With apologies and thanks to Alfred Noyes, for a poem I've always enjoyed...
........UP TO THE OLD INN DOOR....
Xena cast a wary glance skyward again, the wind whipping her hair in flying black clouds around her face, mirroring the storm clouds. The temperature was dropping too, and she'd been looking for a place to stop for at least an hour. So far she'd seen nothing she considered suitable.
Another gust of wind hit her back, and she tightened her grip on Gabrielle.
"Nothing yet?" the bard shouted toward her ear. The warrior glanced down and smiled reasurringly into worried green eyes.
"No. We can't stay out here, that's for sure. I'm worried about lightening."
Gabrielle peered out from under the cloak and arm that Xena had wrapped around her shoulders. Trees pressed close from both sides of the track, but offered no protection from the wind and swirling debris. Xena had pulled the bard from Argo's back when she'd noticed Gabrielle having trouble staying upright, despite clutching the saddlehorn tightly with both hands.
"There used to be a town up ahead a bit," Xena said, bending to Gabrielle's ear. "I heard most of it was destroyed in the war, but there should be ruins, and some shelter. We'll head there."
"I wouldn't turn down a warm fire," the bard admitted. Xena could feel her shivering and picked up her pace a bit. Even Argo seemed anxious to get under cover.
***** The track curved unexpectedly, and at first Gabrielle thought she was seeing things. "It looks like something survived. That's an Inn if ever I saw one." She huddled close against Xena. The wind was blowing as fiercely as before, but the clouds looked less threatening. It was cold, though, and the bard envisioned a good fire, hot food and a long, relaxing bath. She was still shivering, and now, so was Xena.
"It does look like one," the warrior agreed absently, studying the scene ahead. Something wasn't right. It was possible that a new Inn had been built from the remains of the old, although it didn't look like it. The open area at the front was neatly stoned on one side, and even the flowerboxes looked as if they had been there forever. The shutters on the second story windows were weathered but in good repair and, most importantly to Xena, there was no sign of fire damage having occurred at anytime.
She mentally shrugged. In her experience, the victors told the tales they wanted heard, and she supposed that a story of the needless destruction of a town was an effective black mark against a defeated enemy
"Come on," Gabrielle tugged on her waist impatiently. "I can smell food cooking from here."
A slight smile appeared at the corner of Xena's mouth. "In this wind?" she asked, the long cloak billowing out and snapping around them. She shook her head. Gabrielle's instincts were unerring when it came to meals. An almost pleading look from Argo made up her mind.
Hours later, after a hot bath and a good meal, Xena was inspecting and cleaning her armour while Gabrielle sat back on the bed, working on one of her scrolls. The weather had cleared a bit, but the wind fairly screamed around the building, and although she felt uneasy, Xena was glad they were indoors. She had a fire burning in the generous fireplace, it was pleasantly warm, and, all things considered, really quite cozy.
The warrior grinned inwardly. 'Cozy' was a relatively new word in her vocabulary: as a warlord, she was sure she'd never seen anything in that light, but Gabrielle did have a way of changing her outlook on things. She looked over at the bard, always a welcome sight.
Gabrielle chose that moment to glance up and smile, as if she'd sensed Xena's eyes studying her.
"What are you working on?" Xena asked. The bard's smile turned to a grin. "Just another boring story about the Warrior Princess."
Xena rolled her eyes, and smiled in resignation as Gabrielle laughed. "Really, I'm just writing about this place. It has kind of an atmosphere, don't you think?"
"Mmm," replied Xena thoughtfully. She looked carefully around the room. It was fairly well furnished, nothing fancy, but it was comfortable and a good size. It also met one of her preferences: windows. Xena had an aversion to being closed into any place where there was only one way out. Given the weather, it was surprising that they'd been able to get a room at all. Yet, here they were, in what was probably the best room in the Inn.
When they'd gone downstairs to eat, there had been a few men in the bar enjoying an ale or two, but this was the first Inn Xena had ever seen where everyone left while it was still light out. It had been a well-behaved group too, which suited Xena fine, but it was odd, nonetheless. Casual conversation with the barkeep hadn't gotten her anywhere, and it was with some misgivings that she'd ruled out leaving. Gabrielle was tired from fighting the wind all day, and so was she.
"I wonder where those men lived. You know, the ones downstairs earlier. I don't think I've ever seen a more deserted village. It's so quiet," the bard observed. Xena gave her a sharp look at the thread of uneasiness in her voice that matched what Xena was feeling.
"Yeah." Xena put her armour down and wandered over to open a shutter and look out the window. Full darkness was only minutes away, and the moon shone periodically through wind-driven clouds. Neither man nor beast could be seen, and the warrior noticed that the lights downstairs had been put out. Very unusual, she thought.
The back of her neck was prickling.
Gabrielle watched silently as Xena closed and bolted the shutters. She should have been relaxed and comfortable, but she wasn't, and it was obvious that Xena wasn't, either. The blue eyes that turned her way were as steady as ever, but Gabrielle knew her too well to miss the tension in her shoulders.
"How about an early night?" the bard suggested, as she started to put away her parchments. "We could get a good start tomorrow."
"Sounds good," Xena agreed. She undressed and got into bed next to Gabrielle, but not before she laid her sword within easy reach. Gabrielle shifted to lay her head on the warrior's chest and sighed contentedly as Xena's arms wrapped around her to hold her close. They lay like that for a few minutes, listening to the wind, the crackle of the fire and enjoying the rare comfort of a bed. At almost the same moment, each looked at the other, and smiled.
***** Xena's head went back and her whole body stiffened, well defined muscle shadowed by the firelight. Gabrielle gripped her shoulders tightly and thrust up, watching the warrior's face as release ran through her. She smiled as Xena groaned softly, head falling forward again as her weight shifted. Dark silky hair was tickling the bard's chest as she drew Xena down into her arms, locking her firmly in place with her legs around the warrior. She loved lying with Xena like this, warm weight on her body, and the sounds of uneven breathing in her ear. A deep sigh of contentment sent a kiss to the warrior's broad shoulder.
Xena shifted to her side and tucked Gabrielle in against her, pulling the blankets up to cover them. She kissed the top of the bard's forehead and settled her cheek against her hair, stroking her back gently.
"Let's have early nights whenever we're at an Inn," Gabrielle murmered, breath warm on Xena's skin..
"Your audiences won't like that," said Xena with a yawn. "Fine with me, though."
They hadn't been lying there long when Xena's head rose abruptly. Gabrielle felt her body stiffen, and listened closely for whatever had alarmed the warrior, but she couldn't hear anything. Shifting very carefully, she asked quietly, "what is it?"
The fire had almost burned down but there was enough light for her to see the concentration on Xena's face. "I'm not sure, but...I think.." She shook her head in exasperation. Every instinct she had was warning her of danger, but something hadn't been right about the sounds she'd heard. And now, soft footsteps.
"Get on the other side of the bed," she hissed to Gabrielle, and reached for her sword, eyes scanning the room. The sudden, sharp, indrawn breath behind her spun her in place to see what had caused it.
Gabrielle's eyes were opened wide and she was staring toward the window, her mouth open slightly. Xena turned rapidly, ready to meet whatever threat was moving in on them and froze in place.
A young woman stood by the window, hair stirring in the wind, and the shutters that Xena had closed and bolted earlier were standing open. She toyed with a red ribbon, winding it between strands of the thick dark hair that flowed down past her waist.
Off in the distance, Xena thought she heard the faint ring of hoofbeats, and the woman heard them as well. Her head came up, and she looked out the window, her face eager in the moonlight.
Xena opened her mouth to ask what in Hades was going on, but the breath stopped in her throat as she noticed the faint outline of the wall behind the woman, visible through her body. She swallowed hard, and only dimly heard Gabrielle's soft gasp as she noticed it, as well. Slowly, the warrior backed up, never taking her eyes off the woman before her. She stopped abruptly at Gabrielle's cold fingered grip on her arm.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle demanded in a strangled whisper. Xena could only shake her head and watch the woman closely. Whoever was riding the horse was closer now, and the warrior could hear the muffled clatter of hooves on the stones below, followed by a soft whistle. She took a tighter grip on her sword, drew a breath, and began to inch toward the other window. Gabrielle, unwilling to let go, followed her on bare, silent feet.
Xena eased the shutter open and looked out after a quick glance towards the woman. The rider below was standing in the stirrups, arm and body stretching upwards to softly capture hair flowing down through the window. If the warrior took care not to look directly at him, she could almost make out the hilt of a sword.
The rider looked up at the young woman, appeared to say something, and sent his horse out of the yard and up the track. The woman's face held a soft smile, and as Gabrielle watched, she turned and was gone.
Neither said anything for a moment.
"I'm dreaming," said the bard firmly. She gripped Xena's wrist harder, as if to wake herself up.
"'Fraid not," said Xena quietly. "I saw it, too. The shutters are open, and I can see the fire again. I couldn't before, just moonlight." Her sword hand dropped, and after Gabrielle released her, she walked over and bolted the shutters closed again.
Back in bed, the warrior sat propped up against the headboard, Gabrielle tight against her.
"So if it was real..I mean, if we really saw what we think we saw, then..." the bard started slowly.
"We saw it. I could see the wall through her, and the stones through the horse."
"I saw clothes like that rider was wearing in Athens, when I was there. They were pretty expensive.A merchant, do you think?"
"A merchant ghost?" Xena smiled. "Too young. Maybe a rich man's son. Her clothes were nothing fancy. They knew each other, though, that's for sure."
"Lovers," said Gabrielle. She got a faraway look in her eyes. "Did you see the way their bodies reached towards each other? And the way she let her hair down so he could touch it, since he couldn't hold her..." her voice trailed off, and Xena looked down with a smile. Giving in to temptation, she leaned over and kissed the bard gently.
"I guess I should be worried, or scared or something, but I'm not," continued Gabrielle. "I didn't feel like we were in any danger."
"The dead can't hurt us. I wonder what happened, here." mused Xena. She adjusted her hold on her lover as Gabrielle snuggled in close.
"Kind of an odd way to meet," agreed Gabrielle. "Why wouldn't they be in the Elysian Fields together, since they're dead? What are they doing here? And how could we see them?"
"Don't know. The only thing I can think of is that, for some reason, their spirits can't rest."
"Trapped between life and death. Always meeting and never touching," whispered the bard. She reached for Xena and gave the warrior a hug.
"We should try and get some sleep," Xena said gently. Gabrielle settled herself and closed her eyes, reluctant to be away from her lover's touch.
***** It seemed like only a few minutes to the bard before she felt Xena gently shaking her shoulder. She blinked, trying to wake quickly.
"Voices, downstairs," the warrior whispered against her ear. Gabrielle listened carefully, then heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Despite herself, she moved a tiny bit closer to Xena, who hadn't shifted postition but was listening alertly, sword lying where she'd set it down. It would do her no good against the dead.
Four men took shape, and Gabrielle's eyes opened wide. Dressed as soldiers and carrying weapons, they stood quietly and waited for something. Or someone, the bard thought to herself.
Xena's eyes shifted to the window. She'd looked carefully at the soldiers, who hadn't noticed her and Gabrielle any more than the woman had earlier, and searched for the emblem of whoever held their allegiance. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully when she found it.
Gabrielle's body stiffened when the woman appeared at the window again. She seemed oblivious to the men behind her, and looked anxiously out the window, again open to the night.
She and Xena watched helplessly as the soldiers easily overpowered her, tying her hands and throwing her down beside their weapons propped in the corner. As they started their dice game, she whispered angrily to the warrior. "Can't we do something?"
"Like what?" Xena asked in a low voice. "Gabrielle, whatever happens here has already happened. It's over. All we can do is see how things play out."
Xena slid out of bed and silently moved to the window again as she heard the faint hoofbeats. She watched as the soldiers reacted to the distant sound, as did the woman. The warrior could make out the shape of horse and rider, coming towards the Inn.
The woman took one quick look at the men, satisfied that their attention was all on the rider, and threw herself against the spears and shields leaning against the wall. Xena knew they'd made a substantial noise, and the hoofbeats abruptly stopped.
There was a moment of silence, and all the warrior could hear was the wind.
One soldier ran to the window, and Xena watched with a tight jaw as he turned to his companions and said something she couldn't hear. Another backhanded the woman, and as the horse was sent galloping away into the night, once again a woman died from a sword thrust through her chest.
She turned toward the bard still sitting on the bed. Gabrielle had tears on her cheeks as she looked up at Xena. "She warned her lover that the soldiers were here, and they killed her for it. Why, Xena?"
Xena wrapped her arms around her. "I don't know for sure. I saw the emblem those soldiers were wearing. Remember the war I told you about? Those soldiers rode for the warlord who was trying to conquer these lands. I wasn't in the area back then, but I heard there was a pretty effective resistance. Nothing really organized, but the locals knew when and where attacks were coming. Inns are good places to pick up information, and maybe the woman worked here, passing on whatever she heard."
"That makes sense," admitted the bard. "But they loved each other, Xena, I know it"
"I think so, too," the warrior agreed. "I wonder if this is over."
Gabrielle looked startled. "How can it be over? We don't know what happened to them."
"We may never know," Xena reminded her. "She was killed, no doubt about that, and from the age of the rider, I'd say they found him almost right away."
"No wonder they can't rest. They can never be together," the bard said, sadly.
***** A few hours before dawn, Xena and Gabrielle watched quietly from the bed as a young woman stood by the window, hair stirring in the wind, and the shutters Xena had again closed and bolted were standing open. She toyed with a red ribbon, winding it between strands of the thick dark hair that flowed down past her waist.
Off in the distance, Xena thought she heard the faint ring of hoofbeats, and the woman heard them as well. Her head came up, and she looked out the window, her face eager in the moonlight.
Sliding off the bed, the warrior and the bard looked out the window. The rider was closer now, and the warrior could hear the muffled clatter of hooves on the stones below, followed by a soft whistle. The rider was standing in the stirrups, arm and body stretching upwards to softly capture hair flowing through the window. If the warrior took care not to look directly at him, she could almost make out the hilt of a sword.
He looked up at the young woman, appeared to say something, and sent his horse out of the yard and up the track. The woman's face held a soft smile, and as Gabrielle watched, she turned and was gone.
***** Gabrielle was listlessly toying with her breakfast as Xena settled with the Innkeeper.
"Your friend looks a bit tired," he remarked cautiously. Xena turned her head to study Gabrielle, and glanced around the nearly deserted room. Sunny and comfortable, it almost made the events of the night seem like a dream. Almost.
"I hope everything was to your liking," he went on. He wouldn't meet the warrior's eyes.
"The *room* was fine. The... guests were a little unexpected," she said deliberately, and leaned closer. "What happened, here," she asked quietly.
"So you saw them," he said in a voice that was filled with sorrow.
"We saw them," she confirmed. "What happened " she repeated.
He swallowed and Xena saw tears in his eyes.
"Five years ago, there was fighting all around here. We had no army, surprise was our only chance. My daughter worked here every evening, and when the soldiers came to drink, she listened. She passed on everything she heard to her betrothed, who acted as a courier between those of us in hiding, while we fought." Unself-consciously, he wiped at a tear trickling down his cheek. "It didn't take long for them to figure out there had to be someone passing on information, and they settled on my Bria. I think they would have anyway," he whispered, "she refused them all. She loved Galen with all her heart, and his father's wealth meant nothing to him if he could only have her." He paused for a moment, then went on, in a hoarse voice.
"They tried to catch him many times, but never succeeded. So one night, they came here, locked me in my own kitchen, and waited for Galen to come to Bria. Hunted everywhere, he could only come at night. Somehow, she managed to warn him, and he escaped, but...they killed my daughter. Galen found out later that day, and he was on his way here when they caught him. He was slaughtered like an animal." He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw.
"Galen's father wouldn't let his son be buried next to Bria. I don't know where he lies."
Xena stood silently, letting the sadness at two lives cut short wash through her. 'And how many lovers did I part?' she asked herself.
"It was five years ago last night that..it happened," the Innkeeper continued. "You were in Bria's room. We've all heard Galen's horse, but I've never had the nerve to go up there." He swallowed. "I just want to remember how much they loved each other." Turning away, he busied himself with polishing plates that shone in the sunlight.
Gabrielle looked up as Xena sat down beside her, eyebrow raised at the almost full plate.
"I guess I'm not really hungry," said Gabrielle. "Unless you want to finish this, I'm ready to go."
The warrior nodded and followed the bard out into the early morning sunlight. The wind had vanished, and the sky was crystal clear, the same blue as Xena's eyes. Gabrielle looked up, then back at the warrior beside her, who was thanking the stable boy and checking Argo. The bard smiled and gave in to a sudden impulse, pulling Xena into a hard hug.
"What's that for?" asked Xena, curiously.
"I'm not sure," Gabrielle smiled again, and shook her head. "I just had this urge to hug you."
Xena lifted an eyebrow, not understanding, then took a second look at where they were standing. Neatly laid stones were under her boots, and directly over her head was the window of their room.
She smiled to herself, and hugged Gabrielle back, much to the bard's surprise. Taking up Argo's reins, she and Gabrielle headed away from the Inn.
"That was strange, last night, and so sad. I wonder what happened?"
"Gabrielle," started Xena, "let me tell you a story..."