Characters that have appeared on the TV show Xena, Warrior Princess are © copyright 1995 by Renaissance Pictures/MCA/Universal/USA Studios. "The Child" (c) copyright 1997 by email@example.com. Please send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has a Scandian dictionary to help with translations of some of the dialog.
"No, no, no! It's hop, slide, turn, swish! Hop, back and step, step, twirl!" said Gabrielle, demonstrating awkwardly. Dancing wasn't one of the bard's strong points.
They were alone on the road, more than a mile from the nearest village. Their voices filled the forest spaces, their steps carefree. Even Xena had felt her vigilance slip over the past couple of days as they took their time traveling the forgotten road. No highwayman or warlord could make a living attacking on a route so little used.
Xena sighed then tried again. "Hop, slide, turn, swish!" she said, doing an exaggerated imitation of Gabrielle. The bard smiled sarcastically in return. "Hop, back and step, step, twirl," finished Xena, twirling gracefully, ending with a flourish.
"Much better! But during the slide, you have to sort of move your hips, like this," said Gabrielle, undulating. "You're supposed to entice your partner. Make me, y'know, want you as a woman."
"Uh huh," said Xena. She slid, moving her hips provocatively. "That's ridiculous. You know, I never have any trouble at all enticing you, Gabrielle. Why in the world would I need this stupid dance?"
"It isn't about hitting the pallets, Xena," Gabrielle said with a shake of her head. "It's about the music and the courtship. It's an expression of love and longing all told in dance!"
Xena slid again, moving her hips seductively. "That, my friend, is all about hitting the pallets and you can't tell me otherwise.
Gabrielle laughed. "Actually, when you do it, it sort of is, isn't it? I don't know why, but it never seemed quite so... provocative... at the festivals in Poteidaia. It just seemed like harmless fun."
"Uh huh," said Xena, practicing her hop, slide, turn and swish. "I think wild animals are more subtle than this."
"You are impossible!" said Gabrielle laughing.
Xena smiled, opened her mouth to speak, then suddenly snapped her head to the side, holding up one hand to forestall any comments from Gabrielle. The warrior listened to the forest, instinctively reaching over her shoulder for her sword. She gestured for Gabrielle to wait, handing her Argo's reins.
Fully focused now, Xena slipped into the forest, her movements lithe and silent. She heard it again. A small screech that didn't match the sound of any animal Xena knew. This was a human sound. Chilling and eerie, but human.
Carefully she moved through the underbrush, passing tall, gnarled trees, gauging the direction of the sound in the long pauses between and adjusting slightly each time it was repeated. Finally, she noticed a break in the forest through the tapestry of branches. She knelt down and parted the leaves on a tall bush to reveal a hidden clearing. She frowned at the sight that met her eyes.
Two decaying bodies lay in the grass, swarms of insects buzzing in clouds above them. Xena could just make out a few of the details. One was a woman with long, pale, blonde hair, matted with blood near the scalp. Her clothing was strange, foreign, like nothing Xena had ever seen. The skirt of her dress was hiked above her waist, dried blood clotted on the inside of her thighs. The other body was male. He had the same peculiar hair and style of clothing as the woman, but his body had been mutilated; chopped apart, the pieces scattered around the clearing.
Xena's eyes grew dark, her nostrils widening, anger tightening the muscles on her face. What monster did this? she wondered. She hadn't heard of any attacks in the area, and knew from experience that this was one of the most peaceful stretches of road in Northern Greece. And although trouble can be found anywhere there are people to cause it, this went beyond the ordinary highwayman or warlord. These innocent-looking travelers had been tortured, raped, and brutally murdered. This was malicious carnage, nothing less.
She was about to turn away when she heard it again: The high-pitched screech. She had forgotten about the sound in the shock of discovery. But now she looked closely at the edges of the clearing until she found the source.
Rocking back and forth, her face raised to the heavens, arms holding her knees tightly, was a small child -- a girl, not much more than three winters old, with unkempt, white-blonde hair and huge, sky-blue eyes. Her mouth was open in a silent scream that intermittently found a voice. As Xena watched, the child began to shake violently then screeched once again.
How long she had been there, Xena didn't know, but the bodies were at least three days dead, probably more. How had the girl survived all this time? wondered the warrior. And how am I going to help her? She's probably lost her mind completely and by now is more animal than human.
Knowing there was nothing else to do, Xena slowly stood, making her presence known. The girl stopped rocking, lowered her head until she could see the intruder, then stared unflinchingly at the warrior.
For long moments, neither of them moved. They simply stared, each caught by the other's eyes. Xena felt trapped by her own stillness, afraid any movement would make the child disappear, as if she had never existed. The warrior knew she had to do something. She had to get through to the one whose gaze held her with such power. For never in her life had Xena seen such tortured eyes.
"It's okay," said Xena in a low, soothing voice. "I'm not going to hurt you. It's okay..." Slowly Xena stepped into the clearing. The stench from the bodies made her flinch as she drew near, yet she never looked at them, maintaining eye contact with the child at all times. The girl continued to stare, unblinking, at the warrior, a snarl distorting her lips, her eyes almost colorless. It was the face of a three-year-old who had discovered hatred -- adult-sized hatred. Hatred, Xena thought, that was far too big for that tiny body.
When Xena was only a few feet away, the girl screamed once then threw herself into the brush. Xena wanted to pursue her, but stopped herself. Chasing her down would make the child feel threatened. Xena deliberated for a moment, staring at the spot where the girl had vanished, the warrior's eyes squinting thoughtfully. After several moments, she turned away, deciding instead to get Gabrielle. She didn't want her companion to be alone on the road in case the madman who had caused this brutal scene still lurked in the area. Besides, the child would most likely return to her parents' bodies. They were all she knew. And if she didn't come back, Xena could track her.
"By the gods...!" gasped Gabrielle. She turned away from the clearing, dropped what she was carrying and vomited into the bushes. Xena rubbed her back, wishing in some small part of her that she could feel the same horror. Having killed so many, her heart had hardened at the sight of death. Still, she thought, this does feel different. There was something unclean about the scene. It was sordid, messy and disturbing. Whoever had done this appeared to have found joy in the torturous taking of these lives. And the victims, with their strange clothes and unusual looks, seemed so innocent.
"Give me the spade. We need to bury them," said Xena. Gabrielle gestured behind her and Xena retrieved the small, lightweight shovel. Without glancing at the bodies, she began to dig, her eyes secretly searching the bushes for a glimpse of the child.
There was no sign of her anywhere.
Gabrielle looked at the shallow hole Xena was digging. The bard had tried to help, but every time she had neared the bodies, she had become sick. Finally, Xena had told her to wait at the edge of the clearing, while she continued the gruesome chore alone.
"I feel better now, Xena. Let me finish that up," said Gabrielle.
"It's almost done."
"I want to help."
"All right," said Xena hopping out of the grave. She handed her friend the shovel then moved toward the bodies.
"What are you doing?" asked Gabrielle as Xena crouched next to the woman.
"Looking. Maybe they have something on them that will give us a clue as to who they were. That child has to belong somewhere. Relatives, friends... someone must be missing her." Xena searched the clothing of both corpses, but found no answers to the mystery. "Who are you?" she quietly asked the woman. "Your child... Do you have a sister or a mother who could take care of her? Love her?" She waved away the flies that swarmed above the gaping wounds. "Where did you come from?"
Gabrielle glanced up from her digging. "Xena? How deep are we going to make this?"
Xena looked over at the hole. "That's enough," she said. "Will you be able to help me? Put them to rest?"
The bard swallowed. "Yeah. I'll help," she said.
Gabrielle tied a scarf around her face and stepped out of the grave. She walked over to the man. Xena was gathering his severed arms and legs, throwing them into the pit.
"We'll arrange the body later, once we get all of him in there," the warrior said calmly, seemingly oblivious to the gruesome nature of their task. Gabrielle saw something fleshy in the grass and bent to pick it up. Her face drained of color and she fell back, the nausea returning. She closed her eyes and fought the feeling.
Xena looked at her friend with compassion. No one should have to see things like this, she thought bitterly. Especially Gabrielle. "Gabrielle? Are you--"
"I'm fine. I'm fine," said the bard. She took several deep breaths, opened her eyes and reached toward the thing on the ground. Before she could grab it, Xena's hand was there.
"I understand," said the warrior, tossing the dead man's genitals into the grave. "Tell you what. Let me do this, okay? You go check on Argo."
Gabrielle smiled weakly. This was one time when those words were the sweetest sounds she had ever heard.
When Xena finished arranging the man's corpse in the grave, she went to get the woman. Her body, Xena noticed, was intact. With a grunt, the warrior lifted the carcass, dropped it next to the man, then shook her hands free of a few clinging maggots.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I don't know who you are. I can't mark your grave, or tell your people where to find it. I wish there was something I could do. The most I can promise is that I will keep your child safe. That's what matters now, isn't it? The child. I give you my word no harm will come to her."
Xena reached for the shovel when something caught her eye. Where the woman's body had just been, lay an ornate silver medallion. The warrior picked it up, examining the intricate scrollwork. It appeared to tell a story in detailed, though strange-looking pictures. Xena tried to decipher the tale, but it was no use. Maybe Gabrielle will have better luck, she thought. She turned the token over in her hands and found herself fascinated by the artistry of the piece. It looked quite valuable, and she wondered why the murderer hadn't taken it. Surely he would have searched the bodies. Nothing of the strangers' possessions had remained in the clearing so Xena assumed the assassin had stolen their gear. But he missed this. Or did he leave it behind as a sign? Did it belong to the victims or the killer? Still puzzled, she tucked the amulet into her cleavage.
Suddenly, something slammed into Xena's back. A wild animal was ripping and tearing at her; pulling her hair, raking small nails across her face.
The child had returned.
"Flik tunan! Mekt min mama bjökir!" screamed the child.
Xena protected her face from the flailing hands, then gently pried the girl from her back. The toddler continued to scream strange words, writhing and beating on the warrior with all the strength in her small body.
Xena murmured softly, trying to quiet her rage. "Shhh... I'm not going to hurt you, please, hush, little one," she said. Trying not to be too rough, she trapped the youngster's arms against her small torso and looked into the girl's eyes. The child was hysterical, not breathing, her mouth again open in the silent scream. "It's going to be okay," assured Xena. "Just take a deep breath. Breathe, little one, please," she said, knowing her words were meaningless to the girl. She demonstrated what she wanted, taking deep breaths, nodding her encouragement, and rubbing the child's back with her fingers.
The girl stopped struggling and stared into Xena's eyes without blinking. Xena continued to take deep breaths, her own eyes unwavering, trying to communicate through the intensity of her gaze. At last, the child imitated Xena's breathing, the action calming the girl. Xena allowed one small arm to go free, keeping hold of the other. "Min mama," the child said, pointing to the grave.
"Yes, little one. Your mama. I know."
"Mama erd Papa," she said.
"Mm hm. Your mama and your papa. I'm sorry," said Xena.
"Mama..." the girl whispered, straining to free her other arm, her eyes on the grave.
Xena placed a hand on the side of the child's face, turning her from the sight. "No, don't look. You've seen enough. You don't need to see them in the ground."
The little girl looked again into Xena's eyes, tears spilling onto the child's cheeks. She reached tiny arms around Xena's neck, burying her face in the warrior's chest, sobbing soundlessly.
"Sshhh... there, there," said Xena, holding her awkwardly. After a moment, the warrior relaxed, rocking the girl gently, rubbing her back in soothing circles. Xena glanced around the clearing. "Gabrielle?" she called quietly, not wanting to disturb the child. There was no response. "Gabrielle?" she said again, a little louder. Nothing. "Gabrielle!" she tried a third time, giving her voice more strength.
"Gahb-yell," imitated the child, her tears spent as suddenly as they had begun. Startled, Xena smiled at her. The girl looked at the warrior's face, then reached one small hand up to touch her cheek. Curiously, she traced the scratches her own nails had made, then dropped her eyes. "Yah sØrten," she whispered.
"It's okay," said Xena, understanding her apology. The warrior placed a finger under the girl's chin and raised her face to hers. "Yah sØrten," she said, nodding her head toward the grave.
The child nodded sagely. "Min mama erd papa," she said sadly.
Xena found herself awash with emotion. Anger at the person who had caused this child such pain. Remorse that she and Gabrielle hadn't arrived sooner, perhaps in time to save them. Fear at the prospect of taking care of the girl, even for a little while. And worry that the bard had yet to answer her call. "Gabrielle!" she shouted over her shoulder.
"Gahb-yell?" the child asked, poking a finger at Xena's chest.
Xena looked at the girl, surprised. "What's that? You think that's my name? You are a bright one, aren't you?" she said. Where is Gabrielle? she wondered, glancing around quickly. Her eyes were drawn back to the child who was waiting patiently for a response. "Xena," the warrior answered. She pointed to herself and said her name again, slowly. "Xee... nah."
"Seeee-neh," the girl tried.
"Xee-nah," the warrior repeated.
"Pretty close. Good girl," said Xena, nodding.
"Were you calling for-- oh!" said Gabrielle, pushing through the bushes behind the child. "Um... is she...?
The girl spun in Xena's arms, screaming. Gabrielle backed up, surprised. Xena pulled the child's face toward her own but the girl wrenched away, ducking to grab the warrior's thighs in a tight grip. She made herself as small a target as possible, folding herself into Xena's lap.
"Should I leave?" mouthed Gabrielle.
Xena shook her head 'no.' then returned her attention to the child. "Here, you. C'mon, get up. It's only Gabrielle," she said, pulling the small figure up until their eyes could meet. "She's my friend. Understand? My friend. Gabrielle."
"Gahb-yell?" asked the child, looking into Xena's eyes. She was still frightened, but even as the warrior watched, the girl calmed herself, seeming to find something in the woman's gaze that spoke to her without need of language.
Xena smiled, then gave a nod toward the bard. "Yes. Gabrielle."
Cautiously, the child watched as Gabrielle approached.
"Um... hi, little girl. I won't hurt you. Promise," the bard said, smiling tentatively, her generous heart apparent in every nuance.
"Szeeneh, tØr Gahb-yell?" asked the girl, turning back to the warrior.
"Xena? How did you do that? How does she know our names?"
Xena stroked some stray blonde hairs out of the girl's face, then wiped away the evidence of her tears with her thumbs, smiling as she did so. The child's serious expression didn't change, her eyes still locked on the warrior's. "She's very quick. Smart. Isn't that right, little one?"
Gabrielle watched, chuckling in amazement. "Looks like you're working miracles here. But you called -- did you need me for something, Xena?"
"Szeeneh," said the child.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, realized the picture she and the child made and said sternly, "Yes. Take her off my hands, while I finish burying her folks. And keep her with you. She shouldn't see this."
Gabrielle reached down, but the child grasped Xena's neck in a choke hold, her small arms quivering with strength. Gabrielle shrugged. "I think she'd rather be with you."
Rolling her eyes as if it was torture, Xena sighed. "All right, whatever. I guess you'll have to do the dirty work. I'll take her over by Argo. You know, distract her. Don't start shoveling until we're gone."
"No problem," said Gabrielle, grinning from ear to ear.
"And wipe that silly smile off your face. This wasn't my idea," said Xena with a growl.
"Uh huh," said the bard, her smile increasing. Xena threw a last, withering look her way, then picked up the girl and left the clearing. Gabrielle watched them go. With a shake of her head, she picked up the shovel. "Szeeneh," she said, chuckling.
"KØrtik!" said the child, pointing at Argo.
"Argo," said Xena. "The 'kØrtik' is called 'Argo.'"
"Ah-goo," she said. "Ah-goo." She reached out a hand and stroked the mare's mane. Argo snorted and the child's eyes widened. "Ah-goo -- ach-oo!" she said, imitating a sneeze.
Xena laughed. "No, Argo is saying hello. I think she likes you." Xena reached into the saddlebag and withdrew a water skin. She popped the stopper and offered it to the child who grabbed the neck with both hands and drank sloppily, obviously needing it desperately. Xena inwardly chastised herself for not thinking of it earlier. Of course she's thirsty, she thought. What else does she need? Food. I have to get her something to eat. What do little kids eat? She doesn't still need her mother's milk, does she? I hope not.
She set the girl down which immediately caused the child to burst into tears, her arms outstretched. Sighing, Xena picked her up again, which stopped the flood. "Ah-goo!" the child said imperiously, reaching toward the horse. Xena shifted her to the other hip so she could search the saddlebags while the girl petted the mare with clumsy hands.
Rustling through the food pouch, Xena found a wedge of cheese. "Hungry?" she asked, showing the girl the food. Greedy hands grabbed at it, as huge, sky-blue eyes widened appreciatively. "I'll take that as a 'yes'," Xena said, breaking off a bite-sized piece. The child shoved it in her mouth then reached for more. Xena shook her head 'no.' "Chew what you've got first. Don't want you choking."
"Murble!" the child said, her mouth full.
"Yeah, I'll give you murble -- in a bit. First let's get you cleaned up. You're a mess."
The girl's face and hands were filthy with dirt and her parents' dried blood. Xena wet a cloth and scraped away at the crusted residue of the child's days without supervision. The warrior's brows came together in a frown as she thought of what would have happened had she and Gabrielle not arrived when they did. "You're lucky we found you, kid," said Xena. "You couldn't have lasted much longer, I'd imagine."
"Murble?" the girl said, opening her mouth to show she had finished her cheese. Xena broke off another piece and popped it in the child's open mouth.
"There. Murble. Whatever that means. Cheese? Or maybe 'more?' Or maybe 'gimme the food, mean lady?' Wonder what language you're speaking. And lots of words for one so young. Your parents must have been very proud of you, smart stuff."
The child chewed seriously, her eyes never leaving Xena's.
"So what's your name?" asked Xena, realizing that the girl had learned her own, Gabrielle's and even Argo's but they hadn't gotten hers. "That's right, Xena, babble away and expect her to understand." She thought a moment. She pointed to herself, "Xena."
"Szeeneh," said the child, impatiently. "Murble!"
"In a minute. Xena," she said again, pointing to herself. "Argo," she said, pointing to the horse. Then she pointed to the child and raised her brows in a question.
The girl just stared, silently chewing.
Xena tried again. "Xena. Argo." Once more, she pointed at the child and raised her brows. "Name? Have you a name? Xena, Argo, hmm?" she said, her finger on the child's chest.
"Ilsa," the girl said, pointing to herself, then wrapping her fist around Xena's finger.
"Ilsa. Very nice. Okay, Ilsa, that deserves some murble." She handed her another small piece of cheese. "Now we're making progress," she said, with a smile. She held up the cheese and said, "Cheese."
"Cheese," repeated a voice from behind her. "What do I win?" Xena turned to see Gabrielle step back onto the road.
"Gahb-yell," said the child.
"Hiya, little girl," said the bard, smiling.
"Ilsa. Her name is Ilsa," said Xena.
"Ilsa," said the child.
"Ilsa," said Gabrielle.
Xena sighed. If this was going to be the depth of conversation for the next couple of days she was almost going to miss Gabrielle's stories!
"What should we do? Or do you want to keep her?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.
Ilsa was curled up in Xena's lap, quietly asleep. Every time Xena had tried to move her, the child would awake crying until the warrior would reluctantly let her remain.
"Not funny, Gabrielle," said Xena, absently stroking Ilsa's hair.
Gabrielle beamed at the warrior's unconscious affection toward the girl. "You know, she won't even let me touch her. I don't think she dislikes me or anything, she's just decided to attach herself to you."
"Well, that's going to have to change. I can't have a child hanging on me. And our way of life is no good for one so young. We have to find her a home. Fast."
"Maybe my folks would take her in," said Gabrielle, doubtfully. Her parents were pretty set in their ways, and probably wouldn't welcome a strange child to disrupt things.
Xena gave Gabrielle a sarcastic half smile. "Uh huh. I'll bet."
"Well, it was a thought. How about your mother? Would she take her?"
"I don't know. She has her hands full running the tavern." Xena frowned. "We should be able to find a young couple who hasn't been blessed by the goddess."
"I guess you didn't find any clues as to who her people were, huh?" asked Gabrielle.
"I did find this," said Xena, taking the silver token from between her breasts. "Forgot all about it when the kid showed up. Here." She handed it to Gabrielle.
The bard examined the face, turned it over and stared at the other side. "Huh. Pictographs. Unusual though. I don't recognize any of these characters and the style of drawing is really different."
"Yeah. So what do you think it means?"
"I don't know. Beautiful though, isn't it? Someone sure took a lot of care making this." Gabrielle eased closer to the fire to get a better look, then shook her head. "I have no idea what it's saying. I'll bet this big guy is a god, though," she said pointing to one figure. "But not like any of the gods we know. Look, he's holding something in his hand... maybe a weapon or a tool... hmmmm..." Gabrielle continued to stare at the medallion, then turned to Xena, surprise on her face. "Do you think there are others? You know, gods besides our own?"
Xena frowned. "Hope not. Last thing we need are more gods."
"No, really, Xena, think about it. What if there are more gods than just ours? Imagine that, huh? And I don't mean that 'one god' we've heard about -- I mean real gods; gods you can see and talk to. We should show this to a priest or an oracle or something. It could be really significant!"
"I have enough trouble dealing with the gods we know. I don't want any others noticing us."
"Yeah, well, it was just a thought." Gabrielle handed the token back to Xena who replaced it in her cleavage. The bard's eyes danced. "Got any other surprises in there?" she asked wickedly.
"Just a dagger, a toothpick, several dinars and an open invitation for you to come explore," said Xena, smiling. Gabrielle returned her smile and for a moment, the present faded away for both women. Xena looked into Gabrielle's sparkling green eyes and was reminded again of the events in the not too distant past.
A few months ago, the two of them had been trapped in a cave-in. Xena had received a head injury which surely would have killed her had it not been for the strength and determination of her friend. But more than that, it had been Gabrielle's love for the warrior that had rescued them both.
Xena's eyes continued to hold Gabrielle's gaze. Silently, they shared anew the wonder of having discovered this love in each other. Nothing had been the same since. "C'mere, you," Xena said softly, wanting to be close.
Gabrielle scooted next to the warrior and leaned against her, wrapping her arms around Xena's bicep. She stared at the sleeping child, frowning. "What are we going to do with her?"
Xena was lost in thought. Something about the memory of the cave-in and its aftermath was tweaking her mind. Gabrielle's earlier words had started her on this path. What had she said? Xena mentally reviewed their conversation. "You mentioned going to an oracle..."
"Because of the token. Right. But that won't help--"
"No," said Xena. "Not to look for other gods. We need an oracle who can tell us about the child. Where she comes from."
Gabrielle sat up straight, recognizing the speculative look in her friend's eyes. "Who do you have in mind?"
"There's only one person I know who might be able to help us." Xena ran her thumb along Ilsa's cheek then looked at Gabrielle. "Widgie. We'll take her to Widgie."
Widgie was the healer who had led Xena through the dark results of the head injury and temporary blindness into health and Gabrielle's arms. A talented mountain of a woman, Widgie was a gifted healer, a master cook, and an accomplished oracle.
Gabrielle grinned. "Why didn't I think of that? Of course! Widgie will help us. She'll know where to take her. That's perfect!"
Xena looked at Ilsa then back at Gabrielle. "Don't get your hopes up. She might be able to give us a starting point, but I doubt she'll know much more than that."
"Oh, I understand. Still, it'll be nice to see her again, don't you think?"
Xena twisted a bit, trying not to disturb the child. She reached out a hand to caress her friend's face, smiling at Gabrielle's shining expression, then gave her a tender kiss.
Gabrielle looked at Xena thoughtfully. "You are in a sentimental mood tonight," the bard said. "That kid is getting to you, Warrior Princess."
Xena attempted a frown but it never reached her eyes. She gave up trying and chucked the bard on the nose. "You're pushing it."
Gabrielle smiled and nestled her arms around Xena's waist, as the warrior encircled hers. Both women stared down at the sleeping child, their thoughts unshared, but each comforted by the other's presence.
"Time to get some sleep," said Xena softly.
"Yeah. I guess so," said Gabrielle.
"For her protection, we should sleep separately tonight. Put your blankets on one side of her, I'll be on the other. No one should be able to get past us that way."
"That makes the most sense," said Gabrielle, hiding her disappointment that she wouldn't have Xena's warmth to snuggle against in the night.
Xena gave her a squeeze and leaned her cheek against Gabrielle's soft hair. "It'll just be until we find her a home."
Pausing a moment, Xena mumbled, "How do parents deal with having kids around all the time? And when do they ever get a chance to make more?"
Xena lay in her bedroll, staring at the stars. She glanced over to make sure the child was still asleep. Secure that she was, Xena relaxed, trying to puzzle out the events of the day.
Unbidden, her mind went immediately to Solon, her son. She had given him up as a baby to avoid placing him in danger -- and more importantly, to make sure he never grew up to be like her. It had torn her apart to see him again earlier that year, after almost a decade without him. But she'd had the strength to say good-bye; to leave him with his adopted centaur family.
And now this. A girl who should have no claim on her heart. Just a child, she thought dismissively. Nothing to me. I'm going to find her a home and be well rid of her. Gabrielle is all the family I need. All I'll ever need.
Xena closed her eyes, hoping her dreams were kind tonight. She was exhausted and wanted only to sleep. Her thoughts began to drift and she could feel her body relax, her mind slowly fading into oblivion when suddenly, something touched her blankets. She instinctively twisted to face the danger.
Large blue eyes stared at her under tangled blonde hair. "Szeeneh?" the girl asked tentatively, pulling on the warrior's blankets.
"Go back to bed," Xena whispered, her voice stern.
A tiny hand touched Xena's face. "Pläeten, Szeeneh? Yah bØrmik."
Xena groaned, closing her eyes momentarily. With a sigh, she nodded to the girl. "All right. Just this once. Can't have you bØrmik, can we?" Xena lifted her blankets and the child crawled in beside her, wrapping small arms around her waist, resting a sleepy head on her breast. "What am I going to do with you?" whispered Xena.
Ilsa raised her head to look at the warrior, her expression, serious and almost wise. For long moments they stared into each other's eyes; each taking the measure of the other. Then Ilsa lowered her head, closed her eyes and fell asleep in Xena's arms. Within minutes, Xena was asleep as well.
Gabrielle peered out of sleep-filled eyes. It was early; much earlier than she usually awoke. She took a deep breath, stretching her tired muscles. She could feel the small effects of the shoveling from yesterday. A hawk cried overhead and the bard watched as it swooped after a sparrow, narrowly missing it. She smiled, pleased that the sparrow was clever enough to escape.
Though the morning was still chilled, it was already warming. It had been an unusually tepid winter, and Gabrielle was grateful that even this far north, the weather was holding.
Lazily, Gabrielle sat up and battled the cobwebs in her brain. Glancing to her left, she felt a quiver of panic deep inside. The child's blankets were empty. Her lethargy forgotten, Gabrielle bolted to her feet. She looked over at Xena, still deep in slumber. A tiny blonde head nestled against the warrior.
"Oh, this is just too cute," the bard murmured, relaxing. She padded quietly over to the pair.
"Don't say another word, Gabrielle," said Xena, clearly but quietly. It was her most threatening voice, yet it only made the bard's grin grow larger. Xena opened her eyes and frowned at her friend's expression.
"Thought you were still asleep," Gabrielle whispered, then added with concern, "How's our new friend? Did she sleep through the night?"
"No. We battled several nightmares. I hope that doesn't keep up. She needs to sleep. She's a kid. They need lots of rest, don't they?" She paused. "You know anything about kids?"
Gabrielle shook her head 'no.'
"Great," said Xena, trying not to wake the child as she eased the chinks in her neck. "Help me untangle myself from this brat, okay? I want us to get an early start."
Gabrielle had never heard the word 'brat' used with such affection before. She shook her head, knowingly. "Just keep trying to convince yourself that you don't feel anything, Xena. Maybe even you'll believe it one day."
"This has nothing to do with 'feelings,'" said the warrior, slowly extricating herself from the girl. She scowled at Gabrielle.
"Oh?" said the bard, fighting her smile into a neutral expression.
"This isn't a joke, Gabrielle. Somehow, you are going to have to 'make nice' with her and get her to leave me alone," said Xena. "These woods could be hiding a madman, and I won't be much use fighting him if I have that," she said with a curt gesture toward Ilsa, "clinging to me at a critical moment."
"I hadn't really thought about that. I'll try to get Ilsa to change her loyalties," said Gabrielle, her humor gone.
"Thank you. Now I'm going to try to find some breakfast. We'll need a good meal to get us started. Widgie is a long way off and the sooner we get a handle on this, the better."
Efficiently, Xena slipped into her armour, grabbed her sword and chakram and disappeared into the woods. Gabrielle watched her leave, then threw some sticks onto the embers. She glanced at Ilsa, frowned, then leaned over to grab her staff. Just in case, she thought...
"Mama!" called Ilsa as she wrestled frantically out of the blankets.
"Ilsa, calm down, it's okay," said Gabrielle, turning from the fire. She sat next to the child and reached for her.
Ilsa scrambled away, her eyes huge, quickly filling with tears. "DØväek Mama erd Papa?" she said, looking around the camp. Then her face registered the memory of the days just passed.
"Yah sØrten, Ilsa," whispered Gabrielle, remembering the phrase Xena had taught her earlier that probably meant 'I'm sorry.'
Ilsa looked at the bard with suspicion. Cautiously, the child approached Xena's blankets, peered under them and frowned. Her frightened eyes swept the campsite then looked again at Gabrielle. The child's face drained of color. "DØväek Szeeneh?" she whispered.
"Xena had to go--"
"Szeeneh!" Ilsa screamed. "Szeeneh! Szeeneh! Szeeneh!" Her entire body trembled with emotion, her fear an almost palpable thing. "Szeeeeeee-neh!" she screeched and once more her voice went silent, though the scream was held on her face.
Gabrielle was at a loss. She couldn't approach her without upsetting her, but she had to calm the child somehow. Wearing as warm an expression as possible, Gabrielle inched toward her, murmuring soothing sounds as she did. Ilsa skittered back, the blue of her eyes almost disappearing into her upper lids. The bard wondered if the child could actually be in danger of having a seizure.
"Szeeeeee-neh!" Ilsa screeched again.
"What the--" said Xena, crashing through the underbrush. Ilsa stopped screaming and ran to the warrior, grabbing her leg and holding on so tightly it threatened to cut off the circulation. "What happened here?" Xena asked Gabrielle.
"She woke up and noticed you were gone," Gabrielle said, her heart still not beating a normal rhythm.
"That's it?" grumbled Xena, reaching down and prying the child off her leg. "C'mere, kid," she said, lifting Ilsa into her arms. The girl threw her arms around Xena's neck and continued to sob, babbling in her incoherent language. The name 'Szeeneh' was peppered throughout in plaintive wails.
"I'm sorry, Xena," said Gabrielle, helplessly. "Gods, that was frightening. I tried to make friends with her, you see, but she was so scared when she realized you were gone--"
"It's okay, Gabrielle. I understand." Xena thought for a moment. "Look, we still have to get her used to being around someone other than me. But we should do it together. It was a mistake to leave you two alone. I should have known she would react this way. After all, everyone she's ever loved has left her. My disappearing on her first morning just fed those fears. Stupid of me."
Gabrielle shook her head sadly. Ilsa was still clinging to Xena's neck, her sniffles audible. The bard watched as her friend held the child gently, the warrior's expression thoughtful. Gabrielle smiled ruefully. "You know, Xena, I'm not used to being this unpopular. Kids usually love me."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, seeing her insecurity. "It's not you," she said sympathetically.
"I know..." said Gabrielle, only half convinced.
"She'll come around. No one can resist you for long. Aren't I proof of that?"
Gabrielle smiled, then grew pensive. "Will she always be so... damaged?"
Xena sighed, stroking the child's hair. The girl's sniffles had disappeared and she clung comfortably to Xena. Her small arms held onto the warrior's neck, her head buried happily in her chest. Every few seconds she'd look up and stare at Xena's face, as if to reassure herself that the woman still existed. "I don't know. Could be. For all I know, I'm holding another Callisto in the making."
Gabrielle shuddered. "By the gods..." she whispered.
"That's why it's so important that we find her the right family. I won't let that happen again. This time, I have the opportunity to change it. This time, I can make a difference on the side of good, not evil. I will not fail this child. Ilsa is not Callisto. She can't be. I won't let her."
"Szeeneh?" said Ilsa, staring once again at Xena's face.
"What, Ilsa?" she said, glancing down at the child in her arms.
"Dah kar min mama," the girl said, then kissed Xena on the cheek. "Min Szeeneh-Mama."
Xena looked down into trusting blue eyes. Tearing her attention away, she stared plaintively at Gabrielle -- worry, fear and wonder all vying for control of the warrior's expression.
"Uh oh," said the bard quietly. "I'm thinking that's trouble, right?"
Xena's face hardened. "We've got to get to Widgie and fast. I can't be the one to hurt her again. Please, don't let me hurt her..." she added softly, almost as if in prayer.
Xena rode stiffly on Argo, her eyes constantly in motion, sweeping the once peaceful forest with the knowledge that it could be hiding a particularly dangerous enemy. Ilsa sat in front of her, one small fist gripping a finger of the hand which held her, the other on her left thigh, in imitation of the warrior. Gabrielle walked alongside.
"I think I should try to touch her now," said the bard. "She's kind of a captive up there. It seems like a good time."
Xena glanced down at Gabrielle. She could see that the child's avoidance was causing the bard distress. "Yes, let's try that." Leaning toward the girl, she said, "Ilsa?"
"Gabrielle would like to touch you." Xena held out her own free hand and touched Ilsa's knee, saying at the same time, "Gabrielle. Understand?" She pointed to the bard, then touched the child again. "Gabrielle."
Ilsa looked up at her confused. "Nahk. Ilsa."
"Okay, that's not working. Gabrielle, hold out your hand."
The bard complied. "I won't hurt you, Ilsa," she said as unthreateningly as possible.
Xena reached out and touched Gabrielle's hand briefly. "See? Nice lady. Nice Gabrielle. Gods, I feel like an idiot."
"C'mon, Xena, don't give up. I think it's working!"
Ilsa was staring at the proffered hand. She looked up at Xena, who nodded, smiling, then looked back at Gabrielle. Slowly, she reached toward the bard, her small features puckered in a worried frown.
"Good girl, Ilsa. Just touch her. She won't hurt you."
Ilsa touched Gabrielle's finger then quickly withdrew.
The bard beamed. "Thank you, Ilsa!" she said.
Xena rubbed the child's belly and whispered, "Atta girl, Ilsa. See? Didn't hurt at all, did it?"
"Szeeneh erd Gahb-yell," said Ilsa. "Dah kar min mama," she said, patting Xena's hand, "erd... min papa?" she asked pointing to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle tried to stifle her laughter at having been dubbed the child's father.
"Nice going, Pops," said Xena wryly. "I think we just made some real progress."
They traveled south without incident, leaving the forest and its dangers behind. They avoided the populated areas, knowing how skittish Ilsa was around strangers, and made their way toward the small village where Widgie and Jorgos lived.
A few miles from Widgie's, they noticed the extent of the damage done by the forest fire they had survived when trapped in the cave. Acre upon acre had been burned and they hurried to get through it, the eerie quiet of a dead landscape bothering both women.
"Look, Xena, the trees are trying to come back," said Gabrielle pointing to several green shoots pushing their way through the charred ruins of the once great forest.
"Yeah, by spring there'll be all sorts of growth here."
When they arrived at the mouth of the cavern, Gabrielle stopped and stared. "They've cleared so much..." she whispered, noting that many of the boulders which had blocked them in were now placed in neat piles away from the cavern. The villagers had done a lot of work in the intervening months. "I want to go in."
"Why?" asked Xena, startled.
"I just do. I want to see it. Without the fear. I want to see the place where I kissed you for the first time."
Xena smiled. "All right." She brought Argo to a halt. The horse looked at the cave and backed up nervously. "Whoa, girl," said Xena, settling the mare. "You can stay here, Argo." She patted the horse's neck. Ilsa leaned forward and did the same. With Argo stilled, Xena set Ilsa on the ground then jumped off behind her. The child held up her arms but Xena took her hand instead. "I can't carry you all the time, kid. C'mon."
The three of them walked toward the entrance of the cave. Light streamed in and illuminated the cavern. Almost all the rocks that had tumbled inside had been cleared.
"It seems so harmless, doesn't it?" said Gabrielle, her voice echoing eerily.
"Look, you can see where we had the fire pit," said Xena crouching by a darkened circle. She picked up a few bits of charcoal, running them between her fingers. Solemnly, Ilsa mimicked her action.
Gabrielle walked toward the far wall. "Here's where you were injured. There's still some..." She didn't finish her sentence. Instead, she turned from the sight of the dried blood and looked at Xena, healthy and whole, busily cleaning the charcoal off the girl's hands.
"This place is kinda spooky," mumbled Gabrielle. "You came so close to dying here..."
"Let's go," said Xena.
They left the cavern and returned to the bright sunlight, both breathing deeply. "Not the most romantic of beginnings," said Xena, dryly.
"Oh, I don't know. It was to me. In a way. I mean, you really needed me. I had a chance to know what it's like to protect you and care for you. And we both finally got out in the open what had been building for an awfully long time. That we loved each other. Really loved each other, as women. Strange, though. That we got to that point by playing a silly kid's game."
"Truth or dare, I remember," said Xena, smiling. "Okay, my sentimental friend, off we go. Widgie is probably wondering what's keeping us."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yeah, most likely she's already predicted our arrival."
"I imagine so," said Xena. "C'mon you!" Xena hoisted Ilsa onto the saddle then hopped up behind her. "Wonder what the kid thought of this little detour."
"I don't know. I do know that if she wasn't with us, I might have been tempted to relive some old times in that cavern," said Gabrielle suggestively.
"Hmmm. Yet another reason to ditch the brat," said Xena, but even as she said it, she tickled Ilsa under the chin, causing the child to squirm for a moment, then once again gaze adoringly in her hero's eyes.
Good thing we're not playing truth or dare now, Xena, or you'd have to face some things you're trying awfully hard to avoid, thought Gabrielle.
"This be her then, aye?" said Widgie, waddling out of the inn to look at the travel-stained visitors. "The child what I sees in t'vision?"
"Hello to you, too, Widgie," said Xena dryly.
"Whoosh. 'Tis niceties y'be wantin' then, aye? Th'day's best t'you both, then. How be you?" asked Widgie with a jiggle and a shake. Standing over four inches taller than Xena and outweighing the warrior by hundreds of pounds, the oracle/healer smiled broadly at her guests. She still wore chains and strings of clinking, clanking jewelry, nestled among which was the virilis token Xena had given her on their last meeting.
"We're doing great," answered Gabrielle, smiling broadly. "How about you, Widgie? Are you and Jorgos well?"
"Aye, that we be, bard. Jorgos!" she shouted.
A tall, thin man ambled out of the inn. "Aye, wife?"
"Take th'horse so's I can feed these'un."
"Aye." Jorgos winked at Gabrielle, nodded to Xena and grabbed Argo's reins as the warrior and child dismounted.
"You'm be wantin' food, t'ain't so?" asked Widgie. "T'so," she answered herself.
"Yeah. And then we have to talk," said Xena her hand on Ilsa's head.
"Aye, there be plenty of time for talk, bold one." Widgie looked at the child, who stared back at her from behind the protection of Xena's muscled thigh. "The wee one. She be th'one I saw then. No mistakin' them eyes and that 'ere hair, t'ain't so? Where'd y'find her then?"
"Her parents were murdered," said Xena, extricating her leg from Ilsa's grip so they could follow Widgie into the inn. "They were about three days dead when we came along. The girl was uninjured but..."
"Oh no," piped in Gabrielle. "She seems to be handling it pretty well, actually. I mean, she doesn't sleep well, lots of nightmares, and she never smiles, but she's very sweet and really smart."
"Another sharpie then. Like her warrior?"
Xena bent down and picked up the child, who had been dragging her feet. "She's just afraid. Who can blame her?"
"T'isn't blame I'm speaking, bold one."
"Yah hilket Ahgoo. Ahgoo. Pläeten?" said Ilsa in a small voice.
"Sorry, kid. Got some business to talk with Widgie first. We'll go see Argo later."
Widgie turned and stared at Xena and the child speculatively. "Gone that far, aye? Yer in deep, warrior."
"We have to find her people. Give her back," said Xena with steel in her voice. "That's why we need you. To find out where she comes from."
"Aye, 'tis th'question, t'ain't so?"
"Can you answer it? Do you know?" asked Gabrielle.
"Food first, bard. Fill up on stew and nutbread, aye?"
"Oh, aye!" said Gabrielle, enthusiastically.
The scent of the noon meal wafted through the halls of the Inn and both women found themselves anticipating the feast. Widgie was, without a doubt, the best cook either of them had ever met.
Xena took the plate of stew from Widgie and cut the chunks of potato, chicken, and vegetables into tiny, child-sized pieces. Ilsa watched her hungrily. She reached out a hand to grab a morsel and Xena gently knocked it away. "Not yet, kid. Just hold on."
The child didn't seem to mind the rebuke. Instead she gestured toward the bread. "Bröder!" she said eagerly then turned to Xena, and self-consciously added, "Pläeten?"
One corner of Xena's mouth curled in a smile. She reached out a hand, stroked the girl's hair once and winked. "Okay. Because you asked nice." Tearing off a bite-sized piece, she popped it in the girl's open mouth.
Widgie watched the scene with knowing eyes. "You be changed, warrior," she said.
Xena bristled. "What? Just because I'm not letting the kid starve? Sentimental hogwash. My only interest is giving her back to--"
"Aye, ye've mentioned that. More'n once. I've ears, t'ain't so?"
"Psst... Widgie," whispered Gabrielle. "Xena's a little touchy about Ilsa. You know, that she might actually feel something for the child." It was said just loud enough for Xena to hear.
"Gabrielle..." the warrior said dangerously.
"Just an observation, Xena. Go on, finish what you were doing," said the bard with false innocence, watching her companion prepare the child's meal.
Xena shoved the plate of stew in front of Ilsa, slapped a spoon in her small hand and turned away, angrily.
Ilsa looked at the plate, then at Xena. Her eyes filled with tears. "Szeeneh-Mama? Kar dah raekje t' nig?"
"Huh?" asked Xena quizzically, turning back. She immediately noticed the girl's brimming eyes. "What are you upset about now?" Ilsa's tears spilled onto her cheeks. Xena buried her head in her hands. "Gods, I wish she'd stop babbling in that language of hers. Can't understand a thing."
"Szeeneh-Mama... Yah sØrten. Yah sØrten..." said Ilsa in a tiny voice, reaching out to touch the warrior's arm.
"Oh for the love of...!" said Xena, looking over at the child. Her expression softened immediately at the girl's abject sorrow. "Why are you 'sØrten?' Huh? You didn't do anything. What's the matter?" Xena raised the girl's face with a finger trying to see the answers in her eyes.
Ilsa blinked away her tears then reached out her arms. Xena pulled her into her lap and settled the child comfortably against her. "Well if this isn't -- Widgie you have to help us. She's so dependent on me! I can't have this. I simply cannot have this!"
"Calm yerself, warrior. Ye've just settled th'sprite. Won't do t'upset her again. She's not knowing yer words, so she's reading yer body, yer eyes, yer moods. She's reading yer turmoil, bold one."
Xena dropped her chin on Ilsa's head, her arms holding the child protectively. "Yah sØrten, Ilsa. Xena sØrten, not you, sweetie. Not Ilsa. Me, Xena."
Ilsa twisted to see her face then said, "murble bröder?"
"Ah ha! Betcha 'murble' does mean 'more', and not cheese. Yeah, have all the bröder you want." Xena grabbed the child's stew plate and some bread and began to feed her.
Xena was sitting beneath a large oak, tossing acorns to Ilsa who, though she tried very hard, wasn't able to catch them. It didn't seem to bother the child, though, as she scrambled to pick them up then flung them awkwardly back at the warrior. Gabrielle sat on the porch with Widgie, watching the two play their game.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Gabrielle said with wonder. "She's trying so hard to pretend she doesn't care, but that kid has got a foothold on Xena's heart like nothing I've ever seen."
"Aye. 'Tis obvious to all but the bold one. And how're you holding up? Be yer green eyes seein' a wedge atwixt you and yer warrior?"
"Huh? Oh no, not at all," said Gabrielle. She thought for a moment. "Funny, isn't it? I'm not. Really. I mean, I suppose if someone had told me this would happen I might've felt a little... you know... threatened. We've been so happy since we left here. We were all we needed. Off adventuring. Loving. Just being together."
"Aye. Yet you say th'sprite ha'not interfered?"
"Oh, she's... We're very aware she's there. We can't... do, um, certain things that we used to. You know, when there was just the two of us."
"T'so? And why not? Th'wee one ne'er sleeps?"
"Well, not much. She has these awful dreams. And she panics if Xena's not right there with her when she wakes up. At first it was just for one night. But because of the nightmares, well, it's just easier to let Ilsa sleep with Xena..."
"Leaves you in t'cold, t'ain't so?"
"It's okay. It's only until we find her a home."
"Aye. So 'tis no bother to you, then."
"No. No bother," said Gabrielle wistfully, watching as Xena laughed at the child's frantic attempt to catch an acorn.
"Hey! You caught it! Good one, kid!" wafted Xena's voice as she clapped for the child.
"So then, ye'd have no interest a'tall if'n th'sprite were to get a deep afternoon's nap in a nice wee bed," said Widgie slyly.
"Oh no, I'd--" Gabrielle whipped her head around to look at Widgie's sparkling eyes. "What are you saying?"
"Ye've mentioned th'dreams of her'n afore, t'ain't so? And wee ones, they needs t'sleep, aye? It b'ain't healthy fer th'sprite t'go 'thout no sleep."
"How would you... I mean, it wouldn't harm her, right? Whatever you're thinking of doing? We wouldn't want to take any chances or anything."
"There's no harm in a healing sleep, aye? I've treated many a wee one in my time, t'ain't so? T'so."
"I'll have to discuss it with Xena, of course."
"Maybe now is a good time," said Gabrielle beginning to rise, but Widgie held her back.
"Let'er be a bit, bard. There'll be time enough, aye? I've to discuss things w'the both of you. I needs Xena's mind fer that, and she be too distracted when th'sprite is about, t'ain't so?"
"You planned this all along, didn't you?" observed Gabrielle with a rueful smile.
"T'so. Th'wee one's stew were made w'restful herbs. Sprite needs t'start healing."
"Huh. You're very sneaky, Widgie."
Widgie jingled and jangled and clanked with silent chuckles. "Aye, I be that, t'ain't so? T'so!"
"She went out like a candle," said Xena. "Strange, huh? She usually needs me to hold her for a long time before she finally lets herself go." Ilsa had become groggy so the warrior had put her to bed at Widgie's suggestion, then joined the other two women on the porch.
"'Tis odd indeed, aye bard?" said Widgie with no hint of guile or humor.
"Yeah," said Gabrielle. "C'mon, Xena, sit here next to me. Plenty of room."
Xena settled herself on the padded bench where Gabrielle was lounging. She crossed her long legs and put an arm around the bard's shoulders, drawing her near. "Now, Widgie, before the kid wakes up. Let's talk," said the warrior.
"Aye. 'Tis th'time for't, whilst th'sprite sleeps.
"I suppose we should discuss this whole thing first," said Gabrielle, leaning her head against Xena's leather-clad breast.
Puzzled, the warrior glanced down at her, then a slow smile lifted one side of her mouth. "Think she'll sleep long enough, Gabrielle?"
"Count on it. Now c'mon, Widgie, hurry up and tell us what you know."
"I'll do so. But try t'keep yer mind w'me fer a moment or two, bard, aye?" Widgie said with a jiggle and a shake.
"Speaking of where my mind is, have you shown her the medallion, Xena?" said Gabrielle, then added slyly, "I'd be happy to get it for her..." She playfully snaked a hand toward Xena's cleavage.
Xena shook her head with a smile and removed the token from between her breasts. "You can put it away later." She handed the amulet to Widgie. "Found it under the mother's body. The killer either missed it, or lost it. I don't know which."
"Ha'ya not shown it t'th'sprite, then? If'n she knowed't, I'd say 'twas the mother's, aye? If'n not, then th'beast's."
"I was afraid it would set her off again. Either way. But I suppose I should've taken the chance."
"'Tis no real mistake then, warrior, t'ain't so? Gi'me a whisper o'time here, whilst I concentrate," said Widgie, holding the token and closing her eyes. For awhile, all three women were still. Xena and Gabrielle watched as Widgie sat silently, holding the mysterious medallion. When nothing had happened after several minutes, they glanced at each other and shrugged their shoulders. The bard snuggled just a bit closer to the warrior.
Suddenly, Widgie began to shake. Tiny trembles flickered across her, setting her jewelry into a cacophony of tinkling music. Xena and Gabrielle both leaned forward, their attention now focused on the oracle. After several minutes, Widgie opened her eyes.
"Aye, 'tis as I thought. She be from th'north."
"The north? We just came from there," said Xena. "There are no people like her in those parts."
"Not th'north you know, warrior. Th'far north. Land of ice. There be tribes of people there what lives'n darkness half th'long year. And 'tis said th'sun ne'er sets'n th'greening months."
"Um... just how far north is this place?" asked Gabrielle with trepidation.
"Several moons away."
The two women on the bench glanced at each other in surprise. "We can't do that," said Xena. "We can't just head north for moons and hope we run across her people. We can't. I won't have that child hanging on me for moons of hard travel." Softly, she added, "I won't put her through that."
"Xena's right. If we did that... well, who knows if Ilsa could even survive such a journey? And I've heard tell of mountains so tall they're forever in snow and living above the clouds. How are we supposed to cross those?"
"It's impossible," said Xena. "We'll have to find her a nice local family that might want to take her in. Are there any here in the village that you know of?"
Widgie had remained silent through their discussion but now spoke in a strong, clear voice. "And did I say t'take th'sprite there, then? I just says where she be from, t'ain't so?"
"Oh. So what good does that do us?" asked Gabrielle.
"She be o'th'Scandias. Some calls'em th'Ice People. They'm a blonde and beautiful folk, though they's differnt'n us'n in ther ways. Yer sprite come down from th'north w'her tribe. Explorers they be. Th'wee one be borned on th'road three winters back, near th'start of ther journey. They'm been wandering long. Stopping in t'villages and learnin' other peoples. But they be tired o'th'south. They's had many troubles hereabouts and they misses ther cold home. So'm, they be going back."
"What are you saying?" asked Xena. "That they're still nearby? These Scandias? Her whole tribe is within reach?"
"Aye, t'so. They'm left Greece, but be not far north as yet. They've not reached th'snow mountains. I seen'em in t'vision. I seen'em grieve f'th'lost lambs what got separated and never found. Th'sprite and her kinfolk. They be her people, warrior. Have y'the stomach to give'er back?"
Xena's expression hardened. "Of course I have. It's all I've wanted. To return her to her own folks. She has nothing to do with me, Oracle. Nothing."
"Aye..." whispered Widgie, her small eyes sad. "She's no claim on ya."
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "We'll start at once. Get Argo and--"
"No," said the bard, strongly. "We're not leaving yet. We need some time together, Xena. Just us. With Ilsa asleep, this is the perfect opportunity."
"What are you talking about? We're not going to hang around here while her people are on the move. Now you saddle Argo and I'll get--"
"Warrior -- listen t'th'bard. Ye've lost no time here. They'm be resting at festival, ye'll not miss'em fer want of an hour or two w'yer lady, aye? 'Sides. Th'sprite be sleeping sound. She be needing that more'n a horse ride, t'ain't so?"
Xena glared at Widgie then fought back her frustration. "Yes. She does." For a moment, they locked eyes. Then the fight left Xena in a breath. She turned to Gabrielle, her eyes filling with tenderness. "Gabrielle. You've been very patient about all this. You're right. We don't need to leave right away. An hour or two alone would be... well, yes, we could both use some time together."
"Thank you, Xena. I just need to be with you, y'know? Just us. I need you to look at me like you used to. With importance."
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her close. She closed her eyes, resting her chin on the bard's head. "I hadn't realized I'd stopped. Nothing's changed, Gabrielle. Nothing. You're always important to me. The most important thing in the world."
"I know. And it isn't that I don't love little Ilsa, too -- I do! And watching you with her, well, it fills my heart. But sometimes -- and this is so selfish -- sometimes, I want you to myself. I wish we could have both..."
"We can. I promise you, we can. Until she's back with her kin, I'll do whatever it takes to give us time for each other even with her there."
Gabrielle untangled herself from Xena's hold, stood and held out her hand, wordlessly. The warrior took it and the two women walked into the inn.
"Jorgos!" Widgie bellowed. "Give'em a room! Now!"
Xena rolled off Gabrielle's nude body and lay gasping, sweat glistening on flesh tattooed by bars of sunlight peeking through the slats in the shutters.
"Gods, I needed that," said Gabrielle with a satisfied smile. Lazily, she turned to Xena and nestled into her arms. "How did we survive so long without it?"
Xena chuckled. She stroked the bard's hair with sluggish fingers and kissed her on the forehead. "It hasn't been that long."
"No, I meant before the first time." Gabrielle looked around. "Huh. I hadn't even noticed before -- I was a little... preoccupied -- but this is the same room where we..."
"Yeah. I suspect Jorgos is a romantic."
Gabrielle ran her fingers across one of Xena's sculpted cheeks. "You're so beautiful. I wish I could have your child."
"That would be quite a trick," said Xena sarcastically.
Gabrielle giggled. "I guess Ilsa has me thinking about things like having kids, raising a family..."
Xena closed her eyes for a moment. "Do you have any regrets? You've probably always wanted children..."
"Regrets? When I'm in your arms? An impossibility," she said, nuzzling Xena's breast.
"Sometimes you steal my breath," Xena said, her voice low.
Gabrielle smiled. "Truth is, I've never really thought too much about having children. I like them. But I'm really happy right now. I love going on adventures, helping people, telling stories, and mostly, just being with you, Xena. You're what's important in my life."
The warrior raised herself on one elbow, held Gabrielle's eyes with her own then leaned down to capture the bard's lips. She had no words to express what she felt and hoped that her kiss would speak for her.
Gabrielle melted into Xena's strong arms, a willing prisoner of desire. And as passion flamed they joined again in long, lingering caresses and breathless, mindless peaks.
The afternoon sun had changed the patterns of light from the shutters when both women felt their heartbeats finally slow. They were silent for long minutes, content to be close and wordless. Then Gabrielle said in a small voice, "What if we don't find them?"
"The Ice People. The Scandias. What if we travel all that way, into the north and they're not anywhere we look? Maybe they're farther away than Widgie realizes. Or what if they decide to leave the festival early and we miss them entirely?"
"Don't worry, we'll find them. We have to. I'm not going to fail the kid."
"But just pretend for a minute. Pretend we can't find them. Then what?"
Xena turned her head away, and looked out the narrow slats of the shutter. "Then we'll figure something out. We'll find her a home. Somewhere."
"Maybe we should keep her..." said Gabrielle.
"What?" asked Xena, snapping her head back to stare at the bard. "What are you talking about? We can't keep her!"
"She's just a kid! She should have a family. Live in a house. Have brothers and sisters. Be normal. What could we offer her?"
"Fat lot of good love'll do if a warlord grabs her. It's out of the question. The last thing I want is some kid growing up around..." Xena stopped speaking.
"Yes? Around...?" the bard pressed.
She met Gabrielle's eyes with an icy stare. "Around me, okay? I don't want that little girl thinking I'm someone to admire."
"Yeah, that would be horrible, wouldn't it? Admiring a woman who's strong, self-reliant, and dedicated to the greater good. Gives me shivers just thinking about the damage that kind of role model would do to a little girl," said Gabrielle, dripping with sarcasm.
"You know what I mean, Gabrielle," said Xena, sternly.
"I don't." The bard held up a hand to forestall the warrior's next retort. "This has to do with Solon, doesn't it? With your son. You gave him up so he wouldn't grow up to be like you. You can't allow yourself to think that might've been a bad choice, yet keeping Ilsa would make you have to think about all sorts of things, right? Well, remember -- that was ten winters ago. You were a different person then. Ilsa doesn't have a warlord caring for her, like Solon would have. There are no marauding armies outside the nursery tent. No, now there's just us -- two women who love each other and love her. That's a lot to give, Xena. More than many children ever have."
"I don't want to talk about this. It's out of the question."
"Why? Why are you so against it? Give me one good reason."
"One? I can give you hundreds. But instead, use your imagination. Think of some of the things we've done, and try to put Ilsa into the picture. Imagine if we'd had her at Troy, when fires burned the city and arrows fell like rain. Imagine if she'd watched while I was beaten and jailed by a village that wanted me to pay for murders I hadn't committed. Imagine she'd seen me lead an army of destruction when I thought my father had been threatened. Imagine her tiny legs trying to escape the giant sandals of the angry Titans--"
"Stop, Xena! I get your point, but I still think we could do it. Somehow. There's a lot of love in both of us. And love is stronger than evil."
"Stronger than Ares? Imagine what he would do if he saw that I could be manipulated through a child. And I'm only warming up. Imagine what tortures Callisto would commit if she captured her. Why, Callisto alone could--"
"Enough," Gabrielle said, not even wanting to think of the tortures Callisto might think up for Ilsa. "Please... stop. I'll drop it. We should get ready to leave. We have to start going north. We have to find her people."
"Yes. We do," said Xena, her voice hard, but her eyes still seeing the torturous visions of her own imagination.
"I'm sorry, Xena," Gabrielle said, rising. "I'm sorry I made you think about those things. I know how much she means to you already."
"Yeah," Xena mumbled. "Too much."
North. The word repeated itself in the minds of both women. As they traveled, they had long discussions on what it would be like to live in a land of ice with endless days in summer and forever darkened winters. It was almost beyond their imagining. A few days after leaving Widgie's Inn, the weather turned. The cold bit into their exposed flesh, causing each of them to wonder how far north they would have to journey before they found the Scandias. As they neared the next village, Gabrielle recommended stopping to buy some cold weather gear, just in case. Xena readily agreed.
The moment they reached the outskirts of the town, Ilsa became agitated. She began babbling in her incomprehensible language, tugging on Xena's arm and pointing away from the small collection of buildings that made up the bulk of the village. Xena tried to understand what the child wanted but soon gave up and curtly told Gabrielle to figure it out.
"Ilsa?" said the bard, placing a hand on the child's knee as she walked beside Argo. "Try again, okay? Say it slowly. KØrten." Both she and Xena had been building a vocabulary in the language of their little ward, though it was difficult at times. 'KØrten,' they had decided, meant 'slow' or 'short'.
Ilsa's large blue eyes pleaded with Gabrielle. "Gahb-yell-Papa," she said plaintively, pointing at the village. "Dat läerkt -- flik tunen!" When Gabrielle shook her head in confusion, Ilsa made a scary face and raised her hands, making talons of her fingers. "Yah bØrmik öep flik tunen!"
"Her people must've had a bad experience at this village," said the bard to Xena.
"Yeah, the thought had crossed my mind. These small villages can get nasty. I razed more than one in the old days and some of them were surprisingly good at fighting back. If the Scandias wandered into a place like this and didn't know the language, well, I suppose misunderstandings could've happened."
"Wonder what 'flik tunen' means?"
"Ja, flik tunen!" said Ilsa, pointing again.
"Bad people, maybe?" guessed Gabrielle.
"Actually, I have a vague memory of her calling me something like that when we first met. It might be stronger. Some phrase or idiom her people use."
"Huh. You know, she learned our names so fast. But she hasn't picked up anything else of our language. I find that really strange. Kids are usually so quick about that stuff."
"Yeah, I noticed that too. Personally, I think she understands more than she lets on. Sometimes I get the feeling she knows exactly what we're saying," said Xena, rubbing the child's stomach to calm her agitation as they entered the town.
"Could be. Hey, Xena, I see some food stalls over there. I'd like to have a look around, in case they have something interesting." Widgie had provided them with plenty of provisions but Gabrielle adored sampling local specialties. "I'll meet you at the store in a bit, okay?"
"All right," said Xena, her eyes sweeping the suspicious stares of the townspeople as she approached. Ilsa twisted her body so she could bury her head in Xena's stomach, both hands covering her face. "What in Tartarus did these idiots do to your people, kid?" Xena muttered as she approached the general store.
Xena lithely dismounted and carried Ilsa into the mercantile, her nerves on edge, muscles tingling with adrenaline. She was already regretting having allowed Gabrielle to go off on her own.
"What are you wanting here?" asked the shopkeeper, his hand on a long dagger at his belt.
Xena glanced at him and held his stare. After a few moments, the man dropped his eyes. "We need clothing for a trip north. Furs and leggings. Have you any?" she asked in a controlled voice.
The man scowled. "I do not."
Xena glanced around the store and spied a table in the back, piled high with various furs and cold weather gear. "And those are...?"
"Not for you. They're for locals only," he answered, staring at Ilsa. The child was shaking so badly Xena was having trouble holding onto her.
"I see," Xena said, wandering over to the table. She glanced through, picked out two parkas and two pairs of warm leggings. She then spotted a pile of smaller clothing and found Ilsa some outerwear as well.
"What are you doing? Didn't you hear me? I said they're not for sale."
"I heard you. I just don't believe you," said Xena calmly, picking out some rabbit mitts. "I'll take these. How much for all of it?"
"Who do you think you are?" said the man, his face reddening with anger.
"My name is Xena. And I'm your customer."
"Xena...!" the man gasped. "The Warrior Princess?"
She stared without acknowledging his question; her eyes heavy-lidded, her mouth drawn into the beginnings of a sneer.
"You're too late," the merchant said, his voice filled with hatred. "We've already been taken by that warlord scum Makerous and his thugs. Your army will have to look elsewhere for plunder." Unconsciously, his eyes drifted again to the child, clearly showing their disgust.
Xena could feel his enmity toward the child she held, as if it was a physical force. "I'm just here to find warm clothes for my friend and my kid. Now how much?"
The man stared at Ilsa, who cowered further into Xena's body, hiding her face in the warrior's shoulder. Her trembling arms were locked onto Xena's neck, the small nails digging into her skin.
"What are you doing with a child of the Ice People? Calling it 'your kid,'" the merchant said, derisively. "Don't you know better than to touch one of their kind? Get out of my shop before you call the demons on all of us! I'd rather deal with Makerous than with Scandian scum. Or," he added pointedly, "someone who'd mix with their kind."
Xena's eyes grew dark. A muscle twitched in her jaw. She smiled. "I'm going to ignore that remark, merchant. You see, it made me angry. And you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. In fact, I don't think your little store would survive me being angry and I really do need the furs. So I'm going to draw on my loving nature," she said with deliberation, "and pretend you didn't say that."
The merchant backed up a step, staring at the child and her leather-clad companion. After several moments of inward struggle, he seemed to come to a decision. "Five hundred dinars," he said.
"You really aren't a smart man, are you?"
"Four hundred dinars but you and that... Scandian... have to leave town as soon as I get my money."
"I'll give you forty dinars. And that's only because I'm feeling generous today, seeing as how friendly you've been." She counted out the money and dared him with frigid eyes to refuse.
He grabbed the money and quickly stepped away. "Get out. You have your furs. Go."
Xena walked slowly toward him until his back was against a wall. Calmly, she put Ilsa on the ground. The child grabbed her leg and held on. Xena leaned in until her face was inches from the merchant. She could see the beads of sweat popping out on his forehead, the color draining from his face. She held up her hands. "These are my hands. You can't see the blood anymore, but it's there. Layer upon layer. My hands are thick with it. And it doesn't matter to me if I spill a little more. I'm funny that way. Now it occurs to me that you don't know a lot about women. Only a fool would insult a woman's child. So I'm going to assume you're a fool. Naturally, even a fool would want to apologize to my little girl for saying what you did. You see, my hands are thirsty and I don't know how long I can keep them from crushing your worthless skull."
The man's eyes darted back and forth, trying to keep an eye on both hands. He swallowed once and said in a very small voice, "I'm sorry for what I said about the girl and her people."
"Well, isn't that nice of you? I'm wondering. When they came through here, what did they do to get such a poor reputation?"
"They... uh..." he said, still staring at her hands. Xena twitched a finger and he jumped. "They made camp outside of town and some of the folks around here, well, they decided to run them off. They couldn't talk right and looked strange. The women acted like whores, flaunting their looks and some of our boys here... well, winters are long. The Scandia men didn't understand. We offered to pay, but they were fierce -- growled like beasts and looked like murderers, all of 'em." He paused and Xena inched her hands closer. He continued in a rush. "We went out there to warn them off and things happened and a couple of the women and kids got killed and that made them all angry. So more got hurt. That's everything, I swear."
"I see. What an unreasonable people they are. I can understand why you dislike them so."
"It was an accident. We didn't mean to do anything but scare them."
"Uh huh. A fine, hospitable town you have here. One last question and I'll be on my way."
The man was trembling now, as Xena's hands inched closer to him. "Yes?" he said, his voice cracking.
"If I camped nearby, do you think you'd be able to scare me?" Her hands were on each side of his head now, only a hair's breadth from touching him. He closed his eyes and Xena glanced down, noticing a stain spreading across the front of his pants.
"No. No one could scare you. No one would try," he said, all strength gone from him.
"That's nice to hear." With lightning speed, Xena moved her hands forward, millimeters in front of his face and clapped them once loudly. The man screamed and fell in a dead faint. Nonchalantly, she looked down at Ilsa. "C'mon kid, up we go," she said, lifting the child into her arms. Xena grabbed the bundle of clothing, and left the store.
"Xena!" shouted Gabrielle as she approached the warrior. The bard's hands were empty. "This place is really creepy. No one would sell me anything." Gabrielle glanced at the bundle of furs. "I see you managed to get everything though. Did you have any trouble?"
"No, not really."
"Huh," said Gabrielle, a quizzical look on her face. "Strange. Wonder what the problem was with the food then?"
"Maybe they're short on supplies for the winter. C'mon. I want to put some distance between us and this town before we make camp."
"Good idea. This place is weird," said the bard, glancing back at the suspicious stares following their movements.
Xena said nothing as she tied the furs on Argo then settled herself and Ilsa on the mare's back. Gabrielle took up her position by the side of the horse and they headed north once again.
Xena was worried. After the trip to the village, Ilsa stopped speaking. For the rest of the day, whenever they ran into anyone on the road, she panicked, burying herself in Xena's protective arms. By the time they stopped to make camp, the child was an emotional wreck.
As they set up for the evening, Xena told Gabrielle the story the merchant had relayed, and both women grew increasingly anxious about the greeting they would get when they met up with the Scandias. Finally, they decided they would deal with it when the time came. There was nothing they could do about it now.
The spot they had found for their camp was a rocky, unattractive little bolt-hole with one spectacular advantage. It had a hot spring which they could use for washing and bathing. As soon as they had laid their blankets and stoked the fire, Gabrielle stripped and eased herself into the steaming pool carved into the rocks by the spring.
"Absolute bliss," she sighed. "Xena, you have got to get in here. I can actually feel my muscles relaxing."
"In a second," said Xena. She was undressing Ilsa, happy at the chance to bathe the girl. "Now you behave with your Papa, okay? Be a good girl." Ilsa stared at her solemnly, shivering in the small wind which whipped through the pass. Xena picked her up and lowered her into the pool. The child's eyes widened at the sudden heat. Gabrielle grabbed her and held onto her as Xena began to undress.
"Splish splash, Ilsa!" said Gabrielle, slapping the water. Somberly, Ilsa imitated her. "Splish splash!" the bard said again.
Xena slipped out of her leathers and placed them in a pile with her breastplate and weapons. The wind kicked up and she felt goose bumps crawl across her skin, making her eager to get her nude body into the warmth of the hot spring. She was about step in when something shiny on the ground caught her eye and she noticed the silver token, which had fallen when she had undressed. She picked it up to toss it on her pile of clothes when she heard Gabrielle swear. Ilsa was scrambling to get away from the bard, her eyes glued to the medallion.
Quickly, Xena slipped into the pool and caught the girl just as she made a dive for the token. The warrior watched as the child grabbed the amulet, her face undergoing a series of emotions. Finally she turned to Xena and said, "min mama..." Before Xena could do or say anything, the child tugged on the warrior's hair. Xena bent down, thinking she might have something more to say, now that she was speaking again. Gravely, Ilsa placed the chord of the medallion over Xena's head, settling it around the warrior's neck.
Ilsa continued to hold the silver token. She stared at the face of it, her eyes shining. Reverently, she brought it to her lips, kissed it, then let it fall between Xena's breasts. She stared up at the warrior for long moments, her eyes bright. "Now you really Mama," she said, speaking in Xena's tongue for the first time. Too bemused to react, Xena remained motionless as Ilsa raised herself up, placed a small hand on each of the warrior's broad shoulders, leaned over and gave her new mama a kiss on the cheek. Then, in another first, Ilsa looked her in the eyes... and smiled.
"Gabrielle...?" whispered Xena, staring at Ilsa.
"I see it, I see it! She's smiling! And she spoke Greek! By the gods, Xena, it's like a miracle or something."
Ilsa dropped into Xena's lap, looking very pleased with the reactions she was getting. She hit the water with her hand, looked at Gabrielle and said, "Splish splash, Papa. Again!"
Xena was too stunned to react, so Gabrielle splashed around, making Ilsa giggle with delight. The warrior sat quietly, watching both of them, her hands loosely holding the child, keeping her from dipping under the water while she played.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and slipped below the surface which caused Ilsa's eyes to widen. "Papa?" she said. Suddenly she giggled and squirmed as the bard tickled her submerged feet. "Papa! Stop!" she squealed cheerfully. Gabrielle surfaced with a smile, wiping the water from her eyes and grinning at the child. Ilsa twisted to look at Xena. "Mama play?"
Gabrielle watched as the warrior made no response. "Xena? Are you okay?"
Xena shook her head slightly and focused on the bard. "What?"
"Mama play?" asked Ilsa, tentatively.
"Play what, honey?"
"Oh. Sure. I'll play. What are the rules?"
Gabrielle laughed. "You're not even here, are you? No rules, Xena. Just splashing around."
Xena nodded and skimmed her hand on the water to deliver a faceful to Gabrielle, which caused Ilsa to squeal appreciatively.
Gabrielle sputtered and rubbed her eyes. She grinned. "Now you're in for it!" she said and all three were soon lost in a shower of flying spray and laughter.
"...and... and greöten teeth! Rowr! And he eat dem all!" said Ilsa, finishing her incomprehensible story about a run-in with a bear, embellished through the mind of a three-year-old.
"Ate them all? Everyone?" said Xena with mock horror.
"Ja! 'Cuz... 'cuz... 'cuz he is fjuktil! And... and I bØrmik of him, but not you, Mama. You never bØrmik, nahk?"
"Sometimes, but usually I'm pretty brave. Strong, too," said Xena making a muscle for Ilsa to feel. The child squeezed the warrior's bicep, her teeth gritted with the effort. She smiled up at Xena in wonder. Then, not to be outdone, Ilsa crooked her own small arm, and trembled with the strain as Xena circled her soft bicep with gentle fingers and an exclamation of parental awe.
"What does bØrmik mean again?" asked Gabrielle, having finished cleaning up after dinner. She joined her two companions sitting comfortably near the fire.
"Scared or frightened. Something like that," said Xena.
"You bØrmik, Papa?" asked Ilsa, concerned.
Gabrielle smiled. "No, sweetie. Just asked your mama what it meant, that's all."
Ilsa nodded her head then scrunched her face in deep thought. "Mama? Are dere bears in Valhalla?" she asked.
"I don't know, honey," said Xena.
"What's Valhalla?" asked Gabrielle. Xena shrugged, clueless.
"Valhalla where udder papa is," said Ilsa.
"Ah! Like the Elysian Fields," said the bard.
"Dere bears in ella...snafeedz, Mama?"
"There could be, I suppose," said Xena, then added quickly, "But not mean bears. Only nice ones."
Ilsa pondered this a moment then crawled into Xena's lap. She touched the token that Xena still wore and stared at it. "Min udder mama... she... she aeriken. You do dat, Mama?"
"Aeriken? I don't know what that is," said Xena.
"Aeriken. Aeriken," repeated Ilsa, frowning. "La na na la na!" she sang off-key.
"Sing? You want me to sing?" asked Xena, humming a bit to demonstrate. Ilsa nodded solemnly. Xena's eyes sparkled at the child and she gave her a quick squeeze. "All right. Let me think... what should I sing?"
Gabrielle moved to Xena's side and put an arm around her waist. Xena drew the bard nearer and began to sing in clear, sweet tones. She sang of ancient battles fought for love. Of forbidden cities lost to time. Of quirky sprites who played games on mortals. Of gods and men and myths of old. Into the night, the three of them sat, surrounded by the warrior's music, content to be close and with each other.
When the moon was high, Xena put a very groggy Ilsa in her blankets, kissed her forehead and sang a final lullaby as the girl drifted off to sleep. Xena rose, took Gabrielle's hand and led her to their blankets where she made love to her with quiet passion.
In the morning, they once again headed north.
On the third day, the blizzard began. Icy blasts and whipping snows pelted them relentlessly. Thankful for their furs, they bundled themselves up and pushed onward against the driving winds. Ilsa's teeth chattered alarmingly, her tiny body convulsing in frozen tremors. Xena realized the small coat she had purchased for the girl didn't have the warmth of her own or Gabrielle's. So Xena rigged a sling which held the child against her body, then fastened her parka around them both, knowing her own warmth was the best protection she could provide. Ilsa, safe and cozy as she clung to Xena, protested every time she had to leave her cocoon.
"You're spoiling her rotten, Xena," said Gabrielle as they made a stop for lunch. In the midst of the storm's fury, they had found a small valley which was protected from the worst of the tempest. It was covered with soft snow and was several degrees warmer than the exposed land surrounding it. The wind didn't reach them there and they reveled in being away from its bite. Even Argo seemed happy as she pushed the snow aside with her nose and cropped the short grass.
"I'm not spoiling her. She was cold. Would you have her freeze?" snapped Xena.
Gabrielle smiled. "I don't mean that. I mean now."
Xena looked down and realized that she was feeding Ilsa like a mother bird as the child remained snuggled in her cozy nest against the warrior's chest. Xena smiled sheepishly. "I guess it just seemed easier..."
"Uh huh. I'm surprised you don't chew her food first before feeding her," quipped Gabrielle, evoking an old wives' tale that tried to explain the evolution of the kiss. It was a story children told each other in disgusted tones to describe where adults had gotten the idea to put their mouths together.
"Lovely image, Papa," said Xena shaking her head with a smile. "I suppose now you'll want me to feed you that way."
"As long as we skip the food part, I'd love it," said Gabrielle.
Xena leaned over and bestowed a quick kiss on the bard, then opened her jacket, pulling Ilsa out of her harness. "C'mon you," she said, quickly bundling the child in her own little coat. "Walk around a bit. Shake out those legs. Play in the snow."
"Papa play?" asked Ilsa, looking hopefully at Gabrielle.
"Sure, son," said the bard in a deep husky voice. "Let's toss the ball around, huh?"
Xena rose, chuckling. "We'll all play," she said, gathering a handful of snow and lobbing it at Gabrielle.
"Snowball fight!" the bard announced, ducking Xena's next throw as she quickly molded a missile of her own. She whipped it at Xena who caught it in mid-air. "You're no fun!" said Gabrielle.
Ilsa laughed delightedly, picked up a tiny handful of snow and threw it a couple of inches. Xena moved closer and managed to get dusted by the girl's next wild toss.
"Got me!" she said. A snowball beaned Xena on the back of her head. She whipped around to see Gabrielle laughing gleefully. "That's gonna cost ya," the warrior said with a slow smile.
"Uh oh!" said Gabrielle, running. A snowball hit her in the back of the knee and she fell face first onto the cushioned ground. Ilsa stumbled through the drifts on tiny legs then jumped on Gabrielle's prone body. "I'm under attack!" said the bard, spitting snow. "Save me, Xena! I'm bØrmik!"
Xena lifted Ilsa off Gabrielle, threw her into the air then caught her, making the child giggle with delight. "Again!" the girl shouted and the warrior obliged.
Gabrielle quietly made another snowball. Just when Ilsa left Xena's hands in another toss, she threw it. Without taking her eyes off the child, Xena caught the snowball, threw it back at Gabrielle then caught the falling child.
Gabrielle wiped the snow from her face. "I deserved that," she said matter-of-factly.
They never quite made it out of their small valley that day.
Over the next week, a pattern began to develop. The blizzard passed, but Xena insisted that they find protected camp grounds, even if it meant stopping long before sunset. The sense of urgency that had surrounded them from the start of the journey disappeared completely. Somehow -- and Gabrielle couldn't pinpoint the moment -- it had turned into a leisurely saunter instead of the driving push to find Ilsa's people.
After yet another day of delays, Gabrielle approached Xena as Ilsa slept.
"Excuse me, stranger, but what have you done with Xena and is she ever coming back?" the bard asked by the light of their campfire.
Xena was mending Ilsa's coat and glanced at her partner quizzically. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about my friend -- Xena. You know her, the woman who didn't want to waste even an hour at Widgie's once she found out where the Ice People were? Where did she go?"
"You're pushing it, Gabrielle."
"Yes, actually, I am. I want to know what's going on. First you drive us like you're possessed and now you're dragging your heels at every opportunity. Have you changed your mind? What are you doing?"
"I'm taking us to the Scandias. Now let's drop this--"
"Oh no. We're not dropping anything. We stopped today when the sun was directly overhead. And that was only after a late start. Gosh, Xena, is four hours of travel per day too harsh a pace or something?"
Xena looked ready to explode. "I don't appreciate your questioning my decisions. The child can't--"
"You're carrying the child. She's either in your coat as you walk or sitting with you on Argo. Don't lay this at her feet. And as for 'questioning your decisions' -- haven't I earned that right by now?" Gabrielle paused. "Look, I'm not trying to push you into anything, honest. I just want to understand. I want to know what's on your mind." She put her hand on Xena's arm. For a moment, she thought the warrior would shake it off.
Instead, Xena sighed, her face losing it's fierceness. Her eyes grew vulnerable, and she laid her hand on Gabrielle's. "I can't do it," she whispered.
Gabrielle leaned toward her, her expression concerned. "Can't do what, Xena?"
"I can't face it. I don't want to let her go, Gabrielle. I love her so much. It's as if she's a part of me; a part of us. Our child. ...our daughter."
The bard squeezed the warrior's arm, comfortingly. "I feel it too, Xena."
"I know we have to let her go. We must. But the nearer we get to the Scandias, the more I realize my heart is breaking. Oh, Gabrielle, how did I let this happen?" she asked, all the pain and heartache she felt reflected in her eyes. "How did I get so attached? She's just a kid."
"Yeah. A kid who calls you 'Mama' and me 'Papa.' A kid who willingly gives us unconditional love."
Xena leaned her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. The bard reached up and stroked the warrior's lean cheek. "It isn't just that, Gabrielle. There's so much more."
"Tell me. Tell me what you're feeling," the bard whispered.
"For one thing, it's seeing her with you," answered Xena in a muffled voice. She raised her head and looked off at the horizon. "I watch you with her. See the two of you playing and laughing and it... Do you know what it's like to see the two people you love most in the world enjoying each other? Loving each other?"
"Of course I know," said Gabrielle. "The sight of you with Ilsa, well, sometimes I want to cry it's so beautiful."
Xena turned to smile at the bard. "She's like a miracle, isn't she?"
Gabrielle nodded. "The changes I've seen in you, because of her, well, they're incredible."
"I feel them too. At night, I hold you both and sing songs and my heart is full. It's like we're a family. A real family. Just the three of us."
"I know. I didn't think anything could be better than what we had before, but being part of a family... I would've thought it would take away some of the closeness between you and me. But it hasn't. It's simply added to it. It's made me love you even more."
"Yeah," said Xena, her eyes sparkling. "Like when we're just sitting together, quiet and lost in our own thoughts, I marvel at how wonderful it is to be able to touch you both. I can feel you, my two loves, and you're mine. I belong." Xena was silent a moment then looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "It's tearing me up inside, Gabrielle. I've never felt this way before and I don't know how to handle it," Xena said, her voice anguished.
"Okay," said the bard, holding her, comforting her. "Let's talk about this. What are our options?"
"We have no options."
"Not true. We can keep her, you know. We can."
"I mean it, Xena. Just indulge me for a moment here. Forget all that stuff you said before about the dangers. Things have changed. We've both changed. Let's think about this. Seriously think about it."
Xena took a deep breath and tried to smile. "All right. How can we keep her?"
"Well, we could find some place to settle down. Live like a family. Everyone else does it, why can't we?" Gabrielle thought for a moment then brightened. "We could go to the Amazons! They'd take us in. They'd welcome us."
"Well... it's true that they wouldn't turn us out. I guess it wouldn't be too bad to raise her as an Amazon..."
"Of course not! It would be wonderful!" said Gabrielle, seeing the possibilities. "And I'm the Queen, so she would be a princess! Ilsa, Amazon Princess. Oh, I like the sound of that, Xena."
"It could be kind of nice to settle down for awhile," said Xena. "Just until she's old enough, of course," she added.
"Oh sure. And if you were needed somewhere, you could go off any time and feel secure that Ilsa and I were protected and cared for," said Gabrielle, sensing her thoughts. "We'd be part of the Amazon community. And Ilsa could grow up strong and proud. Oh Xena, I want this so much! This could work. Really!"
Xena furrowed her brow, her mind swimming. "It might work at that," she said slowly. "We don't know anything about the Ice People. Maybe they were at fault in that village. Maybe they're a terrible people who would hurt Ilsa."
"Right! We don't know anything about them. I mean, who's to say what kind of treatment Ilsa would get if we left her there?"
"I won't have her hurt," said Xena between clenched teeth. Absently, she grabbed the amulet around her neck, stroking it with her thumb. "She deserves the best. A smart little kid like that. And so likable and loving. Why, she has no protection at all." Xena stared down at the medallion, her eyes unfocused. "It's my duty to see that she's loved. And where could she find that better than with us?"
"Exactly!" said Gabrielle, squeezing Xena's arm. "We could get a house, and have a garden. And Ilsa could make friends and I'd work on my stories. It's like a dream."
The warrior had stopped listening. She was staring at the medallion, as if for the first time. "Such strange pictures," she mumbled.
"On the token. So interesting and dynamic."
"Uh huh," said Gabrielle, suspicious of this change in focus.
"And they're hers. They belong to her, these pictures. They're part of her history, part of her people. Can we take that away from her? She'll never know who she is if we keep her."
"She'll be our daughter. That's enough."
"But she'll never know her people or their stories. Never see the land of her birth. She'll always be an outsider. Different. Instead of being with her own kind. And who are we to judge these people? Look at this," said Xena, holding the amulet in front of Gabrielle. "Look at the love that went into the making of it. Monsters don't do that. Beasts don't cast their gods in silver and wear them around their necks. These people care. See how this figure holds the other?" she said pointing to a male and female etched on the back. "The Ice People know how to love. Do you think Ilsa's parents deserved what happened to them?"
"Of course not. But what happened to her parents doesn't tell us what kind of people they were."
"Could monsters have raised a little girl like Ilsa?"
Gabrielle was silent. She looked toward the sleeping child. "I guess they had to be pretty good people to have had a daughter like that, huh?"
"Yeah. And besides, it wasn't a Scandian who murdered them. It was a Greek! One of our people! At least, I assume it was. Judging by what happened in that village, it was probably a mob of bigots who feared them for their differences."
"Well... okay, you're probably right," conceded Gabrielle.
"Remember what Widgie said? She said they'd grieved for their lost members. You don't murder them and then grieve. No, they lost three of their own, and they grieved as loving humans do."
Gabrielle looked down at her hands helplessly. She was sick to death of thinking about the Scandias; tired of wondering what kind of people they were.
"Her kinfolk. Thinking they'd lost her," said Xena, her voice far away. "Lost the little girl who'd been born on the journey. A part of them and of their people. How do we steal her from them? How do we deny Ilsa her family and live with ourselves afterwards?"
"But, Xena -- we don't know any of this. We don't know who the Ice People are. You said it before, what if they'll hurt Ilsa!" said Gabrielle, making a last effort.
"I don't think--"
"But you don't know!"
"No..." said Xena, softly, "I don't know..."
Gabrielle took the warrior's face in both her hands and stared into her anguished blue eyes. "It's more than the Scandias, isn't it? What are you really thinking?"
A muscle twitched in Xena's jaw and she pulled away from the bard's touch. "You know as well as I do that it wouldn't work. There are too many problems. We can't just forget about Ares and Callisto."
"Well, no, but the Amazons--"
"Don't have a prayer against gods. And what about the rest of my enemies? I spent ten winters making people hate me. Many of them would give anything they have for the chance to destroy me through my child."
"We won't let them," said Gabrielle, trying to believe that they could keep Ilsa safe from every danger.
"What if something happened to me? What if I was killed and you were left alone with a child to raise? It isn't like there's no danger in my life. It isn't like death hasn't stalked us before."
"I'm not helpless, Xena. I could take care of myself and Ilsa, if something happened. You would, if I died. So why wouldn't I?"
Xena looked at the determination in the bard's eyes. "Yes, you would."
"Exactly. Besides, if you're really worried about that, you could give up that lifestyle and just live with us."
"And how long would I last sitting around a hut, watching you be Queen while I played nursemaid to a kid?"
"I'd make you co-Queen or something..." Gabrielle laid her head on Xena's arm, the tears that had threatened to fall, silently tracing her cheeks. "Xena, don't let this dream fade. I want it so much. You're so happy and you deserve to have this much love and joy in your life. And I deserve it, too. Can't we just try?"
Xena stroked her companion's cheek, knowing that it was impossible. Gabrielle knew it too, Xena could tell. They both wanted it desperately, but the dangers were too real. "Oh, Gabrielle. I'm so sorry."
"There's something else, isn't there?" the bard asked softly.
"It's me. What if we solve everything else and one day the darkness inside me breaks out, like it did at Widgie's a few months ago? What if I am out of control and filled with hatred? What if I... hurt... the child...?"
"Oh, Xena, you wouldn't!" said Gabrielle. The bard knew Xena would never hurt Ilsa -- knew it was just fear talking.
The warrior stared at the bard with tortured eyes. "You can guarantee that I won't? I can't. The time at Widgie's taught me some things about myself. Yes, I can control it more now. Better than I ever have. But I'm also aware that it is inside me, always waiting for my control to slip. I can't take that chance, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle sat for long minutes staring at the pain on her friend's face. Finally, the bard let out her breath on a sigh, her shoulders slumped in defeat. "There are too many risks, aren't there?" she said. "Too many chances for Ilsa to get hurt or worse. I couldn't live with myself if something happened to her."
"Neither could I," Xena said, all softness gone. "No more delays. Tomorrow we go north."
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