After the Volcano
He knew her secret the minute he saw her. She was at the other end of the infirmary, standing in the doorway and looking down the long, narrow room before her. The wave, which some said had been created by a mountain exploding and taking its island with it, had caused so much devastation. Her face looked calm and composed, like those of the healers who strove so hard to help the many victims. Perhaps no one else could have told what she actually felt. But he could tell. It was the way she carried herself, as if she were wounded, as if she were crouched over, ever so slightly, to protect an aching wound just under her heart. He knew she was being eaten up with the pain of loss.
What she saw could not be helping her. Although it was midday, although there were windows in the building, the room was dark, lit only by candles which smoked and flickered in their brackets. It was dark outside as well, had been since the sun failed to rise after the night of the wave. Instead, a smother of clouds the colour of tar swirled overhead, raining white ash which got everywhere. It had penetrated the infirmary, sifting in through doors and windows, carried in with the patients. Some were survivors of shipwrecks, some - the very old and the very young - were choking on the noisome fumes. He watched more ash drift down from the woman's clothes, watched her swipe a hand across her face to clear it from her eyelashes and skin. Her pallor was apparent even in this poor light.
What happened next surprised him. She began to systematically work her way from bed to bed, slowly, taking time. In her place, he would have been consumed by impatience, glancing at each patient only long enough to be sure it was the wrong face. Hating those faces because they were none of them the right one. All those stupid, witless faces, blank and dull, mindless even when their owners were well and their normal selves, he was sure. He would have wanted to punch each nondescript set of features flat for disappointing him, would have wanted to punch down the walls and pull down the ceiling with grief. All he would have wanted to do was sit with his son in his arms and forget everything else. As he was sitting now.
She was different. She paused by each bed, looking calmly and steadily as if each person was important. She looked in that unflinching, respectful way even at the unconscious or the dead. And when there was a response, she'd kneel down, take a hand, sweep back tangled hair, smile, give sips of water, talk. Even though, quite clearly, every stop, every disappointment, made her pain worse. He felt a faint admiration. She was such a small woman, and looked so young, but still she had the strength to face the sorrows which crowded that room.
As she got close, he could hear what she was saying, and learned she was a bard. She was telling stories, simple, childish stories. But they won smiles and left their hearers breathing more gently and easily. He wanted to sneer as she talked about centaurs and bacchae and miraculous transformations. As if anyone believed in such things. But he wanted her with him, as well, holding his son's hand, smoothing his hair, telling him a story. Perhaps she could rouse him from this stillness. He had not moved for hours, now.
When she reached them, he could see she was perhaps older than she looked, and not at all simple or childish. Her eyes were green and had depths he hadn't expected, were netted in little lines which also hooked round the ends of her lips and suggested a nature easily moved to either tears or laughter. He guessed she responded to the world unguardedly, without reserve or calculation, giving it her trust. And now that she was leaning over him, he could see even more clearly the desolation she hid. He wondered, just for a moment, who had caused it, whom she was looking for with such diligent patience.
Then he brushed thoughts about her to one side. "Tell him a story," he said quickly, grabbing at her arm. She looked past him, looked at his son, and he caught an instant's confusion in her clear gaze. After a moment, she smiled. His eyes watered so that he had to blink to clear them before he could say again, "Please, tell him a story."
She did. He found himself entranced. It was a story he hadn't heard before, and even though its characters were gods, he could not scoff. "A very long time ago, Hades had a son by a mortal woman," the young bard said. "He loved this boy very much, and because the child was immortal sent him, after his mother had died, to live on Olympus. But the boy was fascinated by the people of earth, and watched them all the time. "Why is it that they are full of such passions, when all I feel is curiosity?" he asked himself, and watched all the harder.
Eventually the flower caught his eye. There was only one flower then. It had sprung up in the spot where Aphrodite kissed Adonis and was destined to last no longer than his life. This single flower contained all the colours and scents of every flower which could possibly be, and it pierced his heart deeply. He found himself returning to it day after day. Soon he had forgotten that time passes on earth, and that summer is followed by winter, so he was not prepared to find it, one morning, withered and dead. He was so stricken by grief that, in his desperation, he thought of a way to revive the flower. He went to Hades and begged him to let the flower have his own immortality. Hades refused, but the boy was as strong-willed as a god and went ahead anyway.
In that instant, he felt himself bowed down by the weight of his years and realised that he must soon die. Still, he thought it would be worth it if the flower had survived. When he opened his eyes, however, all he saw was the shrivelled petals of his beloved plant. A chill wind sprang up and blew them away, and then all he could see was a scatter of tiny black specks. He lay down and gave himself over to death, so that Hades, when he found him, realised he was almost too late. But his love for his son made him strive to do what he could, and he turned the body into an oak. In the spring, when the oak wakened from his winter's sleep and looked towards the ground by his roots, he saw a carpet of every kind of flower growing where the specks had been lying, and then he understood."
The bard finished speaking and he realised that throughout she had been looking at him steadily, and not at his son. "Come back," he said, giving her leave, at the same time, to move on. She smiled again. "I will," she said, and later, when she had searched the other beds, she did so. He knew as soon as she neared him that she hadn't found what she looked for, and felt somethingsqueeze his heart for a moment.
She sat down beside him and they shared what she'd brought - water, some bread and some cheese. She ate very little, he noticed. He guessed that it tasted like ash in her mouth, too. She told him then what had happened, very simply. Their ship had foundered in the immense wave which had swept along the coast six nights before, wrecking everything in its path, and she had been separated from her friend almost before they were swept into the sea. She had been washed up on the shore two days later, half dead from cold and exhaustion and the effects of a blow to her head. He could see the ragged wound, under a flop of reddish gold hair which covered her brow. Some of the passengers and crew had been swept ashore with her, and others were appearing even now, along with those who had been aboard other ships. She didn't say much about them - and from this he guessed most were dead. Meanwhile, she waited for her friend.
"What about you?" she said, and he suspected she had told him about herself only to encourage his confidence. He told her, speaking of these matters for the first time to anyone. The wave had struck his ship too, but it had been carrying empty wine casks to the vineyards on Crete. He had managed to get himself and his son to some floating barrels, and he had lashed these together into a makeshift raft which brought them ashore. But his son had been injured and now he was waiting for him to get better so they could go on home.
"He's all I have," he went on. Then, in a rush, he went further and deeper, speaking of matters he rarely let himself think about. "I hadn't seen him for years. I'd barely thought of him. After his mother died - after she was murdered, by that bitch, Xena, when she raided our village all those years ago - all I could think of was revenge. I left him with his uncle so I could hunt her down and kill her, but I never caught up with the she-demon." He paused, expecting it to hit him again, the sight of one of Xena's soldiers riding his wife down, without even appearing to notice she was under his horse's hooves. When it didn't, he went on, his voice tiring as he spoke. "Then the uncle fell ill, and I went home. But I couldn't settle, not when everything around me reminded me of what I had lost. And he was starting to look so much like her. Like my wife. So I started out on my search again, though this time I took Eumaeus with me. We travelled for a year together - until this happened."
The smallbard's eyes never wavered from his face, though at some point her hand had laid itself on his upper arm and pressed reassuringly as he spoke. When he mentioned the name Xena he thought he caught a flash of recognition, which was only to be expected. Everyone had heard of the Warrior Princess. And she was a bard: perhaps she knew more than most people did. Bards did tend to. They brought news with them, as well as their stories. He asked, "Do you know where she is? Xena?" Her face went still for an instant. Then she said, "No," very quietly.
Feeling grateful in spite of this, since talking had made him feel better, he asked about her friend. Now she clasped her hands together and she stopped looking at him and seemed to be looking at something a long way away. She talked about someone who could not act meanly, who never shirked any duty, who performed every task with consummate grace. A person who gave all they could, whether in help, or sympathy, or love. The woman's pale face flushed as she spoke and her eyes turned as green as a meadow in summer, and her voice deepened and warmed.
He wanted to smile as she described this impossible paragon, but did not. Her love was so strong and so clear. "I hope you find your friend," he said, and he meant it, though he thought she would not. After that she left for the night, and he settled himself back against the wall, recovering the wooden horse he had carved for his son from the floor where it had fallen and settling it on his breast. For the first time since the wave, he slept.
The bard was back the
next morning, checking on each bed, talking to each occupant, helping here
and there. "The sun's trying to come out," she told him, as she sat by
his side. "Perhaps this terrible ash will soon stop falling." He looked
round. There was a window high in one wall, and he saw that a brownish
light filled it. The dark was indeed lifting.
After a time he found himself telling the bard about his son. He was not ready, yet, to say it all. That he regretted his anger when Eumaeus first refused to learn the sword, then proved clumsy when he tried to please his father by mastering one. That he was sorry he had sneered at his son's interest in animals and the gentleness with which he handled them. That he was ashamed of his resentment when Eumaeus made new acquaintances so easily, wherever he might have dragged him. Instead, he spoke of the boy's quickness and sweetness, of things he had said and done. Each recollection led to another and he stopped only when his voice grew hoarse.
Her eyes had filled with tears which he knew sprang from sympathy and not pity. He thought she looked paler and more tired, and felt a twinge of worry for her. She had been back to the beach, he could tell. There was sand on her boots, as well as a coating of ash. She had probably been down there, watching the sea, from first light. If she had slept at all, which he doubted. And after she left him she would go back and begin steadfastly watching again. What would she do, he wondered, if she never found her friend. What would she do if she found her friend dead? He knew something about love and even more about grief. He did not think she would be able to bear it.
As it happened, he saw her friend before she did. The tall warrior walked in through the door while the woman was leaning over a child quite close to him, wiping the sweat of fever from the girl's face. He recognised her at once, as she paused and leaned against the frame of the door, and felt hatred surge through him. After all this time, he had found her. He was almost ready to thank the gods, and whatever had created that immense, that terrible wave. Then he saw her eyes sweep the room and rest at last on the bard. And he knew her secret, too. In spite of the negligent ease with which she lifted herself from the door jamb and lounged down the room, he knew what Xena felt when she saw the bard.
It would be so easy now, he thought. And so perfect. All he had to do was strike swiftly, and Xena would feel what he had lived with all these years. His hand almost reached for the dagger he wore always, concealed under his tunic, but then it stilled itself without his consent. He could not, he discovered. He could not let go of his son. He could not seize his sword and cut down the little bard, who would be trusting him not to do this with all of her generous heart. And there had been too much waste, he suddenly thought. Years of it. So, instead he watched. The bard was straightening her back as the warrior reached her. She froze for a moment, as though aware that someone was directly behind her, as though aware of who it might be. Then she stood, very slowly, and he saw her schooling her face into impassivity before she turned. He knew why. She had been disappointed too often. It meant far too much.
When she saw who it was, she swayed, paler than ever. The warrior's hands reached out swifter than thought and grasped her arms. Steadied, she lunged towards Xena's chest and buried her face there, wrapping her arms so tightly around the warrior's waist he could see muscles strain against her skin. After a full minute, or maybe ten, Xena pushed her gently away, and held her at arms' length, studying her minutely. "Gabrielle." She spoke for the first time, her voice deep and burred with fatigue. She loosened one hand reluctantly and brushed the hair gently off Gabrielle's forehead, wincing as she saw the wound beneath. "Might have known you wouldn't take care of yourself." Her hand drifted lower and she smudged the bard's tears with her thumb.
"Well, I'm lost without you," Gabrielle replied, grinning a lop-sided grin through her tears. She reached out her hand to seize Xena's, drawing it down to her lips. The warrior took a deep breath and let herself smile. Then she drew the bard back into her embrace, resting her cheek on the reddish-gold hair.
He looked away then. He felt as though he had been asleep for a very long time and was just waking up to a world which had changed beyond recognition. Something wrenched itself loose inside him and rose in his throat to emerge as a sob. When he looked up, they were both standing by him, gravely offering help. Their hands were locked tight, he noted, the bard's small, capable fingers twined with the warrior's long ones. "It's time," Gabrielle said, her voice steady and soft. He nodded, and let go of his dead son. He was ready at last to move on.