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She was glad it was dark when she woke. Daylight confused her. It
was too bright, much too dazzling. Stark glares and absolute shadows
battered her sight. Dire need made her move through the day, but she
preferred it for sleeping. Night was much better. Then the landscape
glittered with silver and gilt. Shadows were full of rich tints, burned
with the shades which are secret to tarnish. No detail escaped her once
evening drew on. Her other senses were equally sharpened. She could hear
a pine needle drop in the forest, scent prey half a night's journey
She stood up and stretched. Powerful muscles responded. She thrust
out her muzzle and tasted the wind. What she smelled drew back her lips
till her teeth flashed white in the moonlight, raced down her spine,
raising coarse hairs. Scents surged through the darkness and called her.
She leapt high in the air and for a moment let the sweet madness direct
her. Here was the purple of blood, there the storm-grey of wolf pack.
Both made demands on her now. The swift tide of night swirled around and
But something restrained her. Something deep in her mind made her
make herself calm, made her settle again. No longer drunk with the
darkness, weakness assailed her. She had not eaten for days. Something
kept her from hunting and feeding. Her hunger arose and nearly
over-powered her, but she mastered it still. Another scent had claimed
her attention. She had followed it here, and would follow it further.
Golden, entrancing, it soothed her and whispered of something called
The mare was beautiful. Muscular, compact. Andreas stooped, ran his
hand over her hide, then down her foreleg. "She'll be ok," he
said, over his shoulder. "Just strained a tendon. Some liniment and
a poultice and, most of all, one or two days of rest, and she'll be good
as new." He stood up and turned to face the scrawny, red-headed
woman who had brought the mare in. "Do you want me to treat
her?" he asked. She nodded, relief written plain on her pallid
face. Then a shadow slipped over her expression. She reached into her
pack and brought out a purse. Tipping the contents into her palm she
held it towards him, eyebrows raised and head tilted. "That's more
than enough," he said, smiling down at her. She paled even more and
sat down abruptly on a bale of straw. When she looked up he could see
that tears filled her eyes.
"Uh," he grunted, embarrassed, feeling more than usually
huge and clumsy. Making up his mind, he cleared his throat, "Care
for some of my lunch?" She nodded, then looked doubtful again.
"I've plenty," he said. It was true. They fed him well. They
even paid him. Blood money, he called it; as though it could pay what
they owed him. He limped over to her, extending the rough wooden platter
so she could snag a hunk of brown bread, a chunk of goats' cheese. He
could tell from the way she fell on them that she'd eaten little for
days. "Half-starved," he thought to himself. "Tended to
the mare, though." He watched her eat, neatly but quickly.
"Poor kid," he thought, feeling a sharp pang of guilt. This
strengthened when she looked straight at him and smiled. It was a very
sweet smile. "I should tell her," he decided, surprised at
himself. "If she's quick and leaves by the back door, she may get
But he'd left it too late. The smithy went dark as shapes blocked its
door. Oppides and two of the layabouts who spent far too much time in
his inn. They advanced on the woman, hemming her in, looming over her.
"What's your name?" asked Oppides. He frowned when she raised
her brows, shook her head.
"She can't speak," Andreas said quickly. This earned him a
scowl, but then the meaning sunk in.
"Dumb!" The inn keeper grinned. He glanced at his friends,
inviting them in on the joke. "Just makes it better then," he
said to the woman, extending his hand to her cheek. "Silent women
make the best wives."
He howled when she bit him, cranked back his arm preparing to strike.
Andreas moved first, jostling the inn keeper, but making it look as
though he had merely been trying to keep out of his way. "Watch
out, you cripple," Oppides snarled. He was ready to strike at the
blacksmith, but the red head darted between them and made for the door,
grabbing her staff as she did so. She dodged around Milos and thwacked
Sentes hard on the knee, then pelted out into the square.
She might have got away, Andreas thought later, if the light hadn't
dazzled her. As it was, she ran head first into Asmonia, who had been
waiting, brawny arms crossed, for her husband. "Can't do anything
right, can you, Oppides?" she said, looking down at the woman, who
was shaking her head, half stunned. She reached out one beefy hand and
gathered a hank of red hair, then yanked it up till the woman was on
tiptoe and could see straight into her eyes. "Don't mind my
husband," she leered, "it's me you've got to look out
for." She left it a moment, then drove her other fist into the
woman. "So see that you do," she said, letting her drop and
leaving her gasping and writhing.
That evening, Andreas hobbled over to the inn at his usual hour and
sat in his usual corner. In time, his usual plate of boiled meat and
black bread arrived. The small woman carried it. He glanced at her
surreptitiously and winced. Bruises had flared all over her pale skin
and a thin cut edged one corner of her mouth. He felt guilty again, but
still baffled. What could he do? He had thought of trying, hadn't he?
Never done that before. And it would have come to nothing. Naturally.
Nothing good ever happened to him. Or to this village. Overwhelmed by
self-disgust, he bobbed his head and avoided meeting her eyes. He was
afraid they would accuse him.
He was down to his last chunk of bread and sopping up juices with
this, when Oppides stopped by. He slapped down a mug full of ale.
"On the house, blacksmith," he said. "Good day's
work." He nodded at the woman, who was on the far side of the inn's
one room, collecting used plates. "Know what?" His breath
stank of stale beer. "She really can't speak. Asmonia worked her
over, but not a single peep." He clapped a hand on Andreas'
shoulder and shambled back behind his bar. The blacksmith squirmed,
wrapping his huge, callused hands round the mug. He wished he could
empty the ale on the floor, but that would be noticed. So he swallowed
it fast. It tasted of rust.
He had planned to leave straight away, but then the village council
arrived. Asmonia rushed out, bossed Oppides as he ran a few tables
together, told the woman to bring each of the elders a mug of good ale.
Then the innkeeper's wife settled herself in their midst. Andreas knew
what this meant. They had come to discuss the red-haired woman's fate.
As he half hoped, they sent her away while they did so, but he hung
around in his corner and listened.
"Any risk of trouble with this one?" Demades asked Asmonia.
"No. Nothing to fear. She can't even talk. Just two dinars in
her purse and her clothes are worn to a thread."
"Perhaps she's an escaped slave?" Demades worried.
"Not likely. She doesn't know how to obey, and there's no mark
of a collar." Asmonia was flushed and sweating in the inn's smoky
light. Andreas guessed she was already several mugs ahead of the rest of
"And a virgin?"
"Well, no." Asmonia, aware that this was a flaw, became
expansive. "But there can't be a husband. Who would let his wife
wander the road like this?"
Oppides bustled over and gave her a dutiful kiss. "Not any one
who cared for her, dearest," he said.
"So, she's got what she asked for, then." Demades sounded
like a man convincing himself.
"Right. Woman roaming around on her own in a remote place like
this. It's not decent. Better off married anyway," one of the other
elders mumbled. Andreas blushed. He'd half-thought this himself.
"In any case, we agreed. The village needs new blood. Not enough
women to go round, and what there are don't last long." Oppides was
obviously feeling more than usually confident this evening. "Except
the best of them, of course," he added hastily.
Andreas reflected that the innkeeper was partly right. The village
was remote, surrounded by wilderness, its stock preyed on by wolves.
Life was hard here, and most of the farmers were single or widowed.
There were few children to help with the work. Peddlers were rare and no
one else came by choice. Of course, they had a blacksmith who doubled as
a horse doctor, but only because they had made sure he couldn't leave.
Thinking about this, letting himself feel the familiar ache in his
ankles, he failed to hear the rest of the discussion clearly, but pieced
together what they had decided easily enough. The woman would be left
with Asmonia for a few days. "Break her in," he'd heard
Demades snigger. Then the single men could draw lots for her. As for the
horse? They'd take it to Birubas for the market next spring, and split
the profit between them. "Only fair," Asmonia said.
"We'll have to feed her all winter."
She went back to fetch the woman after that. "Let's see what
we've got," she'd explained to the council. She was back within
minutes, fuming. "She's got away." She turned on her husband.
"Why didn't you lock the back door?" It turned out that he
had. The woman had climbed out of a window. "Serve the bitch right
if the wolves get her," Oppides mumbled, under his breath.
Andreas, watching as Asmonia formed up the posse next morning, wished
he could do something to help. That cowed look must have been a ruse, he
reflected. The woman had been biding her time, waiting for a chance to
escape. For a minute he played with the hope that she might succeed, but
then Sentes brought in his hounds, and he knew she was lost. Thick
necked and broad chested, the dogs never lost a scent and could run for
a day without rest. He hoped Sentes would keep them leashed, at least,
though at present it was taking all the man's strength to keep his
brutes at heel. Feeling wretched, Andreas decided to follow anyway.
There was no question of his keeping up with the hunt, but if he
persisted he might arrive in time to do some good when they caught up
They ran her down just before sunset. Andreas arrived as they combed
through the copse where the dogs had finally brought them. The hunters
were tired and bad tempered. The woman had driven them hard, laying
false trails, doubling back, walking through water whenever she could.
But this was their country, and the dogs were relentless. She broke
cover just before they reached the thicket in which she had hidden
herself, but there were men everywhere now, and she was exhausted.
Dodging and twisting, she ran until someone launched himself at her legs
and brought her down with a thud.
All the while, Asmonia studied her thoughtfully. A speculative look
crossed her face as she weighed up what had happened. "What were
you hiding in there?" she asked her. The small woman, still
gasping, shook her head, spread her arms wide, gesturing
"Nothing". Asmonia smiled. Her eyes narrowed. "Let's go
see," she said, sweetly. When Andreas saw despair cross the small
woman's face, he knew that the inn keeper's wife was right, yet again.
She came out holding a large bundle. Something wrapped up in a cloak.
Placing it on the ground just in front of their captive, she flipped
back a fold and peered at what was revealed. "Now, what have you
been up to?" she asked the small woman. "Robbing the
dead?" She gripped an edge of the fabric and yanked. The bundle
unravelled and pieces of armour, a sword, a round thing with sharp edges
spilled out. "Not nice, stripping dead warriors. Not such an
innocent, are you?" She was leaning right over her when she said
The woman looked up. Her face had flushed brick red. Now it paled and
her eyes glittered with anger. She met Asmonia's gaze and held it,
unflinching. The inn keeper's wife backed off a pace. Then she stopped
herself, squared up to the red head and let fly with a blow which
knocked her back onto the ground. "Count yourself lucky we don't
hamstring you like Andreas there," she said, very softly. "But
a man needs a woman who can work in the fields." After that, the
innkeeper's wife stalked off back to the town, lugging the pack and
leaving the men to bring back their captive.
Oppides got to her first, his mood more than usually ugly. He swung
back his foot, meaning to kick her upright. "Hear that?"
Andreas shouted. Oppides staggered, span round, glared at the
blacksmith. "Just then - howling. Sounds like a pack on the
move," Andreas continued. He stooped, eased up the woman, feeling
how thin she was through the cloth of her shirt. After he stayed
stubbornly by her, hobbling slower than ever to match her own faltering
They beat her for what she had done, and chained her and left her
without food for two days. Andreas made himself watch it, made himself
watch as she slaved in the inn, visibly failing, dragging her feet
against the weight of the shackles. Not closing his eyes to what
happened was the least he could do. Then he went back to his smithy. He
had made those chains, he reflected. He heated up iron, filled his hands
with a hammer, pummelled the soft golden mass on his anvil. He was
calmed by the pulse of his work. It took him to places in which he could
live with himself.
But at night, he lay awake thinking. By dawn on the third day, he
could endure it no longer. He waited till it was light enough to see,
then slipped out of his smithy and picked his way slowly to the back of
the inn. It was cold. A chill wind blew from the North, rattling dried
leaves around, howling like wolves. He hunched his shoulders and hurried
"Hey!" he whispered through the window. Something stirred
in the shadows at the back of the room and he watched as she picked
herself from a tangle of bedding and stood, shakily. Not sleeping,
either, he guessed. "Come over here," he mouthed. But she
shook her head and held out her hands, which were bound. The skin round
the rope was reddened and raw. She had been trying to work herself free.
Now his eyes had adjusted, he could see that one end of the chain round
her feet had been uncoupled and run through a ring in the wall. Deeply
ashamed, he held up the loaf he had brought. She nodded, and he tossed
it towards her. It rolled on the floor and stopped just out of her
reach. But she smiled at him none the less. "Sorry," he
muttered, trying to think of something better to say.
She had got down on her knees and was stretching out for the bread,
when the howl froze them both. Andreas spun round, nearly losing his
balance. It came from the stable. Something was in there. With the mare.
He made for the sound, cursing his legs, cursing the villagers for
maiming him. He lost his balance and sprawled to the ground, got up and
kept on going. Behind him he could hear doors opening, men stumbling out
of their houses, confused shouts, but he was first in the stable.
It was there in the door, looking towards him, looking beyond him,
its eyes slitted against the dawn's light. A wolf black as night and
huge as a pony. It was snarling. Threads of saliva hung down from its
gleaming white teeth. It had crouched back on its haunches ready to
spring. The mare, in the shadows behind it, was sweating, her eyes
rolling, stamping and rearing, frightened out of her wits. She shook her
head, and white foam flew through the darkness. "Calm down,
girl," he murmured, hearing the others crowd up behind him.
"In a moment," he thought, "it will attack." His
knees almost gave way. Then he caught sight of its eyes. "Something
odd there," crossed his mind, as the creature finally leaped, over
his head, over the heads of the others and into the street. Then it was
gone, and the mare quietened down, and the others dispersed, suddenly
aware of how little they'd had time to put on.
The hunting party set out an hour after dawn. Most of the men were
involved, grim and tight-lipped. This wasn't the same as hunting the
woman. They hated wolves. Every beast they lost threatened them all with
starvation. A wolf ready to come into the village was a danger far too
great to be left even a day. Asmonia said little as she handed out
bundles of bread and dried meats, subdued. She even pecked Oppides on
the cheek by way of farewell. Later she took that moment of softness out
on the red-headed woman. Long before evening there were fresh marks on
her cheeks for failing to carry water quickly enough, chop fire wood
neatly enough, polish tables brightly enough. Asmonia was shrieking
insults in her direction when the hunters returned, bringing the wolf,
bound and netted.
"I think the beast's ill," Demades said as they toasted
each other's success. "You saw. It could have torn out Sentes'
throat and been gone clean away. But it didn't."
"The fight just went out of it," someone agreed.
"It's starved," someone else added.
"What's the difference? This is a gift from the gods,"
Oppides shouted. He had been first in with the net, and was feeling
heroic. "I say tomorrow we burn it. Make a fine offering to Zeus.
We'll burn it alive."
"I don't think it'll just trot onto the pyre by itself,"
"No problem. We'll stun it and truss it and bind up its
"Who will?" Milos chipped in.
"We'll draw lots," Asmonia intervened, pinching her
husband. "We'll kill two birds with one stone. White pebble wins a
new wife and the honour of tying the wolf. Fair enough?"
There was grumbling, but rather less now. Some of the men flicked
quick glances towards the red headed woman, who was tending the fire.
They made a show of reluctance but they agreed. Andreas swallowed.
Something was tight in his throat. It had happened too fast, he thought.
He realised now that he'd hoped to rescue the woman, break her out, set
her free. He felt tears sting his eyes. At that moment she glanced into
the shadows, towards him. He saw there were tears on her cheeks.
The next morning, woman and wolf were brought out. They'd put a white
gown on the woman. The wolf was dragged on in a net. Wood was piled in
the middle of the square, brands already flaming nearby. Andreas watched
all this numbly, aware of some strange feeling growing inside him. It
strengthened while Demades made a business of emptying the urn, showing
everyone there was only one white stone, and afterwards refilling it.
Then the single men, stood in line, picked out their stones. Each held
his tight till the last should have chosen.
Demades had almost reached Andreas. The blacksmith's palms sweating,
his mouth dry. He could not let himself hope for this solution. He could
not help but hope. He let his eyes drift towards the red-haired woman.
What he saw baffled him: she did not look afraid at all. Her gaze seemed
turned inwards, like someone absorbed in tracking down some
At that moment, the wolf claimed their attention. Somehow it had
snapped and bitten at the net and now it stood upright, teeth bared in a
mask made of shadows. "Its eyes!" Andreas thought. He could
see them clearly now, could see they were blue. Something else snagged
his attention, and he shifted a little, so that he could see the red
haired woman. She had taken a hasty step forwards. Now her face was
frozen in an expression of astonished recognition. She was staring the
wolf. Still snarling, it stared back at her.
After a second of silence, the men dropped their pebbles and reached
for their swords and their spears. They surrounded the wolf, but kept a
wary distance. Its forelegs were straddled, its head low, its eyes still
fixed on the red headed woman . Sentes drew back his arm, balanced his
weight on his back foot and made ready to cast. He got no further than
that. Moving fast, the small woman thumped him and wrenched the spear
from his hands. Then she was past him and facing the wolf. "Get
back," various voices called out, and this man and that jabbed the
air between them and the wolf. She kept moving, keeping her back turned
towards them, keeping always between them and the wolf. Holding its
Then she spoke. Andreas gasped. She could speak. She was talking to
the wolf, he realised. "Xena," she said. Just one word. Very
quietly. The way people say "morning" after a very dark night.
"I recognise you," she went on, ignoring everyone else.
"I said that I would. No matter where, no matter what you looked
like." She threw back her head and looked up at the sky.
"You've lost. I've broken the curse. Now release her!" Her
voice was hoarse with disuse. It broke as she shouted these words.
The men shrank back in horror. The form of the wolf seemed to
flicker, to become piercingly bright and then inkily black, to wink into
sight and wink out. When it came back, a woman stood in its place. Tall
and black haired, pale skinned and stark naked. They were spell bound.
But Asmonia cried, "It's a demon," and spurred on by her
they charged at the pair. The tall woman, Xena, swept the red head
behind her and leapt up in the air, felling two men with her kick. She
spun round, seizing a spear which thrust itself at her and twisting it
free of its owner. Meanwhile the red head had dashed the head of her
spear into the ground to break off its point, and now was using the
shaft to block other assaults. In spite of their peril, she seemed much
more at ease, her face filled with light. The women fought back to back,
fending off their attackers.
Andreas felt something shatter inside him. He hobbled as fast as he
could into the Inn, aiming for the bundle with the sword, determined to
use it to help them. "I can do this," he kept repeating to
himself as he levered up floorboards, exposing the cache where the
innkeeper's wife stowed her loot. But when he came out, it was already
over. Not a single armed man stood in the square.
That left Asmonia. She blanched as Xena loped up to her, but she did
not run. Xena drew back her hand, but the small woman reached up and
caught it. "Don't," she said quietly. "Not in cold
"What makes you think mine's not hot?" Xena snarled. Her
gaze took in pale skin which was still marked with bruises.
"Don't anyway. You don't need to," the small woman said.
Xena looked down at her hand, still clasped in her friend's.
Something retreated within her. Then she raised that hand to her lips.
"Gabrielle," she said, simply.
Gabrielle smiled. Then she frowned. "Gods, Xena, you're so thin.
And we've got to get you dressed. I don't know where they've put your
things." But she did not move. It seemed she could not take her
eyes from the warrior.
"You kept them, then?" Xena sounded a little uncertain.
"Of course I did." Gabrielle sounded surprised. "I
knew I'd find you."
Andreas coughed at that point, to attract their attention.
"Here," he said. He held out the bundle which contained Xena's
gear, trying to avert his eyes as she reached out for it. Then he turned
his back discretely as Gabrielle helped her to dress, hearing the rustle
of cloth, the creak of leather, the clink of metal while she did so.
Looking the other way, he caught sight of Asmonia. She was standing
blankly, staring at her husband, whose face was turned from her.
"Go help your friends," he said to her, and was amazed when
she did so. "Collect all the weapons and put them over there,"
he said to the innkeeper, and the man also obeyed him. "Comfort
your wife," he had wanted to say. He might just as well bid a wolf
guard a flock.
After that, Andreas turned once again. He blinked, seeing splendour.
The sunlight had grown gold as the afternoon waned. When its light met
the bronze of the warrior's armour, it splintered, leaving glittering
needles to lance through the air. Thus it appeared to the blacksmith
that Xena stood wrapped in a nimbus of spun metal strands. Armed, she
struck him as far more frightening than any wolf. Evidently the others
thought so too. He was dimly aware of the furtive noises they made,
slinking away over the beaten earth of the square.
He cleared his voice again, and when they looked at him, asked
Gabrielle, "Why were you silent?" He thought he knew, but
wanted to hear her speak once more.
Xena raised her brows. "Gabrielle silent? And I missed it? That
was some curse."
Gabrielle frowned at her ferociously. "OK, OK, joke over."
She paused a moment. Her expression sobered abruptly. "I woke up
from what I though was a nightmare that morning, and found that it
wasn't a nightmare at all. You had vanished, and I was the only one who
could get you back. I remembered that from the dream. I just had to keep
quiet until I found you. The first word I said had to be your name and I
had to speak it to you. That was the only way to break the curse."
Then her face changed again. She grinned up at the warrior, evidently
brimming over with delight. "No big deal," she said softly.
"And I warn you. I've plenty of words stored up." She summoned
up a mock scowl.
Xena threw up her hands. "I surrender!" she said, rolling
her eyes and grimacing. "So, how did you know?" she asked, and
now she smiled gently.
"That you were the wolf? I just knew. I knew you were near
anyway, and when I saw you, I was certain. No big deal," she said
Xena quirked her eyebrows. "No?" she inquired. She threw
one arm over the small woman's shoulders and drew her close.
"What about you?" Gabrielle asked, after a moment.
"Well, I didn't remember who I was. I just lived like a wolf.
Except that I couldn't. Something kept telling me that if I gave in too
much, hunted with the pack, killed and ate meat, that sort of thing, I'd
never get back. So I didn't. No big deal," she echoed her friend.
"He didn't mean to give you a chance, did he?" Gabrielle
said. Her face tightened and her eyes grew hard. "Why...."
Xena answered, "We can probably both make a pretty good guess.
But what would be the point? He's lost anyway." She looked down at
Gabrielle. "Hey!" she said. "I do the wanting revenge
thing. You do the forgiveness. Ok?" She waited until the small
woman's face softened into a reluctant smile. "That's better."
But her eyebrow quirked and she made no move until the smile had warmed
her friend's eyes.
"How did you know to come to me?" Gabrielle asked, after a
Xena's brows drew together. "Well," she said vaguely,
"it just seemed the right thing to do." Then she drew the
small woman back to her and dipped her head for a moment, kissing the
top of her head. "Yes, that's it. The right thing to do," she
They were gone before dark. Gabrielle would not stay another night in
the village, and Xena did not try to persuade her otherwise, though this
was an odd time to start on a journey. Nor would the small woman
re-enter the inn, even to reclaim her things. Andreas went in for her.
He came out carrying some food he had wrested from Asmonia, but she
would not take it. He watched as her skin paled and lines appeared
between her eyebrows and around her mouth, and felt guilty again for his
part in putting them there. Xena pushed by him and reached out a hand to
soothe them away. Her face was stormy, but she stuck by her promise.
"Come with us," the small woman said to the blacksmith a
little later, as they made ready to leave.
"I belong here," Andreas replied. It was true, but he was
tempted. He let himself look at her. It was for the last time, he knew.
"Gabrielle," he thought. Her hair, he noticed, was more golden
than red now. But perhaps it was the evening sunlight. It was bringing
out golden specks in her eyes as well. "They need me," he
added, jerking his head towards the village. Which they did. And going
with her would hurt far too much, in the end. "I'm not a good
walker. I'd only slow you down." He was aware that he was saying
too much. "I have to stay," he insisted, catching the
warrior's gaze as he said this. It was surprisingly soft, even
sympathetic. "It's for the best," he finished, and saw her
dark head move slightly in respectful acknowledgement.
The two women rode out together, heading south. Andreas felt a
prickle of professional pride as he saw the mare was completely
recovered. He watched till they vanished from sight. Then he sighed. He
limped back to the smithy, skirting the unlit pyre, and stumbling on
something. He looked down to see what it was. One white stone gleamed in
the dust. He stooped, picked it up, cleaned it, and let it rest for a
moment in the palm of his hand, as if judging its weight. Then he
clenched his hand, closing his eyes for an instant. When he walked on,
the stone was safe in his pocket.
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