ASHES TO ASHES
DISCLAIMERS: Xena and Gabrielle are the creations of another and are owned by Universal and USA Studios. Here they have been borrowed, and manipulated with poetic licensewhatever that may mean.
All other characters spring from the imagination of the author, save He Who is, and He is self-existent.
VIOLENCE: A little, in accordance with the way of life, and death, of a warrior.
SEX: None. The friendship found here is a warm and loving kinship of like souls. It is only as is dictated by the boundaries of "X:WP" itself.
NOTES: In the chronology of "X:WP," this story falls after the series finale "A Friend in Need."
Heroes never stay dead, they are resurrected in many wayseven if only in the memories of those who knew them. (Even heroes whose heads have been severed. Or heroes whose heads have been severed and made into shrines, and their bodies strung up. Or heroes whose heads have been severed and made into shrines, their bodies strung up, and then cremated. Or heroes whose heads have been severed and made into shrines, their bodies strung up, cremated, and then mauled by demons. Or . . . )!
And as ever, I am grateful to family and friends for their continued encouragementand of course, to "He Who Is" for the very breath of life.
Questions, comments, criticisms are all welcome. WWRCherokee@AOL.com.
ASHES TO ASHES
How black that Night,
That banishes light
From the blue of her kenning eyes
How cruel that Wind,
Whose robes she wrapped in
That veils her warm, winsome
How savage that Cold
That shatters the hold
Of proud arm on stalwart sword.
How vile that Knave
Whose kiss of the
Stills my heartsongs sweetest tones.
Tender warrior, mine,
Did you know this time
Youd not be coming home?
--Gabrielle of Poteidaia
excerpt from Name Scriber
"Gabrielle! Feint left . . . now!"
Her silky voice, though light, was firm and Gabrielle obeyed without hesitation, marshaling her thundering mare hard to the left. A pike whistled past the young warriors right ear embedding itself into a cypress trunk a few feet ahead on her flight path. Gabrielle rode hard past the quivering spear, dodging roots and limbs. Ara's shoes ignesced against the rocks unfortunate enough to be found in her path.
"Xena, there are too many of them!" Gabrielle flung over her shoulder to the warrior riding behind her. "What should I do?!" The bard continued to maneuver her mount skillfully between the trees, scrub brush reached to grab at her booted feet. Suddenly, the path split before her. To the right, or to the left? Gabrielle chose without pausing to think. Her choice was the high road, a narrower route leading up a short slope. Ara scrambled up the rocky path easily. They gained a small plateau, and Gabrielle let her lighter, faster mare have her head. The brigands could see the bard flying above them; the suns breath glinted on her golden hair as she left the obscurity of the trees. Aras own dark mane and tail stretched behind her as the wind bespoke their speed.
Xenas sharp ears picked up the ribald laughter from below. She heard the derisive comments, but chose to ignore them until one voice sneered; "She rides with a demon on her shoulder!"
Another immediately answered, "Demon? Nah," and then his voice changed to a strained falsetto, "its a beoouteeful goddess."
This time Xena joined their laughter, somewhat manically.
"What?" Gabrielle demanded, never taking her eyes from the landscape ahead.
"Thats the first time Ive gone from a demon to a goddess in less than five seconds!"
When Gabrielle returned to the shadows of the lower path, she had gained a few moments lead. Her hands gripped the reigns hard as she leaned into the race, crouching slightly in the stirrups.
Xena glanced over her shoulder to see the determined band a little distance behind them beating and brutally spurring their horses in a fierce attempt to regain ground. The warhorses willingly complied.
"Ah, so do you think this has gone on long enough?" the warrior questioned with a lilt of mischief in her voice. "I may not be corporeal and I may not be able to fling a chakram, but I can add a bit of ummm, interest to this adventure. Besides, what profit are ghostly charms if one can't exercise them?" Xena flexed her hands out over the saddle-horn in front of Gabrielle, releasing her hold on the bards waist for the moment; then cracked her knuckles deliberately.
Gabrielle shuddered, "Uhh, please, don't!"
A feral grin creased the warrior's face. She flipped backward off the running mare's back and came to stand upright in a cleared area of the wooded lane, directly in the path of the charging horsemen. "Oh, dont worry about me!"
Gabrielle wheeled her mount around long enough to catch the warriors casual wave before kneeing her dancing mare onward in her headlong escape through the trees.
Xena slowly turned and crossed her arms, slumping casually. Waiting. Grinning lazily. She nodded in rhythm to the oncoming thundering hooves she could readily feel. She didnt have to wait long. The leading horse charged into sight and came straight for her. The warrior absently examined the fingernails of her right hand. Within sixty feet, sensing her before seeing her, the horse locked his legs and screamed in fear. He struggled to stop before engaging the tall apparition now apparent as she blocked his path. He jerked to the right crashing and crushing his rider's right leg between his massive weight and an ancient tree trunk. The sickening crack of the mans skull immediately followed as it impacted wood, and eclipsed all other motion for an interminable second. Spittle and blood splattered from the warlord's mouth as his body arced over his horses head.
"Ooo, that had to hurt!" Xena grimaced in sympathy as she watched the man's flight path until his unconscious body rolled to rest at her feet. "Im afraid youre gonna have one hydra of a headache when you wake up tomorrow!" she admonished his still form with a grin.
A cacophony of fear arose when the other horses spotted the smiling specter in their path. Their hooves lashed and flayed the earth, sending a shower of dirt, chips and rocks--in their scrabbled effort to give Xena a wide berth. The warrior was enjoying herself, orchestrating the animals movements as a conductor--with a mere finger flick she pointed each steed in the right direction off the path and into brambles, trees and rocks as the symphony continued.
Confusion and panic assaulted the 200-armed men. Both men and beasts shrieked. Men cursed animals, as they tried to regain control over their careening mounts, uncertain even as to what had terrified their animals, but feeling their own nape hairs respond. Their leader lay in a crumbled heap on the path. Their prey was all but forgotten in the melee.
"Ah, a job well done." Xena brushed her hands together. She smiled up at the sun peeking through the trees, and closed her eyes savoring the morning warmth in satisfaction. The springtime breeze ruffled her dark hair slightly. "If I were alive . . . ," she clamped her jaw down hard on the wistful thought, swallowing the lump she found in her throat, and admonished. "Warrior Ghostess, dont go there!"
The warrior turned leaving the writhing mass of human and horse flesh behind and loped down the path Gabrielle had taken. After a few minutes of effortless running, she caught up with the younger warrior, who had sought shelter from detection and the warm sun, slightly off of the main path on a small incline, under a rock overhang. She and Ara blended well with the shrubbery and rocks of their surroundings. Xena nodded approvingly. The bard had learned well. Although she had dismounted, Gabrielle remained at wary attention, retaining Aras reigns in her left hand as she rubbed her horse with her right, soothing her mount with a gentle hum. The warrior grinned in reaction to the sight of her waiting friend.
As Gabrielle glanced over Aras back a pain stabbed her squarely in the heart as she spotted her friend bounding toward her. Gabrielles breath caught in her throat and she ducked and coughed to cover her reaction. But Xena had seen.
Ara did not react to Xenas arrival, the warriors spirit seemed commonplace enough to the little mare. Xena slowed and when she reached Ara, she laid her arm across the horses back to rest her hand gently on Gabrielles shoulder. Only her eyes spoke for her.
"Xena, its been a year and I still . . . ." Tears formed unbidden.
"I know." The warrior breathed softly.
Only for a brief moment did Gabrielle succumb to her grief. "I dont know why Im being so maudlin today." She sighed then squared her shoulders and changed the subject, wiping her eyes as she spoke. "Xena, who were those men? And what did they want?"
The warrior took the change of subject gracefully, removing her hand from the bards shoulder and turning casually toward the path, and back to their journey. Gabrielle followed, picking her way carefully as she led Ara behind her. Once safely on the road, and under the gently swaying canopy of acacia, myrtle, almond and fig trees whose limbs intertwined above them in a concerted blessing to their journey, she fell into step beside the tall warrior.
"My guess is bandits. From all the wares and trinkets they carried, it looks like theyve been raiding villages throughout the countryside." Xena reached absentmindedly to caress a small white blossom hanging just beside her head as she passed near a myrtle bough. She seemed mildly surprised when her fingers passed through the petals, for the moment forgetting she couldnt experience the world in the same fullness as she had previously. The little bloom didnt seem to mind as it still readily responded with its sweet scent.
"But, why would they come after us? Does it look like we have anything of value?"
Xena grinned affectionately at her friend and joked lightly. "Well, Ara would be considered a prize, I would imagine. And look at you! Your outfitcherry colored leather trimmed in royal bluethat might be indicative to them youre of noble blood. And, well, the way youve been protecting that saddlebag, they could only guess that it held a small fortune." Xena turned to reach behind the bard to pat the bulging saddlebag in question, her non-corporeal hand passing through the leather surface easily. Gabrielle followed the warriors gaze, then looked back up into her friends face.
"Xena! What would they want with an urn filled with ashes?!" Incredulity filled the bards eyes. "It is a treasure! But, only to me. Not to them. They would have no use for it."
"Yes, but they dont know that, do they?"
Gabrielle set her chin stubbornly. "Ara, while Ive grown fond of her, I would give up willinglyafter all, she was the Pharaohs payment for a job well done, as was this outfit." Gabrielle motioned with her hands indicating her wardrobe, then petted her Arabian pony pensively, as the horse turned her soulful eyes toward her mistress. "But your ashes, well, that they cant have. Come Hades or high water, we are returning your ashes to Amphipolis. You will rest beside your brother and mother, just as I promised. And I keep my promises!" And Gabrielle shook her head vehemently to drown out any disagreement the warrior might chose to voice in their ongoing, months-old argument.
The bard took no notice.
"Gabrielle!" Xena spoke more sharply than she had intended.
"Xena, dont! I wont listen. I cant."
And since the only physical substance the warrior could effectively touch was the bard, she used that lone tool as she laid her hand tenderly on Gabrielles arm. The bard started to shrug her off, but something in the taller womans manner stopped her. Gabrielle looked up into Xenas eyes.
"Thank you!" Xena paused meaningfully before continuing, "No," The warrior reached to lay a finger over the bards lips before she could protest. " Although you know I dont want you risking your life on that account, I do know what drives that desire, and. . . " Xenas voice became husky and she stopped to clear her throat, "I do thank you." She laid her hand across her heart as she gazed down into her companions eyes for long moments.
"Xena, dont you know that just being alive without you is a risk to my life no matter where I am or where I go?"
Silence answered Gabrielles soft question.
"But, you are most welcome." Gabrielle sniffed before continuing, "By-the-way, do you realize how much more demonstrative and open, and, yes, even sensitive--youve become since your death?" The bard asked shyly while reaching to finger the hem of Xenas leathers.
Xena tilted her head. "Is that true?" She paused reflectively. "Perhaps its because I no longer feel I have to, uhhh, protect you. I can . . ., relax, for the most part. Youve become very adept in handling yourself in any situation. With your honed fighting skills, you are my equal in every sense of the word. Your strategies are sound. And, you always were a better woman, proactive in compassion. Youve taken the lead here, even if not by your own choice. You are my peer, my . . . friend. Now, I go with you." A soft twinkle entered the warriors eyes, "youve gotta take me with you. Teach me everything you know. You cant leave me behind. Im not cut out for village life. I was born to do so much more. Im not the little girl my parents wanted me to be. Take me with you. I want to go with you. Ive studied the stars, spoken with philosophers. I can be very useful to you. Take me with you. I want so much to be just like you."
Gabrielle recognized the gentle twitting as her friend recalled the bards pleas from the early days of their travels together. "My, that was a long speech! I cant believe you recollected all that. And I really cant imagine you as ever being little in any respect. Ah, remember when all I got in answer from a taciturn warrior was a well placed grunt here and there?"
Xena only smiled. The two friends walked in easy silence for several moments.
"Well, do you think weve seen the last of those men?" Gabrielle still capitulated to Xenas expertise on these matters.
"No, probably not. They were only deterred for the moment."
"What did you do?"
Xena grinned, "We all, uhhh, had a, uhhh, sing-a-long. Yes, a full voice, all out, rousing chorus!"
"Umm-hmm. And I suppose they did most of the singing, eh?" Gabrielle smiled and shook her head up at her taller companion. "Just, the same--it would probably be safer if we stayed indoors tonight."
"Call me what you will, but its for the safety of your ass-- . . ., ummm, . . .--shes as well!" Gabrielle thumped the urn as her lips turned upward wickedly.
"Now, tell me again, why are we taking the land route from the land of the Pharaohs to Greece?"
"Gabrielle, you made it from Japa to the Land of the Pharaohs just fine. A sail across a little pond such as the Great Sea would be nothing more than a brief stint in a rowboat for you after that." Xena was clearly puzzled.
"If you must know," Gabrielle glanced down and sighed, "I know we have to arrive and I do want to, but Im afraid." She paused poignantly before looking up at her companion. "Im afraid of the finality it will bring."
"Oh, I see." But it was obvious the warrior really didnt.
"Xena, there is a town northeast of here that we should reach by nightfall. Its known for its exquisite cuisine." Gabrielle tempted.
"And thats supposed to impress me?" Xena bumped the bards shoulder in a friendly jostle.
"For my sake, it should! Just because you dont enjoy food anymore, doesnt mean I have to go on a ration of bread and water. Dont you remember, even a little, what date-nut bread tasted like? Or sweet cream? Or early strawberries?" Gabrielle turned to walk backward in front of her tall friend.
Xena stuck out the tip of her tongue and wet her lips, trying to remember, "I only ate food for sustenance, for the most part."
"Riiigghhttt! Thats why you always had me do the cooking and made sure I had all your favorite spices, I suppose?"
Xena shrugged and shook her head good-naturedly. "Well, whatever I did or did not do--food no longer holds an interest for me."
Gabrielle stopped her backward course, causing Xena to also come to a standstill directly in front of the smaller woman. The bard paused and took a breath, looking everywhere but into her friends eyes which now gazed down at her evenly. "Xena, you started life in Amphipolis. There you were born to begin this journey. Youve traveled the world . . . weve traveled the world together. Weve shared and contemplated the mysteries of life. Weve laughed and cried and failed and succeeded, given birth and lost and loved and even died, while on this journey together. You know me better than any other person, mortal or immortal." Gabrielle now looked pleadingly into the warriors eyes and gave her a terse smile. "Your life comes full circle in coming home. Im afraid you will want to leave me once there--to find your rest, to join Solon and Lyceaus and Cyrene. Forever. Im just taking the longest possible route to get to that point, since it may be our final journey together."
Xena was only confused for a moment at the change of topic when she realized Gabrielle had temporized regarding the food to give herself time to construct an answer to the warriors initial question about their land journey, and, to compose herself. The warrior lightly rested her forearms across the bards shoulders then pulled Gabrielle into her embrace before placing a kiss against the bards forehead. She looked over the bards head to the road that lay beyond them. She pivoted her young friend to face that tree-lined path. "Where you go, I go." Xena finished simply, pointing the way.
a few moments of pregnant solemnity, the warrior burst into rhyme:
"We met on the road to Amphipolis--
A musical chimp named Avarius.
He doffed his small cap,
Then played us for saps,
Now we're lighter by thirteen denarius."
Gabrielle laughed delightedly, "No, no, no. I like this one better:
We met on the road to Amphipolis,
The ravishing, tall Warrior Princess.
She unsheathed her sword,
Then let out a roar,
Now we're fast on the rode to Necropolis."
The sun was just beginning its descent when the two friends reached Bethel. The rest of their journey following their escape from the bandits had been without like incident.
"Ill find a place to stable Ara, if youll scout out a likely inn." Gabrielle informed her friend as they dismounted. They had alternately ridden and walked for most of the afternoon as they negotiated the mountain passes inland.
Bethel was a small bustling town. Folks returning from their days labors met and greeted Gabrielle cordially. They bypassed Xena with no notice. Children ran and played before they were called indoors for their suppers. The town seemed secure. They had a small, but visible military contingent armed with swords, spears and bows that patrolled against raiders or invaders. A young woman traveling, although no cause for alarm, was an oddity as the reports of marauding Moabite bands were on every travelers lips that passed through the town.
The two friends parted. "See you in a bit," Xena grinned.
The bard waved to her friend, "Skip the room with a view, Ill settle for one with a bath, perhaps?" Gabrielle begged.
Gabrielle found the stable area with no problem, as the scent of horses directed her easily. Her boots kicked up small puffs of dust as she unconsciously scuffed her feet along the road.
Xena began looking for signs of an inn. It was easy to spot the road-worn travelers entering the town and she merely followed a group that seemed to be familiar with Bethels layout.
"Hello?" Gabrielle stuck her head through the wooden slat door that marked the entrance of the combination stable and blacksmith shop. She found a young giant bent over his work of shoeing a beautiful roan. The smells were a mixture of animal and metal, not altogether unpleasant, the bard decided. "Think you might have some rain tonight?" Gabrielle greeted the blacksmith with a tired smile.
"It is the season for the later rains, although we havent had any for the past few days." He replied affably, as he lowered the horses hoof he was working on and wiped his hands on a well-worn cloth tucked into the belt of his leather apron. The blacksmith, although a big man, appeared only slightly older than Gabrielle. "Have a horse youd like tended?"
Gabrielle led the way back outside to the trough where Ara was slurping greedily.
"Arabian, and from Egypt, if Im not mistaken."
"Ah, yes," she agreed. "You have a good eye. What do you charge?"
"Ah, miss. Whatd it be worth to you?"
Gabrielle liked his easy smile and the friendly challenge it held. "Its Gabrielle, and I think I might spare, oh, say--two dinars, if that includes food, shelter and a rinse off and brush down."
He surprised the bard by accepting without dickering, but paused for clarification, "Now, that be for you, right?"
When Gabrielle registered a shocked expression, he feigned innocent confusion, "Oh, uhh, or is that for that fine mare youve got there?"
Gabrielle found herself blushing. "The horse, of course."
"Ah. Well, I was going to say I would have paid you for the delight, but now for your horse it might be a bit steeper. Name is Teren." He nodded to the young bard. "Hmmm." Teren thought for a moment. "Thatd be five dinars, or two shekels and a bekah."
"Highway robbery! Two dinars and five assars." Gabrielle retorted.
"Four dinars or two shekels."
"Three dinars, and that means Ara gets oats as well!"
"Three it is," he acquiesced as though she had asked for his soul, though he was not in the least disappointed with his barter.
Gabrielle handed Teren the reigns then retrieved her saddlebags.
Laying all teasing aside, the town blacksmith approached the subject cautiously. "Gabrielle, you might want to be thinking of traveling with a group when next you leave," Teren warned her kindly as he accepted Ara to stable. "Its not safe about for the lone traveler, whether male or female, but especially female. How you made it this far with the spring raids taking shape, and Aram threatening us with war, is a miracle in itself."
"Thank you for your concern. We did see a few riders, but managed to steer clear of them." Gabrielle informed him sweetly.
"We?" The smithy looked over the young womans shoulder. Perhaps he had been mistaken and the womans husband had arrived in town without his notice. Instantly, the confusion was evident on his tanned face. "Im so sorry if I have misspoken." The smithy apologized profusely. "Please know I would never have spoken to a married woman in that fashion. It was terribly forward and inappropriate . . . I just thought you were single. I mean. . . ! Oh, I am sorry!" Now the smithy blushed.
"Uhh, no. I mean Ara and me--ummm, that we." Gabrielle assured the young man.
"Oh!" Teren seemed relieved.
Gabrielle so took Xenas presence as a matter of course that she forgot the warrior was lost and invisible to all but the bard. Now that they were back with people, she would have to watch herself carefully.
"Thank you, Teren. Oh, could you recommend a good inn?" Gabrielle choked on the tension and strove to alleviate both Terens and her own discomfort with a change of subject.
"You could try--" Teren began.
"The Eagles Nest." a voice whispered in her ear as she felt Xenas hand cup her elbow comfortably.
"--the Eagles Nest. They will take good care of you, especially if you tell them I sent you. My mother runs it." The smithy finished with a shy smile.
"The Eagles Nest it is then. Thank you. Ill see you tomorrow morning." Gabrielle waved to him as she turned to follow the direction of his pointing finger.
"Hmmm. A new friend? Should I be jealous?" Xena teased.
Gabrielle waited to reply until after they were out of earshot of the smithy. "Fig fuzz, am I really gonna have to watch myself. I talk aloud to you in front of other folks and theyll be asking me to tend the fairies while they go for the healer and restraints." The bard quipped, chagrined at her own carelessness.
"Teren sent me." Gabrielle offered shyly to the inns proprietor as she approached the older woman.
"Did he now?" Slight strands of gray were just beginning to highlight the womans dark hair. She appraised Gabrielle quickly. Then continued a bit more kindly as she saw the fresh grief written in the younger womans eyes. "And what is it you do?"
Gabrielle was surprised by the question. It wasnt quite the normal greeting or exchange shed expected. "Oh, Im a . . . bard," then she reflected, "Although, I havent sung in over a year."
"And why is that?"
"The song has been taken from my heart." Gabrielle answered openly.
"And what would it take to put it back?"
Gabrielle faltered and bowed her head. "I guess, ummm . . . time."
"Im afraid no one has forever." The innkeeper paused briefly to consider, though not unkindly. "Did you have children together? Does he have a legacy?"
"Uhhh. No, it was a very close friend, my kindred spirit. And . . . ," Gabrielle considered thoughtfully, "her legacy was her heart."
The older woman answered softly, but deliberately, tempered with the sympathy and wisdom borne of a lifetime of experience, "A legacy is something that is passed on. If you are the legacy of her heart, then why have you buried your talent in the ground? Should you not invest it for at least the usury? Her legacy will die with you unless you live it and pass it on."
The truth of the innkeepers words buffeted the bard like a storm driven wind. She could not answer those dark eyes, shining with compassion. The directness of the womans question broke through the barrier of societal norms so much so that Gabrielle felt an immediate kinship with the woman. Her thoughts wandered back to the Grandmother of her childhood that held her and cried with her when she fell down; and dreamed her dreams with her and made her feel that she could conquer the world single-handedly. At least, her childs world of Poteidaia with its imagined dragons and serpents.
Gabrielle was brought back to the present by the innkeepers light hand on her arm and her forthright question, "You dont know us, do you?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"And you probably will not return here once youve left, will you?"
Again, Gabrielle shook her head, but a bit more slowly, wary of where the innkeeper was heading.
"What say I give you food and room for the night in trade of a song?"
The bard started at her words.
"Oh, it doesnt have to be a long song, nor profound. Sing of the one youve lost." The woman spoke softly, "It may help to speed Time along her way."
The bard did not answer for several minutes as she gazed up at the ceiling. She had no intention of singing. She noticed the wooden beams above her were hand-fashioned and smooth--with a marbled reddish hue. Cedar, if she wasnt mistaken. She didnt have anything prepared. It was ludicrous.
"I think it would be good for you, Gabrielle." Xenas voice broke through her thoughts. "Youve assumed my life and my quests and left little for yourself or for who you really are. Sing for me tonight."
Gabrielle turned to the woman and slowly answered, "All right."
Satisfied, the woman left the conversation at that and started up the stairs. "Let me show you to your room."
The inns dining area was full--mostly of traveling families seeking shelter from the evening and coming night, and townsfolk seeking the security of familiar faces. Only the table at which the bard and the warrior sat had any empty chairs. It was still light outside when the meal was completed and time for Gabrielles story.
Initially, the innkeepers faith in her allowed the bard the luxury of calmness, but as the meal progressed, the bard grew more agitated until she couldnt finish her food, although she kept regaling Xena with how delicious each dish was. As the time was upon her, the bard even questioned her sanity in accepting the invitation to sing.
"Xena, I dont know what to sing!" Unconsciously, the bards hand reached to encircle her own throat.
"Gabrielle, there are only, what, maybe 75 people here? And theyre families: homemakers, merchants, farmers, shepherds and their children. Youve faced more than that in battle and never blinked an eye! Sing of something easy--you know, like when we faced down Dahok!"
"Xena, thats not very reassuring. This is different." But Gabrielle did grin in spite of her dire circumstances.
At the innkeepers signal, Gabrielle left the warrior and purposefully made her way to the front. They had chosen a table at the rear of the room. It had always been the warriors habit in life, and the bard continued it without even thinking, but it made for a long trek to her goal. The inns dining area boasted windows on three sides, giving a very spacious airiness to the room. The bard was bathed in the rosy glow of the sunset as she took a seat on the storytellers stool.
If nothing else, she could simply retell the tale of when she and Xena first met. That moment was indelibly imprinted on her memory.
The bard sat for long moments, just gazing at the floor, absently tuning the lyre the innkeeper had lent her without even looking at it. Xena held her breath for her friend, willing her to relax and just do what she did best. The years of practice stood the bard in good stead and soon, quietly claimed her attention. She was no longer with them. Her mind wandered miles away from this small inn. Far away to what lay clasped within her embrace.
The music was already there, had been there all along, though she never noticed its presence. Unconsciously to the bard, it began flowing from her heart, but startled her to reality when she heard it softly wafting up through her mind. She began to hum along until she was finally able to give it voice. Then, as she strummed her borrowed instrument, with a crystal, bell-like tone she began to sing a song she had subconsciously lived every day of her life since Xenas death: the haunting lay of her Champion.
mist was a cerecloth curtain
that veiled the broken hills.
In the morning twilight she listened
for the tromp of muted drills.
From the parapet she heard them
though stealth would hide their sound.
She heard three armies massing
along the shrouded ground.
The raven-haired tall warrior sought
a refuge in the keep.
And there she laid her altar
and fell upon her knees
"I know what I must do,"
Her whispered prayer'd begun.
"But I'm afraid what's done this day
can never be undone."
And still the warrior would not stay
The beating of the drums.
And she would do 'fore end of day
What needed to be done.
And there her soulmate found her,
though her calmness did belie,
The comfort wont by the aching heart
behind those pale blue eyes.
The warrior shared her secrets
with her bardic reverend,
Yet concealed in her confession
was the parting from her friend.
She rose to wage the battle in
gold breastplate trimmed in red.
Her buried sword was replaced as
katana served its stead.
Her foe was not the archers
nor the armies at his hands
But the eidolic Yodoshi
evil lord of the Darklands.
And still the warrior would not stay
The beating of the drums.
And she would do 'fore end of day
What needed to be done.
The prize of this mortal contest
was forty thousand souls, yet one.
Most lost to earth a cold, moonless night
their senseless hate, o'rerun.
The flames had leapt from her drunken torch
to the warrior's grief's redress.
As she'd fought to bring Akimmie to
her final place of rest.
She was appointed their avenger
by this ever changing wind.
That scattered life and death with ease
as the ashes of this friend.
Now forty thousand would await
her cunning skill and might,
To reclaim this plunder from this lord's
And still the warrior would not stay
The beating of the drums.
And she would do 'fore end of day
What needed to be done.
Myriad arrows rained about her
in their frenzied forest dance.
But none could breach the warrior's skill
until she gave them chance.
And when at last she bared her breast
then deep their mark they found
Alone upon that wine-red hill
her lifeblood stained the ground.
She brandished her katana high
and drove into the fray,
Nine hundred men fell at her slice
upon that fateful day.
When finally she reached her goal
death-tired from the fight,
She dropped her sword and bared her neck
to that wastrel's waiting knife.
And still the warrior would not stay
The beating of the drums.
And she would do 'fore end of day
What needed to be done.
Her flight was a bird unfettered
springing up on wings with ease,
She entered his tea-house portal,
crimson robes embraced the breeze.
White-robed ghostly maidens watched
their tended vigils there,
Akimmie, too, kept this idyll
to lure souls into his lair.
But with the warrior's entrance
hope sprang to freedom's frame,
She engaged both wraith and mortal
to play his deadly game.
Yet with each skirmish when it seemed
she faced a stronger foe
She would not surrender, nor retreat
'ere she lose one captive soul.
And still the warrior would not stay
The beating of the drums.
And she would do 'fore end of day
What needed to be done.
And when her bard had found the place
where last she made her stand
She found the warrior's chakram bathed
with blood that drenched the land.
And yet the bard would not accept
that death had claimed her friend
' Til she met her 'cross that quiet stream
within that verdant glen.
And so it fell unto the bard
to find that deathstruck form
Claimed as spoils from the match
the samurai had won.
Within two sunsets she must bathe
the ashes of her friend
In Mt. Fuji's Fount of Strength
for lifeless limbs to live.
And though the bard could not delay
The beating of the drums.
Yet she would do 'fore break of day
What needed to be done.
The lightning was a feral steed
that charged the sable sky,
Rain mingled with the bardic tears
when she found her hanging high.
Grief and wrath gave thunder vent
as to heaven the bard deplored,
The desecrated body bore
no head to crown her corp.
The samurai would not release
that head that was his shrine,
And just as surely would the bard
not leave one hair behind.
With dragoned colors at her back
and wary sea-green eyes,
The bard took him in his camp,
although, she spared his life.
And though the bard could not delay
The beating of the drums.
She would do 'fore break of day
What needed to be done.
Orion found the friends again
upon a horse's back.
One upright, the other laid
within a swaddled sack.
And underneath the moonlit sky
night birds sang her dirge,
Her funeral pyre's fires cried
as earth returned to earth.
As night bowed grudgingly to dawn
the bard sat 'top her mount.
Ash filled urn within her hands,
she sought Mt. Fuji's fount.
But the one whose life she'd spared
that very night before,
Barred her way on mountain side
with his ready sword.
And so the bard sped on its way
The beating of the drums
For she would do 'fore end of day
What needed to be done.
The day was as clear as a mountain stream
and chilled as its breathless flow.
When bard and warrior each took stance,
opposite her foe.
The bard with unlearned chakram skills
caught her's with her throw,
But in the contest, lost the urn
to mountain ledge below.
The warrior spirit dueled the fiend,
but neither could prevail.
'Til the dark lord with his sword,
the fountain's key revealed.
And when it seemed that evid'd won,
the bard came to her side.
With the Fountain's kiss of Strength,
the warrior was revived.
And still the warrior would not stay
The beating of the drums
And she would do 'ere end of day,
What needed to be done.
Her whirlwind swirled to paint the sky
with her fiery breath,
The struggle in which she engaged
would end in either's death.
When finally with backward thrust
she claimed his sneering soul
The final sweep of her sword
released the souls he stole.
The bard hastened to the fount
victorious in her quest.
She'd found the fallen warrior's urn
within an eagle's nest.
The sun bronzed the water gold
as shadows grew in length.
She knelt to wash those ashes
in Mt. Fuji's Fountain's Strength.
For the bard had not delayed
The beating of the drums.
For she would do 'fore end of day
What needed to be done.
Tears glistened on the warrior's face
as she reached to stay the hand
That lovingly dipped that urn
toward the cleansing stand
But if the bard should reach her goal
though warrior then would live
The forty thousand rescued souls
From grace would be condemned.
Too soon the light began to fade,
as side-by-side they clung.
As the warrior's life ebbed 'way,
her final race she'd run.
And though she could, she would not stay
the setting of the sun.
And she had done at end of day,
what needed to be done.
paused to let the subdued sounds of the lyre's softly plucked notes fill the
room. Hypnotically she watched her fingers as they moved along the strings.
After a few moments of allowing the music to carry and comfort her, she closed
her eyes and began the final verse.
The mist was a cerecloth curtain
that veiled the broken hills
In the evening twilight she listened
for the sun's now silent rill.
From the lonely heights she heard it
though death would mute its sound
She heard love's sweet strain echo
along this hallowed ground.
Oh, Justice, please hear my plea.
Mercy, plead my just cause.
Save my hawk that flew from me,
And return to me the dove.
A respectful silence lay upon her listeners. And although they did not know the warrior of her song, they recognized the bard, and felt for her grief.
The sun had set. Gone was the amaranth afterglow. The sky was purple velvet and stars winked awake to greet the evening.
After a few moments of silence, Gabrielle raised her eyes toward the back of the room, seeking the only one whose affirmation mattered to her. The warriors tears were testament to the effect of the bards song. The warrior slowly smiled and nodded her head in deference to her friends touch and talent.
Then the applause was deafening. How could such a small crowd create such a din?
Gabrielle smiled through the heaviness of her grief and stood to acknowledge her audience with a slight bow. She handed the lyre back to the innkeeper who had moved to stand proudly, still clapping, beside Gabrielle. Then the bard shyly made her way back toward her table, touching extended hands as she passed tables of listeners who physically reached to express their understanding and sympathy.
Xena exulted in her friends accomplishments. She smiled broadly at the approaching bard.
Gabrielle could only grin when she sat down. Her shining eyes indicative of her relief and her recognition of the warriors praise.
The warrior placed her hand on the bards arm and spoke softly, "See, you did well. I dont know what you were worried about." And there was a catch in the warriors voice.
The bard ducked her head in genuine delight and embarrassment. She raised her eyes when she felt a difference in pressure from Xenas hand. A man stood quietly before her, awaiting her notice. A man dressed in a hooded, deep, crimson-hued cloak. A man who stood at least seven feet tall--much taller than even Hercules.
"Please, may I join you, Gabrielle?" He inquired politely, as he reached to remove his hood and laid it slowly back onto his broad shoulders.
For a moment, she was speechless. She gaped. She stared. She could not take her eyes from the strangers. There was no blue to be found within the green of his eyes. They were a bright, spring green. A kelly green. A green so green that Gabrielle had never seen the color before.
She had not seen him in the audience during her recitation. He smiled disarmingly and waited patiently for her response. As alert as the town remained to intruders and any possibility of trouble, no one else in the room gave the new arrival more than a passing nod at his presence.
The bard finally found her voice and entranced, stood to greet the man as she extended her hand, "Uhh, yes. Yes. Umm, yes, please do." After tentatively returning his firm handshake, she gestured for the man to be seated, while she herself remained standing.
But, he courteously held her chair for her first, then, although the chair in which Xena was sitting was closest, he chose a spot one removed from the bard.
The warrior felt a chill and shivered involuntarily. She was at a loss. She couldnt sense whether it was anticipation or dread.
Gabrielle still stared. The man returned her gaze with an open friendly smile. His eyes held an ancient wisdom. Gabrielle felt as though she had just found a fountain of cool, clear waterrefreshment for her dry and thirsting souland had been invited to drink deeply, to know her fill.
"Uhh, how did you know my name?"
"Did Lydia not introduce you before you began your song?"
"Yes, but I didnt see you in the crowd during my story." Gabrielle smiled in spite of herself before she stopped uncertainly, "Were you?"
He laughed delightedly. "Of course, I was here!"
She couldnt explain why, but the warrior felt an unsettling challenge to her existence with the mans presence. "Ask him to summarize the first stanza of your song," she whispered. She was uncertain why she felt she needed to whisper.
"It would indeed be my privilege. The mist was a cerecloth curtain that veiled the broken hills. In the morning twilight she listened for the sound of muted drills. From the parapet she heard them, though stealth would hide their sound. She heard three armies massing along the shrouded ground," he quoted perfectly, with the same melodic inflection and cadence Gabrielle had used in her recitation, without seeming to have taken offense at Xenas insinuation.
"You heard her question?" Gabrielles mouth hung open in an extended gasp.
"Yes, Id have to say he was her . . . ," Xena grudgingly acknowledged before she realized the import of Gabrielles question. "What?!" The sound of steel clearing her scabbard rang loudly as the warrior gracefully, in one swift motion, sprang into a fighting stance, but immediately raised her left hand defensively to shield her eyes, for in the mans hand appeared a sword of such brilliance it blinded the warrior. The mans own face luminesced. He did not seem to be in the least bit perturbed or disturbed by Xenas defense. He did not draw his sword to defend himself, he had no need. His action was merely to reassure the warrior, to stop her before she hurt herself with the uselessness of her assault.
His lack of fear was sorely disquieting to the warrior.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle leaped upward and backward in terror, coming to a standing crouch straddling her now teetering seat. A quiet remained on all three while the chair rocked and finally settled back into its place.
"Xena, I have not come for you." The man spoke softly.
"I know Lydia didnt introduce me," Xena growled, both hands once again gripping her sword. "I have killed gods and demons before," she warned as she shook her head to clear the images seared into her vision.
"As have I," the man answered pleasantly. "Please, dont be afraid." The man spoke soothingly. "I am but a messenger."
"But . . . , but . . . you can see Xena?"
He placed his penetrating gaze squarely on the warrior. "I have been given to see your memories clearly, yes." He made no sound as he resheathed his sword beneath his crimson cloak. It was as if the warrior was no threat, for to him she was but a shadow having no substance.
Gabrielle repeated her question, her brows knit in consternation, "Who are you?!" The bard was drawn toward the man. She had an irresistible desire, an irrepressible need to know.
The man motioned kindly for both Gabrielle and Xena to be seated. The bard hovered over her chair for several undecided moments before sliding down into it.
Xena laid her sword on the table. Steel clattered against the wood, emphasizing her continued vigilance as she slowly reclaimed her chair. "What do you plan to do here? What is your goal?"
"I have no goal. I am but a messenger."
"Messenger. Yeah, thats what you said, but I find it hard to believe a mere messenger would have the power to kill gods or demons."
"It depends for Whom you are a messenger." The man smiled kindly.
Gabrielle could only whisper, "Who are you?" She paused. When the man did not immediately answer she asked almost plaintively, "What is your name? Are you a seer?"
"As I said, I am merely a messenger. Call me what you will. My name is unimportant." Then the brightness of his demeanor returned to a normal human appearance. "The name of the One who sent me is above comprehension of either mortal or immortal. It is too dreadful, too awful, to speak."
The man closed his eyes, and with what Gabrielle would later describe as pure blissfulness, laid his golden head backwards as a reverent awe and adoration claimed his countenance and he offered his face and praise up toward the heavens.
The bard averted her eyes when it became too intense to look upon the man any longer. In glancing away she found that those in the inn went about their business as though, if their conversation was overheard and her tablemate noticed, these were commonplace enough affairs.
Time seemed to be suspended. But the three at the back table were separate from their surroundings. And no one seemed to notice.
The mans voice broke through the bards musings. "I am but a messenger, and I am here for you."
"Have you not called upon Justice and Mercy to give you heed?"
"Your song." And once again the man canted without flaw, "Oh, Justice, please hear my plea. Mercy, plead my just cause. Save my hawk that flew from me, and return to me the dove."
"Oh." Gabrielle paused pensively, "Oh?"
"My Master is Justice and Mercy."
"You mean Justice and Mercy are your masters?"
"No, my Master is Justice and Mercy. These are but two of His attributes," he answered simply. "True Justice and Mercy seen elsewhere are merely reflections or borrowed dilutions of His Greater Purity."
"Oh." The bard tried to comprehend his statement. Again she questioned, "Oh?"
Patiently, yet eagerly the man replied, "Justice and Mercy are seen perfectly in Him. They each, in application, are tempered by His Love, by His Goodness, by His Truth, His Freedom, His Patience, by His Holiness, by His Sovereignty, His Infinity, His Simplicity, His Unity, by His Unchangeableness, by His Omnipresence, His Omniscience, His Omnipotence, His Grace, by His . . . Peace." The man paused meaningfully, "He is Just. He is Merciful. He is . . . Love."
The man waited to allow his words to lodge in Gabrielles heart. Then simply said, "He is."
"He is . . . ?" The bard struggled to understand.
"He is . . . being. Without Him there is no existence. He is the Great I AM." Again the man looked skyward and worshipped.
"Oh?" Dawning comprehension.
"Oh." Awe. Reverence.
"Ohhh." Worship. Gabrielles very expressive face and hands had captured the intensity and punctuated each new level of comprehension.
"Why does he keep doing that?" Xena asked, genuinely perplexed, then warned, "Gabrielle, be careful."
Gabrielle turned to share her excitement of this new endeavor with her friend, but stopped, seeing and sensing the warriors confusion. Gabrielle had always loved philosophy--learning, and discussing her newly gained ideas, truths and wisdom. Xena had always encouraged and even challenged her as she developed and broadened her paradigm.
"I know you said you were sent for my benefit, but can she not also know this . . . this . . . joy of . . . this new knowledge?" Gabrielles eyes pooled with tears.
The man responded tenderly, "She is dead."
Gabrielle looked shocked at his forthrightness.
The man smiled in reaction. "Did you not know she was dead?"
"Well, of course, I knew she had died." The bard was almost flustered. "But . . . ?" Gabrielle could only point in question to Xena, afraid if she spoke, her voice would betray her bleak thoughts.
"No, the dead cannot learn anew of this world from the grave."
"But she has functioned and fought and planned strategy with me . . . . Shes laughed and cried at our adventures. Shes lived and loved. Shes participated with a, with a . . . an abandon she never had before."
"One must be ready to die before one can really live." The man paused slightly before continuing. "But has she learned anything beyond the knowledge she possessed at the time of her death?"
Gabrielle thought hard. She looked deep into the mans eyes. Then gazed into the ocean blue of Xenas. Long moments passed before her face blanched and the admission wrung from her heart was a whisper, "No." It was a revelation to the bard. "Uhh, that is, I dont think so . . . ."
"Was she not your teacher, here-to-fore?"
The bard only nodded.
"Has she taught you anything new about this world since her death?"
"Well," Gabrielle spoke slowly, "Ive learned new things from her since her death, but Im not sure shes learned anything new. She knows so much. Ive never plumbed the depths of her knowledge." The bard shook her head as she contemplated, "But, I really couldnt say if she has taught me from her stores or from new revelation."
The man continued tenderly, "Can you discuss the world to come with her?"
"Ah, nofor you have no frame of reference. It would be for her as singing into the wind. You cannot receive her words for you know not the language. It is now the same for her with your world. No, she cannot learn anything beyond what she knew at her death, of this world. It is your memories that give her strength."
The bard tilted her head at the man. "My memories?"
"When you wake or when you sleepher remembrance is there? Is her voice as strong as it once was? Can you see her visage clearly as in times past? Did she not, with her death become less? Have you not lost more than you would have given up? Her death took a part of her from you and continues to steal her bit by bit from you. Is her face as sharp or her features as chiseled as they once were?"
Gabrielle turned to the warriors eyes for confirmation. They did not answer her. Finally she dared to ask, "Xena, can you learn?"
Xena returned her gaze steadily, "Uhh, Im not sure I understand your question."
"Can you gain new knowledge or richer experiences? Can you learn? Well, at least of the terrestrial?"
The warrior merely shrugged with her lips then attempted a lopsided grin, "Gabrielle, whatever may or may not be true, look on the bright side, I also wont age a day beyond my death, I havent lost my edge, andIm in great shape!"
The bard laid her head down on the warriors right arm laying beside her on the table. Her shoulders shook and a sob almost obliterated her muffled voice, "I am so sorry."
The warrior reached to stroke her friends hair. "Gabrielle, please, its okay. Why are you so upset? This changes nothing."
The bard raised her head and searched the warriors face. "I have become an obstacle for you." Gabrielles voice trailed off. She groaned. Her eyes never left her friends face as she whispered, "Xena, it would be death for me not to be able to learn."
"Yes, it would." The warrior answered simply.
Gabrielles eyes widened at the import of her own words. She laid her head back down and wept.
The warrior continued to comfort her friend. Silently, the man allowed Gabrielle this new grief.
The bard suddenly raised her head and softly inquired of the man, "But wait! Is there no hope?" It was a fierce challenge, "Is there no life after death? What about the Elysian Fields, or Val Halla, or heaven?"
"Oh, I assure you, my young friend, there is indeed life after death! But only in the presence of the One Who created life, and Who sent me. And it is not a life that mimics anything from this world. It is truly living. Only there, can you learn and love--but it is not the knowledge of this world. It is a Veracious Light in which there is no shadow, nor will it brook any darkness at all. And you may know and be filled with the knowledge of the Truth in so far as the waters cover the sea." Once again, the man paused to lift his face heavenward as he fairly burst with love and adoration for his unseen Master.
The bard physically shook her head to clear her thoughts. "And how does one gain audience with your master?"
"Audience? You have that now. Access is open from the greatest to the least. There is no place you may run to where He is not there. There is no place to hide from His Love."
Gabrielle tilted her head to one side and after due consideration, leaned her head back in the same manner as the man had done and looked beyond the room to address the heavens, "I come not on my behalf, but in the stead of my friend . . . ,"
"Gabrielle!" The bard was startled by the firmness in the warriors voice. "What are you doing?"
"Xena, I cant be so selfish as to allow this unconscionable pain." The bard looked unflinchingly into her friends eyes.
"You do know what you are asking, dont you?"
"I have no concept." The bard answered truthfully. "But," she reminded the warrior gently, "it was your choice. You chose death."
"You and I know there was no other right choice."
The messenger sat with a very serious expression in his bright green eyes, he leaned forward on his elbowsthe worn tabletop creaked with the shift of his weight, then he spoke slowly, "What seems right in humans eyes, may well not be what is right in the eyes of He Who is. Nor does what seems true to your eyes, bear resemblance of that greater Truth."
Xena and Gabrielle waited for an explanation, one the warrior could not grasp, but Gabrielle chilled to hear.
"Please do not be offended by what I am about to say, but I must speak the truth for I can do no other." He smiled kindly. "I am neither here to proclaim guilt, nor innocence, for any event which has brought you here. That, the Judge of all the earth has given to the seers and prophets."
"Then, you are not a seer?" Gabrielle stated it with finality.
"Who are you?" Even though she felt compelled to ask, she was sure she did not want to know.
He smiled and patiently reminded her, "I am but a messenger."
"And your message?" Xena surprised the bard with the fierceness of her question.
The man faced Gabrielle, the intensity of his gaze caused the bard to drop her eyes. He waited until she was able to meet his eyes again before he spoke. "Tomorrow, by this time your questions will be hundredfold. Mercy, alone, will be your companion for you will not wish Justice to join you."
It took a few moments for the bard to process the mans statement. "But, but . . . , I do want Justice to walk with me!" She was indignant and unconsciously smacked the table in protest. Within moments Lydia was at her side.
"Sweet cakes? Oh, good evening! I didnt know you were here!" Lydia smiled, seemingly pleasantly surprised at the mans presence, as she offered a tray of desserts.
Gabrielle spared a smile for the innkeeper, before managing distractedly, "No. Uhhh, no, thank you."
Without another word, the innkeeper bowed and stepped back from the table. Something within the older womans manner caused Xena to wonder if the woman, and the stranger with whom they shared their table, were not in collusion.
Then the man said quietly and simply, "Gabrielle, Xena was not their avenger."
The bard did not have to ask who the their of his statement was, she knew. Her mouth fell open and she could only gasp. A strange coldness took hold of her heart. Gabrielle could not catch her breath nor speak for long moments. Her mouth worked strangely, but she produced no sound.
"She is not the one who avenges for, first, she is guiltless of their deaths." The man inclined his head slightly so as to stop any questions Gabrielle might be able to voice. "Did you and she not wonder how it was the fire in Haguchi spread so quickly? Listen to your own song." He paused to allow Gabrielle to reflect upon her song.
The bard stuttered, " . . . by an ever changing wind. . .?" She looked questioningly into the beings eyes, then she dropped her gaze and admitted, "Ive tried not to ask the whysnot aloud anyway."
He nodded. "There was another who served a more powerful master than himselfthat was there that night. Morimoto, the samurai who Xena gave her life toit was his father, Norichi. Both served the dark demon. Norichi set the first fire in Haguchi. It was well on its way when Xena lost her torch. He was among the slain counted after Xenas last and final foray. In a way, she did physically avenge their deaths, but only by her act, not by her death. Only you and she were held captive by that lie."
"And second?" It was a grim warrior who spoke.
The man addressed Xena kindly, "Even if you were guilty, your death could not atone for theirs." He paused searching for the words to make the incomprehensible, comprehensible; to bring the unfathomable truth within grasp of these finite women.
"To whom is atonement made?" He put a finger to his chin.
"Uhhh, Justice?" Gabrielle answered after a moment.
"Yes, it is His Justice that demands that a debt be paid. And who may pay a debt?"
"I suppose the one who possesses the payment price." The bard spoke slowly, her eyes questing to and fro for the answers.
"What is the payment price for perfect Justice?"
"Something of equal value."
"What is equal to perfection?"
"Ummm. Only perfection."
"So, may the imperfect be used in payment?"
"No, it would be forfeit. It wouldnt measure up." Gabrielle looked up into the mans face openly, honestly.
The man nodded sagely.
"But, there is none perfect!" The bard protested as realization caused her eyebrows to shoot upward.
"Hmmm. I guess that would eliminate me?" Xena seriously asserted.
"Yes, my young warrior friend, but that doesnt eliminate atonement." The mans voice softened. "In the beginning there was perfection."
"Ive heard that myth," Xena proposed.
"If it were only a myththere would be no basis for Justice, or Mercy, or Lovenow. Youd have no sense of fairness or rightness." It was a statement of fact.
"But, there is none perfect now?" The bard persisted.
The mans eyes twinkled. "Except . . . ?" He waited.
Gabrielle only looked puzzled.
" . . . Justice." Xena supplied quietly.
"See! I thought you said she couldnt learn!" Gabrielle challenged.
"Of things belonging alone to this world. But Justice is not solely of this world."
"But who is to say Justice is perfect in the first place?" Gabrielle argued stubbornly.
"By definition, if Justice is less than perfect, then it is no justice at all." Xena reminded the bard.
"Whose side are you on here?"
"Gabrielle, I want to . . . , no, I need to know the truth."
"Does that mean you believe all he is telling us?" Gabrielle asked softly, searching the warriors face.
"I didnt say that!" Xena shook her head slightly. A troubled expression flitted across her face. "Nor can I discount anything he has told us, either."
Suddenly, the bards face took on a pensively, inquisitive look, "Xena, why did you believe Akimmie?"
The warrior tilted her head at the bard, "Gabrielle, I had no reason not to. Why?"
"Xena, you believed Akimmie!" now it was an accusation, and the bard gasped as she realized she had actually spoken so forcefully aloud. The idea had been fomenting since Xenas death and finally found voice in reaction to the evenings events.
"I dont understand." The warrior looked like a bewildered, lost child. "Am I lacking something?" She looked to the bard, the quiver she tried to force down was not hidden to her friends ears.
"Oh, Xena! Im so sorry." The bards voice softened and she reached to cup the warriors chin tenderly. "Why did you just accept Akimmies word for it? You were the dream of her reality and the reality of her dreams. Did you think she would give you up easily?"
"Gabrielle, youre accepting this mans word at face value and you dont even know him," the warrior defended herself.
"And you knew Akimmie after just a few weeks? She tricked you in order to kill her father, and now youre blamed for all those deaths because her father ate those souls. She killed him. You didnt. Then she forced you to kill her. You were a pawn in her scheme through it alland you still are."
The man spoke into the silence that ensued. "All creation groans for liberation. All know a restlessness while awaiting their redemption. They long for their Avenger to come. They pray for their Deliverers swift appearance."
"From what do we wish salvation? I mean, I feel it, . . . that it is so, but what is it?" Gabrielles voice held a quiet anguish and confusion, as she once again turned her attention to her guest.
"Mankind has sold his soul to a much greater demon than Yodoshi, and all, for what? The promise of self-rule." The mans lips were drawn into a thin line as though just the pronouncement of his message caused him pain. He shook his head sadly, "Ahh. No, it was not to self-rule to which man gave himself so easily, but to the deceptive dominion of the Evil One, the very Prince of Darkness, the author of this confusion you now experience."
"Were a play, within a play . . . ," Gabrielle started.
" . . . within a play." Xena finished.
"So when Akimmie looked for a Lion to avenge her people, she was not wrong, for she had heard that a Savior would come from the west, across the sea to their rescue. He would carry the breath of life. And, please know, an Avenger is coming. Its just that Xena was not that Redeemer. Her death could not avenge theirs, nor bring them grace. She cannot redeem what she cannot avenge. She fought valiantly and pushed back the enemy, but . . . ,"
" . . . imperfection cannot meet perfections just demands." Gabrielle finished for him.
The man smiled broadly, proudly at her answer. "It is as you say."
"When is the Avenger coming?"
The mans green eyes twinkled as the stars, "Unfortunately, I am not the messenger who will deliver that good news. Another messenger has already been chosen for that honor. But when the Avenger comes, He will redeem those that would trust Him to do so."
"This is your Master, isnt it?"
A bittersweet smile greeted her question and he silently proffered a hand to each of the women. Hesitantly, they each grasped an extended hand and immediately were given a vision of other-worldliness. In it they saw a man crucifiedhigh and lifted up, but instead of the evanescence of death, an effulgence emanated from Him and from His mouth came a sword which devastated the darkness. His visage blazed. It was too horrible for the women to continue to gaze, but they could not look away. They were pulled into a scene of such a great, ravaging, abandoning Love that they longed for nothing else. "He alone, may avenge," the man said quietly, melodiously, as he again worshiped.
Gabrielle and Xena knew they had just touched eternity. It left a cold terror gripping the bards heart. Her joints turned to water. She could neither move nor speak.
The warrior sat stunned, but the encounter only served to further confuse her. The mans grip on her hand had been fluid, firm, but gentle and she tingled where she had been touched.
The man began to speak once again. Gabrielle wondered if her imagination had deceived her. Had she just dreamed the past few terrifyingly wonder-filled moments, or did it have a basis in reality? As though reading her thoughts, the man continued, "And so that you may know that I speak the truth, tomorrow when the sun is high within the heavens, you will meet a cortege. Before you part company, you will see the platform empty and the dead man walking. This is not just a sign for you, but also for this country in which you sojourn. For the promises of my Master are Right and True. But for you, Mercy and Grace will be your companions and they will bear the burden you carry. They will return it unto you lighter than when you took it up. And your questions will be even greater than those you hold this night."
Gabrielle was roused from her reverie by the innkeepers hand upon her shoulder.
"Come. Join the dance." The older woman warmly invited.
The bard excused herself, "Uhh, I have two left feet, and cant seem to tell which is which."
"Oh, its not to learnalthough you will, but to feel." The innkeeper encouraged, in fact, insisted.
The tables and chairs in the front of the room had been cleared and a folk dance and chorus were already started. Something within a phrase of the song caught the bards attention and she began to listen more closely.
enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will o'ertake,
I will divide;
My desire shall be gratified;
I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy.'
But the horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea!
Thou didst blow Thy wind, and the sea
They sank like lead in the mighty waves.
Who is like Thee among the gods?
Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness,'
Awesome in praises, working wonders?
But the horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea!
Thou didst stretch out Thy right hand,
And the earth swallowed them.
In Thy lovingkindness Thou hast led the people
Whom Thou hast redeemed.
But the horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea!"
The people sang heartily. They punctuated each phrase with their feet, but it was the women with their timbrels and tambourines who danced the story.
Gabrielle shook herself. Her tablemate was conspicuously absent, as was Xena. However, she took little notice as the words of their song called to the poet in her, and she asked the innkeeper, "Of whom do they sing?"
"Of Him Who is," Lydia said simply as she led the bard into their circle.
"Rise and shine! Rise and shine!" Xena sing-songed to the amber dawn, and to her slumbering bard. The fire had long since died in their small fireplace, and the morning held the crispness of the dewy springtime air. Falcons whistled in the heights. Warblers warned of their presence. Roosters crowed unwittingly. Lambs bleated. Nursing goats stood contentedly by. The town had just begun to awaken, lethargy giving way to movement. But only the shepherds and farmers had made it out so far to stumble about, slowly coming to life.
"Now where have I heard that before?" A disheveled blond head appeared from beneath the covers. "You know, youre getting more annoying now that you dont require any sleep," she grumped. "I may rise, but I refuse to shine."
"And where have I heard that before?" Xena affectionately teased. Mornings would never be the bards time of the day. The warrior looked toward the ceiling as though seriously considering her own question, trying to place just where she had heard it, she tapped her chin with her forefinger in total concentration, then she exclaimed brightly, "Oh, I know! It was the second morning we were together. Oh, and the third, and the fourth, the fifth, sixth, sixtieth, six hundred and sixtieth . . . ! Uhh, well, basically every morning since weve been together!" she noted cheerfully.
"Where did you disappear to last evening?" The bard asked sleepily as she yawned and stretched.
"I wanted to follow our friendly visitor after he left." Xena quit her bantering, suddenly serious.
"And, did you?"
Xena stood looking out the open window, absorbed in thought. She made no reply. The bard scooted to the edge of her pallet and stood, taking her covers with her--wearing them as a robe. She went to the warrior, gently laid her hand on Xenas back and peeked around her friends shoulder to gaze up into the taller womans eyes.
"Xena, I said, and did you?"
"Did what? Oh, yeahI did. But I lost him." The warrior turned to make room for the bard at the window. They shared an incredible view of the flower-filled valley below. The blood-red poppies waved jovially, en masse, their black eyes winking in rhythm to the breeze, freely sharing the joy of the morning with the two women above them.
"Lost him? You lost him?" The bard couldnt believe it. "Youve never lost anyone in your life, uhhh, and especially not since your death!"
"Yeah. First he was there, and then suddenly, he, ummm, wasnt. It was. . . ." The warrior seemed rattled. Her internal cogitations were evident on her face. She was attempting to understand exactly what she had seen. Or hadnt. And she wasnt sure how much she wanted to tell the bard.
Suddenly, Gabrielle noticed how cold the floor was on her bare feet. "Ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo!" Xena stopped and bemusedly watched the bard do a combination hop and tiptoe dance until she got back within a few feet of the bed. From there, she made a flying leap the remainder of the distance and landed in a heap on its surface. She sat up and arranged herself with as much dignity as she could muster. "Cold floor," she explained to her taller friend. "Okay, now I can listen again." She smoothed the covers around herself, then folded her hands sedately on her lap.
Xena grinned, "Uhh, can I see that move again? I dont think I quite got it down. Is that a new battle move?" The warrior moved sideways in a hopping fashion, shook her head as though it wasnt quite to her satisfaction, moved back to her initial position and started again.
"Sorry." The warrior looked appropriately contrite.
"The man? You lost him? Remember? On topic, please."
"Ummm. Right. Lost him. Got it." Once again the warrior found herself faced with the conundrum of what and how much to tell her soulmate. Soulmate. One usually didnt hide anything from a soulmate, did she? But her understanding was not with a language the warrior could easily articulate with her bard.
The smaller woman rolled onto her side and propped herself up on her elbow. She was silently watching the warrior pace when Xena finally realized the bard was quiet. She stopped mid-stride to glance at the bard. Gabrielle wore an amused expression.
"What?" Xena demanded.
"Youre like one of the Pharaohs caged tigers. I havent seen you like this since, well, since you were alive. Did what the man have to say last evening disturb you as much as it did me?" Gabrielle sat up, but snuggled deeper into her covers to stave off a shiver.
"He was an angel."
"Are you sure? An angel? Xena . . . !" The bards mouth was open, but all she could do was shake her head. She released the blankets she held bunched at her throat and held out her hands in question.
"Yes, an angel."
"But Xena, weve seen angels beforehe wasnt like any weve ever met."
"I have a feeling he isnt like anyone weve ever met. Listen, I visited a religious leaders home last nighta priest. Uhh-uhh," the warrior defended herself before the bard could admonish her. "I used my library pass!" Gabrielle simply shook her head at her tall friend.
"I read some of the religious writings he had. There are good and bad angels. Yeah, yeah, I know" the warrior waved her hands at the bard, "we know there are good and bad angels, but I have a feeling all weve ever met are bad and worsethose of a uhhh, lesser gloryeach serving his own goal. Gabrielle, you and I know this one didnt and wasnt. He never even gave us his name. He took no credit for anythingthere was no personal pride in any of his abilities or accomplishments. He gave that totally to his master. A seemingly incomparable master, reallyunlike any being weve ever even imaginedor could imagine, at least, if their sacred writings are in any way close to reality. A master who seems to have earned this angels unsolicited adoration and worship, given freely and with a sound mind. Uhhh, this angel was of a . . . a higher nature. He had a, uhhh, a higher calling. He was innocent and unblemished. He was guileless. He was not self-serving. He came to deliver a message and thats all he did. He wouldnt even allow himself to be drawn into a fight with me."
Gabrielle absorbed the warriors comments. "You learned that last night?"
"Oh, there was much more in those sacred writings."
"No, you learned that last nightsomething new of this world?" Incredulous, and grasping for the light of hopeeven if just a candles breath, the bard continued to herself, "then he was wrong about thatshe can learn."
"Gabrielle," Xena spoke her name quietly, and waited for the bards full attention, "he and his kind arent of this world, nor is his master. And obviously, neither are those scriptures. He made no mistake."
The bard shuddered involuntarily. She again drew the covers around her tightly. "Then, does that mean you do believe what he told us?" The bard knew the warrior wasnt discounting it by the very interest she had shown in researching the gods of the land through which they traveled.
"I dont know, but I wouldnt be surprised if we should meet a funeral procession today."
"I suppose well know soon enough, wont we? It all just seems so . . . so . . . fantastic."
"I thought the light of day would dispel this sense of, ah, well, lets just say its all a bit unsettling." The warrior paused and tilted her head. "What did he really tell us?" She subconsciously motioned for the bard to get up and readied for the day so they could be on their way.
"He told us that we would have more questions by days end than we had yesterday at that time." The bard naturally included Xena in the we of her existence. "And, that Mercy would go with us today, whatever that may actually mean. Xena, whats your hurry?" The bard asked a bit exasperated as her friend shoved her along.
"Gabrielle, I dont know what it is." The warrior played with her fingers. "Something just doesnt feel, uhhh, right about this place. The sooner were on our way, the happier Ill be."
"What did you feel about the angel last evening?" The bard asked quite seriously, forgetting her bathing and preparations as she waited for her warriors response.
The warrior leaned her head back, "Uhh, thats just it. I didnt actually feel or sense anything about him, really. My reaction was to what he was saying and how it would affect us." She again addressed the ceiling, unseeingly, finishing her statement almost in a whisper. Xena had never been at such a loss, and it made her feel uncomfortable.
"Do you believe if you had livedAkimmie and the others would now be lost?"
Xena jerked her head downward to look at the bard. "I dont know," she answered Gabrielle honestly. "And, at least this way, we arent being called upon to test that claim. Im dead. That wont changeso, either way, their souls are safe with me, if indeed my death was requisite to avenge them."
"But Xena, not if what the angel said was true."
"What do you mean?"
"He said that there was only life after death in the presence of his masterand that was given freely in response to our request and acceptance of his avengement on our behalf."
"I dont want to think about it," tears pooled in the warriors eyes, "for us, or them."
"Oh," the bard gasped as she began to think of the implications, "I see what you mean." She had made peace with her grief early on, but this was a new expression. It wasnt just grief, but an overwhelming sense of regret. What if they had been wrong? Would Xenas death have been in vain? The bard moved to put her arm around the warriors waist as she herself, silently wept.
A light knock on the door startled the two friends from their ponderous musings.
"Uhhh," Gabrielle hastily wiped her eyes, "just a moment, please," she called softly.
The muffled voice of the innkeeper came through the closed door to her, "Gabrielle, are you up, yet? I just wanted to know if youd like to join me and my family for breakfast before you go?"
"Before we go?" Xena whispered, "Heres your hat, whats your hurry? Did you tell Lydia that youd be leaving today?"
The bard paused, considering, before she whispered in return, "No, I dont think it ever actually came up." She tilted her head sideways. "Hmmm."
"Does she know something we dont?"
"I wouldnt be surprised. Umm, prob-a-b-ly," the bard drew the word out, as though totally convinced the innkeeper was privy to something they werent. "You know, she seems to be a very wise-woman, and the townsfolk did treat her in a very respectful way last evening," this as though it were prescience of a greater secret.
"Gabrielle?" Again a slight knock.
"Coming." Gabrielle finished bathing quickly, settled her clothing into place and turned to Xena, "Ready?"
The warrior nodded.
"Then here we go to meet this day."
"Teren youve already met. Hes our oldest." Teren grinned broadly at the bard as Lydia began the family introductions.
"Ooo, Gabrielle, Id watch out for that one. I think he fancies you!" Xena teased into the bards ear, her warm breath tickling her friend.
Gabrielle almost lifted her hand to shoo the buzz away, but caught herself in time, and smiled sillily in spite of herself. She tried to concentrate on Lydias conversation and wondered if the family thought her overly friendly with such an idiotic grin on her face.
"Im going to scout out the town activity. You have exactly one half hour to be charming, after that Ill come looking for you."
"And this is Joshua," the innkeeper stood behind a young man and tousled his hair. The boy ducked in shy greeting to the bard. "Hes three years younger than Taretha." The woman had moved to her left and placed her hands on a tall dark-haired girls shoulders. "Shes betrothed to Seth, a young prophet." The girl smiled, and blushed.
"She might be useful to you," and Xena said it in all seriousness. "She may know a bit more about these angels and prophecies. Anyway, Im gone. Remember, one half hour!" The warrior turned and strode purposefully to the door.
Suddenly, Gabrielle felt bereft and alone, for some reason she couldnt explain she longed to run after her friend, to never let the warrior leave her sight, to cling to Xenatake me with you had always been her plea, and she felt it deeply right now. Gabrielle shook herself. Whats come over you? Shes a grown woman! Shell be fine and back to you in a half hour, or lessif she knew her tall friend at all. The bard sighed and returned to the innkeepers voice.
"And heres Raineka, shes our little seamstress. She made all the curtains you see in the inn." The innkeeper placed her hand in blessing on her daughters head, as she continued around the table. The girl appeared to be about fifteen. "Shes got her eye on the tailors sona match made in the heights." Lydia looked heavenward and smiled as Raineka looked directly into the bards eyes, a warm hospitality welcoming her to their table.
"And my youngest, truly a delightful surprise to her father and me, Judith, a musician and poet. Our budding bard." And the innkeeper bent to kiss the top of her youngest daughters head. The bard was startled to find a look of uncommon comprehension and depth in the liquid brown of the girls eyes. "Shes twelve going on thirty."
"Good morning," Gabrielle acknowledged, then involuntarily glanced toward the conspicuously empty chair at the head of the table. Lydia followed her gaze. A softness crept into the innkeepers eyes and they misted of their own accord.
"Ah, Jonathan, my gentle husband, and soulmate, has rested from his labors for three years now."
Without thought, the bard laid a hand tenderly on the womans arm in comfort. Soulmate. That she could understand. As she looked into the innkeepers eyes Gabrielle realized that for Lydia grief, too, had become a comfortable and familiar companion, an old friend with whom she would walk forever.
"He has never left my heart. His place will always be ready for him there."
Gabrielle only looked away when she felt a slight tug on her skirt.
"Sit by me." There was room left beside Judith on the bench. Lydia smiled and ushered
the bard to the spot. It was directly beside the innkeepers chair and across the table from Taretha. Strategic seating.
"Oh, what lovely handiwork. Who carved it?" Gabrielle stood above the bench, having almost sat before noticing its simple, but beautiful carvings.
"They are a joint effort. Each family member had a hand in making these benches and the tableit serves as our sanctuary in the midst of all the confusion." Lydia waved her hand to encompass the rest of the inn and the town beyond. "Jonathan said it represented our focal point as a family,"
It was then the bard noticed the table edging was also sculpted. "Its beautiful."
"Who was the man with whom I shared a table last evening?" Gabrielle lowered her voice and asked the innkeeper pointedly.
"Man? I didnt see a man at your table." Lydia spoke distractedly as she reached to pass a platter of sweet cakes, then poured another glass of milk for Joshua.
"I did." Judith spoke up, helpfully.
"No, she said a man." The innkeeper clarified for her youngest child as a matter of course.
"Well, yesthats true, but thats not what she meant. She really wasnt asking about a man, were you?" Judith wore the innocence of childhood on her open face, as she turned to the bard for confirmation.
"No, I guess she wasnt," Lydia answered as she set aside the tableware and braced her hands on her thighs. She tilted her head to one side and gazed at the bard gauging the younger womans comprehension.
"But, I think you already knew that, didnt you?" The innkeeper asked quietly, and rhetorically.
Gabrielle only nodded.
"If youre asking for his namethat I cannot tell you, he is . . . an anointed one, but I do see him from time to time here as the situations seem to warrant. What he told you troubled you, didnt it?"
Again, the bard nodded.
"Trust that what he said will come to pass, for there is no shadow of turning with the One Who sent him to you." And Lydia discretely closed the topic reverently, but easily.
Knowing Gabrielles penchant for conversation and her love of discussion, Xena had allowed an hour to pass before returning to the inn. Even so, she still found the bard involved in three conversations simultaneously, with no sign of abatement. Judith had found a mentor. Lydia vacillated between preparations and provisions for the bards journey, and joining the theological discussion that Gabrielle had initiated with Taretha. For the innkeeper life was life. There were no dichotomies between faith and sightthey wore the same reality. The rest of the family was conversing just as animatedly on various and sundry topics, pausing to seek their guests expertise as the conversation warranted. Xena grinned. Gabrielle was in her element.
"Oh!" Gabrielle was startled to see Xena, then she looked out the window. "Oh, my! Where has the time gone?"
Lydia looked to the spot where the bard had first glanced, seeing nothing, she looked back to the bard in question. "Are you anxious to be on your way?"
"Well, uhhh, I did want to get an early start this morning, but am afraid I was enjoying myself so much, I lost track of time. Im so sorry to have monopolized your time. Im sure you all have loads of things you have to get started for the day. Oh, I am sorry!" and the last statement she directed more toward the warrior than her host.
Teren looked crestfallen. "Do you really have to leave today?"
Gabrielle nodded apologetically.
"Our patrons especially enjoyed your song last evening." The innkeeper reached to smooth a stray strand of hair from the bards forehead, much as she would have done for one of her own daughters. "Although, most were troubled that someone so young had already experienced so much pain," Lydia complimented the bard within her implied question. "Im sure theyd love to hear another part of that story tonight. And you know, Time does move faster . . . ," the innkeeper reminded her gently.
Gabrielle shook her head resolutelythough she did find the familys warmth very appealing and refreshing, even temptingly inviting. Shed been given an oasis in the middle of her desert, and for that she was truly thankful. But she must go.
"Let mother get things together for your journey and Ill go fetch your mare for you." Teren offered softly as he rose to leave.
"Which way are you planning to travel?" Taretha asked suddenly.
"Eastward, toward Gilgal, then northward along the Jordan River Valley" Xena informed the bard, then added wryly. "There is a funeral procession heading northward toward Shiloh. Lets not make it easy or go chasing self-fulfilling predictions."
"Were heading eastthen northward along the Jordan River Valley, in a scenic land route homeward." Home.
This time, no one questioned the bards use of the term we, for they had discovered within their breakfast conversation that she carried the ashes of her fallen friend.
"Seth and some from the school of the prophets are traveling to Jericho todayyou could travel with them at least that far. You know, safety in numbers." Taretha offered excitedly, "Besides, he could answer your questions much better than I or Mother could." For her, Seth was the be-all and end-all of her life, at least at this point. Lydia only smiled at her daughter indulgently.
The bard admitted, it felt good for someone to worry about her again, and furthering her knowledge about the angels message was a bonus. Avoiding a set-up with a funeral seemed prudent. "Are you sure it would be no imposition?"
Teren with Ara, and Seth all arrived at the inns front door at the same moment.
"May He Who is, grant you traveling mercies and bestow speed to your journey. And may you find the peace you seek," Lydia pronounced in benediction and blessing for Gabrielles journey as she waved the bard onward.
Teren dutifully held Aras reigns while the bard mounted her horse. He patted the mares neck and lifted his hand in salute to the bard, as he stepped away from them. Xena nimbly vaulted onto Aras back, settling herself directly behind the bard. She wrapped her arms around the smaller womans waist and gave her friend a light squeeze. "May He do so, indeed," the warrior breathed her assent into her friends right ear. Gabrielle smiled and nodded her farewell before urging her horse slowly forward.
Her saddlebags were once again bulging, placed just forward of her saddlewithin easy reach of her hungry hands. The innkeeper had packed enough food and goodies to last them to Greece and back. And even though she had just eaten, the bard drooled at the pastries disappearing into her bag. Judith had given Gabrielle one of her prized poems, and Raineka had included an embroidered draw-bag.
Yes, peace would be profit, but Mercy was already her promised companion. Whoa. Wait a minute, do I believe the angels words that strongly? Gabrielle had to admit that, in fact, she did.
Seth had made his goodbyes to Taretha and gone on ahead to let his companions know they would be having an additional sojourner with their party. Gabrielle had assured him she would catch up to them shortly and not to wait for her. Once past the outskirts of town, the bard purposely dawdled so she could discuss her breakfast discoveries alone with her warrior.
"Actually, it is a persons response to the illumination they are given that is judged," Seth explained to the bard as she walked in step beside him. Gabrielle had deliberately slackened her pace so that she and the seer gradually fell behind the rest of the seminarians. She preferred the modicum of privacy it afforded so she wouldnt have to face the entire group in asking her questions.
"What if they have no illumination?" Gabrielle argued.
"That is our jobI mean as a chosen people. We are to be the oracles of Him Who is. It is a heavy responsibility, yet, how great a privilege." The young seer was silent as he closed his eyes and laid his hand over his heart. Gabrielle hoped he did not stumble while engaged in his sightless worship. But as he innately lifted his feet high over the occasional pathway obstacle, Seth seemed as surefooted as the little mare the bard led behind her, which bore her erstwhile living friend who currently lounged, seated with both feet lolling off Aras left side, elbows on her knees, intently listening to the seer and bards conversation.
When Seth opened his eyes and began speaking once again, a sadness had crept into his voice, "Although, I must admit, we dont seem to be doing that great of a job of it right now."
"So, youre saying that, in-so-far as someone has responded either to direct illumination or to the glories of creations message as youve put it, he or she is judged according to their acceptance of that knowledge and response to their Creator?"
"Yes," the seer responded joyfully, "for His mercies know no bounds. He provides all who seek, a testament of his existence."
"So there is hope for those who have died, who had no direct knowledge of this One God, of having life after death, if they responded to the Light they were given?"
The young seer stopped stock-still, paled noticeably and gasped.
"Whats wrong?" Gabrielle asked, concerned at Seths sudden apoplectic response.
The seers mouth worked for several moments before he made any sound. At first it was merely a small choking noise, then slowly his speech became coherent. "No, Gabrielle. No!"
"No, please dont!"
"What is it? Whats wrong?!"
"No, please do not speak His name so heedlessly, so lightly. His Name is too high and holy that we do not dare to speak of it in such a cursory manner!" The seer shuddered, not in censorship, but in a reverent awe; and a genuine concern for this newfound friends spiritual well being. "He is the One Who set the earth on its foundations, and laid its cornerstonewhen the morning stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy. He is the One Who commands the morning, and causes the dawn to know its place. He is the One Who walks the recesses of the deep and enters into the springs of the seas, which flow from His Hands. He is the One Who brings rain into the desert and clefts a way for the thunderbolt. He is the One Who binds the chains of Pleiades, and looses the cords of Orion. He is the One Who leads forth the constellations and guides the Bear with her stars. He is the One Who hunts prey for the lion and prepares the raven its nourishment. At His command, eagles mount up and make their nests on high. He is the very One Who gives understanding to the mind."
"I am indeed sorry. I meant no offense." Quickly the bard apologized. And truly she felt heavy-hearted that she had disappointed her engaging teacher.
"Not unto me, Gabriellebut to Him Who is."
The bard looked heavenward and held out her empty hands, "I meant no disrespect, uhhh, Sir." Then she was silent, for she did not know what else to say unto this exalted Being.
Upon opening her eyes Gabrielle noticed the sun was almost directly overhead. Another half hour or so and it would be high within the heavens. She paused to look around. Nope, not a mourner in sight.
"Gabrielle. Town. Ten oclock." Xena was her normal laconic self.
"Ah, here we are at Jericho. Gabrielle, why not stay a while here with us and ask the elders your questions? They can probably answer better than I." Seth lamented his imagined lack of aptitude.
"Youve been very helpful, but I need time to process what youve already told me." The bard graciously declined. Then she noticed a livestock path that led around the town. To query Xena while not appearing to do so, she spoke as though thinking aloud, "Now theres a path leading around the town. To go through, or bypass the town. What to do?"
"If we circumvent it, we increase the probability of missing any cortege emerging."
"Perhaps Ill take the scenic route," the bard informed the seer. "Thank you so much for your patience and willingness to answer my questions. I am truly indebted. I also appreciate the protection of your academy to hasten me on my way. Thank you." She shook the seers hand and then swung up onto Aras back. The warrior moved in synchrony, first leaning backward to accommodate the bards mount, then slipping her right leg over the mares back so both she and Gabrielle settled into place together, straddling the horseat precisely the same time, Gabrielle in front and Xena behind her bard.
"May you know the protection of the Almighty along your journey and His speed toward your goal." Seth waved to the bard kindly, then turned and jogged along the path to catch up to his fellow students. Gabrielle watched him disappear before encouraging Ara into a brisk canter following the path that led around Jericho. After passing the town, both bard and horse yearned to run free, so Gabrielle yielded to their desires and let Ara stretch to a full gallop. The little mares feet rarely touched the ground.
"Im almost disappointed that we havent met a funeral procession today." Gabrielle shaded her eyes as she glanced up toward the sun, now nearly at its zenith.
"But just thinkno funeralno death! That means someone did not have to go through the agony of parting from a family member just for our benefit." Xena reasoned.
"It wasnt just for our benefit, remember?" and the bard quoted, "This is not just a sign for you, but also for this country in which you sojourn. Perhaps we were meant to travel to Shiloh with that funeral party and we thwarted the angels plan by finding out previous to our departurebecause northward to Shiloh would have been the more expedient route," the bard reminded the warrior.
"Well, Gilgal is just beyond these cliffs and around the bend." The friends lounged just off the road under a cypress tree in a small flower laden meadow, at the base of a rock escarpment. Lazily they watched the clouds float by. Ara grazed freely close by. Gabrielle was enjoying Lydias packed lunch while Xena was enjoying watching the bard enjoy her delectables. A small stream gurgled a short distance away, serenading the friends with its burbling melody.
"What was that?" The warrior turned her head abruptly, trying to ascertain the source of the strange sound.
"What was what?"
A few moments passed before both women heard it. "That!" The warrior pointed out.
Soon they heard it plainly as a cortege rounded the cliff and into view. Mourners flanked the pallbearers.
"Ummm . . . crying?" Gabrielle asked the warrior solicitously and immediately looked upward. At that moment the sun reached its apex and was indeed high within the heavens. A shiver ran down the bards spine. She brushed herself off and stood to show her respect as the procession approached. "Xena, before it passes us bythat dead man will be walking. What do you suppose will happen? A thunderbolt from the sky?"
"Oh, no!" There was a note of warning in the warriors voice and the bard turned to find the same alarm written on the warriors features.
"What is it?" The bard fairly shouted at her friend.
The bard alerted the mourners at the head of the procession with her astounded response, "A raiding party at a funeral?" She grabbed her saddlebags and its precious cargo as a simultaneous shout traveled forward from the rear ranks as those further behind were the first to glimpse the oncoming horsemen, who rode hard to cut off the group from returning to the safety of their town.
"Run! The Moabites! Marauders! Run!" Screams filled the air. The people began to scattersome in the rear racing back toward the safety of Gilgal, a few able-bodied young men scrambled up the face of the cliff. Others ran for the rocks and brush. However, the pallbearers had no such option with the burden they carried. Nor did the mothers clasping their children in fright; nor the aged and feeble among them.
"Quick, Elishas tomb!"
Ara bolted as two men rushed past Gabrielle to manhandle a large stone covering that laid against the rock face behind her. They maneuvered it to one side, revealing a narrow cave entrance. Slipping in sideways, the men carrying the dead man maneuvered their load into the hewn doorway but stumbled over the threshold as they were pressed forward by the frantic crowd behind them. The dead man was thrown clear and landed on the rock shelving inside. Gabrielle was pulled and pushed along by the same frenzied sea of hands and arms. The bard lost her balance and she too, stumbled over the raised threshold. As she fought to regain her balance, her saddlebag was flung onto the same rock shelf as where the dead man had landed. The urn tumbled free.
Bodies pressed together trying to squeeze as many people into the cave as possible. Societal norms were thrown away. Familiarity was thoughtlessly accepted. Gabrielles back was pressed against the rock shelf. Her nose was smashed into the chest of a rather plump, heaving woman leaning heavily upon her. The bard managed to turn her head so she could catch her breath.
The main room into which they gathered was a small cavern that had been hand hewn to enlarge it to approximately ten feet square, much of that space was claimed by a rock burial shelf. A smaller, natural chamber branched from the main room to its east and tapered to a passageway that was virtually inaccessible to any human, and disappeared into the cliff proper.
"Quiet!" The last man into the cave ordered. He had been one of the two who had shoved the stone aside. He was a big man and wore a sand-colored tunic. He turned his back to fill the doorway and effectively camouflaged the entrance.
Immediately a deathly silence fell upon the mourners. Collectively they held their breath as moments later they heard the muffled sound of horses rumble past their hiding place.
"Not yet!" the man hissed as the silence was threatened by a panicked mother separated from her child, who whimpered at the sudden darkness.
Sure enough, the warlord had come to the conclusion that the majority of his quarry had turned back toward Gilgal and he and his men turned to give pursuit. The horses were driven at a hard run, back past the cave which concealed the little group.
Gabrielle wondered where Ara had managed to hide, but her thoughts were interrupted by a voice directly behind hercoming from the rock shelf, strong, but confused.
"Could someone please tell me whats going on?" The dead man writhed within the burial cloth wound tightly around him. From it permeated the distinctive perfume of myrrh.
The man lay atop the rightful inhabitant of the tomb. Eager hands quickly helped the man down as people inched toward the cave entrance to allow more room for family to assist the previously deceased out of his bonds. And while some were terrified at the seeming miracle, the mans family was elatedfor they had not yet accepted the reality of his death. It was their dream come true. There was nothing unseemly to them in his resurrection. His shroud became his robes.
"Elishas bones, the man of the One Who isthey revived Derek when he touched them!" The mans white-haired grandmother, whose whole face now smiled, reached to cradle her grandsons head in her gnarled hands. Then she sent her praise upward as she kissed her hands and saluted the heavens.
And in spite of the continued threat from the bandits, the funeral party excitedly pranced from the cavesinging and shouting their news, praising the One Who is, rushing out to inform their friends.
And the funeral platform was carried out, empty.
Once again alone, the bard leaned against the rock shelf that held Elishas bones and felt strangely relieved that the others had quit the cave. In spite of the lingering sweet scent of the burial spices, and the pall of death that weighted the air, the bard felt unaccountably peaceful, welcoming the quiet solitude of the tomb. The solace. She folded her arms over her chest. Slowly she turned her head searching for Xenashe wanted to know the warriors reaction to seeing the dead man walking in accordance with what the angel had promised. She wanted reassurance as to what she had just witnessed. The questions bubbled to the surface, as she began to process the preceding moments. She needed to feel the warriors touch on her heart. Not finding her friend within the cave, the bard wandered to the entrance and peaked out. No warrior within sight. Perhaps Xena had ridden Ara to safety.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called out of the entrance softly. "Xena? Are you out there?" She blinked at the bright sunlighther only answer.
The bard returned slowly to collect her things. Her saddlebag was balanced precariously on the rock shelfone flap on and the other hanging off. Thank goodness the heavier half was what was perched on the shelf and held the whole of it up out of harms way. It was then Gabrielle noticed the urn had rolled free and lay chocked by the dead mans ankle. The bard apologized to the corpse for disturbing his rest as she reached to retrieve the urn with her right hand. She jerked and flung it down immediately, wincing in pain . It had seared the flesh of her hand.
"What the . . . ?" She stood shaking her hand in the air, trying to cool the burn.
The wax sealant melted as the heat grew in intensity. The metal rim glowed orange. Finally the lid was blown off and ashes strewn over the dead mans bones. Gabrielle cried out pitifully, "What? Wait! No! Mercy, please dont take my friend from me. Oh, please! No!"
But for the heat and the growing ache from her burned hand, the bard would have carefully gathered Xenas ashes and carried them herself, clutched against her bosom. Numbly, she just stood in the middle of that stone floor and stared. How would she return Xenas ashes to Amphipolis? How would she keep her promise? How could she face Cyrene and Lyceaus and tell them that Xenas ashes would never rest with them? Where would her friend rest? Not only was her friend dead, but, before her eyes was slowly being lost to her as well, forever. She mourned the warrior anew.
"Xena, I dont think I can do this without you!" Gabrielle groaned. "It is too hard, and my heart is growing dim."
Instantly, she knew, with a cold terror, that she would never share earthly joys with her warrior shadow again. Slowly, her resolve crumbled and her shoulders shook as she gave in to her anguish. The bard cradled her throbbing hand in abject misery.
The bard did not know whether a moment or an hour had passed. The cave was a contradiction between the surreal and the real. Gradually, as though sleepwalking, Gabrielles attention was drawn to Xenas disseminated ashes. She stared transfixed as mysteriously, puffs of wind began to write its will in the dust of her friend.
It was then the bard heard the ethereal breath of the cave.
"Whos there? Please, is someone there?"
When no immediate answer came, Gabrielle thought perhaps the drafts were playing tricks on her. But it came again. "Justice. Justice. Justice!" It softly blew. "Justice. Justice. Justissss," it finished in a hiss.
"No, not Justice!" the bard intoned, "Not Justice. I dont want Justice. No, not Justice," she whispered desperately into the air. "Please, dont send Justice."
The cave was silent.
As an afterthought she pled again, "No, not Justice."
She swung about, straining, listening for a reply, but even her footfalls and rustling clothing were muted to deafening silence. Her physical pain was forgotten as she fell to her knees where she stood and begged into the chasm, "Was Mercy not to have been my companion? And Grace not to have traveled beside me?"
She felt a soft zephyr at her back, "Mercy. Mercy. Mercy," it blew into the caverns and crevices. "Mercy. Mercy. Mercy."
Intently the wind charged, "Mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy! Great is the mystery of His Mercy." The bard stood, craning her neck to find the origin of the sound.
Xenas ashes were swept into a slow dance, swirling in Graces breath, "Save. Save. Save."
The warriors ashes leapt and gyrated, feeding a whirlwind, and the voice changed to become a haunting crysomehow and distantly familiar to the bard. "Save, save, save, I pray," it whistleddaring the bard to remember. "Mercy, save. Save. Save."
Hypnotically, Gabrielle began to sway to its rhythm. It was easier to allow the dance to claim her than to fight it.
"Return. Return. Return."
The bard echoed its chant, waving her arms, undulating with the current of its tide, "Return, return, return!"
Gabrielle closed her eyes, abandoning herself completely to the passion of Mercys breath as it stirred a chord deep within the bard, willing her to remember and know and to sing forth her requestfor the Almightys Grace awaited.
She moved in sync with the flow of Grace and Mercy. Often they spoke in unison. Sometimes singly, as they lifted and carried the bard alongfloating on the wind of their breathconsoling her.
Soon, it was not self-service she sought, nor to have her desires filled, but to know the Master who was Mercy. Who was Grace.
In that moment, His compassion overwhelmed her and she began to weep for she knew she was not worthy. "Forgive me," she whispered. "Please, forgive me."
"Mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Grace. Grace. Grace." It seemed as if the very stones cried out to her.
"They are yoursMercy and Grace in abundance."
And then a new song flooded her heartone for which she had no language. Her tears streamed dry. Gone was the deep ache of her soul. And in its place walked contentmentin spite of that grief that had shaped her heart. The terror of His majesty confounded her, but she would not turn nor leave. She could not. She heard the heartbeat of His great Love for her, and the emptiness of her soul was filled.
And she knew that it was her Avengers arms that held her.
"Mercy. Mercy. Mercy."
She was loath to leave the comfort of that embrace.
Your memories give her strength.
My memories? the bard had asked.
Gabrielle, remember and ask for He is Mercy. He is Love!
"Save, save, save. Return, return, return."
The wind continued to whisper to her heart. Wooing. Challenging. Comforting. Deep calling deep. A clarion call. "His Mercy and Grace know no bounds. Ask, for He has already given it you."
A faint thought at first, as though trying to recall the words of a favorite childhood rhyme. The bard concentrated, her brow creased with her effort. Soon, scattered words and ideas began to take shape.
"Mercy and Grace. Save and return."
And suddenly, Gabrielle remembered. She stood firmly in her place, and dared to ask. Changing the words to fit her prayer she sang,
please hear my plea.
Mercy, plead my heart's cause.
Save the hawk that flew from me,
And return to me the dove."
But for you, Mercy and Grace will be your companions and they will bear the burden you carry. They will return it unto you lighter than when you took it up.
The bard waited, knowing that the promise made would be the promise kept. Somehow and in His way, it would be fulfilled.
The hand that reached to take up the urn was without blemish. There was no burn, nor scar on it. The bard lifted the urn and peered inside. It was empty, but not lighter; for the bards burden was not her friends ashes, but the grief of her own soul. And, indeed, the Light had shown into that grief and caused the shadows to fleeleaving her free to fly on eagles wings. She held the urn with both hands and offered it, without reserve, upward toward the heavens.
"Gabrielle." The bard heard the rich sonorous overlays of the voice at her back and thrilled at its presence. It was not her memory that called to her. Substance had replaced shadow.
The bard whirled about and nearly upset the surprised warriors balance when she leaped in total trust into her tall friends hastily outstretched arms. And since Xena was unable, and unwilling to prevent it, the bard reached to touch Xenas face tenderly. She traced the warriors jaw line with her finger. "Youre alive!" she marveled aloud, gazing steadfastly upward into the ocean depth of her tall friends blue eyes. "Youre alive!"
Xenas warm smile engulfed the bard. And held her suspended there. The warriors unflinching gaze never left the bards face. Long moments passed as they searched each others thoughts, questioning and answering only with their eyes. The familiar spicy scent of the warriors leathers enswathed them. Once again Xenas features were sharp and chiseled. Her shifting muscles bespoke her casual alertness. Her chest rose and fell with each breath. Her veins were blue with pulsating life. And once again, the bards smile turned upward in guileless and endearing innocence.
Then the bard leaned back into her warriors embrace and whispered heavenward, "Thank you. Thank you for a dead mans bones through which You chose to give life. You are Faithful and True, giving abundantly greater than anything I could have asked or imagined, for Grace and Mercy have been my companions, and you have turned my mourning into dancing!" And the bard wiggled free and cavorted and skipped about the cave, giving credence to her joy.
Finally the bard came to a standstill and just stared at her tall friend. The warrior began examining her own sinewy handsthe whorl of her fingerprint, the workable joints of each finger. She moved up her armflexing the muscles of her forearm against her gauntlets, bending her elbowsshaking out the kinks in her arms. She rotated her shoulders, twisting and bending her head from side to sideaudibly popping the vertebrae of her neck, then looked to the bard in amazement.
"I am alive!"
"Yes, you are!" And again the bard flew at her warrior and swallowed her in a huge embrace. She was in no great hurry to release her friend and they stood for long moments bound together. Slowly they parted.
And even though the friends claimed refuge within a borrowed vault, they did not feel like intrudersthey belonged to that larger picture of life and death, bound in the Mercy and Grace of Him Who is. Death still remained an enemy, but it had lost its sting, its victory.
In unutterable gratitude, each of the women reveled in her own newfound release. An undercurrent of charged anticipation enveloped them.
At last, taking Xena by the hand, the bard led the warrior to the caves entrance. Together, they emerged from the grave. Ara patiently cropped tender shoots of springtime grass, down at the now, effervescent stream. The earth carried the scent of the freshness of a newly fallen rain, though none had come. The flowers gaily offered their sweet incense. The sunlight and springtime breezes caressed both warrior and bards faces. Gabrielle could restrain herself no longer and burst into refrain:
the ashes rose the phoenix
Into dust He'd breathed new life.
Mercy danced into my darkness,
Grace shaped substance with His Light.
Though not earned, He gave it freely,
Tender Mercies, burning Love.
He saved the hawk that had flown from me
And returned to me my dove.
And the angel was right. Her experience had served to awaken in the bard a latent quest, a hundredfold hunger. What were the mysteries of this thing called death? Or for that matter, this thing called life? Was there a greater Reason? And if so, what was her part and responsibility toward it? How did Xena regain life? And why? Why were they given this gift? Who? Who, indeed?
However, the bards curiosity and questions could only be sated by the adventure of a life lived.
"Xena, let me tell you what I learned of the mysteries of the cosmos," Gabrielle began excitedly, and twirled to walk backward in front of the warrior. She couldnt help herselfshe reached to touch her friend. She needed the reassurance that the warrior was indeed corporeal, real and alive.
The warrior grinned as she linked arms with her younger friend, and pulled her back to her side. "Please, I want to hear every last detail." Xena paused, "Then after that, I suppose we should do something about those Moabite raiders."
"There is a great Avenger . . . !"
"And Elisha died and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites would invade the land in the spring of the year.
And as they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet."
II Kings 13:20-21