by Claire Withercross
Disclaimer : Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo are copyright MCA /Universal/Renpic, everything else is mine
Thanks to : My Warrior for beta reading, Richard for the hardware and software. Special thanks to D and S for some of the inspiration. This story is for Kay who for some strange reason thinks Buffy is better at kicking butt?!?!? (Strange girl)
It has been six months.
I've tried to start this scroll several times but every time I've picked up the quill, the hurt comes back. It's hurting again now.
Where to begin?
I could start at the beginning, before I knew her. I could start when I first met her. But I've decided to start at the end.
I held her hand as she died. Her blue eyes stared at me with an intensity that I had never seen in the time that I knew her. Her dark features were paled by the loss of blood. She gasped hard for breath.
"S-Sorry," she said.
I couldn't answer her. The lump in my throat was choking me.
"I'm sorry. Please - please f-forgive...." She closed her eyes and grimaced. "I-I-It wasn't your fault," she breathed hurriedly. "It never was. I blamed you becau- ," her words beacame a moan.
"Shh," I tried to calm her.
She fixed me with those sapphire eyes. "Smile for me. I want to see you smile. I want it to be the last thing I see. I want to take it with me."
Oh gods, she thought I was Xena. I looked over at the warrior. She had moved too far away to hear. She stood resolute, her face an unreadable mask, blood dripping from her sword onto her boots. She made no move to come closer, or even a sign that she noticed us.
By the time I turned back, Morgana had died.
I haven't told Xena that Morgana had forgiven her. I don't know why. Maybe deep down, somewhere in a dark part of my soul, I want Xena to feel guilty. Maybe because Morgana had forgiven Xena, and not me, I wanted Xena to feel guilty too.
I know some of what Xena was like before I met her, and I've said that it made her what she is today. Without her past she wouldn't be the Xena I love. I do still love her, that never stopped. But somehow I can't bring myself to pass on Morgana's forgiveness. For my sake, for Morgana's. I don't know.
Maybe I'll let Xena read this scroll.
It's been three weeks and I've just reread what I wrote. I almost tore this scroll up, but decided to let Xena read it.
"Finish the story," she told me. "Maybe then I can forgive myself."
She cried last night as we went to sleep. There weren't any heartrending sobs. Just quiet, gentle, sincere tears. As I comforted her my eyes fell on her discarded boots. There was still a bloodstain on them. It could be a new one, but maybe some stains never go.
I first met Morgana in the tavern where she worked. The tavern was in the small, beautiful village of Helophony surrounded by fertile farmland. The farmers were the main customers of the tavern, and when I entered in the middle of a beautiful day, it was deserted.
"Hello," I called out.
Somewhere in a backroom came a clatter of pots and a curse.
"Morgana, what've you dropped now?" bellowed a man's voice.
"Noth-nothing, I-I just...nothing," stuttered a woman's voice in reply.
A large man with a friendly face poked his head through a doorway and smiled at me. He was as tall as Xena, and almost as wide as he was tall. His bald head glistened with sweat and a single bead of it slipped down his cheek. He wiped it away with a cloth.
"Good afternoon," he greeted me. "What can I do for you?"
I opened my mouth to reply when another crescendo of crockery filled the air.
The bartender smiled apologetically. "Can't get the staff," he explained. "Morgana's nice enough but awfully clumsy." He lowered his voice. "A bit slow," he whispered tapping a large finger against the side of his head.
"Maybe, but my h-hearing's good."
I turned to look at the woman who walked in carrying a bucket. In height she came somewhere between me and Xena. Long, dark curly hair flowed down over one shoulder. Her eyes were the same colour as Xena's but I noticed the left one was a bit slower in following the right one when she looked anywhere.
"But I don't pay you for your hearing," replied the bartender.
Though the words seemed cruel, he said them with good humour, and Morgana smiled in response. "I-If you paid me," she said as she turned and left.
The bartender chuckled. "Where were we?"
I negotiated with him for a room for a few nights. Xena said she would meet here, tonight, maybe tomorrow, and I didn't know how long she would want to stay when she did turn up. I offered to tell some stories in the tavern. But the bartender said that most of his customers were farmers, and after toiling long and hard in the fields all day, they wanted to get drunk and talk, not listen to stories. So I offered to help out serving. He agreed.
In a quiet moment before the rush, Morgana and I had meal in a backroom.
"I hear y-you're a bard, that right?" she queried.
I nodded as I chewed.
"I wanted to do that, b-but I was never any good," she continued. "I only ever wrote one poem." She barked a short laugh. "Hardly a poem really, just verse."
"Tell me it," I said.
"Go on," I pressed.
She blushed, "It's not that good."
"Let me be the judge of that."
"I-I call it 'A Poem For The One You Love, Or Hate'."
She recited the verse.
"You don't like it, do you?" she asked after a moment.
"I....It's different," I replied. It was. "It takes time to appreciate some poetry. To understand the imagery that the poet wants to convey," I added diplomatically.
"It's alright. If you don't like it, just say so."
"No," I replied. "I like it."
Morgana just nodded her head and smiled.
"Interesting title. Did you write it for someone you loved or hated? I can see the ambiguity in the last line that could apply to either."
"Both," she replied quietly. She stood up suddenly. "Better go or Stavros will start shouting again."
"Why do you work here?"
"Oh, Stavros's alright really. He shouts a bit but he's not mean. Anyway, I don't plan on being here long."
The true importance of those words didn't strike me until later.
Xena arrived the next morning. I was taking a walk just outside the village when I heard the leisurely steps of a horse on the hard packed road. I smiled and waved at her. She half-heartedly returned my greeting.
As she drew nearer I could see she was preoccupied by something.
"What's wrong?" I asked, falling into step alongside her as she led Argo by the reins.
She placed an arm around my shoulders, "Just tired," she said. "I hope you've got us a room."
"Yeah. And there's a stable for Argo."
She heaved a tired sigh. "Good," was all she said.
After stabling and settling Argo, Xena came into the tavern. I showed her to our room. Once inside she dropped her sword and chakram on the floor, flopped onto the bed and was
soon snoring gently. I watched her for a while before carefully removing her armour and boots, and covering her with a blanket. I settled down to write my scrolls, listening to her sleep.
I didn't hear her wake up. I suddenly felt her hand on my back. "Hope you're spelling my name correctly," she joked. She stretched and yawned. "What's to eat?"
"I'll go get us something."
"S'okay, I'll come down with you."
We wandered down into the kitchen. Morgana was cutting into a joint of meat as we entered, she turned to look at us and the knife tumbled from her hand. She muttered a curse under her breath and bent to pick it up.
"Oh, Xena this is Morgana. She works here. Morgana, this is my friend, Xena."
"Nice to meet you," Xena smiled.
Morgana stood up and paused. She looked down at the knife in her hand, seemingly unsure as to how it got there or what to do with it. "Umm,'" she looked around and practically threw the knife onto the table by her side. "So- um, hello," she fumbled.
"We've just come to get something to eat," I explained.
"I-I'll get it," said Morgana. "Sit down."
Morgana served us with some bread, cheese, meat, olives and some fine local wine. Xena ate heartily, but I sensed there was something wrong. She paused with a piece of cheese half into her mouth to look at me watching her.
"Something's wrong, isn't it?"
The warrior shrugged a shoulder. "Maybe," she said and put the cheese the rest of the way into her mouth.
"Well," I pressed her.
Xena smiled. "What sort is there?"
I nodded solemnly in understanding.
"Hey," said Xena, gently tapping me on the arm. "It'll be okay. Besides, it may not come to anything."
There was a thud and a splash. We both turned to see Morgana at the door, an overturned bucket at her feet. The water had soaked her lower legs and was pooling over the floor.
"Morgana," came Stavros's bellow. He came bustling into the kitchen.
Morgana stared dumbly at the mess on the floor. "S-Sorry, I-I'll clean it up."
Stavros sighed. "Just leave it. Go dry yourself off and have a break. I'll call you when things get busy."
Morgana shuffled off without another word.
"What's the matter with her?" Xena asked him.
Stavros shook his head. "Hopelessly clumsly."
Xena left shortly afterwards saying she had to go and do some scouting. I offered to go with her, but she said she wouldn't be long. I was in the tavern helping out when she returned.
She was dusty and tired and sat heavily at one of the tables.
"Go sit with your friend," said Stavros. "I'll send some drinks over."
I flashed a quick smile of thanks at him and hurried over to Xena. Her blue eyes fixed me with a heavy look.
"Not good?" I asked.
She shook her head. "No, but there's still hope."
"Tell me what's going on. I want to help."
She smiled gratefully. "When I've worked out a plan, I'll tell you."
It happened so fast I'm not sure which happened first. Xena said later that Morgana dropped the tankard first. At the time I thought she dropped it because Xena grabbed her arm.
Xena stood up quickly, her chair falling backwards, her right hand grasping Morgana's left arm by the wrist. She stared at the arm she held and slowly looked up into the woman's face. She let go and took a step back. I'd never seen her looked so shocked, frightened almost.
"Sorry," whispered Xena.
"Sorry," spat Morgana. She swung the tray she held in her right hand and caught the warrior on the side of the head. "You didn't recognise my face. You didn't recognise my name. You only recognise me by the scar," she waved her left arm at Xena.
By this time I had recovered from the sudden turn of events. I looked from one to the other. "Xena, what's going on? Morgana?"
Xena looked at me, embarrassed, and ran out of the tavern. I looked at Morgana for an answer, but she was staring at the door through which Xena had left.
I paused a beat and went after Xena. The evening held a slight chill, and I shivered as I looked up and down the street. There was no sign of her, but I had a good idea where she would go. The stable was warm and pungent from the animals. Sitting in a corner near Argo was Xena. I sat down next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She flinched slightly and stood up in order to shrug off my touch.
"Xena," I pleaded gently. "Talk to me."
"I need to be alone."
"No you don't. I'm here to help. I'll always be here."
A brief smile flickered over her face. "I don't deserve you."
"What was all that about? I guess you knew her before."
Xena nodded. "She...Morgana was a member of my army."
"You can't be expected to remember everyone that was in your army."
"Morgana was different. I trained her." Xena sat back down.
I noticed she did so out of my reach. I wanted to move closer but was afraid she'd only move again and I wanted to hear her story.
"The scar on her arm," continued the warrior. "I did that. A little mishap in training."
She fell silent for a few seconds.
"What happened?" I prompted.
Xena looked at me. "I caught her with my sword."
"I meant, what happened to Morgana."
Xena looked back down at the hay strewn floor and shrugged. "One day, about six months after she joined, we... I...my army raided a village. Some of the villagers naturally fought back." She took a long intake of breath. "When the fighting was over we took what we wanted and headed back to our camp. Morgana didn't come back. One of my men said he'd seen her killed."
"That's it," she said. "I thought she was dead. It wasn't the first time I'd lost a soldier." She shrugged. "It's just a shock finding her alive."
"Why didn't you recognise her?"
"I was a bit preoccupied. It's been a long time. I thought she was dead so I wasn't expecting.... I don't really know. I should have, and I hate myself for not doing so."
I took a chance and moved closer. I slowly reached out, she didn't move. "It's okay," I rubbed her back in slow circles. "I guess you're right, it's been a long time. You can't remember everyone."
"She remembered me."
"You were the warlord in charge. There's only one of you to remember. How many soldiers were in your army, eh?"
Xena shook her head slowly. "I think it's best if I don't go back there tonight. I'll stay here."
"I'll stay with you."
"No, Gabrielle, you go back. I'm glad you're here for me, but I really need to be alone. You'll do that for me?"
"I promise I won't run away," she said with a half smile.
I kissed her forehead. "Goodnight."
As I reached the stable door she called.
I turned back. Her face was partly obscured by shadow but I could see her eyes shining.
"Goodnight," she said after a while.
She wanted to say something else, I could tell, but I didn't press her. "Goodnight," I replied.
Sleep didn't come easily that night. I tossed and turned for hours. Xena had left something unsaid and it preyed on my mind. Maybe there was someone who could tell me what it was. I didn't care about disturbing her. I was ready to wake her if necessary.
I pushed her bedroom door open, the room was dark, but I could make her out sitting by the window looking up at the stars.
"I was expecting you," she said softly without turning around.
"To talk," she interrupted me. "To know what h-happened." She moved from the window and lit some lamps. "Come in, s-sit down."
I pushed the door closed behind me and sat on the edge of the bed, she returned to the seat by the window.
"What did she tell you?"
I repeated what Xena had told me. Morgana nodded.
"Rather brief," she said. "No lies in it, but it's not the whole story. I'll tell you my side."
She settled back and started to talk.
"I was young and in search of glory. When I first saw Xena I was captivated. She was everything I wanted to be. I walked into her camp and asked to join her army. She dismissed me at first but I persisted and she agreed to see how good I was."
"I pulled my sword, and before it was clear of the scabbard she'd knocked it out of my hand and had her sword at my throat. She told me to go home."
"I begged her to let me join. I wanted to stay, to be near her. I don't know if she recognised that then, but she agreed."
"She trained me hard and I got better. When she cut my arm in a sword drill I thought she'd done it on purpose. Just to let me know she was still playing and I had a lot to learn. But she was genuinely sorry and it allowed us to get closer."
"Does that shock you? No, I can see it doesn't."
"Anyhow, I don't need to go into graphic detail. I loved her but she didn't love me. She was fond of me perhaps, but to her I was mostly a physical need. Or something to scratch a physical itch she had. She used me. And I let her use me."
"When she thought I was good enough to fight for real she took me on a raid. I thought she'd want me to fight alongside her. Instead she assigned me to a small group on the flank."
"I don't remember the name of the village, it was a pretty place, a bit like this one. We attacked without warning,; the villagers fought back with what they could. One, he was barely older than me, had a hammer from the forge. I had just run past his hiding place when he struck me on the back of the head. My helmet broke from the force of his blow. I spun around as I fell and landed on my back. That was when I saw him properly, and that was when he saw me properly, too. He had the hammer pulled back for the killing blow, when he paused. Whether it was because I was just a girl, or he didn't want to kill anyone, I don't know. I stared up at that hammer waiting for it to fall, when a sword burst out of his chest. He smiled. Can you believe that. He smiled."
"Anyway, he fell on top of me, I never saw who killed him, I passed out. When I came to I tried to call out, but I had no strength to shout, or move. The weight of the boys body on my chest made it difficult to draw breath. I could only move my eyes. Well, eye to be more accurate."
"At the periphery of my vision I could see Xena on her horse. I thought she was coming to get me. She just rode by, she glanced in my direction and smiled, but she didn't see me. At least that's what I like to believe."
"By the time I recovered Xena was long gone. Besides, what use would she have for a half blind soldier who'd keep dropping her sword?"
I was speechless.
I knew Xena had done some things in the past that's she's not proud of. I understood why she didn't want me to be with her tonight. She must be hurting badly at the reopened memory.
A thought popped into my head. "The poem," I said. "Your poem. It's about Xena."
Morgana nodded. "I-I didn't know you knew her when I told you."
"She's changed," I snapped rather more forcefully than I meant to.
"Don't think badly of her because of what she did to me."
The words were like a slap to my face. This woman had been betrayed and abandoned by the woman she loved, the woman I love. She's didn't sound bitter or angry or jealous. She wanted me to be happy with Xena. She wanted Xena to be happy with me. Suddenly I doubted I could be as understanding if I were in her position.
I woke around midday, Xena had been back; her pack had been disturbed. I went in search of her. Morgana was in the kitchen eating a light meal.
"Afternoon," she said in greeting.
"Uh...." Could I ask her if she'd seen Xena? Before I came to a conclusion, she answered.
Xena was sat in the shade of a tree sharpening her sword. She smiled in greeting as if everything was normal.
"I spoke to Morgana last night."
"She told me," said Xena and concentrated on her task.
"Yes," was the terse reply.
Xena fixed me with those ice blue eyes. "And nothing," she stood up and slipped her sword into the scabbard on her back. "It's in the past. It's done."
"It may be in the past," I said. "But it's not done."
"It's not your problem."
"It is my problem, because I care. I care about you."
Xena sucked in a long slow breath, her bearing softened. "It's....," she began. "...not your problem. It's my problem. I'll deal with it."
I felt shut out, excluded. My face must have shown it.
Xena winced slightly. "If I need your help, I'll ask," she said quietly. "I promise."
I nodded in acceptance. "I'll be here."
"I need your help with something else, though."
I'd forgotten all about the other problem. I didn't even know what it was. So I asked.
"Three warlords, Lucas, Cullen, and Altonus, they're planning on forming an alliance. They've been skirmishing with each other for years and that's interfering with business. So, they're going to define borders they can't cross, and sign to a mutual assistance agreement."
"If one of them has problems the others will help." She stopped, realising what she had just said. "I mean if another warlord tries to muscle in."
"You have a plan," I tactfully ignored the awkward moment. Xena needed to be focused.
"It's not a good one, but time is short. They're going to sign today."
"What is the plan?" I asked.
"I didn't sharpen my sword for fun," replied the warrior. "If I kill the warlords then their armies will need to regroup. With luck they might splinter. If we can prolong the fighting among themselves the better it will be for the people."
I nodded slowly.
Xena placed an arm around me. "I'm not asking you kill. Just help me."
"I know," I replied. "I'll help."
It took us half an hour to get to the meeting site. We watched from hiding as the warlords and their entourages arrived. Each warlord was accompanied by three soldiers. One other person was present, a scribe with three scrolls.
I looked at Xena, her eyes sparkled, her mouth opened in a slightly feral grin. It was a familiar sight. She was ready for battle, ready to enjoy herself.
"Now," she growled softly. She let forth her battle cry and flipped into the clearing. "Hello, boys."
The warlords backed up one step in unison and drew their swords; it was almost as if it had been choreographed.
"Xena," grunted one of the warlords, I think it was Cullen.
I rushed into the clearing, distracting attention from Xena, the five soldiers nearest me moved closer, swords drawn. My eyes fixed on the soldiers, I held my staff in front of me. I heard the whoosh of Xena's chakram and the clash of metal. The battle had begun.
I dealt with two of the soldiers quickly. They had underestimated me, but now the others were warned. I was fortunate in that I was more agile than the armoured soldiers, I felt the breath from a near miss more often than I liked. I heard the cries of the men as Xena attacked them but could not afford to look to see how well she was doing.
Just as I had lowered the odds against me to one on one, another soldier appeared, and a third was just climbing groggily back to his feet. I struck the new arrival in the face with the end of my staff, ducked as the other swung his sword at my head and swept my staff to the right to hit the recovering soldier back down. I meant to roll forward away from the remaining soldier, in anticipation of a downward stroke from him. But he kicked out and sent me sprawling instead.
As I came to a halt I was looking in Xena's direction, and I could see a soldier coming up behind her to deal a killing blow. I called out. "Xena, behind you."
Xena's eyes flashed in my direction
She nodded imperceptibly.
She pushed the warlord in front of her backwards.
Her sword started to spin in a slow graceful ballet.
She gripped it, pointing backwards.
She thrust behind her without looking.
That was when I noticed the blur.
It came to a sudden stop as it hit the soldier behind Xena.
It was Morgana.
She watched the soldier fall away just as Xena's sword struck her.
Time sped up.
I turned just in time to block the sword coming towards me. I risked another quick glance at Xena. She had returned to fighting the warlord.
She didn't know.
It took nearly two minutes to defeat the assembled group. Two surviving soldiers ran off. By the time I got to Morgana she was beyond help.
I've already told you what happened next.
We stood apart at her funeral pyre. Neither offering the other the comfort they required. I didn't offer it because I thought I needed it more. I suspect Xena felt the same.
That night as we lay awake I spoke."She wrote a poem about you."
"I know," Xena replied simply.
I didn't know what else to say.
I'll leave you with the poem. Make up your own mind if it's any good.
A POEM FOR THE ONE YOU LOVE, OR HATE
I see farmers standing in their ruined fields
I can't take anymore
I see the starving with death in their eyes
I can't take anymore
I see armies gathering trying to find war
I can't take anymore
I see children begging with no hope of life
I can't take anymore
I see your smile
I've read this scroll and still feel guilty.
I am guilty and no amount of forgiveness can take that away. I have to learn to live with it.
My main reason for adding to this story is to supply the last line to the poem as it was originally written. I forgive her.
And it's all worthwhile
We hold tightly to all of our past because it is all we have. The present is too fleeting, the future unknown. Sometimes we need to summon the courage to uncurl the fingers that hold it, and it let go.
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