They traveled now with purpose. Xena drove them forward, stopping in the villages to ask if anyone had seen the Ice People, and following the trail of information. Finally, they pulled within a day's journey of the Scandia camp. Ilsa's people were resting there for a week, in observance of a religious holiday.
Xena pushed her small family until Argo began stumbling in the dark. Begrudgingly, she admitted that they could get no closer that night. The Scandias were just a few miles down the road. If they got an early start they could be at the Ice People's camp around mid-day.
"That gives me time to scout first," said Xena.
Gabrielle nodded. The change that the warrior had undergone since they had made their decision to return Ilsa frightened the bard. Xena was only perfunctorily responsive to the child. At times, she acted as if the girl was no longer with them. Xena was withdrawn, stoic and uncommunicative. When she did speak, it was often in harsh tones.
Ilsa had instantly picked up this change and had returned to being the silent, frightened child they had first discovered. Gone were her smiles and laughter, her playful use of her new language and her snuggling closeness to Xena. Gabrielle tried to give the girl the affection she no longer received from her beloved 'mama,' but it wasn't the same. Much as Ilsa loved and enjoyed her 'papa,' she had given her heart to Xena. And the warrior was no longer accepting that gift.
"Okay, scouting's good," said Gabrielle, wondering how she could broach the subject uppermost on her mind.
Xena didn't respond. She blew on the tinder she had gathered, fanning the small flames of their evening campfire.
"Not much of a fire, is it?" said Gabrielle. "There's not much fuel around here."
"I saw some scrub about a quarter mile back. I'll go get us some firewood," said Xena.
"Wait," said Gabrielle. "I'll get it. You stay here. Formulate plans. That kind of thing."
Xena shrugged. "All right. Take the kid with you."
"No, it'll slow me down if I have her tagging along. You watch her. Won't take me long. Oh, and Xena? If you don't show that kid some affection before I get back, I'm going to take her and leave your life forever. You're acting like a sullen, stupid wretch and I've had it up to here. Back in a few," said Gabrielle, jogging away before Xena could stop her.
Xena stared furiously at Gabrielle's retreating figure. Doesn't she understand anything? wondered the warrior. She glanced over at Ilsa. The child was sitting alone on her blanket, her arms around her knees, her head resting on them. The girl was staring at Xena out of the corner of her eyes. Quickly, Ilsa looked back at the ground.
Xena immediately busied herself settling their campsite. She silently cursed Gabrielle for running away without letting her speak and then cursed herself for not having picked up the scrub as they had passed it. Finally, with nothing more to do, she sat on her blanket and fiddled with a loose string on her boot.
"You okay?" she asked Ilsa, without looking at her.
The child's head nodded slightly.
"Not talking much anymore, are you?"
She shook her head 'no'.
"Suit yourself." Xena dug in her pack for her leather repair kit.
Ilsa glanced over again. She raised her head, her eyes filled with tears. "Why Mama hate Ilsa? What I do?"
Xena froze. She turned to the child. "What are you talking about? I don't hate you."
"Praevak," mumbled the child.
"Praevak? I don't know that word. What does it mean?"
"Mean praevak," she said stubbornly.
"Praevak. Your talk not your face. Different."
"My talk... You think I'm lying? You're calling me a liar?" asked Xena.
Ilsa walked over to Xena, all the self-righteous anger of a three-year-old in her step. She pointed at Xena's face and said, "You say love. But you stop. You stop! You stop love!"
Suddenly, Xena realized what she had been putting the girl through over the past few days. Gabrielle was right. "By the gods..." Xena whispered, wishing she could kill some passing thug to release some of her guilt and anger. She composed her face and looked at Ilsa. "C'mere, Ilsa," she said.
"No!" shouted the child, backing away.
"Don't be stubborn. I want to talk to you."
"Talk, talk, talk. Stupid words." She switched to her native tongue and spoke passionately for over a minute in halting, childlike phrases.
Xena listened silently. Though she picked up a word here and there she was unable to discern exactly what the girl was saying. "Ilsa...?" she asked softly when the child appeared to have had her say. "Little One? Please. Let me explain."
Ilsa stood, still out of reach, but she looked Xena in the eyes.
"I have to tell you something. It's important. Do you understand 'important'?"
"Good. You're very smart." Xena took a deep breath. "I've been... I haven't been very nice lately, have I?"
Ilsa scowled and shook her head 'no.'
"I know. You think I've stopped loving you, don't you?"
The child looked at the ground and nodded.
"Well, I haven't. I still love you. More than I can possibly tell you." Xena inched forward on the blanket, shortening the distance. "I've had some things on my mind lately. I wasn't paying attention to you and I'm sorry. Yah sØrten, sweetie. That's my fault and it was wrong of me."
Ilsa looked up, listening.
"Could you... maybe... come a little closer? I really need to hug you. It hurts not to hold you, Ilsa," said Xena abjectly.
Ilsa shuffled her feet. She looked for long moments into the warrior's eyes which were naked with need. The child closed the distance between them and reached out her arms. Xena gathered her up and held her closely. Unsuccessfully, she tried to halt the tears that spilled onto her cheeks. "I love you so much, my brave little daughter," she whispered.
Ilsa leaned back, staring at the warrior's tears. "Mama has owie?" she asked.
Xena smiled, wiping her face quickly with the back of her hand. "No, honey. Just happy that you wanted to hug me."
"Then why you not hug before?"
Xena shook her head, smiling ruefully at her own stupidity. "I don't know. I wanted to. But I was worried," she said. And selfish, she added silently. Thinking of my own pain and not yours.
Ilsa settled herself in Xena's lap, in her favorite position. She touched the medallion, which hung between the warrior's breasts.
"How much do you remember of your people?" Xena asked. Ilsa looked her quizzically. Xena tried again. "Your people. Your kin. Aunts, uncles, brothers or sisters... oh this isn't working," she mumbled. "Ilsa. You came here with more than your mama and papa. There were lots of you, right?"
"I Scandian," she said with pride.
"Right. You're Scandian. How much of the Scandians do you remember?"
Suddenly her face lit up, as she thought she understood. "Oh! Per Rolf and Tanda Marya. SigbjØrn, Yahn, Turid, Arne, Agnes, Uut... um... Nils, Agga, Mikten erd Flikka... TØr erd Narvig... um..."
"Lots of people, huh?" said Xena, smiling.
"Oh ja! Lots of!"
"And they loved you, didn't they?"
"Not like you, Mama," she said grabbing Xena around the neck and burying her small face under the warrior's chin.
Xena lifted her eyes to the sky, desperately trying to hold onto her control. "That's wonderful, sweetie, and I love you, too, but these people, Per Rolf and Tanda Marya and Arne and the others, they took care of you and loved you, right? They weren't mean to you. They didn't hurt you, right?"
Ilsa raised her head, looking solemnly in Xena's eyes. "No. No owies. Not mean."
"Good. Good," Xena said, smiling. "That's important." She paused. "Would you like to visit them? Your people? The Scandias?" Ilsa nodded her head 'yes.' Xena tried to sound excited. "That would be fun, wouldn't it? To see all your friends? Your aunts and uncles?" Again, Ilsa nodded. "Tomorrow, that's what we're going to do. We're going to visit the Scandias and you'll get to see everybody again."
Ilsa's eyes grew wide. "Real?"
"Real. Would you like that?"
The child smiled brightly. "Oh ja! Real? Ja-hah!"
Immediately, she began speaking in mixed languages about who she would see, how happy she would be to show off her new mama and papa, the games she could play and on and on. Xena tried to listen, but her emotions were churning too wildly to make sense of any of it. Instead she nodded at the appropriate times, smiled often and interjected an occasional "Wonderful!" or "That'll be fun."
Gabrielle watched the warrior's face from her hiding place behind a tall rock. She had already stashed some firewood in a secluded nook earlier, knowing that Xena and the child needed time to be alone. The bard let her tears flow freely, not feeling the need to fight them like her friend.
The next day dawned clear and sunny. Xena took off early to scout. Ilsa wanted to go with her, but the warrior told her she couldn't. It might be dangerous. Finally, amid the child's desperate tears, Xena rode away from camp. She was back within a few minutes. She had changed her mind, she said. They would all go. Quickly breaking camp, they packed Argo. Xena put Ilsa into the sling on her chest and fastened her parka around the girl.
"Shouldn't she wear her own coat today? If we are attacked, it won't do for you to be hampered with her," said Gabrielle, reasonably.
"It's too cold. When we get closer to the camp I'll go off by myself and you two can wait behind. For now, she's warmer like this."
Gabrielle didn't say anything, but she knew it had very little to do with the weather, which was milder than it had been for days. The bard knew that Xena needed to feel the nearness of the child one last time.
They set a good pace and soon found themselves on a cliff, overlooking the Scandia camp. They could see activity below. People going about their business. Children played a game using sticks and a leather ball near the edge of camp. Voices were raised in greetings to one another. Women were stringing lanterns around one large tent, appearing to be preparing for their holiday celebration. A group of five men came from the east, carrying two deer on their backs. The men were large, much taller and broader than the local men of the region. Most of the hunters had burly beards with light-colored hair. Even from this distance, Xena could see that the Scandias were a handsome people. And they had every appearance of a normal, happy community. The warrior could sense no evil or corruption in them. Rather, they seemed tight-knit and caring.
"Come on," said Xena.
"Isn't this where we split up?"
"No, we can get closer," she said, rubbing her cheek on Ilsa's head, which poked above her jacket.
"Scandia...!" whispered the child.
"Yeah. There they are," said Xena. "Your people."
Ilsa looked up at Xena and frowned. "They bad?" she asked, touching the warrior's drawn mouth with one small finger.
"No, honey. They're not bad. Let's go, huh?" she said, clucking to Argo.
Without hurrying, Xena, Gabrielle and Ilsa made their way toward the camp of the Ice People.
"You stay here," said Xena, looking at a protected but small cave about half a mile from the Scandian camp. Beyond this point, there were no more hidden areas. The Ice People had chosen their spot well. Easy to defend, difficult to infiltrate, thought Xena. Her respect for them grew.
"Okay," said Gabrielle.
Xena looked down at the small head that peeked out of the top of her parka. "You stay with Papa, okay?"
"Go with Mama," she said, holding onto the straps of her sling.
Xena smiled. "I'd love that, honey, but for just a little while, I need you to stay with Papa. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"We can play stones and bones," said Gabrielle, talking about a silly game the two of them had invented.
Ilsa peered over the edge of the parka at Gabrielle, then back at Xena. "Mama play too?"
"No, Mama has some business first," said Xena, untying her coat. "But I'll be back to get you and Papa. Then we'll see your friends." She untied the sling and handed the child down to Gabrielle, who immediately bundled Ilsa in the girl's small jacket.
Xena turned Argo's head to leave, hesitated then hopped off the mare. She gathered Ilsa into her arms, gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Love you, Ilsa."
"Love you, Mama."
The warrior handed her back to Gabrielle, jumped on Argo and looked over her shoulder at the two of them. "Love you too, Papa," she said with a wink.
Gabrielle tried to speak, but couldn't find her voice. Instead she nodded, waving. Ilsa solemnly waved good-bye, her small hand peeping from the sleeve of her jacket. Xena turned and clucked at the mare. Within seconds she had disappeared around the bend.
Xena made a wide circuit of the camp, looking at all the approaches. The Scandians appeared to have learned a lot of lessons in their travels. Nothing was unguarded. However, inside the protection of the camp they were boisterous, playful, loving and sociable. Xena found a small rock promontory where she could spy on a section of tents. She marveled at the amount of happy activity going on. Women ran back and forth, speaking animatedly, handing each other various foods to taste and exclaim over. The children played loudly and no one seemed to mind. One of the men jumped into the game with the stick and leather ball to the delight of the youngsters. Two more huge, bearded males and a lanky female joined them and soon it spread through the camp. In between tents, around campfires, over wood piles, the game continued, with half the population playing along.
In direct contrast to the frivolity of the camp, the guards were indeed as fierce a group as she had ever seen. The men were giants, easily standing several inches above six feet. Almost every man wore a thick, heavy beard to protect his face from the cold. A particularly large man with flaming red hair had been making his way from post to post. Xena saw him light into a young guard because the boy had sat down while on duty. Chastened, the youthful sentry had looked more vigilant than most by the time the redhead had left.
Though the majority of the defenders were men, a few were women. They were also tall and fierce-looking, handling their weapons with ease and reverence. There wasn't a slacker among any of them, male or female. The only thing to do, realized Xena, was approach directly and openly and pray they wouldn't attack before she'd had her say. Hopefully, someone would recognize Ilsa and realize that the two Greek women were there on a mission of peace.
Xena scrambled off her perch and headed down the promontory. She had left Argo in a small grove of beech trees, near the cave where Gabrielle and Ilsa waited. The warrior was anxious to return to her companions, to reassure herself that nothing had happened in her absence. She hadn't liked leaving them alone in potentially hostile territory, but she had needed to get a feel for the land, the guards and especially, the people themselves. She had been reassured by what she had seen and was now ready to start the next phase.
She reached the base of the small rock formation and saw a troop of Scandian guards approaching. Very deliberately, she removed her sword and chakram and placed them on the ground, stepping away from the weapons, her hands in plain sight. Cautiously, the red-bearded 'captain' led his men toward her, their weapons at the ready. Xena waited quietly, not wanting to appear hostile in any way.
"Dah har restig fur tØr fjerken?" the captain asked in a reasonable voice.
"Yah sØrten," said Xena. "Yah vaek..." she stopped. I was what? she asked herself. How do I explain myself in a language I barely know?
"Dah tala Scandia?" he asked surprised.
"Nahk. Well... a few words. Uh... kØrten," she said, remembering the word. Now we'll find out if it means slow or small, she realized.
The red man nodded his head thoughtfully. "DØväek Griken lart tØr 'kØrten' Scandia?"
'DØväek' means 'where is' or close to it, thought Xena. 'Griken' could be 'a Greek' she realized, 'lart' I don't know, 'tØr' is 'your'... bet he's asking where I learned his language, she reasoned. "Ilsa," she said. "Ilsa of the Scandias." She lowered her hand to approximate the girl's height, showing them that her teacher was a child.
Red looked her over suspiciously. He made a gesture for her to open her parka. She understood, knowing it was just a precaution. He was looking for more weapons, she reasoned. Xena complied, holding the edges of her coat open so he could see she was unarmed. Suddenly the captain's face swelled with anger. He spewed forth a stream of words Xena didn't understand, though it was obvious no child would know them. The only phrase she caught was 'flik tunen.' Ferociously, he grabbed Xena by the neck with one enormously powerful hand and lifted her off the ground. She tried to pry his hand away, but his grip was rock-solid. With his free hand, he grabbed Xena's Scandian medallion and ripped it off her neck. He held it up to his men, said more angry words then spit in Xena's face.
Xena could feel herself beginning to lose consciousness as no oxygen reached her brain, the choke hold threatening to crush her windpipe. As spots danced before her eyes, Red threw her to the ground. She choked and gasped, but before she could recover, she was thrown onto her stomach. Her hands were wrestled behind her and were quickly tied by rough, hemp ropes. She was hauled to her feet and prodded into walking, a guard on each side, both with a grip as unbreakable as their leader's. There was nothing for her to do but go along and try to appear as unthreatening as possible. Hopefully, someone in the camp had learned a little Greek. Somehow, she had to communicate with these people. She had to tell them that she had come to return their lost child. As long as Gabrielle and Ilsa were safe, the situation could be salvaged, she thought.
Gabrielle was worried sick. Xena had been gone for hours. It was getting dark and there was still no sign of her. About half an hour earlier, Argo had wandered riderless up to the cave. Something had gone terribly wrong. The bard began to formulate a plan.
Xena looked up as a middle-aged woman entered. She carried a small plate with a variety of foods -- some strange, some familiar -- and a flagon of mead. She placed both by Xena.
"My hands are tied, I can't eat," said Xena, reasonably.
The woman stared, startled at being spoken to. "Yah kan inte tala Grik," she said, warily.
"Is there someone who can?" asked Xena. "DØväek... Grik tala... man, woman, person, somebody?" she finished, frustrated.
"Rolf kan tala Grik. Dah hilket Rolf?"
"Ja!" said Xena. "Yah hilket Rolf. Pläeten!"
The woman nodded, smiling slightly. "Dah tala Scandia, nahk?"
"Nahk. Yah kan inte tala Scandia," said Xena, repeating the words the woman had used to tell her she couldn't speak Greek. "KØrten Scandia. Yah sØrten," she added, using up the bulk of her vocabulary.
The woman smiled again, "Ja-hah," she said. Then she reached over, patted Xena on the shoulder and said something that appeared to mean she would get Rolf. The warrior breathed a sigh of relief.
A few minutes later, a tall, handsome young man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair entered the tent. His face was beardless which showed off the sculpted perfection of his jaw and chin. There was a wariness in the man, yet at the same time, she could see the sharp intelligence in his eyes.
"I am Rolf," he said.
"Hello, Rolf. I am Xena. You speak Greek?"
"Ja. Some Greek. Enough to trade."
"I see. I'll try to be clear. I didn't come here to harm your people."
A muscle clenched in his jaw and his eyes narrowed. "You say this. But you wear Thor's Amulet."
"I found it. There was a family. Scandians. The mother and father had been murdered. I buried them and found the amulet."
"You did not do the killings then?" Rolf asked.
"No. Another did the killings. I think many. A village, perhaps. A... läerkt. Lots of people. The killings... they were very bad," she added, not letting her gaze stray from his.
"And the child?"
"Is safe. I have her. That's why I'm here. To bring you back your child. Ilsa of the Scandias."
Rolf's eyes filled with wonder. "Ilsa is alive?" he asked. "My brother's child -- she lives?"
Xena smiled. "Yes, she lives. Safe and unharmed. She is a... a very dear little girl. Bright, too. She can speak Greek now."
Rolf grinned. "Ja, she was always special. In her... mind... she thinks much. Ilsa... lives... Excuse me, I must tell Marya, my wife. She will be most happiness."
"Wait!" said Xena as he turned to run off. He glanced back and she nodded toward her hands, still tied behind her back. "I won't run away. But I am hungry. Untie me? I'll stay here. You have my word."
Rolf hesitated. Then regretfully, he shook his head 'no.' "There is much trouble if I do this," he said and left the tent.
Xena leaned back against the tent pole, sighing. "Thanks a lot, Rolf." She glanced around the darkening tent. In her mind, she sent out a prayer to her friend. Gabrielle, she thought, if you can hear me... stay where you are. Don't do anything rash. Take care of Ilsa, forget about me. I can get out any time I want. Just don't endanger the child.
She hoped that somehow, Gabrielle would hear her thoughts. She glanced down at the food, slipped one hand easily out of her bindings and grabbed a baked potato. She had no intention of escaping. She didn't want anything she did to cause alarm. It was important that these people trust her, so that she could determine if she could trust them.
Gabrielle put another blanket around Ilsa. "That better?"
"Still cold," Ilsa said, her brows drawn together pitifully, her bottom lip thrust out. She looked like she was about to cry any second.
The bard frowned. She didn't want to start a fire, in case the smoke would give them away this near the Scandian settlement. But it was very cold and the child's teeth were chattering. Gabrielle looked around and her eyes fell on Xena's sling.
"I know! I'll put you in my coat. Like Mama does! Would you like that?"
Though she nodded her head, Ilsa's pout remained. Gabrielle smiled. Quickly, she took off her parka, donned the sling and helped the child into it. It wasn't as good a fit as it was on the taller, stronger Xena, but they weren't going anywhere. Not while it was dark. Once she had the girl settled, Gabrielle put her coat back on and fastened it. It was a very snug fit but the child's comforted expression was enough to make it worthwhile. The bard felt two small hands reach up to her shoulders. She looked down and received a wet kiss on her chin.
"Thank you, Papa. Love you, Papa," Ilsa said, then snuggled deeper into the warmth and closed her eyes.
"DØväek Ilsa?" asked a very beautiful young woman the moment she walked through the tent door.
The woman looked behind her. Rolf entered.
"This is Marya. My wife," he said. "We want to know where is Ilsa."
"I told you. She's safe. And I'd be happy to get her, but you'll have to let me go," said Xena, stubbornly.
Rolf and Marya spoke together for a moment. She gestured toward Xena. Rolf sadly shrugged his shoulders. Marya said something in rapid Scandian and Rolf brightened, nodding agreement. Immediately, Marya left.
"She is going to get headwoman," said Rolf. "And she get Thor's man. And, if she finds, SigbjØrn."
Xena nodded. She recognized the name SigbjØrn as one of the people Ilsa spoke of. "You're Ilsa's uncle? You're Per Rolf? And that was Tanda Marya?"
"Ja. You know of us?" he asked, surprised.
"Ilsa spoke of you, yes."
"She... was unhurt when my brother was..."
"She was unhurt. I'm sorry about your brother and his wife. What happened to them was... it was monstrous. Yah sØrten, Rolf. Not all Greeks are like that."
Rolf nodded, his eyes distant. "Lars was a good man. And Ingrid was a much loving woman. Both were strong. It is not right that they be taken from us."
Xena was silent, allowing him his grief.
"Tell me of the child. Is her soul darkened now?" he asked, concerned.
"No! No, not at all," said Xena, pleading for understanding with her eyes. "Please trust me on this. Her soul is... it is pure and filled with light."
Rolf smiled. "I think maybe you have fell for her litten, ja?"
"Ja," said Xena with a half smile. "More than a litten."
Rolf seemed to make a decision then walked over to her. He hunkered down and looked her straight in the eyes. "You are warrior, nahk?"
"I am a warrior, yes."
"And with warrior's heart? Er... bravery? That is the word?"
"Yes. Bravery. I have bravery."
"If a man touched where you wanted not to be touched, you would fight him?"
Xena scowled. What the Hades was this about? she wondered. She narrowed her eyes and sneered at Rolf. "Let him try and he would never live to try again."
Rolf laughed. "Even if you are maybe captive?"
Xena smiled dangerously. Leisurely, she took her hands from behind her back and showed him that she was not a prisoner at all. "I am never a captive, Rolf. Unless I want to be. Understand?"
Rolf leaned back in surprise. "You had ropes on you!"
"A minor detail."
"How long you are free?"
"Since I got here."
"And you are not escaping?"
"No. Let me explain something, Rolf. I came here to find out what kind of people you are. You see, I've grown rather fond of Ilsa. And I won't see her harmed. She watched her parents die. That is enough hurt for one life. So until I make sure you Scandias are the kind of people worthy of her, Ilsa is staying hidden. Got that? And right now, I'm not too crazy about her Uncle Rolf."
Rolf grinned from ear to ear and clapped his hands. "Oh yes! You have a warrior's heart. I was... er... testing. Is that it? Testing? Yes, I was testing. To know who has been with Ilsa. So much hurt from the killing of Lars and Ingrid, that needs strength to fight. Bravery. I must testing to see if Ilsa has help."
Xena glared at him. "A dangerous test."
"Yes. I, too, have bravery. But I also have Marya. To touch you with Marya near? Not so brave as that!" he said with a laugh.
Xena smiled begrudgingly.
"You and I... friends, nahk? We are friends?"
"We can be friends, Rolf. But I'm not giving up Ilsa until I meet more of your people."
At that moment, Marya entered the tent with an older woman, a tall, lean man and the redheaded captain of the guards. "Ah! You ask they come," said Rolf. "Such power. Xena, this is Marya, that you have met. And this is Agga, our headwoman; Bosse, man of Thor; and this giant is SigbjØrn the Flame-haired, General of the Scandian army." Rolf turned to the group and spoke at length. He pointed to Xena's free hands and SigbjØrn's face grew red with anger. Rolf laid an arm across his shoulders and settled him a bit, then continued to speak to the group.
In rapid Scandian, they discussed the situation. Xena noticed the deference they paid to the headwoman when she finally spoke. Everyone but a brooding SigbjØrn nodded agreement.
The headwoman stepped forward, looked straight at Xena and said, in an obviously rehearsed speech, "Xena da Grik. Velcome to da camp off da Scandia. Ve off da Ice Pipples grit you."
Gabrielle was up and ready at first light. Ilsa was strapped into the sling and Argo was saddled. The bard was so off-balance from the bundle in front of her that it took five tries before she was able to successfully mount the mare. Idly, she wondered how Xena had made it look so easy all that time.
"We find Mama?" asked Ilsa in a small voice.
"Yes. Now please, Ilsa, no sound, okay? Be very quiet." She knew her own tension was carrying through to the child, but there was nothing she could do. Gabrielle was afraid. She didn't know what lay ahead or what the Scandia had done to Xena. She only hoped she could talk her way past the guards so she could put her plan in motion.
"Hush hush," said Ilsa in a loud whisper. She put both hands over her mouth.
Gabrielle couldn't help smiling. "Well, you don't have to do that. Just stay still and we'll be fine."
Ilsa nodded, removing her hands.
"Here goes nothing," Gabrielle murmured then clucked to Argo. She rounded the bend and headed straight for the two guards at the end of the path.
Xena was growing anxious. The small group of Scandian representatives had been questioning her via Rolf throughout the night. Now the sun was well up on the new day and the warrior worried that Gabrielle would take it in her head to plan some sort of 'rescue.' Xena needed Gabrielle safe and far away. She especially needed the bard to guard Ilsa. If the Scandias got the child then Xena's hope of controlling the transfer was lost.
"And this 'god', this Ares, he speaks to you? You are a shaman of Ares?" translated Rolf for Bosse, the chief priest of Thor.
The Scandians had been fascinated by everything about the Pantheon and had questioned her relentlessly on this topic. What any of it had to do with Ilsa, Xena couldn't figure out.
"Hardly," said Xena, wearily. "Ares just has a lot of... interest in me. He continues to try to seduce me back to him."
"Seduce?" said Rolf, shocked. The others murmured questions and he translated. There were shocked faces all around. "Your god is your lover?"
"No. Well, actually, he has made love to my body, but I wasn't in it at the time."
Rolf smiled. "Now we see the problem of my unknowing of your language. Could you say differently to help my understanding?"
Xena felt like screaming. There was no point to any of this. Not with Gabrielle wondering what had happened to her. Calming herself, she said, "An enemy of mine switched bodies with me after she died. And while she controlled my body, she made love to Ares."
Rolf shrugged and translated. Bosse asked a question. "The shaman," said Rolf, "wants to know this: did he know it was not you inside and did your body bear his child?"
"He knew. And my body was... unaltered when I got it back."
"Ah. Agga wants to know: have you godly powers because of this sexual favor?"
"No, and it was no favor. Look, I need to get back to Ilsa."
"You left her alone?" asked Rolf.
"Of course not. She's a child! No, I left her with my companion. But they expected me back a long time ago," explained Xena.
"If we let you go, how do we know you will return with the child?" asked SigbjØrn through Rolf. "Actually," added Rolf, "SigbjØrn phrased this much differently. But I think maybe this is better, no?"
Xena could guess SigbjØrn's question. "You will know I'll return because I will give you my word. I didn't come all this way without planning to give Ilsa back to you. But I have to know what kind of people I'm leaving her with. I had heard stories that I didn't want to believe. I need to know they're untrue. Look, Rolf, I'm worried about Ilsa and Gabrielle. I'd like to check--"
There was the sound of shouting from outside the tent. Xena recognized the voice which loudly proclaimed, "Lay off, buddy! Is this how you treat a woman in my condition? Now take me to Xena!"
SigbjØrn muttered something to a guard, who ran off immediately.
"Your companion?" asked Rolf, amused.
"Yes, that would be Gabrielle..." said Xena, deflated.
Rolf looked out the tent flap then turned back to Xena. "She is very pregnant. It is not a wonder you were concerned. I am hoping SigbjØrn's men were gentle with her."
"Pregnant..." said Xena, putting her head in her hands.
"Ja, much girth she has," said Rolf indicating a rounded belly.
"Great," mumbled Xena.
"And another thing!" said Gabrielle as she was brought into the tent. "I am not a 'grik!' I am Greek. Got me? I am-- Xena!" she said, spying the warrior. Xena noticed how carefully the Scandian guards were handling the bard.
"Gabrielle. So when's it due?" asked Xena, dryly.
"Oh Xena! You're okay! You are okay, right?"
"I'm fine. But I think you're giving birth."
Tiny hands were pulling on the edges of Gabrielle's jacket. The bard smiled sheepishly, and untied her coat. A very frightened Ilsa peeked out.
"Ilsa!" gasped Marya, tears of joy instantly springing to her eyes. Ilsa looked around the room until she spied Xena.
"Mama!" she cried, reaching toward the warrior. Xena walked over, removed the child from the sling and gave her a big hug.
"Mama?" said Rolf.
"Mama?" repeated the others.
Xena shrugged. "Yeah. The kid's idea."
Ilsa looked at Gabrielle and smiled. "Thank you, Papa. For bringing to Mama."
"Papa?" they all echoed.
Gabrielle squirmed as every eye turned to her. "That's... a funny story, actually... You see, we were--"
Xena and Gabrielle were seated on cushions while the Scandians held a discussion among themselves. Ilsa was contentedly sitting on Xena's lap, hanging onto the strong, protective arms which circled her.
"So what are they like?" asked Gabrielle.
"They're okay," said Xena.
"Well, I've only been a prisoner so far. Hard to judge when you're confined to a tent."
"Rolf is kinda cute," said Gabrielle.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, one eyebrow raised.
"In a 'guy' kinda way," she hastily added. "Not my type."
"No, he's not," the warrior replied with mock jealousy, then smiled. "Actually, he appears to be a good man. Wasn't crazy about him at first, but he grew on me."
"He seems to like you," said Gabrielle then frowned. "This isn't another case of--"
"He's married. To Marya. They're Ilsa's aunt and uncle."
"Oh! Of course. That's nice."
The women were silent for a few minutes, watching the Scandian representatives discuss the situation. Xena kissed Ilsa on the top of the head, hugging her closer then turned to Gabrielle and said, "Why pregnant?"
"Well... Ilsa was cold and I realized that in that sling thing, well, you always looked pretty pregnant when you wore it. And I figured they wouldn't hurt a pregnant lady. I was hoping to infiltrate, pretend to go into labor, and then sneak you out of here."
"Oh, wonderful plan, Gabrielle," said Xena sarcastically. "No one will pay any attention to a pregnant woman in labor."
"It was Ilsa's idea," Gabrielle said, shaking her head with a chuckle. Xena didn't smile, her attention back on the Scandians. Gabrielle frowned. "You worried, Xena?"
"Yeah. Now that you two are here, I've lost my bargaining chip. They can just take Ilsa and send us on our way."
"Isn't that what you wanted?"
"No. I wanted to get to know them. To find out if I could trust them. Learn who would take on the role of parents, that sort of thing."
"You said they seemed okay. Why are you still worried?"
"Just being cautious," said Xena, looking down at Ilsa and stroking her hair. The child looked up and beamed.
"Uh huh," said Gabrielle. "You sure you can do this? Say good-bye? That's what's really bothering you, isn't it? The idea that you're going to have to part soon."
Xena's face reflected her internal struggle for control of her emotions. "Of course that's what's wrong. I can't stand this, Gabrielle. I can't. I look at her and see that face with all that love and trust... and I'm supposed to just hand her over and walk away? What's that going to do to her? How is she ever going to trust anyone again? First her parents, now us. It could destroy her... Sweet, little Ilsa," whispered Xena. She leaned down and kissed the girl's cheek. Unaware of any problems, Ilsa happily planted a sloppy kiss on the warrior's jaw in return.
"I feel the same way. But what else can we do?"
"I don't know. I have to think about this."
Gabrielle looked compassionately at her friend, knowing there was nothing to think about. Nothing could change the course of events that had been set in motion that long ago day in the clearing. The bard turned her head away, so that Xena wouldn't see the beginnings of her tears. She doesn't need me falling apart now, she thought. She needs to be surrounded by strength, because I fear hers has reached its limit.
"So all have spoken to each other and have decisioned," said Rolf.
"Oh?" said Xena, her voice tight and controlled.
"Ja, we are to take Ilsa now and you are free to leave. But if you would like, you may stay with us for festival. We thank you for returning our child to the Ice People."
"There's no need to 'take' her yet. Let her get used to the idea of staying here. She's grown quite attached to us over the past few weeks," said Xena, reasonably. "I think it's going to be very difficult for her to say good-bye."
SigbjØrn positioned himself next to Xena, his hands ready to grab the child. Xena stood, holding Ilsa close, looked him in the eye and stared him down until he backed away.
"Please, Xena the Greek, do not make for yourself trouble. We are friends, yes? You must trust me. I am caring for what you say, but I am not the decision. The Scandia are not wanting unpleasantness. We are simply taking our child back. It is what you want, yes?" said Rolf, pleading with his eyes.
"Not yet," said Xena, moving toward him.
"Yes, I understand," said Rolf softly. He glanced at the others and quietly added, "And I am in agreement with you. I will once again plead your--"
Xena heard an oath and whipped around to find two men grabbing and subduing Gabrielle. Instantly, four huge guards grabbed Xena as SigbjØrn ripped Ilsa from her arms, the warrior unable to hold on for fear of hurting the little girl in the struggle. The child's scream filled the tent. Xena grappled with her captors, her eyes glued to the girl. Two more men joined in holding the warrior. SigbjØrn carried Ilsa under his arm toward the opening of the tent.
"Nahk!" shouted Rolf, trying to take Ilsa from SigbjØrn, but the bigger man swatted him aside easily.
"Maaaa-maaaaa!!!" screamed Ilsa, her small arms straining toward Xena. The child's eyes were wild with fear while Xena continued to fight her captors. The girl's desperation lent the warrior strength even she hadn't known before. Quickly, three of Xena's guards were sent flying across the tent. But before they hit the ground, more strong hands grabbed her, pinning her arms and legs.
Gabrielle was struggling against her own guards who were tying her hands as she kicked and swore.
Rolf continued to speak volubly to all gathered, with Marya adding her voice to his. The headwoman angrily said something to SigbjØrn who shouted at her, shaking his fist. He gave some last instructions to his guards then ducked out of the tent. Ilsa, still held under his arm, grabbed the edge of the canvas, screaming for her mama in throat-tearing shrieks. Xena was wild-eyed and savagely threw four more guards off her, but several muscled warriors immediately took their place, overwhelming her with their numbers. Her legs were lifted out from under her and roped together. Ilsa's hands were pried off the tent edge and she was gone.
Xena was thrown to the ground and tied hands to feet, her mind hearing only the fading screams of her child.
"What are we going to do?" asked Gabrielle, in a small voice.
Xena was silent, trying to work her bonds free. Unfortunately, the Scandians had learned their lesson and escape was no longer a simple matter. They were tied together to a tent pole, the bonds tight and confining. Xena couldn't reach the bard's hands to free them. In small, restricted strokes, she rubbed her ropes against the pole, hoping the rough wood would help shear through them. She glanced at Gabrielle and frowned. The warrior didn't trust herself to speak. She could feel the black rage settling over her. What she wanted to do was find her sword and every kill every last Scandian until Ilsa was safe in her arms again. There was no way on earth she was going to let these people have her daughter.
"Are you mad at me, Xena? For letting Ilsa get caught?"
I'm livid, Xena thought. Of all the bone-headed, idiotic things you could have done, bringing her into the center of the Scandias without first finding out what sort of monsters they were, ranks right up there at the top. "I'd rather not talk about it right now," was all she could manage to say.
"I should have realized you wouldn't need my help."
"I said..!" Xena growled, "I'd rather. Not. Talk. About it."
The bard grew silent while Xena continued desperately trying to escape her bonds. "Okay," said Gabrielle.
"Damn them all to Tartarus!" said Xena, the ropes cutting a bloody path into her wrists with each move. The warrior welcomed the pain. Anything, she realized, to drive away the sight of Ilsa's panicked eyes, or to drown the child's screams as she was carried off to the gods knew where.
"You don't think they'll hurt her, do you?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena lost the last of her patience. "If you don't shut up I'm going to--"
"Xena! I'm concerned too!"
"So concerned you brought her right to them!"
"I knew that's what you were thinking! I said I'm sorry! It was a mistake, okay? I'm not the almighty Xena who's used to storming castles and leading armies. You disappeared. I was worried. I'd hoped I could rescue you. But I couldn't leave her alone in the cave, so I took her with me!"
"What made you think," said Xena in a dangerously controlled voice, "that I needed 'rescuing?' Huh? For Zeus' sake, Gabrielle, I can take care of myself! I don't need you rushing in, putting everyone in danger because you want to play Warrior Princess!"
Gabrielle was shocked into silence. She stared at Xena, who continued to struggle with her bonds, her wrists raw and bloody. "Is that what you think I was doing?" the bard asked quietly. Xena didn't answer. "Well, believe me, that never entered my mind!" said Gabrielle self-righteously.
"No? You could've fooled me. You rode Argo into the camp with Ilsa in your coat and some trumped up plan about going into labor. What else am I supposed to think?"
"That was-- I was--" Gabrielle stopped. Had she, somewhere in her secret heart, imagined herself as the rescuing hero? Trying to plan something outrageous, as Xena always did? Attempting to foil the Scandians with Ilsa there, right under their noses? "By the gods... what if you're right?" she whispered.
Xena stopped struggling and looked over at the bard. "I just wish you'd stayed away," she said. "I told you to guard Ilsa. That's all I wanted from you. As long as we had her, there was nothing they could have done."
"You're right," said Gabrielle in a small, defeated voice. "I guess I... when we visited the cave near Widgie's I remembered how it felt to save your life. To be the strong one. I thought our relationship had moved beyond the 'wait here, Gabrielle' stage a long time ago and I couldn't stand that once again, I was left behind while you went off to save the day."
"But this is different!" said Xena, exasperated. "You had Ilsa to look after! You're the one who tried to persuade me that we could keep her. That everything would be okay, that we could keep her safe. Now the first chance you have to prove it to me, look what happens!"
"What have I done?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice.
Xena sighed. "Nothing that we can't fix. This is just a setback. Once I can work these ropes loose, we'll find Ilsa and leave this place far behind."
Gabrielle began to struggle with her own bindings. "You're right. We'll be okay. We just need to..." The bard stopped on a sob. Damn it! she thought. Now isn't the time to cry. But she couldn't help herself, knowing that her own pride had put Ilsa in real danger.
Xena looked over at the anguished face of her companion. "Gabrielle... it's okay. Really. We'll all be fine. Now, please, don't cry..." she said tenderly, all thoughts of blame disappearing.
"I'm sorry. I'm just..."
"I know. And I'm sorry I blamed you for everything. I should've warned you that I'd probably be taken. I suspected as much, but didn't want to worry you. That was wrong of me. If you'd known that might happen you wouldn't have worried so."
"Yeah, well, still... I should've been more patient."
"Fine, we both made mistakes. Now let's forget about it and try to get out of here." Xena could feel the ropes heating up from friction. Just a few more minutes, she thought.
"Xena... I hate myself for this, but I have to ask. Maybe I'm just feeling particularly vulnerable right now, but..."
"Will losing Ilsa take some of the love from your heart? Will you be wary of giving yourself to others?" Gabrielle paused. "Will you be less in love with me?" she added softly.
Xena frowned. There was so much pain and torment in the question. "Does my love for you appear so finite and fragile?" she asked. She leaned over and gently brushed her lips against the bard's. "No matter what I feel about Ilsa," she said, taking another sip from the sweetness of Gabrielle's mouth, "you are first in my heart." The bard's lips parted and Xena lingered for a moment, then whispered, "Gabrielle. You are always first and infinite." Xena's kiss deepened. They were connected only by their lips, unable to hold each other. But for now, with the forgiveness and warmth it represented, it was enough.
"So, Xena, you are a lover of women, ja?" said a voice from the back of the tent. Xena broke off her kiss and twisted to see Rolf walking toward them.
"You have a problem with that, Rolf?" she asked dangerously. Xena had no idea where he had come from, and she wasn't fond of being taken by surprise.
He approached them, then sat cross-legged between them. He leaned in and said conspiratorially, "If I did, I should be in great trouble, for I, too, am a lover of women." He winked at Gabrielle.
"This how you treat all your 'guests'?" Xena asked, indicating their bonds.
"No. I am shamed by this," said Rolf seriously. "It was not my idea or wish. SigbjØrn wields great power. He is fearing you."
"Oh? What exactly is he afraid of? I've told your people that I came here simply to return the child. But I needed to be sure first. Where is the threat in that? And where is Ilsa?"
Rolf glanced toward the tent flap, then back at Xena. "SigbjØrn is... was... my brother's guardian. The Ice People all have parents but also guardians. This way, there are many who love and protect us. SigbjØrn was hurt very badly by Lars becoming missing. He failed. He is protector but did not protect. The headwoman, she is also shamed by SigbjØrn but he is controlling the army, yes? Now there is great debate and power is being traded. SigbjØrn controls the soldiers, the headwoman controls the people. The people will win."
So SigbjØrn had pulled off a military coup, thought Xena. Interesting. If he was acting alone, then her opinion of the rest of the Scandians might have to be amended.
"SigbjØrn is not understanding his mistake," continued Rolf. "He sees only that you wear Ingrid's amulet when you arrive. It is a powerful token. Most religious. Ingrid, Lars' wife, was a Chosen. She was a Chosen of Thor. Oh, confusion now," said Rolf, shaking his head. "Thor is the Thunder God. The wielder of Mjölnir, the sacred hammer. He is most very powerful. My brother, when he marry Ingrid, honors our god. Because Ingrid is Chosen, you see. She is married to Lars, my brother, and through him, to Thor, our god."
Xena nodded, finally understanding the questions about Ares.
"Does Thor appear to you? Is he real? Can you talk to him?" asked Gabrielle.
"Only to the Chosen is he appearing. By wearing the amulet, you became a Chosen, Xena."
"Me?" said Xena surprised. "No, I don't get along well with gods. Besides, the only reason I wore it was because Ilsa wanted me to."
"Ilsa is also Chosen. When she is older, she will have amulet of her own. And only the Chosen can decide who else is Chosen. Oh, this is confusion, no? I'm sorry that my words are too few to explain."
"You're doing just fine, Rolf."
"Actually, you're amazingly good," said Gabrielle, smiling at him. "Xena told me you wanted to be her friend. That's very nice of you."
"Thank you, beautiful woman," said Rolf with a twinkle in his eye. "And now, this is not polite of me to speak and you are both uncomfortable." Rolf removed his knife from its sheath and sliced through the bonds of both women quickly and efficiently. "It is with deep apology that I am not doing this sooner. My mind is torn by the troubles."
Xena rubbed her wrists and stared speculatively at him. "I doubt SigbjØrn gave you permission to do that. What's going on, Rolf?"
"I am working now on my own," he said. "Marya and I have spoken and have agreed to not let you be treated ill. You will stay with us. In hidden. But not in hidden for long. Just until SigbjØrn has defeat and I am talking to the elders. Then you will stay openly."
"You're really putting your neck out. Why?" asked Xena, suspiciously.
"I see how Ilsa is with you. I see the love between you. No one could have brought her back with joy in her heart after what happened except someone willing to give her own heart fully. And Ilsa had two women who did this. Mama and Papa. Xena and Gabrielle. This must be honored."
"Thank you, Rolf. For understanding. Now please, where is Ilsa? Is she okay? Does SigbjØrn have her? I can take him, you know. As long as he isn't physically holding onto Ilsa, I can take him down and you can grab her, then we'll--"
"No, please, Xena. This is not the way. Ilsa is safe. My word is on that. But we must hurry. The guards, they did not see me enter but they are vigilant and are to be checking you every few minutes. Come now with quiet."
Rolf showed her the hidden flap at the back of the tent that he had used to sneak in. He led the two women out into the camp. Quietly, they circumvented the meeting places and throughways, dipping in and out of the shadows. Eventually, Rolf stopped at one of the tents, opened a back flap and gestured them inside.
Marya greeted them silently, smiling her welcome. She indicated a place for them to sit then brought them food and drink.
"You may ask me questions, if you'd like. About the Ice People of Scandia. We have many stories to share."
"Stories? I'd love that!" said Gabrielle.
"We are a people born of a frozen land who--"
"Where is Ilsa?" Xena asked, breaking Rolf off in mid-sentence. "Where is she being kept?"
"Kept? Like prisoner? No, she is not kept," he said, confused. "She is sleeping. Very difficult this day is for her. I will give SigbjØrn much speech about his actions this morning. I am not grateful for this approach."
"What is your position among the Scandias, Rolf? Are you his superior?" asked Gabrielle.
"Superior? Oh no. I am an artist. It was me who cast the amulet you wore, Xena. I am a worker in metal and wood."
Gabrielle glanced around the tent and noticed that his art graced many surfaces. "You are very talented! Amazing!"
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
"Where is Ilsa?" broke in Xena. "You never answered--"
Before he could speak, a small voice called out from a screened corner of the tent, "Tanda Marya? Yah lingen Mama..."
"Ilsa?" whispered Xena.
"Ja. Marya and I, we are Ilsa's new parents. This is why SigbjØrn shamed us. Ilsa is our decision to make, not his. And Marya and I, we have made a resolve. We want you to be her guardians, Xena and Gabrielle."
Xena leapt up from the cushions and tore away the screen. A very sleepy Ilsa was rubbing her eyes, her mouth quivering, seconds from crying. "Ilsa? Sweetie? It's Mama..." whispered Xena.
Ilsa took her small fists away from her eyes and looked up. Instantly, her face was a picture of wondrous joy. "Mama...?"
"Ja," said Xena, gathering the child in her arms. Mother and daughter held each other silently, Ilsa's arms strong around Xena's neck. Xena laid her cheek next to the girl's and closed her eyes.
"I was bØrmik, Mama. Next time I hold tighter."
"Ssshhh, sweetie, it's okay. It wasn't your fault. SigbjØrn didn't understand, that's all. Everything is going to be okay now. You're safe. Mama's here."
"Don't let go," Ilsa whispered, holding onto the warrior's neck with all the strength in her small arms.
"I won't. I won't let go," Xena said, fighting tears. Unobtrusively, Marya laid a warm hand on Xena's shoulder and said something to Rolf.
"My wife, she is saying thank you for the child's life." He paused, listened some more to Marya and smiled. "She says, she is good with a sword and will stand by your side if anyone tries to take you away from her until you are to leave. But she hopes maybe you will not leave. That maybe you and Gabrielle will stay with the Ice People and be true guardians to Ilsa. I will add now, in my voice, that this would please me most overmuch. There is much room for you here. And I am successful with my art. Two more mouths is not much to feed."
Gabrielle looked at Rolf in wonder. "You would do that? Open your home to strangers, offer to support us, all for Ilsa's sake?"
Rolf walked over and said, "If this is not custom to you, I am apology in advance." He then gathered the bard in his arms and gave her a great bear hug. "There. You are no longer a stranger, for our hearts have beat near. You are family now." Marya walked over and hugged Gabrielle, adding her own heart to the new family.
"Xena... I think Ilsa is going to be okay," said Gabrielle softly.
Xena kissed her child on the cheek and said, "Yeah. I guess she will." She tried to smile. She wanted them to know that she accepted them as parents for her daughter. But some things are too difficult for even the strongest of warriors.
"I need a favor, Rolf," said Xena, still holding Ilsa.
Rolf had just returned from speaking to the council of elders, who were now back in power. SigbjØrn had been reprimanded and stripped of his authority as leader of the military for his insurrection. He had humbly agreed to abide by their laws, having been made aware of his errors in judgment.
The council had agreed to let the two Greek visitors remain in their encampment for as long as they wished. A formal apology had been sent to both Xena and Gabrielle, which Rolf took great delight in translating. Now, the new family had just finished their meal and were relaxing by the fire.
"You may have whatever I own, Xena. What is it you wish?"
"I need the amulet back," said Xena. Ilsa squirmed to get away, so the warrior plopped her on her feet. The child ran on chubby legs to a corner of the tent filled with beautifully hand-carved toys and began to play.
"Yes, it is to be returned to you. SigbjØrn is to be apologize for his many acts against you, including for the theft. He did not know that Ilsa had chosen you as disciple of Thor. You will, of course, want to appear in the festival."
"Yes. Yes I do. As a Chosen, I must," Xena replied slowly. Gabrielle gave her a suspicious glance, but knew better than to ask any questions when that particular expression graced the warrior's face. "Just to be clear..." continued Xena. "could you describe this festival and what my role will be?"
"Yes, of course. It is still strange to you, no?"
Rolf described the Seven Rituals of Thor in detail. Xena nodded encouragingly as he spoke of the different ceremonies: the Reading of the Runes, the Dance of the Valkyries, the Loki Games, the Celebration of Odin and the Decoration of Yggdrasil. Though Gabrielle was fascinated, Xena could barely control her impatience, waiting for him to get to the final, and seventh, ceremony: The Triumphal of Thor's Chosen. Unfortunately, he didn't know many details, as only the Chosen are allowed in, but he did know that the Thunder God himself was expected to appear. That was what Xena had been waiting to hear.
"So you have decided to stay with our family?" asked Marya, through her husband.
"We're still discussing it," said Xena with a smile. Gabrielle eyed Xena speculatively and was about to speak when the warrior turned to her. "Aren't we, Gabrielle?"
"Uh... yeah. No decisions yet," said the bard.
"You will be giving much thought to remaining, yes?" said Rolf.
"Yes, Rolf," said Xena sincerely. "It really is a very generous offer and I can't tell you how much your friendship here has meant to us. And your invitation to take us into your home, well, it's extraordinary."
Rolf's handsome face lit up in a smile. "Not so very. You get a new family and I get two more beautiful women in my house. What man would not like this?" Marya playfully slapped his arm when he translated with a grin.
The love between the two of them shined forth so strong, Xena found herself grinning as well. "Better watch this one, Marya," Xena said. "He's too charming for his own good."
"Now you flatter me," he said and repeated her comments for his wife. Marya clucked her tongue at him and said something conspiratorial to Xena.
"What'd she say?" asked Gabrielle when Rolf's cheeks reddened.
"She... my wife, her sense of humor is..."
"Yes?" asked Xena, an eyebrow raised.
"She said that you may have me for the night, Xena, if she gets Gabrielle," said Rolf sheepishly.
Gabrielle was shocked while Xena laughed appreciatively, winking at Marya. "Oh, I do like you," the warrior said. Just then, Ilsa fell on some blocks, hitting her knee. She scrunched her face in a plaintive wail, peeking at the adults to see who would notice. Xena looked over, started to rise, then sat back down. "Perhaps you should go, Marya," said Xena, pointedly. The Scandian woman nodded her understanding and went to take care of the child.
Gabrielle looked from Xena to Marya and back. She saw Xena fighting the urge to find out if the child was seriously hurt. Knowing that it was the first step on a long road, Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and squeezed. Xena hesitated then covered the offered hand with her own and smiled sadly at the bard. "I'll be okay," she said.
"I know," said Gabrielle. "But there's no reason to go through this alone."
Xena nodded, put an arm around the bard's shoulders and continued to keep her eyes anywhere but on the child.
"Xena and I have discussed the situation and though your offer is more than generous, it is with deep regret, tinged with sorrow and --"
"We're leaving after the festival," said Xena, starkly, cutting off the bard's flowery declaration.
"I was getting there," said Gabrielle, sotto voce, to Xena.
"It was taking too long," replied Xena in kind.
"You are sure of this?" asked Rolf, his face reflecting his sadness. He turned to Marya and told her what had been said.
"We are," said Xena. Ilsa was asleep, taking a nap before the festival. The Ice People were all decked out in their finest, the buzz of excitement was everywhere. Only Xena and Gabrielle had not caught the fever of the day.
"May I ask..." said Rolf hesitantly, "if there is any more I can offer? You will be leaving a hole in the heart of our family. Marya and I are most pleasured by your being here and Ilsa--"
"I'll take care of Ilsa," said Xena, her voice devoid of feeling. "I won't leave her without... I'll take care of it."
"We really are sorry about leaving," said Gabrielle, jumping in again. "We've loved staying with you. And if circumstances were different... well, Xena has her reasons for needing to get back home."
"Then it is not in my control," said Rolf, sadly. "And I reach past this heaviness in my heart to wish you both a safe journey."
"Thank you," said Xena. "We'll leave at first light tomorrow."
Gabrielle stared at the warrior in surprise. "Tomorrow? So soon? But Ilsa won't--"
"I told you. I'll take care of her. Now let it go."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned away from Xena. She walked over to the small pallet where Ilsa slept. Stroking her soft blonde hair with one hand, the bard gazed down at the child whose dreams didn't understand tomorrow's loss.
"Good-bye, Ilsa," she whispered, kissing her lightly on her forehead.
Thor's Chosen were gathered in a small make-shift temple near the edge of the Scandian settlement. The festival had been building to this moment and the entire tribe of Ice People were gathered outside. They had indulged in food and spirited drink for hours and were now feeling a religious buzz unequaled in ordinary lives. Surely their god would appear tonight! Surely he would not forsake the Ice People in their time of need! For they had a long journey back to their homeland and required his blessing.
Xena was inside the temple, being dressed by several women who were servants of Thor. No animal skins or furs were allowed past the tent walls and the warrior had had to surrender her clothing at the entrance. Now she was lost in copious folds of rare and treasured cloth, created just for the Chosen. Cut low across her breasts and high on one leg, Xena wondered exactly what the Thunder God had chosen her for.
When everyone was ready, a hush fell across the room. It was time. Bosse stepped in front of the crowd. He wore black robes sprinkled with fine metal threads and around his neck was an amulet similar to Xena's. He walked to the fire pit, threw something in it which caused a great rushing of flames and a cloud of black smoke.
Bosse spoke to the small crowd in sepulchral tones, imploring the Thunder God to make an appearance. Xena couldn't understand his words, but the intent was clear. Everyone in the temple waited apprehensively to see if once again, a god would walk among mortals.
Suddenly, there was a shimmering light. It grew in brilliance until Xena had to shade her squinting eyes. The other Chosen fell to their knees in supplicance, so the warrior lowered herself to the ground. It wouldn't do to be the only one standing, though she felt no love or worship for this god.
The light shifted and shimmered and then, accompanied by a gasp from every mouth present, a god stood before them.
"I am Thor, God of Thunder, Wielder of Mjölnir!" he said, his voice rumbling across their skin.
Xena looked up, startled. She'd understood every word! But how is that possible? she wondered. She glanced around and it was obvious everyone else had understood as well. She looked back and found her eyes riveted on Thor. His presence was commanding, awe-inspiring and regal. His hair and beard were of a rich gold and his eyes a piercing blue. He had appeared as a man, but his power made him difficult to see, his radiant aura almost blinding. He swept the room with his eyes and noticed Xena's stare. Quickly, she bowed her head again, but internally, she berated herself for jeopardizing her mission. The Thunder God may not have taken kindly to a mortal's stare.
"You who are my Chosen," Thor said at last, "come before me with gifts, awaiting my blessings. This pleases me, people of Scandia. Thus, I give you your first bounty. The path home is made safe for thirty days. For thirty days, you shall find no tragedy or death. This I give to you as your god," said Thor.
There was a joyous murmur in the crowd. Thirty days! Thirty days free from worry and stress! No marauding villagers, no murders for being different, no fear of strangers. It was the most generous gift a god could give.
"I hear, among you, desires and wishes and dreams. I will choose five who may present these to me. Five among you will have your heart's wish," said the god.
Again the crowd of Chosen stirred as everyone prayed to the depths of their soul to be in the lucky five. Xena sat quietly, knowing that she must be one of them. It was her only hope. But how to make it happen? she wondered. In her mind, she thought of Ilsa. She saw again the look of terror on her daughter's face as she had been ripped from her mama's arms by SigbjØrn. Though she barely knew how to go about it, Xena closed her eyes and prayed.
"Within nine months you will bear a child, Turid, and she will be strong and you will name her Inga. In five years time, she will receive my amulet, for she has been chosen," said Thor, to the fourth supplicant. The woman backed away from the god, almost fainting when she returned to her place. Her barren life would soon be a thing of the past, for she will finally have a child to love.
Again, Thor swept the crowd with wintry eyes. Xena knew that there was only one more wish to be granted. Slowly, she raised her head and met his gaze. Then deliberately, she stood.
The Chosen gasped, burying their heads deeper into the floor of the tent. A few whispered among themselves, greatly disturbed that the outsider might be the ruination of them all.
"Silence!" thundered Thor.
All tongues stilled, though Xena could feel the nervous quaking of the people around her, vibrating with fear.
"Come forward," said Thor, gesturing to Xena. With a straight back, she walked boldly toward the god. He held her eyes with his, exerting his control, but her lips quirked in challenge as she told him wordlessly that she would not succumb. "You are Xena," he said, "a Greek, a Chosen of Thor through Ilsa of the Scandia. I know you, warrior, and I know what you would ask of me."
Xena tried not to let him see her surprise. Her own gods seemed unable to read minds, yet it was obvious Thor was seeing deeply inside her. "Will you do it?" she asked.
Thor smiled. "Closer, woman," he said, and Xena could feel his mind reaching into her thoughts. She stepped to within a few feet and stopped. He towered over her, one hand gripping Mjölnir, the other hooked in his belt. Unlike the Chosen, he was wearing leather and fur, the clothing adding to his bulk. He reached out and touched Xena's cheek with one finger. The warrior willed herself not to respond even though the touch of this god was passionate and primal. How could he appear so cold and yet his touch have such heat? she wondered.
"Speak your wish," said Thor.
"You said you knew it. Why do I have to speak?"
"Haven't you the courage, Xena?" he asked, smiling.
She bristled, then realized that this was his aim. Again, she struggled against her archane urge to run or fall to her knees. He may be a god, she thought, but he's not my god.
"But I am your god," he said, reading her thoughts. "Right now, I am your only god. You are my Chosen. Until the amulet is taken from your neck, you belong to me, body and soul. Now speak."
Xena wanted to take the amulet and fling it in his face. She didn't like his brand of power. It was too overwhelming; his will too strong in the face of her need. Consciously, she concentrated on her reason for being there. "I want you to protect the child, Ilsa. Protect her from the pain of my leaving," said Xena.
"And how would you have me do this?"
"You're a god, figure it out," she said. His eyes narrowed, and she realized that she was close to overstepping the boundaries. She needed this god. Why was she antagonizing him? She took a deep breath and spoke with sincerity. "Please help her. Help her to accept my absence." She paused. "Take away her memory of me."
The god was silent for a moment, looking at Xena thoughtfully. "And what gift do you offer me in return?" he asked.
"Anything," she answered, her eyes lifeless.
"If I asked for your soul in supplication, would you worship me?"
"If I asked for your body to bear my child, would you welcome me?"
Xena's eyes hardened. "Yes."
"If I asked for your life, would you die for me?"
"Yes. Now what do you want?"
Thor smiled. "So filled with pride. What I should ask is your allegiance to the Scandia. Your blood would make a valuable addition."
"Is that what you want?" asked Xena.
"Perhaps. Of course, you would have to give up your dalliance with the Greek bard. What good would you be if you did not reproduce?"
White-hot rage flashed through her and she fought the urge to leap at him with her sword. He watched her struggle and laughed. "So predictable, Xena. This has pleased me, this game we've just played."
A game? she thought. "You have a god's sense of humor, Thor," she said dryly.
"And you are not fond of gods, are you?"
"No. I'm not."
"Yet your god, Ares, is quite fond of you."
"You know him?" she asked surprised.
"The heavens are not so large that we do not know of others. But that is not for mortal speculation."
"So what gift do you ask?" asked Xena, growing tired.
"Revenge," he said simply.
She looked at him quizzically, not understanding. Suddenly her mind was filled with the scene in the clearing, the dismembered body of Lars and the bloody corpse of Ingrid, Thor's Chosen. "You want me to find their killers?" Xena asked.
"Find and destroy," said the god, showing her in her mind the faces of the people who had done this.
Xena saw the carnage now as it had happened. She saw the mob of villagers chasing the family, catching them and then, drunk and bigoted, making sport of their deaths. She saw them taking turns as they raped Ingrid. She saw them hacking and slashing at Lars, who was unarmed and defenseless. And she saw two large, sky-blue eyes watching from the safety of the trees, unnoticed.
"Stop!" she said, able to handle everything but the sight of Ilsa's silent witnessing. "What will you have me do? Kill them all?"
"It is my wish," said the Thunder God, calmly.
"You're no better than Ares!" said Xena, fighting her own need to avenge herself on the people who killed her daughter's parents.
"I ask you not to turn to darkness or war, Xena. I ask only this one act. Am I the same?"
"One act or many, I've changed!" said Xena, pushing down her rage. "I cannot be commanded by a god -- any god -- into returning to the warlord I once was. I will not do it."
Thor looked at her speculatively. "I am not asking for your soul. And the blood that will touch your hands that day will be washed clean from you. This I promise. But I need you, as my messenger, to let the world know that Thor's people will not be sheep led to a slaughter. Ingrid was my Chosen. There were reasons why I did not interfere at the time of her death, but it is my desire that her death be avenged. This is my price, Warrior Princess. My price for the memories of the child."
Xena looked into his icy eyes and saw in them the warmth and love he felt for his people. She saw the pain he had felt when his Chosen had been killed. She saw the torture he still felt that the child had seen this. And suddenly she knew he wanted to grant her wish. Wanted it almost as much as she did. "You'll do it anyway, won't you?" she asked in a whisper.
"No," he said.
"But you want to. Why won't you--"
"They killed my Chosen."
Xena saw the depth of his conviction. He needed her help, as much as she needed to know Ilsa would be protected. "All right, Thunder God. I agree. I will do as you ask. I will take your revenge."
Thor nodded once. "I grant you your wish. The child will be protected. But isn't there something else? Something more you should ask?"
Xena looked at him in surprise. "No. That is all I would ask of you," she said.
"What about you, Xena? Do you not want my... protection?"
And there it was. Everything laid before her. Thor was offering to take away the pain of parting from both of them. She wouldn't have to feel the heart-tearing separation. Wouldn't have to see Ilsa's face in her dreams. Wouldn't have to spend her life wondering if she had made the right decision, or thinking about where her child was now, what she was doing, if she was safe, what kind of woman she would grow up to be... wouldn't have to feel at all.
And wouldn't remember. She wouldn't remember the smiles they had shared, Ilsa's loving touches, the snuggling hugs. Wouldn't remember sitting by the campfire singing songs or listening to Gabrielle's stories as a family. Wouldn't remember the snowball fight, or the feel of her in the sling, warm and cozy. And she wouldn't remember the wonder of hearing herself called 'Mama' for the first time.
"No, there's nothing else," Xena said, resolutely.
"Bow to me, woman. Give your heart to Thor until tomorrow. Then, before you leave, remove the amulet and place it on the child's neck. All will then be forgotten."
There was no sleep for the warrior that night. After the festival finally ended, she had returned to Rolf's tent, exhausted but satisfied. Gabrielle was instantly by her side and they spoke in low tones long into the night about Xena's meeting with Thor and its repercussions. The bard shed a few tears, in both pain and joy and Xena wearily held her, comforting the one who wanted to comfort. Gabrielle eventually fell asleep, but Xena's mind refused to let her rest. She left her companion alone in the blankets and noiselessly approached Ilsa's small cot. The child was sleeping peacefully, a tiny smile flickering on her lips.
"You dreaming, kid?" Xena whispered with a smile. "Looks like a nice dream, too. That's good. Dreams should be things to smile about." Delicately, she ran her fingertips down the girl's face, marveling once again at the satin texture of cheeks so young. "You're going to be a beauty when you grow up. Gonna break a lot of hearts. There's great power in being beautiful, y'know. You have to learn to keep that under control. Don't be mean or manipulative, okay? Keep your heart pure, like it is now." The child stirred and Xena watched as she curled her fist under her chin and kicked softly with one leg. "And another thing. No matter what happens, remember there is always a right way and a wrong way. The right way is the one you want. Nothing justifies a life spent in darkness. And if you're ever tempted, just remember what you've already done. You suffered through the worst thing imaginable to a child. And you still came out with more love in your little finger than most people give in a lifetime. You're really something, y'know that kid?" The warrior watched as the girl's eyes darted beneath their lids, her mind conjuring pictures that sightless eyes watched.
"Mama..." whispered Ilsa.
Xena's breath caught in her throat and she fought for control. "Don't do this to me, kid," she rasped. "Don't make it harder. Don't let those happy dreams be about me. I can't take that. I can't."
She turned from the child and walked outside, breathing in the frigid night air, needing the needle-like pain in her lungs. Anything, to get her mind off the sleeping child. Anything to give her the strength to return the amulet. Anything to enable her to say good-bye.
The dawn was cold but the sky was clear -- as blue as Ilsa's eyes, thought Xena. She had finished packing Argo and all that was left were her good-byes. Ilsa was awake when she entered the tent.
"Let's do it," Xena said to the gathered adults.
"You don't want maybe to speak to her or--"
"No. She won't remember it anyway."
Gabrielle lifted Ilsa in her arms and squeezed her, kissing her on the cheek.
"Papa? What you hug for?" she asked surprised, eyeing her potato pancakes.
"Just cuz I love you," said Gabrielle then put her down. The bard turned her back and quickly walked to the other side of the tent, only to fold and refold a scroll she had earlier thrown away.
"C'mere, Ilsa," said Xena.
The child left her breakfast and grinned. "Did you asked him?"
"Ask who? What?"
"Thor god! Did you asked him? Are dere bears in Valhalla?"
Disconcerted, Xena said, "I... forgot. I'm sorry. Why did you want to know?"
"My udder papa likes to hunt bears. I hope dere's bears."
"Well, then there probably are. You know, the dead can hear your thoughts, Ilsa. You can tell your Papa about the bears if you want."
"Real? Tak, Mama," she said and gave a potatoey kiss to Xena. She turned back to her breakfast, but Xena restrained her.
"Ilsa. Sweetie. I... I need to give you something..."
"Xena, please," said Gabrielle, her back still turned. "Please hug her before you do. Please give yourself one last hug, okay? You need to feel that one last time. I know you, Xena. I know you."
Xena scowled at Gabrielle. "This is hard enough!" she said.
The warrior turned back to the child and smiled. Tears were already forming in the warrior's eyes. "Okay, kid, give me a big hug. See if you can squeeze the stuffing outta me!"
Ilsa giggled and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, hugging with all her strength. Xena held her, breathing in her child's scent. She paused for a moment, imprinting every sensation on her mind. Then, while she was still being held, Xena lifted the amulet's chord from one side of her neck and slipped it over her daughter's head as she whispered, "I'll always love you, Ilsa."
From the cloudless blue sky came the sound of rolling thunder.
The strength left Ilsa's arms. Xena gently disentangled herself and leaned away. The child put her hands over her face for a moment then looked around, confusion in her eyes.
"Per Rolf?" Ilsa said, spying her uncle.
"Ja, Ilsa?" he answered, hunkering down next to her.
"Yah har fjruken sted," she said.
Rolf put his hand on her forehead, testing her temperature.
"What is it? What's wrong?" asked Xena, anxiously.
"Nothing, Xena. She has a little headache. No heat, though. She is maybe just feeling a small effect."
"Yah kan inte späelinkar, Per Rolf!" said the child.
"She doesn't understand these foreign words," said Rolf, sadly.
Ilsa noticed Xena and backed away shyly, grabbing Rolf and hiding herself behind him. Xena tentatively smiled at her, but the child didn't respond. There was no recognition in her eyes. To Ilsa, Xena was a stranger.
"Let's go, Gabrielle," said Xena, her voice strained.
"Yeah. Let's go," said the bard, sniffing.
Xena jumped on Argo and pulled Gabrielle up behind her. She wanted to get as far away as possible from the Scandia camp.
Rolf and Marya came out to see them off, a still shy Ilsa cradled in the artist's arms. The two Scandian adults waved a tearful good-bye, as the Greek women waved back. The child just stared with indifferent eyes.
Unable to look at an uncaring Ilsa any longer, Xena turned Argo's head and cantered away from the Ice People.
The tavern was dark, polluted with the smell of spilled ale, stale sweat and unwashed bodies. Two tired barmaids served the customers, putting up with harassing hands and verbal gibes at their anatomy. It was just another day in the small Greek village.
When the door opened, only a few patrons bothered to glance its way. But their gasps soon led other eyes toward it until every man in the bar was staring in silent wonder. Framed by afternoon sunlight was a tall, stunningly beautiful blonde, dressed in standard Scandian travel wear.
"Mighty Aphrodite," said one of the men in a whisper.
As if on cue, half the men in the tavern scrambled out of their seats to approach the stranger, all speaking at once, stumbling over each other in their efforts to be noticed.
The woman's dazzling smile almost stopped time once again, as each male felt it's impact. Gracefully, the Scandian walked over to the bar and pointed to a jug of ale.
"Hur mycket kost dat?" she said in her lilting tongue.
"Uh... sorry, lady," said the bartender, standing at his full height and still having to look up to see her perfect sky-blue eyes. "I don't... that is..."
She shrugged and waved his confusion away as she turned to the men in the bar. "I... have look my sister," she said in heavily accented Greek. "Maybe, you see, ja?"
One man separated from the group and patted his hair into place as he approached. "Your sister? Tall, blonde, pretty like you?"
"Ja! Dat her. You see?"
"Uh... well... she and that fella of hers, they were here awhile back. Caused some trouble in town."
The blonde's eyes reflected her growing fear. "Trouble?"
"Yeah, they was with them Scandias and there was a little misunderstanding and well, things got sorta bad," he said. Two of his friends had joined him and were trying to get his attention, attempting to shut him up.
"Bad?" the woman said. "How is bad?"
"There was a accident and-- cut it out!" he said, turning to the man who was tugging at his sleeve.
"You oughtn't say anything, Kristos," his friend said.
"Why? It was her sister. She oughta know."
"But we said we weren't gonna tell nobody, ever."
"Tell what?" asked the woman, worried.
"Well, ma'am, y'see, there was a accident, like I said," continued Kristos. "And one thing led to another and her and that fellow, they was unfortunately demised."
"De... what means this?"
"They was killed, okay?" said Kristos, knocking away the grabbing hands of his friends. "Now leave me alone, the all of you! She's her sister for Hades' sake!"
"Killed..." gasped the blonde. "How did killed?"
"It was a accident. That's all. Nothing nobody could do."
"Dere vas a child..." said the woman.
"Huh? We dint see no child," said one of the men.
"I did," said a voice from behind the crowd that had gathered. "But she runned off so's no one could catch her."
"You dint tell me 'bout no child!" shouted Kristos.
"Thought you knew," the other man said, shrugging.
"I guess the child ain't no more, neither, ma'am. Them woods is fulla animals and such."
"Vas you all dere?" she asked.
"Well'm..." Kristos said, looking around the room. "Yeah, I'm thinking most of us was. 'Cept old Shooter back there. He's crazy. And them boys over there, they was too young for that kinda thing. I'm sorry 'bout your loss, but we can verify it. Alla us. They's dead, ma'am."
"Ahhhh..." said the woman, looking like she wanted to cry.
"Here, then, let me buy you a drink, huh?" said Kristos. "And then maybe later we can... y'know... get to know each other better. I'll tell you 'bout your sister and--"
Kristos was lifted off his feet by one of the woman's hands around his neck. Her blue eyes darkened in anger and she snarled through her teeth in perfect Greek, "That won't be necessary. I think I have all the information I need."
"You nuts, lady?" shouted one of the men.
Quickly, she took the blonde wig off her head and shook her own dark hair free.
"Xena...!" gasped one of the men and the name was repeated through the tavern in growing waves of fear.
"I'm here to pay a debt," said the warrior. "Got a friend who wanted me to take some revenge on the killers of Lars and Ingrid of the Ice people. Now, he's a very influential friend, this man. And I don't feel like disappointing him. So say your final prayers, folks, because you're all on your way to meet Charon."
Xena tossed Kristos across the bar with a crash then whipped off the Scandian costume. Underneath she wore her leathers and had drawn her sword before the men could react.
There was a stampede for the door, but it was blocked shut and they were trapped inside. All eyes turned back to Xena, who laughed wickedly at their fear then began the process of making good on her gift to the Thunder God.
Gabrielle heard a pattern of knocks and removed her staff from the handles of the door. Xena emerged from the tavern dragging her bloody sword. Inside, the bard saw the carnage and flinched.
Xena looked back at the small bunch of cowering survivors -- three teenage boys and one old man. Slowly she turned and glared at the village, its inhabitants hiding behind doors and windows. In a loud, clear voice she said, "Spread the word: No one touches the Scandias. The Ice People are Thor's Chosen and they will not be slaughtered without vengeance from their god."
Within moments, the message began to be repeated by everyone who had heard. The Scandia would be safe.
"C'mon, let's get out of here," said Xena.
"Yeah, let's hurry, too, okay?" replied Gabrielle.
They jumped on Argo and rode out of town.
Reverently, Xena placed the flowers on the shared grave of Ingrid and Lars. She sat quietly for a moment, staring at the new grass which was already covering the mound. Gabrielle sat down next to her and put her arm around the warrior.
"I'll bet they were a great couple," said Xena.
"Rolf spoke so highly of both of them," agreed Gabrielle.
They were silent again, each lost in thought. Not once had Xena mentioned Ilsa since they had waved good-bye at the Scandian settlement. Every time Gabrielle had spoken of her, Xena had cut her off with threatening speed. The bard looked at her friend's face and still, no tears were flowing. She shook her head sadly, wondering how anyone could hold that much hurt inside.
Gabrielle had shed many tears since they had left the Scandian camp over a month earlier. She had wept and grieved and remembered. And eventually, she knew, she would come to terms with the loss of the child she had begun to think of as her own. But Xena had done none of these things. Gabrielle worried that her friend would never let herself feel again. It wasn't healthy, keeping everything locked up tight. The bard knew that her own tears had already started her on the road to healing.
Suddenly, the bard's thoughts were interrupted by a bright shimmering light that appeared above the grave. Gabrielle covered her eyes, not understanding what was happening. A huge man, dressed in leather and fur and carrying a giant hammer, appeared before them.
Xena slowly rose to her feet. "Thor," she said.
"I did as you asked."
"I saw. Thank you." The god looked at the grave of his Chosen. "They are in Valhalla."
"Are there bears in Valhalla?" Xena asked quietly.
Thor smiled. "Why do you ask this question?"
"Someone asked me once. I didn't know the answer."
"Ah. Yes, there are bears in Valhalla. In fact, Lars, whose grave you visit, has hunted them with great skill. Valhalla is a place for warriors who fall in battle. Only those worthy can be found in the 'Hall of Odin' after their death." Thor waved a finger at the grave and from out of nowhere appeared a stone marker covered in runes. "To honor them," he said simply. He turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "I spoke to Lars and Ingrid moments ago. They send a message to you both. They are grateful for all that you did for their child."
Xena looked away, her chin shaking slightly.
Thor watched her speculatively. "It is time, Xena."
"Time for what?" asked Gabrielle, afraid.
"Time for her to grieve," he said. He reached out a hand and cupped Xena's face.
"I can't," said the warrior, looking into wintry eyes that held the warmth of summer. "I've tried. I can't feel anything. I can't feel anything at all."
Thor smiled gently. He touched her eyes with two great fingers and suddenly, tears began to flow. Xena cried out once, a strangled, chilling sound then she collapsed to her knees, shaking with wracking sobs. Thor turned to Gabrielle and held her still with a look.
"In a moment, Gabrielle," he said.
"You... know who I am?" she asked, wanting desperately to hold her friend.
"I know all my children. Being Greek doesn't mean you aren't loved by other gods. Now listen, please. She will need your help in the coming weeks. Her sorrow is great. You have shed many tears and have settled with yourself in your spirit. She has not opened that door until now."
"I know. She's been so... distant..."
"She needs your love and kindness and indulgence now. She feels a pain greater than any she has ever imagined. Ilsa was her child as much as if she had been brought from her womb. And now that child is dead to her. Help her, Gabrielle. Your love will help heal this wound. Do not let her grieve alone."
"I won't," whispered Gabrielle.
"Here," he said, handing her a small token. "When she begins to recover herself, give her this. It is my amulet. She is my Chosen. It carries with it no obligation for worship or thought. But it has a small piece of Ilsa's spirit inside and that will comfort her."
Gabrielle nodded, holding the amulet close.
"And when the time comes that Ilsa is with child, I will instruct her to name her daughter... Xena."
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