Just A Pinch of Black Powder
By Mary Morgan
Gabrielle was not at first sure what woke her that morning. She stayed still, taking in the fact that she was lying on a soft mattress under heaped blankets and that a shaft of sunlight had splashed a bright oblong patch on the wall just by the bed. She blinked, enjoying the warmth for a moment. Then she began to remember: just before she opened her eyes, a terrible thunder had torn her dream to shreds. She closed her eyes and reached inside her mind. A few tatters of that dream lingered. She sorted through them. A cloud like an umbrella pine rose from an intensely white light from which a ring of fluid fire flashed out. A huge brass vessel belched fire and smoke and something hard and deadly from its narrow lips. A building suddenly flinched, wavered, then turned into a pile of rubble on the ground. She gasped and sat up, looking around her. Where am I? she wondered. And where was Xena?
"Hang on," she told herself firmly, glad to hear her voice, "think it through." She drew in a breath raggedly. Then her nose told her that somewhere close by, breakfast was cooking. Nothing fit, she realised with some agitation. Not the terrible noises, not her dream, not Xena's absence, not the homely scent of, she was sure, bacon frying. "Hang in there," she repeated to herself, and hauled herself out of bed. She would find out nothing where she was, that was certain.
At this point she realised she was dressed only in her shift. Her clothes were folded neatly on the windowsill opposite. She stood up, the soles of her bare feet trying to curl away from the freezing stone of the floor. As she made for the window, stiff muscles ached and something of yesterday's events came back to her.
They had been in a village, or rather all that remained of a once prosperous town. It lay at the head of a deep valley, over-shadowed by steep mountain ridges. She had been in the market browsing some stalls, Xena in the tavern, sampling the local brew. Though not for long. The warrior had emerged in a rush, aiming straight for the stables, not even sparing a glance in Gabrielle's direction. Exasperated, worried, the bard ran after her. If she hadn't, she would have been left behind, because Xena had set out at a gallop. "Not again," she had thought, then jogged doggedly after, noting that the path they were on was overgrown, and that it was slanting up one wall of the valley at a cruelly steep angle.
She had lost sight of Xena for a time, but caught up for a few minutes when the warrior was forced to stop so that Argo might drink from a stream where it ran over the road. She looked up when Gabrielle arrived, but said nothing, and the bard was too breathless to ask what was going on. She sank to her knees and splashed her hot face with cool water. Argo had been sweating heavily, she thought with dismay: Xena had never been so negligent of her well-being before. She looked up, to see that Xena had mounted Argo and started out again. But she had regained control of herself. Though the warrior's back was rigid with tension, she was moving at no more than a brisk walk.
Still, Gabrielle fell behind. Some time after night had fallen she had arrived in front of a wall made from huge blocks of stone in which was set a massive door. Xena had been hammering on it, she guessed, for some time. The bard had leaned on her staff and looked up and up until, eventually, when her neck was protesting and she was looking almost directly overhead, she made out a scattering of stars. A tower, she thought. An immensely tall tower, looming over them. Xena renewed her assault on the door, and finally someone opened it. Yellow, flickering light spilled out. Whoever was standing in the doorway presumably had deemed a wild-looking warrior and an exhausted bard harmless, and let them in. Just one person, she thought, but she was too tired to make him out.
He must have invited them to supper, though. Gabrielle had been too tired to eat, but she had sipped some soup, then rather too much cider, since she could not seem to quench her raging thirst. After that, she had not been able to get out of her chair. Xena had picked her up and carried her to this room, undressing her and smoothing back her hair before murmuring, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't think." There had been remorse in her voice, enough to dispel the bard's irritation.
She remembered her own answer, dredged up from the depths of exhaustion. "Don't worry. It's all in a day's walk," she had said as she sank into the warmth created by all this attention. Then she recalled Xena's face coming closer and the touch of her lips on her brow. After that, nothing, just sleep, until the thunder, or the dream it had provoked, or both together, woke her. To a room empty of Xena.
However, she took courage from the fact that the warrior's weapons were stacked neatly near the bed, with her staff. Things could not be so bad. Xena must still be in the castle. Nor could she be planning to leave in a hurry. And whatever dark mood had brought her here must still be back under control. Time to get to the bottom of things.
Gabrielle looked out of the window, then stepped back smartly. There was a sheer drop out there, she thought with dismay. Stone walls built onto rock ones falling to a thread of flashing silver which must mark the course of the river far below. She swallowed, braced herself, then washed and dressed quickly before heading off in the direction of breakfast. The door let her out onto a small landing at the top of a winding flight of stairs. She started down them, resting one hand on the wall as she did so. It was dry, she noticed, and relatively smooth. Someone had given it a coat of whitewash, quite recently.
As she climbed downwards, she concentrated on trying to recall the face of the man who had welcomed them. Nothing emerged, except an impression of smallness, the feeling at first that a child had answered Xena's knock. And a rich, dark voice which had nothing childlike about it. That was all, though. She berated herself for her inattention. Call yourself a bard? Argo could do better.
The stairs seemed to go on for a long time, and then stopped abruptly in a little hall. There were several doors, but directly opposite her, one stood open. It was undoubtedly the source of the delectable odours . I could explore first. I really could. Really, Gabrielle told herself, opting for this door with a wry smile at her evident priorities. In any case, she expected Xena to be there.
She was, seated at a table and carefully staring down at the mug she held in her hands. I suppose I sounded like Argo on a staircase too, the bard thought ruefully to herself. She waited a beat, but the warrior did not glance up, so she looked away as well, and took in her surroundings. The kitchen was enormous. Hams hung from the ceilings along with bunches of onions and garlic and various herbs, some dried and some fresh. The scents were subtle and delicious. There was cinnamon here, and nutmeg, and cloves as well, probably in the row of little jars beside that bowl of walnuts. The bard's nose wrinkled appreciatively. Someone had just baked some bread. She looked for the cook, but there was no one else in the room.
"Sit down," came Xena's familiar voice. "Have some of this. It's good." She raised her head as Gabrielle came nearer, and the younger woman gave her a shy smile. The warrior didn't smile back, which meant that Xena was feeling guilty. And her face was too much under control. The dark mood had not gone away, she recognised the signs. She walked over to the table, gazing at the plates heaped with crusty bread and crisp bacon, at the dishes of butter and honey. She sorted out a platter for herself and loaded it eagerly, then filled a mug with creamy milk. Then she glanced up at her companion just in time to see Xena's lips twitch.
"Wow," Gabrielle said, sitting down. If she played up her enthusiasm, perhaps she could win a real smile from the warrior. It had worked before. And then perhaps she would confide in her. "So where did this come from? A gift from the gods?" She was gratified to see the corners of her companion's lips twitch, and kept going. "We haven't climbed into Olympus, have we?"
"I'm afraid not," a voice said from the door. The dark, rich voice she remembered. "This is just my home. But you're most welcome."
Gabrielle looked round, trying to decide how she should respond. Whoever lived here had dealt handsomely with them, but whoever lived here had also sparked that crazy, driven dash up the mountain. She was not sure what to think. Still, she was learning not to jump to conclusions, and courtesy was never out of place. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words she froze on her lips. "Uh. Thanks very much," she managed finally, frankly staring at the figure which stood in the doorway. It did not match the voice, that was certain. A small man indeed, nearly as round as he was tall, with a shiny, bald head and blue eyes twinkling in the fleshy folds of his face. Recovering from her surprise, Gabrielle abruptly decided that she liked their host. She smiled, stood up and added, "My name's Gabrielle."
"I'm Diomedes," the man said, "of Asilon." He smiled again at Gabrielle's blank look. "That's here. You won't have heard of it, though I imagine Xena has." He looked at the warrior expectantly, and beamed when she nodded.
"A long time ago, this tower guarded the main approach to Greece from the east," she confirmed.
"Yes. But no one has lived here for a very long time. Except for me, that is."
He had reached Gabrielle by now. His eyes were nearly level with her own and she found herself warming still more to their twinkle. He was considerably older than she had first guessed. Old enough to be her grandfather, she thought. "Do sit down," Diomedes said now, and she did so, glancing at Xena to see how the warrior was responding to so much chatter. She was looking at the old man thoughtfully, her face expressionless. Gabrielle knew that look. She felt a prickle of apprehension.
Diomedes chatted cheerfully throughout the meal. Gabrielle recognised the symptoms, all too well. He was a lonely man, and would doubtless talk as long as he had an audience. He had cooked the breakfast himself, he told Gabrielle proudly. "I have to eat and I like cooking, or perhaps I mean it the other way round," he chuckled. "Whatever. Don't you think this bread's rather good? Stone baked, with a little olive oil kneaded in. Unusual perhaps, but I've never been afraid to experiment."
"It's very good bread," Gabrielle said, happy to agree because it was. She decided against telling the little man that Poteideian bread was always made with olive oil and stone baked.
"You like to experiment?" another voice asked now, as Xena said something at last. Gabrielle did not find the tone of her voice reassuring. It made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle.
"Yes," Diomedes said. "Well, the world is such an amazing place, and there's so little time. To find out everything about it, I mean."
"But you live here, out of the way," Gabrielle couldn't help saying.
Diomedes leaned forwards, transported with enthusiasm. "Oh, I travelled, when I was young. I went to Athens, to study. But when you travel you lose touch with what is essential in experience. It gets drowned in a flood of half-understood sensations. To learn, you have to look at one thing at a time, very calmly and closely. So I came home. Here I can study what I want, from the stars above to the ground under our feet. You wouldn't believe what I've seen. Let me show you!"
He pushed his chair back and jumped up, gesturing at them to do the same. Gabrielle sighed and looked at her half-finished meal, then reluctantly followed suit. Xena's eyes caught hers for a moment. "You asked for it," her glance plainly said. Then it hardened again and she pushed past Gabrielle to follow close at Diomedes' heels.
The room he led them to was astonishing. It was enormous, reaching up to the top of the tower, and very well lit. Gabrielle looked up to see what appeared to be open sky above her, then realised she was gazing through glass. She had never seen so much of the precious stuff in her life. And shaped in such an extraordinary way. A dome of glass overhead! There was more glass all around. Two of the room's walls were external ones and boasted large windows, both glazed. As a result, the whole room was flooded with brilliant light. What all this prolific illumination revealed was a jumble of fantastic shapes. Diomedes was darting among them.
"Look," he was saying, "I had this idea once, about how to end a siege." He was standing in front of a model of a bull. "You'd just build it very large, make it hollow, and persuade the besieged city to take it inside. Then the soldiers would come out and defeat the defenders and end all the fighting. What do you think?" He smiled hopefully at them. Like a child wanting to please.
Gabrielle's voice stalled, and it was Xena who said, "I think it's a very interesting idea. As a matter of interest, have you heard of the Trojan war?"
"The Trojans are fighting a war? With whom?" Diomedes asked, amazed. But this piece of news had already faded into the back of his mind and he was tugging out something else to show them.
"You know the Daedalus story?" They both nodded, dumbstruck at the sight of what he was showing them. "I realised he was bound to fail, trying to copy how birds fly like that. Birds have very light bones. Did you know that? Then I realised, it wasn't the flapping, it was the shape of the wings that counted. That curve on the top edge?" The contraption was made out of thin wood, two pieces shaped very like leaves connected to a wicker cage. "I made a smaller model and it flew right out over the valley and disappeared beyond the other side," Diomedes was saying, walking round his device and smoothing the wood gently. "Think of the good it could do - think of the way machines like this could bring the whole of Greece closer together!"
Xena paused by it, studying it sombrely. Then she looked up as Diomedes called both of them over to where he now stood near one of the windows. "And this," he was holding up a lump of glass, "look through it!" Xena motioned for Gabrielle to go first and the smaller woman picked up the piece, realising that it was shaped rather like a discus. When she peered through, she gasped. The opposite side of the valley had swum up next to her, and now appeared to hang just outside the window in a pall of smoke. She dropped her hand and was relieved to see the rest of the world in its proper place and the air as clear as it should be.
Diomedes was talking about how he planned to use this for other purposes. "If I could make it powerful enough," he said, "I could see the tiny grains that are the building blocks of the world." Gabrielle found herself looking straight at him and nodding enthusiastically. She was nearly distracted into pursuing this idea, but Xena took the lump then and, as she was looking unflinchingly through it, asked casually, "And the black powder? What about that?"
Gabrielle tensed. This was it, she was sure. The thing Xena was after.
"That's my latest invention!" Diomedes announced. "I stumbled across it just a little while ago." He seemed not to have noticed Xena's uncanny knowledge of the fact.
"You didn't see it on your travels?" Xena probed with steely persistence.
"In Athens?" he asked vaguely. "Oh, dear me, no." He had reached a bench crowded with bowls which were filled with a variety of garishly coloured powders and liquids. "I was just fiddling around, as I do sometimes, and I took a bit of this and a bit of that," his hands were sifting streams of powders into another bowl he held in his hand, "and a bit of that." He reached over for some charcoal, then crumbled it. "I mixed them all together, and then I wondered how they would burn. Different substances burn with different colours, you know." He picked up a tinder box and then paused. "Well, perhaps we really ought to go outside for this," he said. Xena, her face still expressionless, merely nodded.
It was midday now and the sun was high and bright. Gabrielle realised the majesty of the tower's situation for the first time. It really was on the top of its mountain, she saw. On two sides, cliffs fell sheer to the valley bottom. The path they had travelled climbed the face of one ridge up to the castle. The top of the mountain was dome-shaped, however, and so provided an impromptu courtyard round the castle's other sides. This brief plateau ended abruptly as it fell into darkly forested slopes which began a wilderness stretching to the Northern horizon.
For a moment she glimpsed the scene as the gods might see it. They would see a tower like a tooth capping a mountain, bathed in light falling from a clear sky. That same light discovered tints of dove and rose and lavender in the rocky landscape all about, until it seemed to be made from seashells or from mother of pearl instead of stone. Three figures, dwarfed by their surroundings, slowly crossed the plateau, each caught in their own shadow.
Then Diomedes stopped and her vision disappeared, leaving no more than a few half-finished phrases at the back of her mind. He was pouring some of the black powder onto the ground. After he had piled it into a minute heap, he pulled out a stub of candle, worked it into the pile, and used his tinder box to light it. The little flame was nearly invisible in the bright light of noon. "We'd better stand back," he said.
Gabrielle jumped when the explosion came, though she wasn't surprised. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to come together. It made a smaller bang than the one which had woken her, and now she could smell the acrid stink which was produced by the process. "Think of what can be done with all this," Diomedes was babbling. "Building roads. Blasting out mines. Making harbours," his eyes were shining with eagerness.
"I have to check on my horse," Xena said abruptly. Gabrielle felt so sorry for the little man as his face fell that she nearly stayed with him, but she couldn't allow herself the time. She had to know what was going on with Xena.
The warrior was already brushing Argo's coat when she found the stables. "Go back and keep Diomedes busy," she said without looking round.
"Why? What do you intend to do?" Gabrielle asked, her heart heavy. She was afraid she already knew.
"Kill him, of course," said Xena. Gabrielle detected a reckless brazenness in her tone and knew that it said, "See, I'm not keeping anything from you."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked again, aware that her companion's tone had also said, "I don't want to do this, but what choice do I have?"
"I've seen that black powder before. In Chin." Xena said this flatly.
Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly. Of course. "So?"
"The people of Chin use it to make something they call fireworks - just loud bangs and pretty coloured flames. They let them off at weddings and funerals and things. But when I saw it, I thought of other uses." Xena looked as though she had tired of talking now. She clapped the brush back into her saddlebag, turning towards the door.
Gabrielle planted herself in front. "What uses?"
For a second she thought Xena would sweep her aside. The warrior was glaring at her as if she could hit her. Then her eyes dropped and she said, more softly, "Terrible things, Gabrielle. I don't want to tell you."
"I think I can stand it. I'd rather know than not know, especially since you're planning to kill someone because of it." She made her voice as calm and reasonable as she could. Still, Argo moved nervously in the darkness of the stable, unsettled by the tension.
Xena braced her shoulders. Her voice took on a monotonous quality. "I thought that with that powder I could defeat any army which opposed me. I imagined such things. Blowing down my enemy's walls with caches of this stuff buried under their foundations. Using it in bronze pipes to blast rocks or iron balls at enemy armies. Or stuffing the pipes with chains and nails so that I could kill as many of their troops as possible. Tear them to pieces as the stuff swept through their ranks. Filling hollow metal globes with the stuff and lobbing them into enemy cities to cause as much havoc as possible. To as many people as possible. Burn and scorch and batter them into surrender." Xena stopped talking. By now her voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper and her eyes were on her clasped hands.
"That's what you thought then. You don't think it now. And it isn't what Diomedes is planning to do," Gabrielle pointed out. She was longing to hug the warrior, to tell her she understood, that it made no difference, but she lacked the courage. Suppose Xena flinched from her? It would set them back such a long way.
"It isn't him. It's the knowledge. I didn't invent the stuff, but I knew what I could do with it. So would any warlord. The next traveller along here might be just such a warlord. Then think what would happen."
Gabrielle thought about it. Xena had painted all too probable a picture. But she still argued, "The knowledge exists now, Xena. You can't take it away. Nothing you do can. No more than anyone could have put back inside Pandora's box all the plagues and sorrows which escaped from it."
"I can delay things. Sooner or later someone else will go to Chin and bring back the powder, but until then I can keep Greece safe. Isn't that worth the price?" She looked at Gabrielle.
The small woman realised this was not an actual question. Xena could see no other way and she wanted Gabrielle's agreement. But how could she give it? She was sure Diomedes was an innocent, and she was almost certain that Xena thought so too. The warrior would not be able to forgive herself for killing him, whatever she said.
She put out a hand, took hold of Xena's elbow. "No, I don't think so. There has to be another way. Give me a little time, please, Xena," she said urgently, recognising the smoothing of Xena's face into impassivity for what it was: a prelude to action. "Come on," she said, desperately, "you don't want to kill that old man. I can see it in your eyes." An eyebrow cocked itself, and Xena's gaze narrowed and seemed to challenge her. She swallowed, her mouth dry. Then the realisation hit and she had to say, "Isn't it really your warlord self you want to kill, and not Diomedes at all?"
Xena was silent. Gabrielle feared she had gone too far. But she had to keep trying. "We can wait a little. Talk it over. Try to find an alternative. Please, Xena. What difference will an hour or so make?" she ventured.
"Talk," Xena hissed. "Won't you ever learn…?" She stopped. Then she made a tremendous effort and said, "You're right. I don't want to kill him." She took a deep breath and added, "I once told someone that people like me should listen to people like you. It's time I remembered that myself."
It was Xena who came up with the suggestion. "If we could only get him to forget the powder," she said.
"Can we?" Gabrielle asked hopefully. They were sitting together on the straw between Argo's legs. Xena had relaxed considerably. She had even volunteered the information that a drunken peasant in the tavern below had told her about the strange detonations, and about the way his hens had stopped laying because of them. Gabrielle had nearly giggled in relief.
"No," Xena said now. "If we had some of the water of Lethe, we could take away all his memories, but I don't know if that would be doing him a favour." Her tone said that she was denying herself the hope.
"Perhaps just a drop would be enough," Gabrielle said, aware that she was pleading. "It has to be better than murder."
Xena looked dubious. "In any case, we haven't any."
"I bet Diomedes has, though," Gabrielle said now. "We could ask, at least."
"Okay. But your time's nearly up. Something like this is better done than debated." She got to her feet and extended her hand to Gabrielle, who placed her own small one in it. Xena stood for a moment looking down at her, and sighed. Then she hauled the bard to her feet. "You ask him. I'm sure you'll find the right words."
Gabrielle wasn't so sure, but she went looking for Diomedes straight away, making up a story as she went. She found him in his work room. The old man had been tinkering for some time and was ready for a rest. "There was once a man with a magnificent memory," she told him over a mug of tea.
"What was his name?" Diomedes asked.
"Laertes," she answered, without missing a beat. "He remembered everything he saw, everything he heard, everything he read."
"Wonderful," Diomedes said. "I tried to improve my own memory some years ago, but I achieved nothing like that. I'd love a memory like that."
"He didn't love it," Gabrielle went on. "Remember what I told you. He remembered everything. Every little detail. So in his head the story of Prometheus was crammed in with all sorts of other stuff. Like idle gossip his nursemaid had indulged in above his cradle, and the names of the nine Muses jostled up alongside the menu of an indifferent meal he'd eaten nine years ago in Athens."
"Poor organisation," Diomedes tutted. "He wanted a better filing system, so to speak. Perhaps if he imagined a room, a library say. Yes. By the way, you must let me show you my library. Oh, I'm sorry. Did I interrupt you?"
"What he wanted," Gabrielle went on, grimly suppressing irritation, "what he desperately needed was respite from all these facts. They filled his head so that he never got a minute's rest, sleeping or waking."
"Well, what did he do?" Diomedes asked, politely. His attention was already wandering back to the problem he had been toying with before Gabrielle came in. It concerned the motion of sycamore seeds through the air, and the possibility that this might have more to teach man about flight than birds' wings.
"He begged the gods to let him drink some of the waters of the Lethe to end his suffering. But it wouldn't work, would it?" she asked Diomedes, genuinely uncertain.
"Oh yes, I think it would," Diomedes said, going to a rack of bottles above one of his workbenches. He took down one which looked as though it was full simply of water. "This is supposed to be Lethe water. I bought it from a peddler years ago and tested it on an old dog I had then. It's true, you know. You can't teach them new tricks." He shook his head regretfully. "It was rather cruel of me, I'm afraid," he added, "but I had to find out."
Later, after reporting back to Xena, Gabrielle reminded the old man that he wanted to show her his library. It proved to be rather meagre. "My forefathers were not great readers," Diomedes explained apologetically. "Perhaps that's why I have studied so hard to understand the workings of nature. Because there were no books to tell me in the first place. I've been trying ever since to correct the deficiency." Indeed, the library contained several shelves of his scrolls, neatly labelled and dated. He showed the bard one. She wrinkled her forehead. The little illustrations were clear enough, but the scrawl was not.
"Look again," the old man said, watching her frown in puzzlement and smiling as she did so.
"Oh," she said after a minute's intense scrutiny. "You need a mirror!"
Later, they assembled in the kitchen for their evening. The warrior had eased her way into the work room, located the bottle and carefully poured a small amount of the water into a little vial which she then used to introduce the liquid into Diomedes' ale. He drank the cup dry, after which the two women stared at him so fixedly that he looked back at them from across the kitchen table and asked, "What's wrong…?" And paused, plainly at a loss to remember their names. Within minutes he had forgotten everything, even his own name, and was terribly sleepy as well as confused. Xena wrapped him in a blanket and sat him on an easy chair before the cooking fire, where he fell asleep with the abruptness of the very young and the very old. Then she looked back at the bard.
She had been going to say something. The word "See?" was already half way spoken. But the small woman glanced up at her at that moment, her face shining with tears. "What have I done?" she said, desperately. "You were right, Xena, you were right. This is worse than simply dying."
Xena's face softened and a number of expressions crossed it. Then she sat down beside the bard and hugged her. "Let's see how he is in the morning," was all she said. They settled down to watch the old man as he slept restlessly opposite them.
Gabrielle woke slowly the next morning aware of feeling delightfully comfortable. This had nothing to do with the crick in her neck. It had everything to do with the fact that her head was resting on her warrior's shoulder, and that Xena's arm now encircled her back. Xena must have moved closer to her during the night. She sighed contentedly, waking Xena as she did so. Neither of them stirred for a minute, relishing the moment of peace.
Then they both remembered and looked across at the chair where Diomedes had been sleeping. It was empty.
They tracked the old man down in his work room. He had stood a large sheet of parchment on an easel in front of the window and was now staring at it ferociously. "Ah, here you are, my dear..."
"Xena," Xena supplied. She and the bard walked round to see what was on the parchment. Gabrielle gasped. It was a drawing of the warrior, caught to the life.
"Good, good. Now, if you'd just sit over there for a few minutes, while I get this exactly right."
Xena scowled, but, to Gabrielle's surprise, she complied.
Diomedes drew furiously, and while he worked, he talked. "Did I tell you about my visit to Athens?" he said. Gabrielle, who was watching in frank admiration, nodded cautiously. "Ah, good, er…" Gabrielle told him her name. "Gabrielle, very pretty," he said approvingly. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what's wrong with my memory this morning. Anyway, while I was there I studied at the Academy of Arts as well as the Academy of Natural Philosophy. I was seriously torn as to which field of endeavour I should follow. I'm so glad I opted for the Arts."
Gabrielle arched her brows and directed an astonished glance at Xena, who shrugged good humouredly. "Go and get that bread out of the oven," she told the bard, who realised she had been smelling the unmistakable scent of nearly baked loaves for several minutes.
The warrior caught her eye just before she left. Gabrielle nodded, catching Xena's unspoken message. Then she rushed back to the kitchen, considering two things she now knew as she did so. Part of Diomedes' memory must have returned. And his interests were now pursuing a different course.
Gabrielle felt much more cheerful when she left the kitchen a little later, leaving three fragrant loaves cooling on a wooden rack. She made her way into the old man's library, where she spent some time reading his scrolls and removing those which referred to the black powder. There were only two. She burned them on the kitchen fire, suppressing guilt as she watched the creamy parchment singe and curl and flare. When all that was left was blackened fragments edged with tiny red beads of fire, she reached in and crushed them into - a little black powder. She smiled wryly at the irony.
Hoping that would be enough, Gabrielle strolled back to the workroom. There, she sat behind Diomedes, so that she could watch him as he painted, and look at his subject as well. Xena looked back at her partner, a small smile curving her lips. The bard passed the time by making bets with herself about how long her companion would continue to sit, and lost them all. The warrior's patience lasted almost until noon. When Gabrielle saw that it was waning, she stood, leaned over to touch the painter's shoulder, and told him they would have to be on their way if they were to get back to the village before night fall.
"Of course, of course," he said happily, and insisted on their taking two of the new loaves with them when they left, together with some cheese.
"We'll be down in time for supper," Xena whispered to Gabrielle as the bard packed the food into Argo's saddlebags.
Gabrielle looked up at her. "That isn't the point," she said, and smiled. "We're letting him say thank you."
"Well, you know best," Xena replied, and rolled her eyes.
After Diomedes had waved them off, he rushed back to his work, humming the song Gabrielle had been whistling as she strode away beside the warrior. It would make a nice sound sung in parts, he thought. He determined to write them out as soon as he had finished his painting. But to do that he would have to work out some means of recording musical notes on paper. "Hmm," he thought, "intriguing." He stopped in front of the easel and gave his canvas a steady, critical gaze. There sat Xena, her mouth crooked in a little smile. He nodded in satisfaction. "One day, my dear, men may look at this and wonder what you were smiling at, and envy me because I knew," he told the image. Then he paused. "I only wish I did," he muttered finally.
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