Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo belong to Universal/Renaissance. Everyone else belongs to me. No profit is made from this story, it is simply for the enjoyment of myself and other fans of the show.
Note: Regardless of what you may have seen on the show, dryads are NOT those flying monsters whose bones kill bacchae. Those things look more like harpy skeletons to me. The true definition of dryads is addressed in this story. Enjoy!
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Amid the hustle and bustle of people in a crowded marketplace, a woman warrior and her bard companion perused the many tables piled with various goods. Merchants called out to them from every direction, elaborately describing their wares and prices. Some even thrust goods in their faces, being deliberately obnoxious, hoping to pressure a few dinars out of them. The warrior easily pushed past them, making her way to the weapons stand on the far side of the square. Nearing the stand, the bard touched her elbow, halting her.
"Hey, Xena, there's a scribe's table!" Gabrielle pointed to a small table on the side of the square, her eyes sparkling. "I'll be right back."
Xena nodded, running her fingers over the handles of several gleaming swords spread out on the table, "I'll be here."
Walking quickly over to the table, Gabrielle gazed at the selection in awe. There were piles and piles of scrolls in various sizes and styles. Small, plain scrolls wrapped in brown string lay in bunches on one side next to sheets of thick parchment. On the other side were larger scrolls wrapped with red ribbons and cords. An assortment of quills in every color along with small jars of ink lay nestled in between. Even a few leather pouches hung from pegs on one edge of the table. The bard's pulse leapt at the site of such treasure. She transferred her staff to the crook of her arm and gently picked up one of the larger scrolls. Raising it to her face, she breathed in the smell of new parchment, releasing a dreamy sigh.
"You like?" the merchant scribe smiled. "Nice scroll, only five dinars!"
Gabrielle had a few dinars to spend, but five dinars for one scroll, even this beautiful one, was too much. She could talk him down a couple of dinars. She gently replaced the scroll and smiled at the merchant, "I'll think about it." Then she pointed to the small scrolls, "What about those?"
The merchant shrugged, "One dinar."
"For all of them?" The bard could hardly contain her excitement, but the merchant shook his head, "Each."
She laughed, "You can't be serious! I wouldn't pay a dinar for less than five scrolls, maybe four. I won't even ask about the--" she was cut off by a shout to her left near the alley, meters away from all the activity.
"Oh, dear!" an old woman cried in dismay, her basket of flowers having slipped from her hands. Yellow and white blossoms lay strewn at her feet. Seeing her stoop over to pick them up, Gabrielle quickly ran over to help.
"Here, let me do that," she smiled, laying her staff on the ground so she could gather up the flowers.
"Oh, thank you!" the woman took the basket from her. Handing Gabrielle a lovely yellow daisy, she patted the bard's cheek, "Bless you child."
Watching the woman shuffle away, she sniffed the delicate petals, enjoying its sweet fragrance. As she bent to pick up her staff, a large, greasy hand clamped over her mouth. Dropping her weapon in surprise, she found herself pulled up hard against a smelly body. She struggled in his grip until she felt cold steel on her throat.
"Now you just keep quiet, little girl. We're gonna take a little walk, you and me," he breathed in her ear, the foul stench making her wince. Unable to scream, and with a dagger at her throat, she had no choice but to follow.
He dragged her backward through an alley behind him. Gabrielle stared helplessly at her staff as she walked farther and farther away from it, wishing she could somehow will it to come to her, knowing she couldn't. She tried to remain calm, waiting for him to relax his grip even the tiniest bit.
"Hey fellas, look what I brought for us to play with!" he laughed, turning her to face three other dirty ruffians about ten feet away. They grinned, looking her up and down, their teeth disgustingly yellow and brown.
"Nice catch!" said one, rubbing his hands together. "Let's have a better look at her!"
"Oh, no!" said her captor, clutching her so hard she stretched her neck back as far as she could, lest he cut her by accident. "I'm the one that caught her, so I get the first look. You go decide who gets her next." The other guy frowned, but turned and huddled with the others already arguing over who would be next.
With the others preoccupied, Gabrielle knew her chances of escaping were better, but she had to act quickly. The man turned back to her. Spinning her around, he pushed her hard up against a wall. In a flash his hand went from her mouth to her throat, squeezing just hard enough to keep her from making a sound. She grabbed his wrist with both hands, trying in vain to remove it.
"Struggle all you like, girlie, won't make a difference." He trailed the point of the dagger down her chest to the top of her shirt. "Now, let's see what we got here."
With the knife away from her throat, she knew this was her chance. Clenching her fists, she slammed them into his temples. He released her with an agonized cry, dropping the dagger and pressing his hands to his head. She quickly kneed him in the groin, grabbing the dagger as he dropped to the ground. The other looked up in surprise at his cries of pain. The bard ran.
Racing back up the alley, she heard them following her. Reaching her staff, she tossed the dagger behind her and turned to face the angry men. They came at her quickly, but she was ready for them with jabs to their chests. She brought one down with a swing to the head, another with a hard jab in the ribs, and the last she crouched low and struck his knees. The man who had grabbed her stumbled forward a moment later, still holding the sides of his head and bending his knees in pain. Not even noticing his friends sprawled on the ground, he shouted in rage and lunged at her.
Swinging her staff low, Gabrielle used his momentum against him. Stepping swiftly out of his way, she caught the front of his ankles and tripped him neatly off his feet. He landed face-first on the ground with a hard thud that knocked the wind out of him. With quick steps, she backed away, shifting her gaze from man to man. She wanted to be safely away before any of them recovered.
A hand came down hard on her shoulder. Startled, Gabrielle spun around, her staff striking out.
Xena stood there, grasping the end of the staff. "What happened?"
The bard relaxed visibly and nodded back at the men lying on the ground, "Some guys just can't take no for an answer." Seeing the worry in her friend's eyes, she smiled, "I'm fine."
The warrior studied the bard's handiwork and nodded, satisfied.
Gabrielle spotted the yellow daisy she'd dropped and bent to pick it up. <I>The kind and the cruel both in one day,</I> she thought and shook her head at the irony. Tucking the flower into a braid at the back of her head, she once again thanked her amazon training. If not for that, she knew she wouldn't have walked away from those men. Not in one piece, anyway.
Noticing the dagger on the ground, Xena picked it up and looked it over. Lightweight, smooth blade, slightly worn handle. "Not bad," she grinned and slid it into the empty sheath in her left boot. She turned and watched the bard as she slowly walked past the scribe's table, deep in thought. The merchant smiled and held up a beautiful scroll, "Four dinars, final!" The bard didn't even look up, just continued through the stalls toward the stables.
<I>Strange</I>, Xena frowned. Strolling over to the merchant, she casually eyed his wares. Setting aside a handful of simple scrolls, a few sheets of parchment, and a new quill, she looked up into the merchant's wide smile. "How much?"
"Ten dinars! Good price!" He folded his arms in front of him. His eyes gleamed as the warrior pulled a small pouch from behind her breastplate.
Putting three dinars on the table, Xena folded her arms as well. He opened his mouth to protest, but seeing the look in the warrior's eye, he quickly decided against it. Taking the money, he wrapped the objects into a parcel and bid the warrior a good day.
With the market a good hour behind them, Xena started to worry over Gabrielle's pensive mood. Accustomed to her companion's constant chatter, this sudden silence was unnerving. <I>This ought to get her talking</I>, Xena smiled, taking the parcel of goodies from where it was secured to her saddle.
"Hey Gabrielle! Catch!"
"Huh?" The bard looked up and barely had time to catch the package that thumped against her chest. "What's this?" she asked, already unwrapping it. Her jaw dropped at what she saw, "When did you...?"
Xena shrugged, "After the ruckus in the alley, you passed by that scribe's table without a glance. I figured you might regret not stocking up on supplies while you had the chance."
Gabrielle smiled, "Oh, yeah. I had some stuff on my mind, so I didn't notice. I bet that merchant made you pay big dinars for all this! What'd you pay? He wouldn't have gotten more than five dinars from me, you know."
The warrior smirked, "Three."
Gabrielle laughed and shook her head, "Yeah, but who's gonna haggle with someone like you?" She hugged the precious package, "Thank you."
Xena waved away the thanks, "It got you talking, didn't it? What's got you so quiet, anyway?"
"Oh, just thinking," she murmured as she packed away her new supplies. She was silent again for a few moments, then sighed heavily, "It's just that I've changed so much, Xena. Before my amazon training, I never thought I could defend myself like that. I figured I could talk my way out of anything."
Xena shook her head, "That's not always possible." She smiled slightly, remembering the eager, naive girl Gabrielle was when they first met. Seemed like ages ago...
The bard nodded, "I know that now, but not then. When we met in Potedeia, I saw this world in a rosy haze. A place of endless possibilities and adventures that were waiting just for me. Since traveling with you I've seen the dangerous and ugly side, too. I know now that the true nature of the world is a mixture of both. So many of the ideals and certainties I believed in have changed since then."
"You're not the same person you were when we met, I know. Neither am I," Xena sighed, knowing just how much they both had changed. "People change every day, Gabrielle. It's part of living and growing."
Gabrielle grinned, "I thought I was supposed to be the philosophical one. Seriously, it just makes me wonder how much more I'm gonna change. Will it be for the better? Have I changed for the better since we started off together? I think I have."
Xena raised an eyebrow, "But you're not sure of that, are you?" She watched as the bard chewed her lip in thought and decided to let the matter rest. "It's starting to get dark. Let's make camp and sleep on this, okay?"
Later that night, the warrior stared up at the stars as Gabrielle slept peacefully on the pallet next to hers. Emotions churned inside as she played her friend's words over and over in her head. <I>She has changed, and I'm the one who's changed her. </I>Is it <I>for the better? Is it good for her to be with me? I've changed other people in my life. Turned them into creatures like myself. Could that happen to Gabrielle, too? Are the changes I see in her a step in that direction?
Tossing over onto her side, Xena decided to take her own advice and sleep on it.
After spending a silent morning together, each occupied with their own thoughts, Gabrielle decided some neutral conversation was in order.
"Okay, Xena...man or woman?"
The warrior accepted the diversion, relieved to get away from her troubling thoughts for a while. "Let's see...man."
"Living or dead?"
Xena glanced at her friend in amusement, "Not this time."
The bard pressed her fingers to her lips and searched her mind for a man not killed by the Warrior Princess. <I>Too many, </I>she shook her head, <I>need more information.</I> "Good guy or bad guy?"
"How many bad guys have we come across that I haven't killed?" Xena answered over her shoulder, and turned her attention to where they were heading. The spacious glen they were walking through thinned out into an open meadow to the right, <I>Slim chance of shelter there, </I>she frowned. To the left it became rocky and rose into the hills, <I>Argo already needs new shoes, no reason to put her through that.</I> She scrutinized the path straight ahead: the trees grew thicker, enough to provide shelter and food for the night if they camped by one of the streams that usually ran through forests like these. <I>In the case of no stream, there's always raw veggies, </I>she curled her lip in a grimace. <I>Yep, best bet's straight ahead.
Gabrielle suddenly jumped in front of her, "Marcus!"
Xena shook her head, "I killed him, Gabrielle. Remember?"
The bard raised a finger, "But not the first time!"
"Doesn't count," Xena stepped around her and continued toward the thickening trees.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "Fine." <I>Need to narrow it down more,</I> she tapped her chin. "Were you friends?" <I>Could there be many of those? </I>Knowing her friend's aloof nature, she figured not.
"Sort of. I saved his life once."
Gabrielle paused at this information, but before she could say another word her attention was caught by a flash of color among the trees ahead. "What is that?" she whispered, pointing it out.
Xena glanced, then shrugged, "Why don't you go and see? I'm going to find a place where we can stop for lunch."
The bard nodded and walked toward the trees where she saw the color. Spinning around, she shouted at the warrior, "Salmoneus!" She remembered Xena telling her how so long ago she had let him live when her army had found him dressed as a woman after a raid on a village, the same time she met Hercules.
Xena didn't even pause, "I don't believe he's dead, Gabrielle. Getting warmer, though."
The bard sighed and turned back around. Walking swiftly through the large trees she came upon a cluster of the most beautiful pale pink flowers growing at the base of a sturdy oak. The flowers had broad, round petals and shiny dark leaves. They practically glowed in the warm sunlight. Running a finger over the petals of one flower, she sighed at the silky softness.
Suddenly, her hand was grabbed away.
"No, Gabrielle! Don't pick it!" Xena exclaimed, pulling at her friend's hand.
Gabrielle stared at her in surprise, "I wasn't going to. What's the matter, is it poisonous, or something?" she laughed.
Xena wasn't smiling. "Come see this." Gabrielle followed her back through the trees.
Stopping at a small clearing, Xena pointed at what she'd found. The bard gasped. There was a statue in the middle of the forest molded into the shape of a woman. Her legs flowed down into the ground like tree roots and branches grew from her arms, lifted toward the sun. Leaves instead of hair cascaded down her back and over her shoulders.
"A dryad," Gabrielle whispered in awe.
"Right. And if there are dryads, there could be limoniades, too," the warrior explained.
"Nymphs in the form of plants and flowers," Gabrielle, ever the bard, provided the definition. "They <I>are </I>usually found around dryads. Whoa, if I had picked one of those flowers, I might have killed someone!"
Xena strolled over to where she left Argo and unpacked their waterskins. "Relax, Gabrielle, those nymphs don't take the form of your everyday flower, you know. Anyone looking at them would know they were special."
Gabrielle reached up and pulled out the daisy she still had tucked in her braid. "There's no comparison. Those flowers fairly glowed, Xena! No one could mistake them for simple flowers."
"That beauty makes a lot of people want to pick them. And killing a dryad is sure to make you a target of the gods. That's the last thing we need today," the warrior grinned.
The bard smiled and relaxed a bit, "You're right, of course. Anyway, I wasn't going to pick it. That seems a little selfish, don't you think? A flower lives only a short time after it's plucked." She lifted her arms out from her sides and turned slowly, as if addressing the forest around her. "Better to let that beauty grow and flourish for all to enjoy for years to come."
"'You're right, of course'," Xena echoed and tossed her the waterskins. "There's a small brook just through there," she pointed in the general direction, "I'll go track down lunch." She loosened a small bow from the pack behind her saddle, felt under it for a few small arrows, and headed off in the opposite direction.
Gabrielle turned and found her way to the thin brook. Kneeling down, she uncorked the waterskins, filled them, and set them aside. Placing her cupped hands in the cool water, she splashed her face and neck, washing away the sweat and dust from the road. Moving onto her arms and legs, intent on doing a thorough job, she didn't hear the soft footsteps behind her.
Gabrielle spun around, startled. Standing there was a beautiful dark-haired woman in a long brown and green peasant dress. She stood there with a patient smile, waiting for Gabrielle to recover.
"Hi. Um, sorry, I didn't hear you," the bard smiled, looking closely at the strange woman, searching for any signs of a threat.
The woman grinned, "I know. I did not mean to disturb you, but I wanted to say that I appreciate your attitude toward flowers. Not many people feel that way, you know."
Her voice washed over Gabrielle like the caress of a warm wind. Sensing no threat, she curiously regarded her, "You heard me? I didn't see you anywhere." <I>And neither did Xena. Interesting.
"You were not meant to."
Gabrielle's brows knitted in confusion, "Are you hiding or something?" Her helpful nature took over quickly. "I'm here with my friend Xena. She is a warrior. The Warrior Princess?" She waited for the surprised reaction that always came when she mentioned she was with Xena. The woman just smiled, waiting for her to continue. <I>Strange.</I> "You haven't heard of her?" When the woman just shrugged, she waved her hand dismissively, "Doesn't matter. Maybe we can help you. I'm sure she'd protect you if you're hiding from someone. Who--?"
The woman held up a hand to stop the bard and smiled gently, "Forgive me, I should explain myself. My name is Serada. I am not hiding here. I live here. I heard what you said to your friend because I hear everything in this forest. I am a part of it." She waited as Gabrielle digested this news.
"A part of it?" Gabrielle's eyes widened, "You mean--you're a-- a-- dryad?"
Serada laughed softly, "Yes."
The bard frowned, "Aren't you supposed to be in a tree?" Realizing how silly that sounded she laughed, "I mean, in all the stories I've heard, a woman is transformed into a tree and her spirit lives there inside for as long as the tree lives."
Serada nodded, "That is true, and there are many spirits in this forest. I, however, have been given a special gift." She paused and gazed into the trees behind Gabrielle. "Your friend is returning."
Gabrielle turned, expecting to see Xena, but saw nothing.
"And with rabbits," Serada added.
Amazed, the bard picked up the full waterskins. "Will you come with me and meet Xena? I'm sure she's never seen a real dryad before. Our camp's close by. Please?" she implored.
Serada agreed and followed her back through the trees.
"I'm Gabrielle, by the way."
Serada raised a delicate eyebrow, "I know."
Xena already had the rabbits skinned and roasting over a fire when Gabrielle and the dryad came to the clearing.
"Took you long enough. Any longer and I'd have thought you'd become a dryad yourself," the warrior grinned and glanced up. Seeing the stranger behind her friend, she stood and eyed her curiously.
"Speaking of dryads..." the bard laughed, setting the waterskins down. "I'd like you to meet Serada. She <I>is </I>a dryad. Serada, this is my friend Xena."
Serada nodded at Xena, who, in turn, narrowed her eyes and folded her arms loosely in front of her.
"Forget your tree?"
The dryad smiled patiently at the woman's sarcasm. "As I told Gabrielle, I am a unique dryad. I will explain, if you like."
Xena was skeptical. Gabrielle's instincts about people were usually right on target, but she wanted to hear the woman's story. Watching her and listening to her voice would reveal if she was telling the truth or not. Although she believed anything was possible, a strange woman in a strange forest claiming to be a treeless dryad sounded a bit farfetched.
She motioned for them to sit near the fire. She handed Gabrielle some edible roots she'd found, along with some small wild onions. As the bard went about preparing them, she turned the roasting meat a few times.
Gabrielle put the roots and onions into a small pot with some water, added a few herbs from a pouch she kept in her pack, and stirred the ingredients slowly. Leaving it to boil, she turned to Serada and found the dryad watching her.
Her eyes were dark and impossibly deep. Though she appeared not much older than the bard herself, her eyes held a look that was young and old at the same time. Gabrielle could not contain her curiosity. "So, how did this happen to you?"
Serada looked into each woman's eyes in turn, as if reading what lay deep in their heart. Appearing satisfied by what she saw, she clasped her hands together and began her tale.
"Many years ago, my husband Polmo and I were traveling on the road near here when we were attacked by a band of thieves. We told them we had nothing of value and begged them to leave us in peace, but they did not listen. My husband was not a fighting man, and he could not stop them as they held us and searched through our few things. When they discovered we indeed had nothing, it made them furious. They beat my dear Polmo mercilessly. He died at my feet."
Serada frowned, "I cannot describe exactly what happened next. I was numb, like a dark blanket had fallen over me. For a few eternal moments, the world around me was frozen. Silent. When they tried to drag me away, everything snapped back again. I saw my husband lying there and I knew I had to get away. I struggled and screamed so loud, they must have thought me mad. I scratched and bit ant the man that held me. I do not know how I slipped away from them, but I did. And I ran."
The dryad stared into the fire, watching the flames, seeing into her past. "They chased me, their footsteps like thundering drums in my ears. I made it to this forest and tried to hide, but everywhere I went I heard them coming closer. I was finally too tired to go on, so I did all that was left to do. I prayed to the gods. I pleaded with them to help me, or to strike me dead, anything to keep those men from hurting me.
"At that moment I felt myself being pulled into the ground. My body stretched and widened, but I felt no pain. I looked down at myself and saw, not my legs, but a tree trunk with roots digging deep into the soil. The bark grew quickly up my body until I could not even move my head. My arms stretched far away from me and extended into many branches. Leaves sprouted everywhere.
"And there I was. I was a tree. My mind could not accept it, this impossible change, but my eyes could not deny what had just happened. So I waited. The men came but did not find me. They could not have known what I had become. I was not even sure myself."
To be continued...
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