An Awakening - Part 15
by Hunter Ash
Ownership: I don't own Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules, Iolaus or any of the others appearing in the TV show. Please don't bother suing me for copyright infringement. No harm is intended and I don't have any money.
Subtext/Alt Sex: this story is of people of the same gender involved in loving and sexual relationships as well as people in loving and sexual relationships of the opposite gender. No graphic sex this time, sorry. If these types of relationships are illegal where you are or just bug you, then leave. Come back after you get older, open your mind, move or change your laws.
Violence: Yes, there is violence in this one with a fight scene and one murder. It's not graphic but the content could be disturbing.
Storyline: Xena, Gabrielle and family have traveled to their adopted Germanic family in the North and get involved with a local mystery involving dark sorcery and ancient legends which just might claim Gabrielle's soul.
I hope the story can stand on it's own but since it is part of continuing series, you might want to read some of the ones before this for background information in the Awakening series.
Eddval's wife, Alfhild, couldn't believe she was hearing a pounding at the door of the long hall. She saw several of the family members looking up in confusion at the door and then back at her and knew that she wasn't hearing things if others were hearing it too.
She figured that Eddval must have been returning from the animal hut with his arms full and banging at the door with his foot. Alfhild grinned and went quickly to the door, her hand resting on the spear kept by the door, just in case.
When the Norsewoman opened the door she could only see a figure in fur and leather holding a bundle in its arms, the face hidden deep in the shadows of a fur hood. Alfhild could also see a couple of other figures in the blinding snow near the one standing at the door.
"Alfhild, Mistress of this Steading, we seek shelter and welcome," a voice requested from under the hood, the voice speaking German with an accent placed the owner as a foreigner to the region.
"We know you, stranger?"
"It's Ylsa and family," the voice answered.
"Xena!" Alfhild threw open the door and dragged the fur covered person inside and others quickly got to their feet and helped pull the other figures inside out of the blinding storm.
The inhabitants of the Steading acted quickly and efficiently, stripping the wet fur clothing off of the figures, pulling them close to the fires while women dashed back and forth to warm towels and heat water. The figure in Xena's arms was revealed to be Gabrielle, barely coherent and nearly frozen. The only one not suffering from the cold seemed to be Sasha who had been held inside of Solan's fur clothing and shared his body heat.
Alfhild warmed some water to lukewarm and gently placed Xena's hands into the water and grimaced as the warrior hissed with the pain.
"What by Hella's Halls were you thinking?" Alfhild demanded, "traveling in this weather?"
"We didn't have a choice, Alfhild, how are the others?" the warrior asked as someone knelt at her feet and began cutting away the laces holding the fur around her boots.
Alfhild glanced over and saw Gabrielle shaking her head, toweling the wet hair dry and then reaching out with shaking hands for a mug of lukewarm soup. A quick look at the young male and female confirmed they were also beginning to snap out of the cold haze.
"Better than you, Ylsa," Alfhild growled and looked up when the door opened and closed quickly, her husband Eddval Skull Splitter entering the Long Hall. His sharp blue eyes took in the sight of the household bustling around the visitors and then grinned when he recognized Gabrielle and Xena.
"Brie, Ylsa! By Thor's beard, you must have the blessing of the gods to have made it through that snow!" he exclaimed in a loud voice at the Greeks, using their adopted Germanic names and dropping the bag of apples he had brought in and hurried over to the warrior.
Xena grinned a lopsided grin. "I've been told a couple of the gods like us," she agreed.
He frowned as he took in the sight of her hands in the warm water, thawing out. "How are they, wife?" he asked.
"They'll live and I think keep all their fingers and toes. Another mark and I wouldn't be sure."
"What were you thinking, Ylsa?" Eddval demanded and was surprised when Xena grinned at him.
"Your wife was just asking the same thing. We were with the Northern Amazons and planned on visiting you in the spring thaw. We had to leave early," Xena said simply.
"Someone from the North let you travel in this mess?" he demanded, his face taking on a look of rage that Xena hadn't seen before. She began to wonder how he got his nickname.
"They didn't give us a choice," Gabrielle answered in a tired voice.
"Eddval," Alfhild looked up at her husband, "arrange bedding for our family. Ylsa, are the young ones mates?"
Xena grinned as she saw Solan and Reija blushing.
"Yes, the Amazon shaman performed a marriage ceremony just before we left. This is Solan, my son and Reija, his wife."
Gabrielle grinned as she watched Solan straighten up with obvious pride. It was the first time that Reija had been called his wife. Xena joined in the grinning as Reija reached out and took Solan's hand in hers.
"Welcome to my home, Solan and Reija, Ylsa and Brie are family, therefore you are family. I assume the little one is Sasha? She has grown, Ylsa, and is beautiful."
The tall Viking knelt down and looked into the blue eyes of the child and grinned. "Do you remember me, little one?" he asked softly.
"Uncle Eddval," she answered and crawled up into his strong arms.
Gabrielle watched Xena begin to relax, knowing that her family was now safe. Xena and Gabrielle both knew that the Norsemen would die protecting their adopted Greek family members.
They hadn't seen any Amazons trailing them for a couple of days but that wasn't unexpected; they hadn't been able to see anything for three days in the blinding snow. The bard had no idea how Xena had been able to lead them to Eddval's Steading in the blinding snow, but she was grateful to be in out of the snow.
"After you sleep and eat you must tell us the tale of why you are in the snow, Brie," Alfhild encouraged, taking the mug of soup from the bard as Gabrielle's head began to drop forward.
Gabrielle was barely aware of hands helping her to her feet and over to the sleeping benches against the walls. Gentle hands and soothing voices helped her under the furs. The bard did yelp when she felt someone join her in the furs and it wasn't Xena.
"Do you remember me, Brie?" a voice asked, "I am Askel. Ylsa and you are too cold to share body heat; if you will permit me I will share my body heat with you. I vow on the blood of my father that you are safe in my arms tonight."
"Okay," she muttered sleepily and was surprised when the young man placed his arms around her and pulled her into his arms. In a few minutes her body stopped shivering and she was finally able to fall into a restful sleep.
"Gabrielle," a voice floated through the haze of Gabrielle's sleepiness and she opened her eyes slowly to see blue ones looking at her. She smiled a welcoming smile as she took in Xena squatting next to the bench where the bard was sleeping.
Then a puzzled look crossed the bard's face and Xena grinned, watching the bard try to gather her thoughts as Gabrielle realized that someone was holding her in bed but Xena was sitting next to her.
The bard yelped and sat up quickly, looking down at the handsome young Viking with his arm still thrown over her, sound asleep.
"It's okay, I woke up with company this morning too," Xena grinned at the bard's blushing face. "It was a good way to warm us up quickly."
"I remember, sort of. How are the kids?" Gabrielle asked as she stood up and pulled a woolen blanket off the bed and wrapped around her shoulders. She followed Xena to one of the fire pits.
"Still sleeping but good, better shape than we were in. Solan and Sasha were sharing body heat and Reija was behind everyone else, following a well blazed trail."
The activity of the Long Hall continued around them, people walking by with various duties and tasks, taking a moment to say good morning and to welcome the Greeks back to their family.
Gabrielle gratefully took a bowl of porridge and a hunk of bread from one of the women and another handed the warrior the same. The couple sat down next to the fire and slowly ate, letting their stomachs slowly get accustomed to the idea of being full again.
As they ate Gabrielle noticed Xena shifting her shoulders and rolling them, trying to work out very tired and sore muscles.
"I don't remember most of yesterday, how did we get here?" the bard asked and her quick eyes noticed the blush on Xena's face at the question.
"I... uh, I followed a wolf," the warrior whispered.
Xena's quick reflexes caught the bowl that Gabrielle dropped just before it hit the floor. Gabrielle shook her head and took the bowl back, her eyes still wide with astonishment.
"What?" she hissed quietly.
"Hecate told me that the Northern gods have been keeping an eye on us. It seems that they think Sasha has something to do with their future, Hecate wouldn't say what. That's why the Valkyrie was sent to help me when Sasha was born." Xena began explaining.
"And the wolf?"
"You know that wolves and ravens are Odin's, the Norse god, right?"
"Yes, I remember the last time we were here," Gabrielle nodded.
"Yeah, you probably remember more than I do with that bardic memory of yours," Xena grinned. "I've had dealings with Odin in the past and I didn't think we parted on such good company but I took a chance when I saw a wolf in front of us in the snow, waiting patiently. The wolf led us here."
"I wish I had been there when Sasha was born," the bard said wistfully and Xena felt an instant pain in her heart, Gabrielle frowned at the warrior's expression. "What is it?"
"You were supposed to be there, Gabrielle," Xena said painfully.
"What do you mean?"
"I wasn't sure I was going to tell you but we promised no secrets between us. Hecate said that the Valkyrie came to me because you weren't with me and you were meant to be. You were supposed to protect me and bond with Sasha from the beginning but you were taken from me." Xena reached out and took the bowl and cup from the bard's hands and placed them on the floor and held the bard's hands in her own.
"The Fates meant for me to be there?" Gabrielle asked softly her eyebrows furrowing in thought and question.
"Yes, that's what Hecate told me."
"The reason I wasn't there was because I was a slave, someone caused that? It wasn't random?" Gabrielle's eyes were beginning to shine with realization and with that came anger.
"No, you were set up to be captured," Xena felt her eyes filling with tears just thinking about what Gabrielle had gone through at the hands of the Romans; repeated rapes, beatings, lashings, branding, and being forced into gladiator games to fight for her life.
"Someone took me from you intentionally? Someone put me in that Arena?"
Xena winched at the strength in Gabrielle's hands as the bard clenched her fists. The warrior could see the anger settling in the bard's eyes as the knowledge hit her.
"Yes," Xena said simply.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, her jaw clenched tightly.
Eddval walked up to the two women and stopped when he saw Gabrielle's face. He looked at Xena with an expression of worry.
"She's about to go into a berserker rage," Xena grimaced at Gabrielle's grip.
"Bring her to the door, I'll grab cloaks for you. Take her to the barn and let her beat up the post there, they're very large and she's very small." He advised.
Xena grinned as she encouraged the bard to her feet, Gabrielle still with her eyes closed. The warrior noted the quickened breathing and the trembling muscles.
"You don't know Gabrielle when she's angry," Xena grinned at Eddval.
The tall Viking looked down at the woman struggling to contain her rage and nodded with a grin. "I'm not sure I want to, Ylsa," he agreed.
When Gabrielle's eyes focused once more, she was breathing heavy, was lightly covered with sweat and her muscles felt like she had just been through a workout. Looking around from her position of sitting on the dirt floor of a barn, she spotted Xena leaning against a large post, also breathing heavily, sword in hand.
Gabrielle looked down at the sais in her hand and began to blush from the realization she had lost control again.
"Xena?" she whispered.
"It's okay, Gabrielle," Xena sheathed her sword and knelt down next to the bard. "I hit you with something rough there."
"Ares set me up to be a slave," Gabrielle's eyes narrowed in anger again but she put the sais away in their boot sheathes.
"Yes," Xena said, sitting down on the floor. "Because of it you weren't there when Sasha was born and it set in motion you ending up on that cross and dying. Because the gods had to accept your Bacchae side to bring you back, Hecate helped me out in finding you and healing me."
"I don't know what I'll do if I ever see him again, Xena," Gabrielle stated flatly.
"I know, little one. I'm not sure I trust my control either. I haven't had a chance to work it off and I don't think this anger will go away." The warrior reached out and gently stroked Gabrielle's cheek. "What happened to you... I will personally castrate him!"
"Xena, do you have any idea why Artemis won't appear to me?" the bard asked in a soft voice.
"No, I don't. I know the gods can be selfish but I thought she would have come to you when the Amazons were killed," Xena commented, reaching over for Gabrielle's fur cloak from the hay bale behind them and putting it around the bard's shoulders.
"Do you think she's rejected me because of the Bacchae blood?"
"I hope not, little one. You're still the best champion the Amazons have seen and it's not your fault what Bacchus did to you."
"Gods, I'm tired of all of this!" Gabrielle complained. "Think we can get a break for a while?"
"At least another two months!" Xena laughed. "I don't think anything or anyone can make it through that snow out there."
"Good, we need some down time."
Xena grinned and got to her feet and pulled her mate up into her arms for a long kiss.
"I agree," Xena whispered.
After a moment they headed for the door.
"I remembered something, Xena, that I've been wanting to ask you."
"What's that?" The warrior asked, stopping at the door.
"Now that you know who your father is, are you going to tell Hercules when they get here in the spring?" Gabrielle asked and tried to resist smiling at the look on her mate's face. "I mean, Zeus is your father too and you and Hercules got awfully close."
Xena's face began to blush profusely. "You are so in trouble, Gabrielle!" she threatened.
Gabrielle laughed and moved several feet back into the barn.
"He's going to find out sometime!" she grinned. "It's not like you knew who your father was at the time. Happens all the time with the Greek gods."
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice was a low warning growl.
"And you both are so damned good looking," Gabrielle giggled and then made a dive for the hay bales as the warrior leaped for her, the bard laughing as she dodged a blushing warrior.
Xena let loose with a war cry and flipped forward into a somersault and landed in front of Gabrielle, cutting off the bard's intended escape route from behind the hay, and tackled her wife, both laughing as they fell into the hay.
"Xena!" the bard screamed as Xena's knowing hands sought out the bard's tickle spots. "Stop! I give! I give!"
"You promise never to tease me about this again?" the warrior growled.
"Yes, I promise!" Gabrielle gasped around her giggles, still trying to evade the warrior's hands.
"Okay," Xena stopped tickling her mate to lean down and kiss her. The bard instantly responded back into a passionate kiss.
Later that night Gabrielle sat in front of the main fire while the large extended family sat around, drinking mead or cider and listened to the bard tell the tale of their adventures with the Northern Amazons. Their battles with Alti in the spiritual and physical realm and then of Sasha and Solan being accepted as Gabrielle's adopted children and accepted into the tribe.
Xena noticed that the bard didn't expand on her Bacchae condition to the Norsemen and women, the bard just told them that Alti had put her under a spell and caused her to kill the Amazon Queen Arja. Gabrielle also described her initiation into the tribe but not in great detail and again Xena wasn't surprised. The warrior knew that shamanistic journeys could be very difficult to describe and very personal too.
When Gabrielle got to the part of Solan and Reija's romance the Northerners grinned, they delighted in love stories, especially doomed couples, the warrior knew from past experience and Gabrielle turned the explanation of what had happened into a bardic tale. Weaving a story around Solan and Reija falling in love and facing up to the Elder Council, willing to accept any consequence for that love. The bard told how the Greeks had been forced to leave under the cover of darkness for fear of the power hungry Law Speaker Mattita wanting to kidnap Sasha away from them and kill everyone else. She didn't tell them the total reason why Mattita had wanted Sasha that it was because Sasha was the daughter of gods.
Xena felt the room of people shift in their places. The thought of someone killing them for their children brought growls out of the men and women. Several warriors fingered their daggers and several mothers reached out to reassure themselves that their own children were at their feet as Gabrielle described leaving in the snow, fighting the ice river and trying to dodge arrows from the Amazon archers intent on taking Sasha from them.
Again the bard left some major details out of the story of their escape, Xena reflected but didn't blame her mate. She understood that Gabrielle didn't want to tell everyone how badly the warrior had been injured and the only reason she was alive was that a Goddess had shown up to heal her. She also understood that Gabrielle didn't want the Northerners to know that she had suffered from a massive bacchae attack because of the blood she had lost to her own wounds.
The bard had nearly died because of it. Only Xena being willing to offer her own blood had saved the bard and turned the darkness in Gabrielle into light by turning it into another connection of their love.
The warrior just hoped the bard was through fighting it and would just accept the cravings as part of her life now and not feel so damned guilty about it.
The bard ended her tale with the Greek family struggling along the rough and storm tossed coastal sea waters to reach the nearby coast and then fighting their way through the snow storm to the Steading of their adopted German family.
After her tale there were many toasts to the gods, the ancestors, the Norns and to the Greek family in honor of their survival and their courage. By the end of the rounds Xena's head was fuzzy and she gladly accepted Gabrielle's hand and let the bard lead her to the sleeping benches.
For the first time in months they slept well and through the night without nightmares or tension.
The family easily settled in for the remaining winter months with their adopted family. Xena helping with the blacksmith, Gabrielle and Reija filling in with the women with the usual chores, Solan helping with the cooking and Sasha learning the duties of the household as well.
With the slaughter of one a sheep or pig each month, Xena was able to secure some of the blood for Gabrielle. The warrior also gave her own blood and arousal for Gabrielle's Bacchae needs each month, the couple keeping that aspect of the bard's nature secret from their Germanic family.
The Spring thaw had just begun when Xena looked up one day at the sound of horses on the road and saw three riders approaching. She dropped the metal she was working into spearheads into the water bucket and readjusted her sword. Then the warrior broke into a grin as the riders got closer and she could make out Hercules, Iolaus and their adopted German son, Ketli.
"Ylsa!" Ketli cried and jumped off his horse and rushed forward to hug the warrior. Others began pouring out of the long houses and barn to greet the other Greeks, Alfhild bringing a drinking horn full of mead to offer as hospitality and thanks of their return.
Hercules grinned at the warm welcome and Iolaus found himself almost lifted off the ground when Eddval and Axel hugged him.
Gabrielle made her way through the crowd to quickly hug the two men and their growing son.
"Gabrielle! Xena! Glad you're here," Iolaus yelled over the noise of a happy crowd. "We thought we'd beat you here though."
"We've been here for a couple of months now." Xena grinned.
"What, through the snow?!" Hercules demanded.
"Long story and one that Gabrielle will tell again tonight, I'm sure. Come on, let's get you settled and I'll give you the short version," the warrior offered, removing her leather apron and letting Thorryke, the blacksmith take over the spearhead making.
Walking inside the long hall Xena took the chance to introduce the Greek men and son to her new daughter-in-law, Reija. Hercules grinned and hugged the young Amazon and Iolaus grinned at her embarrassment over the attention.
"I don't believe Solan can be old enough," Hercules grinned.
"Me either," Xena agreed. "Want to know something else?"
Iolaus raised his eyebrows and Hercules narrowed his eyes in amusement.
"What?" he ventured.
"I'm going to be a grandmother," Xena grinned and Reija began blushing even more.
"No way! That means I'm old enough to be..." Hercules' voice trailed off and Iolaus began laughing at his mate's expression.
"You just became a mom!" Hercules protested, smiling at Solan and Reija's red faces.
"A few years ago, my friend. Sasha's now 5 seasons old and Reija is starting on a family right away," the warrior grinned.
"Wow! Congratulations you two!"
"Thanks," Solan grinned.
Gabrielle came up behind the men and hugged them both, stepping between them.
"Heard the news, did you?"
"Yes, grandma!" Iolaus grinned and then tried to squirm away as the bard began tickling him. "Hey! No fair! I've only one arm!"
"Then I'll tie one of mine behind my back, you scamp!" Gabrielle threatened, continuing her assault until they ended up laughing on one of the benches.
Their two taller mates watched with amused smiles while several of the males began wagering on the outcome. Unfortunately for the gambling happy Vikings the contest ended in a mutual giggle fit and a draw was declared.
Iolaus, also known as Ivar One-Handed among the Vikings, looked up at Xena and Hercules and began laughing again. Gabrielle looked up and began laughing again as well.
Xena looked at Hercules and shrugged. Together they moved towards the fires to join Solan and Reija while Gabrielle and Iolaus struggled up off the furs.
Hercules watched Xena's face as she watched the young couple and grinned. The warrior noticed his smile and blushed.
"What?" she demanded.
"You all look good, I'm glad to see you."
"Back at you, big guy," she grinned.
"Alfhild! Brie!" Eddval's voice carried into the long hall late one afternoon, finding both women helping with the cooking. Everyone looked up with frowns on their faces, the voice had an urgent tone and both women were at the door before anyone else had moved.
"Xena?" Gabrielle muttered as they took in the sight of the hunters returning through the light snow on horses, Xena curled up in Hercules' arms. Xena raised her head and looked at her mate with a small smile, trying to reassure the bard.
"I'm alright, just twisted my leg, no big deal," she said as they rushed up.
Hercules swung his leg over the horse and landed easily on the ground with the warrior in his arms. "Probably broken and that'll take awhile to mend," he frowned.
The demi-god's frown deepened when he noticed the look exchanged between Gabrielle and Xena.
"What?" he demanded.
The other hunters going about unsaddling their horses distracted the trio and Eddval walking up to his wife and the Greeks, his face enraged.
"Husband, what is wrong?" Alfhild asked.
"Someone stole the dogs!" he yelled, causing several hunters to turn quickly and then look away at their headman's anger.
"How could someone steal your hunting dogs, they only obey you and Vikker?" she asked.
"I don't know. We hit a fog bank near the river and they went quiet. Ylsa found them trapped under a net but quiet, not making any noise," he tried to explain.
"Then a log came swinging out of the trees, a trap. I tried to jump out of the way but it caught my leg. When I looked up the dogs were gone," Xena finished.
"How?" Gabrielle asked as they began walking towards the long hall.
Hercules waited for Gabrielle to open the door and carried Xena inside.
"I don't know. I had that same tingling feeling I get whenever Ares is around," Xena frowned.
"You don't think it was him, do you?"
"No, too far north and not his style, besides, why would he want hunting dogs?"
"I don't know. Has anything like this ever happened before, Eddval?" Gabrielle asked.
"Let's get Xena inside and set the leg," Hercules insisted.
Once inside the demi-god sat the warrior down in one of the chairs and began examining her leg and knee and then frowned at his friend.
"This leg was broken, I felt the bones," he stated flatly.
"Gabrielle," Xena looked up at her mate and Gabrielle merely nodded and kissed Xena quickly.
"I'm going to talk to Eddval and see about this mystery," the bard stated, moving away.
Hercules waited, sitting down in a chair across from Xena.
"Herc, when you get a broken arm, how fast does it heal?" she asked.
"Very quickly, but not like that, Xena. I know your mother is a goddess, is this part of your inheritance?" he asked.
"Part of it. Part of it is who my father is. Herc, I was born mortal because Cyrene chose to take the child Hecate was carrying and give birth to me. She is my mother but Hecate is also my mother. The reason for it was to keep my birth a secret from my true father."
"Not Ares!?" he protested in a whisper.
"No, not Ares, thank the gods. My father may not even be aware of my existence and I'd like to keep it that way but because of what Gabrielle and I have been through, certain traits have come up and one of them is quick healing. A good thing since I was shot through the heart with an arrow escaping from the Amazons."
"Oh gods," the demi-god muttered and then looked up into his friend's eyes. "It's Zeus, isn't it?"
"How did you know?" she asked, also in a whisper.
"Who else would you be afraid to tell me about?" he grinned a rueful smile. "Don't worry, I won't tell him and I don't think Hera is talking to me either."
"Herc, I didn't know until last spring."
"I know that," he said reassuringly. "No one needs to know who your father is. I take it Gabrielle knows?"
Xena shrugged, "Yeah, can't keep anything from her."
"Any surprises about her that you want to hit me with?" he grinned and then lost the smile when Xena didn't smile back.
"Go grab a horn of something, this could take awhile," she said.
After a candle-mark the large Greek sat back in his chair with a sigh. "Part Bacchae, child of Apollo and she died on that damned cross and my brother set her up to be taken as a slave. That means that Iolaus is crippled because of him, too!" he growled, his eyes flashing brightly.
"Yes," Xena answered simply, keeping occasional eye contact with Gabrielle.
"Ares had better hope to stay out of my sight for a very very long time!" he threatened.
"I don't think he'll find a welcome from any of us," Xena agreed.
"You two are handling the Bacchae thing, you said."
"Yes, now she doesn't feel so guilty about it, just part of her nature, thankfully. We don't tell many about it though."
"I understand. May I tell Iolaus?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm letting you know so that if I'm ever away or something, you can help her get through the cravings."
"I figured that, but one thing..." he hesitated and Xena raised an eyebrow in question. "I don't know about helping with the sexual stimulation thing," he grinned and was rewarded with a playful slap across his arm and a grin from Xena.
Hercules grinned and checked the warrior's leg again and wasn't surprised this time to find it merely sprained. He shook his head and walked over to Gabrielle and quickly hugged the startled Greek and then went outside to find his mate.
Gabrielle walked over to her mate and hugged her.
"How much did you tell him?" she asked as she sat down in the chair Hercules had been sitting in.
"Everything about Zeus and Hecate and us," Xena answered, leaning back and closing her eyes, wincing in pain as she moved the leg a bit.
"Just in case you're not around when the moon hits you want someone who knows what's going on with me," Gabrielle stated.
"Yes," Xena growled around the pain as she tested the movement of the leg.
"I know we talked about it, just feels weird someone else knowing that part of me."
Xena opened her eyes with a frown but Gabrielle smiled.
"Don't worry, it's fine," Gabrielle assured her warrior.
Two days later and Eddval was still cursing under his breath about his missing dogs. The news from other nearby steadings that their dogs were missing too didn't help his mood any.
Gabrielle approached Alfhild that afternoon.
"Alfhild, could you tell me if there are any myths dealing with hounds or dogs?" the bard asked as the older woman sat carding some of the early wool.
"Yes, there are. Let's see, there's the story of the Fenris Wolf of the gods; the gates of Hella's Halls being guarded by the fierce dog Garm; and the Wild Hunt," she responded.
"Okay, the Wild Hunt sounds like the only one that needs more than one dog or wolf in it, right?" Gabrielle said, sitting down and taking up some carding tools as well, the brushes straining the wool into fine material fit for spinning.
"Yes, you're thinking of the missing hounds?"
"Yes, maybe there's a connection, maybe not. Can't hurt to learn more of your history," the bard grinned. "Why would anyone steal hounds if they won't respond to anyone's commands but their masters'?" the bard mused.
"To make the steading more open to attack? Cut down the warning time?" Alfhild ventured.
"Hasn't Eddval and Axel anticipated that and worked something out?"
"Yes, we weren't attacked the first night like Eddval suspected we might." Alfhild frowned. "Why take dogs that you can't control?" she echoed.
"What was the Wild Hunt you mentioned?"
"It is an old legend, older than anyone can remember. Sometimes it happens at Yule, the longest night of the year, sometimes it happens in the Spring, just after the first thaw. A pack of white hounds, with red ears and eyes of fire, tear through the land spreading fear and terror. The Huntsman that follows is thought to be Odin or the dark goddess Holda. Our travel among the Kelti tells us that they also have the same legend."
"What happens on the Hunt?" Gabrielle asked.
"The Hunt lasts from dark until the twilight of sunrise. Anyone caught outside are caught up with the pack and must run with them, totally mad and animal, like a berserker. If they survive the night with the pack they are insane or die of exhaustion with the sunrise. The other thing that can happen is that the pack tears anyone they find outdoors on these nights to pieces."
Gabrielle felt her head pounding and everything went gray.
When the bard's eyes cleared she found herself on the floor and several women were kneeling beside her along with Alfhild, all looking very concerned. Gabrielle sat up slowly, breathing deeply and trying to clear her head.
"I'm alright. I'm sorry, just got lightheaded for a moment, I'm okay," she said repeatedly to questions of concern. Several hands helped her off the floor and back into her chair. It was several minutes before everyone else went back to his or her daily chores, leaving the bard with Alfhild again.
The older woman continued to look concerned.
"When I was with the Northern Amazons, I had a vision journey and I saw someone torn to death by a pack of hounds, it startled me when you described it," Gabrielle answered the unspoken question between them and Alfhild nodded.
"You or Xena?" the Viking woman asked and Gabrielle blushed.
"Both," she answered softly.
"Only your death or that of your mate would cause such a reaction, I think."
"Or the kids," Gabrielle smiled. Then she looked puzzled. "I thought Odin was the head god of the Vikings, why would he lead the Wild Hunt of madness?"
Alfhild shrugged, slowly returning to her carding of wool. "No one knows, maybe it's necessary for a god to let totally loose a couple of times a year? Maybe it's a time of madness that goes along with his wisdom. No one knows."
Gabrielle frowned, lost in thought, as she continued carding with Alfhild. Soon the conversation turned to other legends of the north and comparison with the myths of the Greek gods and goddesses.
Xena also decided to ask some questions of Eddval and Axel as they watched her working with the blacksmith.
"Who would benefit from you losing the steading?" she asked Eddval.
"That's easy, either my kinsmen to the west or the Jarl, the local Lord."
"Has he made moves against you?" the warrior asked as she worked the bellows.
"Yes, small skirmishes but we can't prove anything enough to complain at the All Thing," Axel answered.
"All Thing, the annual gathering of all the countryside when the laws are recited, complaints heard and judgments decided?" the warrior asked.
"Yes, you remember well!" Eddval grinned.
"I've been this way before," Xena shrugged.
"He wants to expand his land for his own animals but the families surrounding his land are firmly tied to that land and won't move." Eddval stated.
"Why steal hounds though?" the warrior mused. "They're good for early warning and sometimes in a fight but not that important."
"The way they disappeared, it wasn't natural!" Axel grumbled.
"Magic?" the warrior frowned, it wasn't something that they normally came across in Greece anymore, most of the old magic having been lost to the age of knowledge and learning. The warrior also knew that there were still some capable of doing things beyond explanation in other lands.
"I would think so," Axel muttered.
"But why?" Xena frowned. "Why use the energy to steal hounds that you can't control?"
"Blood?" Eddval asked softly.
"It would be easier to steal cattle or sheep, that would be blamed on simple raiding," the warrior contemplated.
"Must be something specific about the hounds," Axel ventured and they all nodded in agreement.
Not finding any more answers the two Vikings wandered towards the long hall and Xena continued her blacksmithing work, all lost in thought.
Later that night Hercules and Iolaus found the two Greek women comparing notes on what they had learned. Axel, Eddval and Alfhild joined them, passing drinking horns of mead around the small circle around one of the fire pits.
"Odin wouldn't need to steal dogs for the Wild Hunt, he already has his own," Alfhild protested the line of thought beginning among the group and Eddval nodded in agreement.
"There's never been mention of dogs going missing before a Hunt. Odin is a god and doesn't need to steal our dogs." Axel agreed.
"Besides, he normally doesn't pay much attention to what happens to us," Eddval commented.
"I agree with them, from what I know of Odin, he wouldn't even pay attention to these specific steadings." Xena mentioned.
"Is there any way for someone to create their own Wild Hunt?" Gabrielle asked.
"Impossible!" Eddval protested. "The Wild Hunt is magic, it is of the gods themselves. No one could have that power or dare use it!"
"What about that magic maker from the South that the Jarl has?" Alfhild asked.
"Woman, you speak gossip!" Eddval scolded. "Just because he keeps a vitki, a magic user, from the south doesn't make him evil!"
"Who is this Jarl and who is the southerner you're talking about?" Hercules asked.
"Jarl Herrodr, the Red," Eddval answered.
"Also known as Herrodr, Snake in the Mouth," Axel muttered.
"A southerner, a dark man, came to his Hall and offered his services of magic and foretelling. He is called Rajal." Eddval continued.
"If a Wild Hunt came ripping through here, what kind of damage could it do?" Xena asked with a frown.
"Not much, the hounds only attack humans if they are caught outside. It is said the only protection is to throw yourself down in the middle of a crossroads away from the hounds. They will run over you but not harm you." Alfhild answered.
"What if it was different, what could a large pack of dogs do if they attacked?"
The Vikings frowned. "We could board ourselves inside, even the animals, like we do in full winter. I don't see how they could do much injury," Eddval concluded.
"Did the Jarl lose any dogs? Do you know?" Xena asked.
"No, he didn't and he didn't want to hear about any of the steadings losing their dogs either when my cousin went to him for help," Axel said and spat on the floor.
"What are you thinking, Xena?" Iolaus asked.
"When analyzing attacks, the first question is who would benefit and why. The only one who seems to be untouched and might have the means is the Jarl. The why is to wipe out our friends and steal their land. The how is a puzzle."
"Maybe his place is too big to lose any dogs?" Iolaus suggested.
"If every town but one in an area is raided, what would you think?" Xena asked.
"I would know where to find the raiders," Hercules grinned.
"Exactly. But why the hounds and how does he intend to use them?"
Gabrielle was looking around and Hercules caught Xena doing the same.
"Trying to figure out weaknesses?" he grinned. Both women nodded.
"The walls are secure and thick, the doors sturdy. No windows. I don't see how dogs could get in." Xena complained.
Gabrielle frowned. "Alfhild, you said the hounds of the Wild Hunt were magical. Could you describe the Hunt?"
"On the night of a storm, riding through the clouds, with the lightning flashing, come the hounds and they are followed by the Huntsman. He wears deer antlers on his head and carries a long spear, which causes everything to turn cold that he points at. The dogs are all white with red ears and flashing eyes."
"Xena, don't a lot of things travel by air up here, like the Valkyries and now dogs and Huntsmen?"
Immediately everyone looked up at the thatch roofing that was common in the region.
"The roof!" Eddval exclaimed, causing several people nearby to look up in alarm and then go back to whatever they had been doing.
"The one weakness of the buildings, of all the buildings in the area," Xena commented and leaned over to ruffle Gabrielle's hair in appreciation.
"Okay, how do we guard against flying dogs?" Axel complained.
"Make sure they never take off?" Iolaus suggested and everyone grinned.
"First strike," Hercules agreed.
"He has too many men," Eddval frowned.
"Okay, we think his sorcerer is using the dogs for magic, take away the dogs and he can't work the magic," Gabrielle stated.
"Yes, does the sorcerer do his work in the steading or elsewhere?" Xena asked the Vikings.
"I don't know, I didn't pay much attention to the little weasel," Eddval complained.
"Rajal has his own building that is strong and locked at all times inside the steading," Alfhild stated and the two Viking men looked startled. The Viking woman shrugged. "Women talk to each other. At the last gathering at Yule I talked with Herrodr's wife and she was complaining about the smell and noises from the building."
"Always go to the women for information, nothing escapes them," Eddval advised.
"Then we get in there, let the dogs loose and spoil his plans," Iolaus stated simply.
"Might not be easy, the Jarl's steading is well guarded by berserker warriors," Axel commented with a frown, deep in thought.
"We can't declare a blood feud based on what his pet might be doing," Eddval agreed.
"Why don't a few of us sneak in and let the dogs loose or kill them?" Gabrielle suggested.
"Very risky, his building is guarded by magic," Alfhild advised.
"Draw a diagram of the Steading and let's work this out," Hercules suggested.
The small band began working late into the night.
Solan stopped as he started by Gabrielle in the common yard and smiled.
"Gabby Mom," he said and she grinned.
"How did you know?" she asked, cutting carrots for the evening meal in the warm afternoon sun.
"That soap you and Mom are fond of. How'd the planning go last night?" he asked as he squatted down next her stool.
"Dead end. The Jarl is powerful and his steading well guarded and we can't be sure of his plans so we can't accuse him of anything," she explained.
"What about someone going in and scouting around?"
"That was my thought but everyone is known around here and intermarried. The scouts would need a good excuse to get into the Steading without being suspected."
"You and mom aren't known to the Jarl or his men," he pointed out.
"I suggested that but Eddval is afraid that the Jarl will have heard of us including descriptions from the last time we were here."
"Reija isn't known to any of them," he said thoughtfully.
"Solan, we couldn't ask her to go in there!" Gabrielle protested.
"She is a warrior and our family," he commented, running his hand through his hair.
"There is no way that Xena or I will let either of you risk our grandchild!" Gabrielle said sternly.
"Okay, just a thought," he said as he rose to his feet and headed towards the long hall.
Gabrielle continued to frown.
The next day Xena frowned at the sound of horses in the distance and set her metalworking aside and looked down the road, shielding her eyes against the sun.
"Ylsa?" the blacksmith asked.
"Horses, lots of them," she responded, at the same time spotting a lone rider riding fast towards the steading. "Here comes the sentry."
The young man leaped off his horse before the animal even stopped and ran up to Eddval, who was just coming out of the barn at the noise. Axel was approaching from the field with the other Viking men, tools in hand.
"Eddval! Riders from Jarl Herrodr are coming! They are armed and riding war horses, they are riding down the road and not flanking off," the teen reported almost breathlessly.
"Good job. Take a place behind me with your spear," Eddval ordered.
Xena's sharp eyes took in several of the men breaking off from the main group as everyone scurried around quickly. The warrior readjusted her sword and chakram and noticed the blacksmith grabbing a large war hammer.
The warrior saw several of the Viking men positioned around the Steading with bows and several more with short throwing spears. The rest were standing by Eddval, all armed.
The large group of riders stopped just short of the outer building and two riders moved forward. They were tall and very big, even bigger than Hercules, Xena thought. One had blond hair and the other had red hair and a beard. Judging by the gold decorating the leather covering the chain mail shirt, Xena figured the red haired one to be Jarl Herrodr and the other to be his top soldier.
"Greetings Eddval Skull Splitter!" The red haired one called, bringing his horse to a stop near the headsman Eddval.
"Greetings, Herrodr the Red. What brings you armed through the countryside?"
"The steading to the east has been attacked by raiders from the North, a large group attempting to oust your neighbor. I need as many men and yourself to join me, as fitting your pledge."
"Of course, we will meet you on the road in a candle mark," Eddval agreed.
The Jarl nodded and both riders turned and went back to their large band. Within moments the group was thundering down the road.
"What pledge, Eddval?" Xena asked as everyone began scattering around the steading.
"I am pledged to help my neighbors and Jarl in time of need, including against any of their enemies. You are welcome to ride with us or not, Ylsa."
Xena frowned, "It could be a diversion to get you away from the steading," she said thoughtfully.
"Yes, but I have no choice," Eddval frowned and moved towards the long hall.
"Xena!" the warrior looked up to see Gabrielle approaching from the long hall. The bard quickly moved up to her mate. "I heard! Are we going with them?"
"I am, you're staying here." Xena held up a hand to stop the predictable protests. "I want you to stay here and keep an eye on Solan and Reija, I want to go and study Herrodr and his men. This is a good opportunity."
"Alright, but as long as you promise to be careful!" Gabrielle insisted.
"You bet." Xena grinned and hugged the bard close. "I love you too."
The next day Gabrielle frowned as she went through her morning chores, feeling like something was out of place besides her mate being off to battle without her. It finally hit the bard and she turned to Alfhild.
"Where's Solan and Reija?" she asked.
"They went off for a picnic by the river. I told them they could have the day," Alfhild grinned.
"That's good," the bard turned quickly on her heels and swept Sasha up in her arms. "Got you!" she grinned at the stalking child as the dark haired imp laughed. "Let's go help with the cooking, shall we?"
By late afternoon Gabrielle was frowning again but was trying not to worry. She knew from experience how time could fly when spending time with your new mate.
A candle mark before sunset the bard admitted she was worried, even the animals were heading in out of the fields for shelter against the nights that were still cold.
"Alfhild?" Gabrielle began as she approached the Viking woman by the cook fire.
"I know, the men and women working the fields told me Solan and Reija haven't come back," the Headwoman frowned.
"I've got to look for them!" Gabrielle stated.
"No, you know the weather is for freezing tonight!" Alfhild snapped. "Reija is a trained warrior, she knows how to find shelter and build a fire. We will look at first light."
Gabriele clenched her jaw but Alfhild held her glare so the bard dropped her eyes, knowing the older woman was right. It was still too cold to be wandering around in the dark in the North.
Most of the night Gabrielle paced in front of the fires with Alfhild sitting with her.
"They didn't go on a picnic," the bard muttered.
"Where would they go?" Alfhild questioned.
"Herrodr's steading, posing as travelers to scout around the sorcerer's hall."
"They wouldn't!" Alfhild protested, brushing away a stray strand of gray hair from her face.
"Yes they would!" Gabrielle grimaced. "With most of the warriors away it would be a perfect time to try it and none of Herrodr's people know Solan or Reija."
"You're not going to let them!?" Alfhild protested.
"No, I'm not. It's too dangerous dealing with unknown magic."
At dawn Alfhild and Gabrielle made a quick search of the meadow by the river but neither was surprised to find no trace of the teenagers. The two women quickly turned their horses towards the north, towards Herrodr's steading and the route the two youngsters mostly likely would have taken, especially with Solan being blind and on foot.
After pushing hard the women found where the two had left the road for the night, seeking shelter in a small grove of trees. They saw signs where the couple had camped and then left in the morning. Gabrielle and Alfhild urged their horses on even faster.
Alfhild and Gabrielle jerked their horses to a stop suddenly, both women's eyes widened at the sight before them on the road.
In the middle of the road was a semi circle of warriors, all dressed in bear fur and long swords, half surrounding the young couple. What stopped the women was the sight of the bard's adopted son and daughter-in-law. The two were suspended in midair by tentacles of what appeared to be smoke, the tendrils leading to the hands of a small man off the side of the road.
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as she got a good glance at the small man, dark, small and foreign. Obviously the sorcerer of Herrodr and he obviously had powers.
Solan and Reija looked like they were in incredible pain and unable to move.
"You deal with the soldiers, I'll take the sorcerer!" Gabrielle ordered, grabbing her sais into her hands as Alfhild readied her spear, several more throwing spears in a holder next to her leg. "Get the kids!"
Gabrielle let out a war cry and urged her horse forward and launched her sais all in the same moment. The warrior bard's face broke into a grin as the sais buried themselves into the tree behind the sorcerer, taking his sleeves with them and pinning him to the tree, breaking the connection to Solan and Reija.
The youngsters fell heavily to the ground just as a spear passed over them and impaled one of the soldiers. Another spear quickly followed and went through the shoulder of another soldier. Reija grabbed up one of the swords as the remainder of the warriors slashed at her and Solan and parried two swords at once.
"Solan, stay down!" she shouted, blocking a blow from a sword.
The young Amazon was surprised and grateful when Alfhild charged her horse through the remaining four soldiers while she fought the fifth. Alfhild glanced over and saw Gabrielle leaping off her horse and heading for the sorcerer with her dagger drawn and turned her attention back to the soldiers.
"Brie! Get the kids and let's get out of here!" Alfhild called.
The bard turned, seeming to consider the choices of action and turned back for her horse as Alfhild charged her horse through the soldiers again, blocking off spear thrusts with a shield and sword.
"Gabrielle! Behind you!" Reija shouted as she blocked another sword thrust from the huge Viking she was fighting.
The bard turned quickly and grabbed her sais as they almost impaled her at chest level. The sorcerer glared and swore in a language that the bard didn't recognize and raised his hands, beginning to chant. Gabrielle swore in Greek and rushed for the horse, keeping an eye on the magician's hands behind her.
Alfhild ran the warrior that was fighting with Reija through with her sword as she came up behind him on her horse and put the horse between the teenagers and the scattered warriors who were attempting to regroup.
"Solan, get up and hold out your hand, I'm going to pull you up on the horse!" Alfhild yelled and the teen quickly got to his feet and held out his hand. In a moment he was mounted behind her. "Go for Brie's horse!" Alfhild ordered the Amazon as the Viking slashed at a warrior getting too close with a spear. "Solan, hang on!"
Reija sprinted for the bard's horse as Gabrielle caught the reins up in her hand.
"Quickly, get on!" Gabrielle ordered the younger Amazon and then mounted behind the young girl, turning the horse back towards Eddval's steading.
"Let's go!" Alfhild yelled, turning her horse down the road as well.
"Hold these!" Gabrielle ordered Reija, handing the Amazon her sais as she turned slightly on the horse to keep the sorcerer in sight and see if the warriors had horses. The bard saw the magician raise one hand to the sky and the other in their direction and then saw darkness.
"Eddval!" Xena called out to the Viking leader after the fourth day. He turned and held his horse up as she moved up beside him. "This is a waste of time," she complained softly, leaning over to keep from shouting at him in the wind along the coast.
"I agree!" he hissed back, "but I'm pledged to ride with Herrodr."
"We're chasing ghosts! We're staying just far enough back from the raiders to keep from catching them and Herrodr is behind it."
"You and Hercules go back through the friendly steadings and check on things, I have to stay with Herrodr." He suggested.
"Right!" the warrior turned her horse and made towards the back of the traveling pack of warriors to reach Hercules, wishing she had Argo with her and that her beloved mare was alright back in Greece.
It was only minutes before the Greeks moved off into the tree line and waited until the main body of the warriors was far enough way and then began a hurried trip back towards Eddval's steading.
"What's the hurry besides the fact we've been led away from the steadings for a reason?" Hercules grinned as they rode.
"Something's wrong, I can't explain it but I've got to get back to Gabrielle!" she yelled back.
"Then let's go!" he agreed, urging his horse to move faster.
At each steading they went through the Greeks found disturbing news, in one community there were two missing pregnant women, in another one pregnant woman and in a third a total of four missing pregnant women. All gone under strange circumstances, each steading reporting that they had disappeared into a fog.
"Like the dogs." Hercules commented as they left the last steading before Eddval's.
"Yes, the sorcerer! Reija!" Xena said flatly through gritted teeth.
It was two days before they had made it to Eddval's steading, Xena cursing every mark they put behind them, neither warrior saying much as they rode their horses as hard as they dared without hurting the animals. At the last steading they had been given fresh horses and had made good time but something kept nagging at the warrior that they were already too late.
The first thing Gabrielle noticed when she became aware of her thoughts and surroundings was the smell. She quickly turned over and gagged, trying to keep from losing whatever her last meal had been. The bard slowly raised herself to her knees, taking in the fact that she was on a stone floor covered with hay and it was cold. Slowly turning her head Gabrielle could make out that she was surrounded on three sides by iron bars that were embedded into the floor and went to the roof, high above her head and the fourth side was stonewall with no window.
Whimpers and whines with a little movement in the semi-darkness of the hall confirmed the bard's suspicion about the smell. The kidnapped dogs were being held in the hall. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness Gabrielle could see that each dog was chained to a ring in the floor or wall and they couldn't reach each other. A little hay was dropped along the floor to absorb what little waste they had produced. The bard didn't think it was much despite the smell, each dog looked close to death and the bard figured they hadn't been fed since they had been taken. There were various breeds of dogs but all seemed to be losing their fur to be replaced with white fur underneath.
"No!" she whispered as her eyes adjusted and she could make out several figures across the room from her chained to the wall. Women, mostly young and all were pregnant. Some were awake and others still unconscious or asleep.
"Hey!" Gabrielle called out and several raised their heads to look at the bard but their eyes were unseeing and they didn't respond. "Can you talk?" she asked in Germanic. The heads merely dropped again without response.
It was impossible to gauge the passage of time in the windowless room except for the fire burning down. The warrior bard judged the time to have passed at a candle mark when the large and thick wooden door opened and a small figure entered and barred the door behind him.
"Hey! You son of a Cyclops!" Gabrielle shouted, standing against the bars and rattling them.
The figure that approached was the same that she had seen on the road only he was dressed in fine silks this time, despite the colder temperature of the northern climate. The man was short, as short as Gabrielle and Iolaus only thinner than the Greek warrior and not as well defined as the bard. His thin and pointed face, with a goatee and mustache reminded Gabrielle of the eunuch that had been at the gladiatorial school she had been sold to. Her first kill in the arena.
"I am Rajal," he said in Latin. "You are not Viking?"
"No, I'm Greek," the bard answered.
"Good, a civilized language. I am tired of this barbaric language and lack of culture."
"Nice touches you've done with this place, I'm impressed with the smells," she growled and was pleased to see a flash of anger in his dark eyes.
"You would be wise not to anger me," he warned. "You really should have killed me when my hands were pinned."
"I'm not into killing defenseless people," Gabrielle snapped.
"But I am not defenseless," he grinned and touched his hands to hers.
The warrior bard found herself several feet from the bars holding her hands, which were stinging like she had touched an electric eel. She glared at the Arab but kept quiet.
"What do you need the women for?" she finally demanded.
"To complete the spell for the dog hunt I need blood. The best blood for the spell is of the unborn."
Gabrielle felt her stomach threatening to turn over again at the thought.
"And me? I'm not pregnant."
"You have a unique energy, much darkness to it. I'm going to bring that out in you and let you loose with the hounds when they run. That should be punishment enough for keeping me from taking that young girl on the road," he stated.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Gabrielle protested, feeling a chill spread over her body.
Rajal grinned a vicious grin and pointed a finger at the bard. Gabrielle yelped as she felt her fangs grow longer in her mouth. She tried to fight them back into her jaw but they refused. After a moment she gave up and growled at the sorcerer and bared the fangs at him.
"Yes, before the week is over, your hunger will drive you to madness and the point of death. Then, given the blood of the unborn along with the hounds, you'll become like them. Strong beyond weapons and with the ability to fly through the air. You will help them rip your friends and family to shreds," he promised.
Clenching her hands into fists and raising to her knees, Gabrielle screamed around her fangs at the image of Xena torn to pieces by the hounds, just like her vision journey had shown her. The bard let the darkness claim her overwhelmed mind.
The bard didn't know how much time had passed except that the meals given to the women seem to indicate at least two days. During that time the bard had been given nothing to eat and very little water to drink. Gabrielle sat in the corner of her cell trying to concentrate, to keep the hunger from overwhelming her but it was becoming difficult.
The women were still mindless, held somehow in a spell that put their minds to sleep. Guards came in and gave them food and then would lead them out one by one, assumedly to attend to bodily functions. For Gabrielle, no attention was given except a cup of water twice a day.
The dogs weren't treated any better than the bard. They had already gone mad with hunger, some chewing their own feet to shreds, others choking themselves to death on their chains in an attempt to get away or at the other dogs. Some just gave up and lay down on the cold stone and stared at nothing.
Gabrielle concentrated on Xena, keeping her thoughts on her mate seemed to help.
"Ylsa! Thank Thor's beard you're here!" Alfhild cried as she rushed out of the long hall as the riders skidded to a stop.
"Reija?" Xena demanded.
"She's fine, so is Solan. It's Brie!"
"What?" Xena demanded, her eyes flashing as Hercules jumped off his horse beside her.
"The sorcerer tried to take your son and wife but Brie and I interfered and Brie was knocked from her horse and taken as we were escaping. I'm sorry, I couldn't save the young ones and go back for her at the same time. When we returned there was no trace."
"It's alright, Alfhild, we'll get her back. How long has she been gone?"
"Six days," the Viking answered.
Iolaus came out of the barn and rushed over to the two other Greeks and hugged Hercules. He looked haggard and both knew he hadn't slept in days.
"The full moon was five days ago," Xena muttered in Greek.
"We left when she was going to go through the cravings?" Hercules questioned, also in Greek.
"They slaughtered a calf the day before, she had blood. Now I don't know if she got it," Xena explained and then switched back to Germanic. "Sorry, Alfhild, just bitching back and forth. We need fresh horses."
"You can't ride against the Jarl!" Alfhild protested.
"His magician has my wife and probably several pregnant village girls, we're going!" Xena stated firmly, moving past the woman, leaving Hercules to explain to Iolaus and Alfhild the comment about the pregnant villagers.
"Mom, I want to come!" Solan stated, entering the barn with Reija leading him.
"No, I can't take time to make sure you're safe and rescue Gabrielle."
"Mom, he should go with you," a tiny voice said and the warrior was surprised to see Sasha step out from behind Reija's skirt.
"Sasha? What do you mean, little one?" Xena asked, kneeling down next to the child, it was plain the Xena that the child had been crying and silently cursed herself for not having reassured the child before going for the horses.
"I don't know. Something told me he should go with you." The child said simply.
Xena frowned and Reija shrugged. "I don't know, I don't want him to go but they both say he should. She is a special child." The Amazon said.
Iolaus, Alfhild, Xena, Solan and Hercules were on the road within half a candle mark.
"Can you hear me, Greek?" a voice broke through the haze of Gabrielle's thoughts and she opened her eyes.
Rajal was standing in front of her. Somehow she managed to become semi-aware of her surroundings and realized that she was standing upright, chained to the wall with her arms spread. The chains were holding her up since the bard no longer had the strength to even feel her legs.
The bard could feel her fangs and the hunger felt like a fire gripping every muscle and nerve in her body. Everything hurt, more than any day in the Arena, more than when she had been crucified. Even more than when Xena had found her in the cave in the snow. She screamed around her fangs.
The sorcerer grinned and held a wooden mug to her lips. Gabrielle moaned and readily drank the dark red liquid in the mug and whined when the Arab took the mug away.
"No, not too much. I want you aware of what is happening, Greek, but not well fed. Very shortly you will sink your fangs into one of those women and take the blood from her and her baby," he sneered.
Gabrielle felt the blood rushing through her system, giving a little relief from the pain, from the gnawing at her body and soul and then his words sunk into the bard's mind and she frowned.
"No, never!" she growled.
The Arab laughed at her and sat the cup down on a wooden table.
"It is time, Greek. The dogs are almost all dead and now the spell begins tonight."
"Xena," Gabrielle muttered.
The Arab frowned. "You say that a lot, is that one of your goddesses?"
The bard managed to smile a small grin. "She is mine," she whispered.
Gabrielle managed to raise her head and focus enough to watch the Arab move the bodies of the dogs into several rings around the center of the room where there was a stone block and the table. On the table was a curved sword that was popular with the Arabic tribes, a curved dagger, a large bowl, the mug of blood Gabrielle had drank from, and some other things she couldn't quite focus on.
When the bard raised her head again the Arab had drawn chalk circles around each dog's body and then poured salt over the chalk, muttering in his foreign language the entire time. Rajal went to the table and took up the dagger and quickly moved from dog to dog. Any dog that wasn't already dead had its throat cut quickly and efficiently; it's blood flowing across the stone floor.
The smell of the blood sent the bard into a frenzy with a sudden burst of energy and strength. The Arab looked up and grinned as the bard thrashed against the chains and then tried to reach her own wrists, now bloody from fighting the chains. Her eyes were totally yellow and rimmed with red and her fangs long enough to be deadly. She looked at him and screamed in anger.
Rajal moved back to the outer circle and drew several symbols around the circle in chalk, continuing to chant, ignoring the bard's screams and growls of anger and frustration. Then the sorcerer moved to the table and replaced the knife on the table. Pulling a key out of his pocket Rajal walked over to one of the women and pulled the Viking to her feet. The woman didn't resist or even register the Arab's presence as he unlocked her shackles and led her to the stone altar.
The woman's eyes were blank as the Arab tied her hands over her head by a rope hanging from the rafters. The Arab's face showed the same lack of emotion as he went to the table and picked up the sword and stood in front of the woman.
The impact of the scene got through to the bard and Gabrielle screamed as the Arab raised the sword over his head and brought down with all his strength, slicing the woman from the shoulder to her hip. Gabrielle screamed again, gnashing her teeth against her lip and fought against the chains.
Her mind was refusing to accept the fact that the small man was placing the large bowl under the woman's now limp body to collect the blood. Then the smell of the fresh blood hit the bard and conscious thought fled in the wake of the overwhelming hunger.
Xena pulled her horse up to a stop just above the Jarl's steading and quickly dismounted. Hercules and Iolaus watched with curious expressions as she bent to the road and grabbed some of the road dust and mud. She went to Solan and smeared some of the dust and mud on his clothes and face and then on her own.
"Come, Herc," she said. "We need to look like we just came from the main force so they'll let us in the gate."
The large Greek grinned and jumped down off the horse to follow her lead. A few rips and they were ready to approach the gates.
"The game plan?" Iolaus asked as they rode towards the gates.
"Get inside and kick ass," Xena said simply.
"The hall is made totally of stone and the roof is wooden, not thatch like the others," Alfhild informed them.
"Good, we make for that," Hercules muttered.
"The Jarl will be coming in soon to take over the pack with his berserkers. I want in there and out before they get here." Xena stated.
"How soon do you think?" Iolaus asked, gauging the passage of time and the sun.
"When it's good and dark, when the temp drops and everyone is inside for the attack," the warrior guessed.
They talked their way past the guards fairly easily, telling the warriors that they had come from Herrodr's forces with an urgent message about the Hunt for the head warrior left behind and to get aid for the boy. The guards looked at their rough condition and Solan's bandaged eyes and let them through.
Rajal led one of the women close to the bard but not within reach of Gabrielle's fangs. He grinned at the sight of the small Greek woman who was now in a total Bacchae frenzy. The pregnant woman's eyes were unfocused and mindless as the others.
The Arab sorcerer slowly moved the woman forward and Gabrielle's eyes narrowed in suspicion and she moved back against the wall. Rajal continued to push the woman forward until she was almost pressed against the bard. The Arab then carefully unlocked Gabrielle's right wrist, being sure to stay out of her reach.
With a growl the bard grabbed the woman by the neck and pulled the Norsewoman to her as Gabrielle's head arched forward towards the woman's neck.
Rajal grinned and stepped back to watch.
Once inside the gate the Greeks and Viking looked around quickly and saw the stone hall three buildings over, guarded by four large Viking warriors. Looking around the warriors saw that no one was paying much attention to them and no one was on alert, everyone going about their evening duties.
Xena pulled her sword as her eyes narrowed.
"Iolaus, take care of Solan and keep either close to the horse or close to us," she ordered.
"Right." The Greek agreed, taking the reins of Solan's horse from Xena.
Hercules pulled a large war hammer from his saddle and glanced around again.
"Those guards aren't going to let us in," he said calmly.
"Then we'll have to convince them," Xena grinned.
"Wait, I have an idea," Hercules said suddenly and dismounted and went to Solan's horse. "Solan, come on down from there. I'm going to carry you to the sorcerer's hall, pretend to be hurt and unconscious."
"Okay," the teen agreed readily and dismounted.
"Good," Xena agreed. "That'll get us close enough to take them out and inside before anyone can raise an alarm."
In moments the guards frowned at the sight of several warriors heading their way, one carrying someone in his arms. A closer look revealed two of the warriors to be female, a surprise to the guards since Herrodr didn't care for women warriors.
Alfhild stepped forward as they approached the guards.
"This boy is injured and must be seen by the Jarl's magic worker, Herrodr the Red sent us," she said simply.
The guards frowned and looked at each other, shifting on their feet.
"We were told that no one should enter tonight," one of them said uneasily.
"Aren't you Eddval Skull Splitter's wife?" one questioned, his hand moving toward his sword.
"Now!" Xena shouted.
Hercules turned and let Solan down and Iolaus quickly pulled the youth back as Hercules turned, swinging his war hammer in the same motion, taking out the guard in the front.
Xena's sword quickly blocked one of the guard's sword as he swung at her and she spun under the blow and brought her sword up in an arc, slicing through his leather armor from hit to shoulder.
Alfhild's spear took out another guard before he could even draw his sword and the fourth fell to one of Hercules's fists.
"Intruders!" a voice shouted and Xena turned to see several warriors launching spears.
Sounding out her war cry, the warrior flipped forward through the air to land by Solan and Iolaus and knock them to the ground as several spears flew overhead.
The Arab frowned at the strange sound outside the door and looked that way for a moment. When he looked back he was stunned to see the bard hesitating at the woman's neck, her fangs not yet breaking the skin.
"Xena," the bard whispered.
Gabrielle's face looked pained and she closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them she drew back and released the woman from her grip at the Viking's neck. She pulled the woman next to her against the wall and glared at the sorcerer.
"My father is the god of light, I won't give into the darkness anymore!" she growled.
"You can't resist!" he screamed.
The bard grinned around her fangs. "None of you can claim me anymore!"
The sorcerer turned with a curse and stood in front of the altar with his arms raised high and began chanting.
In moments, the common of Herrodr's steading was a madhouse as warriors kept rushing the small band of Greeks and Viking woman, only to fall to sword, chakram, war hammer or spear. Iolaus had pushed Solan back against the doorway and was protecting the young man with his sword while Hercules kept a group of warriors held back with swings of his hammer.
Xena heard a yell and growled when she saw Alfhild go down to a sword strike along her leg. The Greek yelled a war cry and somersaulted through the air to land standing over the Viking woman, blocking a fatal sword strike and impaling the enemy warrior through the chest with her sword. She lashed out with her other hand and cut the throat of another attacking warrior with the chakram. She blocked another series of sword strikes, protecting Alfhild as the woman began crawling towards the doorway where Solan and Iolaus were.
"We're not going to make it!" Alfhild yelled.
"Don't give up! Never give up!" Xena shouted back and then hit the ground when she was unable to block a fist and two swords at the same time. She brought her sword and chakram up just in time to block the two swords again but not the boot that connected with her ribs. Two more warriors rushed up to join the three attacking the Greek.
"Damn," she muttered.
Xena was surprised when two of the warriors looked stunned and then fell to the ground, the life leaving their eyes. Two more went down and the third turned to see who was attacking them and Xena ran him through with her sword. She flipped to her feet and found herself face to face with a familiar face.
"Greetings, Greek!" the Valkyrie Grimhild Thornfinndottir grinned. The Valkyrie quickly turned and blocked another series of sword strikes from two attacking warriors. She grinned over her shoulder. "Go, your mate needs you!"
Xena turned to head for the stone hall.
"Ylsa Xena!" Grimhild called and Xena looked back. "All Father holds no grudges and says he's pleased with your progress."
Xena gritted her teeth and merely nodded as the Valkyrie went back to fighting.
The Greek warrior quickly helped clear out the small band Hercules had been fighting off and the demi-god turned to the door and put his foot against it. Two more times and it crashed inwards.
Iolaus grabbed Solan and pulled him inside and Hercules picked up Alfhild and followed. Xena held off the attacking warriors and managed to get inside before Hercules lifted the heavy door back into place.
The small band turned to face whatever was inside the stone hall.
"Xena!" The warrior's eyes swept the room, taking in Gabrielle chained on one side and several women on the other; the rings of dogs; the dead woman hanging by a rope; the sorcerer with his back to them at the stone altar; and the smell of fresh blood, urine and decay.
The warrior was about to launch her chakram when the sorcerer whirled and a blinding light filled the room with a force that knocked everyone but Solan flat.
Gabrielle shook her head and saw Rajal pick up the bowl of blood and walk over to one of the hounds.
"Xena, Hercules, if he pours blood over them we lose!" she screamed.
She could see the warriors shaking their heads, trying to clear their eyes. Xena was feeling around on the stone floor for the chakram.
The bard screamed in frustration as the Arab began pouring the blood over four of the hounds. Rajal grinned at her and kept chanting as he moved towards the fifth hound in the outer circle. Gabrielle's yellow eyes went wide at the sight of the hounds that had been initiated with the blood begin to move and open their eyes.
"Solan, your bow! The speaking!" Gabrielle yelled in Finnish, knowing that Rajal probably hadn't learned the languages further north that the Amazons used.
The blind teenager cocked his head and drew his bow up and notched an arrow. Iolaus grabbed Alfhild and held his hand over her mouth to silence her moaning and Hercules and Xena held still.
Rajal's chanting stopped and he looked at the bard with a stunned expression on his face as he dropped the bowl of blood and felt at his neck for the arrow sticking through it. The Arab sorcerer fell face first onto the stones with a sickening sound.
"He's down!" Gabrielle yelled.
The four dogs got to their feet and took in the moving warriors and growled.
"Xena, your right hand to your right!" she yelled and the warrior grabbed up her chakram. "My voice, your chakram, quick!" Gabrielle yelled.
Xena took a deep breath and launched the chakram, both mates trusting each other totally. Gabrielle ducked at the last moment as the chakram cut through her chain. The bard dropped the woman she had been shielding down the wall and fell forward, her legs refusing to hold her up.
Xena shook her head and blinked several times and grabbed up her sword.
"Hercules, can you see yet?" she called.
"No, everything's gray!"
"It's fuzzy but getting better," she muttered.
The bard got to her knees and gritted her teeth together, her fangs biting into her lower lip as she watched the dogs testing their weight and new muscles, their lips curling back in a snarl.
Seeing them about to spring forward, Gabrielle threw herself across the space and into the middle of them, tipping the table over with her. The dogs turned growling and snapping as she fought to reach the sword.
"Gabrielle!" Xena screamed trying to make out the fuzzy figures, hearing the snapping of the dogs jaws, yelps, screams, growls, yells, and whimpers. Concentrating on the noise the warrior rushed forward and dived into the middle of the moving mass.
When his eyes finally cleared Hercules looked around and felt Iolaus moving up behind him.
"No!" the smaller Greek whispered as they both took in the sight of the Arab sorcerer lying on the cold stone with an arrow through his throat and then the mess of several dogs, Gabrielle and Xena also lying on the floor, all covered in blood and not moving.
"What's happening? Somebody tell me!" Solan shouted.
"Easy, son," Hercules said softly. "We're going to find out, stay there."
The two Greeks rushed forward, stepping around the corpses of dogs and the Arab and pulled two dogs off Xena and another off Gabrielle, none of the dogs were alive. Iolaus quickly bent to check Gabrielle's breathing and pulse as Hercules did the same.
"She's alive!" Iolaus said gratefully.
"Same here! Solan, they're alive. Keep your ear at that door and let us know if anyone's about to charge it." Hercules called to the teen.
Iolaus almost yelped in surprise when Gabrielle opened her eyes and they were yellow and red rimmed. She quickly closed her eyes again as her body began to shake. The Greek pulled the bard into his arms, off of the cold stone.
"Xena?" Hercules called softly and was pleased when two blue eyes opened to look at him. Xena smiled a small smile.
"Hey big guy," she whispered.
"Are you okay?" he asked, lifting her up into his arms as well.
"I think so. I landed on my head when that last dog jumped me. Gabrielle?"
"Alive but Bacchae," he said grimly.
Xena started to move and winced.
"I think one of those bastards outside broke some ribs," she whispered.
"How can we help Gabrielle, she's going into shock?" he asked, his face showing his worry.
"None of the blood here, its tainted, sacrificed blood. It's got to be me."
"You're too weak!" he protested. "I don't know how many bites you've got."
Xena glanced over at her mate and wasn't surprised to see Gabrielle trembling, her eyes rolled back in her head.
"I don't have a choice, Herc," she whispered.
Solan started to shout something and barely moved aside in time as the door crashed in once more. Hercules quickly let Xena back down onto the floor and stood up, war hammer in hand.
The Greeks looked up and saw the Valkyrie Grimhild and Eddval walking in the hall with torches. Axel and other Vikings from Eddval's steading began pouring in. Axel went to Alfhild and began calling for stretchers as Grimhild and Eddval walked over to the small group of Greeks.
"Jarl Herrodr has been taken prisoner to answer charges of kidnapping, murder, black sorcery, treason and whatever else Eddval can think of," Grimhild grinned down at the warrior. "You all did well."
"Gabrielle!" Xena muttered, sitting up on her elbows and wincing at the broken ribs that were trying to knit themselves back together.
"She'll be fine, she conquered the darkness totally. Give her what she needs from you, warrior. You've both beaten her vision." The Valkyrie answered.
"No," Hercules said softly and Xena and Valkyrie looked at him with puzzled expressions.
"When my eyesight cleared I saw the two of them covered in blood and not moving. We thought they were dead, torn by the hounds. Just like Gabrielle saw," he explained.
"Then the Norns have been met," Grimhild nodded. "Bring them to Herrodr's hall," the Valkyrie ordered and several Vikings moved forward to help carry the women and follow the tall Viking warrior woman.
Within a candle mark the women had been cleaned up from the blood and their wounds treated and Xena was amused to find herself and Gabrielle in the Jarl's own bed in a separate room from the rest of the main long hall. Gabrielle was unconscious and trembling but not shaking as badly.
The warrior took the bard into her arms and began talking to her mate softly.
"Come on, baby, come back to me. Come on, Gabrielle, come on," she kept repeating until she saw the bard's eyes struggling to open.
Xena smiled slightly and held her wrist up close to Gabrielle's lips.
"Come on, Gabrielle, take it," she ordered softly.
Gabrielle opened her eyes slightly and raised a trembling hand to grasp the wrist. She closed her eyes and ran her tongue over the inside of the wrist, sending a shiver of energy through Xena's body. The warrior's breath quickened as the bard lightly nipped the wrist, scraping her teeth over the nerves so close to the surface and Xena felt her own body begin to tremble.
She was surprised when Gabrielle's eyes snapped open and the bard attempted to sit up.
"No, I won't!"
"Gabrielle!" Xena said sharply, holding the bard in her arms. "Its okay, it's me!"
"Xena?" the bard asked softly, falling back into Xena's arms.
"Yes, you beat it, Gabrielle. You beat the darkness totally." Xena whispered, a tear escaping from her eye. "Take what you need."
"You saved me again," Gabrielle grinned and then her face grew serious as Xena lifted her wrist again.
"Let me continue to save you," Xena whispered, kissing the bard's forehead and cried out softly as she felt fangs sink into her wrist and felt her hips jerk in response to the stimulation. "Is your bite always going to be connected to me like this?" she wondered aloud.
Hercules grinned when he checked on them later and found both women asleep in each other's arms.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes and focused she was surprised to see Xena sitting in a chair beside the bed, her feet propped up on the bed and a cloak thrown over her.
"What in Tartarus are you doing over there?" Gabrielle muttered.
Xena opened her eyes and blinked in surprise and then blushed.
"I was restless and didn't want to keep you awake tossing and turning," she admitted.
"By the gods!" the bard complained as she struggled to sit up. "I feel like I've fought two Cyclops barehanded!"
Xena grinned. "Nope, just one insane sorcerer, four draugr magical dogs, and your own hunger."
"And you, my love?"
"A few Viking berserkers and a couple of dogs, nothing much," the warrior shrugged.
"Uh huh, I suppose I'll have to find out from the others how close we came again to dying?" Gabrielle smiled.
"No, we came close, I'll admit it. Your vision came true. We were lying on cold stones, surrounded by dogs, covered in blood, bitten repeatedly and not moving. Hercules and Iolaus thought we were dead, just like you did in your vision."
Gabrielle looked at her arms and the fading wounds and frowned at her mate.
"How long have I been out?" she asked.
"What?" the bard asked in a whisper of disbelief.
"The sorcerer starved you and your hunger, it took a couple of days to recover," Xena said simply, moving over to the bed and sitting next to the bard, letting Gabrielle rest her head on her chest, the warrior wrapping her arm around the bard's shoulder.
"You fed me," Gabrielle stated.
"Yes, to get you through the worst of it and then cattle blood the last couple of days. What do you remember?"
"Which part? It gets a little confused between fighting that little bastard and waking up here."
"Do you remember being Bacchae and yet fighting back? When we broke in you were full Bacchae and blood starved yet you didn't touch the woman next to you and you told us how to fight back when we were blinded," Xena stated.
"Yes, I refused to give in. I called on Apollo's lightness and resisted. Is Solan okay? I saw him with you."
"Yes, he's fine and a hero. With your direction he took out the sorcerer," Xena grinned.
"Like his mom, you cut my chain, I remember," Gabrielle said softly.
"Team work," the warrior shrugged her own part of the rescue off. "I love you, Gabrielle."
"I love you so much, Xena. What's happened and where are we?"
"We're in Jarl Herrodr's bed and the women are fine. Once the sorcerer was dead they had their right minds back when they woke up and have no memory of being captured at all."
"One was killed," Gabrielle remembered.
"Yes, she was from the steading of Axel's cousin."
Both women were quiet for a few moments.
"An All Thing was held earlier today. Seems that we stopped a major event from happening. Herrodr planned on trying to steal Odin's powers. He was going to slaughter four steadings and turn the slain Vikings into draugrs, a mindless and soul-less body that obeys its magician master."
"That's why he wanted the dogs for his own Wild Hunt," Gabrielle said thoughtfully.
"Yes, that got the attention of the gods but they hate interfering in the affairs of humans so they sent my Valkyrie to help out when things got a little tight. Eddval, his men and the men from the other steadings took Herrodr prisoner when Grimhild, the Valkyrie, publicly accused the Jarl of his crimes. When they got here they found the women the sorcerer had taken for sacrifice, the dogs and us. He was found guilty of a lot of crimes," Xena hesitated and Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed.
"When he was found guilty there was a lightning flash and Odin appeared. This isn't a normal occurrence up here, Gabrielle. Most of these Vikings had never seen one of their Valkyries before, let alone their major god. He didn't say a word, just pointed his spear at Herrodr and they both disappeared."
"Wow! Judgment by a god?"
"Yeah. Eddval was selected as Jarl for the area and we're heroes. Hercules and Iolaus have been treated like gods the last couple of days." Xena grinned.
"Well, considering how our adventures usually end, we're not too banged up this time," Gabrielle grinned and Xena hugged her mate close.
Three days later the Greeks were leaving the Jarl's steading to return to Eddval's steading and back to Sasha and Reija when they stopped suddenly just outside the gate, all of them stunned into silence except Solan.
"What is it?" he asked, sensing the sudden change in mood.
"The one time you would be glad not to have eyes," Alfhild commented, shifting on her horse around her injured leg.
"Herrodr is hanging from a tree," Xena said simply.
"It's called the Red Eagle," Alfhild stated.
"Mom?" Solan questioned.
"Tell him," Xena said flatly.
"The criminal is tied to tree branches, arms spread wide. If the execution is to be quick then he is strangled with a noose, a rope. If it is to be punishment then slices are made down his back and his lungs pulled out from behind. They look like wings. More cuts are usually made to the body to make it even more painful." Alfhild explained.
"Oh gods," the teen muttered.
"He challenged a god," Alfhild shrugged and moved her horse forward.
The Greeks urged their horses forward to follow.
"Time to go home?" the bard questioned softly.
"What about the Amazon woman and child?" Xena asked and Gabrielle frowned. "Do we risk returning to the Northern Amazons to escort them to their new tribe?"
"No, I don't want Sasha near Mattita until we know for certain that she no longer has any power." Gabrielle muttered. "I've talked with Sterope, the baker, and she wants to remain with Axel's family if going to the Amazons would put us in danger."
Gabrielle's face looked pained as she looked over into Xena's eyes. "I want to go home."
"Yes," Xena agreed simply.
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