're going to be a beauty when you grow up. Gonna break a lot of hearts. There's great power in being beautiful, y'know. You have to learn to keep that under control. Don't be mean or manipulative, okay? Keep your heart pure, like it is now." The child stirred and Xena watched as she curled her fist under her chin and kicked softly with one leg. "And another thing. No matter what happens, remember there is always a right way and a wrong way. The right way is the one you want. Nothing justifies a life spent in darkness. And if you're ever tempted, just remember what you've already done. You suffered through the worst thing imaginable to a child. And you still came out with more love in your little finger than most people give in a lifetime. You're really something, y'know that, kid?" The warrior watched as the girl's eyes darted beneath their lids, her mind conjuring pictures that sightless eyes watched.
"Mama..." whispered Ilsa.
Xena's breath caught in her throat and she fought for control. "Don't do this to me, kid," she rasped. "Don't make it harder. Don't let those happy dreams be about me. I can't take that. I can't."
She turned from the child and walked outside, breathing in the frigid night air, needing the needle-like pain in her lungs. Anything, to get her mind off the sleeping child. Anything, to give her the strength to return the amulet. Anything, to enable her to say good-bye.
The dawn was cold but the sky was clear -- as blue as Ilsa's eyes, thought Xena. She had finished packing Argo and all that was left were her good-byes. Ilsa was awake when she entered the tent.
"Let's do it," Xena said to the gathered adults.
"You don't want maybe to speak to her or--"
"No. She won't remember it anyway."
Gabrielle lifted Ilsa in her arms and squeezed her, kissing her on the cheek.
"Papa? What you hug for?" she asked surprised, eyeing her potato pancakes.
"Just cuz I love you," said Gabrielle then put her down. The bard turned her back and quickly walked to the other side of the tent, only to fold and refold a scroll she had earlier thrown away.
"C'mere, Ilsa," said Xena.
The child left her breakfast and grinned. "Did you asked him?"
"Ask who? What?"
"Thor god! Did you asked him? Are dere bears in Valhalla?"
Disconcerted, Xena said, "I... forgot. I'm sorry. Why did you want to know?"
"My udder papa likes to hunt bears. I hope dere's bears."
"Well, then there probably are. You know, the dead can hear your thoughts, Ilsa. You can tell your Papa about the bears if you want."
"Real? Tak, Mama," she said and gave a potatoey kiss to Xena. She turned back to her breakfast, but Xena restrained her.
"Ilsa. Sweetie. I... I need to give you something..."
"Xena, please," said Gabrielle, her back still turned. "Please hug her before you do. Please give yourself one last hug, okay? You need to feel that one last time. I know you, Xena. I know you."
Xena scowled at Gabrielle. "This is hard enough!" she said.
The warrior turned back to the child and smiled. Tears were already forming in the warrior's eyes. "Okay, kid, give me a big hug. See if you can squeeze the stuffing outta me!"
Ilsa giggled and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, hugging with all her strength. Xena held her, breathing in her child's scent. She paused for a moment, imprinting every sensation on her mind. Then, while she was still being held, Xena lifted the amulet's chord from her neck and slipped it over her daughter's head as she whispered, "I'll always love you, Ilsa."
From the cloudless blue sky came the sound of rolling thunder.
The strength left Ilsa's arms. Xena gently disentangled herself and leaned away. The child put her hands over her face for a moment then looked around, confusion in her eyes.
"Per Rolf?" Ilsa said, spying her uncle.
"Ja, Ilsa?" he answered, hunkering down next to her.
"Yah har fjruken sted," she said.
Rolf put his hand on her forehead, testing her temperature.
"What is it? What's wrong?" asked Xena, anxiously.
"Nothing, Xena. She has a little headache. No heat, though. She is maybe just feeling a small effect."
"Yah kan inte spelinkar, Per Rolf!" said the child.
"She doesn't understand these foreign words," said Rolf, sadly.
Ilsa noticed Xena and backed away shyly, grabbing Rolf and hiding herself behind him. Xena tentatively smiled at her, but the child didn't respond. There was no recognition in her eyes. To Ilsa, Xena was a stranger.
"Let's go, Gabrielle," said Xena, her voice strained.
"Yeah. Let's go," said the bard, sniffing.
Xena jumped on Argo and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. She wanted to get as far away as possible from the Scandia camp.
Rolf and Marya came out to see them off, a still shy Ilsa cradled in the artist's arms. The two Scandian adults waved a tearful good-bye, as the Greek women waved back. The child just stared with indifferent eyes.
Unable to look at an uncaring Ilsa any longer, Xena turned Argo's head and cantered away from the Ice People.
The tavern was dark, polluted with the smell of spilled ale, stale sweat and unwashed bodies. Two tired barmaids served the customers, putting up with harassing hands and verbal gibes at their anatomy. It was just another day in the small Greek village.
When the door opened, only a few patrons bothered to glance its way. But their gasps soon led other eyes toward it until every man in the bar was staring in silent wonder. Framed by afternoon sunlight was a tall, stunningly beautiful blonde, dressed in standard Scandian travel wear.
"Mighty Aphrodite," said one of the men in a whisper.
As if on cue, half the men in the tavern scrambled out of their seats to approach the stranger, all speaking at once, stumbling over each other in their efforts to be noticed.
The woman's dazzling smile almost stopped time once again, as each male felt its impact. Gracefully, the Scandian walked over to the bar and pointed to a jug of ale.
"Hur mycket kost dat?" she said in her lilting tongue.
"Uh... sorry, lady," said the bartender, standing at his full height and still having to look up to see her perfect sky-blue eyes. "I don't... that is..."
She shrugged and waved his confusion away as she turned to the men in the bar. "I... have look my sister," she said in heavily accented Greek. "Maybe, you see, ja?"
One man separated from the group and patted his hair into place as he approached. "Your sister? Tall, blonde, pretty like you?"
"Ja! Dat her. You see?"
"Uh... well... she and that fella of hers, they were here awhile back. Caused some trouble in town."
The blonde's eyes reflected her growing fear. "Trouble?"
"Yeah, they was with them Scandia and there was a little misunderstanding and well, things got sorta bad," he said. Two of his friends had joined him and were trying to get his attention, attempting to shut him up.
"Bad?" the woman said. "How is bad?"
"There was a accident and-- cut it out!" he said, turning to the man who was tugging at his sleeve.
"You oughtn't say anything, Kristos," his friend said.
"Why? It was her sister. She oughta know."
"But we said we weren't gonna tell nobody, ever."
"Tell what?" asked the woman, worried.
"Well, ma'am, y'see, there was a accident, like I said," continued Kristos. "And one thing led to another and her and that fellow, they was unfortunately demised."
"De... what means this?"
"They was killed, okay?" said Kristos, knocking away the grabbing hands of his friends. "Now leave me alone, the all of you! She's her sister for Hades' sake!"
"Killed..." gasped the blonde. "How did killed?"
"It was a accident. That's all. Nothing nobody could do."
"Dere vas a child..." said the woman.
"Huh? We dint see no child," said one of the men.
"I did," said a voice from behind the crowd that had gathered. "But she runned off so's no one could catch her."
"You dint tell me 'bout no child!" shouted Kristos.
"Thought you knew," the other man said, shrugging.
"I guess the child ain't no more, neither, ma'am. Them woods is fulla animals and such."
"Vas you all dere?" she asked.
"Well'm..." Kristos said, looking around the room. "Yeah, I'm thinking most of us was. 'Cept old Shooter back there. He's crazy. And them boys over there, they was too young for that kinda thing. I'm sorry 'bout your loss, but we can verify it. Alla us. They's dead, ma'am."
"Ahhhh..." said the woman, looking like she wanted to cry.
"Here, then, let me buy you a drink, huh?" said Kristos. "And then maybe later we can... y'know... get to know each other better. I'll tell you 'bout your sister and--"
Kristos was lifted off his feet by one of the woman's hands around his neck. Her blue eyes darkened in anger and she snarled through her teeth in perfect Greek, "That won't be necessary. I think I have all the information I need."
"You nuts, lady?" shouted one of the men.
Quickly, she took the blonde wig off her head and shook her own dark hair free.
"Xena...!" gasped one of the men and the name was repeated through the tavern in growing waves of fear.
"I'm here to pay a debt," said the warrior. "Got a friend who wanted me to take some revenge on the killers of Lars and Ingrid of the Ice people. Now, he's a very influential friend, this man. And I don't feel like disappointing him. So say your final prayers, folks, because you're all on your way to meet Charon."
Xena tossed Kristos across the bar with a crash then whipped off the Scandian costume. Underneath she wore her leathers and had drawn her sword before the men could react.
There was a stampede for the door, but it was blocked shut and they were trapped inside. All eyes turned back to Xena, who laughed wickedly at their fear, then began the process of making good on her gift to the Thunder God.
Gabrielle heard a pattern of knocks and removed her staff from the handles of the door. Xena emerged from the tavern dragging her bloody sword. Inside, the bard saw the carnage and flinched.
Xena looked back at the small bunch of cowering survivors -- three teenage boys and one old man. Slowly she turned and glared at the village, its inhabitants hiding behind doors and windows. In a loud, clear voice she said, "Spread the word: No one touches the Scandia. The Ice People are Thor's Chosen and they will not be slaughtered without vengeance from their god."
Within moments, the message began to be repeated by everyone who had heard. The Scandia would be safe.
"C'mon, let's get out of here," said Xena.
"Yeah, let's hurry, too, okay?" replied Gabrielle.
They jumped on Argo and rode out of town.
Reverently, Xena placed the flowers on the shared grave of Ingrid and Lars. She sat quietly for a moment, staring at the new grass that was already covering the mound. Gabrielle sat down next to her and put her arm around the warrior.
"I'll bet they were a great couple," said Xena.
"Rolf spoke so highly of both of them," agreed Gabrielle.
They were silent again, each lost in thought. Not once had Xena mentioned Ilsa since they had waved good-bye at the Scandia settlement. Every time Gabrielle had spoken of her, Xena had cut her off with threatening speed. The bard looked at her friend's face and still, no tears were flowing. She shook her head sadly, wondering how anyone could hold that much hurt inside.
Gabrielle had shed many tears since they had left the Scandia over a month earlier. She had wept and grieved and remembered. And eventually, she knew, she would come to terms with the loss of the child she had begun to think of as her own. But Xena had done none of these things. Gabrielle worried that her friend would never let herself feel again. It wasn't healthy, keeping everything locked up tight. The bard knew that her own tears had already started her on the road to healing.
Suddenly, the bard's thoughts were interrupted by a bright shimmering light that appeared above the grave. Gabrielle covered her eyes, not understanding what was happening. A huge man, dressed in leather and fur and carrying a giant hammer, appeared before them.
Xena slowly rose to her feet. "Thor," she said.
"I did as you asked."
"I saw. Thank you." The god looked at the grave of his Chosen. "They are in Valhalla."
"Are there bears in Valhalla?" Xena asked quietly.
Thor smiled. "Why do you ask this question?"
"Someone asked me once. I didn't know the answer."
"Ah. Yes, there are bears in Valhalla. In fact, Lars, whose grave you visit, has hunted them with great skill. Valhalla is a place for warriors who fall in battle. Only those worthy can be found in the Hall of Odin after their death." Thor waved a finger at the grave and from out of nowhere appeared a stone marker covered in runes. "To honor them," he said simply. He turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "I spoke to Lars and Ingrid moments ago. They send a message to you both. They are grateful for all that you did for their child."
Xena looked away, her chin shaking slightly.
Thor watched her speculatively. "It is time, Xena."
"Time for what?" asked Gabrielle, afraid.
"Time for her to grieve," he said. He reached out a hand and cupped Xena's face.
"I can't," said the warrior, looking into wintry eyes that held the warmth of summer. "I've tried. I can't feel anything. I can't feel anything at all."
Thor smiled gently. He touched her eyes with two great fingers and suddenly, tears began to flow. Xena cried out once, a strangled, chilling sound then she collapsed to her knees, shaking with wracking sobs. Thor turned to Gabrielle and held her still with a look.
"In a moment, Gabrielle," he said.
"You... know who I am?" she asked, wanting desperately to hold her friend.
"I know all my children. Being Greek doesn't mean you aren't loved by other gods. Now listen, please. She will need your help in the coming weeks. Her sorrow is great. You have shed many tears and have settled with yourself in your spirit. She has not opened that door until now."
"I know. She's been so... distant..."
"She needs your love and kindness and indulgence now. She feels a pain greater than any she has ever imagined. Ilsa was her child as much as if she had been brought from her womb. And now that child is dead to her. Help her, Gabrielle. Your love will help heal this wound. Do not let her grieve alone."
"I won't," whispered Gabrielle.
"Here," he said, handing her a small token. "When she begins to recover herself, give her this. It is my amulet. She is my Chosen. It carries with it no obligation for worship or thought. But it has a small piece of Ilsa's spirit inside and that will comfort her."
Gabrielle nodded, holding the amulet close.
"And when the time comes that Ilsa is with child, I will instruct her to name her daughter Xena."
If you want to contact me about this story, please put the title of the story or the word "Xena" in the subject line. My firstname.lastname@example.org account gets so much spam I tend to delete anything that I don't absolutely know is really for me.
(c) copyright 1997 WordWarior@aol.com (yeah, I made up a lot of this stuff, though some of it is Swedish. I sort of jumbled it all together, just for fun.)
aeriken sing lart learn
Ah-goo Argo lerkt village
bjkir alone M
b¿rmik scared Mama Mama
brder bread mekt leave
D murble more
dah you mycket much
dit your N
d¿vek where (is) nahk no
erd and O
fjerkin spying P
fjruken sick Papa Papa
fjuktil huge pleten please
flik filthy (or worse...) praevak liar
G raekje angry
Gahb-yell Gabrielle restig reason
H s¿rten sorry
har have spelinkar understand
hilket want sted head
hur how Szeeneh Xena
inte not t' at
J t¿r your
ja yes tunan murderer (or worse...)
kar are vaek was/is
k¿rtik horse Y
kost cost Yah I (am)