The Land of Song
Summary: Five years after Xena's death, Gabrielle returns to Greece. She meets a new friend, who invites her on a journey to the farthest end of the known world, to a land where bards rule and ancient demons threaten a way of life.
Intellectual Property: Xena, Gabrielle and other characters originating from "Xena: Warrior Princess" are the property of MCA/Universal/Renaissance Pictures, are used without permission, and are here just for the fun of it, no profit being made from their appearances. The storyline, fictitious setting and the other principle characters, including Cadhlaighn, are my own invention and belong to me. Other characters are drawn from the public domain.
Violence: This is a story about love and war. War is violent. There are several scenes of graphic violence in this work.
Sex, etc.: This is a love story. Several scenes contain explicit or implied sexual and romantic acts between consenting partners of the same or different sexes. There are also depictions of coerced sexual acts and their consequences.
Age rating: R: If you're under 18, this story is not suitable for you. Please read something else.
Discomfort and emotional intensity: This story has a plotline and scenes that can be distressing. It's a drama, so please read it in that spirit.
Nits to pick: I take a lot of liberties with arms, armor and tactics, so overlook the technical details and just go for the story. Also, the integrity of Celtic myth may have suffered unduly at my hands.
Thanks!!! Many times to Ann D., for her terrific beta-reading and great comments! COMMENTS from all of you are most welcome, always. Thanks for reading and enjoying.
"Land of song, sings the warrior bard
Though all the world forsake thee
One sword at least thy right shall guard
One harp at least shall praise thee!"
"The Minstrel Boy"
I. The Companion
"How about another ale here!" Xanthus pounded the table and yelled at the host. "I'll buy another round in honor of my father, may he roast his toes!" His companions grunted assent.
"What will you do with all that land, Xanthus?" asked Miltiades, draining the last of his tankard. "It's a bloody huge parcel. You're almost the lord of Amphipolis, now."
"And about bloody time. I was getting godless impatient for the old fart t' croak. Wench! Where's that ale!"
The wispy serving girl turned over her shoulder as she loaded a tray. "Coming, sir."
"She ought to call me 'my lord'. Gods know I'm entitled to it. I own more land, more slaves than anyone in these parts. And with the old man in the ground it doubles!"
"Aye," said Diomedeus, "But you can't have the title."
"Ach, title be blowed. Besides, I could make'em call me whatever I want."
"Some things, Xanthus--- some things are worth more than money." This from slim Heralus, seated at the end of the table. "Tradition. Tradition's the only thing that keeps the people here any more. They stay in this pigsty of a hamlet next to what used to be a village because their fathers and their grandfathers did. As it is there're damn few of the young ones who do stay. The young ones leave, and the old ones nurse the tradition of their lost lord. You know the story. The last lord went off to fight the Dacians and never came back, never left a child to inherit...whole family wiped out, bloody bad business. We don't have a lord, anymore. But these peasants still wait for him, or someone like him."
"Aye, I know the story. Too damn bad, I say. If he was fit to be the lord he shoulda got himself more heirs, put it to that stick of a wife of his a bit more. Soggy sweetmeat. Fat lot of good all his fancy songs and poems did her. Died in the slave cribs, by all accounts, she did."
"By all accounts." Heralus looked down into his empty mug as if he expected to find answers there.
"And so what if they leave? Useless turds. Let them go to Athens. Let them go to Rome, Byzantium. Dungheaps. Ratholes. I rule here, title or no, and anyone who stays here better know it!"
The girl set the tray on the table and passed around full tankards. Xanthus looked her over.
"Well, what a sweet young thing! How come I've not seen you in here before? I drink in here every day."
"I've only come from Poitidea, sir. My cousin owns this place." At this conversation a stranger in the corner seemed to lift his head inside his hooded cloak, listen more attentively.
"Poitidea? Another rathole. But if they send us a pretty thing like you they can't be all bad, can they? Xanthus stroked the back of the girl's hand, then her forearm, then her shoulder. "Too few young and pretty ones to keep a man happy around here", he said as he leered at the girl. You look as if you'd tuck up nicely, now."
"Fancy a little fun with the richest man in Amphipolis? Come on here, sweet thing, let's get a real man into you!" He grabbed her arm and pulled her into his lap, then bent her back against the table as he forced a kiss on her mouth. She struggled but the big man was all over her. The host came out of the back room at her first scream, but, when he saw what was happening, stopped and did nothing.
The big man's friends laughed and egged him on. "You said it, Xanthus. Put it to her!"
The girl's bodice was ripped by the big man's meaty hands thrusting into it, and the girl tried to scream again, but Miltiades clamped his hand over her mouth and the others planked the girl on the table. Only Heralus refused to join the festivities. Xanthus had the girl's legs apart and was preparing to reveal all when he suddenly froze and a look of pain contorted his face. He let go the girl and sank to his knees, his chin on the table, his eyes popping out of his head.
Behind him, the cloaked stranger, from the corner table, stood with his fingers on the side of Xanthus' head just above the ear. The stranger's voice rasped in a hoarse stage whisper. "Find your fun elsewhere. If I press harder you'll pass out. If I press harder than that you'll die. Don't believe me? You're the kind of animal who needs to be shown." To the others: "Let the girl go." They did. Xanthus cried out in a brief second of agony and then collapsed face down on the table. Miltiades jumped at the stranger, who was only half his size, and was felled by the stranger's fingers thrust stiffly into his neck. He lay there conscious, but shaking uncontrollably. "Now get out of here. Take these brave boys with you. And think twice before you take what you want without asking."
They gathered up the fallen warriors and left the bar. Heralus held back for a moment, then spoke to the stranger. "That was impressive", he said. "But I suggest you leave here before Xanthus wakes up. He will wake up, won't he?"
"Yes. He'll have quite a headache."
"Then clear out before he can get his gang together. They could make trouble for you and there's a lot of them."
"Thanks for the advice. Tell me -- you seem like a civilized man. Why do you hang around with the likes of him?"
"He's my older brother. Someone has to look out for him."
He turned on his heels and left the bar.
The stranger went to the girl, who was huddling in the arms of the man behind the bar. The stranger said to her, still in that hoarse whisper, "You'd better go."
"I have no place to go."
"Why not back to Poitidea? I know it's not the best place in the world, but it's your home."
"The soldiers -- they took my home. My mother owed taxes. When she died, I didn't have the money."
The boy spoke up. "I came here to work for her cousin. I thought I'd make enough money to save her house. But they threw her into the street...he hasn't paid me in a month.
"Who are you?"
"Titus...I'm her...we want to get married."
"And you let your fiance get raped before your eyes?"
"They killed the last man who tried to stop them. That was in the woman's own house."
The stranger was silent for a moment. Titus couldn't see his face in the shadow of the hood. The stranger reached into his pouch. Coins rang on the bar. "Here's money. On the road north from Poitidea there's an empty farmhouse. It's all boarded up. You can stay there until you decide what to do. Go."
"The house...belongs to people I know. I told them I'd take care of it for them. They...won't be back for a while. Go ahead and use it. It has a grain mill in the barnyard. Maybe you can scratch a living from it."
"Thank you..we'll go."
"Now, before they come back."
The boy and girl cleared out. As they left, the stranger said to both of them, "...And learn how to take care of yourselves."
The stranger went back to his table, took a pull on his ale, took out a parchment and a quill, and began to write.
A sword in its scabbard thumped on the table. The stranger looked up. Another, hooded and cloaked for travel, was sitting down across the table, uninvited. The stranger pointed with the quill. "Please, sit. I insist."
A musical voice answered. I don't mean to be rude, you know. I saw it all. You're right -- they won't be back, sure, not today. They're cowards."
"And who might you be?"
The newcomer cast back the hood, A woman's face appeared, round and shapely, with creamy skin, topped by a short mop of bright, richly red hair. The woman was very young, perhaps nineteen, twenty; her eyes were the green of the sea, the green of spring grass. They were so bright that they might have glowed in the dark, like a cat's. Her smile was warm and guileless. She extended her hand. "Cadhlaighn of Taragh. Pleased to meet you."
The stranger grasped Cadhlaighn's wrist. "Likewise. I'm..."
"Oh, I know who you are. Everybody does. They tell stories about you from here to my islands and back. I've been looking for you. You're Xena."
Carefully, the stranger lowered the hood of the cloak to reveal a woman's face. Although in the prime of her life, it was hard to tell her age. Her skin had the glow of youth, and she was firmly muscled and graceful about the neck, but there was depth in the eyes, and wisdom, and much suffering; the eyes of a woman a thousand years old, yet bright, unlined, and far-seeing; they were a striking, pale blue-green. She was a light blond, and wore her hair short. Her lips were full, her chin round, her complexion fair.
The redhead looked distinctly disappointed. "You don't look the way the stories say you should. What happened to your hair?"
"The sun bleaches the red out. Seriously, you're mistaken. I'm not Xena."
"I'm sorry," said the redhead, less confident, flustered. "I've been searching for so long -- most of a year. I hoped, after what I saw, how you scared off those men without even drawing a weapon...who else?" But I guess there must be more than two warrior women in the world."
"Two? And how did you know I was a woman?"
"The way you carried yourself. My mother taught me to watch for things like that. And two, well, Xena...and me. Do you know where I can find her? I need her, badly."
"I'm sorry, Cadhlaighn. Xena is dead." The blonde woman's eyes were wet as she said this.
"Dead? None of the stories...no one told me she was dead."
"She died in a far country, saving lives. Five years ago yesterday, in fact."
"How do you know this when no one else seems to? The Warrior Princess is legendary. Anyone in need, in danger knows that Xena would come to their aid. How can she be dead?"
"She sacrificed herself. It's a long story, but she died saving others from a horrible fate. Maybe someday you'll hear it."
"How do you know all this?"
"I was with her when she died. I was her friend, her companion, her bel...her friend."
"How do I know you're telling the truth?" asked Cadhlaighn with suspicion.
"Well -- yes, I could be lying." The scribe smiled innocently. "I could show you some of the things Xena taught me. But I'm afraid you might not feel much like talking afterwards."
Cadhlaighn's hand jumped to her sword. The stranger's hand flashed over it, holding her down. "Is that a threat?"
"No...just one way of offering proof. I don't want to fight you." The scribe withdrew her hand. "Here's another." She brought out a small silver vial from under her shirt.
"What's that?" said the stranger.
"Xena. A little bit of her. I interred her ashes in her home village, as she asked me to. I've just come from there. I kept some of them in this vial, to keep...so I could always have a part of her with me." She opened the vial, showed the fine gray dust inside. "Xena, meet Cadhlaighn."
"So far I've seen a young woman with a scroll, a little bit of dust, and an attitude," said Cadhlaighn. "What else have you got?"
"This." The light-haired woman placed a steel ring on the table, about the size of a food plate. Cadlaighn reached for it. "Careful. It's got a sharp edge."
"I'm not surprised."
"You do, too." The scribe hid a slight smile. "Is this what I think it is? The -- what did they call it -- chokrom?"
"Chakram. Xena's weapon. She taught me how to use it." Without warning she snatched the ring from Cadhlaighn's hand and hurled it toward the ceiling. It screamed upward, struck a beam, glanced off, struck a post, and returned to the scribe's hand, passing over Cadhlaighn's head in a blur of speed. "Xena taught me how to use it, and she was a good teacher."
"This I've heard of. Now I'm sure. You're Gabrielle."
II. The Storm
Cadhlaighn looked at the older woman with sympathy. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I've heard the stories. All the songs say you and Xena were the closest of friends. Even that...I'm sorry, it's none of my business. But I know you were close to her."
"I've heard that there are legends. I've only just returned to Greece. I've spent five years wandering. I was surprised by what I found here. Decay. Collapse. Is it like this everywhere?"
"Mostly. There are some places -- like my islands, where there are wise men and women who keep order for the people, where crops grow and babies come strong into the world, where thieves are punished and women are safe. Not in most places. My islands have been like that. Only now..."
"Now? You say 'have been'. Something is wrong in your islands. That's why you needed Xena."
"More than you can imagine. We need a Hero."
"Xena is dead, Cadhlaighn. I mourn her every day, but all the mourning in the universe won't bring her back to life. There are no more heroes. Xena and Hercules were the last."
"You seem to be able to handle yourself. The songs say you could fight, too."
"Not like Xena. She taught me her tricks, how to use weapons, and when not to. But I don't have her strength -- gods, she was strong. Even when she was gentle, I could feel the power underneath..." She smiled wistfully. "I've learned to be fast, and I've learned to be sneaky, and I've learned to listen and hear. I picked up a few other things in my wanderings. But I'm not Xena."
"No one could ever be like Xena." The redhead stared off into a vast space, and Gabrielle realized that what she was seeing in Cadhlaighn was worship. To this strange young woman Xena was not just the Warrior Princess, but the Warrior Goddess, holy, pure, and invincible. Then that makes me the Goddess' consort, Gabrielle thought to herself. Poor young fool, Xena wasn't a Goddess, she was a woman, an extraordinary woman but still a woman, my woman, the best mortal who ever lived or died and I bless every day I was with her...gods, I miss her.
Cadhlaighn came back to Earth, sighed. "I have to believe you. This is the end, then. We'll all die."
"What difference does it make, now? Xena is dead and you say you won't come in her place..."
"I never said that. Cadhlaighn, what I said is that I can't do what Xena could. I'm not the Hero you're looking for. I don't even know what you want us...me...to do. I just know that if you want Xena's strength and power and ferocity and skill, and her kindness and cleverness and beauty, you've not found it in me. Or anyone."
"Oh, I see some of that. Surely, the beauty is there for anyone with eyes."
Gabrielle blushed. You're very handsome, too. But you're dressed like a warrior, you carry the sword. Can you use it?"
"Since I was six. Want to try me?"
"Maybe later. You can handle a fight. Why do you need Xena?"
"Gabrielle, ever since I was a child I've been trained in the art of war. I'm my father's oldest child, the heir to his throne, and he and my mother wanted me to be able to defend myself and our people. I can fight any man or woman who comes against me. I've led an army since I was sixteen and my father took ill. But...I'm not fighting men, now. I'm fighting demons. And they are strong."
"Demons? That's how Xena died -- fighting a demon."
"Did she kill him?"
"Do you know how she did it?"
"Gabrielle, if you know that, we need you. I need you. I might even be able to fight the demons on my own, but I can't fight dark magic."
"Magic? How is magic involved in this?"
"I'll tell you the story, but you have to come with me. Please. All the help I can get is less than enough."
"Where were you going to go?"
"I was thinking to go to Byzantium."
"You don't want to. It's corrupt to the bones. You'd be longing for the plains of Tartarus in a day."
"You sound as if you've been there."
"I have. Byzantium, not Tartarus. Yet."
"The Amazons, then. I may no longer be queen, but I can be sure of a welcome."
"Gabrielle...I came here through the Amazon lands. They're empty. The Emperor exterminated them."
"All of them? None survive?"
"The few who do are scattered, slaves. Theodosius showed them no mercy. All the nations -- Greece, Lydia, Mesopotamia -- gone. It was a genocide. You may be the last of the Amazons."
Tears sprang to Gabrielle's eyes. "Maybe I need a word with this Theodosius."
"It would be a hopeless revenge. He is unchallengably strong. And it wouldn't bring them back. I'm sorry, Gabrielle. Come with me, and on the journey I can tell you why we need you. If, by the end of the story, you decide that you won't or can't help, I'll bid you farewell. But start. Please."
"It sounds as if I have nowhere better to go. Why not?"
"Why not, indeed?"
As they saddled up, Cadhlaighn noticed the sword across Gabrielle's back. "That's not your normal, run'o'the smith's weapon, there, " she said. May I see it?"
Gabrielle lifted the scabbard from its sling and held it towards her companion. Cadhlaighn asked a question with her eyes, and Gabrielle nodded. Cadhlaighn put her hand on the grip and pulled the blade partly out of the scabbard; she was used to a tradition that one never fully drew a blade unless it was to draw blood. Young as she was, she honored that tradition.
The sword was curved, almost three feet long. The scabbard was of a fine, red wood, bound with silken twine. The grip was ivory, carved in intricate, knotted designs and inlaid with more rich wood, bound with red silk ribbons to firm the hold. The grip was topped by a crystalline ball, the size and color of a small, transparent plum, that formed the pommel. The guard was a small steel oval, engraved in the same pattern as the grip. Cadhlaighn pulled the sword partway from the scabbard. She could see her face reflected in the blade, and without even touching it she could see that the edge was of the sharpest, and that the steel was fine, flexible and strong. A formidable weapon, lovingly made. She looked at Gabrielle with admiration and not a little bit of lust for such a fine thing.
"I was given this. For being with Xena when we...it's a long story. Maybe we'll have time to tell it on the trip."
"You have another one." Cadhlaighn pointed to a matching grip at Gabrielle's waist.
"They come in pairs; a long sword and a dagger. The long sword is called katana. The short one is called wazikashi. Together the pair is called daisho."
"This is a two-handed sword. What do you use the dagger for?"
"Defeat is dishonor. If death doesn't take the defeated, they go willingly to Hades."
"A strange people."
"Not so strange. What would you do if you were captured in battle?"
"Hmmm. I see."
"They are a very, very brave people. Very proud, very dangerous -- very honorable. My lo...Xena died fighting among them."
"Can you use these?"
"Fair question. Yes, I can. But it took me a long time to learn."
The port of Poitidea was small, but at one time it served fifty ships a day from all over the Empire. The town was lucky to see one ship a week now, and, beset as well by repeated crop failures and incessant raids by brigands, had been thrust into a state of abject poverty. This was Gabrielle's home town, and, for all the years she had traveled with her friend, she had never lost a certain affection for it. She wanted to weep as she passed through the town on the way to the quay. She did notice that the little house on the north road had the boardings taken off the windows; her family homestead was being put to good use.
She knew she should never have come back. Too many memories clamored for her attention; too many landscapes, seascapes, towns and castles had torn at her heart as she remembered days on the road, walking at Xena's side; nights spent by a fire, at first apart but later, after some years together, in the same blanket, in each other's arms. If not for her promise to Xena, to bury her next to her brother, she never would have left Marakanda. She had found a measure of contentment there, living with a prosperous merchant who had been a warrior, whose wife had died and whose daughter needed a mother. She had married him, and loved him in a pale fashion; he had been devoted to her. She had borne a daughter, the only child she had had by a man and perhaps the only she ever would. A true child, a gentle, loving baby. Then it had all come crashing down. She had lost her husband and foster daughter a year later to a plague. Gabrielle herself had been deathly ill.She'd entrusted her daughter to her sister-in-law, demanding that they get away from that place before they contracted the plague and died, as she was sure she would die. Gabrielle survived, only the gods knew why. She later learned that the sister-in-law and the child had perished in a bloody attack on the caravan they'd joined. Gabrielle, recovering from her physical illness, plunged into a spiritual sickness as deep as the plague; she was convinced she brought death to all she loved and cared for. Why go on? But -- there was the promise, the promise to her true love, that she would never end her own life. She missed Adriana painfully, and Rajaf as well. She had never told him much about herself and Xena, only that they had been friends. He suspected that she had had another love, and he accepted it. Rajaf had been a good man.
She told this story to Cadhlaighn as they rode. Her natural garrulity had been slowed by her grief; she couldn't remember the last time she had talked so long, except to tell Adriana bedtime stories about the magical flying princess. There was something about this strange woman, some energy, a vitality, that made Gabrielle want to open her heart to her. She felt out of time, an anachronism, a fossil. She should have departed this world long ago. No one alive remembered Xena as she truly was, and for Gabrielle to try to tell the truth would be futile in the face of the legend. She herself was a bard; she knew the power of legends.
They reached the quay and found a ship in the harbor. They went on board and inquired as to passage; they could get as far as Iberia on this ship, perhaps farther . There was no room for their horses, so they would have to sell them. The horse merchant counted out dinars into her hand, far too few, but they were in a hurry. Gabrielle nuzzled against the shaggy pony for the last time. "Goodbye, Joxer", she whispered. "Be good. Don't fall all over your new owner." She'd ridden that steppe pony all the way from Karakorum. The first time she'd seen him he'd come to her eagerly, stepped on the reins that he was trailing, and gone down on both knees. He was gentle and kind and had that longing, hangdog, big-eyed expression. He was loyal and true, and he came when he called her, and though he could never have outrun Argo he was always game to try. What else could she possibly have named him? .
They were given two tiny cabins right astern and next to each other. There was only room for a berth in each cabin. She had to open the door before she got out of the bed. Nevertheless, it was more comfortable than many nights spent on the road. Not as companionable, but more comfortable. They slept in their cabins and the ship cast off at first light.
By the middle of that day the sea was rough. The captain made them stay in their cabins, and as the stern of the ship pitched and heaved, Gabrielle became less and less certain of her equilibrium. It had been a long time since she had been at sea. All her meditative exercises were ineffective; even pressing her wrist didn't help much. The last thing she wanted to do was vomit in her bedding. She staggered onto the heaving deck, bent over the stern rail, and emptied her stomach into the wine-dark sea. She felt better, and as she staggered below again,Cadhlaighn beckoned her into her cabin. Cadhlaighn was used to sea voyages, and handled the motion with no difficulty. She said. "Seasick, eh?" Gabrielle nodded weakly. "Have you tried the wrist trick? Do you know that one?" Gabrielle nodded again, then shook her head. Cadhlaighn was solicitous. "Darlin', you look as green as my island after a rain. Come on in here. It's better to ride these things out with someone else. You're soaked to the bone, come on, let's get you dried out."
Gabrielle tried to protest that she could take care of herself. She was too weak to make the protest stick, and Cadhlaighn handled her as if she were a sick child. She got the bard's jerkin off, and her trousers, and finally the wet shift. She started to rub Gabrielle with a coarse cloth and stopped with a gasp and an "o-o-o-oh" as she got a look at the blond woman's back. "That is magnificent, my dear," she said as she surveyed the dragon tattoo placed there by Akemi. "Where'd you get it?" "The same p..place I got the swords, "Gabrielle replied uncertainly. "I really wasn't ready for you to see it."
"Got any more?" Cadhlaighn inquired.
"On my calf."
Cadhlaighn examined it. "Beautiful. The color is so bright. Did Xena do these?"
"No, a friend of hers did. Someone -- special. I'll tell you the story, sometime."
"Why not now? We've very little else to do. Tell me the story. It'll keep your mind off of -- you know."
"Not that one. It's too close to -- her death. It's still too painful."
"Then tell me another one. Tell me about Xena. Oh, and in case you think I think you're odd...look here." She turned in the bed, undid the sash of the robe she was wearing and lowered it to expose her back. Tattooed across its creamy expanse was a pattern of knots, swirls, ribbons, and lacings, all in vivid colors. The tattooing was expertly done, and Cadhlaighn seemed proud of it. Gabrielle had never seen anything like it.
"A witch woman did this when I was sixteen", she said. "It was before father gave me command of his army. It's supposed to protect me in battle."
"No battles, a few skirmishes. I'm still here and not seriously harmed. Does it work? Who knows? In war you do anything to improve the odds. What about yours?"
"They're to protect me against the demon we fought, Xena and I. I'd be dead now if I hadn't had them."
"Then good for you and good for Xena and Xena's friend. Don't hide them, Gabrielle, Show them whenever you can. They're your badges of honor."
"I know. But so many men think tattooed women are all whores. I've had to break a few noses over it."
"Who gives a bloody damn what men think?"
"I do. I like men. Just not all of them."
"But you were in love with Xena."
Gabrielle's voice became brittle. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
Cadhlaighn was matter-of-fact. "Not the legends, I assure you. That's what they say but now that I've known you I know not to believe most of them. You've told me yourself. Remember, mother taught me to notice little things."
"Like...I don't know how many times since I've met you that you've talked about her and started to call her 'my lover' or 'my beloved' or 'my love' or something like that. You always catch yourself and slip in 'my friend' but its obvious you're used to thinking of her as a lover. And when you talk about her you get this look on your face. Gabrielle, you positively melt, you do. If I ever marry I hope they'll look at me like that. You never say anything bad about her. I know she was evil once, every story and song agrees on that, but you never mention it. And you dream about her. You talk to her in your sleep. I can hear you. You wear her ashes next to your heart, for the gods' sake. You left your home to be with her. You love that woman with all your heart and soul."
Defeated, shamed, Gabrielle looked down, away from Cadhlaighn's probing eyes. Finally, in a voice so low as to almost not be heard above the wind, she asked "And what is wrong with that?"
Cadhlaighn was taken aback. "Who said anything was wrong with it?"
"She was another woman. It's hard to go against your earliest childhood. I was taught that I would love men. A man. A husband."
"And you did, twice. But...Gabrielle, look at me. I've had four lovers in my life since I was of age at sixteen. Three men, one woman. All of them were lovely, but nothing like what you had with Xena. At least I think not. Gods, lady, you were half of one of the great love stories of the age. Any age. You had a passion and a tenderness that most people never know in their lives. I hope before I die I have a love half as deep as what you had. I envy you. Everyone does. Don't be ashamed."
"I was never ashamed. I must have fallen in love with Xena when I first set eyes on her. Not hard to do, as she was in the middle of saving my life when we met. I told her, I told myself I was tagging along for the adventure of it, but the truth was it was her. Some of the adventure I could have well done without. But being with Xena made everything else all right." Gabrielle began to weep. "Look at what you've done to me . I haven't cried over her in front of anyone else since she died."
The younger woman touched Gabrielle's cheek, then took her in her arms. "You just go ahead, darlin'," she said as Gabrielle wept openly. Tears sprang up in Cadhlaighn's eyes. "When you told me she was dead I wanted to cry, too, and I never knew her. And not just because I needed her help. But because she was so -- she was Xena. It made me sad to know she wasn't in the world anymore."
They held each other for a time, supporting each other's sadness and fears. Gabrielle wept herself dry and, when she was done, felt cleansed, whole, in a way she had not for a long time -- years, perhaps. She owed this strange, sweet girl a debt. Was that her intent? To make me feel indebted to her? But there was nothing in Cadhlaighn's eyes but sadness, and sympathy. It was hard to believe this woman would be deceitful. But she was a warrior, and Gabrielle knew that the ways of war included deceit and misdirection.
It would be hard to keep secrets from this woman. So it was best to treat her as a friend.
The storm still raged. Cadhlaighn sat back in the bunk and invited Gabrielle to lie in her arms, just for the comfort of it. Gabrielle accepted the invitation without thinking twice. "You were going to tell me a story," Cadhlaighn said. "Do you still want to?"
"Yes, I do. And I'll tell you a story about Xena that no one else knows, because it happened only to me, and it happened after she died, and I've never told anyone but you. But to tell it I have to start with my shipwreck."
"Then tell away." Gabrielle began.
III. Souls in a High Place
When Xena died I left Japan. I could feel her spirit with me, telling me she was proud of me, but I was inconsolable. There was too much grief for one person to hold. I wept every day, sometimes that was all I did. I was seasick on top of it (oops...there. Better.) There was a storm (that's why I'm really nervous here; being at sea in a storm is about the worst thing that can happen to me) and the ship was wrecked on a shore. I was washed ashore with just my swords, the chakram, and Xena's ashes. I wandered to a nearby village, but I couldn't speak the language. I wandered for days. I hurt so much I started to drink. They had a sweet wine in that land, made from rice, and I drank barrels of it. I was a sot. It was the only way of dulling the pain of being alone, and away from everything I knew and loved. I slept in ditches by the roadside and ate garbage. I stopped caring if I lived. I started to steal.
One day I was caught. I was stealing chickens from a farm when I felt a sharp point in my back. I heard a voice speaking Japanese, which I understood a little. I turned around and there was an old man, very old, bald with a white fringe of hair and a white beard. He had a katana aimed at my throat. I guess I was drunk, because I made a stupid mistake. I tried to draw on him. He parried the sword out of my hand, then he put his finger in the pit of my shoulder, here, and I was blinded by the pain. I went down, passed out. He could have killed me. I woke up in a clean, white room, in the cleanest bed I've ever seen, and I was clean, too. I'd been bathed and wrapped in a clean kimono -- that's a kind of robe -- and placed there. A very young girl came in with food, and the old man behind her. To my surprise he spoke Greek. He had heard me talking in my sleep -- he said I snored, which I don't --and he could figure out my language.
He told me his name was Tori, and that pronounced one way it meant "gate" and another way it meant "tiger". He was an exile from Japan, what they call there a ronin -- a warrior without a lord or an ally. He guessed I was ronin, too, although clearly not Japanese. I was in a land called Cho-sen, across the sea from Japan.
He said I was his guest and that I could stay as long as I wanted but that I had to pay for the chickens. I told him I didn't have money, but he waved that away. He pointed to my weapons, neatly hung on the wall, and asked if I could fight. I told him yes and he said I could guard his henhouse at night ; he'd had trouble with bandits other than me. He asked if I could cook. I said yes and he told me I could cook for him during the day. I felt angry for a moment, and then realized what a fool I'd been. I accepted his offer.
Cadhlaighn, he was a swordsman like no other. I never found out why he was ronin, but he could have served any lord at a princely price; perhaps he was just old and tired of war. I stayed there most of a year, and he trained me. Xena had taught me everything she knew about swordsmanship, but when I arrive at Tori's I could barely hold my own against him. By the time I left -- well, I might have been able to face even Callisto and beat her, if I'd had the chance. I still couldn't beat Tori, though. He also taught me a different kind of unarmed fighting, including the pressure points I used at Amphipolis, when we met. I knew it could be done, and I'd had it done to me once, a long time ago, and I knew it could be effective as a weapon. Xena had taught me some, including the pinch, but Tori refined it for me so I could get anything from mild irritation to killing. He reminded me of a lot of other things, too, things that Xena had taught me but I was on a way to forgetting. Things like honor, duty, courage. Self-respect. Sacrifice. That your life is sometimes less important than the right thing. That there are differences between good people and bad people. That there is no glory in the taking of life, no matter how necessary. I knew all this, of course. Maybe losing Xena had unhinged me, being alone, totally alone for the first time in my life, I began to lose my mind. Tori gave me back myself. Almost.
After almost a year he pronounced me well. He gave me a horse and some food and sent me on my way back to Greece, to fulfill my promise. I decided to go by land, even though it would take so much longer. (This is the first time I've been on a ship in four years). I wandered across the world, generally headed west, and I passed through Chin, where Xena and I had been before. I saw no one I knew, and moved quickly. I really didn't want to be there again.
I fell in with a small band of horsemen, headed by a man named Yesugai. They were nomads, and they were constantly fighting with other nomads over grazing grounds. I became a part of their group because I'd done something to help his young son, a boy named Temujin. He had red hair, like yours; we became friends. And no, what I did wasn't important. But they trusted me. They called me "The golden woman" because of my hair. I think Yesugai wanted me for a wife, even though he already had one. Or maybe as Temujin's wife. I was never quite sure about that.
One day they were riding across their grazing range, and there was an attack. This was very common, these tribes were always fighting each other. Yesugai had this idea that the tribes could be united, and he passed this on to Temujin. On this day there were two groups, and Yesugai's tribe was outnumbered. I made a mistake; I fought to defend the boy, and Yesugai was killed. Temujin and I were forced to run, and the rest of the tribe was captured or killed. We rode for three days, and then Temujin said he was going off to find a related tribe. He was sick of his people fighting each other. He said I should go and keep my promise, because that was what I really wanted to do; my heart wasn't in his people's fights. It sounded harsh, but he was right, and we both knew it. I left him and moved west.
I couldn't forget how costly a mistake I'd made. I lived the fight over and over again in my mind, how I could have done more to protect the father, more to protect the band. I failed a benefactor. I missed my...the one I loved. What good would I do? Why should I keep on living? Xena said she admired me because I'd never give up. But Xena was gone. I would never be half the fighter, half the woman she was. I had no reason not to give up.
That part of the world is what they call the Great Steppe, which is a great flat plain in the middle of the world. It's an ocean of grass, almost no trees, no hills. Occasionally you see a mound of rock thrusting up out of the flatness. I rode until I saw such a place. I climbed to the top and it seemed as if the entire world was spread out below me. It was a fit place for me to end my life.
I was kneeling on a flat shelf of rock with the wazikashi in front of me. In Japan the act of suicide is a ritual; it makes it easier to go through with it. I followed the ritual. There was a small spring flowing out of the rocks; I washed myself, put on a clean white kimono. I spread a blanket on the rock shelf, laid the short sword on it. I knelt and said prayers to my ancestors, to my love, apologized to them all for my dishonor. I took the knife in both hands, wrapped the grip in my sash, put the point against my throat. I was about to plunge the knife in, end it all, the loneliness, the pain, the suffering, the failures, about to leave this world and be with my beloved again -- when I heard her voice. Xena's voice.
She was kneeling right in front of me.
It was her. Not a vision, not a hallucination, her. She was dressed in the armor she wore when we were together, but she was unarmed. She reached out and held my wrist, held back the knife. No vision could do that. She asked me what I thought I was doing. "Dying", I said, and then she was in my arms, and I could feel her strength all about me like in the old days. I asked her --how? She said that she could hear every thought I had of her, from the moment she died. She had been afraid for me, watching from the other side. Sometimes, she told me, when the need is very great, when the bond is very strong, a soul can come back to this world to right a great wrong. Not often and only for a little while. She said my death would be a great wrong, and she was here to prevent it.
What would be wrong about my death at this point I couldn't imagine, but she said I had greatness in me, and things yet to accomplish before I crossed over to the other side. She said she yearned for me, she wanted to be with me, and she thought of nothing but a reunion with me. She said she loved me. Do you understand what that feels like? No, you couldn't. To have someone return from the peace of death -- because they love you! I was overwhelmed. But we had to wait. It was not my time to leave Earth. She told me about the afterlife. She said the underworld was an unsettled place. Since the Twilight of the Gods, Hades no longer ruled. His palace was an empty ruin. Tartarus and Elysium no longer existed. Xena knew these places, she had been there. So have I. If that's part of the stories, that part's true. She said the afterworld was now a featureless expanse where the wicked and the good mingled freely. There was a feeling of expectation and instability, as if a great change was coming, but no one know what kind or when. All the souls were there, her mother and long-forgotten father; my parents; Marcus; Akemi; Solon, Eve, even Joxer. Even the gods themselves were there, including Ares. He was indignant at his demotion in status to a mere mortal soul in the afterlife. To her glee, he was also very frustrated that he never won her back. Do the tales say that Ares tried to seduce her? Iolaus was there; he and Xena are fully reconciled now. He was the kindest man I ever knew. If it hadn't been for Xena...
The worst aspect was that there was nothing to do. There was no striving, no conflict, no need. Xena had encountered many of her old enemies and oppressors, and she seemed to have a special power over them, as did all the good over the wicked. This power seemed to come and go. She'd also met many of her innocent victims, and she was compelled to serve them in a way she didn't want to talk about.
We were both weeping uncontrollably. I begged her to let me kill myself and be with her. She insisted that I live out my life as Fate had decreed. She made me promise that I would never take my own life. And she made me a bargain. In exchange for my promise to live, she would spend her one chance. Once, in all eternity, she said, each soul has the privilege of entering the body of a loved one, and merging soul to soul for a short mortal time. She could only see two dawns before her spirit had to return to the netherworld. We would be two souls in one body, experiencing everything about each other. We would have no secrets left to tell. Would I be willing?
What could I say? Of course I was willing. As soon as I said it Xena's body vanished from in front of me, and I experienced her. I could see her as I saw her in life, tall and beautiful, those crystal-blue eyes staring into mine. I could see her as she saw herself. And I could see myself as she saw me. I never thought of myself as beautiful, Cadhlaighn, but seeing myself through Xena's eyes, I was beautiful. We -- I don't know how much of this to tell you. Oh, by Hades, all of it. We made love. Continuously. Our union was ecstatic, sweeter and more intense that any we ever knew in many nights spent in each other's arms. It lasted every moment of a night and a day and another night. We twined about each other, shared intimacies that we had never known in life. We had conversations, inside my mind that was her mind, too. Like this: she'd say "I didn't know that you loved me from the beginning."
Then I'd say, "I did, I did. I was so hurt when you tried to send me away."
I was surprised to know that she had loved me too, early on, and that sending me away was her way of showing it. -- "I didn't want you to get injured, or killed."
"Don't try to lie, Xena," I said. "I can feel everything you think and feel. You didn't want me to waste my life on someone as unworthy as you. that's what you really felt, wasn't it?" And of course she had to admit it. I asked her "How could you think yourself unworthy?" And I looked into her long and bloody past and do you know what I saw there? Not revenge for her brother's death, not bloodlust or anger or greed, but fear. Fear of being defenseless, helpless in a world that had no mercy. She said I was the one spot of mercy in a merciless world. Imagine that. I learned about the most horrible experience of her life: she was kidnapped, sold as a slave, and raped when she was fourteen years old. Oh...she never told me. How that hurt! Not that she never told me, but that it happened at all. I remembered it as she experienced it. Awful. She killed the man, it was her first killing, and all I could feel was good about it. She regretted teaching me to fight. She wished I had maintained my innocence; I found out how she had had the world changed, just for her, so Lyceus could live again, and how she deliberately changed it back when she saw how awful my life would have been had she not been my warrior. But, you know, the most important thing I found out was how deeply healing I had been for her. She let me know that she could never have been the hero of the good that she became, could never have learned to truly love again, were it not for me. Remember, all this is going on while we are exciting each other, making love in every possible way, body to body as well as mind to mind. It didn't matter that Xena had no corporeal body; she was wonderfully real to me. It was a physical, spiritual and emotional love that we consummated. Even though we had been utterly intimate while she was alive, this was on a whole different level of experience, and felt like a first time.
By the end of the second night I was sated, drained, and as happy as a woman could be. Xena was holding me -- that is what I felt -- and we were just whispering sweet nothings from time to time. I can't imagine what it looked like to someone who might have been watching me. But there was not another soul in the whole world, from horizon to horizon, to see.
As the sky grew pale in the east for the second time, I began to cry again. I would miss her more than ever, now. I heard her say "It's time" and before I knew it she was out of my mind and kneeling before me in her body again. I experience a moment of terrifying loneliness, and then it dissolved in a revelation: she's not dead. She's just in another place and when my work is done I'll be there, too. She held me close and whispered in my ear, "Make me one more promise." Anything, I said, anything, my love. "Promise me you'll find another lover, someone you care for as much as you care for me. A woman, a man, it doesn't matter. Just love them. Promise me." I told her I couldn't, that it wasn't possible. She said "You cannot exist alone, friendless and unloved." I swore I could never love anyone as I loved her. She said "you must. It's what you were made to do." Then she let me go. She reached out her hands and put them around my silver vial, where I had placed some of her ashes. I felt a warmth flow through the chain, into my neck and my entire body -- courage and strength. I think she left a little of her essence in those ashes that I can still feel now, four years later. She said goodbye many times, and I did too. I thought I'd already cried every tear I would ever own, but there were more, a thousand tears with each goodbye. Every time I said "I love you", or she did, there were more tears, and they weren't all tears of sadness. She left in the dawn and I sat there for a day and a night and another day. I finally packed my things, changed into my riding clothes, and left. I was alone and desolate, but satisfied. I knew I would never again see Xena in this world, and that it was all right.
Cadhlaighn's voice sounded somewhere above her, suspended between tension and trance. "That was quite a story...quite a story. "
Gabrielle looked up at her companion. "I don't really expect you to believe it."
Cadhlaighn bent her face towards the storyteller. "Oh I believe it, my, my, and sure that I do. I've not heard anything so powerful in quite a time, quite a time. Nearly as good as the bards at my father's court."
Gabrielle saw that Cadhlaighn had tears in her eyes. She wanted to challenge that "nearly", but was struck dumb because this was the first time she remembered moving anyone to tears with a story. Well, why not? I cry everytime I remember it.
"Do you want anything to eat, Gabrielle?"
"No. Unbelievably, I'm not hungry."
"Me neither. It's getting dark. Why don't you just stay here and sleep? The night'll go faster and the storm won't scare either of us as much. I don't mind the ocean but I don't like storms."
"Are you sure?"
Gabrielle settled into the womanly warmth of Cadhlaighn's body, whispered a "thank you," and drifted off before she could hear Cadhlaighn murmur "No, thank you, dear."
"Gabrielle." She felt her shoulder shake. It was too early. She grunted.
"Gabrielle. You're snoring."
"Am not." She rolled onto he back toward the other occupant of the bunk. Cadhlaighn's hand rested on her left shoulder. Her fingers probed a hard, raised patch there.
"What's this, Gabrielle?"
"Scar...old arrow wound."
"Was it serious?"
"Poisoned. Almost died. Xena...made better. Doesn't hurt now."
"I'm sorry. Go back to sleep, Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle? It's me."
"Xena? Are you alive again?"
"No, my love. It's just a dream."
"A dream? Where are you? Where am I?"
"You're at sea, and I'm in the afterlife."
"Oh. Right. How is it there? Has it changed?"
"Some. There are sadnesses and happinesses. People love and argue and talk. It's so peaceful. Nothing ever happens."
"You must hate it."
"I get restless. We know some things, Gabrielle. We know that the new afterworld can't be born until the old one dies completely."
"But the gods are..."
"...gone, yes. But too many of the shadow world still live between the earth and the afterlife. They are what holds us back, here. Demons and sprites and dryads and all kinds of malevolent spirits. Even the oldest of gods, in some places."
"Where are these creatures?"
"Many are where you're going. Shannaught. Cadhlaighn's country."
"Is that why...I..."
"Yes. You have to help deal with them."
"I don't know. Just stay with her. Cadhlaighn. She'll guide you and you'll rescue her. That's all I know."
"Oh Xena...I miss you."
"I miss you. That's the greatest sadness being here. But the greatest happiness is hearing you think of me, so many times a day."
"I'll be with you, soon."
"Don't cut your life short, my sweet one. You promised..."
"...that I'd love again. How, my love, when all of my heart is with you there? What have I to give to another?"
"You'll be surprised, darling. You will be surprised. You have to permit it."
"I'll try. I will."
"I must go now, Gabrielle."
"Goodbye, my beloved."
"And you are my beloved, too. Kiss me."
"It's a dream. You can do anything."
Gabrielle kissed her love, and felt the kiss lull her into deeper sleep.
Xena was gone.
The face was Callisto's.
Armed with the ivory-gripped katana, Callisto was hacking at Xena's suspended body. Xena's headless body. In the firelight a hundred samurai looked on and cheered. Gabrielle attacked, struck, but the blade passed right through the body of her enemy. She was holding a staff. She struck and half the samurai fell, disintegrating into dust. She turned triumphantly to Callisto. Pieces of Xena were on the ground, in the rain, writhing, smoking, crawling of their own accord...
Callisto struck at the staff with the sword; where she touched , the staff blossomed into running fire, coming closer to Gabrielle, closer...the flames grew heads, fangs, eyes, and she was enveloped in a bouquet of snakes, biting her like stinging flies, their venom setting her eyes on fire. Pain was everywhere. A disembodied head, now Xena, now Orpheus, sang a dirge for all good in the world, while Joxer laughed and laughed. Every muscle, every bit of her skin, hurt. Pain. Her eyes burned, her mouth was dry...pain...pain....Xena....live....please...
She awoke in the depth of the night. The same nightmare; she could remember the horror, but never quite capture the thread of the dream. Wind tore at her hearing. Her body was being tossed, rolled, hurled through the darkness. There was a crashing of waves...and warmth. The body of her lover was beside her. She wrapped her arms around her, burrowing in to her strong softness, letting her feel her love through the veils of sleep. Warm, so warm. Protection, safety. No fear, ever again. She would sleep the night and in the dawn kiss her darling and tell her she loved her, give her the pleasure of her body before rising to another day together. She slept again, and dreamed. The night passed.
Cadhlaighn awoke alone. The bedding next to her was warm; Gabrielle must not have been up too long. She felt dreamy and rested, with only an edge of fear beyond the horizon of her awareness. It was a familiar fear, and she could live with it.
Gabrielle came back to the cabin with a basket covered with a cloth. In the basket was warm bread, cheese, a clay beaker of warm wine, and a treat -- two eggs, cooked in seawater just until the yolks were runny and sweet; a small pot of salt for the eggs, a small pot of jam for the bread, and they had a royal breakfast. "Wherever did you get the eggs, Gabrielle?"
"The captain. The storm's blown itself out and he ordered the cooking fires lit. It's a flat calm. He's got every stitch of sail spread but I don't think we're going anywhere for a while. That captain has his eye on me, and you. I think he has fantasies. He gave me the eggs as a gift for 'being brave'. I couldn't say no to them."
"But you had no trouble saying no to him."
"He didn't actually ask, and I was very careful to be quite stupid. But I'd be careful what you wear while we're on this tub."
"I think that's true about every man in the crew. I even saw that boy looking you over yesterday as we boarded."
Cadhlaighn swallowed her wine. "Maybe we could show them what two armed women can do. How about a little sparring after we eat? Are you up to it?"
Gabrielle's eyebrows went up. "I need to. I've been lazy about practice. And it's flat as glass out there, none of that rolling. Yes, that would be fine."
They ate in silence for a while and then Cadhlaighn said, "You dreamed about her last night."
"I do, often."
"It was a nightmare. I heard you trying to scream. I tried to wake you but I couldn't."
"And I heard you, too, in the night. Who is 'Phadhaius'?
"Ahhhh. Phadhaius. That's a story for the light'o'day, not this gloomy hole. It's why you're coming with me."
Gabrielle ate and didn't pursue the matter, but stayed silent. She didn't trust herself to not say what she had found on arising: that she and Cadhlaighn had been in each other's embrace, Cadhlaighn's body touching every inch of hers, as close in the morning as she and Xena had ever been.
She admired Cadhlaighn, but Cadhlaighn frightened her. She was beginning to understand why.
Strike in four, parry; strike in sixte, parry; riposte; spin, strike in sixte, beat, parry, counter. Swords rang on the open half-deck as the two women sparred. Gabrielle watched her opponent, detecting subtle clues that betrayed her next move before she made it, anticipating the attacks and beating them away, looking for openings that she wasn't quite able to exploit. Listening for the sounds behind the sounds, the motion hidden in stillness. Cadhlaighn was good, very good. Not as good as Xena or Tori, but she was still very young. As strong and fast as she was, she could become the equal of Gabrielle's mentors with experience. As it was -- Gabrielle saw Cadhlaighn put her weight momentarily on the wrong foot, and knowing it would take her a split second to recover and balance forward to make the parry, feinted to one side and brought the sword to rest right at the redhead's open throat. "Hold!" she cried, and Cadhlaighn froze; she withdrew and saluted Gabrielle, who bowed in the Japanese fashion.
They had been practicing for an hour, and Cadhlaighn was learning what a formidable fighter Gabrielle had become in her career with Xena and after. They had begun with knives; Gabrielle had fought with two short poignards with curved guards that she called sais; the guards caught Cadhlaighn's blade every time she closed for a thrust. Then, in mock unarmed combat, Cadhlaighn had found herself pinned again and again, or the victim of a kick or punch that would have knocked her flat if it had been real. She was pleased; she herself had wrestled every man in her army to the ground, and had trained many of them in this kind of fighting. She was a natural scrapper. If this woman could best her, she could best every fighter Cadhlaighn had. Surely she had found someone who could help save her homeland. She had a lot to learn from Gabrielle.
They stood back from each other, swords lowered, and Gabrielle wiped the sweat from her body. The day had turned sultry and hot in the wake of the storm. Both women were glistening with sweat. Cadhlaighn, drinking from a leather waterskin, couldn't help but admire Gabrielle's slimness, the smooth curve of her legs, the narrowness of her waist that the short kilt and top she wore showed to advantage. She could also see that Gabrielle's body was seamed with scars, in addition to the arrow wound on her shoulder. Wounds. A warrior's resume.
She knew she presented a less attractive picture; smaller, more muscular, wiry. She knew her body had acquired an almost masculine appearance from a year on the road. Gabrielle was beautiful, Xena had surely been right to mark that. Anyone would find Gabrielle attractive. And deadly.
For her part, Gabrielle was impressed with how strong and tough Cadhlaighn was. The woman had muscles like knotted leather cord, not an ounce of fat on her body, and a grip of steel; Gabrielle had felt that in the unarmed wrestling they had done. Gabrielle knew that she herself lacked the raw physical strength of most of the fighters who opposed her; she had cultivated the advantages of speed and agility to compensate. A grip of steel didn't help much if you couldn't get your opponent into it. Gabrielle was fast, and she knew how to use it; but with time and practice Cadhlaighn would be her equal. And Cadhlaighn was years younger.
They set to sparring another round, and then, playfully, and at Cadhlaighn's suggestion, offered to take on any of the crew who cared to face them. Only two took up the challenge. One, wielding a cutlass with professional aplomb, engaged Cadhlaighn while Gabrielle watched. She learned a great deal about Cadhlaighn from this, especially that the younger woman was more graceful than Xena in a fight, but not as strong and sure of her moves. Nevertheless, she disarmed her opponent handily, and had her sword at his throat within minutes of starting. the second challenger, a burly bosun, opted for unarmed combat with Gabrielle. He was head-and shoulders taller than she and surely double her weight, heavily muscled from straining at ropes and lifting hogsheads. He grinned at her and they sidled around, looking for an opening. Gabrielle suspected he'd chosen this type of fight so he could get his hands on her. She outwaited him; he rushed her and she dodged nimbly, letting him grab at the empty air. He rushed again; again she dodged. It wasn't spectacular aerials like Xena would have used but small, subtle sidesteps that took advantage of her small size and mass, tricks learned from years of staff fighting. Finally the bosun, frustrated, roared "What's the matter, wench? Afraid to come to quarters?!"
"Not at all, my oversized friend. I just don't want to hurt you too badly!"
The crew hooted and jeered at that; the bosun reddened, wth embarrasement or rage.
"Don't you worry about that!" he shouted again. "Just fight! No holds barred! First fall!"
"No holds barred?" Gabrielle asked slyly. "Anything goes?" They were circling on the slippery deck planks.
"Anything! I'll swab this deck with your..."
The last word was lost in his rush to tackle Gabrielle. She sidestepped him again. Feinting before she moved, she struck at a pressure point, then, using her fingers, held him in a paralyzed lock; his eyes started to roll back in his head. "First fall! Say it! First fall!"
He replied groggily, "First....fall!" She let go and he collapsed to the deck face first. The crew whistled and applauded. The bosun sat up and put his hand to his head. "It's a witch's trick! She hexed me!"
"Aww, take your medicine, Ursus! She beat you!"
"A trick, I tell you!"
Gabrielle stepped up to him, offered her arm. "A trick, yes. But not witchcraft. I can teach it to any of you if you like." Ursus grasped her wrist, rose shakily to his feet.
"It's still just a woman's trick," he growled. "Not like a man fights."
"No. But I'm not a man. And never dismiss anything just because a woman can do it. If it keeps you alive, what's the difference?"
A slim man stepped forward from the crew. "Show me."
"All right. If you apply pressure hard and quick, right here, the muscles tighten up. He can't stop it. It hurts, too. It won't kill him, but it gives you a second or two to make any move you want."
"Is that all? Just for a second?"
"He'll recover after about that long. It's enough. What more do you want? It's a great advantage. Gives you time to decide if he should live or die."
"Sounds pretty useless. I thought you were going to kill him with that."
"Not with this. This just disables temporarily. Do you want me to show you? It does hurt."
"I can swear to that, mate," grumbled Ursus.
The slim man looked at Gabrielle. "Well...okay."
Gabrielle struck at the slim man, and his body flopped on the deck like a speared fish. Almost immediately he rose to a sitting position. "You're right...it does hurt."
"Are you all right?"
The slim man moved his arms and legs. "Yeah...sore. But I'm okay."
Gabrielle nodded. "The trick is not hitting too hard. If you do the nerves don't seize up -- it's just very painful, and any trained fighter can keep going through pain."
"What was that other thing? It looked like he was going to pass out."
"If I had done it slightly differently, he would have."
"Show me that one."
"Ah, I don't think so. After, all, I am a woman, alone...almost alone, among all you tough guys. I have to have some secrets."
"Can you kill a man like this?"
Gabrielle stared stonily at him. "Yes." She shook her head. "I won't show you that. You need a lot of training. The object of this kind of fighting is defense. You want to disable and deflect, not kill."
"Two reasons, for me. One is I don't kill unless I can't avoid it. And I don't like encouraging other people to do it. I've killed people -- I don't like it, it's the worst thing I've ever done. Second, if he's alive you can always make him dead, but if he's dead and you need him alive that's inconvenient."
The slim man smiled sardonically. Cadhlaighn called to the aft deck. "Captain, do you expect a wind soon?"
"Not, likely, missy, not with this brassy sky."
"Can my friend and I put a line over the side and take a swim? Get the stink off of us?"
"Sure and I don't see why not. But you stay close and be ready to grab on if a wind does come up. You're still in the water when we move, you're shark meat."
Cadhlaighn slapped Gabrielle on the back. "You do swim, don't you?"
"Nothing I'd like better."
There was a thump, and a scraping sound, and Gabrielle felt the bunk tip in the darkness. Shouts echoed through the wooly layers of sleep. She pried her eyes open and saw nothing. She pulled aside the curtain on the small stern window. Moonlight flooded the tiny space. Overhead she heard the flapping of feet on the deck. A sudden squall...sailors running to take in sail...no...steel clashing on steel. The ring of swords...this was no storm!
Out of the bed and out of the room in a flash, her long sword was unsheathed in her hand. She wore no armor; there wasn't time. There was a rush of feet in her direction, and in a shaft of moonlight through the open hatch she saw bearded faces, men in flowing robes, men in pointed steel helmets, rushing toward her. As they came on they reentered the shadows, but she anticipated their motion, struck at the leader, slashed him across the chest; he fell to the deck. Two more came toward her, long, curved knives raised. White teeth showed in the dim reflected moonlight. She kicked out, her thigh a spring for her foot. The foot connected high, knocked the man off his feet. The second man took his time, engaged her with the knife and a broad, curved sword. The katana rang as she parried his first blow, then rang again as he parried her counter. The man's head separated from his body, rolled to Gabrielle's feet. Cadhlaighn appeared on her left; it was her sword did the fatal blow.
The other men behind hesitated. They formed a half circle around the women, a sword's length away from them. The raiders advanced slowly. From elsewhere the confused sound of a bloody, wild melee reached Gabrielle's ears. The crew was fighting for the ship, for their lives...and here she was trapped outside her own cabin door because she didn't hear the attack begin in her sleep. Stupid!
No time for recrimination. She and Cadhlaighn had to break out before the raiders could bring up archers and shoot them full of holes. She looked to where Cadhlaighn had stood...and the deck was empty. Cadhlaighn was nowhere to be seen.
Hurt, afraid, and angry, Gabrielle mustered all her strength for a charge. She would never have believed Cadhlaighn a coward. How could she...where could she have run away to? There was no place to hide...no place to run...
One of the raiders was shouting to her in a strange language. She raised the sword in fighting stance, bared her teeth, and howled an inarticulate roar of defiance. The man called again, this time in accented Greek..."surrender..we will treat you well...we will ransom you generously...it is hopeless..."
Kicking the severed head out of her way, Gabrielle charged, taking the raiders off balance. She slashed the spokesman to the ground before he could defend himself, and parried the blow of his companion as she turned to face him. She parried again and again and again, thrust, was countered, but used the momentum of the counter to spin completely around, kick the man in the face with her outstretched foot and then slash at him as he fell. there was a dark welling of blood but she didn't linger to see what she had done. She was in a hot haze of bloodlust. Another pair of raiders appeared on the narrow deck, with at least two more behind them. She struck again and the face of one split open. The other struck low; she parried, but was almost too late; she felt the force of the blow numb her arm and a streak of fire washed across the outside of her thigh. She drew a sharp breath through clenched teeth, but remained standing on the injured leg. She knew she was going to die and she didn't care, she welcomed it...Xena...
At the edge of her vision, beyond the ranks of her adversaries, bright steel flashed and her enemies went down. A small, strong form spun and struck, wheeled and thrust, taking the band of raiders from behind. Four men were on the deck before the words could be said. The deadly figure stepped back into the silver moonlight from above, moonlight on red hair...Cadhlaighn.
Weeping with relief, Gabrielle dispatched the remaining raider with the pommel of the sword, kicked him out of her way as he fell, and rushed to join with her friend.
"Are there any more?"
"Not on this deck. The most of them must still be above us."
"Then let's get up there!"
As they went to ascend the ladder they almost tripped over a body at its foot. It was not a raider, it was one of the crew. They could see his face in the moonlight; it was the slim man that Gabrielle had trained in the pressure point that very morning. He was dead.
They raced up the ladder and through the after hatch, emerging into the chaos of many hand-to-hand combats. On the high aft deck the captain was fighting three raiders. Cadhlaighn shouted "Behind you!" Gabrielle spun like a top, the sword a blur in a flashing circle. She connected with one man, then through him to another. She looked again to the aft deck. Cadhlaighn was up there, and within seconds the raiders were cleared fron the captain's path. Gabrielle heard feet rushing toward her, turned, saw a swirling robe, extended the sword and the onrushing man impaled himself on it. She pulled the sword from the body and prepared to meet another rush. There was another person at her back. before she could turn and attack Cadhlaighn's voice rang in her ear -- "Gabrielle, It's me!" She and Cadhlaighn were back to back in the classic defensive formation. "Move toward the bow!" Gabrielle shouted, and began to step crabwise in that direction, intending to meet the raiders coming over the gunwale from the galley laid alongside. They approached the forward hatch; she attacked two more raiders from behind, using her fingers and the sides of her hands to disable them. She was becoming sickened by the blood and the killing. Then, like devils from the land of the damned, a flood of men rose from the hatch. First among them was a great, muscled hulk of a man, who grabbed a raider who hurled himself at Gabrielle and bodily threw him over the side. Ursus, the bear of a bosun from the morning's contest. He thrust the heads of two more raiders together with a sickening crunch. An arrow appeared in his shoulder and he just kept going, wading into the raiders, scattering them with the back of his fists. Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn, their backs now clear, ducked around him and added their armed speed to his frightening bulk, and forged up onto the forecastle. Raiders dove over the side, cursing in their unknown language. In seconds they were gone; a few arrows flew from the enemy galley, then booms reached out from it to the bow of their erstwhile victim, and in moments twelve yards of empty moonlit sea separated them; oars splashed in the water and the pirate galley raced away into the wind, safe from pursuit from the sailing vessel that might have been their prize.
Standing up in the eyes of the ship, she turned to look behind her. The sailors were pitching the bodies of raiders overboard. She feared some of them might still be alive, but at that moment her stomach contracted, a wave of nausea swept over her, and she vomited into the scuppers. Ursus had busied himself breaking off the arrow and thrusting it through the meaty part of his arm. He turned to Gabrielle when he heard her retch, held her head while she finished emptying herself, and then thrust his cupped hand into the scuttle butt against the gunwale and washed her face with the fresh water. "Hey, hey," he said. "Not a very strong stomach for such a tough fighter." He chuckled.
She spat into the sea. "I hate that. Sometimes, it just takes me by surprise. I really don't like killing."
"I guess you don't."
"I'm sorry I didn't wake up sooner..."
He put a hand on her shoulder. It was surprisingly gentle. "Don't you dare apologize. You saved this ship. You and your friend...now where did that other wench get to?"
"She's not a wench. She's a woman."
"Sorry. To sailors all women are wenches. Habit."
They could hear a long-drawn out wailing chant across the water, reaching them on the wind from the retreating galley. "What's that?", she said reflexively, not really caring.
"Probably some of their religious nonsense, I suppose."
"Those people worship the same gods as you. They just call them by different names."
"They're bloodthirsty bastards, whatever gods they worship. As for me, I don't hold shrift with any gods. If I believe in anything, it's the sea, --" he siezed her sword hand in his own gigantic paw, enveloping her own hand,and lifted the sword -- " and this!"
She was too drained to argue. "You fought well."
"And you fought like Hades himself was after you. Thank you."
"I was defending myself as much as your ship. They would have made me a slave."
"Aya, as many as they didn't kill they'd have sold. It's like living in hell."
"How do you know?"
He turned, and in the moonlight she saw what she hadn't noticed before -- angry stripes of scars, the kind made by the whips of slavedrivers.
"You? A slave?"
"When I was ten. I escaped after two years. My family was destroyed, so I went to sea. I haven't spent as much as a month on land in fourteen years." He put his other hand on her shoulder. She felt dwarfed by him, but his touch was soft and careful. "I...we owe you our lives. If there's anything you need this voyage, you just say the word. You're queens of this scow. I'll give you the captain's cabin if you want."
"Wouldn't he object?"
"I'll handle the captain. I mean it, anything, anything at all. Just ask."
She put her arms around his waist and held him for a minute. "Thank you. All I want is just to get where we're going in one piece. That will be thanks enough."
She felt completely covered by him. Strong, gentle, a great fighter, confident...she could grow fond of a man like that.
She went below with Ursus to dress his wound and tend to her own. The slash on her thigh wasn't deep; the muscle hadn't been cut, only the upper layers of skin. It bled like mad, but it looked worse than it was. She cleaned it with seawater -- it stung like a thousand bees -- and bound it in a clean cloth. She hardly limped at all. Then she went to look for Cadhlaighn. Gabrielle owed her friend thanks for her help in the fight. And her friend owed her some explanation for her strange behavior.
She found Cadhlaighn up in the bow on the half-deck. She was kneeling on the deck, her head against the bulwark, crying. She was weeping horribly, but trying hard to be silent. Gabrielle came up slowly behind her, pushed Cadhlaighn's bloody sword out of reach with her foot, and knelt and put her arms around her friend. Slowly Cadhlaighn reacted to her touch. She turned around. Her face was slobbered with tears, and streaked with blood and grime.
"Cadhlaighn? It's over now. It's over. Look at me, Cadhlaighn." Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to hole up in her own cabin and weep as her friend was weeping, but she felt she had to look to Cadhlaighn first; her distress seemed so much greater. Cadhlaigh finally focused her eyes on Gabrielle, realized that the other woman was there. She touched her own face, smeared the blood there on her fingers, held it out for Gabrielle to see.
"This is somebody else's blood. Not mine."
"Yes Cadhlaighn, you're unhurt. That's good."
"No its not!! No it's not. They're dead, and I killed them! I killed...I don't even know who I killed!! " She softened her voice. "I killed someone, Gabrielle."
"It was a battle, Cadhlaighn. I hate it, too. But they would have killed you, or me, or the others. It's what war is about. It's awful. I cry like this, too after a fight. Even when no one gets killed."
"His head just came off. It just fell off onto the floor. Blood..."
"You've been in fights before."
"I've never killed anyone before, Gabrielle."
"I've never killed anyone. Not until today. And I killed so many today..."
"Never? Never, in any of those skirmishes?"
"I give orders. I told men to fight that man or this man and kill them if they could. They obeyed me because I'm the king's daughter and I know what orders to give so we'll win. But I've never...never done it myself."
"But you fight so well."
The redhead smiled sardonically. "I've been trained almost from the time I could walk. Endless hours of practice. I don't think when I fight. I don't use my brain, really...I just do it. I've been wounded in sparring, I've even drawn blood...but...I've not...not until today..." She buried her face in Gabrielle's shoulder and sobbed.
Gabrielle stroked her hair. "Never with your own hands."
Cadhlaighn clenched her eyes shut, shook her head.
Gabrielle whispered, "And how do you feel about killing now?"
Cadhlaighn snuffled. "It stinks." She drew her knees up into her chest, and her face contorted into a mask of pain. "Oh gods it hurts so much!"
Gabrielle hugged the girl tighter, comforting her as she would a distraught child. In some ways, this was a child. A deadly, highly trained and intelligent child -- but someone who, until this moment, had been an innocent. Gabrielle wasn't sure what to do. She knew what Xena had done for her, when she first took a life -- that priestess. Xena had held her, comforted her, gave her reason to believe in her own basic goodness. The fact that the child Gabrielle had borne had been the incarnation of evil hadn't been her fault. It had taken her a long time, years, to realize that, and to wash away most of the guilt over that first death. But innocence lost, however blamelessly, could never be regained. Cadhlaighn had blood on her hands that would never wash off. As did Xena. As did Gabrielle. They were all killers, in line, one after the other. She would do for her friend as had been done for her. But this scar might never heal.
Cadhlaighn threw back her head and stared wide-eyed at the deck above her; it was clear she saw right through it. Her tear-stained face was a mask of rage. She roared in righteous anger at the heavens, "Mother! All gods damn you, you bitch!"
END OF PART I
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