NOTE: The following short story makes minor references to WHEN FATES COLLIDE and MANY HAPPY RETURNS from season six of "Xena: Warrior Princess."
The noisy drinking crowd quieted as she made her way to the crude platform. Her dignified manner commanded attention, but it was her reputation for telling stirring tales that moved the audience to settle in. Myself, I was excited to finally be accorded the respect of a man. I was now of an age where I could go anywhere, anytime I pleased, long as I did all my chores. And this was where I wanted to be. Not for the ale or flirty girls, but to hear her. "The Battling Bard."
You see, I pictured myself standing where she was one day, making people sit up and take notice of my words. Thrilling them with my tales of bravery. Of course, I wouldn't be quite as dramatic as my father. He tended to flail his arms about and overdo fight scenes. And he included many, many fight scenes. The Battling Bard told of battles won and lost, but with surprisingly restrained emotion.
Oh, she could make you laugh or cry, all right. Her stories touched something inside, made you feel wiser when you heard them. Maybe it was because she'd experienced some of it herself. At least that's what people said. She had the air about her like maybe she had, and always carried those strange weapons with her. She didn't seem to use them, though. They hung at her waist like ornaments. Were they merely props? Wouldnít a sword make her seem more authentic? If I got the chance, I wanted to ask her about that, about how you should dress to achieve the right "look" for the mood you wanted to create. Not yet, though. She'd just finished reading the scroll she pulled from her bosom. When she pushed it back down into her blouse, you knew she was ready to begin.
"I sing of a hero whose love and courage changed the world." Her eyes seemed far away, but her smile and clear voice pulled everyone in to lean closer to her. As usual, she told of a woman with many skills, who'd fought evil of every kind -- not just with steel, but with a heart bigger than all the gods put together. We chuckled at the heroís antics, felt bad when she was hurt, cheered when she kicked ambushers into mud holes, sighed when she soothed a friend's pain away. Iíd heard such tales told by other bards, but never quite so well.
"More! More!" we all shouted when the bard finished and did a small bow. She shook her head, said maybe later, that good tales should be savored and digested first. I waved my hands frantically, hoping my tall height would let her see me above those standing and heading for the bar. Just as she was about to step off the platform, she did. She looked at me a moment. I figured she'd dismiss this gangly peasant who thought he deserved to be in her presence. Instead, she moved toward me. My mouth went dry. Idiot! How could I impress on her I wanted to be a bard if I was speechless?!
"You wanted to talk to me?" she asked, eyes twinkling. I nodded. We stood looking at each other. "Perhaps you might get us something to drink," she suggested. "I know my throat's parched. How about yours?"
"Yes, yes," I stammered. "Right away." Idiot! I bumped into other patrons as I glanced back to reassure myself she was really there. She was, seating herself across from my chair. I got ale, which I thought was the manly thing to do. I placed the mugs down gingerly on the table, then sat, still not sure how to begin.
"You're called?" she asked.
"Yes, yes, I am. I'm sure of it. I hear verses all the time, and pictures go through my head that must come out. I've known since Ö." She had her head cocked at me, trying hard not to grin too much. Idiot! "Oh, um, you mean my name. Sorry. Um, I'm called Horatio. My father used to be a bard too. His name is Stallonus. He attended the Academy in Athens. I want to go there as soon as we finish the planting. Father says he actually met Ö." Now she was laughing, though not unpleasantly. I smacked my forehead. "Ugh! I'm going on and on, when what I really wanted to do was listen to you."
"No, it's all right. You bring back fond memories of someone who was a lot like you. Having lots of words is good for a bard, though not everyone always appreciates it at first. Please, go on." She took a sip of her ale and leaned back, seemingly interested in what I had to say.
I relaxed too. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard after all. "Well, I would like to ask you a couple of questions. How did you know you wanted to be a bard? Where do you get your ideas? Did you have formal training? When did you start performing? Is it hard making a life like that?" I stopped to catch my breath. I realized I was rambling again. Before I could apologize, she leaned forward and touched my hand.
"It's different for different people. I Ö I haven't always been a bard. I still wonder sometimes why I'm doing this. My training was at the side of someone very special, who made my dreams come true, who helped me express thoughts and feelings I didn't think were possible. She did things I hadn't believed were possible, so I've had it easier than many others."
"So you're saying I should be an apprentice to someone like that? Maybe travel with them and learn my craft that way?"
She sat back. For a moment her eyes seemed to bleed. Then she smiled the most glorious smile I've ever seen.
"That's hard for me to say. I don't know if thereíll ever be anyone else quite like her."
We drank in silence for awhile.
"Have you actually fought? Is that why you carry those weapons?"
She seemed puzzled for a moment. "You mean these?" She fingered one of the weapons at her side. "The sais? Oh, I carry them because they were a part of the life we shared. My mentor was, among many things, a warrior. I guess I don't think of the sais anymore as something to hurt people. They were supposed to be more for defense anyway." She looked down at her hands. "But things don't always work out the way you plan," she added, with a trace of regret.
"And did you? Did you Ö hurt people?"
Her eyes darkened. For the first time I felt a little uncomfortable about getting so personal with her.
"Yes. I did. She didn't want me to, but she accepted it. She helped me accept that it's sometimes hard to fight bad people and not do some bad things yourself. She was a hero to me because she tried to make sure the scales dipped more to the side of good when it was all said and done."
I didn't want to push my luck, but I felt this was a once in a lifetime chance to learn something important about the path I envisioned for myself. "Please, tell me if I'm being a pest."
Her eyes shown again. "No, not at all. If she hadn't taken me under her wing, I wouldn't be sitting here now, able to tell stories that help people understand how precious life and loved ones are. She'd want me to pass that on to someone else who could do that. Ask what you want."
"Is it because you know what itís like that makes your stories so powerful? I mean, do I have to do those kinds of things to be able to tell of them and sound real?"
She sat thinking, absentmindedly stroking a sai, for a long time. She looked at me with an expression I couldn't fathom. "She was who she was because of all her experiences. I am who I am for the same reason. We tried to change that. Others tried to change that. But even with all the pain, all the flaws, we loved each other for what we'd become, as much as we feared losing ourselves to some 'better' potential." She sighed. "Horatio, I wouldn't wish on anyone what it's taken for me to stand on that platform and speak so intimately of heroism. There are certainly good bards - maybe great ones - who don't have to experience that. All I know is, for me, it's something I had to do."
Her eyes got that faraway look in them again. Like she was focusing on someone I couldn't see, listening to someone I didn't hear. She nodded and gathered herself up.
"I've enjoyed talking with you, Horatio. I know I haven't answered all your questions. I'm not sure I can, as I haven't answered some of them for myself either. I feel another story coming on. We'll talk again if you like, afterwards."
She touched my shoulder, then went to talk to the proprietor. He nodded, and she walked toward the stage. The door opened to a stream of new patrons. While the bard waited for things to settle down, she retrieved the scroll from her breast and silently read it to herself. I wondered why she hadn't memorized it by now. She was tucking it away when suddenly she went very still, her head down. When she lifted it, her eyes bore into the crowd, searching. I followed her gaze and saw it settle on a cloaked woman standing near the door. When the woman returned the gaze, I felt as though I'd become invisible, and they were the only two in the room.
People began noticing that the bard was standing there mesmerized. She surprised them when she stepped down and headed slowly toward the cloaked woman, who was now approaching the bard. I jumped off my chair, knocking it to the floor. I was drawn to them in the sure knowledge that a story was happening right in front of my eyes. I pushed my way close enough to see and hear everything. They were a few paces apart now, completely unaware of the throng around them. Each seemed afraid to break some spell.
"Is it really you?" the bard finally breathed.
"But I watched you fall. I saw the river claim you. You disappeared and Ö." Her voice faltered. "I looked everywhere and couldn't find you."
The stranger closed the distance then and touched the bard's face. She smiled. "And since when did we let a little thing like that keep us apart?"
The bard broke down in quiet sobs. The two women alternated between tenderly examining each other's faces and hugging so fiercely I feared theyíd crack some bones.
"Hey! What about the story?" the proprietor yelled at them.
"Soon!" the bard yelled back, wiping her eyes as she led the stranger to our table. "I've got an even better story brewing!"
"Story?" the stranger asked when we were seated, the two of them still clinging to each other. She seemed to notice for the first time the bard's dress. She took one of her hands and ran the fingers lightly along the smooth fabric on the bard's thigh and at the bottom of her blouse. She touched a sai with questioning eyes.
The bard grinned a bit sheepishly. "I'm known as The Battling Bard. I've made quite a name for myself since Ö since I thought I'd lost you."
"*You're* The Battling Bard? I'd heard someone was calling themselves that. I've been on your trail for months, hoping this bard knew you somehow or had a connection to you in some way. Everyone I talked to was so entranced with her stories that they couldn't describe exactly what she looked like. Sometimes 'the light shone off her hair like the sun,' sometimes her head 'was bathed in darkness.' One minute she seemed small and cuddly, the next like some Titan that scared Tartarus out of them." The stranger laughed. "Maybe hanging around all those gods was useful after all."
The bard chuckled, then said seriously, "I think it came from hanging around you. You're always in my heart, inspiring me to share you with others and do things I didn't know I was capable of."
The stranger looked down and touched the bard's dress again. "Is this another chance to change who you became?"
"No. That would mean regretting you or what we became together. I'm not trying to reach back for something I wish I had. I wanted to celebrate what was, and this seemed the best way I knew to do that."
"Remember when Caesar changed our fates? I knew instinctively that there was something good in that play, in those words about sacrifice and love, but I wasnít sure why. It wasn't until we were back in our true world - carrying again all the pain, confusion, joy, and certainty of our real lives - that I felt what the words meant in every part of my being. They became more alive for me than ever before. I knew we defined them, with our love, our sacrifices. I started barding as a way to memorialize that. But I discovered the words werenít about denying loss. They kept you alive, giving me the strength to go on."
The stranger gathered the bard in her arms, oblivious to my intrusion into their private reunion. I'd forgotten myself too, so lost was I in what they were saying, what I was learning. Finally they broke apart and noticed me.
"So, who is this fine young man sitting at the table with us?" the stranger asked wryly.
"Ah. My apologies. This is Horatio. Horatio, this is the woman Iíve been telling you about. Horatio wants to be a bard."
"Glad to meet you, Horatio. Have you picked up any good tips?"
"Oh, yes," I stated. "I can certainly see the difference between saying words and believing them. The understanding, the meaning, has to come from inside."
They studied me. "My," the stranger said, "I do believe this young man has promise."
"Yes," agreed the bard. "And I've already told him he can pick my brain some more. But first, I want to hear every detail of how you managed to survive disaster once again."
The stranger recounted her harrowing journey down a raging river and eventual rescue by a band of gypsies who nursed her back to health. As I listened to her, I could see how she had helped the bard become so good.
"Bard!!! Aren't you ready yet?"
Both women turned to scowl at the proprietor.
"Want me to take care of this?" the stranger asked.
The bard chuckled. "No, I'm trying to avoid bopping people, by telling them uplifting stories instead. I'm thinking of retiring, though, so this next one may be my last for awhile." She gazed fondly at the other woman. "At least in public." She squeezed the stranger's hand, then left for the platform.
I was puzzled. "Why would she stop barding? Because you've come back?"
The stranger simply said, "We'll see."
I sighed, a little disappointed. "I know there are others telling stories of Gabrielle and Xena, but this bard was pretty convincing. Not everybody gets to share a life with someone exciting like she did."
"Yeah, I asked her if I needed to follow someone like that, live an adventurous life. She said she wasn't sure. She just knows she personally wouldn't have been able to inspire people without having you as a teacher. I just wish Ö. Ah, Iím such an idiot sometimes."
"What?" she encouraged gently. "What do you wish?"
I swallowed. She was as kind as the bard. " If only Iíd been born earlier. There are all these rumors, but it would be too much of a miracle if they were still alive. I can only imagine what it would've been like to meet the real Gabrielle and Xena."
The strangerís mouth dropped open. She regarded me curiously for a moment, then the chair where the bard had been sitting. She shook her head and grinned. I couldíve sworn I saw a glint of mischief in her eyes. "You never know," she said. "It might take less imagination than you think. I bet you could tell their story pretty well."
Was she playing with me? Did they really think I had talent? "I don't know," I said hesitantly, hoping this hadnít all been a dream. "Maybe if The Battling Bard would share some more professional knowledge with me?"
The stranger patted my hand reassuringly. "Iím sure that can be arranged." She turned to the stage in time to see the bard pulling out the scroll she always read. The stranger gasped. "I'd know that scroll anywhere! It was a present from Sappho. Is that what she's going to read?"
"Oh, no, she tells all her stories from memory. I guess she prepares somehow by looking at that scroll before every performance." The stranger smiled broadly, as though enjoying the sight of a jewel sheíd thought misplaced.
The room quieted as the bard lifted her head. She turned toward our table and locked eyes with the stranger. When she began, her voice had a new quality to it. I can't define it exactly, except to say she sounded the same way when she talked to the woman sitting across from me.
"I sing as always of the hero whose love and courage changed the world. A woman with enough life in her to keep a bard busy for eternity. There are fight scenes, which is why sheís been called a warrior. There is sacrifice, so some have called her a savior. You will hear of comfort and caring, because many call her their friend. There are scenes where she is called companion, partner, lifemate. I know those most intimately and simply call her 'love.' But mostly I will call my hero by the name that has moved you so. The name that means everything to me. Gabrielle."