Tears Like Pearls
Harvard University Campus, Christmas 1958
“Jolly!” Alvin and his brothers squealed. Dr. Janice Covington moved quickly to stop the racket but the knob twisted off and rolled under the desk.
“Holly – Christmas - best time of the year…” squeaky voices bubbled.
“You little sons-of-bitches!” Janice got down on the floor to find the knob. The door opened and familiar svelte legs in fashionable high-heeled shoes and a pleated green worsted wool skirt walked over to her visitor’s chair.
“Janice Covington, what are you doin’?”
“Those infernal animals are singing – I lost the knob.”
“So ah see.” Chipmunk voices strained on a high note and Mel Pappas turned off the radio.
Janice sat up quickly, hitting her head on the desk. “Ow, crap!” Defeated by technology, she limped over to her desk chair.
Mel smiled sweetly. “An x-ray of Gabrielle’s staff revealed a secret compartment with a scroll, just like you thought.”
“Really…and I have translated it. I brought some Christmas cheer from the party with an additional smidge of rum.”
Jan sipped at the mug of spiked eggnog and her eyes lit up. “A big smidge, I’d say. I could kiss you.”
Mel Pappas batted her dark lashes. “First things first.”
“I hope this is better than that Japa story.” Janice grumbled.
“This will make up for it.” Mel said. She arranged herself comfortably with her feet on a low stool.
“Hear my voice, Mother Hecate, help release my beloved from Elysium – Xena, Warrior Princess.”
Sometime around 66 ACE, North of the Ancient Irish Kingdom of Darnii, Nova Amazonia
Gabrielle glanced up as the bell tinkled. The door opened and her visitors entered the room. Their skins were so overburdened with snow, if she had not already known who was visiting her, it would have been impossible to guess at their identities.
“Hercules – Morrigan – Bridget.” she said. She put down her quill and corked up her inks.
“Happy Solstice!” Hercules called out holding out his arms.
“Oh, I have missed you,” she ran over for a quick hug. “Let me help you with those.” She took their fur coats and placed on a ring of chairs over by the fire.
“Oh it’s stormin’ out there, something terrible. The horses had a hard time of it. We just got them settled down in the barn. Xenon insisted on doin’ the hard work. His Ma was out there too for a moment – checkin’ in on that big bay she’s training.” Morrigan smiled. “You look well, Gabrielle, doesn’t she Hercules?
A trace of an unreadable emotion flickered over his composed features. “Yes, of course.” Suddenly he was distracted by his lively daughter, “Oh please be careful Bridget! Don’t touch that!” Eight year old Bridget hovered close to the pristine surface of the parchment on Gabrielle’s worktable.
“That’s okay,” Gabrielle went over to her worktable to cork up her silver, gold and coloured inks. “Do you like it Bridget?”
“Yes, what’s that animal?” Bridget’s pointed, her hands hovering carefully over a picture.
“That’s a dragon, you know like the dragon on my back.” Gabrielle smiled.
“What is it?” Bridget’s fingers reached out to touch the gold ink. Teasing whispers swirled around Gabrielle’s mind, an unvoiced consciousness reaching out to her own. A dragon, a dragon – she’d never met a dragon what was she thinking? Surely, her uneasiness was simply some leftover from the time when she’d lost Xena, when they’d gone to Japa. She pushed what she thought was the memory away.
“That’s gold leaf…it’s illuminated. I’m writing a card…so that Xenon and Solari, you know them, have a card advertising some leather work they’re making for the Solstice Season.”
“Do you do that for everyone? Ooh, that’s a beautiful tree in the picture!”
“Well, if a merchant wants, I make up a card for them for Solstice…in Greek, Celtic..well pretty much any language.”
“Like one for Ephiny to show her Solstice baking?”
“We don’t really need to show off Ephiny’s baking. We can see from the line up outside, how good it is.”
“That’s true,” Bridget rested against Gabrielle’s side, “But everyone could still write a pretty card to each other.”
“Hmm, that’s an interesting idea, Bridget.”
As the little girl continued to examine the items on her desk, Gabrielle reflected, was it really three years since Xena had died in Japa? As time went by, it had become very painful for Gabrielle to have Xena to come to her from the land of the dead. She couldn’t touch her. She couldn’t feel her. And she could sense how difficult it was for Xena to come to her. Gabrielle could not and would not, hold onto her lover. In death Xena, with the help of Ares, had evaded losing her mortal memories in the pool at Lethe.
Gabrielle had pushed Xena to find her way to Elysium, the Isles of the Blessed, with the promise they would meet again in the afterlife. So, Xena had finally left her – and Gabrielle was more alone than she had ever thought possible. That was two and a half years ago. Not a day went by that she didn’t feel Xena’s loss like a sharp knife at her heart. Gabrielle had taken the last colony of the Southern Amazons, along with Ephiny and her son Xenon, to Eire to join Hercules who had finally settled there with Morrigan and his daughter Bridget. She wished that there was some way of getting Xena out of Elysium, the Gods only knew how difficult it had been for her without Xena, but she had come to accept that Xena was gone forever from her life.
Xena’s chakram and sword sat untouched on a peg by the door. Gabrielle could use the chakram if she wanted, but she never touched it. It gleamed in the firelight, awaiting the return of its owner. She noticed Hercules’s eyes track to the shiny steel on the peg and stop. He smiled sadly at Gabrielle.
“A dragon,” Bridget nodded. She looked over at her father, “Like Kilgharrah, the dragon that sleeps in the north.”
“That’s right my love,” Morrigan smiled. “How would you like to go out and visit Ephiny and see what she’s bakin’? I’d heard she was planning a feast for Solstice Night.”
“Can I have a cookie?”
Hercules bent over and regarded his red-haired daughter, “After that long ride, have as many as you like but try not to spoil the evening meal! He caught Morrigan’s eye, “Well, she needs to learn to use her own judgment.”
“Judgment and our daughter don’t go together in the matter of cookies.” Morrigan said firmly.
“I’m sure Ephiny will look after her.” Gabrielle observed.
“You see, everything will be fine.” Hercules grinned.
Bridget hadn’t waited to hear the end of the conversation. She was up and out to the kitchens in a flash.
Gabrielle drew her woolen shawl softly around her. It had been a present from Eli and Faith when they visited Nova Amazonia last year. The wool was a soft gray and had been woven high up in the Himalayan Mountains at the top of the world, where Eli’s ministry had taken him the previous year. This trip had gained him the nickname of “The Rock”. The wool was softer than anything Gabrielle had known before, and was apparently harvested from a special breed of mountain goats.
“I hadn’t heard about any dragons in the west of Eire. Eli mentioned that he had heard of some deep in the Himalayan Mountains. I was thinking of going out that way next summer with Ephiny. She’s not as young as she used to be but she’s still a good traveler. You know, they say that the dragons can grant you a boon for a trinket. I still have that large diamond that I found in the Ganges wash years ago. I’d thought perhaps…” Gabrielle’s voice trailed off.
A dragon – she thought – a creature with gold-green scales and penetrating eyes, a magical being with an enormous pearl in his paws. It was the way she’d always imagined him although she’d never met one. She’d thought the pull she’d felt in the past year had come from her imagination. Now, she wondered whether the dragon was closer than she realized.
Hercules glanced at his wife. “Ephiny isn’t as young as she used to be, Gabrielle. I know it’s hard to see that some of our friends are aging faster than us but I don’t think Ephiny should make that trip.”
Gabrielle bit her lip. “You don’t understand.”
His eyes met hers and she shook her head. Of course, he knew what she was feeling. He’d lost his first wife and his children.
“I’m so sorry Hercules.” She said.
“No look Gabrielle…whoa. Look I, that is, we thought that we could help you to go to see Kilgharrah. He’s in the North right here in Eire. There are only five dragons left in the world. They are all the children of Tiamat, the ancient dragon slain by the warrior Gilgamesh in the times of the ancestors. Zeus told me they were as older than the Titans. We’d heard from Ephiny that you were thinking of going to India but we think it would make more sense to go north to the Glenshane Pass and the Sperrin Mountains. The weather is so bad there, no one until recently has lived there. But I heard from a traveler that a dragon had been seen in Carntogher Mountain, which would mean the dragon is close at hand.”
She inclined her head to indicate they should follow her to a small living space in front of the fire. They sat down around the bright yellow flames. “So,” she began, “you did fight the dragon Ladon?”
“Ladon was really a serpent, not a true dragon. And I wouldn’t have killed him if there had been another way to get the golden apples. But until recently there were no dragons in Britannia or Eire. Ioleus wrote me and told me that a dragon had been seen in Eire in the north.”
“Much of Britannia is under the Roman yoke. The Romans fear the dragons even more than they fear the Druid warriors.” Morrigan continued the tale. “But Roman troops in north Britannia have begun construction on a great wall from north to south, not merely to keep out our warriors, but also to separate themselves from two great dragons and the Celtic tribes. Two immense dragons, Brinsop and Cawthorne sit on their hoards to the south and north in that realm. It is only fitting punishment that the greedy Romans can’t collect their taxes from a large portion of the isle they fought so hard to gain.”
“Indeed,” nodded her husband. They were of one mind about the greed of the Roman conquerors.
“Their hoards?” Gabrielle asked.
“Well, I thought since you knew their fondness for jewels, you’d know about their hoards. Not that a hoard means anything to me, being a plain man.” Hercules replied.
“Oh yes, a very plain man.” Morrigan smiled at him.
He continued. “Treasures from ancient kings are found in their hoards. You know, like the great wealth of Gilgamesh, the wealth or Urartu, the ancient gold of Chan and the wealth of King Solomon.”
“And that’s a lot of shekels.” Gabrielle stated. “I just knew that a dragon could give a favour in return for a valuable gem. And, as you know, dragons possess powerful magic. This magic could be powerful enough to waken the dead. We thought Ephiny could ask for Phantes back. I mean, I couldn’t ask for her to go all the way to the Top of the World without anything in return.”
“It’s more than two weeks to Solstice darlin’,” Morrigan said nodding at her husband, “We thought, that is, me lovin’ husband thought that it was more than enough time to visit himself, that would be Kilgharrah. What he wants with that large chunk of unmelting ice, only the heroes know, but I’m sure he’ll be glad to have it. He’s supposed to be the eldest of the dragons. His mate, Manasa was supposed to have been killed by Theseus. At least that’s the story. Hercules heard that she’d survived.”
“I’ve never read a story about Theseus and a dragon.” Gabrielle puzzled, “Maybe Zeus told you.” She looked expectantly at Hercules.
“Yeah,” he said. “Dad told me. So,” he rubbed his hands together in excitement. “Are you up for it, then?”
Gabrielle laughed. “Do you mean, do I want to go with you endangering life and limb? On possibly on the most uncomfortable trip I can imagine, in waist deep snow drifts on the back of the daughter of mare who never liked me and who would probably like nothing better than to dump me at the first excuse right into a hedgerow. Probably nothing more than waybread either, and it being Solstice time, we might have to do without our Solstice dinners and…”
“Oh no,” Hercules shuddered, “I would never miss a Solstice feast with the Amazons. Ephiny’s cooking.” He patted his mid section in satisfaction.
His wife caught his eye, “Thinking of past times with Amazon Queens, were you me darlin’?”
His skin flared red and he warmed his hands over the fire, “That was a long time ago.”
“Indeed it was, my sweet.”
“I was a mere child at the time.” Gabrielle laughed.
“That would be the time, I’m thinkin’.”
“I was a different man then,” he protested.
“A man like his Da before him.” Morrigan said solemnly.
“Zeus, the father of the Gods in so many senses.” Gabrielle winked at Morrigan.
“You two are so unfair,” he protested, “I’m nothing like my father.”
“Isn’t that what all my say, my love?” Morrigan said.
“I wouldn’t know.” Gabrielle smiled, thinking of the possibility of finding Xena again.
They sat by the fire making plans long into the night, that night, and set off early the next morning. As promised in the cold light of morning Danos, one of the many children of the mare Argo, was less than happy. Gabrielle thought that the light brown mare looked vaguely unhappy as her pack was filled. However, Danos been trained by Ephiny and Xenon as a mount for an Amazon queen and wouldn’t have dreamt of throwing Gabrielle into a hedgerow.
Unfortunately, Gabrielle was never very comfortable on the back of any horse but the Amazons wanted her to have best-trained, best-equipped mount in Nova Amazonia. Xenon had given Gabrielle many painstaking equestrian lessons during their time in Eire. None of this had made Gabrielle a happy rider, but she was more accomplished. All of this was done solely to make Xenon and Ephiny happy, but Gabrielle until this moment had not cared in the slightest. Now, she was thinking that the lessons would make the long ride to Northern Eire less painful.
Ephiny and Xenon were up. Ephiny said, “We’ll see you in two weeks for Solstice.”
“I’ll be there!” Gabrielle promised.
“And we’ll take good care of Bridget,” Xenon hugged the small girl. Bridget was bleary-eyed and tired but she’d roused herself to saying goodbye to her parents. The last thing Gabrielle saw when she looked back was Bridget obediently turning in Ephiny’s house hand-in-hand with Xenon.
The trail north was through deeper and deeper snows. The white hares limped cold-footed underneath leafless bushes and by silver coated birches. Hercules couldn’t bring himself to slay them for food when they were hungry. Instead, like Xena, he searched for harder game. The giant boars, with their fearsome tusks, made them a good meal on the morning of their third day out and made them welcome visitors at a pub in the shade of Carntogher as they on the edge of the Sperrin Mountains.
As they rode up to the mountain valley, they’d seen a stone carved in runes marking the spot. Hercules was fairly good at reading the runes as was Gabrielle, but it would’ve been a gravest discourtesy to deny Morrigan the right to translate them as this was her native land, even though Heracles and Gabrielle knew enough Celtic to translate them efficiently.
“So, what does it say?” He asked, drawing his heavy garments tighter. All three of them were clad in sheepskin pants with the fleece inward, woolen undergarments, lined boots and hats and heavy weight jackets. To venture forth in anything less, would be rank madness.
“It says this is the last pub for two hundred leagues. Apparently, the mountain valley is this way,” she pointed in front of them northeast, “And the last pub is about three and half leagues to the northwest.
“You are joking.” He stared. “That sounds like something Ioleus would make up.
Cold as she was, Morrigan had become slightly testy, “Ah, does it sound like I would be jokin’ about a hot fire, warm beer and a good meal of lamb stew after twelve hours straight on my frozen backside?”
“Ah no.” he chose the path of least resistance, he for one, intended to stay married and perhaps father more children with Morrigan.
“If we ride, we’ll make it by nightfall.” He grinned.
“Did ya notice what a cheerful face he has even after twelve hours in the saddle?” His wife’s eyebrow lifted slightly. “Aye, it would be upsettin’ if I didn’t love him so much.”
True to the word on the sign, it was three and half full hours ride to the pub of the Dragon’s Jeweled Nest. It stood by itself, nestled in the side of a hill. From the number of horses in the courtyard, it was clear that the inn was not suffering a lack of custom. In fact, their horses were tucked into the last empty paddock.
“There won’t be any more visitors,” the grubby stable boy announced.
“What makes you say that?” Hercules asked him.
“If it please, your honour, the snow hasn’t stopped for the past two hours. The pass to the east won’t be passable until morning. But I’m sure they’ll find a room for your three. We knew you’d be here these three days.”
Hercules laughed. “What makes you think we’re who you’re waiting for?”
“Me name is Conn, your honour. I worked in the stables. I see little things. Now, the horse this lady is riding.” He assisted Gabrielle off Danos. “It’s a fine horse. None in this stable will be its match. I heard that Gabrielle, the Bard of Nova Amazonia was headed this way in the company of Hercules, the mightest warrior of all Greece with one other.”
“Is that a fact?” His wife snickered. “And who is the other? Would that be the god Cu Chulainn?”
“Nay,” said Conn, “the warrior Princess who died in Japa was a great warrior too. Not a demi God, maybe, but a great warrior. Gave herself to the cause of good.
“You said that the path is closed to the east, Conn,” Hercules observed quietly, “What about the path to the west?”
“The great dragon, Kilgharrah, lives to the west in the Sperrin Mountains. Nobody passes that way who values their life unless he be a dragon lord or mad for the dragon’s hoard.”
“We came as far as the foot of Mount Carntogher.” Morrigan said dismounting from her mare.
“Lady, it can only be the weather that prevented you from seeing Kilgharrah, himself. That used to be fine farmland but no one lives out that way anymore. The great dragon burns all in his wrath. They say he frequents a cave near Mount Sawel.”
Hercules laid his hand on Conn’s shoulder, “Well, we’ll watch ourselves. Take this, for taking care of the horses for the night.”
The lad shook his head but tucked the gold, marked with the mark of the Darnii, into his pocket. Hercules put his hand on the lad’s shoulder once more, and gathered his companions.
Conn sighed and turned back to him, “If you’re going to see the great dragon, you must be asking a boon. All he values is gold or stones of great value. The men in the inn know this. Watch your back, lest the thugs inside take something of value from you. Don’t sleep alone.”
“Thank you,” Hercules replied and spun around lightly on his heel. Consciously, he kept the women behind him although he knew they were quite capable of taking care of any trouble. Morrigan carried a sword. In Eire, Gabrielle had reverted to carrying a staff after Xena had left. However, for the first time in over two years, the chakram was tied to her belt as well. He thought perhaps Gabrielle hoped to give it back, by the end of their trip, to its rightful owner.
In the meantime, experience had taught Hercules that the meanest, nastiest thug would hit them from the front. He sighed. For once, it would be nice to go into a pub and not meet a man who wanted to boast about having beaten the son of Zeus in a fight. As they opened the pub doors, it became clear that the pub’s owner was not sanguine about the results of a fight and wanted to prevent any trouble which usually meant money losses to the owners.
A small dark man, he hustled himself to the front of the pub. Clearly, he and the rest of the room, were well informed about who they were. “I am the landlord of these premises, Finnigan Flanigan. Welcome, me lord and ladies. Why don’t you come this way? I have a nice room with a fireplace ready upstairs. Unless you prefer to eat here.” He paused slightly.
Hercules took around at the men and women in the pub, and noted that every villain from Malin Head in the north to Fastnet Rock in the south seemed to have found their way to the pub that night. He turned and looked at his wife. She nodded at him.
“Upstairs would be fine, Finnigan.”
“Well,” Finnigan wiped his brow, “I’m pleased because the room upstairs would be very comfortable. How did you find our stables?”
“Conn was very helpful.” Gabrielle said quietly.
She had engendered a number of glances in the pub. Her clothes effectively disguised the fact that she could handily beat any of them in a fight. She noticed that most of the men in the room drew back as Morrigan, the Druid, moved past them. They did not feel the same way about her, clearly.
She used her staff as a walking stick, a ruse that made her seem unthreatening. Expecting no resistance, a heavy-set man with greasy blond locks blocked her way. He reminded her of the warlords and their henchmen she’d met many times when she was traveling with Xena.
“Have a heart, little Amazon, and satisfy me. You’re not his woman and a sweet little number like you could help fill Big Paddy’s bed tonight.”
“Big Paddy,” she purred. “Your wife needs you at home to mop the floors.”
Big Paddy laughed heedlessly, “No darlin’, I’m here with me men drinking ale and waiting for the mighty Hercules. He’s never met Paddy’s fist, I’m thinkin’.” He flexed a meaty arm. “And after I beat the hell out of this so-called son of Zeus, you can keep me warm. Whether you say nay or yeah, it’s all the same to me. But you might as well get ready to receive my burning manhood.”
“Really,” she leaned forward and batted her eyes. “Is this your beer here?” She indicated a tankard on the bar. “Not much of man, if you don’t offer a lady a drop for my parched throat.” She coughed delicately and smiled. “Oh, I guess I’ll have to take this.” She opened his pants with one hand and tossed the contents down his front. “And cool you off.”
“Wrong answer, bitch.” He growled and moved into the sweet spot right where she wanted him. She blocked him effectively with arm and shoulder then hit him hard with her staff. He growled and leaned forward to grab her arms. She whipped backwards and hit his nose. He let do of her immediately and seized his dagger. She spun fast and the dagger hit the rear wall of the pub and was buried deep in the oak wood. He made a final bid to grab her but she blocked this move and hit him hard again. “Have at them lads,” he squealed as he hit a chair, broke it and lay out cold on the floor.
Finnigan cursed, “Ya big stupid slobs, you’re going to wreck my place.”
“Sorry Finnigan, we’ll pay for the damages,” Hercules cried. He, Gabrielle and Morrigan formed a tight circle while the ruffians, moved in to try and say they’d knocked out the mighty Hercules.
Some fifteen minutes, three broken tables and five mutilated chairs later, the place had cleared out except for one dark-haired middle-aged man and a few farmers who were huddled at their tables having witnessed and ignored the fight. The dark-haired man motioned at them, “Buy you all some ale, it looks like you’ve all worked up a heavy appetite. The name’s Gervais.”
Hercules looked over and noticed he was missing a hand, “Sure, if you’ll tell me where you lost your hand.”
“No problem there. Finnigan, get these fine people some of your best. And cheer up, it isn’t every day a fight is paid for.” Finnigan scuttled around, setting the chair aright and finally went and got ale for Hercules, Gabrielle and Morrigan.
Gabrielle looked closely Gervais, “You fought with the Boudicca; you seem familiar.”
“You’d be thinking right. I recognized you right off, Gabrielle of Potedia. I was sorry to hear of Xena’s death.”
“Thank you.” She carefully noted his appearance. “You were a Druid, Gervais. You helped me after I met the followers of Da’hauk.”
Gervais winced, “Guilty on both counts. We stamped out that little cult as fast as we could. I’m sorry it wasn’t fast enough for you.”
“It was a long time ago,” Gabrielle said softly.
“Yeah, and before Caesar’s legions destroyed what was left of the land of the tribes. It was a world away. I’ll give you that. But I hear you come to visit the dragon Kilgharrah. Do you mean to do him harm?” Gervais smiled but it was clear he meant business.
“No, we mean to ask him for a boon.” Hercules replied.
“He will exchange a boon for a jewel.” Gabrielle nodded.
“True enough and dragons can have the power over the past and the future. I couldn’t let you hurt him, you know. The Druids from Mona who have immigrated to this land have sent me here to keep him safe. It is written he will have a hand in the rebuilding of our island when the Romans leave.”
“If you’re waiting for the Romans to go from Brittania, friend, you’ll be waiting a long year.” Hercules shook his head.
Gervais threw back the hood of his rough woolen cloak, and his dark eyes shone. “All time is short in the eyes of the old ones. I serve the crow goddess herself, the one you Greeks name Hecate. The one, I’m thinking you know well, is the Morrigan sister of Macha.”
“I was dedicated to the Crow Goddess when I was but a lass.” Morrigan said.
Dark feathers of the crow were entwined with blue and black beads around his neck. “If you are wed to death, as I am, you know to kill a dragon is no small matter, then.”
“Rest easy, we mean no harm to the dragon,” Gabrielle nodded, “I carry her mark. It was put on me in the far east, in Japa where Xena died.”
“Is it so?” Gervais marveled, “I’d be pleased to see this.”
“Here it is.” Gabrielle dropped her cloak and the knitted shawl that covered her back where the dragon was displayed.
“Then it is true.” Gervais drew closer, “The ink work is more delicate than anything from these parts. It must have hurt greatly.”
“It marks my time with Xena.” Gabrielle covered her back up again. “And I have this.” She opened her satchel.
In her palm, a diamond big as an egg glittered as it had when she found it fresh in the waters of the Ganges. “This is for Kilgharrah.”
Gervais nodded, “The dragon will be flattered by the stone. What he wants, you never know. My job is solely to keep him safe from any hero who comes this way to harm him. Until my land is born again, we of the old religion will stay here.”
“Have you met him, Kilgharrah?” Gabrielle asked.
He shook his head, “I am not a dragon lord, lady. Only a dragon lord can speak to a dragon. But know this, Gabrielle of Potedia, I do not believe you would bear the dragon’s mark unless you could speak to him.”
“This is certain?” Morrigan asked.
Gervais grinned. “Nothing is certain, Morrigan, but death. You all have fought long and hard enough to know this, surely.”
Hercules smiled, “I’ve never favoured death, myself. I fight for justice.”
“I’m sure you will, all three, confound Kilgharrah. I can show you the passage through to Mount Sawel, in the valley where he sleeps.”
“Thank you,” Gabrielle nodded.
“We’d be pleased to have a guide,” Hercules said.
Gervais took out his tobacco and filled a pipe, “I will go no further than the foot of the mountain. If the dragon takes you to the underworld, that’s your own problem. I can’t say what he’ll do.”
“We understand that.” Gabrielle said.
“We should get to sleep, if we want that early start to Mount Sawel.” Hercules smiled deprecatingly at the stranger. “We’ll rise at sunrise and leave if you want to come with us.”
“I’ll be there,” Gervais told them.
As they headed upstairs to their room, the last thing Gabrielle noted about the large downstairs room was the soft, swirling smoke of the Druid’s pipe in the half-light.
He was there, as he promised, in the first hours of the dawn looking more rested than she, for one, felt. Hercules always looked cheerful and rested even under the worst conditions. She remembered that Xena had been much the same way, and wondered if it was because they were part immortal. Morrigan, on the other hand, was tired and grumpy in the early hours before first light.
As they made their way westward, Gervais kept up a cheerful conversation with Hercules. His mount, a gray gelding, had an Iceni brand on its right flank. When Gabrielle asked him if he was Iceni, he laughed softly and told her that he was from the Briton tribes from the far west but that his mount had come from an Iceni horse dealer in Northern Eire.
At the foot of Mount Sawel, they made an encampment where they left Gervais with the horses. They proceeded on foot up the path on snow and loose shingle where it was hard to find their footing. On the first part of the journey, Hercules came first but half way up the mountain Gabrielle heard the great dragon, Kilgharrah. At first, she thought it was the whining whisper of wind. Then, she realized it was the dragon himself who was singing softly with the winds.
“What is it?” Hercules asked.
“I hear him singing.” Gabrielle said. She closed her eyes. She could see him, long and lithe, with a skin like faintly green copper and eyes that heard an eerie intelligence. He was watching her, studying her. Whether or not they went home, all depended on what he decided he wanted to do with her. He could kill her; he could kill them all. Now, his voice reached her on the path with the force of hard stone.
“Gabrielle, my bard.” Kilgharrah’s voice whispered in her head, “Come to me.” She held her staff up with both hands but he wasn’t there. Backed up against a birch, she stood there listening to the dry leaves sizzle when the wind swept through them. Gradually, the image of green serpentine eyes faded from her mind.
“He sees me.” She cried out.
Hercules touched her shoulder, “He’s a magical beast, Gabrielle. He can touch your mind.”
“You didn’t hear him?” She asked Hercules and Morrigan, gaining inner strength again as the impact of the vision faded from her mind.
“No, dear one.” Morrigan replied. “Druid I may be but the dragon doesn’t call me.”
“I didn’t hear him either.” Hercules nodded. “I believe that the tattoo you were given in Japa allows you to speak to this beast. There is nothing that says a woman can’t be a dragon lord. You’re a bard too. Perhaps, Kilgharrah needs both.”
“He called me his bard.” She said, placing the emphasis on ‘his’ and returned her staff to her side. “This will do me no good here.”
“We’re here for you.” Hercules touched her shoulder. “We’ll stand by you.”
As they moved up the mountain, the snow gradually turned into wet sticky patches of slush. A frozen stream that had been invisible under the snow, now trickled down the mountainside picking up melted snow along the way. The grasses and the trees appeared here to be in the early stages of spring. Snowdrops and yellow daffodils grew in patches around the trees and a heavy mist hung over the mountain passage.
“The air’s warm with the dragon’s breath.” Hercules inhaled deeply.
The path ran out at the head of an immense cave where a few scattered gold coins lay on the ground. Steam issued from the mouth of the cave, which shone with an unearthly glow.
“Welcome, little bard,” an aged voice called out.
“Did you hear that?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yes, what did you hear?” Hercules replied.
“She’s hearin’ the voice of the dragon,” his wife nudged him.
“Right, Gabrielle we both heard it,” Hercules nodded.
Inside the cave, a rusty laugh could be heard. “Oh little one, I knew I would like you. Come in, be not afraid. I will not eat you – at least not yet.”
Entering the cave, they found themselves on the ledge of a precipice. The dragon sat on a crystalline rock formation in the middle of the huge cave. Above him was the hole he used to gain access to his cave and his hoard. Scattered around the Great Dragon, glittering from every ledge were precious objects of every description – chests bursting with coins, gold and silver cups inlaid with emerald, rubies and diamonds, vast gold and chains and broken busts of heroes and kings made of ivory and gold from the ages past.
The dragon looked at Hercules sternly, “You killed my brethren to steal the golden apple. Is there any reason I should not kill you now?”
“We could do battle for many days before the outcome is decided.” Hercules responded calmly, “I could kill you too - although not easily.”
“Indeed. I was not so fond of that brother, in any case.” Kilgharrah said, “But I will not kill you now because it pleases me that you are here. Once, long ago, one of your kind Theseus tried to kill my mate Manasa. It has been many years since she has been lost to me. You will help find her for me in a future time, when my master, the dragon lord Merlin Emrys will have need of her. He cannot find her alone.”
He flew to a perch and his reptilian eye studied Gabrielle, “My mate, Manasa, will come to your call, little one. You can sing to her. You have come to me to help you find your mate, the Warrior Princess Xena. If I am to bring Xena back across the River Styx, you must help me as well.”
That sounded fair, Gabrielle thought trying to understand. “I don’t understand, why can’t you go to Manasa now?”
Kilgharrah sighed deeply and as he did sparks and gusts of flame came out of his nostrils. “The time is not right. From afar, I watched as she was wounded by Theseus in a great battle in the Himalayas. When I found her, her life force was almost extinguished. Theseus couldn’t kill her but I saw the wounds he caused would make her suffer for eternity. To relieve her pain, I cast her into a painless sleep cushioned by an immense Pearl of Tears. She was spirited away, in future time, by the ancient Celts to a resting place in the Black Mountains of Wales. There she will sleep painlessly on the pearl until she is woken from sleep.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle asked, “Why can’t you wake her now?”
“Ah, child, do you not know how quickly I would go to her side if it were possible?”
“Why do you need me to go forward in time to find her?” Gabrielle asked him.
“That sounds like Ares.” Gabrielle said. “Has Albion come about yet?”
“Not yet,” Kilgharrah said. “Uther Pendragon rules over Camelot. He nurtures the viper Morgana in his bosom. In time, she will try and wrestle control of Camelot from him and kill the true heir. Arthur, Uther’s son, will bring a golden age to troubled Britannia, heralding over twenty years of peace and prosperity that will go down in history.”
“Ares won’t like that,” Hercules said. He knew his half brother was motivated solely by a desire to see the world change by war and destruction. Gabrielle nodded in agreement.
“Listen and hear more,” Kilgharrah said, “Arthur’s companion and servant, Merlin, is a dragon lord of great power who can call to me. I can help you get to the Black Mountains and find my mate. Merlin already knows about the fell nature of the witch, Morgana and her darker sister Morgeuse. He will call me. I will help you, in the future, to liberate my heartsblood, Manasa.”
“Some dragons have mastery over time, Gabrielle.” Hercules said, “It seems that although Kilgharrah can see what will happen in the future, he is still helpless without us.”
“This is true.” Kilgharrah said.
“Why do we not wake Manasa now?” Gabrielle asked.
Kilgharrah’s face lighted up in a dragonish smile. “Why child,” he said, “Do you not think that all things must happen in their own time? The time of Merlin and Morgana is the time for my heart’s blood to waken. All happens only its own time. So, when I call Xena back to this world in future time she can return to you without harming any of the Japa souls that she swore to protect. It is the same with my beloved. I must wake her in the right time so that she is fully recovered from the blows of Theseus.”
“I have no magic,” Gabrielle said, “How can I defeat these witches?”
“You,” Kilgharrah said, “have the magic of a pure heart. Only this can save my heart’s blood. This is why you will need the help of Merlin Emrys, the greatest and last of the dragon lords. Now, I will make a Glimmerglass to send you through time and space to Camelot. There you will convince Merlin to help you. He too is pure of heart and will come to know you. When you meet him, he will still be a servant to Uther’s son, Prince Arthur who does not know that his servant possesses magic. You may also receive help from the court physician, Gaius in the commission of your errand.”
“And Uther?” Gabrielle asked.
“Tell him nothing of who you are lest he be minded to put you to death. You do not have to have magic to die at Uther’s hand.” Kilgharrah stated firmly. “It is enough to be allied to magic. Give me the pure crystal diamond you found in the Ganges wash. It is composed of the tears of my mate. It will guide you back to the right place to begin your task.”
Kilgharrah stretched out his forearm, and Gabrielle dropped her diamond on his outstretched paw. He breathed on it and the diamond turned deep blue and tears ran off the wide surface.
“Gibiden in burgum, belosipa hwon wlonc and wingal.” The dragon cried.
Kilgharrah tossed the weeping diamond in up into the air where it hovered in front of the three adventurers. The blue water from the diamond ran down and formed a long rectangle that looked like a blue door.
“I shall,” Hercules promised taking the lead through the watery portal.
The moment they stepped through the blue portal, they found themselves in a dark leafless wood with an enormous two-headed snake in front of them.
Hercules, knowledgeable in the ways of all monsters, did what came naturally to him. “It’s an Amphisbaena,” he shouted. “Form a circle.” They all drew their weapons and moved immediately in formation back to back as the hideous heads spat at them. Hercules and Morrigan drew their swords while Gabrielle put her staff into fighting stance.
On their right, a tall figure on white stallion galloped toward them. “Get out of the way,” ordered an imperious voice, “Can’t you see I’m hunting the giant serpent?”
“It’s an Amphisbaena,” Hercules yelled, “I saw it first. But I think there’s enough of this monster for all of us.”
“Incredible,” said the voice, which resolved into a young man with blond hair around of around twenty. “Does no one ever listen to what I say? I’m your Prince. Merlin!” At that point, Hercules realized they had been watched, since their arrival through the portal, by this dark-haired gangly youth.
“But Arthur,” the dark-haired youth said, “I think this monster is rather large.”
“Listen sonny,” Hercules reprimanded, “I’ve been killing these beasts for several years now. Do the Augean Stables and the Nemean Lion mean nothing to you?”
The young man swung off his stallion in one smooth motion. “I don’t believe it, the woods are full of mad men, I swear. The Augean Stables were cleaned out by Hercules, you imbecile. I don’t think you resemble…well, maybe you do.” He looked over Hercules’s massive arms, “but still. That’s impossible! Hercules is a myth, the son of a God. Who is this with this man, Hercules’s wife the legendary Morrigan? Or perhaps this one, is the Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle the Battling Bard?”
“Um, Arthur,” the dark-haired youth gave them a crooked smile, “I saw this. They just appeared in the woods out of nowhere.”
“What are you talking about?” Arthur demanded. “People don’t just appear out of nowhere, Merlin. You need your eyes checked.”
“Well, they just did.” Merlin gestured to the threesome who now circling around the Amphisbaena. “Not here one moment, then here the next.”
“That’s impossible,” said Arthur firmly, striking at the head on the left.
Gabrielle followed up Arthur’s parry with a snap with her staff, and the second head spat venom, which Hercules neatly avoided.
“You do know that if you kill just one head, another will grow in its place,” Arthur told no one in particular. “I’ve seen a picture in the Xena scrolls, by the way, where Gabrielle the bard of Potedia makes that very move.”
“Really?” Gabrielle said pulling the sais out of her boots, “Does she do this too?”
“No, not so much,” Arthur watched her throw her sais toward the left head while Hercules fought the right. “Yes, that’s impressive. Can you use the chakram on your belt?”
“You mean this one?” Gabrielle took out the chakram. With one spin, it arched through the air and sliced into each of the monster’s heads. Then she caught it.
“Yes,” Merlin murmured, “That should do it nicely. You know,” he said to Arthur, “The story says when Xena died…”
“She taught Gabrielle to use her chakram although Gabrielle was loathe to use it. Yes, Merlin, I can read.”
“And the sword Hercules is using,” Merlin continued, “is not an ordinary sword. It glows. A nice shade of azure, sort of.” Merlin tracked the movement of Hercules’s sword with admiration.
“Thank you Merlin, yes I had noticed. Hercules’s sword was supposed to be forged on Mount Olympus, and it was supposed to glow blue.”
“That does look like blue,” Merlin pointed out.
“Yes, Merlin I suppose it does. But that doesn’t mean,” Arthur concluded, “that these are heroes out of the past. For one thing, they are all supposed to be dead.”
“Of course there’s that.” Merlin nodded affably. “But I did see them step though a blue door right into the forest.”
“So you say, but you’re easily impressed.” Arthur snapped.
“I must be, I work for you,” Merlin stood back watching the fight with interest.
“I see,” Arthur smiled, “You really must want to polish my armor on Solstice Eve.”
“He’s going to be too busy, son.” Hercules kept up his sword arm and buckler, “We need him to find to the dragon, Kilgharrah. His mate, the dragon Manasa lies healing in the Black Mountains in Wales. Whether you come along with us doesn’t matter to me, one way or the other.”
“Now, I know you’re all three mad as hatters,” Arthur shrugged his shoulders, “Why would you need Merlin for that?”
“Because he’s a dragon lord,” Gabrielle smiled.
“Um, Gabrielle you did remember that Uther Pendragon, who is king around these parts, hates magic,” Morrigan said, parrying with her sword.
“Yes, I remembered.” Gabrielle nodded, “But Arthur here doesn’t believe Merlin is a magician, let alone a dragon lord. I suggest we all drop our guard and see what happens.”
“Drop your guard, are you all insane?” Arthur countered, “That’s a venomous giant two-headed snake, and it’s going to kill us all if we back off.”
“I think not,” she said quietly, “Look.” Gabrielle, Hercules and Morrigan stepped backward and the Amphisbaena moved forward to strike at Arthur.
On cue, Merlin leapt forward.
“Merlin,” Arthur yelled, “Get the out of the way.”
“Sorry, I have to save you.” Merlin held out his hand and began to speak, “Woriap pa win-salu, wealdend licgap, dreame bedrorene, dugup eall gecrang.” He tossed out the spell, emphasizing the last word.
His blue eyes turned dark amber. For a moment, time seemed to stand still. The Amphisbaene, roared once in pain then collapsed, dead.
“Merlin?” Arthur jumped back and yelled. “Did you do that?”
“I’m pretty sure I did, yes,” Merlin nodded.
Merlin put his hand behind his back. “Quite a few. Not sure really.”
“No, not really. I stopped counting at twenty-five.” Merlin said uncomfortably, “Sorry. I guess I’ll understand if you don’t want me to work for you anymore. I suppose you’re going to tell your father. But if you do, could you give me a head start, say of about two days. I really don’t want to be executed.”
Arthur froze. “You really think I’d do that?”
Merlin seemed surprised. “You wouldn’t?”
“Don’t be daft.” Arthur looked offended. Then he considered Gabrielle. “It’s a funny thing about you. You really aren’t from around these parts. I have a feeling about that. To be honest, there is something really off about the lot of you.” He smiled slightly at Hercules, “Either, you are king visiting from another kingdom or you are well – a remarkable warrior from the past. However, in a way it doesn’t matter who you are because I know that I can’t tell my father about this. No matter who you are he’ll execute you because you came here using magic. I know him. It won’t matter that you’re not actually magicians. He’s inflexible like that.”
“He has a thing about magic,” Merlin nodded.
“Yes he does. And Merlin, he’ll kill you. You know he will.” Arthur leaned over and wiped his sword on the grass. “You know, he used magic so I could be born. So how could I hurt you for being a magician. I can’t believe I’m saying this!” He sighed. Anyway, it seems a trifle hypocritical to kill you when my own father used magic to get me. We’ll ask Gaius, he’s the court physician, how we should deal with this problem.” Arthur considered, “Gaius does know you can do magic, I suppose, Merlin?”
“Yes, yes he does,” Merlin said.
“She suspects, yeah.”
“And Morgana?” Arthur’s right eyebrow went up.
“Not a clue,” Merlin said.
“So, I’m not the only one,” Arthur looked more comfortable. “I mean who was a total prat and never suspected a thing.”
“Not a total prat. More like a sort-of prat.” Merlin shook his head seriously.
“And this is supposed to make me feel better, how?” Arthur inquired.
Merlin looked around and picked up Arthur’s shield, Arthur’s sword, Arthur’s helmet and Arthur’s gauntlets. He gazed meaningfully Arthur’s things and sighed deeply, “It’s not. Supposed to make you feel better.” He grinned at Gabrielle. “When you went around the countryside with Xena, the Warrior Princess, how much of her stuff did you carry with you?”
She blinked, “We had Argo for that. And we were too busy fighting off warlords and petty kings for me to clean her armor. She cleaned her own armor.”
“How much of your stuff did Ioleus carry Hercules?” Merlin asked innocently.
Hercules hefted his pack to his shoulder, “No one carries my things. I carry my own load.”
“He’s always been that way,” Morrigan said. “He’s too proud to let me carry his things.”
“Too proud,” Merlin repeated, “the son of a God is too proud. I think that’s lovely.”
Arthur stepped back and held up his hands, “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What exactly am I doing?” Merlin inquired.
“This is a completely different thing,” Arthur exclaimed. “I’m the son of a king.”
“I can see what you’re talkin’ about, Merlin.” Morrigan said. “Cleanin’ armour, sort of beneath a wizard.
“Merlin – you,” Arthur said, as he took his helmet, gauntlets, and shield from Merlin, and strapped them to his horse, “Are unbelievable. I’m never going to hear the end of this am I?”
“No,” said Merlin, “You’re not.”
“Well forget it.” Arthur turned to Hercules, “I want to hear about the Nemean Lion, Hercules. And while you’re at it, why don’t I take everyone’s pack and strap them to my stallion as well.
“That would be a start,” Merlin said and winked back at Arthur.
As they walked back toward the castle, Hercules refused to be housed in the high town. Camelot was, as Gabrielle noticed, a beautiful gray castle with high turrets and stained glass windows. As they made their way across the moat and drawbridge, she noticed a slight girl with light brown hair and eyes and pretty features stop and smile at Arthur.
“Gwen,” Arthur called out running up to her.
“Your highness,” she curtsied. Her keen eyes looked over the party. “Have you come back then? Did you not find the serpent?”
“Yes, we did. That is why I want you to help Merlin take them to see Gaius. Then, I’m going to need your help in getting together some horses and my pack to get out of the castle.”
“Where are you going? Solstice Night is next week, Arthur.” She whispered.
“I know that, these travelers are from Southern Eire. They are looking for the mate of Kilgharrah in the Black Mountains. I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell Lady Morgana about them.”
“Of course not,” she whispered back, “why are we whispering?”
“Because we don’t want Lady Morgana to hear this,” Arthur said.
“And could you take them to see Gaius, please,” he bowed to her before leaving them.
“Oh yes, Arthur I could. Hello,” she smiled at the strangers, “I’m Gwenivere. Merlin, I think we should go through the iron market to get to Gaius’s quarters. That’s the best route.”
Merlin nodded. As they went through the market, the ironmongers did not even look up from trading their wares. Soon, they were unpacking Arthur’s stallion and carrying their packs in a side entrance. A man, with wild white hair, and a slight cast to his right eye looked up from heating a pottery beaker. The room was a large and airy with an enormous casement of books that went to the ceiling. He stopped in astonishment.
“Merlin,” he demanded, “who are these people?”
Merlin helped Hercules take the packs off the white stallion, “These people, Gaius, need my help to find Kilgharrah’s mate.”
Gaius’s eyebrow went up, “I take it that they know about your um skills.”
Gwenivere pushed her hair back from her face. She looked faintly embarrassed. “It’s all right Gaius I know about Merlin.”
“I never told you,” Merlin shook his head.
She gave him a patient look. She said, “Living in this castle, serving Lady Morgana who is obviously a witch but who is the ward of Uther, so will never be revealed for who she is. And then working with you, who have been accused of magic more than once, how stupid do you think I am?”
“Not stupid at all Gwen,” Gaius replied, “But these are dangerous secrets.”
She smiled, “Secrets that I’ll forget as soon as I’ve heard them. These people are not from these parts and you must tell them what they need to know, so I’ll leave you all.” She curtsied and turned to leave, then looked back, “Be cautious. I’ll try to keep Lady Morgana unaware of your business.” The door closed behind her.
Gaius looked at the chakrum at Gabrielle’s waist. “I have only seen that weapon once. It was in a book. Is it yours?” His eyes met hers with a knowing glance.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak and noticed they had been joined by someone, someone she had hoped never to see again. It was Ares floating in mid-air above Gaius. She pointed to the God of War. “You do see that?”
“They are just hopelessly good, not stupid or blind, blondie,” Ares responded. “Everyone sees me, even you.”
Gaius started at the sound of the voice above him and fell back a pace, “Yes, I thought I’d seen that weapon before. It’s a chakrum, the weapon of Xena the Warrior Princess. I have pictures of it in my copies of the scrolls of Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potedia.”
“Worthless drivel,” Ares passed judgment on Gabrielle’s writing.
“Have you even read it?” Gaius asked dubiously.
“Well, I tried….”Ares began.
“Humph, well that’s what I thought. We can tell it wasn’t written by you, in any case.” Gaius said. Gabrielle noticed Merlin’s face crinkled in bewilderment at Gaius’s harsh tone.
A dog barked from behind a table, “Down, Horace!” Ares ordered. “That dog is the best thing that ever happened to a man or God. Although in my case,” he laughed, “I’m a god. Thank heaven.”
“I see you brought many friends. Although, I’d hoped never to see you again, Ares.”
“Foolish old man, I promised you, you could be a magician beyond your wildest dreams. You refused me. Now you sit here, the nursemaid to an aging king who hates magic. Am I the only one who sees the irony in this? Since no one here is interested in what I have to say, maybe I should talk to Lady Morgana. She’s sort of hot, maybe I’ll…but no I’m saving myself for Xena’s all too long anticipated, return.” He yawned and floated down to the floor. He patted Horace’s neck absent-mindedly and produced an apple from inside his leather jerkin and began to munch. “So where is the she-dragon?”
“You are leaving, brother.” Hercules said forcefully.
“Brotherly love is so beautiful, isn’t it?” Ares smiled. “The happiest day of my life was when I saw you die, after leading the mortal life. Long after you and blondie here are dead, I’ll still be inspiring armies to spill the blood of innocents. I’ll be on top until the end of time.” He smiled at Gabrielle, “Like the old days when Xena listened to me, and we were as one. I would give a lot to see her at the head of new army. Ah, the good old days.” He beat his chest and exhaled, “I’ll be back folks.” Then he melted into thin air.
They all stared at the space where Ares and his immortal dog no longer stood.
“Well, that was illuminating.” Merlin stared at Gaius. “You never told me.”
“Nothing to tell,” Gaius shrugged. “But Merlin what our company must think!” Gaius moved forward and seized Gabrielle’s hand. “The bard of Potedia, Gabrielle. What an honour! And Hercules, I am pleased to meet you, sir. I hope you finally built your mother’s fence. And this lovely creature must be your wife, the Druid Morrigan. Such a delight!”
“It seems several people are seeking Manasa.” Merlin said. “Our job is to find her first and to return her to the great dragon.”
“You must leave and leave quickly. I have waybread prepared for your trip. I assume will Arthur ride with you?” Gaius asked.
“Yes, he has found out about me. Unfortunately, thanks to Gabrielle.” Merlin told him. “How is it that I always find you prepared for my departure?”
“You are ever at Arthur’s side, Merlin. I must be prepared.” Gaius told him, “Never mind that Arthur has found out, you can make him forget again. I have given you a small book of spells to send these three home again, and to make Arthur forget all that has happened.”
Merlin appeared unhappy, “While he knows about me, I am no longer alone Gaius.”
Gabrielle smiled, “To have power, is to be alone Merlin. Until the one comes to wake your heart.”
Hercules smiled at his wife. Gaius nodded, “See, even they know it is safer to keep Arthur in ignorance of your gifts until Uther die, Merlin.”
As Gaius helped Merlin and his companions prepare to leave Camelot, Morgana was sitting brushing her hair in her chambers. Every brush stroke made her dark locks shine. A tiny smile lighted her face. She was thinking of the day when Uther, the man who had raped her mother and brought her up in ignorance of her magic gifts, would die. It was just, she thought, that she should do this because she had magic, unlike any of the others in Camelot. One thing Uther, her unjust father was right about was that gifts like her gift for magic were always bestowed on those of noble birth alone. This thought of her nobility made her feel even more content, like a cat who has lapped milk.
She stared at her reflection and almost dropped her brush when a tall figure appeared suddenly in the mirror, a dark haired man in dark leathers. She turned swiftly.
“Ares, why are you here?” she demanded looking in his eyes.
He met her blue eyes and wagged his finger at her, “Ah ah, Morgana. I’m asking the questions around here. I seem to recall that you promised, with the help of Morgeuse, that the cobbles of Camelot would run red with blood of Uther and his noble son Arthur. You promised to destroy King Uther and begin a reign of terror over all Britannia. I’m still waiting.”
He glanced at the pretty blue room with the carved mirror, the massive wardrobe and the cozy bed. “Asleep at the reins, Morgana? When I give someone control over magical powers, I expect some bloodshed. I thought you had spunk. What do I find here? A wardrobe of dresses…you are pathetic.”
At that moment, she appeared to notice Horace who had installed himself on her pillow. Ares noticed her eyes narrow as she picked up a brush.
He coughed. “That’s Horace, my immortal companion, the only thing that this planet has produced that’s of any worth other than Xena. Leave him be.”
She glared at him. “What do you really want then?” She gave him what appeared to be a forced smile. She got up and put her arms around him. “We could get along so much better if we were closer, Ares.”
He shoved her away, “Uh, no I don’t want any of that from you. In fact,” her perfume tickled his nose and he sneezed, “I can’t even think about that with Xena so very close to mortality again.” A large linen handkerchief appeared in his hand and he blew his nose heartily. “Ah, better,” he sighed.
She put her hands on her hips. “Well what do you want then?”
“I want you to,” He wiped his nose and the handkerchief disappeared into thin air. He took her chin in his hand, “take away the heart’s blood of the Great Dragon Kilgharrah, his mate Manasa. Albion, pah, years of peace and brotherhood among men. I want bloodshed. I want war. I want brother crushing the life out of brother. You can give this to me.”
“And I get?”
“Manasa can build a well to see the future. You can rule in glory.” He thought about Xena in Britannia, heading a new army of destruction. Xena would make quick work of Morgana and Morgeause, and with a little luck destroy his soppy brother Hercules and his mortal mate. He grinned. “You will become powerful beyond measure,” he assured Morgana.
“How will I do this?”
“I’ll give you some spells to control this irritating blond who’s riding with Merlin, Arthur and a couple of other unwanted guests in your kingdom.” He nodded.
“And they would be?” She asked.
“The irritating blond is Gabrielle, the Bard of Potedia. And Hercules and his wife Morrigan.”
She laughed, “Heroes from the old fairy stories?”
He moved his shoulders until they cracked slightly. “They are here, in Camelot in Gaius’s quarters. You can get a hold of that sister of yours, Morgeuse using that magical telephone.” He pointed at her mirror.
“What’s a telephone?”
“Sorry, forgot you hadn’t seen the future yet.” He jeered slightly. “You use the mirror to gab with sis and get yourselves to the Black Mountains. Follow our heroes closely, on the ground. Since Merlin’s a dragon lord, he can get there fast on Kilgharrah. I suggest you get a move on in the magical spell department.”
“Merlin is a dragon lord?” Her mouth dropped open.
“More than that sweetie, he has magic. You better polish up your wands if you want to beat him,” he laughed.
Her lips folded in a line. “Gaius gave me sleeping draughts and lied about my magic. And he helped Merlin, my brother’s bumptious servant who tried to kill me. I see.”
“Well, I hope you do. Because I’m getting bored playing buy a clue with you. By the way, did you tell sis about out little arrangement, Morgana?”
“No,” she replied.
“Well.” He grinned at the thought of sister fighting sister, sister killing sister with dark magic in violence he orchestrated. “There may be hope for you yet.” He whistled at Horace who sprang off the bed and came to his side. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand, boy.” He disappeared in a crack of lighting and a puff of smoke.
The five companions sworn to find the dragon’s heart-blood, Manasa, left Camelot at daybreak. Their destination was a lake some five leagues to the west where Merlin said he would summon the dragon, Kilgharrah. The lake, in spite of a brisk easterly wind, was as smooth as glass and ice cold. Birches fringed the lake golden and still full-leafed. The snow, which was heavy on the ground elsewhere, was absent from this place where the air was heavy with magic. Gabrielle could feel it in the air and noticed that Arthur seemed uneasy.
“What are we doing here?” he asked, alighting from his horse. “I don’t like this place and Father wouldn’t be happy about us being here. It has a reputation as a magical place.”
“I need to get something for you,” Merlin said.
“Here?” Arthur looked dubious.
“Patience,” Hercules counseled. “I’ve found good help in the hands of the spirits of nature, Arthur.”
“This place makes me uneasy.” Arthur looked at the ground and dug a heel with his boot.
Gabrielle glanced at Merlin and noticed his eyes expand with some unwanted knowledge. She believed then that Merlin knew something about the role this place would play in Arthur’s destiny, the destiny of a boy would live to be a great king. The horses that Arthur had obtained for them were tied up, and they stood by the lake’s side.
A rustle on the path behind them betrayed that they were no longer alone. A traveler, with a piebald horse and a leather pants and light tan cloak was visible.
“Show yourself.” Arthur said drawing his sword.
“It’s me, Gwenivere, I have important news.” She too alighted from the horse and looked around her, “I don’t like this place.” She commented.
“Neither do I. But Merlin has brought us here to summon Kilgharrah.” Gabrielle noticed an impatient, worried tone in his voice, which softened when he spoke to Gwenivere, “But what are you doing here? This is no place for you. You could get hurt.”
“Morgana has slipped out of the castle.” She nodded, “I saw her contact her sister, Morgeuse in the mirror. She spoke to a dark man in her room earlier, but he slipped away without leaving the castle. She intends to harm you, Arthur. And lay a heavy enchantment on Gabrielle in the Black Mountains. I had to tell you, Arthur.”
“I will make that very hard for her,” Merlin said. He turned to the lake and his voice became harsher and his eyes turgid. “Cuman, Freya-helende, cuman her Merlin for-leosan biddan.”
The waters of the lake roiled and smoked, underneath the surface Gabrielle could see a golden boat with a young woman lying as if in sleep. In her white hands, she held a sword that glowed with the power of the dragon that had burnished its blade.
Tears rolled down Merlin’s cheeks, “Freya, love of my heart. I have given you mastery over the lake and the sword as a token that I will never forget you until we are joined again in death. Will you give this sword to Arthur?”
The young woman rose, clothed in white. Her lips curved in a fond smile, “Merlin, I hold the sword in trust for Arthur Pendragon only. He only must use this blade or it will be banished again to these waters. Pendragon,” she cast a stern glance at Arthur, “must promise to keep this sword for his alone. Or bring it back to the lake. Such is the burden of Excalibur.”
Arthur stared at the young woman dressed in white robes and recognized the young woman, Freya, now returned as a stern taskmistress, “I will keep the sword for myself alone.”
Freya held the sword out to him. “Take it up. And lay it down if need arise. You must have the power to keep the sword to sing only for you.”
Arthur put his hand on the blade, “I will bring Excalibur back when we return. While my father is king, I cannot keep this blade from him.”
Her blue eyes flamed, “It is mete that you do so, Arthur Pendragon. Excalibur is for you alone.”
“He understands, Freya.” Merlin stood watching carefully as she turned back to take up her watery grave.
Morrigan went over to put her arm around Merlin, “She is a Druid, Merlin. You will be reunited in the afterlife. She will wait as you do.”
“She is the only one who understands me,” Merlin bowed his head in pain and wiped his tears on his sleeve.
The pain of Merlin, separated from his love, cut Gabrielle to the quick. “The dragon told me all would happen in its own time.” She said.
Freya and her boat disappeared under the waters. Merlin’s face grew dark. In a dark tortured voice he summoned the dragon, “Cumon her dragon.”
The air grew hot and the wind shifted. Great leathery wings beat upon the winds and the dragon Kilgharrah came into sight. Everyone, save Gabrielle and Merlin, drew moved backward.
“Here, master.” The Great Dragon bowed his head and smiled grimly. “I am minded to do your bidding Merlin.”
Gabrielle drew close and spoke to the dragon, “Kilgharrah, do you know me?”
The dragon’s green eyes narrowed and his nostrils pinched with laughter, “Know you, little one. I have awaited you these many years. Have you come to sing for my love, my heartsblood, Manasa?”
“Ares, God of War has conspired with my sister Morgana, to lay a trap for the Bard of Potedia.” Arthur called out.
The dragon lighted on a rock and looked carefully at Arthur, “We can prevent that from happening. Climb onto my back. We will fly together across the Black Mountains, and you will sing, Gabrielle. My heartsblood will hear you from afar and awaken from her long ordeal.”
They climbed onto the back of the dragon. Gabrielle didn’t believe that Manasa could hear her above the mountains. She began chanting the Greek Harvest Chant softly, fearing that they were too high for her to hear them. As they rose, Gabrielle saw the ground below locked in winter as they soared. They wheeled and turned until she heard a voice below call out to her on an exhaled breathe, the way she’d heard Kilgharrah’s voice in her mind. “Come to me, my beloved.”
“Where is that?” she asked Kilgharrah.
“That is Hay Bluff,” he replied, “I will take you down.”
As they flew down, the wind and snow pelted them and they found themselves on a frozen lake. Faint whisps of smoke were rising from a cave on the North Face of the mountain. From the mouth of the cave, they heard unearthly screams.
“That is Manasa,” Kilgharrah cried out. “You must stop them.”
He strained to move forward and an invisible barrier stopped him.
“Gebidden y dragon,” Morgeause pronounced a spell that kept Manasa moving with her across the frozen lake, away from her mate and those who would help her.
He screamed in fury as he saw Manasa, hobble out of her mountain cave and wail piteously. A steel spike was driven through both her lips and dragon’s blood dripped on the ground. A chain was fixed to the spike; Morgeuse held the end of this chain and forced the female dragon away from her mate.
Morgana stood with Ares at the mouth of the cave, she called out to Merlin, “Where is the strength of your magic now, wizard? Can you not see that my sister and I have defeated you easily. You are weak.”
“You have become more evil than I thought possible,” Arthur said to Morgana.
“Goodness is weakness,” she responded. “Even now I hold the whip hand over you, Merlin. Poisoner!”
“I don’t regret poisoning you. I just regret telling Morgeuse how to save you.” Merlin retorted.
Manasa’s tears fell freely. Hissing and boiling, they pitted the ice where she walked trying to keep up with the cruel chain that held her in place. Morgeuse’s spell also bound her in place although her eyes spoke of a deep anger.
“You will build a well for us,” Morgeuse told the dragon.
“Speak to her, Gabrielle,” Kilgharrah cried, “Give her the strength to resist.”
“Manasa, try,” Gabrielle called the dragon, “Resist. Kilgharrah has waited for you for hundreds of years. I know they are hurting you. But his love is strong.”
She felt the heat from Kilgharrah’s tears behind her. “I know how it feels to lose the one you love.” Gabrielle said. “When I lost Xena, I thought I would die. Not a day goes by I don’t feel that.” Gabrielle choked and pearl-like tears fell from her face.
Ares laughed, “Sure thing, blondie! Xena left you in the end. You got her killed. If she stayed with me, she’d have stayed alive.”
“That may be true,” Gabrielle choked, “But she would’ve been dead inside Ares. You know it’s true.”
“Sticks and stones, blondie.”
“She speaks true, dear heart, fight the fell witch and hit them back with our love!” Kilgharrah cried.
Manasa, struggled with the chain, and bucked her head. With one final thrust, she forced Morgeuse to let go of the chain. Morgeuse slid to the edge of the mountain.
“Sister, help me!” She begged Morgana.
Morgana smiled, “Of course, sister. She raised her hand and her blue eyes darkened, “Swirban sweorcan,” she pronounced. Morgeause was gone.
“I was ever alone,” Morgana said coolly. “And now for the wizard who lied to me. The one who pretended to be my friend – Merlin. “Swat stric.” She pronounced.
“Unhebban,” Merlin shouted his spell back at her.
Ares shook his head, “Are you going to do anything other than shout at each other? Where’s the blood? Where’s the action? Where’s the death?”
Kilgharrah shouted. “Do you want death, Ares? I think I can arrange that. He breathed a breath of fire that raced to the entrance of the cave that had recently held Manasa. Inside the cave, they could hear loud cracking.
“What is that?” Arthur asked.
“I think it’s that giant pearl that Manasa lay on.” Merlin said, “Something has come out of it.”
Morgana turned around in time to see a tall dark-haired woman dressed in leathers emerge from the cave. “Who are you?” she snarled.
“Who am I?” Ice-blue eyes glittered at Morgana, “I’m your worst nightmare come to life. Gabrielle,” she shouted, “I could hear you singing all the way to Elysium. What’s going on?”
“Xena, they’re holding Kilgharrah’s mate hostage! He needs her back just like I,” Gabrielle choked. “Need you. Oh Gods, it’s really you.”
“Kilgharrah’s mate?” Xena shook her head, “I die for a few years and all hell breaks loose. I take it you mean this dragon,” she strode over to where Manasa stood, the spike in her mouth still holding her captive. “You’re sure about freeing her?”
“I brought her back with the power of your love, Gabrielle. The pearl Manasa slept on could only bring forth one who was greatly loved. Xena - ” Kilgharrah nodded to her partner, “this you have won for yourself. You have redeemed yourself to come back here and love again.”
“Xena, I’m sure. Set her free. I love you.” Gabrielle called back. They still couldn’t get through the barrier that Morgana had created.
Xena lifted her sword and with one slice cut through the cruel spike that held Manasa’s mouth together. Manasa lifted her head and roared out a cascade of orange flame.
Ares moved carefully away from Morgana. Finding herself isolated and exposed to her foes, Morgana realized that she had to leave. “Heofean,” she pronounced and disappeared.
Now, Ares was alone facing opposing forces on the frozen lake. The force that had held Manasa in place and stopped Gabrielle from reaching Xena had come down. Gabrielle raced across the frozen lake to embrace her lost love in her arms. “Gods, Xena. I have missed you so much.”
Xena held Gabrielle in her arms once more, solid and mortal. She kissed her tear-stained cheeks, again and again. “Yes, yes I’m here, Gabrielle. I’m real. I’m back.” She put her arm around Gabrielle, “There’s no need to cry any more.”
“Her tears were your salvation too,” Kilgharrah said, standing guard over his Manasa.
Ares smiled slightly at Xena. “Wait Xena, you know I can explain everything.”
“I’m listening,” Xena looked bored and hugged Gabrielle closer.
“You know how we work so well together – you the warrior, me the planner. This woman, this Morgana, she meant nothing to me. She was a witch.” Ares blustered. “Horace,” he yelled. Horace ran out of the cave and ran to his master’s arms. He licked Ares’s face, “At least you love me, don’t you boy?”
“Don’t try and get out of this one,” Hercules and Morrigan approached him from one direction.
“No, listen…I really want a piece of this God of War,” Arthur ran forward.
“I think I’m entitled,” Xena interrupted after kissing Gabrielle again, “I woke up with that mutt licking my face.”
“Horace is immortal now,” Gabrielle told her.
“That’s nice, Gabrielle. But I’m not going to hurt the dog,” Xena said, “I like dogs. I’m just saying that Ares.” Then Xena looked at Gabrielle’s face, forgot about Ares and kissed Gabrielle with more purpose.
“Isn’t that lovely?” said Gwenivere. And of course, in the middle of all the excitement and fellowship and love, Ares slipped away as Gabrielle always knew he would.
Morgana went back to living in Camelot, until she betrayed her father and then slipped off to join her sister Morgeuse, in Cornwall. Morgana saved Morgeuse because you never knew what port you might need in a storm. And in the end, it proved the right decision.
Thus the two dragon hearts were united until the end of time. Kilgharrah opened a portal with the tears of the blue diamond named ‘Hope’, that he returned to Gabrielle. This diamond has a later history, which you may be aware of. The truth is that the blue diamond belonged first and foremost to Gabrielle, which is why today it is housed in a museum where you can find Gabrielle’s scrolls – if you know where to look.
The portal opened by the dragon brought Hercules, Morrigan, Gabrielle and Xena back to Nova Amazonia for Solstice Eve. Word was sent to Gervais the Druid, in the north, and he brought all of the horses safely home. And then he joined in the festivities.
Deep in Gabrielle’s pocket, she found a note from Merlin, which read “Happy Solstice” in wizard’s ink that faded out, leaving a blank scroll for her to write on. That Solstice Eve, Gabrielle took her inks and made coloured cards for all the Amazons. It was supposed to be a one time and one time only thing, something to celebrate that Xena was back among them again. However, it proved such a good idea that she did it the next year, and the next year, and the one after that until they were very old. By that time, everyone sent around Solstice Cards. So, when Merlin gave Gabrielle a scroll with a greeting on it, the tradition was so old both he and Arthur took it for granted.