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 1920s 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 didnt 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 bards 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. Theyd claw out yer jugler 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 uns got no kin. Never had vizzters. Not the most popler lady in the land." He fumbled with the ring of keys on his belt. "Well, shell swing come sunup. Were usin the sawgrass hemp we keep jest for her branda coward."
He fit the key into the rusted lock, then paused as he saw Gabrielles face. His bloated features softened. "Dont let her get to ye, missy. Keep yer friend here close by, and finish yer bizness fast. Coria aint fit compny fer decent -- "
"Open it," Gabrielle snapped.
The sharpness in her tone told Xena all she needed to know about her partners 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 Gabrielles 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 didnt 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. Im 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 shes her auntie." She raised a hand and let it fall, the rattle of the chain punctuating the dismissal. "Youre no kin of mine, lass, and I dont have no gold to leave you if you were. Leave me be."
"Brellas not my blood relation." Gabrielle studied the womans features as she would the verses in a fading scroll. "But Id 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 prisoners head, illuminating her doughy features. Gabrielle looked at Xena and shrugged, her green eyes filled with confusion and sadness. Xena couldnt see that expression and remain silent.
"Weve 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." Xenas eyes hardened. "After the first baby died, you might have had time to save the others. If youd 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 youd given them would cure their children."
"You werent there. They would have killed me, woman." Corias 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 couldnt tell valerian from parsley. I could only run."
The torch in Gabrielles hand trembled, and the prisoner looked up at her, wincing even in that dim light. "Is that the story you wanted, lass?"
"No. It isnt." 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." Gabrielles 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 shed rather hear them than eat -- "
"I havent seen the sun for a full season." The woman slumped on the stool. "But I remember how fast it travels. When it rises again, Im headed for a sawgrass noose. Dont 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 didnt stop looking for Brella for years, really. I never have."
"And you think Im her. This Brella." There was more sadness than mockery in the womans tone.
"I dont know." Gabrielle hesitated, then touched the prisoners 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. "Brellas 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 youve found your friend?"
"But you look . . . " Gabrielles brow furrowed as she searched the womans swollen face. "Im not sure, theres some resemblance . . . but I cant find Brella in your eyes. Then again, its been twelve years, and so much -- "
"This Brella of yours was the sort whod leave little ones to die?" Coria sighed. "Look, Im sorry for your loss, but -- "
"Ive seen what drink can do to good people." Gabrielles voice was tight with strain. "Those children died because of you, yes, but you didnt 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 whats happened to you, Ill speak for you. Well find the magistrate. Hes known as a fair man, I can make him listen."
Coria squinted. "Artemis herself couldnt clear me of this."
"And neither can I." Gabrielle took the womans 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 cant 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 ones a friend of yours, I take it?"
"She is," Xena replied.
"You look like youve 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. "Ive seen her do it, yeah. For bloodier killers than you."
A smile ghosted across Gabrielles pale face. She pressed the prisoners 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, Im scared to die." Coria met Gabrielles gaze. "Always have been. Now -- its worse, of course. I know whats waiting for me, on the other side." She glanced at Xena, as if expecting her derision, but the warrior watched her silently.
"Id 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 aint as bad as what Hades has in store for me. Hell 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 couldnt carry it off. Thats the truth."
The womans heavy shoulders lifted, then fell. "See, youd see through it. You look smart enough to recognize wishful thinking, and thats whats happening here. Sooner or later youd see me true, and youd realize I never set foot in your Potta -- your village." She shrugged again. "Ive had a hard run, and Im tired. I couldnt keep it up, see? When you started asking me if I remembered this person, or that brook, from your homeplace? I couldnt pretend good enough."
A tear coursed soundlessly down Gabrielles face. Coria hesitated, then brushed Gabrielles hair back off her brow with her three fingers.
"Im not your Brella, girl. You probably aint gonna find her, after so many years, but I wish you could. Shes lucky she had friends like you, Ill 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 womans hand, and wiped her eyes. "You could have lied to me, and you didnt. Many in your place would have tried. Ill light a candle for you, Coria. When its over."
The woman nodded.
Gabrielle rose to her feet. Xena went to the door and knocked once.
"Come on." The warrior touched Gabrielles shoulder. "Lets 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 Gabrielles 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."
"Shes something fine, that young woman. She always was. Even as a little one, that -- light, was there in her."
"Couldnt 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 Gabrielles back lightly.
The bard thought about it. "I will be, yeah."
Xena again felt the urge to slip her arm around Gabrielles shoulders, but she decided her partner would ask for comfort when she was ready for it.
"Corias death will be quick." Xena reached up and plucked a leaf from a branch overhead. "I think shes resigned to it, Gabrielle. She wont suffer much."
"The crowd will be cruel, though." Gabrielle studied the stars. "Shell feel their hatred. But shell remember us, too. Shell remember Potadeia, and all the friends there who cherished her. Shell 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 bards shoulders. Gabrielle wound hers around Xenas waist, and they walked together toward the path that led out of the village.
-- End --
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