The Dark Bird
A dark bird floated lazily on the soft breeze, peering down as though mildly curious about the two earthbound creatures below. The smaller one sat cross-legged on a blanket, coaxing puffs of bright tones from a flute. Perhaps the strained melody had drawn the bird - more likely than the harsh twangs from a sword the tall one played with stone. The bird contributed a squawk to the odd mix of sounds.
Gabrielle glanced up. She turned toward her companion, smiling when she saw the older woman's face lifted heavenward too. "Xena?"
"What do you dream about?"
Xena's eyes followed the bird's flight away and into the shadows of a stand of trees. She shook her head of old memories and resumed sharpening her sword. "What?"
Gabrielle lay back on the blanket and folded her arms under her head. She searched for more birds against the sky. "I was just wondering about your dreams."
Xena's hands stilled. She frowned slightly, not quite sure yet whether to consider this question an impertinence or simply another innocent intrusion into her personal space. They'd been traveling together a few weeks now, but the girl seemed genuinely impervious to the warrior's customary avoidance of chitchat, especially when it might involve the nightmares of her past.
"Why?" the warrior responded a bit tightly, recalling the victims whose ghosts she'd barely vanquished in her recent journey through a dreamscape. "Am I keeping you up?"
"Keeping me up?" Gabrielle propped herself on her side.
"At night. When I'm .... If I'm talking in my sleep or something."
"Ha! It's hard enough getting you to talk when you're awake." Gabrielle studied her new friend. "I meant the day-dreaming kind of dreams."
"Ah." Xena ran a finger over her sword, feeling for nicks. "That's not something I spend much time on."
"Everybody dreams, Xena." Gabrielle flopped onto her back, soon losing herself in the clouds. "Like, when you were young, didn't you imagine what you'd do when you grew up? I sure knew I wasn't meant for life in Poteidaia, marrying somebody like Perdicus and mending his socks all day." She rolled her head toward Xena. "Bet you didn't picture anything like that either."
Xena let out a long breath. She rested the sword in her lap. "I don't know if you'd call it 'dreaming.' When I got it in my head to do something, I did it." She chuckled softly. "Not usually what Mother had in mind."
"Like becoming a warrior?"
"Mmm, not really." Xena leaned back against the tree behind her. "I liked being good at things. Mostly physical. One day it was riding a horse. The next, it was out-running or outfighting somebody. I guess I felt there was a purpose to it. Not as a career or anything. Mostly I just liked doing it." Xena was silent a moment, trying to recall how it had felt before everything changed. She shrugged. "Then Cortes showed up. And it wasn't for fun anymore."
Gabrielle sat up. "So, maybe he robbed you of your dreams?" she probed gently.
Xena thought about that. "No," she finally answered, looking into Gabrielle's eyes. "That's when they began." She glanced away, then down at her hands. "Routing him and his goons from our village. That felt good too. So good, I ended up wanting to conquer the world."
"But you were so young then. You didn't know any better."
"About your age." Xena snorted. "I suppose you dreamed of becoming a warlord when Draco's men swept down on your village?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Riiiight. I saw myself more like a sacrificial lamb. Until you appeared out of nowhere." She gazed fondly at her benefactor. "Then I pictured myself kicking butt."
"And following someone like me."
"And becoming someone like you."
Xena sighed in exasperation. "Great. Now there's something I always dreamed of - being somebody else's Cortes." Shaking her head, she reached for her sword and started to rise.
"Xena?!" Gabrielle crawled over to kneel in front of Xena. She wanted to reach out, but hesitated, afraid of possibly intruding on the warrior's personal space. Fortunately, she didn't need to, as Xena stayed put. "How can you say that? You saved us! I saw a brave and caring person, full of life and confidence. You showed me I didn't have to take being hurt, that I could fight back. How is that anything like Cortes?"
"That's not what I'm talking about," Xena said, rubbing her forehead. "I don't think being a warrior is right for you. Even so, it's not the same as being one like me. You think you know me, but you don't. You have no idea what I'm capable of." She looked away. "What I've done."
"Xena?" Gabrielle waited until she had the warrior's attention again. "You don't really know me either yet. Whatever you might think I dreamed about, I'm living it now. I've seen more, done more, learned more in this short time than I ever believed possible. My folks used to laugh at me for pretending to be more than a simple peasant girl afraid of her own shadow. With you, I am more. Don't you see that?"
Xena shook her head. "You didn't need me for that. If you'd listened to me, you wouldn't have set out alone. Rescued a killer from her own kin. Decided to share a campfire with someone whose name sends chills up a sensible person's spine. You wouldn't be risking your life and reputation with someone lucky she isn't in Tartarus already."
Gabrielle rocked back on her heels to stare at the puzzling woman in front of her. "Has anyone ever told you, you have a flair for the dramatic?"
Xena blinked. "Beg your pardon?"
"Seriously, I've fancied being a bard, and I could learn a lot from you in that area too."
Xena stared at the puzzling young woman in front of her, too mystified to be irritated by this sudden turn in their conversation. "Gabrielle, what on earth are you talking about?"
"You. How you can turn a simple question about dreams into a sad story about two girls who'd've apparently been better off darning some boring guy's socks, than seeking adventure and fulfillment on their own."
"Darning socks?! Who said anything about darning socks?"
Gabrielle jumped up and started mincing around in front of Xena. "Perdicus, dear," she chirped, offering something to an imaginary guest, "here's the mended sock you wore through, chasing after that chicken I'm gonna pluck and boil just as soon as I wring its neck, 'cause otherwise I might listen to the little voice in my head screaming that I'd rather run lickety split after a big, bad warrior woman who thinks I'm nuts for wanting to tag along with the most fascinating person in all of Greece." She leaned down with her head cocked to one side. "What's that? No, silly, not your old Auntie who talks to rodents. I mean Xena, the Warrior Princess." She cut her eyes over to Xena, who sat with her jaws sucked in.
"I'll have you know, rodents can be quite informative," the warrior replied professorially when she'd gained control of her impulse to laugh. "They can signal danger coming. Warn you if food's spoiled. In fact," she added, grinning evilly, "they can even be food when you're roaming the countryside with big, bad warrior women."
"Eeewww!" Gabrielle shuddered, screwing her face up. "Ugh, ugh, ugh!"
"I take it that wasn't one of the dishes you served up in your fantasies?"
"No, you evil woman." Gabrielle spat on the ground. "Eeeew, I'm gonna have a bad taste in my mouth for days now."
"Awww," Xena said, laughing. She gathered her things and headed toward Argo. "Time to get moving. Maybe we'll find some berries to sweeten your palette, hmmm?"
"When Tartarus freezes over," Gabrielle muttered to herself, rolling up her blanket. She glared at her companion's back. "They'd have to be the plumpest, juiciest, sweetest berries ever, Princess Doom and Gloom. Otherwise maybe you'll find out what I pictured doing to Draco's men." She envisioned a well-placed kick. "Well, maybe not the exact thing, seeing as you're a woman, but you'll get the idea."
"Oooo, now I'm truly motivated." Xena turned to see Gabrielle standing in the same spot, apparently in deep concentration, absently twisting the blanket in her hands as though wringing water from it. "Gabrielle, what're you doing?"
"Did you and the blanket have a disagreement when I wasn't looking?"
"Disa ...? What do you ...." Gabrielle glanced at the abused wool. "Oh." She grinned sheepishly. "Um, I was just going over some ideas in my head. You know, for payback." She strolled over to hand Xena the blanket, mischief dancing in her eyes. "In case I run into any more situations where I might need it."
"Mmmm. I see." Xena nonchalantly took the blanket and smoothed it into a neater roll. "And did you settle on anything suitable?" she drawled, locking eyes with her potentially threatening young companion.
"Not yet," Gabrielle responded brightly, undaunted. She turned imperiously and headed for the road. "But I promise," she threw over her shoulder, "you'll be the first to know."
Several hours later, dusk signaled the end to what, for the pair of adventurers, had been a fairly typical day. Helping a family whose wagon got stuck in a deceptively deep stream. Convincing a ragtag gang of robbers to find some other line of work. Saving some farmers from a petty warlord who thought to scare up free food for his men.
Gabrielle chattered endlessly as she went about her evening tasks, recounting all that had happened, occasionally stopping to illustrate her tale with gestures, shrieks or quotes representing the various characters involved. She ignored the fact that her audience of one didn't seem particularly enthralled. She was getting used to Xena's silences, even though the warrior had been unusually monosyllabic since their earlier conversation.
"And did you see the adoring look on that little boy's face?" Gabrielle grinned at her taciturn friend. "And you - your expression when he flung himself around your legs! Talk about payback! It was like you could taste that rodent you scared me with. Bwahahahaha!" Gabrielle flopped down on her bedroll and hugged her knees in pantomime of the little boy, then screwed her face up in imitation of "Warrior Tree."
Xena continued working on their fire pit as though oblivious to her snickering companion. When she'd finished, she sauntered over to their pile of belongings to take something from her saddlebag. She returned to the fire and dangled a bulging bundle of cloth over the flames.
"Xena?!" Gabrielle jumped up in horror. "You wouldn't!"
Pursing her lips, Xena swung the bundle back and forth, ever closer to the fire.
"I take it back! You looked like your usual jovial, kissy-face self. And I meant 'Warrior Tree' in a good way. You know -- sturdy, solid, dependable, protective."
Xena paused in her torture. She crooked her head, smug victory oozing from half-lidded eyes.
"Please, please, please?" Gabrielle inched her way toward the warrior, attention riveted on the sacrificial bundle. "If you give that to me, I promise I'll ... I'll ...." Gabrielle frowned in frustration, searching desperately for a suitable reward.
"Never make promises you can't keep?"
Gabrielle stopped. She looked at Xena uncertainly, not for the first time a little unsettled by the thin line between the warrior's seriousness and humor. "I try to do that already," she answered with a little smile, just in case. "Warrior Friend."
Xena straightened, a distant look on her face. She gave her head a slight shake before focusing on Gabrielle. "I know that," she said with a little smile, just in case. She held the bundle up and tossed it into Gabrielle's expectant hands. "So, we even now?"
Happily relieved, Gabrielle reverently pulled the cloth back, plucked out a sample of the contents and popped it in her mouth. "Mmmmm, poifect," she mumbled, vigorously nodding her head.
"Good. I didn't feel like trying out my recipe for roasted berries anyway."
The two resumed their evening preparations and ate in relative quiet. Xena sat on her bedroll repairing a rent in her battleskirt, though her eyes frequently drifted to the flames she worked by. Gabrielle lay pondering the stars, furtively glancing from time to time at her subdued friend, but determined not to breech the companionable silence.
"Lyceus used to look at me that way. Like that little boy."
The words were spoken so softly, Gabrielle thought maybe she'd imagined hearing them. She levered herself up on her elbows to better study the face shadowed in the flickering light. Xena glanced at her with a rueful smile, before returning her gaze to the fire.
"Such a gentle soul. Nearly broke my heart when I couldn't do anything for an injured bird he once found. He cried for three days. But spunky too. Always defending kids the others picked on. Smart for being so young. He'd come get me when the odds were stacked against him. 'Xena, they're not playing fair! Ya gotta help!'"
Xena absently picked at the thread binding the torn pieces of leather in her hands. "I protected him, stood up for him, let him know it was okay to be himself. He looked up to me -- the way I took care of myself and the family, especially after our father left .... He was a warrior. I pictured him risking his life for us, riding into battle on a big black horse. Maybe I wanted to be that for Lyceus." Xena dropped her voice even more. "I loved him so much."
Gabrielle had sat up, listening so intently she almost forgot to breathe. She couldn't remember Xena opening up like this before.
Xena turned toward Gabrielle, eyes filled with a mixture of pain and pride. "He followed me around, wanted to do everything I did. I was his big sister and could do no wrong. His ... hero." Xena snorted softly. "I thought I could be the person he saw in me. I promised that to him, to myself. I tried to be her when I rallied our village to fight Cortes. Lyceus welcomed it. He fought at my side when no else would."
"So you did have a dream."
Xena's eyes hardened. "It got Lyceus killed." She looked down again and exhaled a long, shaky breath. "I buried it with him. Like I wanted to do with his big sister and all her heroics."
Gabrielle held her tongue as long as she could. "He still lives in your heart," she ventured softly.
"For all the good that does."
"Uh huh. Isn't it what you've dedicated yourself to? Keeping your promise? Trying to live his dream for you now?"
Xena raised her head and regarded Gabrielle a long moment. It was scary how much the girl reminded her of Lyceus. "Yeah," she murmured. "Guess I am."
"I bet he's as proud of you for trying as he was back then."
Xena sighed. "I got a long way to go before I earn it this time." She put her sewing aside and finished preparing for bed.
"Why did you wonder if you kept me up at night?"
"I thought we settled that."
"We settled the day-dreaming part, not the night-dreaming part."
Xena took her time pulling off her boots. She stacked her armor and gauntlets neatly next to her bedroll. "There's nothing to settle, if I'm not keeping you up."
"We don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to."
Gabrielle nodded. She positioned her carry bag as a pillow and got comfortable. "G'night, Xena."
"Mm." Xena stretched out on her back and closed her eyes. She could feel Gabrielle looking at her. Like Lyceus used to do. The warrior sighed resignedly. "At first they were mainly about Lyceus. Playing or looking at me with those trusting eyes. Suddenly he'd be covered in blood, his eyes bulging with horror and ...."
Gabrielle reached across the space between them, almost - but not quite - touching the warrior's arm. "Xena, I'm so sorry. Really, you don't have to -"
"After Hercules, it was my victims." Xena's eyelids clenched. "I'd finally doze off, only to jerk awake with their screams." She was silent a moment. "Huh." She rolled her head toward Gabrielle with an expression of wonder. "I .... That hasn't happened as much lately."
"I don't think so," Xena answered, a question in her eyes.
Gabrielle shook her head. "I haven't heard anything." She grinned. "Of course, I'm always asleep before you and awake after." She bowed her head a little shyly. "You think I .... Um, maybe having company helps?"
"Such as a talkative, accident-prone, 'Let's save the world' runaway, to take my mind off things?"
Gabrielle scowled. "I suppose that's one way of putting it."
"Possibly." Xena smiled before turning away and closing her eyes again. "I'll have to sleep on that." She chuckled softly. "Since, apparently, I can do that now."
Gabrielle grinned and risked laying a hand on the warrior's arm. Xena's breath caught, but she reached over to pat Gabrielle's fingers. Both smiled to themselves and wordlessly settled in their respective bedrolls.
The next morning the two travelers seemed in particularly good spirits. The tall rider didn't say much more than usual, but found herself humming a few times. Her companion occasionally added a skip to her usually steady stride. Even the golden mare pranced without being directed - verbally, at least.
"Oh, Xena, look!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "There's that bird again!"
Xena followed the pointing finger. She rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle, I seriously doubt it's one of a kind."
"I can tell by the way it's looking at us. See how it's circling, like it remembers us?"
Xena watched the bird's dark wings cut a path against the bluing sky. It did appear to dip its head in their direction, though she didn't think it was for the reason Gabrielle imagined. She glanced down at the face that shone like the sun rising before them. She looked up again to see the bird hover above them a moment longer, before winging its way toward the eastern light.
"Sure," Xena wryly agreed. "If you say so."
Gabrielle beamed. "I do." Delighted by this grudging concession from the stubborn warrior, she decided to reward herself. She reached into her carry bag. "Um, Xena?" she asked, fingering one of the berries she'd saved. "You were kidding about the rodents, right? Me maybe having to eat any?"
Xena gazed at the bird until it became a dark speck on the horizon. "Gee, Gabrielle, you never know," she answered, smirking. "Like you said, a girl can dream, can't she?"
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