|Neither Xena nor Gabrielle (nor,
come to that, Argo) belong to me. They are the property of
It was an enchanted forest. Gabrielle was sure of this from the
moment she entered it. The message came to her in various ways. She
heard in the birdsong, in the sound of running water, in the whisper of
the leaves. She smelled it as she passed by thick clusters of pale
blossom. She felt it under foot as she strode along the mossy paths. She
saw it in everything. The graceful trunks of the trees, the dancing
sprays of young leaves, the shafts of light piercing the soft, blue
shadows all around. Most of all, she sensed it. This place breathed
peace to her.
She needed it. She was angry with Xena, who had left her behind like
a child. "After all of these years, she still doesnít trust
me," Gabrielle thought. "Or herself," she added, and
sighed. "Why canít she tell me whatís wrong?" A small
voice inquired, "Why didnít you ask? Why just make a stupid joke
and then say yes, go on ahead and Iíll follow after as fast as I can?
Shouldnít she know that you care?" The usual debate, she
acknowledged, with no answer to soothe her, just the beauty and peace of
Soon, she began to sense that the forest was troubled. Something
disturbed it. Concerned, she turned more attention to the matter, and
was then afraid she knew the source. She turned to seek it out. Her
search led her deeper and deeper into the heartwood. The further she
went, the more she became aware that much more surrounded her than was
fully in sight. In the corner of her eye, shapes moved, colours glowed.
Later, she would dream of these things. Things shaped like small, white
horses but moving like deer would dance before her. Fruit as round and
bright as the sun would light up bowers behind thick veils of blue-green
leaves. Birds with wings like rainbows would fly by her, not singing but
chanting a language which she could almost understand. At the moment,
however, she saw nothing clearly. Nevertheless, she was sure something
She did not find the source of the troubling quickly. In time,
however, she smelled something familiar, the scent of smoke, of wood
burning. She headed towards it, aware that outside the forest the sun
would be going down and the light failing. She had not thought what she
would do if she had to spend the night alone in the forest, and so she
chided herself. How Xena would scold her, she thought.
And then, like the fulfilment of a long-cherished wish, it was Xena
she found by the fire. She was sitting on a swathe of emerald turf
starred with pimpernel and speedwell. A stream slipped past nearby,
through birch and rowan trees. The canopy drew itself back here. Stars
blazed white in an indigo sky. The warrior looked up as Gabrielle
approached, but she said nothing, just placed another dry bough on the
fire and watched the bard as she approached. Shadows moved on her face,
but it was only the firelight which made them. Her features were still.
It was Gabrielle who spoke, of course.
"Xena, this is great. I didnít expect to catch up with you so
soon. Were you waiting for me?"
Babble, babble, she mocked herself. As if she really thought this
likely. All the same, she hoped. And she had to say something, break the
silence somehow. When Xena unexpectedly answered, "Yes,"
however, she knew that something must be very wrong. She looked at the
warrior closely. There was nothing obviously amiss. Her face was as pale
and beautiful as ever, her hair in its usual vigorous disorder. She was
looking at her fire and not at the bard now, and this too was usual.
Still, Gabrielle could not shake off her dread.
"Have you eaten?" she asked next, partly to express her
concern, partly because this was a matter she always took seriously.
"No," Xena answered, her voice very low. Gabrielle looked
around her. There was no sign of any game. This was unlike the warrior
and her heart sank still further.
"I have something left in my pack." She shrugged it off and
extracted dried meat and fruit, flat-bread and a honeycomb. "Thereís
plenty for two."
"Iím not hungry, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice
sharpened with something like anger.
In spite of this, because her anxiety meant she must, Gabrielle said,
"You should eat something. You must keep your energy up. Especially
if youíre right and that friend of yours is in real trouble." She
was still babbling, she knew. She took a deep breath and made herself
Xenaís head snapped round and she regarded the bard for a moment.
The look struck Gabrielle like a stone. She recoiled. When Xena saw
this, she made an obvious effort and smiled, weakly. "Youíre
right. Iíll have some, then."
Now Gabrielle was really frightened. Sweat sprang out on the palms of
her hands and she rubbed them against her skirt before handing portions
to Xena. Her own appetite having fled, she forced down mouthfuls of this
and that, watching Xena evidently do the same. When they had finished,
she wrapped what was left and assembled the makings of tea. The bough,
catching fire, spat out a volley of sparks.
They were sipping the brew before she mustered the courage to speak
again. "Whatís wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," Xena replied. No tone, no colour left in that
rich voice. On the fire, small, purple flames rippled over the bough and
Gabrielle decided the risk was worth taking. She edged forwards, laid
her hands on Xenaís arm. "Yes, there is. You know that I know it.
Tell me, Xena, please. Itís much worse not knowing." She waited
till the blue eyes turned to meet hers, then caught the gaze and held
it, not flinching even though the warriorís glare was bitingly cold.
It was when Xena confided in her that she knew things could not possibly
be any worse.
"Gabrielle, I killed a deer in the forest," she said.
Gabrielle patiently extracted the full story as they sipped their
tea. The warrior had entered the forest as dawn broke. It had not struck
her as enchanted at all. It was an obstacle to her, nothing more.
Something to be got through as swiftly as possible if she were to answer
the call for help. She had already been angry, gripped by a black mood,
though she did not know why. This was just one more source of annoyance.
Cursed, most like. She had had to hack her way through a barricade of
briars to get into the place, and once in found no clear path, only a
maze of possible routes winding between spindly pine trees over a floor
carpeted with their rust-coloured needles. The light was dusty and dim,
disguising what lay before her so that several times she fell into
brooks and gullies, further confusing her. Her temper flared hotter.
Looking up in the hope of regaining her direction from the position of
the sun, she had seen only a canopy of black branches. So she had relied
on her inner senses instead, trusting to them as a last resort.
From the start, she had been aware of presences around her, of being
watched and of being stalked. From the corners of her eyes she saw
shapes which later were to haunt her nightmares. There were imps which
moved as if their limbs were jointed back to front. Their heads were
oddly distorted and sprouted fine hairs and gnarled knots. They looked
as if they had grown like roots in the earth. These creatures wore
armour seemingly beaten out from cooking pots and pans and trays. Then
there were beasts which hugged the ground and oozed their way along it,
and others which crawled stealthily along branches just above her head.
Birds which looked through human eyes and seemed to see inside her head
flew by on leathery wings which snapped and rustled.
Because she was Xena, she attacked what she feared. When a shadow
came too close, when it seemed to have lain in ambush and sprung out at
her, she pursued the thing and killed it with her chakram. "I didnít
know what I would find," she told Gabrielle now. "A chimera,
perhaps, or a serpent. But it was a deer. Slender, white, a female and
heavy with young. When I realised, I felt sick to my stomach. But thereís
no helping it."
After that she would say nothing more about what happened. She told
Gabrielle she should go to sleep. "Youíll have a long journey
tomorrow," she said. Gabrielle had made careful note of every word
spoken, aware each was chosen for a reason, aware of what was not being
said. She had told too many stories not to have a good idea of what was
missing from Xenaís tale. These last words seemed to her to confirm
her suspicion. She concealed this and allowed it to look as if she gave
way, going to sit on their bedroll. The warrior did not move, but her
face was turned towards the bard, attentive and melancholy.
"Goodnight, Gabrielle," she said. It sounded like
"Goodbye," to Gabrielleís ears.
"Goodnight, Xena," she responded, struggling not to let
grief colour her words. Then she settled back and slowed her breathing,
but watched Xena through slitted lids. The warrior polished her armour
and her sword, got up to fondle Argo and whisper something in her ears.
After that, she sat down by her fire, in full armour still, gazing out
at the darkness. Reflections of flames flickered all over her, Gabrielle
noted, increasingly drowsy. And, though she had not meant to, Gabrielle
now fell asleep.
Gabrielle awoke perfectly aware that she was still dreaming. She
wondered what had awakened her and realised that she could hear music,
coming from far off. It called her, and she felt impelled to answer this
call, although it would mean leaving Xena alone. Illogically, she felt
it was the warrior who needed her protection. However, there was really
no choice in the matter. She got up and walked past her companion, whose
eyes looked unseeingly through her as they stared at the flames. Going
up to Argo, she told her to stand guard. The mare shifted and whickered
as if she could hear her. Not that it would do any good. Their true
defence, she knew, would come from whatever enchantment had reached out
for Xena and now summoned her. It was saving them for something else.
Gabrielle sighed, and took one last glance back at the fire and the
brooding warrior who sat by it. Then she headed out into the forest,
finding her way easily since the moon had now risen. High and full, it
turned all things to sable and silver. Moreover, she was now blessed
with night vision. She wondered why she was not surprised. Instead she
was marvelling at the reality of the dream. She had felt coarse hair
under her hands as she stroked Argo, and now could feel, smooth and
chill, slim blades of grass against the soles of her bare feet.
The bard was at first a little afraid that she would see the forest
as Xena had. She did not. She saw it differently, however. Or perhaps
the forest in this direction was different anyway. Where beech and
hornbeam had been frequent before, here huge, old oaks dominated. Thick-trunked,
splay-branched, thickly leafed, their cracked bark harboured a gallery
of fantastic faces, all staring at her. Gabrielle was not frightened by
these faces. They fascinated her, enticed her, invited her to write
their stories. Nor was she frightened by the silence of the midnight
forest, nor by the veils of grey tree moss which brushed her face.
Beside her nameless fear for Xena, nothing could terrify her.
After a long time of walking, she saw light ahead, and came suddenly
into an open glade. It seemed to be floored with silver. Tiny moons hung
from each blade of grass, bowing them down. After a moment she realised
that dew drops were reflecting the moon. She looked up. It was floating
over the centre of the glade, huge and wrapped in a milky cocoon which
gleamed like mother of pearl. Immediately beneath was a mound. A
glistening path led towards it, for a breeze had sprung up, shaking the
dew drops and making them shimmer. There was a black opening in the side
of the mound - clearly a door. Gabrielle walked through it.
The darkness inside was total. She stopped, smelling cool earth and
feeling as though she stood in the midst of a vast space. Then a voice
spoke, but so deep and low that she could not catch individual words.
She caught their meaning, though. "Gabrielle, a bard," she
answered. It spoke again and she considered her answer carefully. Then
she said, "I want safe passage for myself and my friend."
The voice said, "No." Anger made it distinct and deafened
the bard. Gabrielle began to guess at a shape for its owner Ė an
enormous, dark shape, all humps and bulging mass and leashed in
stillness. She thought she could hear its breath now, and was
disconcerted to realise she was breathing in harmony with it. She felt
for a moment that if she stretched out her hand she would touch it, and
that what she touched would be beating like a heart and as large and as
old as the earth. Fear flared, and nearly escaped her control. Then she
realised. What spoke was the darkness, the darkness which lay in the
midst of the mound, which filled all spaces under the ground. It was the
same darkness which filled all those spaces under the skin as well. Life
was born in such spaces.
Taking courage from this thought, she said to herself, "Well,
what if the earth does smother me now? I canít just give in and go.
What will happen to Xena then? What will happen to me?"
So, "Why canít we go? What have we done?" she asked.
Pressing in on her now. Anger. Affront. A life taken from it. A
forfeit to pay. She tasted blood on the back of her tongue. Its tang
filled her lungs. She had to cough before she could speak again. The
cough almost turned into retching. She forced out the words, none the
less. "What is the forfeit?" But she thought that she knew.
The darkness closed in tighter around her. It leaned against her eyes
and she closed them. Then she saw, the scene printed on the backs of her
eyelids, floating, stained red. Xena under the mound, standing
stiff-necked surrounded by darkness, defying the darkness. And she heard
the demand which broke that defiance. Saw Xena beg on her knees.
Forgetting herself, she shouted out, "No, donít do it Xena!"
though she knew it was too late. The thing was already done. Then the
darkness smothered her sight.
When she came to herself, Gabrielle found she was huddled up, arms
tight round her knees, face resting against them. She drew a deep breath
and then another. Her skin felt cold. She wiped both palms over her
cheeks and found they were wet. Tears still seeped from her eyes.
"No," she whispered again. She dragged her self upright.
"I wonít let her do it," she yelled at the darkness. Nothing
Then, like a gale, the darkness rushed by her and made a new shape
for itself. For a moment, light dazzled the bard. When her sight
cleared, she saw a lady, piercingly white, who lit up the darkness. Now
she saw that they stood in a chamber roofed with oak roots. The ladyís
hair was brown as the bark, her limbs graceful as boughs. "Are you
a dryad?" Gabrielle asked.
"I am not. Iím very much older," the white lady said.
"Older than dryads, older than those troublesome children you
worship as gods."
Gabrielle thought this was true. She felt more at ease for a moment,
but then saw her eyes. They were white. "Stone-blind," the
bard thought at first, but the eyes were focused on her. Sweat stood out
chill on her brow and her back. The eyes shone like twin moons. She
sucked in a breath, clenched her hands. "Go on, you fool," she
said to herself.
"I wonít let Xena give up her life to save mine,"
"That wasnít exactly the bargain," the white lady said,
cool as a scholar discussing a treaty long past. "She bought your
life and one day to bring you to safety and tell you goodbye." Her
Gabrielle froze. "Dear Xena," she thought, "next time
ask me." She nearly gave way to despair. Then she wondered,
"Why tell me? Why appear to me here?" She looked at the lady,
who smiled like a dagger in moonlight. "She likes to bargain. What
does she want? What do I have that she wants?" As answers occurred,
she mustered her courage and carefully marshalled her words.
Gabrielle woke early the next morning. The first thing she saw was
their fire, which had died. The bough had burned to its husk, white
barred with blue shadows. "Like the moon," the bard thought.
Xena strode up. "Eat quickly," she said, "we donít have
much time." Gabrielle did not reply and in minutes was ready to
leave. When Xena told her to ride at her back, she obeyed. When the pace
Argo set jolted her bones and rattled her teeth in her head, she did not
complain. When they paused only to let Argo drink, she asked for no
further respite. So they reached the edge of the forest as the day
turned towards sunset and there Xena made her dismount.
"Go ahead now," Xena said. In spite of her words, she
stared at the bard for a moment, not urging her on. "Book us a room
at the Inn."
Gabrielle looked at her from under lowered brows. She had been
fighting a battle with herself all this time. "Tell her to go
herself," she thought now. "Do something. Knock her on her
head and tie her to Argo and send her away." She almost smiled at
this ludicrous thought. But was it more silly than trusting the lady?
Gabrielle drew a deep breath. Whatever else was unsure, she was certain
of Xena. She would not run. Nor would she want her to. Which left her no
choice. "No," she answered, "I will not. Iíll stay with
Xena said, "You canít. Iíve a promise to keep." Xena
paused, looking down at her friend. She reached out one hand and gently
touched the bardís cheek. "Iím sorry I left you behind. It wasnít
your fault." She paused, visibly trying for more words. When she
could find none, she sighed and said, "Goodbye, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle caught the hand. "Thatís enough. I wonít say
goodbye." She took another deep breath, and said, "Iím angry
with you, Xena. Youíre hiding things from me." She calmed
herself. "At least tell me the truth. Show you respect me."
Xena flushed. "Iíve given my word to go back," she
"All the truth." The bard was remorseless. "What will
happen when you go back?"
"Iíll pay for the deer." She watched Gabrielle.
"And I know how: why wonít you tell me? I dreamed all about
this last night." She stood tall as she could and stepped close as
she could to her friend.
Xenaís breath caught. She seized the bardís jaw and looked deep
in her eyes. Then she sighed. "Damn the lady." She shut her
own eyes for a moment. "I didnít want you to know," she said
Gabrielle detected defeat in her voice, and felt the sting of tears.
She suppressed them. "If you donít let me go with you, Iíll
follow. You wonít be alone. Not when you mean to trade your life for
"Itís not about you," Xena replied, letting her hand drop
to Gabrielleís shoulder. "Itís my honour at stake." But
she stayed where she was, and tightened her grip.
"Youíre right," Gabrielle said. "This isnít about
me. Nor about you. Itís all about us. Weíre in this together."
She watched Xena think about that. Then she said, "Donít you
think I have honour as well?" Gabrielle paused. "Donít you
think Iíll stick by a friend?"
Xena smiled, sadly. "I think you have honour. I know that youíll
stick by a friend. But as a friend, Iíd much rather spare you."
"Thatís not your decision to make," Gabrielle said.
They went back together. The forest cleared a way for them and they
rode along avenues bordered by chestnut and maple and ash. In no time at
all they were back in the glade. There was the mound and seated on top
was the lady. She looked up when they approached. Gabrielle saw with
surprise that her clothing was russet as autumn and her eyes were no
longer white. They were green as the leaves in her forest.
"Welcome back, Xena," she said. "Are you ready to pay
for my deer?"
"Yes," Xena said. She dismounted and Gabrielle slipped down
behind her. Then she took off her sword and with Gabrielleís help
unbuckled her armour. When she was dressed only in her shift, she knelt
and waited. Gabrielle, waiting beside her, reached down for her hand and
took it in a firm grasp.
The lady stood and came down from the mound, stepping nimbly. When
she reached Xena she said, "Gabrielle, give me the sword."
Gabrielle glanced down at Xena. When she nodded she bent down for the
sword and stepped up to the lady. She caught sight of her eyes and saw
that now they were blue as the sky. The lady held out both hands, palms
upwards, and she laid the blade gently across them. That done, she
returned to the warriorís side. The lady raised Xenaís sword,
hefting it with no sign of strain. She held it motionless a moment
before she brought it down smartly. Although they tried not to, both
Then Xena looked along the bright blade and into eyes which were gold
as the sun. "Finish it now! Must you play games?"
The lady said, "Get up, Xena. Youíve paid for the deer."
She was looking past her now.
Xena glanced sideways and saw Gabrielle wasnít surprised.
"What have you done?" she demanded of the small woman.
Gabrielle didnít reply. She was gazing at eyes as dark as a lake in
The white lady said to the bard, "Donít think I wonít stick
to the terms of our bargain."
"I know," Gabrielle answered. She kept herself still with
an effort. She wanted to run and to sing out of pure gladness.
Xena stood up, advanced on the lady. "What do you want from
her?" she demanded, her voice low, her eyes narrowed.
But she said it to the empty air. There was nobody else in the glade.
Then she turned back to Gabrielle. She said, "Tell me."
Gabrielle met her eyes. "I asked her spare your life." She
watched one of Xenaís eyebrows lift and she sighed. "Well,"
she went on, "I did have to make her a counter offer."
"What?" Xena asked tautly.
Gabrielle shrugged. "My stories."
Xena took a hasty step forwards, then restrained herself. She rested
her hands on the bardís shoulders and looked down into her face.
"She didnít take them?"
"She said she couldnít, that theyíre not mine."
Gabrielleís brow furrowed for a moment. That was how it felt, in a
way. That the stories found her, rather than the other way round. Then
she went on, responding to the flexing of the warriorís fingers,
"But she said I could give them up in a different way."
Xena was studying her closely. It made Gabrielle self-conscious. She
felt herself redden, but said in a steady voice, "In no way thatís
important. I gave her my name, I suppose. My stories will be told for
years to come, but everyone will think other people have written them.
Homer, for instance."
"But theyíre your stories." Xena was plainly upset.
"What matters to me is that theyíre told. Not who tells
them." In any case, Gabrielle thought, I wouldnít tell any more
Xena tightened her hold on the bard and flung back her head.
"Well, if anyone is listening," she said to the air, good and
loud, "and if they hold you to that bargain, hereís a bonus for
them. They can have my name too. Let the stories of Homer and the others
be about Hercules and Jason and Theseus. Not about me."
"But, Xena," the bard began. She had felt the warriorís
words in her bones, heard them echo from the sky, flushed now with
"No," the warrior interrupted. She held the small woman
from her, smiling gently. Then bowed her head and touched foreheads with
her. "No, Gabrielle," she said very quietly. "You said
it. Weíre a team. We either go together or not at all. In any case,
who cares whether people who havenít been born yet think I did
something or Odysseus did. Thatís not why I do what I do." Then
she grinned. "What matters is that people are helped, not who
helped them." She waited for a beat, looking into the bardís
"Okay, Xena," Gabrielle said, after a pause.
"Then letís get on," Xena said, rather gruffly.
"Someone out there needs somebodyís help, remember?" She
held on to the bard a moment longer, however. "Thanks,
Gabrielle," she said, eventually.
Gabrielle held her gaze. The look in the warriorís blue eyes was
wonderfully warm. She let herself bask in it, raising her hands to cover
those on her shoulders. Something flickered white in the corner of her
eye. If she turned round, she believed, she would see a white deer at
the edge of the forest. The bard gave a brief nod to herself, then
smiled widely at Xena. "Thank you," she replied.
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