Sins of the Daughter
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
"...and ever since that day, the three daughters of Zeus have determined the fortunes and the fates of all mankind."
"Uh-huh." Xena watched Gabrielle wave her arm in a flourish as she related the tale of the Three Fates. The two women walked side by side along an open road, with Argo trailing behind. Xena let her eyes wander over the rolling green countryside which surrounded them, punctuated here and there with small stands of trees. It was late in the afternoon after a long day of travel, and she did not mind that her young companion helped to pass the time with her storytelling. Even if it was one shed heard many times before.
"Clotho," the bard continued, "who combs and spins the thread of life. Lachesis, the apportioner, who weaves that thread into the fabric of ones actions. And finally, Atropos, the crone, who uses her shears to cut..." and at that, the blonde made a scissoring motion with her hands, "...the thread. And no man," her voice was deep and ominous, "dares to interfere with the handiwork of the Three Fates!"
"No man, eh?" Xena turned to her friend and offered her a cheeky smile. It was not too long ago that theyd had occasion to tangle with the Fates, thanks to the meddling of Ares, god of war. The results had very nearly been disastrous.
"Well, you know what I mean, Xena." Gabrielle replied stiffly. She recalled only too well how close Xenas thread had come to being severed, thanks to Ares and Hope. Hope... her daughter. A chill ran through the bard at the thought of those troubled times, when she and Xena had been pushed to the edge of their limits, and beyond. Leave it to Xena to try to make light of it, now that the danger was past.
"Hey!" Xena said, sensing a change in her friends mood. She put an arm around the smaller womans shoulders as they walked. "Why dont you tell me another story - one that hits not quite so close to home?"
The bard brightened. "All right! How about--"
"Id like to hear that one about the lamb and the wolf," Xena requested. "You know... the one you wrote? I think its a fine story."
Gabrielle blushed at the sincerity in the warriors tone; she was flattered that Xena wanted to hear one of her original tales. Not only that, but it was one shed told her friend many times before, yet she never seemed to tire of it.
"The one where the wolf saves the lambs life, and they become friends and---"
"Yup - thats the one!" Xena grinned. She knew the bard liked to be encouraged by her audience. "Now how about it?"
"Well..." Gabrielle paused and squinted up at the late afternoon sun, as if collecting her thoughts, "...okay."
Xena shook her head and smiled to herself. Some days, it didnt take much to keep the little bard happy.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "A long time ago... there was a beautiful, little white lamb named Fluff. One dark, stormy night, Fluff was separated from her mother, and found herself lost in the forest..."
The warrior princess listened to the bard spin her heartwarming story of a gentle lamb who was rescued from a pack of wild boars by Tinker, the black lone wolf. Fluff and Tinker became unlikely friends and traveling companions, sharing any number of exciting adventures. It was not hard for Xena to imagine just where Gabrielle had received the inspiration for her characters.
"No... get away from that cave, Tinker growled. A momma bear and her cubs live there..." Gabrielle was huffing and puffing in her best Tinker voice.
Gee, is that how I really sound? The warrior idly wondered to herself.
"Fluff could see the baby bear cubs from where she stood. Come on in and play with us! the smallest of them invited the unsuspecting lamb into the cave." Gabrielle had shifted into a soft, breathy squeak, "My momma isnt home and--"
"Hold that thought!" The warrior shot an arm out in front of the bard. "Looks like someone needs our help," and she tilted her head down the road. There, at a curve just ahead, was a broken-down cart. The rickety wagon was attached to an aged draft horse that was obviously unhappy with its current circumstance, given its sweaty flanks and nervous, pawing snorts.
The problem, Xena could see as they approached, was that a rear wheel on the wagon had fallen off. A dark haired, bearded man struggled to re-attach it. He fought against not only the weight of the wagon, but also against his skittish horse and a constantly shifting load of barrels. It was probably the unsecured cargo that had caused the wheel to come off in the first place, Xena surmised.
Not wanting to spook the old horse any further, Xena tied off Argo to a tree standing some lengths away, letting Gabrielle continue on. "Hi there - need some help?" The bard smiled and planted her staff at her side, stopping next to the wagon.
"Zeus be thanked - could I ever!" The man replied, easing the wheel against the edge of the cart. He slowly stood, muscles creaking, and used a dirtied cloth to wipe the perspiration from his brow. "I was worried Id be out here all night--" The mans face blanched when he turned to Gabrielle.
"Wha..." he faltered.
"No need to thank us," the bard breezed on, mistaking the mans shock for tongue-tied gratitude. "Im just glad we came along when we did. Im Gabrielle, and my friend there is Xena." She pointed over her shoulder to the dark, leather clad warrior who was striding up behind her.
Xena nodded a greeting. "Lets get your cargo out of here first," she said, slapping a hand to the sideboard. "I think thats part of your problem." Xena shifted her gaze from the man to Gabrielle, and back again. The bard had gone to soothe the flustered horse, gently stroking its neck and whispering soft words into a slightly drooped ear. But the man seemed outright petrified.
"How far are you headed?" Xena tried a non-threatening conversational tack as she grabbed a barrel from the cart.
"I - Im from Badrias," he stammered. Fresh perspiration dotted his forehead, and he looked as nervous as a goose on Harvest Eve.
The warrior swung the barrel to the ground. "Well have you home before dinner, then!" she said, trying to reassure him, but he was having none of it. She hopped into the wagon, reaching for another barrel. "This shouldnt take too long..." she hinted, but the man remained rooted to the spot. She followed his frozen stare towards where Gabrielle was still petting the old mare. He neednt worry, Xena thought, knowing the bards gentle-hearted way with animals.
"Do you have family in Badrias?" Gabrielle gave the horse a final pat and turned towards the stranded traveler, while Xena pointedly thunked another barrel to the ground.
The mans composure had been holding together by a thread, and now it seemed to snap before their very eyes.
"No... NO!" he cried, backing slowly away. "Please... I beg of you. Take what you want..." he waved at the cart, "and leave us... leave us alone!" When he was a number of paces away, he finally dared to turn his back on them; he broke into a wild sprint up the hillside, flailing towards a copse of trees near the ridge-line.
"All right," Xenas voice was a low drawl as she heaved the last of the barrels from the wagon. "Can somebody explain to me what just happened here?"
Gabrielle moved next to the warrior, and they both watched the mans retreat. The bards brow was furrowed in thought, trying to make sense of his actions. Quickly, her face relaxed in satisfied conclusion. She turned to Xena and spoke slowly, as if to a child. "Obviously, Xena, you frightened him."
"Did I," Xena said flatly, unconcerned. She spun around and squatted down next to the rear axle.
"He mustve heard of you... you know... how you used to be," Gabrielle began to pace back and forth, pressing her case.
"Riiight..." With an oof! Xena hoisted the cart onto her shoulder, and grabbed for the wheel.
"Yes. That must be it. So well fix the wagon, bring it to Badrias with us--"
"No!" The sharpness in Xenas voice stopped the bard in her tracks.
"He was terrified," the warrior explained. She strained to reach a wooden mallet laying in the dirt nearby, while trying not losing her grip on the wagon. Gabrielle was oblivious to her friends efforts; shed turned back to the hills.
Xena shot a dark look at the bard as she finally snared the tool in her fingertips. "I dont want to be accused of taking anything," she continued. "Weve not been through these parts before. Were strangers here, Gabrielle."
"If youre sure," the blonde said doubtfully, shielding her eyes with her hand, scanning the ridge line.
"Im sure." Xena capped the wheel back into place with a loud grunt. The cart shuddered, clattering back to the earth on four good wheels this time. She stood, massaging the shoulder shed used to jack up the wagon, and she followed the bards eyes towards the ridge. "Hes not far away."
Gabrielle released a wistful sigh. "Its a shame you scared him off, Xena."
The tall woman rolled her eyes. Whatever... Right now, she wanted to finish securely re-loading the wagon, and get moving towards Badrias. She began by alternating the smaller barrels with larger ones, so as to more evenly distribute the load. Properly stowed, the old horse and wagon might just make it to its appointed destination, she thought.
"Gabrielle!" Xenas patience was wearing thin with the daydreaming bard. The warrior was dirty, tired, and looking forward to a hot bath and a good meal. "Theres an inn in Badrias," she said, thumbing towards the remaining unloaded barrels. "Id like to see it sometime tonight?"
"All right Xena," Gabrielle replied, miffed, and she leaned her staff against the side of the wagon. Xena gave her a smug, victorious grin, and resumed her stacking.
Gabrielle ambled over to the warriors side, and reached for a barrel. "Now," she said, using one hand to brush blonde hair out of her eyes, "where was I? Oh yes!"
Xena withheld a chuckle and shook her head. She knew what was coming.
"Fluff went charging into the cave, paying no heed to Tinkers warning..." the bard chattered on.
"Fluff should have listened to Tinker," Xena muttered, and she could not help but smile.
The small town of Badrias was like countless others Xena and Gabrielle had passed through along their journeys; a farming settlement that rose up among the rich, fertile fields that encircled it. They paused at the crest of a low rise overlooking the houses, shops, and other buildings that stood nestled between two small hills.
"Pretty, isnt it?" Gabrielle observed with a contented sigh. And Xena had to agree that the village looked almost magical; the colors of it were particularly vibrant, thanks to the setting sun lighting the scene through clear, fresh air. The two women moved along the main road into Badrias; they finally entered the town proper after crossing a bridge spanning a narrow ribbon of a stream that formed a natural border.
General merchants were just beginning to close up their shops at the end of day; mothers were strolling through the market, some with small children in tow, and there were several groupings of the men of the village, conversing and bantering in front of what appeared to be the primary local hangouts: the inn and the jail.
As Gabrielle and Xena walked, it was obvious that they were drawing the attention of the villagers. The men stopped talking and stared at them with a mixture of fear and anger in their eyes; women called for their children and quickly ushered them off the street.
"Think our friend may have gotten to town ahead of us?" Gabrielle asked.
"I dont know." Xena tried to pretend that the townsfolks shunning did not matter to her, but this was not the first time in her life that shed been subjected to such unspoken animosity.
"Dont you love the colors in this, Xena?" Gabrielle stopped in front of a merchants kiosk and fingered a bolt of cloth shed spied.
"Itd make a nice blanket for Argo," Xena said dryly.
The bard stomped her foot. "Xena!" There was no accounting for the warriors taste, "I was thinking of me!" She turned to the merchant. "Ill give you 3 dinars, just to take it off your hands."
"Its yours!" he gulped, his eyes wide as saucers, "I dont want your money - take it! Take it all!" and he spun away into the building behind him.
"There you go again, Xena. Frightening people!" Gabrielle shook her head, and folded the cloth into her bag. She started to move away, but the iron grip of the warrior stopped her.
"Okay!" She tossed a couple of dinars on the kiosk.
Xena propelled her friend back into the main thoroughfare. "Look Gabrielle, heres the inn." A two story building stood just in front of them. "And I can see the stables," she nodded towards the far end of the commercial district. "Let me go board Argo, and Ill meet you inside, all right?"
"Fine. I could eat a horse. No offense, Argo," she added, as the mare whinnied in protest.
"None taken," Xena raised an eyebrow at her friend and consoled Argo with a pat on her neck. "Get a room for the night, too. And Gabrielle," she called after her, "try to stay out of trouble!"
The bard stepped up to the inn. "No problem here, Xena," she tossed lightly over her shoulder. "Its you Im worried about - try not to scare anybody, all right?" And she was gone.
Xena ground her teeth at that, but she struck out for the stables. In short order, she made arrangements with the stable-master for Argos care, and was relieved at least to see that the kindly older gentleman did not seem to fear her.
"Beautiful horse!" he remarked, leading Argo to a stall. "Ill make sure shes got all the oats and water she can handle!"
Xena thanked and paid the man, grateful to leave her loyal steed in the care of one who obviously had an excellent rapport with horses. She whispered a quick see you in the morning! to the animal, and headed out for the inn.
What now? Xena wondered, seeing a small crowd milling about outside the inns entrance. She looked questioningly at them as she approached, but they had nothing to say to her. They parted and let the warrior pass by, giving her a wide berth.
Inside the darkened interior, a fire blazed in a large hearth, illuminating the room in a soft, diffused light. Lanterns stood on either side of the bar, and a stairway on the left led to the guest rooms above-stairs. There were a number of tables arranged on the main floor, but these were all empty, save for the one which held Gabrielle.
"Now look whos clearing a room!" the warrior said, heaving herself down into a chair next to her friend.
"Mnnn... Xena... youve got to try these goose livers!" The bard happily plunked one into her mouth.
"Maybe later," Xena sniffed at the foul odor and turned away. "What Id really like is something to drink." She saw a bartender standing stock-still at the end of the bar. He eyed the women fearfully, showing no inclination to move any closer.
"The service in this place is terrible," Gabrielle said. "And its not like theyre waiting on other customers!" She indignantly waved her hand around the empty room. "Xena," she leaned across the table, whispering, "are you sure you havent been to Badrias before? It was as if people couldnt get out of here fast enough to have a look at you!" She shrugged and reached for another goose liver.
"Really? Then where are they now?"
The bard stopped in mid-chew, the error of her logic plain. "Mnnnpf..."
"Well, Im going to talk to the barman," Xena said. "See if I cant get something to drink and find out what in tartarus is going on around here!"
The warrior stood and made her way to the bar. With each closing step, it appeared to her that the man pressed deeper into the shadowed corner of the bar. As Xena drew up to him, she saw that he was actually trembling. And if thered been away for him to escape through the wall behind him, she was sure he wouldve done so by now. The barman was obviously scared stiff; that same sort of fear theyd seen earlier with the wagon driver, and in the streets of Badrias. Xena was worried. Fear in and of itself was one thing. But fear linked to ignorance were often followed by violence; shed witnessed that often enough in her own past. For whatever reason, she and Gabrielle were treading on dangerous ground here in Badrias, and she didnt like it.
"Id like an ale, friend," she said, slipping onto a stool.
The barman wordlessly moved to a nearby keg and began to draw a mug of the hazel-nut colored brew. Xena was positive she could hear his teeth chattering as the liquid flowed. He turned to her, drink in hand, and shakily placed it down on the bartop. Some of the ale sloshed over the rim.
"S - s - sorry about that!" Keeping his head down, he submissively began moping up the spill.
Xena had had enough. "Look," she said, grabbing his wrist in mid-swipe, "can you please tell me whats going on around here? Why everyone cant even look at us without running away?" The warrior was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
The barman was quaking now. "Please... please Xena, I dont want any trouble! D - dont--"
The warrior released him and pushed up from her seat, her face set like a stone. "How do you know my name?"
She never did get an answer from the barman.
"Hold it right there!"
Faster than a heartbeat, Xena whirled to confront the speaker, and in that same motion drew her sword. The mug of ale spilled onto the counter as the barman yelped and dove to the floor. There, by the doorway, stood an older man. He was tall and lean with a full head of hair and a beard that held more gray than black, and though he wore clothes that were common to any man of his age, a golden medallion of office hung around his neck. Behind him, there were at least four men of younger years, eyes ablaze with that same mixture of hate and fear shed seen earlier. They held a variety of weapons: swords, a club, a knife, but it was obvious to Xena that these men were not warriors. She could tell by the looks on their faces that it was all they could do to hold their ground behind their leader.
Xena looked into the soft brown eyes of the older man, and though she saw the same fear in them as with his cohorts, there was something else there, too. Courage. Fairness. And she noted that unlike the other men, he held no weapon.
"Is there a problem?" Xenas voice was cold and hard.
The older man straightened, thrust out his jaw, and looked from Xena to Gabrielle. "I am Silvas, Constable of Badrias, and you are under arrest!"
"On what charge?" Xena stepped closer to the men, still holding out her sword at arms length. "Weve done nothing wrong here and you know it!"
"Xena!" The men behind Silvas shrank back as Gabrielle jumped out of her seat and raced to her friends side. She laid a hand on Xenas sword arm. "Xena, calm down," the bard said. "Theres been some mistake. Lets all talk about it and Im sure we can work this out." She faced the men and smiled. "Xena has turned away from violence and labors for the greater good now!"
"Weve got no quarrel with you Xena," Silvas said. He swept his eyes up and down the length of Gabrielle. "Its you we want. Youre under arrest."
"On what charge?" the young woman gasped.
The constable bored his eyes into the bards own. "Murder."
The irony of it all was inescapable, Xena thought. How many times in her own past had she been accused of acts of thievery and violence? More often than not, in those dark days, the charges were justified. Shed been arrested, beaten, tried and jailed, but somehow shed always managed to regain her freedom. Now, as Gabrielle had pointed out, she fought against injustice and oppression everywhere. For Xena, it was as if she were fighting against herself, in a way. Against that person she used to be. And from that conviction, there would be no escaping the sentence; no mercy would she ever show herself. In her soul, she would remain unforgiven.
None of her personal history could ever have prepared her, however, for the sight of her beloved bard standing before her, arms and legs manacled, accused of the most heinous of crimes. Xenas instincts had told her to fight her way out of the inn with Gabrielle in tow. But the bard had intervened and implored the warrior to put down her sword. "We can work this out," Gabrielle had insisted, and so Xena had followed Silvas and his prisoner to the town jail.
Since the day Xena had first encountered the young woman from Poteidaia, Gabrielle had preferred to talk her way out of dangerous situations rather than fight. Xena wondered if at times the young bard didnt simply confuse her victims into submission, but either way shed saved their skins more than once. Now, though Gabrielle stood straight and unbowed, Xena could see the worry lurking behind those green eyes of hers. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse.
Guards were to either side of Gabrielle, while Silvas stood behind a large desk, and several additional men kept a close eye on Xena. And with good reason, the warrior grimly thought. Silvas had already described to them how several months ago, a young woman had come to Badrias. She needed a place to stay, Silvas said, and she was hurt pretty badly: cuts, bruises, and burns. Although her memory was sketchy, she knew at least that her name was Gabrielle. And she claimed to be a bard.
"You certainly looked the worse for the wear," Silvas continued. "My son Jarious and his family took you in. Fed you, clothed you..."
"It wasnt her," Xena turned reassuring eyes to her friend.
"Not long after, the trouble started." Silvas firmly stated. "The water in the village well went bad, alot of folks round here were sickened. After that, a violent storm blew in and destroyed much of our harvest. Then the cattle started dying..."
"Maybe it was something in the water?" Gabrielle whispered a suggestion.
Silvas shook his head. "And thats not the worst of it. One night," Xena could hear a tremor in his voice, "my son... my sons house burned to the ground. We tried to get them out, but it was too late." A sob caught in his throat, but he quickly recovered. "Even if wed been there in time, it wouldnt have done much good. Their throats had been cut. They were murdered in their beds. And YOU," he pointed at Gabrielle, "were gone. Id given up hope of ever finding you, of bringing you to justice, but your guilt mustve done the job for me," he said. "You were a fool to come back this way."
"No..." Gabrielle shook her head in dismay.
"This is ridiculous!" Xena stepped closer to the constable and leaned the palms of her hands onto his desk. "Three months ago Gabrielle was in a hospice, fighting for her life. She couldnt be responsible for the bad luck you had here, let alone commit murder!"
The constable laughed mirthlessly. "Well if she didnt," he dismissively waved at Gabrielle, "then who did?"
At the sound of that one, quiet name, silence filled the room. All heads turned expectantly to the bard.
"By the gods, Xena," she looked up fearfully at her friend, "it mustve been Hope!"
"Who is this Hope?" Silvas demanded, temporarily thrown off guard.
Xena swallowed hard and swung her gaze from Gabrielle to the constable. "Hope is... was... Gabrielles daughter. I know this might sound strange," the warrior paused before plunging ahead, "but Hope... was the identical image of Gabrielle. At least on the outside. And as good and sweet a nature as Gabrielle has, Hope was her mirror opposite."
"And where is this Hope now?" The skepticism in Silvas voice was obvious, and even the guards shifted impatiently from one foot to the other. Theyd heard more than one criminal tell outlandish stories in the past in a desperate attempt to escape justice. This Gabrielle was no different.
"Shes dead," Gabrielle numbly answered, a dazed, distant look in her eyes.
Silvas laughed. "Not only are you a fool for coming back here, Gabrielle, but you must take me for one too!" The constable stood. Clearly, the discussion was at an end.
Xena pushed away from the table, and gave Silvas an icy-cold stare that caused the smile to fade from his face. "Gabrielle doesnt lie," she said in a low, threatening voice. "And she couldnt commit a murder - even if it were to save her own life."
"Xena... stop it, please!" the bard faltered, overcome with the memories of those last, final days with Hope.
"My son is dead," Silvas said flatly. "His wife, and their two boys - are dead." Tears moistened his eyes. "If shes innocent as you say, you can prove it to the magistrate when he arrives." The constable turned to Gabrielle. "Your trial begins the day after tomorrow. "
"What?! Thats not enough time--"
"All the time in the world wont change what has happened," Silvas cut Xena off. "Lock her up."
The guards tugged on Gabrielles chains, guiding her towards the cells at the rear of the building.
"Xena!" Gabrielle reached out a manacled hand towards her friend, and the sound of her pained cry nearly rent Xenas heart in two.
"Dont worry, Gabrielle!" the warrior responded in a strong voice. "Im going to get you out of this!" And as Gabrielle disappeared from sight, Xena felt the breath leave her lungs in a sharp, aching jolt. The question is... how?
The next morning dawned bright and clear, a vivid contrast to the despair that clouded Xenas heart. She did not linger over breakfast at the inn; the grumbles and stares from her fellow patrons did nothing to enhance her already deadened appetite. She ate quickly, as a matter of necessity, and then made her way to the jail.
Silvas was already there, and he did not refuse Xenas request to see Gabrielle.
"I dont know what you must think of me," he said, "and frankly, I dont care. But know this: I strive to be fair in everything I do. To uphold the law... for justices sake. My son Jarious was like that too," he added. "He was one of my deputies." The older man bowed his head.
"Im sorry for your loss," Xena said, and she meant it. There was no doubt in her mind that in another time, or another place, she would be proud to align herself with so noble a man as Silvas. And in spite of the pain he must be feeling at the loss of his family, even now he was still trying to do the right thing.
"Its for the magistrate to decide the guilt or innocence of your friend," he said, recovering. "To that end," his tone was formal, "whatever assistance you need in preparing your defense, if it is within the law, Ill not stand in your way."
"Thank you," Xena said simply. "I can tell youre a man of your word, Constable."
He gave a silent nod in return. Then he motioned to a guard. "Take her back to the cells."
Xena had seen worse jails in her time. It was a short walk down a darkened hall to the holding area. There were two separate cells, one empty, each with a small bolted-down window that allowed in fresh air and some light. Additional illumination was provided by small torches fastened to the walls. Clean, dry straw lined the stone floors, and through the bars of the cell directly in front her, there was the bard. Xenas heart nearly broke when she saw her friend, still laying upon a cot, her forehead knitted in a fitful sleep. There was no rest in those dreams, Xena was sure of it.
"Can you give us some space?" The guard backed off a few paces under the assault of the warriors glare.
Xena put her hands on the bars of the cell, and leaned forward. "Gabrielle," she softly called. "Time to rise and shine!"
The bard whimpered as her sleep was disrupted, and her eyes began to flicker open.
"Wha..." Gabrielles voice was thick with drowsiness, but she did her best to lever herself up on her cot. As the young woman cleared the fuzziness from her head and began to take in her surroundings, the memory of recent events flooded back in a rush.
"Xena," she swung to her feet and moved towards the cell door. "Whats going on?"
Xena noted the agitated shallowness of Gabrielles breathing; she was fully alert now and well aware of the dilemma she was in.
The tall woman reached through the bars and took Gabrielles hands in her own. "Whats going on is that Ive got to find a way to prove your innocence. And Ive got to do it in one day."
"I dont know, Xena," Gabrielle sighed heavily. She turned away and sat down, as if not quite believing what was happening to her. "We have to face the facts. When someone who looks like me and sounds like me turns this village upside down... and then I show up - what else are these people supposed to think?"
"We have to prove to them it was Hope!" Xena gripped the bars tightly. "After she got out of that pit, she obviously came up with a way to make more trouble for you, to exact her revenge, by committing these acts using your identity!" Xenas tone took on a hard edge as she considered what Hope had done. "We cant let her get away with it!"
"Xena, she already has!" Gabrielle said hoarsely, rising up once again to move to the warriors side. "Hope is dead. And even if she werent, do you think shed ever admit to her guilt to save me? After what Ive done? Never."
The bards face was etched with the pain of the misery that Hope had brought to their lives. Xena reached through the bars and lightly stroked Gabrielles cheek.
"I dont need Hope to prove to these people the kind of woman you are," she gently said. "Ill find another way."
Gabrielle caught Xenas pale blue eyes with her own, and gave her a faint smile. "I know youll try, Xena. But even I barely know where I was three months ago. Just thinking of how Hope mustve come here... hurt maybe just like I was... and then taking advantage of these poor people..." her voice trailed off at the thought of the suffering her daughter had brought upon the village. Upon Jarious and his family. Gabrielle shuddered. "I dont have a very good case, Im afraid."
The sadness in her eyes cut Xena to the quick. Gabrielles daughter, half human, half demon, had inherited none of her mothers virtuous qualities. Rather, she diabolically heralded the blackened dawn of an age of evil, and her every destructive act served to advance that purpose. The daughter of Dahok had somehow lived through Gabrielles several attempts to end her life, until the fates at last caught up with her and she died at the hand of her own monster spawn. And through it all, Xena knew that Gabrielle carried with her the weight of that responsibility. That somehow, she was to blame for Hopes deeds, even to the extent that she was willing to end her own life to stop Hope. And through that self-less act, save Xena.
"Gabrielle, listen to me." Xena placed her hands on her friends cool shoulders. "You cant go around paying for Hopes actions forever. Its got to end, now!"
Even as the warrior spoke those words, she recognized well the look in Gabrielles eyes, saw the anguish that the bard so willingly inflicted upon her own conscience. It was clear to her that her friend was not yet ready to let herself off the hook where Hope was concerned. Not today. And maybe not ever.
Xena did nothing to stop the wave of hatred she felt coursing through her now, at the thought of Hope. The evil incarnation that had almost destroyed her mother and the warrior both. She had failed. But even now, from the grave, she reached out to them. And in the back of her mind, Xena thought she could still hear Hopes mocking laughter.
Xena tried not to let her frustration dominate her emotions. Gabrielles life was at stake, and it was up to her to find the proof that would save her. It would be easy enough for the magistrate to listen to the testimony of the townspeople who knew Gabrielle from her previous stay. It was up to Xena to find flaws in their statements. And the sooner, the better. She didnt want any surprises, least of all during the trial.
The villagers were already skittish; not only were they hesitant speak with a friend of the woman whod brought such misery to their town, but also there were rumors that a warlord who plagued Badrias from time to time - Catalan - was on the move again. But grudgingly, as Xena pressed them in a steady, non-threatening manner, they began to talk to her. Xena suspected that her success also had something to do with the fact that she saw Silvas walking through the town square, sparing a word here and there with the shopkeepers and residents, gesturing towards Xena. She was grateful for it.
"She didnt come in here too much," the innkeeper said. He warily looked past Xenas shoulder, as if half-suspecting that Gabrielle might burst through the door behind her. "I thought it was strange that she couldnt remember too much about who she was or where she was from. I guess now we know why - she was lying!"
Xena gave the man a disgusted look, and turned on her heel out the door. Her next stop was at the cloth-merchants stand where theyd stopped only the day before. The dark-haired vendor was certainly more calm then when Xena had last seen him. Obviously, Silvas had already spoken to him.
"She seemed nice enough," he said, carefully folding one piece of cloth on top of another. "Of course, that was before we started putting everything together. You know," he looked at her sharply, "the poisoned water, the death of our cattle..."
"But did you ever actually see her do anything to harm anybody?"
"It was what I saw her not do!" the merchant suddenly pounded his fist on the kiosk. "One day a party of Catalans raiders came through town - it was shortly after our crops mysteriously failed - and they were looking to take our supplies! "
"Whats your point?" Xena tried to keep a tight rein on her impatience.
"The point is, we all had to defend ourselves. I used to work with a partner," he briefly glanced away but returned his gaze to Xena. "A couple of the raiders had me pinned down, and another attacked my friend. I saw her... she came out of the butchers shop right there," he nodded towards an adjacent store-front, "she had a knife in her hand. She could have saved him..." he choked up, "But instead she just stood there... watching it all happen."
"Your partner--" Xena began.
"Hes dead." the merchant spat. "Thanks to your friend. Now let me get back to work!" and he twisted away from her.
The story was much the same elsewhere in the town. The people had felt sorry for Gabrielle, began to like her, even, until things had gone bad. After the fire and the death of Jarious and his family, it was as if all the pieces had fallen together and landed on Gabrielles doorstep. Or more accurately - Hopes, the warrior concluded.
Xenas last stop in town was with her friend the stable-master. She had better luck there.
"I felt sorry for the poor little thing," he said. "Never thought she meant no harm. The kids like to come around here you know... pet the horses. Course I pretend I dont see em sneak in, but I let em do it once in a while!" His eyes twinkled merrily at the warrior. "More than once Id find her sitting on the bales of hay I have stored round back, with a bunch of those wee tykes at her feet."
"What was she doing?" Xena asked.
"Why, spinning her yarns, of course!" he raised a dirtied hand to his nose and scratched it.
"Yarns..." Xenas voice trailed off.
"Yarns... stories... tall tales - whatever you want to call em, young lady! Those youngsters sure loved to hear her talk," and with that he returned to his muckraking. "Miss hearing her myself," he added as an afterthought.
There was one more thing Xena needed to see. She walked there, the late-afternoon sun at her back, lost in her thoughts. Before long, she found herself standing before it: the ruined remains of Jariouss home. A few charred beams stubbornly stood at awkward, unnatural angles, and the stink of the fire and of death still hung heavily throughout the place. The body of the structure had collapsed in on itself, and a chill passed over Xena as she gazed upon the desolate scene.
How many other times, in her past, had she witnessed such destruction? And how many times had it been by her hand? Too many to count. But now, it was Hope who had done this. Hope who had shown no mercy. She mustve been as confused as Gabrielle had been after the events in Dahoks temple, and the fiery pit. And as she recovered, thanks to the kindness of these people, she had hatched her own evil plan to do additional harm to her mother. It was the ultimate game of mistaken identity, and Jarious and his family had paid the ultimate price.
"You know, I still cant believe theyre gone."
Adrift in her memories, Xena had been unaware of the constables approach until the very last moment. Hed been sitting under a nearby cypress tree. Its bark had been scorched black by the inferno, some indication of its intensity. Yet branches farthest away from the fire held touches of new green growth. Life renewing itself in the aftermath of tragedy.
"Thanks for your help today," Xena said simply. "I know it must be hard for you, feeling as you do, that it was Gabrielle, not Hope, who killed your family."
"I only want to see justice done, Xena of Amphipolis," the older man replied. "No matter what path that journey may lead me on."
Xena sighed, and they both fell silent for a time, gazing at the burned-out home.
"I dont need to tell you what its like to lose someone you love," Xena said at last. She turned to look at the constable; the dying rays of the setting sun cast an other-worldly glow on his golden medallion. "But thats what Im facing right now. Silvas, I know how this must look to you. And after what Ive heard today from the villagers, the magistrate tomorrow will think no differently." She drilled her eyes into his, "With all that I know, with all that I am and all that I ever will be, I tell you Gabrielle did not do this."
The constable sadly shook his head. "There was no-one else, Xena. No-one else but your Gabrielle." Tears sprang to his eyes, and he began to slowly walk away. Xena stood alone against the gathering darkness, and watched him go. And with him, went her hopes for Gabrielle.
"So, hows it look?" The little bard had just finished a simple but adequate dinner of beef stew, when the warrior returned.
"Not good," she admitted, folding her arms and leaning against the wall outside Gabrielles cell. She watched the faint optimism on her friends face fade away, and Xena was surprised to see how much of a toll even one days incarceration had taken upon the young woman. Her cheeks were sunken, her complexion faded, and the shadows of the tiny cell added unwelcomed years to her familiar features. Xena quickly caught herself before her despair became apparent. It would do Gabrielle no good at all if she even suspected that her friend had lost heart.
And I havent! Xena told herself. She would be strong, for Gabrielle.
"Oh Xena," Gabrielle pushed her bowl aside and took up her position at the cell door, as close to Xena as she could get. "What are we going to do?"
"The storys the same everywhere," Xena said. "People know what they saw, or think they did. Why should they care whether there even was a Hope? It doesnt matter to them."
"It matters to me," Gabrielles tone was solemn. "I guess I never considered the fact that just as I needed time to recover - Hope did too. Its so sad," her eyes grew misty, "those poor people took her in, cared for her - and look how she repaid them!"
The bard gazed up at Xena, silently, desperately seeking some explanation, but the warrior had none to give her.
"Its not Hope Im worried about." Xena reached out to Gabrielle, through the barrier that stood between them. "My focus is on you right now, and how were going to get through his thing tomorrow!"
The warrior clasped the bards hands tightly, and gave her a confident smile that masked the trepidation she felt. "The same way we always have... together."
"All rise for the Honorable Magistrate Nicobar!"
There was a buzz in the trial room - the converted town hall - as Constable Silvas introduced the man who held Gabrielles fate in his hands. The townspeople had crammed into the over-heated, little space, hoping to catch a glimpse of the evil Gabrielle.
Xena helped her friend to her feet, not an easy task due to the shackles which still bound her at her wrists and ankles. The sharp, clinking sound they made stabbed at Xenas gut. She could feel her trembling at her touch, but to all outward appearances Gabrielle put on a brave front. That is so like her, Xena admired.
The magistrate took his seat at a high bench-like table set up in the front of the room, facing the smaller table where Xena and Gabrielle were positioned. He looked to be a fair man, Xena thought. In fact, she considered as she gazed around the room, all of these people are. None of them deserved this. Least of all, the young woman at her side. But for Hope....
The format in Badrias for this type of trial was clear cut: witnesses would make statements to the magistrate regarding what they knew, relative to the crimes of which Gabrielle was accused. The magistrate would have the opportunity to question the witnesses, if need be. Xena and Gabrielle could attempt to refute that testimony when the time came. Again, Magistrate Nicobar could raise any question he wished. A verdict would be rendered on the spot.
A stream of witnesses came forward, and Xena recognized most of them by now: the shopkeeper, the innkeeper, a farmers wife, the wagon man theyd met on the road, even a small child. The stories all painted the same distressing picture: they had tried to help Gabrielle, but the misery shed brought into town with her had turned into death by the time shed left.
Xena questioned a few of them, clarifying the odd point or two, but she knew she wasnt doing much good. And by the pale, strained look on Gabrielles face, she could sense she knew it too.
At last, even the constable took the witness stand and gave his sorrowful testimony. Xena waved off the opportunity to question him when hed finished. She saw no purpose in adding to his pain.
"Very well," Nicobar said. He turned to Gabrielle sternly. "The time has come for your defense, young lady." He took a moment to adjust the long sleeves of his purple ceremonial robe. "What say you?"
The bard began to open her mouth, but Xena quickly stood. "She says nothing," her voice was firm as she laid a restraining hand on Gabrielles shoulder. "I wish to speak for her." There was a rumble of discontent throughout the room; clearly, the villagers had been looking forward to hearing the evil one speak.
Gabrielle was surprised at her friends tactic, that was apparent. But she trusted Xena with all her heart, and if this was what she thought was best, then now was not the time to argue. And at that moment, Xena locked eyes with Gabrielle; she saw the bards faith and love shining from deep within those sea-green pools, and she knew she would take her trust and hold it dear, and never let it down.
Gabrielle turned to the magistrate and nodded her assent.
"Very well. You may begin," he allowed, and he pounded his gavel down, calling for order. The mutterings died away, and the room grew quiet.
Xena moved around in front of their table, so she could address the magistrate more clearly. Additionally, she wanted to be able to see the faces of those gathered in the courtroom. Xena was no expert at public speaking, that was a job she was more than willing to leave to the bard. But she needed to come through now, more than ever, and she suspected that she would more readily be able to tell how she was doing by the reactions of the villagers, rather than by the impassive facade of the magistrate.
The warrior cleared her throat and, after a quick, confident smile at Gabrielle, she began. "Today, I am charged with proving to you that my friend, Gabrielle, did not murder the son of Constable Silvas and his family. And it would help if I could also prove to you that she was not responsible for all the other bad luck that fell upon your village. I can stand here and suggest to you that another woman, a child of Gabrielles, who looks exactly like her, committed those crimes. But that woman is dead, and even if she werent, I doubt she would have been willing to come forward here today.
Xena bowed her head for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "How can I prove to you that Gabrielle didnt do these things?" she paused, "I cant."
A hum of surprise buzzed through the courtroom, and again Nicobar had to pound out a request for silence.
Xena opened her palms to the magistrate. "I cant prove that she didnt do it, but I can offer you solid, incontrovertible evidence to demonstrate that she couldnt have done it."
"Go on," he said cautiously.
"You all know me, dont you?" she swept her eyes around the room. "Im Xena, the Warrior Princess. Or at least I was, before I met Gabrielle. The person I am now, the person I feared Id never be - its all because of her. She gave me the strength, the inspiration to change."
"It is true," the magistrate agreed, "that you fight for goodness and justice, Xena. And we are grateful. But that has nothing to do with this case!"
"It has everything to do with it," Xena swore, and her eyes shone with an icy blue fire. "This woman," she gestured to Gabrielle, "is all that is goodness and justice. She... restored my soul." And Xenas voice trembled with that last.
Gabrielle leaned forward on the table, held fast by the power of Xenas appeal.
Xena took a deep, gulping breath to compose herself, and she saw that Gabrielle was not the only one enthralled. The courtroom was holding its collective breath, waiting to see what would come next.
"You know me," Xena at last repeated, "and you know what Im capable of. If I wanted to," she cast a sidelong glance at Gabrielle, "if she wanted me to, I could walk out of here now and take her with me. And there would be nothing you could do to stop us." The warrior leveled her eyes at the crowd.
Again, the room grew restless, and the guards stationed at various intervals assumed a rigid, at-alert stance. The last thing they wanted was a fight with the warrior princess.
"But I wont" Xena raised her voice over the murmuring courtroom. "Because thats not justice to Gabrielle." The warrior let that comment weigh heavily in the air before she continued.
"Ask yourself this question: if Gabrielle were guilty, what purpose could possibly be served by her returning to Badrias? Allowing herself to be captured, and most likely executed - unless she was exactly the kind of person you think she isnt!"
Xena moved next to Gabrielle, and laid a hand on her shoulder. "This woman was troubled even by the thought of testifying in her own defense, at the risk of accusing her daughter, Hope. And Hope is the guilty party here, Magistrate Nicobar. Not Gabrielle. The mother should not have to bear the sins of the daughter. I only wish that some small part of the love and compassion of the mother had been borne upon her child. If it had, we wouldnt be here right now."
The air in the room was stifling as Xena approached the magistrates bench for the last time. It all came down to this. "I tell you, if you put to death Gabrielle, you kill an innocent woman. And that makes you no better than any other killer." Xenas heart was pounding so fast, she wondered that the magistrate did not hear it. "Justice isnt about mere words and statements. The letter of the law." Xena placed her hands on the magistrates bench.
"Its about deeds, and truth, and goodness. A higher law. Dont be blind to that," Xena turned to look at the woman who saved her, "Gabrielle isnt."
The warrior returned to her seat, and wrapped a strong arm around the shoulders of her bard. Tears streamed down the younger womans face. "Thank you, Xena!" she whispered, and Xena could tell by the look in her eyes that no matter what happened, Gabrielle knew shed done her very best.
"Order... ORDER!" the magistrate was again cracking his gavel against the wooden bench. "The accused will rise!"
There was a rumble throughout the courtroom when Gabrielle stood on her own, straight and proud, even though the chains restrained her movement.
"You have stated your case rather... passionately on behalf of your friend," the magistrate observed, and again he fussed with his robes. "You speak of a higher law, and what you say," he paused, "does have some merit. However," he added, "I can only judge on the facts before me now. And those facts speak for themselves."
No! A screaming siren rang out in Xenas mind.
"I am truly sorry, Gabrielle," and Xena did not doubt that Nicobar was, "but my judgment is guilty. You will hang at dawn tomorrow, and may the gods have mercy on your soul."
Xena didnt know if shed ever get over the shock of hearing that verdict. Oh, shed known their chances werent the best, but the heart is only too willing to play tricks with the mind, and as long as there was even the slimmest of chances that Gabrielle would be freed, on that chance was where Xena had preferred to rest her hopes. Reality, when it hits, can be a cruel thing. The warrior knew that now, more than ever.
The crowds had dispersed, and Magistrate Nicobar had continued on to the next town, confident that Constable Silvas would see his verdict carried out. Knowing that this would be their last night together, Silvas had taken Xena aside and agreed to let her spend the night outside Gabrielles cell, trusting in good faith that the warrior would not attempt to spirit her friend away.
"Im sorry," he said to them both. "I - I wish it had turned out differently."
Xena looked into his soft brown eyes, at this man who had suffered so much and yet still carried on so bravely, so fairly. "So do I."
Later, a meal had been delivered to Gabrielle, the finest yet shed seen while in jail. Xena looked at the bard as she picked at the food, and was amazed to see that she appeared more calm, more at ease, than she had in days. Indeed, it was Xena who was restless and angry, pacing back and forth in front of Gabrielles cell.
"Youre going to wear a hole through the floor, Xena, if you keep that up!"
The warrior stopped her pacing and caught the bard in her gaze. "If it means you can escape through it..."
"Im sorry, Gabrielle," the warrior recovered. "Its just that I feel so helpless!" She moved next to the cell door and gripped it with both hands. "I failed you today."
"NO!" the bards voice was strong, "dont you dare think it, dont even say it!" she insisted. "Today, you did me an honor, by respecting my wishes. And no matter what happens, Ill always love you for that."
The warrior princess slumped down to a sitting position outside the cell, and Gabrielle did the same from within. They sat there quietly, for a time, each alone with their thoughts. Finally, Gabrielle drew in a deep breath, and broke the silence.
"You know, the thing of it is, after listening to all those people today, I could almost believe that maybe it was me they were talking about, and not Hope. At least... before the bad things happened," she paused. "I wish... I wish I could remember more about those days, Xena."
"I dont think it would have made a difference. They wanted someone to blame, and they found someone. You."
The bards voice grew soft. "About Hope... I couldnt kill her when I had the chance. I just couldnt do it. Later on, I wouldnt let you. And now look at what shes done. To these people. To us. This isnt Hopes fault, Xena. Its mine."
The raging torrents of despair that washed over the warrior at that moment were almost too much to bear. How like Gabrielle, to be willing to assume responsibility for the actions of others, no matter the outcome! It was so frustrating at times, yet it was one of the reasons that she loved her best.
Xena slowly rose to her feet, struggling to maintain her composure. She had to get away, if only for a few moments, so the bard would not see her like this. "Silvas said I could stay here tonight," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "Im going go check on Argo and be right back. I wont be but a few moments."
Gabrielle gave Xena a sad smile. "Okay. And tell her I said good-bye, will ya?"
Xena did not dare risk answering her, she simply nodded and turned away, the better to hide the tears that began to fall.
Enticing smells from the evening cook-fires were lost on Xena as she made her way through the town to the stables. She had to get a grip, to regain her focus, for Gabrielles sake, or else shed never be able to get through this. And the fact that Gabrielle seemed intent on spending her remaining time consoling Xena, easing her pain, made the warrior feel even worse, if that were possible.
"Sorry about your friend," the stable-master said when she arrived, and Xena could tell by the warm sympathy in his eyes that he meant it. "Youll be leavin tomorrow, I take it?" After the execution... Xena thought of the unspoken words between them.
"Yes," came the simple response.
"Ill make sure your Argo there is ready to go," and the man hitched to the back of the enclosure where he stored his hay. Xena followed him. A number of little children were perched on the hay-bales and fence posts, like so many young swallows, chattering amongst themselves. They scattered as the stable-master approached.
"Those sprites!" the kindly old man shook his head. "Theyve been at it all day, running in and out of the stable!"
But Xena could tell by the look on his face that he did not mind it as much as his words suggested. Together, they lifted a bale of hay and began to bring it back inside. As they rounded the corner, Xena observed that three or four of the children had re-convened at a nearby haystack; a sandy-haired boy who appeared to be the oldest was speaking to the rest of the group.
The warrior managed to catch a few of his words as she passed by: "...No! Stay out of the cave! Tinker said to Fluff, but the little lamb would not listen to the wolf..."
Xenas heart stopped. She dropped her end of the hay-bale, and the stable-master nearly tumbled over on top of it. "What the--?"
She sprinted over to the boy, raven hair flying, and grabbed him tightly by the shoulders. "That story you were telling," her voice was a near-shout, "the one about the wolf and the lamb... where did you hear it?" The boy was obviously startled by the tall, dark warriors assault, and his friends quickly scrambled away in a dead fright.
"Tell me!" she demanded. The boys face clouded over and tears sprang to his eyes, and only then did the warrior imagine how she must look to him.
"Take it easy there, Xena!" The soft voice of the stable-master was behind her, and she felt the touch of his weathered hand on her arm.
"Im sorry," Xena allowed herself to breathe again, "I didnt mean to frighten you," she released the boy, "But please, tell me, where did you hear that story?"
"It - it was a long time ago! Gabrielle... the evil one... she told it to us!" The boy burst out crying and skipped out from under Xenas arms, running up the path after his friends.
"What is it?" the stable-master was baffled.
"Ive got to get back to Gabrielle," Xena answered in a voice so cold and dead that it sent chills through the heart of the stable-master.
"Until tomorrow, then," he said, and he shook his head to himself as he watched her leave. The weight of the world is on the shoulders of that one... he thought.
A thousand thoughts were crashing and colliding within the warriors mind as she made her way back to the jail. She was caught in a tempest spinning out of control, and there was no safe harbor from the crushing wave of realization that enveloped her: Gabrielle had been in Badrias before.
How could she break this devastating news to her friend? Best just to come out with it. It was Xena who felt like she was on the way to her execution as she walked with slow, heavy footsteps down the darkened corridor to Gabrielles cell. Instantly, upon seeing the expression on the warriors face, the bard could tell something was wrong.
"Xena, what is it?" the young woman cried, racing to her cell door.
In a distant, unaffected voice, as if she were talking about some other Gabrielle, Xena began reciting what shed discovered. And as the implication of that information began to sink in, the warrior never could have anticipated her friends reaction.
"Then Hope is innocent!" Gabrielle sagged back against the cell wall, relief flooding from every pore of her body.
"Yes..." the confusion on Xenas face was plain, "Just this once, she is."
The bard sat down on the cold floor and put her head on her knees; after a moment, Xena could see her shoulders begin to tremble... and heard her soft sobs.
"Gabrielle - what?" The warrior reached through the bars.
"Dont you see Xena?" she lifted up her head, and Xena swore she could almost detect a smile there. "Now it all makes sense! Weve spent the last two days trying to prove that someone who looks, talks, and acts like me - isnt! We wanted to blame Hope. And all the while, it was me... and Hope is blameless. Id say the magistrate made the right call after all!" She used a fist to wipe away her tears.
"That doesnt mean you killed Jarious and his family, Gabrielle!"
"How do you know that Xena?!" Gabrielle shook her head in dismay.
"Because I do!" the warrior said fiercely, protectively. "I know you Gabrielle. Better than I know myself. Whether or not you remember exactly what happened then, I know you are not capable of such a thing! Its like when I found you in the forest outside Poteidaia..." and Xenas mind briefly skipped back to the time when she and Joxer had been stalking Hope. Not even knowing that Gabrielle was anywhere in the vicinity, Hope had burst out of the woods directly in front of the warrior princess. Xena had raised her blade for the killing blow, fully prepared to destroy this person who looked, talked, and moved exactly like the daughter of Dahok.
But there was something else, something that made Xena pause. Under any other circumstance, such a hesitation mightve cost the warrior her life. Here, it saved one. Looking back on it, Xena would never be able to pinpoint exactly what it was about the girl before her that shouted Gabrielle! to her soul. She only knew she heard that call, and responded to it, taking the young woman up in her arms.
"I knew then it was you, and not Hope," the warrior continued. "And I know now that even though you were in this village three months ago... they just had a run of bad luck, thats all! It was the fates! You did not commit those murders. Believe in yourself, Gabrielle, as I believe in you!" And with that, Xena silently took the bards hand and pressed it to her own warrior heart.
"Im here for you Gabrielle," Xenas voice was husky, "whatever you need!"
The possibilities of that statement were limitless, the bard knew that, but there was only one thing she needed now: she could face whatever the future might bring, as long as Xena was by her side.
Gabrielle smiled, and used the tips of her fingers to lightly brush the warriors cheek. "If this is to be the hand that the fates have dealt me, Xena, then Ill see it through," she paused. "As long as I have you, I wont be afraid."
"Oh, youve got me," Xena replied, her voice breaking. "Forever."
Xena instantly sprang awake at the sound of the warning cry from outside the jail. Somehow, even on the cold, hard floor, she and Gabrielle had been able to doze off for a time, awkwardly wrapped through the bars in each others arms. She had no idea how long shed been out, but her senses told her it was near dawn.
"Xena, what is it?" Gabrielle began to rub an achy muscle in her neck, a result of the position in which shed fallen asleep. But the bards eyes were wide with fear at the sounds of screaming and shouting coming from outside, and the terrible pounding of horses hooves.
"Trouble," the warrior said grimly, and she unsheathed her sword.
Silvas burst down the corridor. "Outside - NOW!" he shoved the cell guard towards the exit. He paused to catch his breath, taking in Xena and Gabrielle. "Were under attack - its Catalan and his men again! We could use your help, Xena... though I know what you must think of us..." his voice trailed off.
Xena placed her hand on his shoulder. "This time, were on the same side, Silvas."
"Thank you!" he breathed, and he raced back up the corridor.
"Be careful Xena!" the bard reached out through the cell.
"Always," she replied, giving her hand a quick squeeze. "Dont you go anywhere!" she winked, and then she was gone.
The raiders moved quickly through the village, led by Catalan himself. Xena had never encountered the warlord personally, but shed heard tales of his abuses of farming towns in the region. Always looking for supplies to sustain his band of renegades, he preferred to take what he wanted, rather than pay for it.
Xena stood in the jail-house door, cataloguing the scene before her in the town square. Some of the warlords men were already pulling sacks of grain from the primary storehouse; she could see its roof was already ablaze. Other greedy fiends had appropriated a nearby horse and wagon, and were attempting to fill it with barrels of ale from the inn. Xenas lips curled in a sneer; these warlords types were so predictable!
With a "Sheeeeeeeyah!!!" she back-flipped towards the horse and cart. "Mind if I join the party?" She leaped into the air, spinning, and used a sweeping roundhouse kick to eliminate three of Catalans men from the battle. She turned to the inns entrance, and saw another raider trying to leave with the innkeepers wooden box of proceeds.
"Not so fast!" she rolled a barrel of ale into his path, and the raider fell head over heels into the dirt. He lost his grip on the box and it went sailing directly into Xenas outstretched hands; she heard the jingle of the dinars within as she caught it.
The dazed innkeeper stumbled to the doorway, holding a bloody cloth to his head. Here, this belongs to you!" Xena said, already looking for her next set-to. All thoughts of Gabrielle were pushed out of her mind now. There was only the here and now of battle, and the survival of these innocent people.
Xena could see that a large contingent of raiders were heading for the center of the square, where Silvas and his deputies were attempting to drive Catalans men back. Thinking quickly, the warrior flew her chakram into a select number of ale barrels, causing their contents to stream out onto the ground. Flaming arrows were flying by, launched by the renegades, and Xena took the opportunity of using one against them.
She caught an arrow in mid-flight, and touched it to the ale. In a hissing whoosh, a ring of fire surrounded the raiders. Their horses reared back in terror, bolting, dumping the unlucky men onto the ground. As the flames began to ebb, the men of Badrias pressed their advantage on Catalans stunned troops, and began to gain the upper hand.
Xena quickly scanned the battle in the dim, pre-dawn light, looking for Silvas. She found him, at the edge of the square, desperately parrying with a much larger man who Xena guessed to be Catalan. The constable was holding his own, but barely. Clearly, he was no match for the younger, stronger warlord.
"Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" In a flash, Xena was at Silvas side just as he went down. The flat edge of Catalans blade had caught him on his shoulder, and he dropped his sword. "I dont think so," Xena snarled at the shocked raider. She tapped the tip of her own sword onto his nose.
Recovering, the warlord released an animal growl and thrust at Xena with his weapon, but she easily dodged him. "Cmon," she mocked him, "is that the best you can do?"
He lunged at her again, and this time she followed through on the momentum of his sword with her own blade, sweeping it out of his hands. She finished him with a sidelong kick to his shins, dropping him to the ground in a dusty heap.
"Partys over, big guy!" And she pressed her sword against his chest.
Silvas drew up next to her. "Thank you Xena," he said in a shaky voice. "I owe you my life!"
"Silvas!" The hatred oozed from Catalan. "I thought you wouldve packed up and left by now, you fool, after what I did to that weakling son of yours!"
The warlord gasped as Xena increased the pressure of her blade. "What did you say?" her tone was low and ominous.
"I guess youre not as easy to scare off as I thought." The warlord looked Silvas up and down, and then released a harsh laugh. "Thats right, he died in his bed like a woman, along with the rest of his snivel--"
That was as far as Catalan got, before the blur that was Silvas was on him, clawing for his throat. "Ill kill you with my own bare hands, you--"
"NO!" Xena roared, grabbing Silvas by the nape of his neck and tossing him off the warlord.
Catalan was coughing, massaging his neck. "Keep that maniac off of me!" he sputtered.
"Ill think about it," Xena gave him a blistering look and then turned to Silvas.
"Im so sorry, Xena... let me kill him... let me--"
"No," she said, more softly this time. "Bring him to justice, constable. Do your son that last honor."
Silvas slowly nodded in understanding, and Xena gave him an arm, hoisting him to his feet. Several of Silvas deputies approached; the majority of the raiders now were either captured or had been run off. "Take him away," Xena said, giving Catalan a sharp kick.
And then Xena heard the words that turned her blood into ice water.
"FIRE IN THE JAIL!"
There are instances in life where time seems to stand still. When despite our best efforts to be masters of our own destiny, we are seized by the fates and allowed to exist for a moment in a feeling, in a place, or with a person... that we wish would never end. Or else fear that it never will. For Xena, it seemed to take forever to get to the burning building, and yet she was stricken with the dread of what she might find there.
The smoke was already black and thick when she entered the jail, and she immediately dropped low to the ground so as to avoid the worst of the choking fumes. The flimsy roof was already on fire above her head, and she began to work her way down the narrow corridor towards the cells. She had but one thought, could see but once face; held out but one hope, dreamed of but one future. And it was all the same. Gabrielle.
There was a loud crash behind her as one of the roof timbers gave way, sending a shower of sparks and embers to the ground around her. Xena did her best to duck her head, and disregarded the burning sting of the shattered wood.
"Gabrielle!" she called out, just as she heard a similar crashing sound ahead of her.
"Xena..." the little bards voice was so faint that she could barely hear it above the crackling flames.
"Im coming Gabrielle! Hang on!" The warrior was moving by sense of touch now, feeling along the base of the walls for the opening where she knew she would find the cells.
"Aaah!" Xena whipped her hand away - shed come in contact with the a metal bar that was now hot to the touch. The pain was little more than an inconvenience; she had reached her friend at last.
"Gabrielle!" There was no response from the smoke-filled cell.
"Gabrielle - answer me!" Xena rattled the cell door and, numbly, it dawned upon her that she had no key - the door was locked. More pieces of the roof began to rain down, and the walls were now ablaze too. Tears poured from Xenas near-blinded eyes, as she sought out Gabrielles form within the cell. Another crashing timber caused an orange chimney plume of flame to reach for the open sky, and in that burst, Xena could see her friend huddled on the ground near her little cell window.
"Gab--" Xena paid no heed to the white-hot bars, desperately pulling on them with all her might. Zeus! she thought. With the rest of the building falling down around her, it would be just her luck that the bloody cell doors would be the last things left standing. Well, she wouldnt live to see it. Without Gabrielle, she wasnt going anywhere. "Yaaah!" she again strained against the bars, to no avail. Choking, she gathered her energies for one last try; her body was shutting down now... she knew this would be it.
"Will this help?" Xena opened her eyes - when had she closed them? - and was able to barely make out the form of Constable Silvas. And in his hand, he held the key.
"Am I glad to see you!" the smoke had reduced the warriors voice to a raspy croak. Xena could feel the vibration in the bars as the key tumbled the lock open, and she burst through the cell door and raced to the bards side with the constable hard on her heels.
They had no breath left for words now; the constable shielded his nose and mouth with the cloth from his sleeve, and he handed his outer jacket to Xena. Gabrielle looked as still as death, and Xena fought the panic that welled up within her. She covered the bard as best she could, and then swept her limp form up into her arms. Silvas led the way out of the collapsing building. Looking back on it later, it occurred to Xena that she had no real memory of those last moments, other than the thought that she had come too far to fail now. To fail Gabrielle.
Somehow, Silvas got them back through the fiery death-trap, and Xena could scarcely believe it when the thick, choking smoke was replaced by the sweet, cool air of the new days dawn.
Xena gasped and fell to her knees, laying the bard out before her.
"Get some water over here!" she heard Silvas say, but now her attentions were focused solely on Gabrielle. Gray-black soot caked her face and arms, and there was a nasty gash on her forehead where one of the falling timbers had struck her.
"Gabrielle," her voice was but a raw whisper, "wake up now!" She gently wiped the bards face with a wet cloth that suddenly appeared at her side. And for one fleeting, lurching moment, Xena flashed to another time and place where an all-too-still bard would not respond to that command.
No! Her heart was in her mouth as with a trembling hand, she placed her fingers to the side of Gabrielles neck. She nearly sobbed for joy when she found a strong pulse beating there, and now she noticed the gentle rise and fall of her chest, too.
The bards eyes flickered open. "Xe-- Xena? she coughed, and the warrior pulled her up into a sitting position, gently rocking her.
"Ssssh.... its okay... youre all right," she soothed her. "Youre free."
The sunrise that Xena had only a short time ago hoped would never come, began to peek its away above the horizon. Villagers were still milling about, trying to contain the fires and restore order, but the people of Badrias had won, that was readily apparent.
Xena could feel the wetness on her shoulder as the bard began to cry. "You got me out..." she sniffled, "I knew you would..."
"Thats right..." Xena placed a light kiss on Gabrielles forehead, "thats right."
"Can you ever forgive us?" Silvas hovered in the doorway of the small guest room at the inn. Inside, Gabrielle had been cleaned up and tucked into bed. But a warrior princess who sat on the side of the bed showed no indication of moving.
"You couldnt have known, Constable. I couldnt have known." Gabrielles voice was still raw from the smoke, but she was already feeling much better, thanks to the ministrations of her warrior.
The constable took a step into the room, his brow lined in thought. "All I can think of is that when Catalan attacked my sons home, you must have escaped somehow..."
"Thank the gods you did," Xena placed her palm over her friends smaller hand. "You would have been killed along with the rest of them."
"I dont remember how I got to the hospice after that..."
"You were hurt... in shock, probably, from the attack," Xena supplied.
"And all this time, I thought those burns were from the pit..." a shiver coursed through the younger woman.
Xena gave Gabrielle a reassuring smile, and then turned back to Silvas. "Well be leaving tomorrow, once Im sure Gabrielle is fit to travel."
The constable nodded and backed away. "I hope youll come back here one day," he said to them, tugging nervously on his medallion. "You are always welcome."
Gabrielle looked earnestly at the older man. "I found a home here... felt safe here before, at a time when I didnt know who I was, or where I was going. Ill always feel that way about Badrias, constable. Thank you."
Xena watched the kind, honorable man leave, and she knew that his healing process was already well under way, thanks to Gabrielles gentle words of forgiveness. A barely suppressed yawn returned her attention to the bard.
"Listen, you get some rest now," she said, fluffing the pillow behind her and easing her friend back down on the bed.
"Xena," she sighed, with half-lidded eyes, "Thanks for not giving up on me... I know things were looking pretty dark there for a while..." and her voice trailed off into an exhausted sleep.
The warrior sat there, for a time, watching her love, scarcely believing that they had both survived yet another tortuous twist of fate. She continued to hold Gabrielles warm hand in her own, and she barely noticed it when her silent tears at last came. Never... she thought, Never will I give up on you. For even in the darkness, you are my shining light.
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