I suppose I may have been the only person to benefit from everything that happened. I own the tavern, have done since Milos died and left me to run it on my own. I did well enough without him, but business really picked up at the time Im going to tell you about. Fear makes most men thirsty and the men of the village were very thirsty then. So, if Im honest, I have to admit the whole affair was a mixed blessing for me. Perhaps not even mixed. I got more than profit out of it, as youll see.
Though I was there at the beginning, and there at the end, I think Ill start at the beginning of the end. Sort of in medias res, as the bards say. It was noon on a hot, humid day. Most of the flies had given up trying to stir that thick, sultry air. It was easy to swat the few that made it onto my counter. When the ivy leaves which hang over my door rustled, it got my attention straight away. Another customer, I realised. I looked up at once, and saw a silhouette against the battered white glare of the square outside. This silhouette was tall, broad-shouldered and long legged. It was also obviously female. A sword hilt jutted up from behind her, but I didnt need any such hint to tell me she was a warrior. The grace and strength of her posture had sent me that message at first glance.
She moved casually up to the counter. Once she was in the tavern, the oil lamps I keep burning here showed me that her hair was vigorous and black, her eyes a riveting blue. They were flicking around her all the time. I guessed it must be instinctive for her by now. She looked as though she was in her mid thirties. A warrior gets to be that age only if she is very, very alert and very, very good. The thought gave me an idea, which I hid by applying my whole attention to mopping up a pool of beer just in front of me.
"So this is where everyone is," the warrior said. Her voice was dark and oddly musical. If my eyes had been closed, I could have pictured her to be an exotic, eastern empress rather than a swordswoman. "Unusual, at this time of day," she went on. It was. Ours is a farming village, not rich but comfortable. Its got that way through hard work, not through sitting in tavern tap-rooms, even in the heat of the day, when a swig of watered beer in the shade of a tree out in the fields might be more normal. So, though her voice was non-committal, this was plainly a question. I got the impression that this woman did not usually have to wait to have her questions answered. Still, I risked arousing her anger just a little, in the hope that her curiosity would prove stronger as a result. Getting what you want sometimes entails a little danger.
"Its been pretty much routine here for days," I said dismissively. "What can I get you?"
Her icy gaze met my eyes and I could feel my legs turn soft as uncooked dough. I rested my hands on the counter and let my weight hang from them. With the last of my courage I raised my eyebrows at her and smiled witlessly.
She took a moment before answering. "An ale," she said finally. While she waited for me to pour it, she turned round, rested her back against my bar and let her eyes idle over the men sitting around her. No one would mistake this for a wedding party, I reflected. Hunched over, looking at nothing but their tankards, these were plainly people who were trying to forget troubles, not celebrate good fortune.
When she looked back, I could see she had decided to join me in the waiting game. "Im here to join a friend," she said, her voice neutral. "Bard. Red-haired woman. Talks a lot." Her gaze became meaningful.
"Hasnt been here yet," I said with a fair assumption of cheerfulness. It was the truth, and telling it wouldnt cost me anything. "Coming from far away?"
"No," the warrior said. "Now, what did you say was happening here?"
Fairly sure that shed listen now, I told her. "Theyre waiting for the tax gatherer to come." Beyond her broad shoulders, I watched my other patrons backs stiffen as they started to listen intently.
The strangers eyebrow quirked and she gave a smile. "Hasnt anyone told them? Two things no one can escape death and taxes." Then her smile broadened into a grin. "Almost no one." She gave a soft bark of a laugh and then sucked down a good swallow of ale.
"This ones different," I said.
"Oh? Takes too much? Works for someone youve never heard of? Asks for more every time he arrives? Offers a discount for certain favours? Heard all that before." Her thirst plainly slaked, she was sipping the ale now. I was glad it was good (I brew it myself) and might eke out her patience.
"Were to pay him in lives."
I hoped that had got her attention. She went on looking bored, though, and said, "Dont pay him then. Hire protection. Kick him out."
Now I said, "We tried that. It didnt work. Hes a monster." Her eyebrow was up again and there was a cynical gleam in her eye. "No, really, a monster. We tried saying no. Our constable went up against him, and our Reeve, then our stronger men. Well, one of them, anyway." I didnt say it was an ox of a fellow, best known for stupidity and brawling. "A wandering mercenary too. He killed them all. Then he still asked for the tax."
"Which amounted to what, exactly?"
"He always knows when to come." I watched her shift her weight, and feared her impatience was mounting. But I was in fact answering her question. "He takes the latest new-born in the village. Six days ago, Mara gave birth." I should know. Id managed the birthing.
"Hes done it before?" The woman still sounded bored, but she had stopped drinking.
"Not here, not till now, but in neighbouring villages. For almost six weeks now." They had all given in. Four babies had died, to my knowledge.
"So you didnt pay him," she said, after a pause.
"Not yet. But when he comes this afternoon, therell be no one to stop him. Then well have to give him the baby. Or hell burn the whole town."
"He said so, I suppose." There was mockery in the womans voice, but not in her eyes. I started to hope I was getting somewhere.
"That ruin at the other end of the square?" I was pretty sure shed have seen it on her way in. Those eyes must miss nothing, especially if something hinted at violence.
"Struck by lightning?"
"That was our temple. When he turned up here for the first time, six days ago, he burned it to show us what he could do." I watched the womans face. It did not look particularly affected by this news.
"So thats how he fights?" was all she said.
"Well, no," I said. "Not yet, anyway. He must be a demon of a swordsman though, for all he looks so small and thin." The truth was that I didnt know how he fought. We none of us had watched, not after the Constable, which was hardly a fight. It had been over so quickly. And after that first confrontation, something always kept us back from doors and windows, a sort of loathing. How to explain it? I cant abide to be in the same room as a spider. It was just that feeling.
The warrior had pursed her lips. "You can never tell by looks," was all she said. Then she went on, her voice casual and low, "Well, since Im stuck here anyway, waiting for my friend, I might as will have a word with this monster of yours."
All around us, men turned and stared openly, chairs creaking as they did so. I knew better than to show I was keen, though. "Dont. Youre just asking for trouble. Who are you, anyway?"
"Xena," she said, but Id known that already. Who else could it have been?
Now I said, my heart in my mouth, "We cant pay you much."
Her look froze me, but all she said was, "I dont want paying." I breathed a sigh of relief. I had heard that about her, but hadnt really believed it.
Two hours later, her friend still had not come, and I stood in the doorway watching Xena settle down on the rim of the well to wait for the tax man. She had tightened the buckles on her armour before going out, checked the edge on her sword, taken the round thing off its hook on her belt and turned it over once or twice, holding it between the palms of her hands before putting it back in its place. Then she had strolled out of the door, as relaxed and as unconcerned as if she was just going to draw a cup full of water.
I was more than a little worried. I realised that though I didnt know much about the tax gatherer, I could have told her more. I had been afraid she wouldnt believe me. That she would have laughed and ridden off to meet her friend instead of waiting for her here. Now I could see that she might under-estimate him when he appeared. It was easy to do. I felt guilty, and so for the first time I decided to stay close, and try to watch what actually happened. All the others had scuttled off home, of course, and would be hiding in their cellars.
At precisely the moment when the sun would have drawn level with the tower of our temple, if it had still been there, the same time as he had appeared every day, the tax gatherer arrived. I knew just before he stepped into the open. I had felt almost sick with revulsion. The warrior didnt see him at first, and apparently felt nothing either. When she did raise her head to track down the source of the shadow which stretched over the square towards her, I saw an expression of amused contempt cross her face.
"So youre the man whos got this village under his thumb," she said. Her voice carried to us clearly. "Congratulations. Tell me how you did it."
He walked up close to her, making no noise. Then he said, "I did this."
I saw the warrior step back. I knew why: this had happened the first day he had come, when he staged his little demonstration. It would just have got piercingly cold in the neighbourhood of the tax gatherer. A moment later, I could see his skin start to gleam. His eyes shone red. Then he turned, looked across at the ruins of the temple. The altar stone was still intact. Some of us had left offerings there. Fruit, a jar of wine, a dead lamb. Nothing had happened, of course, except that the stuff had rotted and now stank.
"Hm. Perhaps their gods would prefer this sacrifice if it were burnt," he said in his cold, precise voice. Suddenly, it was. The fruit, the flesh, the wine all flared up in a little thicket of bluish-white flames. A moment later a great crack filled the air. The altar stone had split end to end in the heat.
Xenas arrogant poise did not wilt one little bit. "Very impressive," she said, deadpan, icily cool. "All the same, dont you think youve had enough fun now? Move along."
"Youre Xena?" The tax gatherer looked her over, taking his time. I saw her spine stiffen and guessed this was trying her temper. Then she relaxed, and stared back at him. A small man. Grey hair slicked back over his pate, grey eyes with grey lashes, grey lips thin in his face. Grey clothing, too, clean and well-stitched, neatly covering a thin, spindly frame.
"And youre?" Xena asked then.
"Im sure theyve told you already."
"Well, you tell me too." Xena was edging away, giving herself space, I could see, to draw that great sword and swing it before her.
I could swear there was a gleam in the wintry gaze as he answered, "Im the tax gatherer. As you know, I am sure," he had stressed the you plainly, "everything has a price. Every victory, every joy, every friend, every love, every blessing. Nothing comes free. Someone always pays, in the end." His voice lifted a touch and he tilted his head just a little.
"Thats hardly news," Xena growled. She cocked her head too, meeting his eyes, and she smiled.
"Well, I get to collect it," he said. "I won the right just a little while ago, playing dice with who was it now? That poser who calls himself Hades. No head for figures, you know. The first time he lost he gave me the right to name and collect the price. The second time, he gave me a means to defend myself against any enemy. And finally, he gave me back my life. I stopped playing then. Ive always known when to stop." He giggled. Then his face stilled. He made a sudden movement, as though he were going to point his open hands at her, so she pulled out her sword and slashed it towards him. Had it connected, it would have cut through his arm. But now he was smiling as well, as he let his hands drop and a gash opened up in the womans own arm instead.
She was still alive when he left, but not for long, we thought, as we carried her in. Just her stubbornness kept her going, I guessed, as we laid her on the settle by the taverns hearth. I got water in a bowl, began to mop blood from the wounds, thinking all the time I was wasting my efforts. But she hung on. I stuck it out with her. I owed her, after all. Later, when the paling light from the doorway flickered as another stranger crossed my threshold, I knew the real reason why. The woman opened her eyes for the first time since her encounter with the tax gatherer and looked towards this second visitor, finding from somewhere the strength to smile weakly.
Then I realised. Not stubbornness. Love. She had been waiting for her friend.
I could see this second woman already knew something was wrong. She had the sort of skin which should look rosy and soft, but now it seemed pallid and drawn. She paused in the doorway, allowing her eyes to adjust to the gloom. Her breath was coming in pants, as if she had been running for a very long time. When she saw the warrior she started moving at once, was on her knees by the hearth in an instant. I made way for her there was no doubt who belonged at the warriors side. I noticed that, while she had dropped her staff at the door, she had brought the bag she also carried with her and now laid it carefully down. I withdrew a little, but stayed within earshot. This was my fault, and I was ready to do what I could. Besides, we still needed help.
"Cant let you out of my sight for a moment," the small woman said softly, lifting one hand to stroke her friends cheek. Her fingers hesitated a moment before she gave them permission to touch the white skin, and she flinched as she did so. "What have you been doing to yourself?" Her eyes were grimly surveying her friends body, tears gathering as she recorded each cut, slash and tear.
"Would you believe, an argument with a tax gatherer?" Xena said, her voice little more than a breath, pausing in between each word.
"If you tell me," the small woman said. She blinked her eyes hard and forced back the tears.
"What I wanted to say," Xena paused again, took a painful breath, then another, "was goodbye, if youll let me get one word in edgeways, Gabrielle." The warriors voice was worn to a whisper, but I could still hear the love as she took precious time to say goodbye to her friend.
Gabrielle sucked in a sob before she said, very steadily, "Bear with me just one more time. Ive a story I want to tell you, and while Im talking, you drink this."
She had picked up her bag and taken out a bottle. It was small, made from clouded, dark blue glass. She looked round at me. "Can I have a mug of water?" she asked. When I handed her one she pulled out the cork and dripped in nine careful drops. Whatever it was, it had a purple tint and smelt pungent. "Here," she said, settling Xenas head into the crook of one arm, "Drink all of this." She lifted the rim of the mug to the warriors lips. "Just one sip at a time." Xenas eyes were closing and her breathing was shallow and fast. I saw fear in Gabrielles eyes. "Do it for me," she insisted. She watched intently as the warrior took her first painful swallow.
"Just after I left the Amazons, I met an old man by the road. Hed been driving a donkey cart, and a wheel had got broken. We patched the thing together, and then I took my staff and levered the cart up, and between us we managed to get him mobile again.
"Just before he drove off, he pulled out this bottle and said, I can see youre a kind-hearted sort. The sort who makes friends. If one of them ever gets herself in mortal danger, make her drink just nine drops of this, and you think of me. Now, if youre quick, you can put what Ive said to the test.
"Of course, I knew then that something was up. Hed said herself after all. I thought of you straight away and ran as fast as I could to get here."
By now Xena had drunk the entire solution. She took a sudden deep breath and then groaned. Gabrielle blanched again. She dropped the cup and instead clasped the warriors hand. Then the light seemed to change, as if the lamp on the table nearby were burning more brightly. I stood back amazed. Gabrielle grinned with relief. Before our eyes the torn edges of Xenas flesh knitted together and healed. Scars paled and faded. Colour came back to her cheeks. She turned her head on her friends arm and met her gaze. "Good story. Got a good end." Her voice was still weak, but her eyes flashed vividly blue, and her smile dazzled.
"It was Zeus, of course," Xena said later. She was finishing her dinner, watched by her friend.
"Every last drop," Gabrielle said firmly. "Youve still strength to get back."
Xena grimaced good humouredly, tore off the heel from her bread and sopped up the last of the gravy. "Satisfied, Mum?"
Gabrielle smiled. "For the time being." She was a small woman, I had had the time to notice by now, and not an obvious friend for a warrior. Apart from the staff, she appeared to be unarmed, and there was an air of gentleness about her. Also, now her worries were receding, a considerable amount of good-natured irreverence. Still, as they sat side by side on my bench, I couldnt miss how well they fitted together. Two sides of a coin, I thought.
"Crafty old beggar," Xena said now, reverting to the thread of their talk. "He wants us to do him a favour."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and scrunched up her forehead. "Figures," she said. "Hes made sure that we owe him. I suppose its connected with this?" Her voice made it a question.
Xena nodded, chewing the last of her bread.
"What exactly is going on?" Gabrielle asked.
Her friend took a swallow of ale and then began to fill her friend in. I stopped pretending to clean my tankards and listened openly. No one else had lived long enough to report back on what the monster had said to them.
When Xena reached the moment when the fight began, she stopped. Her brows drew together. Gabrielle waited, then asked gently, "What happened?"
"Nothing much." The warrior shrugged. "I cut at him with my sword, and I bled. I threw my chakram and I bled. I threw my dagger and I bled. Couldnt lay a blade on him. Couldnt stop myself trying either. Gods know what was going on."
Gabrielle had paled again. The warrior leaned against her companionably. "Hey. Everythings okay. I had a friend looking out for me."
The friend made an effort and looked up. "So, what next?"
Xena glanced over at me, where I stood behind the bar. I came over and said, "Hell come back tomorrow. He still wants the baby."
"Which is where?" Gabrielle asked now.
I pointed down at their feet. "In the cellar," I said, "with her mother." I said it softly. No one else knew. I told them as much. "I cant trust the others, entirely," I added. I didnt. With Mara refusing to say who had fathered the child, the rest of the men were inclined to give up. As for the women well, Mara had slept with one of their husbands. I had smuggled mother and daughter down to the cellar when our hired sword was killed. "That baby is staying alive," I insisted, having made up my mind on this fact.
"Thats no way for a baby to grow up, having to hide, having people think theres blood on its head," Xena said robustly. Then she fell silent and glanced at her friend. I could swear there was guilt in her face, and on Gabrielles as well. But they both shook the shadows away.
Gabrielle said, after a time during which they sipped ale and pondered, "You suffered the wounds which you aimed at him." It was not a question, but Xena nodded. Gabrielle pondered again. Then she said, "You paid the price of your blows. He aimed nothing at you and stayed safe." Xenas eyes gleamed and she looked thoughtful at this. But she still waited. After another minute, Gabrielle said, "When you were teaching me the staff you remember?" She glanced up at her friend. Xena quirked an eyebrow. "Well, I dont know how you had the patience. I was so cack-handed."
"You just needed to get your self in focus," Xena said. She flicked a strand of reddish gold hair from her companions brow. "You had potential. I could see that." She smiled crookedly at her.
"Right. Get in focus. I didnt see that for so long. I kept trying to throw all my strength into every blow. You know. Channel all my physical strength into my staff?" She threw her hands wide and then clasped them.
Xena glanced down at those hands and then up at the small womans face. Her silence inquired the point of this observation.
"Then one day," Gabrielle went on, focussing hard on her thought, "we were just walking along, and something happened. I swung my staff and I stopped an arrow. I didnt seem to be trying to do anything with it at all. I just went with the moment and let the thing happen. After that, I understood, in a way. You focus on what you want to achieve, not trying to force it. You become one with the staff, with the arrow, with the moment." She paused, looked at Xena for a minute, a little doubtfully. I started to feel sorry for the warrior, having to live with so much chatter.
But Xena was looking at the younger woman with a thoughtful alertness. "I wonder who he really is."
"He calls himself the tax gatherer, so perhaps theres a reason for that," Gabrielle said. "Perhaps thats what he was before he, well, met Hades."
"He certainly looks like one." Xenas voice was dry. I could imagine she was still feeling slightly embarrassed by her defeat at such hands.
"Or a counting house clerk. Or a tally clerk. Someone like that." Gabrielle paused again, this time expectantly.
"Yeah. Someone without any power, who helped the powerful keep control. Someone without any money who helped the rich count what theyd got. Someone who got the hatred while someone else took the loot." Xena ran her two thumbs around the rim of the tankard in front of her and stared sombrely at its contents.
Gabrielle said, very softly, "Therell always be people like that. People ready to keep tyrants and butchers in power. People who tell themselves they just need the money, that someone would do it anyway, that they have to provide for their family or their old age. People wholl say they were just following orders." She seemed to be speaking to herself.
Xena had listened to her carefully, however. When Gabrielle said nothing more, she laid a hand on her forearm and squeezed gently. "Someone with a lot of hatred and envy and anger stored up," she agreed.
Next afternoon, she was back by the well, waiting again. Gabrielle, who wed learned first hand was an excellent bard, was back in the tavern. Theyd argued about that. In the end, Xena had said, "Youll be a target. You know that. I might forget myself. Weve got a good plan. Lets not spoil it." So she was crammed up beside me in the doorway, clutching her staff, frowning with the effort not to run out.
We both knew when the tax gatherer arrived. I saw her skin take on a greenish tinge and knew mine must have as well. "What is that?" she muttered, before she started prodding fiercely at one of her wrists. It didnt seem to help, but she held firm. Meanwhile, the tax gatherer had shown the first sign of agitation Id ever seen. He paused mid-pace for an instant. But he recovered himself well, Ill give him that. "Back, are you?" he asked as he walked up to the warrior.
"Take more than you to keep me down," she purred back.
"Perhaps youd like another lesson in respect," he replied, sharply.
"Actually," Xena said, sitting down on the rim of the well and gesturing that he should sit down with her, "I was hoping youd get round to answering my question."
He put up his brows, ignoring her invitation and crossing his arms over his chest.
"How do you do it?" she prompted.
Now he scowled. "You saw." His voice had risen a little in pitch.
"Thats it? You throw fire and turn weapons back on their owners? Tap-room tricks," Xena scoffed. "Takes more to govern an empire. Rule tens of thousands, manage the raising and spending of revenues, the collection and distribution of supplies, do the thinking for armies of little grey men keeping tabs on all that in their burrows." The sneer was plain in her voice. The mans shoulders hunched and his hands balled into fists.
"Its not as if youve even got what you came for," she said.
"Its the in the cellar. They always hide their valuables there. Its more fun making them fetch it themselves though," he volunteered, snarling. "Then I make them kill it themselves." He stopped abruptly, perhaps aware he had nearly given a secret away. Beside me, Gabrielle took a deep breath and I saw her knuckles whiten on her staff.
"Youll have learned that from someone like me. Or for someone like me." Xena leaned back, smiled silkily at him. "Its funny, wherever I went, I could always find someone to do that sort of thing for me. Someone in every village ready to look after my interests. And they all made the same excuses for siding with me, not their friends."
His voice shook. "You need us. You wont admit it, because that would mean admitting youre in our power, but you warlords are all the same too. Helpless without us."
"Dont you believe it. Theres always someone else to take your place. Always will be. I could always count on it. Nothing if not dispensable. Buyers market out there." Xena smiled graciously at him.
He was speechless. His arms milled through the air. He seemed to be gathering it to him. Little whirlwinds picked up loose leaves and dust and pirouetted across the square towards him. The air began to prickle with stray currents of power.
Xena ignored all this. "What happened?" she asked. "Did they ambush you? String you up?" Her voice was carefully neutral, but it touched something off.
"They lay in wait for me." The words came out in a scream. "They stripped me and tied me to a tree. Called me a bloodsucker. Said Id taken their life blood. Starved their children. Then they made some cuts in my chest and left me for the wolves and the crows and whatever else came along. Revenge, they said. Reaping as I had sown. " His face was deep red. Spittle flew white from his lips. Leaves began to rattle on the trees, then branches to thrash.
"They were laughing and making bets about how long Id take to die," he concluded, his features twisted with rage. It grew dark. Loose bits of wood were picked up, hurled at walls. The little whirlwinds had got bigger. Lightning flickered between them.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted in terror.
The warrior was already running. The little grey man was growing at last, and was no longer grey. He swelled, then ballooned, light flickering blue all about him. Then it turned inwards, burned very bright and pulsed white. A deafening sound followed just after.
Xena was diving towards the tavern door as this happened. When we recovered our sight, the first thing we saw was Gabrielle crouched down by her friend, hugging her tight. Then we all looked to the place where he'd stood. There was nothing there now. Just a shallow depression in the ground and splintered wood from the roof of the well.
We all walked over to it. "Whoops!" Xena said, peering at the hole he had made. "He really blew his top."
Gabrielle was silent. "That poor man," she said at length.
I looked at her amazed. He had got what was coming to him, I thought. Reaped as he had sown, all that stuff. And it was as much her idea as anyones. I nearly said so, but caught sight of the warrior glaring at me. So I held my tongue, reflecting that she was a bard, and that bards are a rum lot. Xenas face then relaxed and she smiled down at her friend. It was a loving smile, and respectful, but baffled as well.
A low rumble of thunder sent a shudder through our bones. Over on the horizon lurked a bank of high-towering clouds. It would be raining by midnight. Gabrielle shook off her sadness and said, "At least now weve discovered you can talk up a storm."
"With coaching," Xena answered. She wrapped her arm round her friend and walked her back to the tavern.
Xena and Gabrielle left the next day. The air was damp and fresh, for the sultry weather had indeed broken during the night. They had joined in with our feast, and danced with us after. Then Gabrielle told us stories until she was hoarse. Most were about Xena. When we gave them supplies in the morning, Gabrielle asked if she could see Maras baby. She held the little bundle a while and I was surprised to see tears in her eyes.
"Well, weve saved her," Xena said quietly, and Gabrielle smiled.
"Thank you, Xena," she said.
So, yes, I suppose this was this best thing to happen to me since my no-account husband passed across without having managed to give me a child. Maras staying on with me, and her baby. And if theres a price for all this, Ill be happy to pay it.
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