This was an enchanted forest. Gabrielle was sure of it from the start. The message came to her in many ways. She heard it in the birdsong, in the sound of running water, in the whisper of the leaves. She smelled it as she passed by thick clusters of pale blossom. She felt it under foot as she strode along the mossy paths. She saw it in everything. The graceful trunks of the trees, the dancing sprays of young leaves, the shafts of light piercing the soft, blue shadows all around. Most of all, she sensed it. This place breathed peace to her.
She needed it. She was angry with Xena, who had left her behind like a child. After all these years, she still doesn't trust me, Gabrielle thought. Nor herself, she amended, and sighed. "Why can't she tell me what's wrong?" she asked the forest around her.
A small voice inquired, Why didn't you ask? Why just make a stupid joke and then say yes, go on ahead and I'll follow as fast as I can? Shouldn't she know that you care? The usual debate, she acknowledged, with no answer to soothe her, just the beauty and peace of these trees.
Soon, however, she began to sense that the forest was troubled. Something had disturbed it. Concerned, she gave more attention to the matter, and was then afraid she knew the source. She turned to seek it out, her search leading her deeper and deeper into the heartwood. The further she went, the more she became aware that most of what surrounded her was not fully in sight. In the corner of her eye, shapes moved, colours glowed. Later, she would dream of these things. Creatures shaped like small, white horses but moving like deer would dance before her. Fruit as round and bright as the sun would light up bowers behind thick veils of blue-green leaves. Birds with wings like rainbows would fly by her, not singing but chanting a language which she could almost understand. Now, however, she saw nothing clearly. Nevertheless, she was sure something was there.
She did not find the source of the disturbance at once. In time, however, she smelled something familiar, the scent of smoke, of wood burning. She headed towards it, aware that outside the forest the sun would be going down and the light failing. She shivered a little. Even in this forest, she did not relish the thought of a night spent alone in the dark.
And then, like the fulfilment of a long-cherished wish, it was Xena she found by the fire. She was sitting on a swathe of emerald turf starred with pimpernel and speedwell. A stream slipped past nearby, through birch and rowan trees. The canopy drew itself back here. Stars were beginning to prick a turquoise sky above. The warrior looked up as Gabrielle approached, but she said nothing, just placed another dry bough on the fire and watched the bard as she approached. Shadows moved on her face, but it was only the firelight which made them. Her features were still.
It was Gabrielle who spoke, of course. "Xena, this is great. I didn't expect to catch up with you so soon. Were you waiting for me?"
Babble, babble, she mocked herself. As if she really thought this likely. All the same, she hoped. And she had to say something, break the silence somehow. When Xena unexpectedly answered, "Yes," however, she knew that something must be very wrong. She looked at the warrior closely. There was nothing obviously amiss. Her face was as pale and beautiful as ever, her hair in its usual vigorous disarray. She was looking at her fire and not at the bard now, and this too was usual. Still, Gabrielle could not shake off her dread.
"Have you eaten?" she asked next, partly to express her concern, partly because this was a matter she always took seriously.
"No," Xena answered, her voice very low. Gabrielle looked around her. There was no sign of any game. This was unlike the warrior and her heart sank still further.
"I have something left in my pack." She shrugged it off and extracted dried meat and fruit, flat-bread and a honeycomb. "There's plenty for two."
"I'm not hungry, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice sharpened with something like anger.
In spite of this, because her anxiety meant she must, Gabrielle said, "You should eat something. You have to keep your strength up. Especially if you're right and that friend of yours is in real trouble." She was still babbling. She took a deep breath and made herself hold it.
Xena's head snapped round and she regarded the bard for a moment. The look struck Gabrielle like a stone. She recoiled. When Xena saw this, she made an obvious effort and smiled, weakly. "You're right. I'll have some, then."
Now Gabrielle was really frightened. Sweat sprang out on the palms of her hands and she rubbed them against her skirt before handing portions to Xena. Her own appetite having fled, she forced down mouthfuls of this and that, watching Xena evidently make herself do the same. When they had finished, she wrapped what was left and assembled the makings of tea. The bough, catching fire, spat out a volley of sparks.
The sky overheard had deepened to indigo and they were sipping the brew before she mustered enough courage to speak again. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," Xena replied. No tone, no colour left in that rich voice. On the fire, small, azure flames rippled over the bough and whispered hollowly.
Gabrielle decided the risk was worth taking. She edged forwards, laid her hands on Xena's arm. "Yes, there is. You know that I know it. Tell me, Xena, please. It's much worse not knowing." She waited till the blue eyes turned to meet hers, then caught the gaze and held it, not flinching even though the warrior's glare was bitingly cold. It was when Xena confided in her that she knew things could not possibly be any worse.
"Gabrielle, I killed a deer in the forest," she said.
Gabrielle patiently extracted the full story as they sipped their tea. The warrior had entered the forest as dawn broke. It had not struck her as enchanted at all. It was an obstacle to her, nothing more. Something to be got through as swiftly as possible if she were to answer the call for help. She had already been furious, gripped by a black mood, though she did not know why. She rarely did. This was just one more source of annoyance. She had had to dismount from Argo and hack her way through a barricade of briars to get into the place, and once in found no clear path, only a maze of possible routes winding between spindly pine trees over a floor carpeted with their rust-coloured needles. The light was dusty and dim, disguising what lay before her so that several times she fell into brooks and gullies, further confusing her. Her temper flared hotter. Looking up in the hope of regaining her direction from the position of the sun, she had seen only a canopy of black branches. So she had relied on her inner senses instead, trusting to them as a last resort.
From the start, she had been aware of presences around her, of being watched and of being stalked. From the corners of her eyes she saw shapes which belonged in nightmares. There were imps which moved as if their limbs were jointed back to front. Their heads were oddly distorted and sprouted fine hairs and gnarled knots. They looked as if they had grown like roots in the earth. Then there were beasts which hugged the ground and oozed their way along it, and others which scuttled on spindly legs along branches just above her. Birds flew by on leathery wings which snapped and rustled. They looked through human eyes and seemed to see inside her head
Because she was Xena, she attacked what she feared. When a shadow came too close, when it seemed to have lain in ambush and sprung out at her, she pursued the thing and killed it with her chakram. "I didn't know what I would find," she told Gabrielle at this point. "A chimera, perhaps, or a serpent. But it was a deer. Slender, white, a doe heavy with its young. When I realised, I felt sick to my stomach. But there's no helping it."
After that she would say nothing more about what happened. She told Gabrielle she should go to sleep. "You'll have a long journey tomorrow," she said. Gabrielle had paid particular attention to every word, aware each was chosen for a reason, aware of what was not being said. She had told too many stories not to have a good idea of what was missing from Xena's tale. These last words seemed to her to confirm her suspicion. She concealed this and allowed it to look as if she gave way, going to sit on their bedroll. She did not expect Xena to join her, and indeed the warrior did not move, but her face was turned towards the bard, attentive and melancholy. "Goodnight, Gabrielle," she said. It sounded like "Goodbye," to Gabrielle's ears.
"Goodnight, Xena," she responded, struggling not to let fear colour her words. Then she settled back and slowed her breathing, but watched Xena through slitted lids. The warrior polished her armour and her sword, got up to fondle Argo and whisper something in her ears. After that, she sat down by her fire, in full armour still, gazing out at the darkness. Reflections of flames flickered all over her, Gabrielle noted, increasingly drowsy. And, though she had not meant to, Gabrielle now fell asleep.
Gabrielle awoke perfectly aware that she was still dreaming. She wondered what had awakened her and realised that she could hear music, coming from far off. It called her, and she believed she must answer this call, although it would mean leaving Xena alone. Illogically, she felt the warrior needed her protection and by leaving her she could provide it. Therefore, there was really no choice in the matter. She got up and walked past her companion, whose eyes looked unseeingly through her as they stared at the flames. Going up to Argo, she told her to stand guard. The mare shifted and whickered as if she could hear her. Not that it would make any difference. Their true defence, she knew, would come from whatever enchantment had reached out for Xena and now summoned her. It was saving them for something else.
Gabrielle sighed, and took one last glance back at the fire and the brooding warrior who sat by it. Xena's eyes were now fixed on the huddle of blanket under which, presumably, she still slept. Then she headed out into the forest, finding her way easily since the moon had now risen. High and full, it turned all things to silver and sable. Moreover, she was now apparently blessed with night vision. She wondered why she was not surprised. Instead she was marvelling at the reality of the dream. She had felt coarse hair under her hands as she stroked Argo, and now could feel, smooth and chill, slim blades of grass against the soles of her bare feet.
The bard was at first a little afraid that she would see the forest as Xena had. She did not. She saw it differently, however. Or perhaps the forest in this direction was different anyway. Where beech and hornbeam had been frequent before, here huge, ancient oaks dominated. Thick-trunked, splay-branched, thickly leafed, their cracked bark harboured a gallery of fantastic faces, all staring at her. Gabrielle was not frightened by these faces. They fascinated her, enticed her, invited her to write their stories. Nor was she frightened by the silence of the dreaming forest, nor by the veils of grey tree moss which brushed her face. Beside her nameless fear for Xena, nothing could terrify her.
After a long time of walking, pursuing always the faint strains of music, she saw light ahead, and came suddenly into an open glade. It seemed to be floored with silver. Tiny moons hung from each blade of grass, bowing them down. After a moment she realised that dew drops were reflecting the light of the moon. She looked up. It was floating over the centre of the glade, huge and wrapped in a milky cocoon which gleamed like mother of pearl. Immediately beneath was a mound. A glistening path led towards it, for a breeze had sprung up, shaking the dew drops and making them shimmer. There was a black opening in the side of the mound - clearly a door. Gabrielle walked through it.
The darkness inside was total. And it was silent as well. The music had served its purpose, and faded to nothing. She stopped, smelling cool earth and feeling as though she stood in the midst of a vast space. Then a voice spoke, but so deep and low that she could not catch individual words. She caught their meaning, though. "Gabrielle, a bard," she answered. It spoke again and she considered her answer carefully. Then she said, "I want safe passage for myself and my friend."
The voice said, "No." Anger made it distinct and deafened the bard. Gabrielle began to guess at a shape for its owner - an enormous, dark shape, all humps and bulging mass and leashed-in stillness. She thought she could hear its breath now, and was disconcerted to realise she was breathing in harmony with it. She felt for a moment that if she stretched out her hand she would touch it, and that what she touched would be beating like a heart and as large and as old as the earth. Fear flared, and nearly escaped her control. Then she realised. What spoke was the darkness, the darkness which lay in the midst of the mound, which filled all spaces under the ground. It was the same darkness which filled all those spaces under the skin as well. Life was born in such spaces.
Taking courage from this thought, she said to herself, Well, what if the earth does smother me now? I can't just give in and go. What will happen to Xena then? What will happen to me?
So, "Why can't we go? What have we done?" she asked.
Pressing in on her now. Anger. Affront. A life taken from it. A forfeit to pay. She tasted blood on the back of her tongue. Its tang filled her lungs. She had to cough before she could speak again. The cough almost turned into retching. She forced out the words, none the less. "What is the forfeit?" But she thought that she knew.
The darkness closed in tighter around her. It leaned against her eyes and she closed them. Then she saw, the scene printed on the backs of her eyelids, floating, stained red. Xena under the mound, standing stiff-necked and surrounded by darkness, defying the darkness. And she heard the demand which broke that defiance. A life for a life. Saw Xena beg on her knees. Forgetting herself, she shouted out, "No, don't do it Xena!" though she knew it was too late. The thing was already done. Xena had offered her own instead. As she realised this, the darkness snuffed out her sight.
When she came to herself, Gabrielle found she was huddled up, arms tight round her knees, face resting against them. She was still in the dream. She drew a deep breath and then another. Her skin felt cold. She wiped both palms over her cheeks and found they were wet. Tears still seeped from her eyes. "No," she whispered again. She dragged her self upright. "I won't let her do it," she yelled at the darkness. Nothing happened.
Then, like a gale, the darkness rushed by her and made a new shape for itself. For a moment, light dazzled the bard. When her sight cleared, she saw a lady, piercingly white, who lit up the darkness. Now she saw that they stood in a chamber roofed with oak roots. The lady's hair was brown as the bark, her limbs graceful as boughs. "Are you a dryad?" Gabrielle asked.
"I am not. I'm very much older," the white lady said. "Older than dryads, older than those troublesome children you worship as gods."
Gabrielle thought this was true. She felt more at ease for a moment, but then saw her eyes. They were white. Stone-blind, the bard thought at first, but the eyes were focused on her. Sweat stood out chill on her brow and her back. The eyes shone like twin moons. She sucked in a breath, clenched her hands. Go on, you fool, she said to herself.
"I won't let Xena give up her life to save mine,"
"That wasn't exactly the bargain," the white lady said, cool as a scholar discussing a treaty long past. "She bought your life and one day to bring you to safety and tell you goodbye." Her gaze glittered.
Gabrielle froze. Dear Xena, she thought, next time ask me. She nearly gave way to despair. Then she wondered, Why tell me? Why bring me here? She looked at the lady, who smiled like a dagger in moonlight, and asked herself, She likes to bargain. What does she want? What do I have that she wants? As answers occurred, she carefully marshalled her words.
Gabrielle woke early the next morning. The first thing she saw was their fire, which had died. The bough had burned to its husk, a white ghost barred with blue shadows. Like the moon, the bard thought. Xena strode up. "Eat quickly," she said, "we don't have much time." Gabrielle did not reply and in minutes was ready to leave. When Xena told her to ride at her back, she obeyed. When the pace Argo set jolted her bones and rattled her teeth in her head, she did not complain. When they paused only to let Argo drink, she asked for no further respite. So they reached the edge of the forest as the day turned towards late afternoon and there Xena made her dismount.
"Go ahead now. Hurry," Xena said. In spite of her words, she stared at the bard for a moment, not urging her on, drinking her in instead. "Book us a room at the Inn."
Gabrielle looked at her from under lowered brows. She had been fighting a battle with herself all this time. Tell her to go herself, she thought now. Do something. Knock her on her head and tie her to Argo and send her away. She almost smiled at this ludicrous thought. But was it more silly than trusting the lady? She herself had trusted the lady. Gabrielle drew a deep breath. Whatever else was unsure, she was certain of Xena. She would not run. Nor would she want her to. Which left her no choice. "No," she answered, "I will not. I'll stay with you, Xena."
Xena said, "You can't. I've a promise to keep." Xena paused, looking down at her. She reached out one hand and gently touched the bard's cheek. "I'm sorry I left you behind. It wasn't your fault." She paused, visibly trying for more words. When she could find none, she sighed and said, "Goodbye, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle caught the hand. "That's enough. I won't say goodbye." She took another deep breath, and said, "I'm angry with you, Xena. You're hiding things from me." She calmed herself. "At least tell me the truth. Show you respect me."
Xena flushed. "I've given my word to go back," she replied.
"All the truth." The bard was remorseless. "What will happen when you go back?"
"I'll pay for the deer." She watched Gabrielle.
"And I know how: why won't you tell me? I dreamed all about this last night." She stood tall as she could and stepped up close to her partner.
Xena's breath caught. She seized the bard's jaw and looked deep in her eyes. Then she sighed. "Damn the lady." She shut her own eyes for a moment. "I didn't want you to know," she said softly.
Gabrielle detected defeat in her voice, and felt the sting of tears. She suppressed them. "If you don't let me go with you, I'll follow. You won't be alone. Not when you mean to trade your life for mine."
"It's not about you," Xena replied, letting her hand drop to Gabrielle's shoulder. "It's my honour at stake." But she stayed where she was, and tightened her grip.
"You're right," Gabrielle said. "This isn't about me. Nor about you. It's all about us. We're in this together." She watched Xena think about that. Then she said, "Don't you think I have honour as well?" Gabrielle paused. Say it! "Don't you think I'll stick by someone I love?" The urgency of this question made her voice shake.
Xena smiled, sadly. "I think you have honour. I know that you'll stick by whoever you love. But as someone who loves you, I'd much rather spare you."
"That's not your decision to make," Gabrielle said, steady again.
They went back together. The forest cleared a way for them and they rode along avenues bordered by chestnut and maple and ash. In no time at all they were back in the glade. There was the mound and seated on top was the lady. She looked up when they approached. Gabrielle saw with surprise that her clothing was russet as autumn and her eyes were no longer white. They were green as the leaves in her forest.
"Welcome back, Xena," she said. "Are you ready to pay for my deer?"
"Yes," Xena said. She dismounted and Gabrielle slipped down behind her. Then she took off her sword and with Gabrielle's help unbuckled her armour. When she was dressed only in her shift, she knelt and waited. Gabrielle, waiting beside her, reached down for her hand and took it in a firm grasp.
The lady stood and came down from the mound, stepping nimbly. When she reached Xena she said, "Gabrielle, give me the sword." Gabrielle glanced down at Xena. When she nodded she bent down for the sword and stepped up to the lady. She caught sight of her eyes and saw that now they were blue as the sky. The lady held out both hands, palms upwards, and she laid the blade gently across them. That done, she returned to the warrior's side. The lady raised Xena's sword, hefting it with no sign of strain. She held it motionless a moment before she brought it down smartly. Although they tried not to, both women flinched.
Then Xena looked along the bright blade and into eyes which were gold as the sun. "Finish it now! Must you play games?"
The lady said, "Get up, Xena. You've paid for the deer." She was looking past her now.
Xena glanced sideways and saw Gabrielle wasn't surprised. "What have you done?" she demanded of the small woman.
Gabrielle didn't reply. She was gazing at eyes as dark as a lake in late evening.
The white lady said to the bard, "Don't think I won't stick to the terms of our bargain."
"I know it," Gabrielle answered. She kept herself still with an effort. She wanted to run and to sing out of pure gladness.
Xena stood up, advanced on the lady. "What do you want from her?" she demanded, her voice low, her eyes narrowed.
But she said it to the empty air. There was nobody else in the glade.
Then she turned back to Gabrielle. "Tell me."
Gabrielle met her eyes. "I asked her spare your life." She watched one of Xena's eyebrows lift and she sighed. "Well," she went on, "I did have to make her a counter offer."
"What?" Xena asked tautly.
Gabrielle shrugged. "My stories."
Xena took a hasty step forwards, then restrained herself. She rested her hands on the bard's shoulders and looked down into her face. "She didn't take them?"
"She said she couldn't, that they're not mine to give up." Gabrielle's brow furrowed for a moment. That was how it felt, in a way. That the stories found her, rather than the other way round. Then she went on, responding to the flexing of the warrior's fingers, "But she said I could offer them in a different way."
"How?" Xena was studying her closely. It made Gabrielle self-conscious. She felt herself redden, but said in a steady voice, "In no way that's important. I gave her my name, I suppose. My stories will be told for years to come, but everyone will think other people have written them. Homer, for instance."
"But they're your stories." Xena was plainly upset.
"What matters to me is that they're told. Not who tells them." Gabrielle was surprised to discover that she really meant this. In any case, she thought, I wouldn't tell any more without Xena.
Xena tightened her hold on the bard and flung back her head. "Well, if anyone is listening," she said to the air, good and loud, "and if they hold you to that bargain, here's a bonus for them. They can have my name too. Let the stories of Homer and the others be about Hercules and Jason and Theseus. Not about me."
"But, Xena," the bard began. She had felt the warrior's words in her bones, heard them echo from the sky, flushed now with sunset.
"No," the warrior interrupted. She held the small woman from her, smiling gently. Then she bowed her head and touched foreheads with her. "No, Gabrielle," she repeated very quietly. "You said it. We're a team. We either go together or not at all. In any case, who cares whether people who haven't been born yet think I did something or Odysseus did. That's not why I do what I do." Suddenly she grinned. "What matters is that people are helped, not who helped them." She waited for a beat, looking into the bard's eyes. "Okay?"
"Okay, Xena," Gabrielle said, after a moment.
"Then let's get on," Xena said, rather gruffly. "Someone out there needs somebody's help, remember?" She held on to the bard a moment longer, however. "Thanks, Gabrielle," she said, eventually.
Gabrielle held her gaze. The look in the warrior's blue eyes was wonderfully warm. She let herself bask in it, raising her hands to cover those on her shoulders. Something flickered white in the corner of her eye. If she turned round, she believed, she would see a white deer at the edge of the forest. The bard gave a brief nod to herself, then smiled widely at Xena. "Thank you," she replied.