Friends Remembered

by Culprit


Disclaimer: Most of the characters in this story are the copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The plot is based on a one-act play entitled The Valiant, written in the 1920’s by Holworthy Hall and Robert Middlemass. Their story of the changing faces of courage touches me, and I believe their theme is well-served by the warrior and the bard.


There was a wet trail down the center of the dank stone hallway that Xena didn’t care to examine too closely. Most prisons were dismal, but this pit hit new depths of dreariness. The heavy air was permeated with a sour stench of hopelessness and misery.

She glanced down at Gabrielle, worry etching a fine line between her brows. Her arm nearly rose of its own accord to encircle her shoulders, but she settled for brushing the bard’s wrist with one finger. Gabrielle offered a wooden smile.

"Keep to the middle of the passage." The stooped guard leading them sounded like he was gargling seawater. "These wretches got nothing to lose. They’d claw out yer jug’ler fer sport, get too close."

Xena was aware of haunted faces pressed against the bars of the cells lining the hallway. The prisoners were oddly silent, given the novelty of free women in their midst. She glanced into a cell on her right, and saw an ancient man slumped against the bars, his rheumy eyes streaming tears as he watched them pass.

"Buncha corpses," the guard grumbled wetly. He stopped by the last cell, equipped with a solid iron door rather than bars. "This un’s got no kin. Never had vizzters. Not the most pop’ler lady in the land." He fumbled with the ring of keys on his belt. "Well, she’ll swing come sunup. We’re usin’ the sawgrass hemp we keep jest for her brand’a coward."

He fit the key into the rusted lock, then paused as he saw Gabrielle’s face. His bloated features softened. "Don’t let her get to ye, missy. Keep yer friend here close by, and finish yer bizness fast. Coria ain’t fit comp’ny fer decent -- "

"Open it," Gabrielle snapped.

The sharpness in her tone told Xena all she needed to know about her partner’s tension. She rested her hand on the chakram at her side, as if she could defend Gabrielle against the prisoner within. She would have preferred a physical attack to the kind that might await her.

"Hey." Xena waited until Gabrielle met her eyes. "The odds against this woman being your Brella are sky-high. You know that. Right?"

"Sure." Gabrielle cleared her throat. "But I want to try."

"I know." Xena touched Gabrielle’s arm, then ducked to enter the cell first. The dim interior was lit by one smoking torch in the corner, which did little to banish the oppressive gloom. Her blue eyes narrowed as she saw the large woman slumped on a low stool against the back wall.

Gabrielle stopped in the center of the cell and waited until the heavy iron door swung shut, and they heard the gritty sound of the key turning. Xena leaned back against the door and folded her arms.

The woman wore a shapeless shift of cheap muslin, and she was shackled hand and foot; traditional attire for a prisoner nearing the hour of execution. She didn’t appear anxious, nor particularly curious about her visitors. The long, straggling hair held streaks of silver, but layers of fat made her age difficult to determine. A tattered patch over one eye and a three-fingered left hand testified to years of hard living.

Gabrielle searched her face silently, and the woman stared back. There was no hostility in her expression, and no bravado; just a deep, pulling weariness. Finally she started to speak, but countless days of silence had rusted her throat. The woman lowered her head and coughed a few times.

"Tell me a story, aunt," Gabrielle said softly.

The woman blinked. She peered past Gabrielle at Xena, who regarded her without expression. The stool beneath the prisoner creaked as she shifted, and her voice rasped when it finally emerged.

"Awright. I’m game." The woman leaned forward stiffly and rested her elbows on her knees. "A township takes it into its head to string up the local apothecary. The night before she swings, her peace is busted by a -- a giantess with mean eyes, and a blonde dolly who thinks she’s her auntie." She raised a hand and let it fall, the rattle of the chain punctuating the dismissal. "You’re no kin of mine, lass, and I don’t have no gold to leave you if you were. Leave me be."

"Brella’s not my blood relation." Gabrielle studied the woman’s features as she would the verses in a fading scroll. "But I’d be proud to claim her as family. Anyone in Potadeia would." She went to the corner and lifted the torch from its metal bracket, then held the flame over the prisoner’s head, illuminating her doughy features. Gabrielle looked at Xena and shrugged, her green eyes filled with confusion and sadness. Xena couldn’t see that expression and remain silent.

"We’ve spoken to your neighbors, Coria." The tall warrior stepped into the murky torchlight. "They still mourn the deaths of four children last winter. Their parents came to you for herbs to treat a common fever, and you gave them enough nightshade to kill a dozen grown men."

"I was drunk." Coria pinned her one eye on Xena. "And I been through all this, at that carnival they called a trial. Check the court scrolls -- "

"You were found guilty of murder." Xena’s eyes hardened. "After the first baby died, you might have had time to save the others. If you’d confessed your mistake, and mixed a remedy. But you blamed the death on lung sickness." The words hissed. "You let those parents believe the poison you’d given them would cure their children."

"You weren’t there. They would have killed me, woman." Coria’s hoarse voice was calm. "Those folks were crazed when their boy died. They would have slit my throat if they knew I stewed the wrong leaves. And . . . and I was too deep in the ale by then to mix herbs, I couldn’t tell valerian from parsley. I could only run."

The torch in Gabrielle’s hand trembled, and the prisoner looked up at her, wincing even in that dim light. "Is that the story you wanted, lass?"

"No. It isn’t." Gabrielle replaced the torch in its rack and pulled in a long breath. "But let me tell you one. Let me tell you of Brella the weaver, the most loved woman in Potadeia. She had so many talents, so much -- sweetness. And stories, Brella knew such wonderful stories." Gabrielle’s eyes warmed with fond memory. "Her kitchen was my hideout, when I was little. I called her aunt out of love, and respect; all the kids did. She was never too busy for a bratty girl, so hungry for legends and myths she’d rather hear them than eat -- "

"I haven’t seen the sun for a full season." The woman slumped on the stool. "But I remember how fast it travels. When it rises again, I’m headed for a sawgrass noose. Don’t waste the time I have left, girl. What do you want?"

Gabrielle knelt in front of the woman, oblivious to the filth and chill of the stone floor. "Brella vanished from my village twelve years ago. She just disappeared. We never learned what happened, why she left, or what became of her. We searched for days, weeks -- the children didn’t stop looking for Brella for years, really. I never have."

"And you think I’m her. This Brella." There was more sadness than mockery in the woman’s tone.

"I don’t know." Gabrielle hesitated, then touched the prisoner’s wrist. Coria flinched, but allowed the bard to grasp her hand gently and raise it into the smoky light, exposing the blunt stubs of two fingers. "Brella’s hand was caught in a thresher when she was young."

"Oh, girl." The woman grimaced and slipped her hand free. "So you hear of a three-fingered murderess, and believe you’ve found your friend?"

"But you look . . . " Gabrielle’s brow furrowed as she searched the woman’s swollen face. "I’m not sure, there’s some resemblance . . . but I can’t find Brella in your eyes. Then again, it’s been twelve years, and so much -- "

"This Brella of yours was the sort who’d leave little ones to die?" Coria sighed. "Look, I’m sorry for your loss, but -- "

"I’ve seen what drink can do to good people." Gabrielle’s voice was tight with strain. "Those children died because of you, yes, but you didn’t set out to murder them. Please." She closed her eyes and drew in a breath. "Please, if you are Brella -- no, listen. If you are Brella, no matter what’s happened to you, I’ll speak for you. We’ll find the magistrate. He’s known as a fair man, I can make him listen."

Coria squinted. "Artemis herself couldn’t clear me of this."

"And neither can I." Gabrielle took the woman’s hand again. "But maybe I can save your life. No one spoke for you, at your trial. If you are Brella of Potadeia, I can tell the magistrate about you, about the woman you used to be. I can’t change the verdict, but maybe I can change the sentence."

The woman frowned at Gabrielle, then looked over at Xena. "You. Colossus in a skirt. This one’s a friend of yours, I take it?"

"She is," Xena replied.

"You look like you’ve trod a few more bloody paths than she has." Coria jutted her chin at Gabrielle. "What do you say? Can this youngster pull a miracle like that? Talk a lynch mob out of a hanging?

Xena studied Gabrielle, and her eyes softened. "I’ve seen her do it, yeah. For bloodier killers than you."

A smile ghosted across Gabrielle’s pale face. She pressed the prisoner’s hand. "Brella is remembered in Potadeia. Others would speak for you, if the magistrate allows it, I know they would. She was so loved. Please -- tell me who you are. Let me help you, if I can."

Coria looked at the filthy floor, one foot scraping a half-circle as she thought. A faint voice reached them, the sound of the soldier on watch calling the hours. It was nearly dawn.

"You know, I’m scared to die." Coria met Gabrielle’s gaze. "Always have been. Now -- it’s worse, of course. I know what’s waiting for me, on the other side." She glanced at Xena, as if expecting her derision, but the warrior watched her silently.

"I’d put as much distance between me and that noose as I could get. If I could. Even if it meant -- this. Being here." She scowled at the grim walls of her cell. "This ain’t as bad as what Hades has in store for me. He’ll get me eventually, for those kids. But . . . the thought of holding Tartarus at bay for awhile . . . well, it appeals to me." She released a gusting sigh. "Problem is, I couldn’t carry it off. That’s the truth."

The woman’s heavy shoulders lifted, then fell. "See, you’d see through it. You look smart enough to recognize wishful thinking, and that’s what’s happening here. Sooner or later you’d see me true, and you’d realize I never set foot in your Potta -- your village." She shrugged again. "I’ve had a hard run, and I’m tired. I couldn’t keep it up, see? When you started asking me if I remembered this person, or that brook, from your homeplace? I couldn’t pretend good enough."

A tear coursed soundlessly down Gabrielle’s face. Coria hesitated, then brushed Gabrielle’s hair back off her brow with her three fingers.

"I’m not your Brella, girl. You probably ain’t gonna find her, after so many years, but I wish you could. She’s lucky she had friends like you, I’ll say that. If you ever run into her, tell her I said so."

Gabrielle lowered her head, and her shoulders folded in around her. Xena waited, her throat tight and aching.

"I guess I knew." Gabrielle released the woman’s hand, and wiped her eyes. "You could have lied to me, and you didn’t. Many in your place would have tried. I’ll light a candle for you, Coria. When it’s over."

The woman nodded.

Gabrielle rose to her feet. Xena went to the door and knocked once.

"Come on." The warrior touched Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Let’s get you out of here."

Gabrielle turned as the key sounded in the lock. She left the cell without looking back.

Xena paused at the open door, and waited until Gabrielle’s footfalls faded before turning back to the woman hunched on the stool.

"My thanks, Brella."

The prisoner went still. Then she smiled dryly at the floor before looking up at Xena. "You have walked a few more paths than your friend."

"A few."

"She’s something fine, that young woman. She always was. Even as a little one, that -- light, was there in her."


"Couldn’t bring myself to dim that light, any." Brella stretched her cramped legs out before her. "A whole village remembers me kindly, she says. They loved me. Love me still, to this day."

"They do. And she does."

Brella shrugged. "This way, they always will." Another smile touched her lips -- a small one, but infinitely sweet.



The night air was cool.

Xena found Gabrielle waiting beneath a tree, far from the brooding gates of the prison. The lines of her body were softer now, relaxed and calm.

"You all right?" Xena scratched Gabrielle’s back lightly.

The bard thought about it. "I will be, yeah."

Xena again felt the urge to slip her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, but she decided her partner would ask for comfort when she was ready for it.

"Coria’s death will be quick." Xena reached up and plucked a leaf from a branch overhead. "I think she’s resigned to it, Gabrielle. She won’t suffer much."

"The crowd will be cruel, though." Gabrielle studied the stars. "She’ll feel their hatred. But she’ll remember us, too. She’ll remember Potadeia, and all the friends there who cherished her. She’ll know her real name will always be honored there."

Xena stared at her.

Gabrielle smiled, and there was peace in her eyes. "Brella gave me so many amazing stories, Xena. This was all I could give her in return."

The distant hills were washed in the first gold light of dawn. Xena draped her arm across the bard’s shoulders. Gabrielle wound hers around Xena’s waist, and they walked together toward the path that led out of the village.


-- End --

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