The Land of Song PART II
Disclaimers: See Part I
V. The White Mare
During the next several days, Cadhlaighn kept quite to herself, and only spoke to Gabrielle of inconsequential matters. Nevertheless, The secret Cadhlaighn had told Gabrielle sat like a stone on the younger womans shoulders, weighing down her usually ebullient personality and graving lines in her smooth young face. Gabrielle wanted to reach out for her, tell her that she was not being judged. But Cadhlaighn presented a hard, cold face to the world, impassive and hostile, almost like Xena when she had been in a foul or disturbed mood. Gabrielle kept her distance.
It took days for Cadhlaighn to break her silence. It was a hot, sunny day, the wind was blowing just hard enough to fill the sails, and the cabins were intolerable. Gabrielle had spread a blanket under the forecastle and was meditating, something she had learned in India many years before, but had never practiced much until her suicide attempt. She realized she had a lot to meditate upon; it was a daily ritual. She always began with a single question, as she had for five years: "do I want to live another day?" From there, she might travel anywhere.
Cadhlaighn came and sat beside her as she came out of her meditative trance. She looked at the younger girl and saw something in her eyes that she hadnt seen since the battle -- brightness, hope. She felt optimistic.
"Im sorry, Gabrielle." Cadhlaighn put a hand lightly on Gabrielles shoulder.
"For what? Youre young, younger than I when I took my first life. Youre brave in a fight, although you gave me a scare when you disappeared on me -- "
"I told you. I found a way around them."
"I know. What Im saying is that you shouldnt be ashamed because you reacted to killing someone the way you did. Cadhlaighn, its the most awful thing Ive ever done. There was a time when I simply didnt believe in it and wouldnt do it. That was all right as long as I had Xena to protect me. Do you know the story of Callisto?"
"The Demon Goddess? Yes, everyone knows that."
"She hated Xena, and she killed my husband to hurt her. It was truly senseless. All I could see after that was her blood on my sword. I wanted her dead and would have been thrilled to cut her into pieces for the dogs. Xena saved me from having to do that, and I learned that revenge is never a good reason for a killing. I learned a long time later that sometimes, sometimes, killing someone is the best of a set of bad choices. Like the fight here. Someone who would kill you wantonly, for a petty price -- well, they may not deserve to die, but the world would certainly be better off without such a person in it. That doesnt mean I like doing it. It makes me sick to my stomach. Sometimes I just lose my guts after a fight. Its awful. But, if you have to do it, do it quick and painless, get it over with, and dont think about it again if you can help it. Xena taught me that."
"Thats what I mean. I keep going over it in my mind. I cant help but feel that my father would be -- disappointed in me."
"I thought he was the one who trained you to be a warrior?"
"No. He...acquiesced. My mother was responsible for that. She made me into...what you saw that night. A killer."
"You never told me about your mother."
"Except to curse her to the gods in your hearing."
"No, truly, I love my mother...and hate her. I dont know what to make of her...or me."
"Do you want to tell me?"
"No, I dont...
"...but I have to, to explain why I need you to come home with me."
"Ive been waiting for you to tell me this."
"All right." Cadhlaighn related her story in a style that Gabrielle had heard the northern bards use, a precise, antique formula, the story memorized and told again and again without variation. She had used the style herself, on occasion, but it was less to her liking than the spontaneous renderings she used to give. Cadhlaighns story was almost a chant, and as she rolled through the phrases Gabrielle felt as if she was living at the edge of a dream.
My father was a hunter and a horseman; my mother was a goddess.
My mother Meghn was borne of Epona, goddess of the fields, the hunt, the fertility of farm and of women, and patron of horses and their riders and birds and their keepers. She bore two daughters. One, the elder, the Braghan, was the child of Epona by the God of War, whom you call Ares, but in this country we call Belatur. The Braghan is the goddess of the battlefield. She scours the fields of war as a huge black crow, choosing the slain and influencing the battle for those Belatur favors. She is one of Belatur Chosen. The Braghan appears in battle as an ancient hag, with a great toothy mouth that devours the souls of the slain. She can also assume the aspect of a young maiden, seductive and beautiful, and by this device has won the heart and loyalty of many a warlord. The other daughter is called Meghn, who is the child of Epona by Darach, the Greatest of Bards. Braghan and Meghn are and always will be enemies. Darach had another child, a son, Dynnydh, by a mortal wife who died in childbed; he lay with Epona after the death of his wife.
My father was very young when he earned his name Strongbow, because he did just that: pulled the bow of his father, which was too strong for any but the king or his strongest warrior to pull, and with it killed a great wild wolf that had been eating villagers. One day, as a young man, he was out hunting just before a storm. The wind was coming up, and while Strongbow was dismounted, a flash of lightning frightened his horse and the animal bolted, leaving Strongbow behind in the forest. Strongbow began to walk out of the wood to his home at Taragh. On the way, he saw a wild horse, a magnificent animal, the purest white any horse had ever been. The horse had neither bridle nor saddle. He followed the horse all day; the animal would stop and graze while Strongbow came almost close enough to approach, then shy away, cantering out of fathers grasp. Again, and again, until, near dusk, the horse had led him far away from Taragh, and, tossing its mane in the setting sun, galloped off and out of sight.
He searched for a cottage or a village where he could spend the night. As the last light was fading he came upon a manor house, not a castle surely, but bound about with a wooden palisade and large enough to be called lordly. He hailed from the gate, and upon asking for shelter was admitted, for he was but one man alone.
The lord of that place was Dynnydh, and his house and lands were called Amnh. Dynnydh was a courtly host, offering Strongbow food and drink, and for entertainment there was wrestling and mock duels and other contests. Dynnydh was a very strong man, and bested Strongbow in the wrestling and sparring. Then Strongbow challenged Dynnydh to an archery contest, which Dynnydh eagerly accepted. Dynnyd shot well, placing three arrows in the gold in the count of ten; but Strongbow placed three in the gold by the count of three, and four more before the ten-count had been reached. Dynnydh was humbled. He asked Strongbow what favor he could bestow upon him; anything that was his to give, he would do so gladly. Before he could answer, Dynnydhs sister Mehgn entered the hall. She was a beauty, lithe, tall, and strong; her skin was creamy and her eyes were brown, but her long silky hair was white as the snow. Strongbow looked upon her and was struck dumb as only one in love can be. Strongbow said, "If I were to ask but one favor, it would be the glance of the beautiful lady I see before me now." At this Dynnydh became angry, for his sister had been promised to another, a petty lord called Glwan, to make an alliance between their two lands. "I cant give you my sister, for she is promised. Ask any other thing."
The company was embarrassed for Dynnydh, for to refuse a guest a favor once offered was a great dishonor. Before Strongbow could call him out, Meghn said, "brother, you insult our guest. Let it be this way. Let him live in your place, and you in his, for a year. Let him take on your appearance and he yours, that no one knows the better. I have arts, as you know, that can make this thing happen. And if you see, at the end of the year, that Strongbows stewardship of your lands is as good or better than your own, why, you have every right to break the pledge to Glwan, for you will know Strongbow is the better man and the better ally." Meghn of course had her own reasons for the bargain. She was greatly taken with Strongbow; and Glwan was a man not to her taste.
She persuaded her brother and Strongbow to take this path out of their dilemma, which could only end otherwise in the shedding of blood. She finished her argument by assuring her brother, "You need not fear for my virtue. It will be another test; if Strongbow can treat me honorably, while living in the same house for a year, then youll know that he is a careful man capable of respect for a lady. Such a man is fit to be my husband, no?" And Dynnydh agreed.
So Strongbow was transformed in his body to the appearance of Dynnydh, and Dynnydh to that of Strongbow. And Dynnydh learned of Strongbows life as a prince in Taragh, and then went there.
But Meghn had her designs upon Strongbow, and swore in her heart to make him hers. She knew that seducing him would have the opposite of the desired effect. So she laid her plans to be courteous but no more, present but not available, seductive but not acquiescent. It was a hard game she had set to play, for she wanted to bed Strongbow with a fire that she found difficult to hold in check.
Her coyness was not lost on Strongbow. As young as he was -- barely past the beardless stage -- he knew a womans desire when he saw it, and played the same game. He was determined to keep her interested, as well, without breaking the conditions of the bargain. They took all their meals together,and she told him of her own life, advised him of the ways of her brothers fief, and with her advice he ordered the domain well and justly. None of the people or of the court knew that it was not Dynnydh, so perfect was the art of Meghn in disguising Strongbow.
One morning she said to her guest, "If you wish, I can provide a fine steed for you, one that can carry you across the widest fields and through the deepest woods, that can jump wide streams and stalk silently." When Strongbow desired to see this wondrous animal, she said, go to the stable, to the stall closest to the house. You will find the mare in that place. But first go to your room and change into your riding clothes."
When Strongbow came to the stable, to the first stall, he found a magnificent white mare, without any other color upon her, and he realized it was the same horse that had led him to this house. As he began to place his saddle on her, she shook and kicked and neighed, and refused to be saddled. Strongbow spoke to the horse, saying "your mistress made me a promise that you would carry me in a way no other horse has ever done. And yet you will not accept a saddle. Are you making your mistress a liar?" The horse knelt low to the ground, and Strongbow understood he was to ride bareback, without saddle or bridle or stirrup. He mounted the horse, and she rose and cantered out of the stable, into the courtyard, and, tossing her head, gave Strongbow a look of her eye, as if to say "Where to?" Strongbow pointed to the woods, sank his hands into her silky mane, and said "Go!"
It was the greatest ride of his life. The horses gait was swift and smooth as a breeze, and the lack of a saddle made no difference, for he felt as if the horses back was holding him tightly in the curve of strong muscles. The sound of hoofbeats was like the sound of falling rain, and the wind rushed by faster than he could ever remember. Rider and horse merged into a single creature; the mare seemed to know his thoughts, and he her needs. They roamed the woods and fields all day, and he hunted with his great bow. By the evening, both pleasantly worn and tired, they returned to the manor house.
Strongbow went to bathe, and then to call on Meghn before dinner, but her maid told him she was in the bath. She joined him later at table with a secret smile and a demure glance, and they talked of things of little consequence. But Strongbow felt the force of the woman more than ever.
From then on every day Strongbow would ride the white mare, and he loved her as he had never loved another animal. He was a great lover of horses, and had ridden many and trained many, but none had had the special gifts of the white mare. He saw Meghn little, but when he did he felt her kindle a fire in him, and prayed that he could keep his part of the bargain and not tempt her honor. For he knew she could be tempted by him, and would surrender to him if she were given the opportunity; and if she did he would lose her forever.
So the year passed, and Strongbow was a good lord, keeping all that was good in Dynnydhs governance and making only small change where change was of benefit. Crops were planted and livestock foaled, and banditry and fires and thieving were kept infrequent. Men lay with their wives and children were born, and death came peacefully to the old. And time and peace passed in that land.
The Braghan hates her sister, and during the year of courtship she laid her own plans to destroy the union of Meghn and Strongbow. It was her design that Meghn and Glwan should marry. Glwan was a man of violence and ill humors. Dynnydh consented to the betrothal because it would bind Glwans lands to his own, making secure his borders against attack from the sea by Vikings and invaders from Brittannia and Gaul. In this decision he may have been influenced by the Braghan, who offered him prowess in battle, and, it was said, herself, in her guise as a fresh young girl.
But while Dynnydh could be seduced he would not be suborned, and he kept his own counsel and decided the fate of his sister in his own way. His rejection angered the Braghan, who vowed vengeance on him and his house, and on her own sister, whom she saw as the cause of all her trouble.
When the year was ended Strongbow met Dynnydh at the crossroads of Amnh-fa-Neas, which is half the way between Amnh and Taragh; and there, on clasping hands in greeting, each assumed his own shape once more. And they shared much of what had passed in the lands during their year of disguise, and they declared them a friendship. "And now let us feast proper," said Dynnydh, and he invited Strongbow to come home with him.
At Dynnydhs manor Meghn was waiting her brother and her friend, and who can say which she anticipated the more? Dynnydh questioned her, and was assured that Strongbow had made no attempt on her virtue, but had indeed been her friend and a gentle man in all ways. As his lands were in good order, and his sister respected, Dynnydh declared the agreement with Glwan void, and joined the hand of Meghn with that of Strongbow and called him brother.
So the feast became a wedding feast, and all the carls from Amnh and neighboring lands were invited, and among them was the family of Strongbow, and also among them was Glwan. Now Glwan was a man mean of mind, who ruled his people through fear. But he was a strong warrior, steadfast and brave in time of trouble, and valued for his position on the border of Amnh. Now he came with anger to the house of Dynnydh, and, speaking with the words the Braghan poured into his ears, cursed Dynnydh for a liar and a cheat because he broke the bargain. Dynnydh offered a weregild of fifty horses to Glwan, but the former suitor refused the gift; in my country to refuse such a gift means war. So in the joy of my fathers wedding day was the shadow of war cast over him and his bride, which has never since left our land.
On the morning after their wedding night Meghn brought Strongbow his food, and sat and ate with him. And she smiled at him, and loved him, and then said, "Now I must tell you a great secret. Last night was not the first night I have held your body next to mine, nor felt the strength in your loins nor heard your words of love."
And Strongbow was amazed, saying "Lady, I have not lain with you nor held you nor kissed you nor so much as touched your hand until last night. How could you say this?"
"I have carried you every day upon my back, and I have enjoyed your touch greatly. You are a strong and gentle rider, sir. And I know you love me."
"You! How can..." said the man, mystified.
"I am this woman, your wife. And I am the steed, as well. My mother was Epona, the goddess of horses, and my father was the mortal bard Darach. He sang songs of water and wind, and especially to the birds of the air; they were his friends and taught him much lore. He was also my brothers father, but Darachs mortal wife passed to the other side, and Epona, enchanted by his songs, lay with him, and from that union I came."
"Are you a horse, then? Or a woman?" asked Strongbow.
"I am both. And all my daughters are to have this power and others as well. I can be that white steed; and, in honor of my father the Bard, I can also be a dove. How many times have I perched upon your window sill, watching you sleep in the early light." She lowered her eyes. "Are you still pleased with me?"
He took her shoulders and held her. "Lady, were you a peasant or a cook or the woman who scrubs the floors I would have loved you at first sight. Your powers make no matter to that."
So Strongbow took his wife home to his own country. A n alliance was concluded between the House of Amnh, led by Dynnydh, and the house of Taragh, led by Strongbow.
In the year after Strongbows marriage, war came to the land of Amnh. The lord Glwan, the rejected suitor of Meghn, wass given a promise of victory in battle by the Braghan if he took her as consort and made human sacrifice to Belatur. Glwan did so, and raised an army of evil men and attacked along the borders of Amnh.
There was killing and the dishonoring of women, and the burning of crops and the taking of booty. Dynnydh called all his carls to the defense, and called upon his brother-in-law Strongbow, and Strongbow led the army of Taragh to the fight. In the First Battle, Glwans army had the advantage in numbers, but the men of Taragh and Amnh were better trained and better led, and they had the victory that day. Many of Glwans men were killed, and many gave themselves up, but Glwan escaped with his life; and the men of Amnh bid him farewell and good riddance, and they thought the danger was ended.
Glwan was angry at Belatur, and at the Braghan, for they had promised him victory that had not come. The Braghan tried to win his trust, teaching him many dark arts. He found a way to call upon the oldest gods, the gods that had lived in Shannaught before the Gods of Light came and drove them underground, before men and women came. These old gods are called Fomori; they are hideous creatures, green and blue of skin, with but a single eye, and they drink the blood of their slaughtered victims. These demons are overrunning the land, and, acting with the men of Glwan, are making Shannaught an evil place to live. Alone, the people of Shannaught are helpless. Alone, the Gods of Light are helpless. We need a Hero.
Cadhlaighn stopped her lilting chant, and Gabrielle knew the story was over. She shook herself as if awakening from a trance and saw Cadhlaighn looking at her with sadness. Well, it was a sad story. Gabrielle sensed that there was more.
"That was a good story, Cadhlaighn."
"Well, story isnt really finished."
"I thought so."
"The truth is that Meghn is mad."
"Mad, deluded, I dont know what to call it. From the way my father tells, when he and mother first married she was kind, gentle, loving. After I was born she changed -- she became more more and more obsessed with defending Taragh and the eastern provinces, more and more sure that we were in grave danger. When I was three she began to train me as a warrior -- at first it was a game, but it became more and more deadly. I was a good pupil, in some ways. I was quick and strong and I liked mastering things, swordplay and archery and fighting with fists. But I didnt like hurting people, and my mother reminded me that one day Id be queen and Id have to hurt some to protect the rest. She never let me rest, and soon I think it became an end in itself. All this time, my father saw to it that we were educated in other ways; that we learned to read, and write poetry, and tales, and sing and dance. He taught us to see beauty in the world around us, which youd think would have been my mothers province. But she is obsessed with war. I can see the madness in her eyes, Gabrielle, when I see her at all. She isnt home much. I dont know where she goes. I miss her, even though..."
"Youre afraid she doesnt love you." Something I do understand.
"She keeps reminding me that Im not her son. That I should have been born a man,because Im firstborn and only the kings firstborn can inherit the throne, unless she dies before the king. Im a disappointment to her, Gabrielle. All my life Ive tried to live up to the expectations of a madwoman."
VI. Tales of The Land
Gabrielle stared into Cadhlaighns eyes. The younger woman seemed to be far away, as if in a trance, or half asleep. But her eyes were wide open. She remained like that for several heartbeats after she had stopped speaking, then shook her head lightly, ran her hand through her tousled hair, and slowly turned to meet Gabrielles eyes. "Anyway. Enough of my troubles. Did you like the story?"
"Yes. It was a good story and well told. But I dont know what I can do for you. Im not the fighter Xena was. If you expect to defeat these demons by brute force, Im not the one you need. I dont really like fighting, either. Xena, now...she relished a good fight. But not me."
Gabrielles brows knit in suspicion. "Actually, what?"
Cadhlaighn dropped her eyes. "When I came looking for Xena, I kind of expected to find you with her. I really needed to bring both of you. She could fight and you...you could buy stories."
"Buy stories? You mean tell them, hear them..."
"I mean just that. Were a people of storytellers. Everything we know about each other, our land, our history, our lives, comes to us through each others stories. We have a law -- to get a story from someone, you must give them one. The only way to learn more stories -- the only way to survive -- is to tell one of your own. We own our stories, and when we give one to someone its like giving gold or land. We have to get one back. I cant tell you more until I get a story from you. One Ive never heard. I gave you that one because you told me the one about Xena and the soul-mating. Thats what I call it, anyway. You didnt tell me what you called it."
"I didnt call it anything. Its not written down, at least not yet, and I dont know if it will be. You treat a story as a piece of property?"
"Of course. Dont you? When you were a bard, and you recited a story in the public square, didnt you expect to be paid for it?"
"Well...yes, a few coins, but...Anyone could tell a story for free and not get paid for it. Just for the fun of telling."
"Oh we have fun. Storytelling is our great joy. Youll see. When we get there youll see."
The voyage took some days and during that time Gabrielle told Cadhlaighn some stories that Cadhlaighn had not heard, stories of adventuring with Xena that she had never shared with anyone; most of them she hadnt even written down. From these Gabrielle was able to elicit more tales from Cadhlaighn, and over the course of days she had pieced together the essential events of Cadhlaighns homeland. Cadhlaighn was very strict, in accordance with her peoples law; there had to be an even exchange, tale for tale, and the length of the tales had to match.
In exchange for her tale "Xena and the Golden Whip", Gabrielle learned more about the demons and gods of Shannaught.
"The islands had been first inhabited by a race of creatures, the Fomori. They were huge, beastlike monsters, with legs and arms like the trunks of trees, knotted and covered with a bark-like hide. They had green faces, or blue, or many shades between these. Their teeth were long and sharp, and each had but a single eye in the middle of a flat, oblong face, with stringy vinelike hair hanging long from their heads. They lived by preying upon the spirits of the wind and sky, who cried out for aid in their distress. Answering the call, a godlike race appeared among the clouds of Shannaughts sky; the people of Dann, called into being by the same Titans who had made the greek gods, Zeus and Ares and all the rest. In three great battles the people of Dann subdued the Fomori, and chained them deep beneath the bed of the sea. They then set about the ordering of the land, dividing it into four parts, each named for a different season of the year. They made the land green, and moist, and fertile. When mortals heard of this jewel of an island, they came in great numbers from over the sea, many from the island of Britannia which was near at hand. The people of Dann taught the mortals many useful arts, farming and forging and building and medicine, craftmanship and war. There were many Dannite gods and goddesses, each with his or her special provenance.
"The mortals grew jealous of the immortality of the Dannite gods, and so, to show their love for their mortal foster children, the Dannites retired to caves underground, where they could watch the mortals living on the land, and yet not be a present reminder to them of the immortality they could never have. And so it had been, until the present day."
"Is that it? Is there more?" Gabrielle peered at Cadhlaighn.
"Thats all I can give you. Now you have to tell me another."
"Cadhlaighn, this is the most frustrating mission I have ever been on. You asked me to come -- cant you just tell me whats going on?"
"I want to, Gabrielle. Im trying. But Ive never just told anybody any kind of a story without a trade. Its...its the way we are. Its not just a law, its the way weve been raised. These stories are like our life, our blood, our souls. I can only give you what I have if we trade. Its just -- its like you not being the person you are. Its like you trying to --forget Xena, forget how she changed your life. I know, thats not fair, but shes so much a part of you, how could you ever change that? Its that way with me and my people and our stories."
"All right well, heres a story about Xena and the Chinese boxes..."
"...The second battle was the worst disaster my people had ever experienced. The Fomori not only outnumbered us, but they had learned much more about combat against people -- and they had mastered magical weapons. Lightning bolts and fireballs poured from their ranks, scorching and scattering the men of Shannaught. So many were slaughtered. The Fomori accepted no surrender, took no prisoners. Some of the enemy could set themselves aflame, with no harm to themselves, and advance into a body of our fighters. Our warriors ran from the sight of the blazing monsters. Only on one part of the field was there a victory. The king of the Fomori, a demon named Fladagh, faced the contingent of the men of the North. Fladagh was a great demon with a head as big as his body, and in the middle of his head was a single eye, closed with a heavy eyelid. Two other demons opened the eyelid, and when the eye of the demon king fell on any creature, that creature fled in terror, or died outright of fright. The Lord of the Northmen, Lucagh, was a slinger of great skill, and just as the terrible eye began to open, he flung a slingstone directly at it. It struck the eye of Fladagh with such force that the eye was turned through the back of the monsters head, and those Fomori behind were struck with terror, and fled the field. The men of the North were brave and strong, but too few to press their advantage; and the Fomori held the field. Strongbow could not rally his demoralized troops, so he retreated and gathered the survivors in the walled stronghold of Taragh. Other strongholds are also still ours, and from there we sally out to protect the countryside. Glwan has many men in his service, and he sends them on raids to terrorize villages into switching their allegiance. An attack by the Fomori on the free lands may come at any time, and we are always watchful."
Rain fell gently on the sea. Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn sat on Gabrielles bunk, facing each other.
"I need to know more. Lets see...How about this? Eros, the god of desire, had a son, called Bliss. It was hard to get Bliss to sleep..."
"Ive heard that one. He stole Cupids bow and made everyone fall in love with everyone else."
"Oh...well, all right. Maybe...Ah. Cleopatra was queen of Egypt. It seems..."
"Is this the one where Xena takes her place after shes killed?"
"Yes. Dammit, have you heard that one, too?"
"Sorry...theres a lot of stories about Xena. Shes famous."
And I told most of them first. I could have sold them for a lot of money. No. That wasnt the purpose.
"Which ones havent you heard...mmmm. Do you know about The Mummys Dance?"
"No, that one doesnt sound familiar. But its getting late. Can we make it a bedtime story?"
"What, you mean, you sleep here?"
"No reason...as long as you dont snore."
"Oh, lie down and hush." Cadhlaighns dimples deepened with her impish smile. Gabrielle couldnt help but smile back. She lit the lantern and hung it on the peg by the bunk. The ship swayed gently. She climbed into the bunk next to Cadhlaighn, and liked the sensation of again being so close to her. She missed closeness. She missed...never mind. Whats done cannot be undone.
"All right. After the Cleopatra business, we stayed in Egypt for a while. There was to be a great festival that we wanted to see, and on the eve of this festival a strange thing happened. It seems one of the royal mummies was seen dancing through the streets of Thebes in the dead of night..."
The night closed around them as the story unfolded. Looking down, Gabrielle was stirred by the sweet, open face of her companion, looking up at her in the lantern light that so set off the deep green of her eyes. It felt like those nights when she cuddled with her stepdaughter, telling her stories. Except Adriana had never felt like this. Maybe this was a bad idea. She felt Cadhlaighn cuddle closer. Or maybe not. The story went on.
"...and what Xena and her friends had discovered was true: if she did the mummys dance before the altar of the tomb, repeated it exactly, in every movement, the altar opened and released the spirits of the slaves that had been sacrificed when the tomb was built. Then the spirit of Pharoah Terpsis was freed of his guilt and rested peacefully forever."
Cadhlaighn lay beside her, her eyes closed. Gabrielle shook her gently. "Cadhlaighn? Are you awake?"
"Aye, Im awake. That was a good one. I owe you another. Can I tell you in the morning? We both need to sleep."
"Yes, of course. Im glad you enjoyed it."
"I did." Cadhlaighn rose up slightly and, before Gabrielle could react, kissed her on the lips. Not a deep, passionate kiss, but not a peck, either. It was...thanks? Friendship? Or an invitation?
Cadhlaighn rolled over, face toward the wall. "Gnight, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle didnt know what to say. So she did the easiest thing.
She said goodnight, lay down in the bed, and put her arm around the woman next to her. Within moments they were both fast asleep.
In the damp gray morning they sighted land, and Cadhlaighn told Gabrielle the rest of the story of the tragic second battle, when the men of the North beheaded the body of the Fomori king using tree saws, and dragged his great head back to their camp, upon a great cart, as a prize of battle. They carried on a running fight all the way back to their own lands in the north. They couldnt use the eye because the lid was too heavy.
"And what happened to the head?," Gabrielle asked.
"I was never told," Cadhlaighn said. "It must be in another story."
They were sailing within easy sight of the land. They could see high cliffs, white as bone, topped by emerald-green grass and forest.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I know this place."
"Britannia? Youve been here?"
"I thought you knew all about my history. Xena and I were here. A long time ago. Dont you know the story?"
"I might not have heard it."
"Ceasar. Dahok. Hope."
"Oh. Oh, Gabrielle..."
"Its...all right. Its only a memory now."
"I keep forgetting that all the stories I know about you are things that happened to you. Some of them must have been pretty awful."
"That was, for sure." She blinked back tears. Her first killing her first child. Dead both of her children dead. "But I had..."
"...Xena. You were lucky."
"Xena wasnt perfect, Cadhlaighn. She could be cold, hard -- even evil. She killed lots of people. She wanted to kill Hope the day she was born. The fact that she was right about it in the end didnt make it any easier for me to see that side of her. She killed in cold blood, sometimes, out of calculation. Remember Ming Tien. She could be very dangerous."
"And you loved her anyway, in spite of her dark side."
"Maybe because of her dark side. There was something there that needed me, needed what I could give her. I still dont know what it was that she gained from our being together."
Cadhlaighn put her arm around Gabrielles waist. "I know one thing you gave her."
In the early afternoon Gabrielle could see another thin strip of land on the horizon. They were leaving Britannia behind and sailing briskly to this new landfall.
"My home. Shannaught. Well be there by sunset."
VII. New names, new faces
The hall was built of stone, with a beamed wooden roof and a stone floor. As they entered they could see the great room lit by high arched windows, and the light from two great fireplaces at either end. The main entrance faced east. On the south wall, on a throne of gilded wood, sat Strongbow, High King of Taragh, mightiest prince in Shannaught and the Twelve Isles...Cadhlaighns father. All about the hall there were people, men and women, some with mugs in their hands, some with food. there was a table of food along the west wall. Great gray dogs wandered among the people, seizing the scraps offered to them, licking the hands of affectionate courtiers. Many of the courtiers had musical instruments in their possession instead of weapons. It appeared that Strongbow permitted no weapons in his Hall; Gabrielle and Cadhlaighn had had to surrender theirs at the anteroom door. And it appeared that she had wandered into a nest of bards.
In the center of the hall was a raised platform of stone, just large enough for two people to stand on comfortably. It was to this raised place that a large, redheaded man now stepped, and held his arms wide as the hall fell silent around him. He threw his head back, opened his mouth, and a stream of melodic chant emerged, drawn out but rhythmic, in a language Gabrielle had never heard. The courtiers smiled, and as the man chanted more verses, laughter broke out in many places. At the last verse, delivered with a hesitation and then a rush of words, the entire hall erupted in laughter. The mans face was as red as his kilt, and his white teeth split his face in an ecstatic grin.
Gabrielle looked questioningly at Cadhlaighn. She explained. "That was in the Old Tongue. You wont have to learn it to tell stories; most people speak Latin. It was a kind of joke. Its a ribald tale -- its about a man who has a wife and a mistress, and the mistress has a husband, and shes being unfaithful to him with another man, and the first mans wife has a lover, and the mistresss husband has a lover, too and...well, it gets complicated and the story ends with about ten people in bed together. Its very funny. But now I want to go see my father. Stay close to me and follow my lead." She crossed the hall towards the great throne, and was greeted and embraced by everyone she met. A few people looked at Gabrielle curiously, or smiled, but no one touched her or greeted her. This didnt bother her; she was used to being in the shadow of someone better known than she.
The redhead approached the throne, Gabrielle abreast of her. She dropped to one knee, bowed her head. Gabrielle did likewise. The king said. "Rise, daughter. And your friend, also."
Standing, Gabrielle took in her view of the High King. He was a powerful presence, despite his very advanced age. He looked to be the oldest man Gabrielle had ever known; even though he lounged in the throne, and she could not judge his height, he appeared shrunken. His clouded eyes were the same green as his daughters, but sunk deep in their sockets, surrounded by dark rings of age. His skin was as coarse as the bark of a tree; his fingers, as they played restlessly on the arms of the throne, were long, bony and pointed, like claws. His clothing seemed to hang on his body like cobwebs on an ancient house. He was completely bald, not a hair on his head; but his face was overgrown by a scraggle of white beard, indifferently trimmed. He seemed in the last stage of decrepitude.
So it surprised Gabrielle when he addressed her in a strong, booming voice, the voice of a vigorous commander on the battlefield. His gestures were certain and deft as he spoke, and his clarity of speech belied the decaying body from which his words issued.
"I heard that my wayward daughter had returned in company," he exclaimed. I didnt know it was a lovely woman. Is it true you came armed?"
"Yes, your Highness."
A smile split the deaths head countenance. "I am address as my lord, here," he said. "First among equals."
"My apologies, my lord."
"Father, I havent had time to inform Gabrielle of all our customs."
He turned his gaze on Cadhlaighn. "Im addressed as such by all but my daughter. Because shes of my blood she feels she can take liberties. Shes right," he said with affection. "Welcome back, child, and come and greet me the right way." Cadhlaighn stepped up on the dais and embraced her father, and his hold on her was sure and strong,not the feeble grasp of an old man. Cadhlaighn sat at his feet, leaving Gabrielle to face him alone. "So, are you a warrior?"
"Ive been trained, my lord."
"You arent the one Cadhlaighn sought."
Cadhlaighn sprang to her feet. "Im sorry, father. I was so happy to be home...Gabrielle, please, Im sorry. I should have presented you." She turned to her fathers throne, spoke formally. "My lord, may I present Gabrielle of Poitidea, bard, warrior, traveler, companion of Xena! (bow, Gabrielle!)" Gabrielle bowed, to the King and then to the court.
A rumble ran through the assembled courtiers. She heard her lovers name repeated around the hall. The Warrior Princess magic had reached even to this remote island at the ends of the Earth.
The King held her with his fiery gaze. "We are in need of fighters here. Would you stay and join with us?"
"My lord, thats one reason I came with Cadhlaighn. I am not Xena, but I learned from her. Ill do my best to be of whatever service I can."
"I accept your service. You said it was one reason. You have another?"
"Your daughter is very persuasive, my lord."
"We all know that, young lady. What else?"
"To learn your stories."
Silence blanketed the hall. The Kings gaze turned to stone. "Has Cadhlaighn not told you our law? Our stories are sacred and can not be casually heard by a foreigner."
At this Cadhlaighn spoke. "My lord, people! Gabrielle is a bard of great talent. All of what we know of the Warrior Princess, we know through her. Her stories have already penetrated our souls. If her stories are not foreign to us, how can she be foreign? She should be welcome among us as one of our own and a great poet in her own right. She has studied many years and proved her worth."
The King hailed the hall in a voice that could have been heard above a storm or a battle. "So say I, and so say all of Taragh. Gabrielle of Poitidea is welcome as a listener and a teller of the sacred tales."
Another murmur from the crowd seemed to signal acceptance of the Kings command. Cadhlaighn leaned close to Gabrielle and whispered in her ear. "I just saved you a year at school. You can thank me later."
Cadhlaighn stepped up to the throne, embraced her father again, had a brief whispered conversation with him. Gabrielle looked around her. The courtiers were dressed well, but not sumptiously; rich fabrics and precious metals were little in evidence. Although the food on the table was sturdy and filling, it was plain fare. The decoration of the hall itself bespoke a devotion to the practical and heraldic, rather than any show of wealth. Behind the king was a coat of arms that bore in quarter the sigils of a harp, a bow, a raven, and a white horse. Banners of various noble houses depended from the beams of the roof. Compared to many royal courts in which Gabrielle had been a willing or unwilling participant, the simplicity of Strongbows hall bordered on poverty.
The courtiers seemed happy and active. After her formal presentation, she and Cadhlaighn circulated among the court. Cadhlaigh was known by all, and it seemed, liked immensely. She was treated as if she was everyones sister. There was an embrace, a kiss, a laughing greeting from every person they encountered. Gabrielle bowed through a hundred introductions, a hundred strange names, saw smiling open faces and kind eyes. Many people sat in small groups in corners and near the fire, talking and making music. The cacophony was loud but not unpleasant; Gabrielle could focus on what a single group was doing and screen out the rest of the noise.
Cadhlaighn sat down in a circle of young people gathered around a boy with a harp, bid Gabrielle to join her. She asked the boy to play a simple melody on the harp, and Cadhlaign began to improvise verses to the melody. Gabrielle listened as if to any other song until she heard her own name and then realized that her friend was recounting the incidents of her journey. She was composing on the spot. The song grew to many verses, and then Cadhlaighn listened to the comments and criticism of her friends. They sang it again all the way through. She turned to Gabrielle and asked "Did you like it?"
Gabrielle said "Yes! That was something -- you made it up right here?"
"Ive been thinking how Id tell the story even as I was doing it. A lot of those verses were made up months ago. It was right, wasnt it? I mean. the parts you were in, I got the story straight?"
"Yes, as I remember it. Very good, Cadhlaighn."
The boy with the harp said, "Are you ready to stand with it?"
Cadhlaighns eyes sparkled. "I am. Lets go." To Gabrielle: "Dont go way. Ill be back." Cadhlaighn and the musician stepped up to the raised stone platform and the hall fell silent. She called out in her clear, sparkling voice. "This is a new tale. I dedicate it to my lord the King, and to my new and dear friend, Gabrielle." The Ballad of Cadhlaighns Journey was about to become a part of the lore of Shannaught.
As Cadhlaighn finished and stepped down, Gabrielle went to congratulate her as the audience applauded her wildly. She embraced her friend. "I didnt know you could sing like that!" she said. Cadhlaighn blushed and smiled into Gabrielles eyes. "Thats...not something I do often. It just seemed like a song, not a story for telling. And Ive heard you sing beautifully, so I wanted it to be about that. It just felt right."
"Not all the tales are true, Cadhlaighn."
A man approached them, the crowd parting to let him through. He reached out to Cadhlaighn to embrace her. "Welcome home, Cadhlaighn. So good to see you again. Ive only just been told youd returned. Cadhlaighn embraced him perfunctorily, with much less enthusiasm than she had the others in the court.
The man was of middle height, and seemed stocky and thick, although his body was draped in a dark-green robe of some soft fabric embroidered with a twining pattern of gold ribbons down its front. He wore a soft cap, crushed to one side. He was the best-dressed person Gabrielle had seen since arriving at Taragh. His face was round, with dark, twinkling eyes that nevertheless seemed to hold a restless regard for his surroundings, as if he expected to be struck from behind. His smile was wide and displayed great white teeth. His voice was persuasive, smooth and engaging, and his manner charming. Gabrielle disliked him immediately.
Cadhlaighn disengaged herself from the mans clinging embrace, and introduced him. "Gabrielle, this is Kyloides. Hes from your homeland, I believe. Somewhere in Greece."
The man took Gabrielles hand, bowed over it. "Indeed. Olophea, in Macedonia. Where do you come from?"
"Poitidea, originally. But Ive traveled a lot."
The mans eyes became shifty, his expression troubled. Gabrielle focused her senses; she could hear his heartbeat speed up. "And your name again? Im afraid..."
"Gabrielle...Poitidea...it sounds familiar..."
"I traveled with Xena, when she was alive. The Warrior Princess. Cadhlaighn says youve tales of her here."
Little beads of sweat broke out on Kyloides forehead, and he took off his cap and dabbed his face with it. He was bald with a fringe of black hair beginning to gray. "Excuse me, miss. Too many people in here...its quite warm." Kyloides recovered, bowed slightly again. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Are you staying long?"
"As long as the King requires my services."
"And those might be..."
"Keeping me out of trouble, Kyloides." Cadhlaighn intervened, clearly impatient to be away from this man. "Gabrielle, Kyloides is a..."
"...ah, a spiritual advisor to the lord Strongbow. I advise him on affairs of some small importance. But that is no matter. Cadhlaighn, I had hoped to see you alone."
"Well, that may not be for a while. I need to show Gabrielle around. Well speak later, perhaps."
Kyloides appeared put out. "At your convenience, princess."
Cadhlaighn made for the door, Gabrielle in tow. Just as they exited she was siezed by an old man, who said, "No time for me?"
She brightened immediately, her smile wide and warm. "Phadhaius! Where were you?"
"Sleeping. Brigit woke me to tell me you were back. Its been so long..."
They hugged and the old man lifted the girl off the ground, twirled her around, and set her back on her feet. Cadhlaighn said "This is my friend Gabrielle, and I have to show her her quarters right now. But Ill be back soon. Will you be at your house?"
"Yes, you can find me there. Come as soon as you can." He took both her hands in his. "Good to see you again." He pecked her on the cheek and entered the hall.
As they walked across the courtyard, Gabrielle said. "So thats Phadhaius. You were going to tell me about him. And who is that fellow Kyloides?"
"You like him?" She grinned sardonically.
"Very ugh. He came here about five or six years ago. He works for my father, but what he does is very secret. Rumor has it hes a sorcerer. I think he might be a spy. My father trusts him, so I tolerate him. He seems to think he and I have some kind of relationship."
"Gods, Cadhlaighn, you dont, do you? Hes so...slimy."
"Gods and demons, no. Im not that hard up. But hes a pest."
Gabrielles room was in the small but comfortable log house that Cadhlaighn lived in, one of several that formed a ring around the central yard faced by the hall. Outside this ring of buildings, which included a stable, armory, kitchens, and barracks, was a sizable town of wooden huts and houses, surrounded by a double log palisade, a ditch, a moat formed by a bend in the river, and a ring of sharp stakes planted in the ground. High watchtowers stood around the palisade at intervals.
Gabrielles bags and weapons had already been placed in her room. Cadhlaighn showed her the amenities, which were comfortable but not luxurious. "I know you need to sleep, now. I know youre tired from the journey. But, Gabrielle..." Cadhlaighn had something on her mind.
"I hope you dont think badly of me."
"Why would I?"
"Because of what I said..after that battle. I dont want you to think Im a coward."
"I dont, Cadhlaighn. Not at all. I admire you that you can fight with such skill when its necessary but that youre revolted by killing. Thats a good thing. Its not cowardice. On the contrary, youre very brave."
"Thank you. Im glad you feel that way, Gabrielle, because...Gabrielle, Ive grown very...fond of you. I think youre very...oh, damn..."
She took Gabrielle in her arms and kissed her, this time with passion and power. It was more than exploration; this kiss was invitation, offer, seduction. It was loving, and sweet, and brimming with lust for Gabrielles body. There was nothing chaste or friendly about it. Gabrielle hadnt been kissed this way since...she tried not to think of Xena so she could give full attention to kissing Cadhlaighn as she was being kissed. For she found she wanted to be kissed by this woman. Cadhlaighn was energy in a small package, and that energy was flowing into Gabrielle, exciting her; she could feel the warmth between her thighs, the tingle in her breasts. A riot of voices began to clamor in her mind, all her own voice in different keys: take her! Love her! Its what Xena wants for you...Youve only known her a short time... its been such a long time...her touch is so soft and strong...Xena...how can you do this to Xena...how can you do this to this sweet girl? Shes so young, so full of life...Does she know what kind of woman you really are....
Gabrielle disengaged the kiss, and pulled back from the beautiful woman in her arms. She felt tears come to her eyes. This couldnt happen...she couldnt let it happen.
"Cadhlaighn...Im sorry. You are wonderful, beautiful, and I want to be with you. Every bit of my body is aching to take you into that bed. But I cant."
"In the name of the entire universe, why not!? Weve been dancing around each other like moths around a candle and now...Gabrielle, I was ready to be your lover weeks ago. I just wasnt sure about you. So I waited until we got here...I guess I thought itd be easier on my own turf. I know you feel something for me."
"I do, sweet Cadhlaighn, I do. You make me feel wanted and you are very beautiful. And I want you. But Im in love with someone else. It wouldnt be fair to you."
Cadhlaighn was crying, tears of anger and unrequited lust. "Gabrielle, Xenas dead! For years!"
Gabrielle touched her own chest. "Not in here. Shes yet very much alive."
Cadhlaighn stared into Gabrielles eyes for a long time, then released her embrace. She kissed Gabrielle again, softly, then said, "I wont let you break my heart. I love you, and Ill wait. If, when, you finally bid goodbye to her, Ill be here for you. I cant compete with the shade of a dead warrior, not with a legend. Humble as I am, Im here and alive...flesh and blood, eyes and lips and hair and body, mind and soul. All yours, if you want it."
"Oh Cadhlaighn, dont love me...Im not worth it."
"Who are you to tell me who I should love?" Cadhlaighn turned on her heel and left Gabrielle alone in the house.
And Gabrielle still hadnt found out about Phadhaius.
She took off her outer clothing and got into bed, pulled the fur cover over her. Her mind and soul were muddled. Cadhlaighn had awakened feelings that she had hoped she might never again have to deal with, but now she was excited and anxious to experience love with someone new. The obstacle, of course, was...Xena. Xenas memory still had a hold on her heart, a painful, ecstatic grasp of iron and velvet that Gabrielle believed would never let go, nor was she sure that she wanted to be let go. She felt the touch of Cadhlaighns lips on her own, and savored it many times as she drifted off to sleep.
She lay awake and alert many minutes, following the intruder as he made his way stealthily through the room. She wasnt conscious of being awakened, but nights on the steppe had conditioned her to be aware of the sound of an approaching threat. She could tell it was a man by the tread of his feet, the spacing of his footfalls, the sound of his breathing. He had a weapon in his hand; she had heard the rasp of the blade from the scabbard outside her door, before he had entered her room. He wasnt well trained, he was a little clumsy; twice she had heard him bump into obstacles lightly as he quartered the room. She could hear his heartbeat as he came close to the bed. She had a very good idea of where the blade was above her. She rustled under the covers, as if in restless sleep, and positioned her heel just opposite the mans groin. She heard the sharp intake of breath as the man raised the blade to strike -- not a trained or experienced killer, either -- and popped her heel into his crotch with the full force of her body behind it. As she heard the whoosh of his breath leaving him she sprang from the bed, throwing the fur across the blade to entangle it, and had the man on the floor, astride his chest, fingers poised to pinch off the arteries in his neck. She recognized her would-be assassin.
"In Zeus name, dont kill me! You dont have to crush my neck, Ill tell you everything! Just dont kill me! It was a mistake! Dont!" He was slavering, whimpering in his fear. Gabrielle was afraid he might soil himself and while she didnt care about his hygeine, she didnt want to have to change rooms. She grasped his jaw and squeezed as hard as she could, just to let him know she meant business. Her voice came out in a throaty rasp.
Her green eyes flashed. "I could kill you, you slimeball, and I will if I dont hear it all! Why did you try to kill me?"
"ghillhgh zhoo Ghyii dhidhn dhryghh arhjh..." She let go of his jaw. "I wasnt trying to kill you...heh...just a...wanted to scare..."
She put her hand on his throat, and with the other flipped the fur from the floor. She grabbed the knife lying there. "Not trying to kill me? This isnt a toothpick!" She stiffened her fingers against his arteries. He lost all color and broke into a sweat.
"No! Dont do that! Truly, I didnt want to kill you! Just a wound, a warning you have a connection to me, and you might betray me."
She looked at him curiously, her anger temporarily derailed by his claim. "What connection? Ive never seen you before in my life!"
"You knew my father!"
VIII. Almost a Sorcerer
"Youre kidding." She pressed the tip of the knife under Kyloides chin.
"No!" Kyloides eyes were huge with terror. He didnt know that Gabrielle wouldnt kill him in cold blood. "I was b-b-born in Th-Thrace, When my father was a t-t-traveling...salesman."
"Con man, you mean." She backed off with the knife, and he began to breathe again.
Kyloides twisted his lips. "Er...I suppose you could say that. But he never really harmed anyone. Not permanently."
"Salmoneus always had his eye on every opportunity, thats true. But he was harmless enough, I guess."
"And he said you worked with him on more than one occasion."
She raised an eyebrow, unconscious of doing so. "Also true. Name one."
"Miss Known World?"
Gabrielle stifled a laugh. "You know about that disaster. Too bad -- Id hoped everyoned forgotten it. I never wrote about it. All right. For the moment lets say you are who you say you are. Why try to kill me?"
"You knew Xena. You both knew Salmoneus. You could identify who I really was...I was afraid youd betray me."
"That I wasnt who these people think I am."
"And who do they think you are? Nothing honest, Ill wager."
"Im the court sorcerer."
"Really." Gabrielle had to chuckle. "Cadhlaighn told me you do secret work for King Strongbow."
Kyloides nodded. "Thats right. Im his sorcerer. He pays me to find ways to defeat the demons."
"The Fomori? Then theyre real."
"Quite real. Miss, could you please take that thing away from my throat? Im quite defenseless now. And can we get up from this floor? I fear youre crushing my lungs."
Gabrielle considered. She had the knife and was much faster than he had proved to be. He wasnt a fighter. She stood up, keeping the knife pointed at him. She pulled down a curtain tie, and lashed his hands to the bedpost. "Comfortable?"
"Ah..as much as can be expected."
She gestured with the knife. "The Fomori."
"Ah. Yes, the Fomori. They are not merely legend. Ive seen them. They were summoned by a sorcerer, a real one, someone named Glwan..."
"Ive heard of him."
"Then you know that he is a merciless killer, bloodthirsty, kills for pleasure and for spite. And that he holds most of the island."
Thank you -- I didnt before, but now I do.
"Two of the four provinces. The west and south, the largest two. The north is still free, and the east, where we are. But bands of Glwans men roam the countryside, burning villages. Terrorism. Glwan feels that if he crushes Strongbow in the east, the north will not resist long. And he wants revenge."
"For Strongbow stealing his woman, whats her name, Meghn. Cadhlaighns mother."
"Youve heard the story," Kyloides said.
"Cadhlaighn told me. Where was Cadhlaighns mother, anyway? Id think shed be with her husband when their only child got back from such a long journey."
"Shes gone for long stretches at a time. Theres a rumor that she becomes a bird, and flies over Shannaught spying out the enemy. Its just a story, these people live on stories."
"I know." A strange, unbidden memory began to form in Gabrielles mind; the tale of the White Mare; a blood-soaked night on a ship...
"So what have you found? Is there any way to defeat these monsters?"
"By ordinary mortals -- sadly, no."
"How do you know? Or do you just want them to win?"
"It wouldnt be beyond imagination for you to be working for Glwan."
"Why would I want to work for a murdering thug?"
"You tried to murder me."
He shook his head. "No I didnt. I told you. I only wanted to hurt you, to scare you off. Actually, I had changed my mind about even that when you kicked me. I dont suppose I should look forward to having children, now. I wasnt really sure what I was going to do; this was a last resort. I just knew I had to silence you in some way. I just intended to threaten you, scare you into silence."
She said, almost casually, "Threats wouldnt have worked."
"Thats pretty clear. Dad always told stories about you, but I never pictured you this way. Youre hard, Gabrielle, tough. Scary. I always thought you were kind of a ditz. I always wondered what Xena saw in you."
"Im multitalented. And maybe I was kind of ditzy when I knew your father. But Xena changed me at least as much as I changed her. And I was Queen of the Amazons. You dont hang around with the Warrior Princess or the Amazons very long without learning to take care of yourself and the people you care about. "
"Obviously you know how."
"So that still doesnt prove you arent working for Glwan."
"He killed...a friend."
"I can tell you this. When I came here I was able to do some simple tricks that got me set up as a sorcerer. There was this fellow, Oghmen...everyone called him Mac. He wanted to be my assistant. We became very close. Very."
"He was your lover."
"No, not a ditz at all. Yes, for two years. I could have lived with him the rest of our lives. Ive always found men more interesting than women."
"Then why were you all over Cadhlaighn?"
"Her father promised me that I could court her, and I feel its a condition I should give some appearances to. I like the kid, really, but Im not interested in her that way. I just want her father to think so."
"Oh. So what happened?" Gabrielles curiosity was getting the better of her.
"I think Glwan thought I was the real thing," Kyloides explained. "Some of his thugs broke into my studio, looking for anything I had against his demons. Mac found them. They killed him -- he was still alive when I found him, but just barely. He told me who did it before he died." Kyloides had tears in his eyes and, as far as Gabrielle could tell, they were sincere. He would have had to be an awfully good actor to fake his feelings as he told her this story.
She undid the ties and let him loose, but she held on to the knife. She said, "All right, I believe you so far. Now tell me why I shouldnt spill all of this to Cadhlaighn or her father."
"Well, pure pagan charity, first of all. Id be out of a job."
Gabrielle smirked. "Aside from my endless generosity, I mean."
"Well, how about this: I have found something that works. Sometimes."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. "To defeat the Fomori?"
"Yes. The second battle -- you know about it?" Gabrielle nodded. "It was a terrible defeat, but it wasnt a massacre. Strongbows forces and the Northmen were able to retreat in good order to their fortresses. If it hadnt been for my warriors, the ones I had treated with my...method...the Fomori would have overrun us all and killed every man in the army."
"Whats this method?"
"Its a dust. I got it in Egypt. I have a lot of it. It only takes a little, just a pinch. The person inhales it through their nose. Then the change happens."
"They can communicate with the spirit world. They can enlist a spirit of one dead, or of an immortal being, to come and dwell in their body. Its a perfect melding of the spirits of the living person and the dead. The living person can meet the Fomori and defeat them, because they are partly in the spirit world and partly in this one. Gabrielle? Do you understand what I just told you?"
Gabrielles face had gone blank as memories and possibilities overwhelmed her. A union of souls...Xena...my love...
"Oh. Yes, I understand. So you give these warriors this...dust, and they share souls with...who?"
"The Dannite gods." Said Kyloides. "All my warriors live with the souls of the Old Gods in them. It makes them invincible against the Fomori, because the Dannites were the first to defeat the Fomori, before people ever came here. Theres just one..."
There was a knock on the door. "Gabrielle? Are you awake?"
"Just a moment, Cadhlaighn." She opened the window. "You get out of here. We never had this conversation, you were never here, I dont know you from a barrel of fish."
The sorcerer put his leg over the windowsill. "I quite concur."
"Go!" Kyloides vanished into the dusk.
IX. Battle of the Bards
Cadhlaighn came in carrying carrying a bundle. She lit the time candle by the door. "You have one of those marks to bathe, put this on, and get to the hall. Theres to be a feast."
"A celebration, for me and you. It will be fun. Everyone will eat too much and drink too much and dance and tell stories until well after sunrise. I hope you have more stories that you havent told yet."
"Yes, lots. Is that why youre dressed like that?"
"It is, and when youre ready you will be, too. Cmon, girl. Get in that tub!"
"Wheres the tub?"
"Oh. Sorry. Out back. The waters hot."
The dress Cadhlaighn gave her was identical to the one the redhead wore; emerald green, long to her feet, with a crossing bodice that cradled her breasts to advantage. The hem, sleeves, and bodice were all piped in gold thread. It was cut very low in the back, and the dragon showed its colors brightly. She was self-conscious about that for a moment, and then remembered what Cadhlaighn had said about badges of honor. Cadhlaighn wove a wreath of flowers in her hair. In the mirror, Gabrielle liked what she saw. Sometimes it was good to look girly, get out of the armor and the road clothes. Sometimes.
Before they crossed the yard to the hall, Cadhlaighn gave Gabrielle a small bundle of black velvet, tied with a ribbon. She said, "Whatever happens between us, I want you to have this."
Inside the velvet was a beautiful, transparent green stone, hung in a gold clawlike setting on a gold chain to wear about her neck. It wasnt a large, ostentatious piece of jewelry, but subtle, deep, and well-made. Gabrielle gasped.
"Cadhlaighn. I cant accept this. Its too..."
"Expensive? No. It was made for me by the court craftsmen on my sixteenth birthday, my coming-of-age day. I can do with it what I want. I want you to have it."
"Help me put it on."
She stood in front of the mirror while Cadhlaighn clasped the chain about her neck. Since she hadnt spent so much time in the sun lately, the red was coming back into her hair; the color of the stone was a perfect complement to it. It was a lovely gift. The stone hung just above the small silver vial between her breasts. She could see Cadhlaighns face behind her in the mirror. On an impulse she caught the younger womans face in her palm, turned, and kissed her mouth. Cadhlaighn kissed her back. She turned again and the kiss grew into an embrace, as each of them kindled the other, but this time Cadhlaighn broke the moment. "Father will never forgive us if were late. Youre a terrible tease. Im inclined to send him a message that were both not feeling well! But we must go."
As they walked across the yard, Gabrielle took Cadhlaighn by the arm. She searched her face in the darkness broken by starlight. "Before we go any farther, Cadhlaighn, I must know something you promised to tell me. Who is Phadhaius?"
"Why is it so important for you to know?"
"You dream about him. You call out his name in your sleep. You said you wouldnt compete with Xena, and I understand that. But I need to know who Im competing with."
Cadhlaighns teeth glowed white in the starlight as her smile broadened. "you think...I dont believe this...think hes my...lover?"
"I understand,although I must say it surprises me. I mean, Rajaf was older than me when I married him, but not that much older, only about ten years. Cadhlaighn, Im not sure about us, but before I start anything in my own heart I want to know what feelings remain in yours, and for whom."
"Gabrielle, youre jealous!"
"Im...not! I was never jealous in my life."
"Thats not what I heard."
"Well..once, maybe." Lao..
"But I surely think its sweet. My dear, hes not my lover, never has been. But he is important to me and I love him."
"Hes my brother. My younger brother."
Gabrielle was shocked. "How could he be younger? He looks so old. He looks the same age as your father."
"My father is twenty-one years older than I. Hes forty-two."
"Sweet gods, Cadhlaighn, he looks ancient! Whats the matter?"
"Thats the dark magic I told you about. About four years ago my brother started to age, in appearance. He complained of aches and pains. But in the second battle he fought with incredible bravery, even though he was wounded. He attacked the demons, and killed many of them. Most of our men couldnt get close to them but Phadhaeus -- and Lochann and Arvernny and several others -- they formed a screen, a rearguard that protected the rest of the army during the retreat. But theyre all old -- old before their time. So is father. At first I thought it was some wasting disease, but I saw how strong they were in battle. Some were wounded so badly they should have died, but they healed. Father still rides every day, and in the last battle he was strong and in the thick of it. He accounted for at least twenty of the Fomori himself. We lost because there were too many of them and not enough men like him and Phadhaeus and the rest. Its a puzzle, Gabrielle. I think its some kind of evil spell."
"Who would cast such a spell?" Gabrielles brain was working on facts, ideas.
"Well, Glwan is the obvious culprit. But I wonder if Kyloides isnt behind this. I dont trust him. Hes slippery."
Gabrielle decided to keep what she knew to herself -- for the moment. But not because she didnt trust Cadhlaighn. She still just wasnt sure what all this meant. Shed learned the hard way that an unshared secret was just another lie. Only disaster could come from holding back secrets from someone you loved.
Did she love Cadhlaighn?
Gabrielle stopped, turned, held Cadhlaighn by the shoulders,face to face. She shook her head and tried not to cry, putting all her heart into her words.
"Cadhlaighn, I dont know if Im in love with you or not..."
The young redheads fingers sought out Gabrielles lips. "...its all right..."
"...I feel like I want to be. You give me something I havent felt in many years, and you make me want to give you something back..."
"...Gabrielle, you dont have to..."
"...let me finish...I cant promise anything. Im a mess inside. But I want to try. Will you accept me that way, as I am, everything, no promises that I can change, but that I want to? You mean so much to me..."
"I know I do, and I know that Im in love with you. All of you, the light and the dark, and Ill take whatever you care to give. Everything youve told me...believe me, Im proud to wait for her, proud that I can love the same woman she did, share a part of the same soul that she shared. But I love you, Gabrielle, not her, not anyone else. If you had any doubts."
"Fewer, now. I dont doubt you..."
Cadhlaighn waited. "But..."
"Myself. I doubt myself."
Cadhlaighn held Gabrielle, kissed her. "What do you doubt?"
"That I can stand to stay in this world. That I even want to." She held Cadhlaighn as if she were clinging to the last desperate threads of life itself.
Torches lit the hall, and music was spilling out into the yard, music of shrill pipes and drums and taught strings. As they entered everyone broke into cheering and applause for Cadhlaighn. Gabrielle was surprised and pleased; it made her feel good that this woman of whom she had become so fond was so loved by the people she might one day rule. They made their bows to King Strongbow, and Cadhlaighn stepped up to embrace him. There was a new face on the royal dais; a woman of indeterminate age, middle height, shapely and muscular. Her eyes were a rich brown, and her most striking feature was her hair. It was silver white, brilliant in the torchlight, and it was long and fell to her knees, bound loosely in a silver ring. She wore a white dress of the same kind as Cadhlaighns, and she was the picture of dignity and grace. Cadhlaighn introduced Gabrielle, and said, "Meghn, my mother." Gabrielle bowed as she had to the king, but on rising met none of the warmth of the husbands gaze. Instead Meghn eyed her with icy suspicion, and her "welcome" was cold and perfunctory. It did little to ease Gabrielle to note that the goddess was equally cold to her daughter. Cadhlaighn and Meghn locked eyes for just a moment, and then Cadhlaighn broke away to stride to the center of the hall and mount the platform. Gabrielle could see frustrated anger smoldering in the redheads emerald eyes. She caught Gabrielles eye, mouthed the words "Are you ready?" When Gabrielle smiled and nodded an echoing smile broke out on Cadhlaighns face, and the anger was gone. She spoke to the now-silent crowd, and for the first time Gabrielle heard the voice of command in her friend, the same voice of power and authority as that of her father the king:
"We have a custom in our country, as you all know: first story from the guest, story til dawn from the host! Since we are all hosts here, at home in our own land -- this is our own land! --" she waited for the cheers to die down -- "And our true guest is my friend from across the sea, Gabrielle, I ask her to tell us the first tale of the night. Will you hear her!?"
"Yes!" The crowd replied with one voice, and began chanting Gabrielles name. She stepped up to the platform, taking Cadhlaighns extended hand. The crowd fell silent again.
"What would you like to hear?" She called, using her stage voice. She hadnt performed as a bard in years, but it all came back as she saw the upturned, expectant faces. It was her first love, even before her flesh-and-blood beloved; she put on the storytellers mask as easily as she had flowed into bed with her lover.
A deep masculine voice bellowed "Tell us about Xena!" Just as Gabrielle had expected; and of course she was ready. She would tell them of Xenas last days, of the fight to free the four hundred thousand souls held in thrall by the demon Yodoshi, how Xena and Akemi and Gabrielle had battled the great dragon; how Akemi had perished in the fight, and how Xenas body was consumed in the volcanic fire of the great mountain. She had never actually written it down, all she had in writing were some notes and scribblings; gods only knew what any other bard might make of those. But she had the entire tale in her mind, recited over and over again over hundreds of leagues on horseback across the Great Steppe, solitary nights with a campfire her only audience. She spoke liquidly, fluently, letting the words fall into the Latin in which she was speaking, moving easily from her own tongue to the universal one. It was the best performance of her life, made stronger because every word was written in Xenas blood on her soul.
When she spoke the last phrase; when her beloveds spirit had vanished in the dawn mist, going where she had to go to be redeemed; there was a deep and stony silence. For a moment fear gripped her stomach; they hadnt liked it, she had been a flop! Then the cheering began, applause mounted on shout on cheer upon cheer, and she was assaulted by that great wall of noise that is the reward of every bard. And she felt -- cleansed, whole, fresh and new. She caught Cadhlaighns eye and love welled up in her bards soul. In this moment the bard and the warrior within her became one. She felt free.
She bowed, descended; Cadhlaighn was there to embrace her. She said, "Come, lets sit and listen to the rest of the stories. Youll learn a lot."
"I should get something to write with."
"Id like to write some of them down."
"Oh...you cant. Its forbidden."
"What? You people do have writing, dont you?"
"Yes, of course, were not barbarians. But...Gabrielle, that story you told was you, it had your heart and soul in it. You cant capture that in writing. And if you could, youd run the risk of it being stolen. Gabrielle, we believe that if someone really wants to possess a story, if they truly deserve to, theyll go to all the trouble of listening carefully and remembering it. We do it all the time. We use writing for coarse, everyday things, like how many cattle we have to trade or where a lords lands begin and end. But not for stories. Not for our souls."
"Well...Ill try. How many stories will they tell tonight?"
"No way of knowing. But this feast will go on until at least midday tomorrow. Come and eat."
Gabrielle realized that she had developed a tremendous hunger. They went to the table and she piled a plate high with slices of beef, ribs of pork, half a chicken, potatoes boiled in ale, sweet baked onions, and a variety of sweet pastries. She felt like her old self again, ready to eat anything in sight. She was beginning to think she might stick around in this world for a while, after all.
Stories flowed by her, one after the other, some sung, some spoken, some by one person, some by duets and trios. Cadhlaighn translated for her when the storytellers used the old tongue. She tried hard to pay attention and remember, but she heard some phrases more strongly than others. She especially remembered a song, said to be twenty or more years old, called "The Panther and the Fox". It had a strange, haunting quality, and seemed to reach a place deep inside her, though shed never heard it before. And there was a persistent refrain of another song that she couldnt be rid of, one snatch of verse that kept a constant counterpoint in her mind:
"Old furlongs cave is fifty leagues wide
it takes half a day to go side to side
heads roll gently in the rivers slow swell
old one-eye is waiting to take you to hell.
The water rolls in and the water rolls out
The nose itll snort and the mouth itll shout
Old one-eye he sits there, he dont give a damn
With his bloody great eye shut tight as a clam.
"...the second battle was called the battle of mud, because the sound was so great the heavens opened and the rain thundered down...Fladagh led his army from the depths of the sea, and they were covered with the slime and kelp of the sea...and Glwan commanded fire from the sky, and it fell down...one hundred twenty leagues the northmen came to our aid...the birds of the sky spy out the land...crickets chirp slowly, and the Fomori dance to their tune...The old gods are watching, watching over our endeavors..."
As Gabrielle listened, lines seemed to be drawn in her brain, lines connecting many separate, isolated ideas, things she had heard over many weeks, from Cadhlaighn, and then from Kyloides, and the storytellers...connections...
She saw Kyloides standing by the door of the hall. She walked over to him during a break in the storytelling, pulled him outside into the yard by his elbow.
"Kyloides, whos Furlong?"
"Who? I dont know of anyone by that name."
"Then whats it mean? Is it just nonsense?"
"Well, no. A furlong is the length of a plowed field. Theres about thirty furlongs in a league. Why?"
"How far are we from the sea?"
"About forty, fifty leagues...about two days ride."
"Do you have maps? In your laboratory, or whatever you call it?"
"Maps? Of Shannaught? Yes, yes I do."
"Can you get them?"
"Theres a lot of them. I cant bring them here."
"Then meet me there in three marks on that candle by the door. When the swan is on the horizon."
"I can do that. Its over there, above the stables. Gabrielle? Whats going on?"
"I dont know. Maybe a solution."
A bird cooed, and owl hooted. She patted Kyloides on the arm and returned to the hall.
A dance had been called. The dancers were lining up, couples facing each other. Cadhlaighn siezed Gabrielles hand, saying "Come, dance with me." Gabrielle was surprised. "I...I dont know this dance."
"Its simple. Ill dance the mans part -- Ill show you every move as you dance it. Trust me."
She felt odd; the few times she had asked Xena to dance with her, Xena had refused. Xena didnt show affection for her lover in front of other people, and now...Gabrielle had always been a little sad that Xena was so shy about showing their love, but now she wondered if she hadnt been right. The sultry evening air caressed her skin; the dress stuck to her body.
The music started, a slow, rhythmic beat of a drum, the strumming of a harp, all as the foundation for a seductive flute that began to swirl its tune low on the scale, winding along a tortuous path of melody.
Cadhlaighn indicated another couple next to them. "Hold hands in a circle."
Gabrielle held hands. "Now, circle with us, to the left. Slowly."
She began to move to the music, and the music seemed to move her. Her feet and body were following Cadhlaighns movements, and the music spoke to something inside her, telling her what to do before it was to be done. She wove up and down the line of dancers, grasping the hand of another dancer, spinning round their joined palms, back to Cadlaighn; she walked around the redhaired warrior, eyes locked together; in those moments the world existed only in Cadhlaighns grass-green eyes. They separated, wove away, then back; the music excited her, made her feel free, and wild, and afraid, afraid of the creature inside her. Close to Cadhlaighn again, Cadhlaighn embraced her, arm around her waist, face so close she could have kissed her. They turned about each other slowly, hands on each others bodies; then at a climax of the music, Cadhlaighn spun her into the arms of a male dancer. She danced with him for a few beats; she could see the fire in his eyes. Back again to Cadhlaighn; another circle of just the eyes, another embrace. They were dancing only for each other, and the other dancers, fascinated by the intricacies the two women were weaving, stepped away and gave the dancing space to them.
Gabrielle was transported. The music was hypnotic and, in her trance, she had no trouble moving softly, gracefully, and with confidence and strength. Cadhlaighns gentle touches guided her into every move, and the music, as it picked up tempo, drew her into wilder and more dangerous territory. At last she found herself with her arm about Cadhlaighns waist, Cadhlaighns about her own, the other arm above their heads, fingers intertwined; their legs were interwoven, each between the others, spinning each on an inside foot; their bodies were slick with sweat, touching breast to breast, belly to belly, thigh to thigh; twirling faster and faster in a whirlwind of motion. The drum rattled, the flute held a long note -- the drum crashed and there was silence. The audience broke into wild applause. Cadhlaighn kissed her passionately on the mouth; passionately, forgetting the people all around, Gabrielle kissed her back.
X. The cave
This is wonderful. This is beautiful. How could I have lived without this? Gabrielles thoughts rippled and churned as she was kissed, as the rhythm of the dance descended into her, governing the beating of her heart and the movement of her limbs. She embraced Cadhlaighn, and felt herself embraced, their arms weaving together in a basketwork that held both their hearts. She was in a crowd, kissing a lovely woman shamelessly, innocently, and she didnt mind at all. Ive felt like this before, she thought, but that was long ago and shes gone forever.
And finally, for the first time since that last sunset, Gabrielle acknowledged the fact in her heart and her soul. The Truth.
Xena was dead.
Xena is dead, in this world, her voice echoed in her mind. Im not. I have to live on, in this world. She wants it for me why have I been so afraid? But Im not afraid of Cadhlaighn, no longer afraid of loving her.
Why is that?
She paused for breath, looking into Cadhlaighns eyes, as a silence settled around the two of them and made a separate world for them. The people moving about her in the hall meant no more to them that the swirl of fall leaves in the wind. Her eyes are so green, so bright not like mine. Mine change color hers are constant, constant as the north star, constant as the presence of the sea. Theres a poem hidden there, Ill have to write it just for her. Oh gods, stop thinking, Gabrielle, say your goodnights to the company, take her by the hand and take her out of here and take her to bed
But reality, the harsh, unforgiving outer world, intruded, and she remembered the meeting she had set with Kyloides she was late already. Loving Cadhlaighn was what she wanted to do, but seeing Kyoides and his maps was what she had to do if they were to have a chance at living. The greater good.
All this passed in a heartbeat as Gabrielle gazed into the deep, deep green eyes. There was only one thing to say.
"I love you, Cadhlaighn." The words flowed from her mouth as easily as breath; the redheads eyes widened, glowed, and her smile broke like a dawn.
"I love you," she whispered through her grin. You know I do."
"And now I have something I must do. I have to go."
"I was hoping " Cadhlaighn inclined her head toward the door.
"So am I. But please trust me. I have an idea and I have to chase it where it leads. Ill come back and find you when Im done."
"An hour. Two at most."
"Kiss me again."
They kissed, and every fiber in Gabrielles being told her to stay, not separate from Cadhlaighn. She fought the impulse, regretfully, and headed for the door. She wanted to laugh and laugh with the joy of it.
But there was work to be done.
Slipping out of the hall, Gabrielle lifted her dress and ran across the yard to the stable. So much for looking girly, she thought, as she gathered up the fabric so she wouldnt trip over it as she ran. There was a dim light in a second-story window as she ran up the steps and rapped on the door. Kyloides let her in.
"Welcome to my little hole."
"So this is the sorcerers den. What a mess."
"Thank you. I pride myself on my ability to make chaos out of order."
Chaos was not too strong a word. There were many tables, drawers, chests, and unidentifiable apparatii depending from the walls and roof beams. A stone fireplace in one corner held pots and cauldrons, some hanging on iron hooks; there were small tools everywhere, and machines of peculiar design and unrecognizable function. Dried plants, bits of rock and metal, and even bright gems lay about like toys on a playroom floor. Gabrielle couldnt help but wander and look, and brush her fingers across the items she saw.
"You like my little museum?"
She picked up a furry object that might have at one time been an animal. She grimaced. "It could be a little more organized."
"Be assured that I know where everything is."
Her eyes fell on a small table that had gold and gemstones, and small tools. She was entranced by a bright, deep-blue stone, the size and shape of a shelled almond. She picked it up.
"What is this?"
"A sapphire from India. If you look youll see a white star embedded in the blue."
Sure enough, when she held it to the light, there was the bright star, trapped in the heart of the blue depths.
"What would you trade for this?"
"I dont know. I never really put a price on it."
"How many do you have?"
Gabrielle was wary, but she had to trust this man if she was to achieve her purpose. She dug into her pouch. "Lets see...four, five...six hundred. Its all I have in the world, except my armor and weapons and I wont trade those. And my scrolls."
"Heres my offer. Five dinars..."
"Kyloides, thats robbery!"
"No, I mean, it must be worth at least five times that much! Id be stealing it."
"You didnt let me finish. Five dinars and a story. An original story. In writing, on a fresh scroll. I grew up listening to your stories. And a manuscript Gabrielle of Poitidea might be worth a lot someday. Thats the real price. The five dinars is for the gold."
"For the setting and the chain. I know who its for. And Im not going to stand in the way of true love."
"Am I that transparent?"
"Not you so much. But she is."
"Youre too clever. And too generous."
"A canard I will vigorously deny. I have a reputation to uphold."
"Do you have a blank scroll and ink?"
In the time it took to compose her story, Kyloides had fashioned a delicate setting and fine chain for the stone. It would look beautiful against that creamy skin, the red hair. It should be green like her eyes, but this would do wonderfully. She gave him the scroll, which he put safely away in a locked cabinet; she put the stone in her pouch.
"Now, you didnt come here to buy jewelry. What can I do for you?"
"I need to look at a map."
"I have all my maps on that table. I dont really know what you want."
"Im looking for a hill, by the sea, about a furlong across. And it should be near the site of that last battle, less than five leagues away. Can you think of anyplace like that?"
A voice answered "I can."
Cadhlaighn stood in the doorway.
Gabrielle was not surprised. She would have to tell Cadhlaighn that she was working with Kyloides sooner or later, and explained why she trusted him.
"Theres a long ridge, about fifty leagues from here, that stretches all up and down the coast. Its broken here and there by river mouths and bays -- we passed part of it when the ship came into the river to come up to Taragh. Its low and narrow -- just about the size you are talking about." She pointed to a long line of marks on an old map.
"Cadhlaighn, why did you come here?", asked Gabrielle.
"I was afraid Kyloides was doing something to you that you didnt want done to you. He is a sorcerer, so I guess -- I was afraid he had you under some kind of spell."
"Hes an ally. I trust him. Your father didnt want it known, what he was doing."
"Well, if you want to search along that ridge, we better go quickly. I cant be gone too long -- father and his men will miss me."
"Who said you were going?"
"I did. You need a guide and you need a mount and you need me for that. What are you looking for?"
"Buried treasure. A secret weapon.
Cadhlaighn slowly smiled. "Do you think its nearby, and not in the north?"
"If the stories I heard are true, it has to be. The battle was followed by a torrential rain. The north men are said to have loaded the head on a cart, it was so big. It would have bogged down in the mud. They would never have been able to go a hundred leagues. They must have hidden it. Where do you hide a big thing like that? In a cave."
"...and because the battle was on the coast..."
"...because the Fomori came out of the sea..."
...It has to be there!" But which cave?"
"I have a hunch...from the songs."
"On the way. Can you get me a horse?"
"Meet me down in the stables. Ill get your weapons and mine too. We can change down there!"
"Kyloides, cover for us. Tell them we had too much to drink, or something...dont let anybody guess where weve gone."
Cadhlaighn was gone. Lowering her voice, she said, "Its a union of souls, isnt it?"
Kyloides went pale. "How do you know that?"
"Ive been through it."
"With Xena. Her one time gift. I didnt know it could last beyond the two dawns. Did you know about that when you started this?"
"You didnt, did you? Two dawns. What happens after two dawns?"
"I, ah, well..you see...I wasnt really very sure about how to use...and they were desperate for a..."
"What happens, Kyloides!"
"The union becomes permanent."
"It can only be broken if the spirit wants to withdraw. They never want to -- being alive again is too enticing, even if it is in a shared and aging body."
"Why does the body age?"
"The spirit has been in existence longer than the living host. The experience of time adds up; the host suffers the effects of its own lifetime and that of the spirit it harbors."
"Then why dont they die of old age?"
"The spirit is already dead. Its immortal. The combined being cannot die. Even...one of the warriors, one of my warriors, was hacked to pieces at the second battle. He came alive again, the pieces knit together. He is alive, but a mass of scars and wounds -- less like a living man than a butchered steer. We keep him hidden away. Its terrible."
"So they can age, and be hurt, and suffer, but not die?"
"Yes. So it seems."
"Gabrielle, dont be so hard on me. Desperate times, desperate measures. I defended Strongbows kingdom!"
"And at what cost?"
"That wasnt a consideration!..it was a life or death decision."
"Did Strongbow know you were going to sentence him and his men to..this...did he have any idea what youd do to him? Did you?"
"Strongbow didnt hire me."
"Oh sweet immortal gods! Does Meghn have access to the dust?"
"Yes...she wanted to try it herself. She pays me, so..."
"I have to go and meet Cadhlaighn...Kyloides, at whatever cost, keep that woman away from her daughter!"
END OF PART II
Return to the Academy