|Bright Ribbons of Gold (page 2) by Nene
Adams ©2000 - All rights reserved
The next morning came all too swiftly. After eating a dish of fresh sheep's milk yogurt mixed with sweet berries and roasted grains, Gabrielle donned her Tseromazhan garb, allowed Rozena to fuss with her hair, and went to the royal tent. The waiting audience was even bigger than the previous day.
As before, Xena was without the wolf's skull mask. Chebkya stood beside the throne, toying with a limp lock of the warrior's hair and smirking. The sight made Gabrielle want to punch the woman's smug face in..
"You sure you want to go through with this?" Chebkya asked in Greek with raised brows. She traced a finger across Xena's cheek, dipped it down into her cleavage. "My advice: choose quick death now. You won't get away so easy this time."
"Are you going to waste my time with your barking dog, or are we going to get on with this?" Gabrielle said boldly to Baba Yaga. The hag scowled, and Chebkya released Xena, blew a mocking kiss at the bard, and sauntered back behind her screen.
The rings on the Tree of Life crown worn by Baba Semislav jangled as she rocked from side to side. Her drum was painted as red as her scarlet-dyed hands and feet, and the head was banded with beaded bird feathers. "Has the challenger come forward, prepared to risk all a second time?" she asked dully, her face devoid of expression.
"I'm ready." Gabrielle blew out the breath she'd been holding.
"Hear now the second challenge..." Semislav trembled, eyes rolling back in their sockets. She released the drum to wave hennaed fingers at a curtained area to one side of the ger. "There will you find two baskets, and a measure of mixed iron filings and poppy seeds. Separate one from the other, and do so before the sun sets, or you will be judged a failure."
The witnesses gasped in horror. Gabrielle bit down on her lip until
it almost bled, daunted by this impossible task. There was no way she could
separate tiny black poppy seeds and equally dark iron filings in the time
allotted. She was going to fail!
I'm sorry, Xena, she thought with a heavy heart. I tried, my love. I really tried.
Just as the bard's tears welled up, the door blew open, admitting a wind that smelled of ripe wheat, fruits bursting with juices, and the heavy musk of animals in heat. The wind blew through the ger, caressed the wetness from Gabrielle's eyes, and swirled around Semislav. The woman's eyes rolled down and her lips curved into a sensuous smile. Forsaking Yaga's wandering beat, her fingers tapped a rhythm that everyone recognized - it was the slow, irresistible beat of a human heart.
"However," Semislav sighed, echoed by the wind, "as aid, you may take with you one personal item, whatever you wish. Choose wisely, and remember that all things, great and small, come from the bones of Mother Earth."
The wind died and Baba Yaga furiously thumped her drum to regain control of Semislav. She knew that Triple-Faced Tabiti was interfering, and it made her so angry that she turned her head and spit. Still, she doubted that the Greek girl would succeed, no matter what miserly aid she got from that busybody bitch of a goddess. Even if, by some miracle, Ga'brelle did manage to do the impossible... well, there's always tomorrow. And Tabiti will not dare try her tricks on me. Do you hear me, Windriding Fool? Touch me and I will toss every one of the tribe's brats to the fire.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle was thinking. She, too, had figured out that Tabiti was trying to help. What did the goddess mean by "bones of Mother Earth?" The fact that the Lady had specifically said she could bring a "personal item" didn't escape her, either. All things great and small? Why is it that immortals have to sound like drunken Chin sages when they give out inscrutable hints? Wait! That's it!
Gabrielle hastily called out to Vivka. "My mule, Rufus... can you get me something that's in my saddlebags? I don't know what happened to them after those kids took Rufus away."
Vivka nodded. "The saddlebags were taken to my tent. What do I look for?"
"A small, hard package wrapped in blue silk with a dragon design embroidered on it. Don't open it; just bring it here."
"At once!" Vivka turned around and ran out of the ger.
A buzz of conversation followed, growing louder and louder as neighbors argued with one another, everyone speculating as to what Vivka had gone to fetch. The noise drowned out the baba's drumming, and Gabrielle merely stood there and smiled mysteriously.
"A magic flute!" a teenage boy cried aloud. "I once saw a traveling sorcerer from Egypt who could make snakes dance with his bone flute. Maybe the stranger-Queen has one that makes seeds dance!"
"Shut up, Bachuto," Rozena said, aiming a cuff at the boy's ear. "Such ignorant talk will make people think you were kicked in the head as a suckling babe!"
A young girl in warrior's garb razzed, "Holy mother's tits, Bachuto! You're such an idiot you make me shamed to know you. Fact is, the only snakes I've seen dancing were the ones outside the men's bathing pond! And we all know what happens to snakes in winter time... when the water's that cold" She raised a hand, two fingers held a scant inch apart, and the women in the audience howled.
"Both of you be quiet," Rozena commanded. She raised her voice and shouted, "And the rest of you wide-mouthed good-for-nothings, be quiet, too! You should be praying for Ga'brelle's success, not acting like this is the Fool's Festival and you've all been at the wine jars!"
Vivka returned, a small bundle of blue silk held tightly in her hand. Ignoring the shouts from individuals whose curiosity was stronger than their sense of decorum, she went straight to Gabrielle. "Is this it?"
The bard took it from her with the same mysterious smile. "Yes," she said softly, turning the package over and over in her fingers. "Yes, this'll do."
Without another word, Gabrielle went to the curtained area and disappeared inside to the sounds of whistles and cheers.
What is that girl up to? Yaga thought, wondering why the bard looked so confident.
Hidden behind her screen, Chebkya frowned and fingered her belt knife thoughtfully.
Inside the curtain, Gabrielle saw two tightly woven baskets; between them was a pile of glistening poppy seeds and iron filings. It looked like about ten heaping handfuls of each had been mixed together thoroughly, then poured onto the carpeted floor.
The bard sat down in front of the pile and unwrapped the silk bundle, revealing a small, black stone the size of an infant's fist. A bone of Mother Earth, Gabrielle chuckled to herself.
It was the only thing she had brought with her out of Chin. When she had arrived, courtesy of Ares, she'd spent the time before Xena's arrival talking to some of Ming Tein's court members. One of them had been an ancient alchemist, who claimed to be able to make lead into gold, among other things. He had shown her the magical properties of this stone, which the Chin people called 'iron-loving-woman-of-the-rock.'
Somehow, this small stone had the weird ability to attract iron. Needles, pins, anything iron or steel would stick to it, and the alchemist had told her that merchants would pay double their weight in gold for stones that could hold ten iron needles in a row. Apparently, the Chin used them for navigation, but Gabrielle had never had the chance to learn how.
For a while, she had amused herself by sticking the rock to Xena's chakram, sword, breastplate, fascinated by the way the magic never ran out. However, she'd soon grown tired of the game and put the memento away. It also reminded her of a time she'd rather forget. The bard had no idea why she had included this useless - or so she had thought - item in her saddlebags when she left Greece to find Xena, but now she thanked the gods for this happy accident.
I hope this works, Gabrielle thought. She swept the stone across the pile, and nearly crowed with glee when iron filings literally jumped up to cover the surface. Brushing the bits off into a basket with her finger, she dipped the stone in for more.
After several hours, her shoulders ached, sweat was dripping off the end of her nose, and her eyesight was blurry. But she was making good progress, and kept at it, until she was satisfied that no more iron filings remained in the heap.
It took her no more than a few minutes of serious scooping to put the poppy seeds in another basket. The bard spent a bit longer picking stray seeds out of the carpet, but her task was completed before she knew it.
Gabrielle rubbed her neck, stood up and stretched, trying to work a cramp out of the small of her back. Then picking up both baskets, she went through the curtains and up to the dais.
Semislav shouted, "Enough!"
The sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon.
Chebkya stormed out from behind her screen and swept into the curtained area. When she emerged, the look on her face was enough to tell people that Gabrielle had - wonder of wonders - completed the seemingly impossible task.
Baba Yaga said sourly, "Thy second challenge is well met, stranger-Queen. We shall see thee tomorrow at dawn, and thou wilt not win so easily then, I vow."
Gabrielle was quickly surrounded by a cheering mob who carried her out on their shoulders, weeping, laughing and singing.
Behind her, Xena stirred on the Throne-of-Gold. Yaga sent her back to sleep again.
All that long night, the hag hunched over her drum, thinking hard, plotting the stranger Queen's downfall. Chebkya, too, made her own secret plans.
Dawn could not come soon enough for either of them.
Rozena handed Gabrielle a horn spoon and a bowl of mutton stew. "Eat," she urged in bad Greek, "your strength is needful for keeping up." The plump woman pinched Gabrielle's arm and shook her head. "You too skinny are. Eat, eat! What says heartmate yours when seeing you so thin!"
"Leave her alone," Vivka said in Tseromazhan. "Maybe Xena likes her woman skinny."
"Bah! What woman likes an armful of bones in bed?" Rozena tossed her head and continued in Greek, "Ga'brelle, you can more eatings, is needful. Very healthy! I specially make for to give you more power. Now eat!"
To humor her, the bard put a spoonful of the rich stew in her mouth. It was very good; spicy, juicy, delicious. Before she'd realized it, the bowl was empty and Rozena - with a triumphant look at Vivka - was serving her a second helping. Gabrielle finished that as well, then started eating a hunk of flatbread smeared with soft, crumbly cheese.
Gabrielle was amazed at how hungry she felt. Unfortunately, worry doesn't make my appetite go away. Then she remembered how Xena used to tease her about her sweet tooth, and she pushed the remaining portion of bread aside.
"Ga'brelle, what is wrong?" Vivka asked. She wore the Tseromazhan version of armor - a thick leather tunic covered in steel studs with light mail underneath, gray felt trousers, and a fat belt that held her bowcase and short sword. The other warriors were on alert status as well. If, by the grace of the Windrider, this Greek Queen defeated Baba Yaga, the tribe wanted to be prepared for anything - including violence.
"I don't know." Gabrielle made a face. "I mean, I've beaten her twice. All right, I had help from your goddess, Tabiti. Without her, I doubt I'd have gotten this far. But... well, this is it. Now or never. Do or die. It just didn't seem, I don't know, as real before. I'm afraid I'll let you all down." I'll let Xena down. Gods! Don't let that happen again!
"You doings well," Rozena said, giving the bard a hug. "How can not be when fightings good against evil? Your Xena love gives power to heart. I believe in you, Ga'brelle. All tribe do."
"I hope I don't disappoint." Gabrielle got up, opened the sheepskin flap, and gazed outside. The sky was a hazy gray sprinkled with fading stars. "Okay. I'm ready."
"We'll be there for you, Ga'brelle. All of us." Vivka clasped the bard's arm. "Whatever happens, we know you did your best. But I also know you won't fail. I believe in you, too."
Gabrielle gave the Tseromazhan warrior a rueful smile. "I pray you're not wrong, for all our sakes." She smoothed her braids and straightened out her necklaces. "Let's go."
Rozena slipped a meat knife into her sleeve and picked up the bard's Amazon staff before joining her heartmate and Gabrielle.
Whatever happened, she wanted to be prepared as well.
"Hear now the third challenge..."
Gabrielle stood in front of the dais, staring up at Baba Yaga. Chebkya squatted next to the old woman, Xena's unsheathed sword in her hands. The Tserina's gray eyes were a howling wasteland of hate; the bard knew that if she failed, Chebkya would be the one to take her life.
Make it quick, Gabrielle promised Chebkya silently, because you won't get a second chance.
Baba Yaga smiled, a wicked grin that exposed three yellowed teeth in a purple-gummed cavern. She was dressed all in black felt, tunic and trousers, and the fabric was sewn heavily with bone fragments and bird skulls. Soot was smeared across the upper half of her face, bordered with ochre lines at top and bottom. A headdress of raven's wings with strings of rattling bird claws concealed her iron-gray hair.
The old witch glanced out over the massed crowd, taking note of those who openly carried weapons. You will be the first to die, she swore, when I've taken care of this foolish child.
"A game of riddles," Baba Yaga said aloud with a chilling cackle. "We shall take turns, each giving the other a riddle which must be solved within one hundred heartbeats. If thou canst not answer, thy challenge is forfeit."
"And if you can't answer?"
"Why, then, thou shalt be declared the winner. But do not pin thy hopes too high," Yaga sneered, joint-swollen fingers rapping the drum between her knees. "Thou hast been overly clever, aided by the avatars of Lada and Mat'syra Zemlia. But now thou must face Nav, the winter hag who is death, whose wisdom is as deep as the endless sea. Death cannot be defeated or avoided. It is as inevitable as the stars, as merciless as the mountains. Bespeak thy soul into the care of whatever gods thee worship, O Queen of Nothing, for today shalt thou truly die."
The tribe let out a collective moan. In winter, a favorite pastime of both old and young was playing riddle games. They knew Yaga was the best player in the tribe, and had never been beaten. It would be only a matter of time before Ga'brelle lost. Along the walls, Vivka and the other warriors eased open their bowcases and loosened their swords, while in the audience, the people prayed silently and clutched their precious children close.
Gabrielle looked into Xena's slack face, memories swimming unbidden from the depths of her mind. Xena fighting with chakram and sword, pale eyes lit up with feral glee; Xena busily repairing a shattered soldier's wounds, the warrior become compassionate healer; Xena sitting in the firelight, whetting her blade with a sharpening stone, listening to another's troubles, forgetting her own.
My life was nothing until Xena saved me, she thought. Hers had become nothing until we met. Apart, we are nothing. But together, we have changed the world and ourselves, much more than we ever thought possible. We've made mistakes - both of us - but always, we forgave each other. I was drawn to her darkness, as she was drawn to my light. She is night, I am day; she is flame, I am earth. We are twin stars, spinning forever, locked together by a timeless love.
I will never leave you.
Not even death, my love, can keep us apart. We are forever.
Gabrielle drew herself up and raised her chin high. Staring straight into Yaga's malice-glittering black eyes, she said clearly, "As it must be, so let it be. I'm not afraid of you. Do your worst, witch. I am ready."
Baba Yaga was taken aback by the bard's bold words, but she recovered quickly. A barked command in Tseromazhan brought six people up to the dais, each of them carrying a sistrum-like instrument - brass chimes strung together on rods set in a carved, brightly painted wooden frame. Gabrielle saw that two of them were women, two men; the others were a long-haired man who carried himself in a gracefully feminine way, and a heavily tattooed woman who exuded a ferocious masculinity.
The hag declared, "I shall begin. Walk on the living, they don't even mumble. Walk on the dead, they mutter and grumble. What is thy answer?"
As soon as she finished speaking, the sistrum holders began shaking their instruments. Gabrielle realized that they were doing so in a carefully measured beat - the musicians were marking the time in which she had to answer the baba's riddle.
She had been fairly good at solving riddles as a girl in Potedeia. This one was a classic, and it took her only twenty-two chimes to remember the answer. "Dead leaves." Ignoring Yaga's grimace, Gabrielle quickly recalled a riddle she'd learned in Athens at the Academy. "My turn: the strangest creature you'll ever find; two eyes in front, many more behind."
Only fourteen chimes before Yaga said, "The answer is a peacock. Thou must do better than this to fool me, child. Now: what changes shape yet remains a sphere, is not always seen yet is always there?"
Gabrielle knew this one. It was popular among the Greek Amazons. "The moon. All right, try this: Have it, want to share it; share it, have it not."
Baba Yaga's frown grew more ferocious and then surprisingly, she cackled, punctuating the shrill noise with a drum thump. "A secret. Hah! No sooner spoken than broken."
"Silence." Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "The more you have, the less you see."
"Darkness, which is all thine eyes will perceive when thou art dead." Yaga shook her head, the feathers of her raven headdress shivering violently. "Now, the next: I pass before the sun, yet leave no shadow."
The bard was sweating; she wiped her stinging eyes and moved her lips, repeating the witch's riddle to herself. Forty-six chimes rang out and Gabrielle still didn't have an answer. Her heart pounded, threatening to break free of her rib cage, and she stared at Xena, willing the ensourcelled warrior to somehow give her a hint. It felt like her brain was encased in syrup, thought processes barely trickling along.
A stray breeze wafted through the ger, tickling her ear, and with a mental jolt she had the answer. "The wind! It's the wind."
The people in the audience dared not cheer or whisper; they stared, deadly serious, eyes flickering from the dais to the flame-haired Greek and back again.
Gabrielle blew out a breath, and suddenly recalled a fiendish riddle that Xena had challenged her with when the bard had been laid up with a fever. It had been meant to distract her from the headache and pains, and Gabrielle remembered it with a smile.
"I am the black child of a white father, flying to the sky clouds above," she said to Yaga. "Bringing tears of mourning to eyes that meet me, though there is no cause for grief, at once upon my birth I disappear."
Baba Yaga's hands skittered across the black-stained surface of her drum while she thought furiously. As the musicians shook their sistrums and the chiming count went higher, the watching tribe began to mutter and stir restlessly. Chebkya glared at them, knuckles whitening on the hilt of her sword.
Finally, when the chimes reached seventy-two, Yaga exclaimed triumphantly, "The answer is smoke!"
Gabrielle hardly heard her, because she'd noticed something. As the delay mounted, the counterpoint that Laiko and Semislav were pounding to the witch's chaotic drumbeat had changed, becoming more rhythmic, more musical. It was as though they were struggling against Baba Yaga, and each shake of the sistrums eroded the hag's hold over them. As soon as the baba answered correctly, though, the other two shamans sunk immediately back into their obedient trance.
If I can stump Yaga completely, then her hold over Laiko and Semislav will be broken. Gods, I actually have a chance! With those two free, the only one I really have to worry about is Chebkya. Then again, that's enough.
From the crowd, her eyes were caught by Rozena, who lifted the bard's staff high into the air and nodded.
Good. If it comes to that, I won't have to face Chebkya without a weapon in my hands.
Yaga snickered. "Thinkest thou a clever girl, eh? That thou hast beaten poor old Baba Yaga? I said to thee once, little nothing, that thou facest death, and it looms ever closer."
"Don't waste my time with threats," Gabrielle said boldly. "Or maybe you've run out of riddles to ask? In which case, I think I win."
"Not so fast! Answer me this: Born motherless and fatherless in this world, without a skin, made a loud roar as I entered, and never spoke again."
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "I didn't think you'd stoop to tavern humor," she said, "but the answer is: a fart." Joxer had told that one to the Hestian priestess, Leah, and she'd smacked him for being lewd in front of her virgins.
Yaga laughed. "It could also be thunder, so who thinkest vulgarly now?"
The bard flushed, angry that she was being mocked. "But I'm still correct, am I not?"
"Oh, aye." The witch rasped her scrawny bare feet together and nodded, still thumping her drum. "Thinkest thou that mayhap thou art mismatched?"
"Never." Gabrielle settled herself more firmly, trying to force her muscles to stop shaking.
"Then ask again, little nothing. The day is yet young."
Gabrielle opened her mouth, then shut it again. Her mind was a complete blank. Try as hard as she might, she couldn't think of a single easy riddle, much less one that Yaga couldn't answer. Damn you, woman! You can't just give up now!
Just when she was beginning to panic, the door of the ger burst open so violently it hung off the leather hinges. A gust of wind blew inside, scooping up stray feathers and bits of trash, slamming into the people's faces with the force of a blow, knocking unlit lanterns from their hooks on the tentpoles and smashing them to the ground.
The wind smelled of ozone and rain, lightning-charged and deadly, the precursor to the kind of thunderstorm that the tribes of the flat, featureless steppes feared most. Children wailed, women and men slitted their eyes and hung on. Vivka and her warriors clutched at any support to avoid being blown over. Only the drumming babas on the dais - and Chebkya and the sistrum players - seemed unaffected. Outside the ger, the sun had disappeared behind a veil of black clouds, swollen with menace.
Gabrielle took a step towards the dais, intent upon protecting her helpless warrior from the storm's wrath. Before she could do more than lift a foot, however, the wind pounced upon her with the unleashed fury of a hurricane.
Lost in the swirling, misty tempest, blinded and deafened by the whirlwind, Gabrielle felt a presence. In her mind's eye, a woman walked towards her - tall, slender, copper skinned, beautiful in a way that was beyond human. She wore a heavily fringed, ivory-colored felt tunic that came to her knees, met by scarlet curled-toe boots, the whole ornamented with flashing stars. Her ankle-length hair was black; streaks of bright blue lightning crawled among the strands and illuminated her infinitely dark eyes.
There's something strange about her, Gabrielle thought, dazed and breathless, but curiously not afraid. Although she appeared to be a mature female of childbearing age, two ghostly images overlaid the woman's face - that of a laughing young girl, and an old, wrinkled grandmother.
Without words, Gabrielle received a message from the wind-born woman. The burden on her heart lifted, replaced by joy. Here was a promise unexpected, an ally whose purpose was equal to her own.
The woman gave her a clay bowl filled with a dark, musty-smelling liquid. Gabrielle did not hesitate; taking the bowl with both hands, she drank deeply, flavors of rich loam and bitter mushrooms bursting in her mouth. Traces of salt and earth lingered on her tongue as the sacred mother's-tears settled in her belly.
A fire was kindled at the base of Gabrielle's spine, sparkling warmth curling up, hot touches bringing strength to her limbs and setting her blood aflame. In the distance, she saw birds gathering on the vast, limitless branches of the Tree of Life; below, deer and other animals foraged among its knotted roots. The vision wavered, like a heat dream, and began to spin. Far above, a mighty eagle spread her wings across the sky, feathery tips brushing the wheeling stars and stretching into infinity.
With a profound sigh, the bard let go, opened her mind and allowed the other to join with her body, meld with her soul.
Together, Gabrielle and Triple-Faced Tabiti faced the evil that was Baba Yaga... and the cyclone howled in righteous fury, clawing for its prey.
This is what the people saw, as clouds gathered in an ebon-tinged vortex near the ceiling of the ger:
Gabrielle, her body supported and caressed by a swirling stream of air, lifted her hands. In the center of her palms, a fiery symbol twisted and burned. She said in a voice that crackled with power, "The final riddle, faithless witch! Answer it if you can: What burns without fire, consumes without burning, is needed more than food or wine when it consumes; is both agony and ecstasy in the same moment; can be slain yet never truly dies?"
Baba Yaga screamed in Tseromazhan, "I will kill them all, bitch goddess! Their precious souls will become my slaves, and you are powerless to prevent it!"
The bard roared out in the same tongue with the force of a thunder clap, "You accepted the challenge! I gave you the riddle, witch! Answer or be lost! You spoke the sacred words, and you are now bound to them with hoops of iron - not even your abassylar demons can help you now!"
Brass chimes marked the time - twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three...
Against the storm, Yaga howled, pounding her bloodied drum in a frenzy. Laiko and Semislav moaned, eyes rolled back, their bodies spasming. As the count marched inexorably on, however, they regained more and more control over themselves, and their drumbeats changed, beginning to dominate the witch's chaos. Yaga desperately tried to call upon dark powers, the abassylar devils of evil and spite, but they did not answer, fearing the goddess' power. Her strength was being sapped by the other two babas, who had slipped her binding altogether and united to destroy her.
The rhythm of the drums was a call that thrummed in the blood, set the mind ablaze, awakened the memory of muscle and bone. Rebirth was summoned, the cycles were changing, death was being subsumed by life, and all Yaga's efforts could not stop it from happening.
Seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine...
In despair, for she could not guess the answer, Baba Yaga yelled to Chebkya, "Kill that Greek bl'ad! Use the sword! Kill Xena now!"
Gabrielle cried out, echoed hollowly by the wind. She could not move; her feet were rooted to the floor. Through her lips, the goddess shouted a throat-searing incantation in Tseromazhan, and silver arrows materialized, shooting towards the Tserina. But Baba Yaga sliced her thumb open with one of the bird claws that rattled in her headdress, and flicked blood into Chebkya's face, protecting her temporarily. While Gabrielle fought to get her traitorous limbs in motion, the hag urged her champion to strike.
Chebkya sprang to the Throne-of-Gold, Xena's sword clenched tightly in her fist. "Watch your lover die!" she called to the bard. "Watch me while I drink her blood!"
The sword swept down, steely length glistening in the lightning flashes that slithered among the clouds inside the ger.
Silently, locked inside the prison of her mind, Gabrielle screamed.
The chimes rang: one hundred!
And the downswinging sword was caught in an upraised hand.
Chebkya's gray eyes widened, and she choked out an unintelligible oath.
Xena rose slowly from the throne, weapon blade still caught in one fist. Chebkya backed away, mouthing obscenities, her face a picture of dismay. Clinging to the hilt, she glanced wildly at Baba Yaga, then at Gabrielle, then back to the grim warrior.
"I think this belongs to me," Xena growled, yanking her sword away from the Tserina. Remarkably, her hand wasn't even scratched.
"You're... you're supposed to be dead." Chebkya stumbled backwards a few more steps. "The witch holds your soul in the underlands."
Xena smiled, a chilling expression that turned her pale eyes to ice. "Not anymore. Besides, the rumors of my demise are always greatly exaggerated."
The Tserina turned to Yaga. "Do something!" she screamed hysterically. "Do something! It's all going wrong and you've got to stop it!"
In frustration, Baba Yaga hit her drum so hard, the black-stained head split in half. Shaking with fury, she reached under her headdress and drew an iron pin out of her hair. Grunting, she flicked the pin at Xena, who deflected it easily.
"Yaga!" Gabrielle/Tabiti called, holding a fist over her head. Glowing blue light gathered there, a ball of searing brightness that throbbed in time with Semislav and Laiko's drum rhythms. "What burns without fire, consumes without burning, is needed more than food or wine when it consumes; is both agony and ecstasy in the same moment; can be slain yet never truly dies?" She paused, and Baba Yaga shook her head.
"The answer," the goddess and the bard said softly in harmony, "is love."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle, did a double take, and frowned. "What the Tartarus...?"
Chebkya's nerve broke. Screaming incoherently, she pulled a dagger from her sleeve and lunged at Xena.
An arrow whistled through the air, burying itself to the feather fletching in the center of her chest. Chebkya looked up in confusion.
Vivka lowered her short horse-bow. The angles of her face were made harsh by the blue-white light that shone from Gabrielle's fist.
The Tserina's expression hardened. She took another step towards Xena, and more arrows thudded into her. Blood bubbled between her lips, gushed down her chin. She dropped the dagger, clawing at the shafts. From their positions against the walls of the ger, the warriors of the tribe watched their false queen topple over and convulse before lying very still, a crimson pool welling beneath her body, drizzling down in streams from the sides of the dais.
There was no sorrow in their eyes, no tears of mourning, only satisfaction and judgment fulfilled.
"The answer is love," Gabrielle/Tabiti repeated. "You have lost, witch. Time to pay the price."
Hatred glittering in her jet-black eyes, Baba Yaga opened her mouth to curse the ones who had destroyed her ambitions, crushed her dreams of domination.
With a sizzling, ear-splitting roar, a bolt of lightning shot from the bard's fist and struck the hag. For a bare second, she was illuminated so brightly, her bones shone like captured suns.
Then with a deafening bang, Baba Yaga flew apart into embers and ashes that skittered and danced in the air before being shredded into smaller and smaller motes of blackness...
And finally disappeared.
The wind died to a freshening breeze; the cloudy vortex dissipated into mist that was quickly dispersed. There was complete silence while people looked at one another in wonder, touched their neighbors, their children and themselves to make sure they hadn't been dreaming, that all of this was real and they had truly been set free.
Xena stared down at Chebkya. The woman's face was twisted into a grimace. She knelt down and closed the Tserina's eyes, then glanced up at Gabrielle.
The bard was still in the embrace of the Windriding Lady. As Xena watched, the goddess stepped out of Gabrielle's body, manifesting herself as she had appeared in the young woman's trance. The moment Tabiti was free, Gabrielle whimpered and started to collapse.
Xena pursed her lips, rose and leaped down off the dais, quickly taking Gabrielle's arm to support her. "This was all your doing, wasn't it?" she asked the goddess. "You were the one who suggested that Chebkya send me that message. You were the one who made sure I came. You were the one who wanted to use me as a sacrificial lamb, to get the Tserina off the hook with the Zhytians."
"Only one more thing I want to know." Xena flicked up her sword, resting the razor-sharp point underneath the goddess' chin. She ignored the nomad warriors, who gasped and swiftly nocked arrows to bows, and the armed tribesmen in the crowd who waved their weapons. "Why me?"
Triple-Faced Tabiti waved a hand, and the people subsided reluctantly. Her infinitely dark eyes sparkled with good humor. "Because you are heartmate to this star-souled queen," she answered, pointing to the half-conscious Gabrielle. "I am the mother to my children, but like a good mother, I cannot always protect them from the dangers of the world. They must make their own decisions, their own mistakes, or they will grow weak and dependent."
"That doesn't exactly answer my question," Xena snarled. "I don't like being a pawn in some damned immortal's game! And I really don't like it when my lover is nearly killed!"
"My people needed a champion, one who had no ties here to be threatened. Ga'brelle was the perfect choice. Her love for you gave her the strength and courage to defeat Baba Yaga and her evil scheme. True, if your heartmate hadn't had the wits and bravery this task required, both she and you would have died. But so would my beloved children. And I had every confidence that the star-souled queen would succeed... with a little help."
Xena stared at the goddess, a muscle in her jaw jumping. Tension mounted in the ger as the Tseromazhans fidgeted, torn between defending their goddess and lauding their champion.
Finally, Xena lowered the sword and quirked her brows. "All right... this time." She leaned her weapon against the dais and scooped Gabrielle into her arms. "Next time, just ask for help, okay? All these surprises are giving me gray hairs."
The bard muttered, and Xena said, "Shhh. I'm here. It's okay, sweetheart. It's going to be fine." The fierce expression on her face was replaced by one so full of love, many of the Tseromazhan women sighed.
Tabiti smiled. Raising her hands, she drew drew a gentle breeze from the air, scented with blossoms and gentle spring rains, sweet smoke and spices, horses, leather and the sharp green scent of high-growing grass. With a last look at her people and her champions, the goddess stepped into the breeze and was gone.
"The answer is love," her voice echoed softly 'round the tent, a whisper of a breath of a murmur on the ever-sighing wind.
Cradled in strong arms, Gabrielle pressed her ear close to Xena's chest and listened to her lover's heartbeat, eventually lulled to sleep by that comforting rhythm.
Xena held Gabrielle tightly, vowing never to let her go again.
"Love is always the answer," she said to the sleeping bard, kissing her face tenderly.
Around them, the people rejoiced.
"These Tseromazhans sure know how to throw a party," Xena said much later, stretched out in a nest of pillows, a horn of wine in her hand.
Nestled against the warrior, Gabrielle nodded. "My headache's nearly gone. Gods, remind me to keep away from that mushroom water! It's worse than henbane-spiked nutbread."
The royal ger had been cleared for the evening's celebration. Parties of hunters had gone out to bring in several boars, which were roasting whole on spits outside, as well as braces of duck from the marshes at the edge of their lands. The ducks had been plucked, stuffed with a mixture of seed grains and dried fruit, wrapped in leaves and buried in a pit oven, along with root vegetables, quarters of roe deer, and baskets of a delicious sweetbread made with barley flour, goose eggs and wild berries.
The women and men had also prepared other dishes, such as mutton stew, herbed ewe's cheese, fried beancakes, many different flavored yogurts, as well as big bowls of a special treat - fresh horse's blood mixed with milk, usually the main meal of war parties on distant raids.
Gabrielle shuddered, watching children dipping their fingers into the horrible looking mess, lifting out dripping curds and swallowing them with enjoyment. Xena had laughed at the bard's discomfort; she'd tried it before when she rode with a nomadic tribe in Chin, many winters ago. The taste took some getting used to, but it wasn't bad at all.
Besides wine, the Tseromazhans had put out goatskin bags of their tribe's own brew - a mind-blowing drink called t'koumis, made of fermented mare's milk. After one tiny sip, Xena had raised an eyebrow and decided to stick to wine. She didn't want to get staggering drunk so soon, and this was the kind of stuff that took you to Olympus when you drank it, and made you wish you were dead the next morning.
Outside the ger, a huge bonfire had been built. Younger warriors whooped and danced, feet stamping to the rhythm of drums, rattles, sistrums and small harps. The braver ones leaped over the fire, soaring up and over, javelins thrusting towards the sky.
Comfortably ensconced with Xena, Gabrielle watched Laiko and Semislav talking to an older woman, who flushed now and then in confused happiness. This was the prophetess Arkhipa, who had been brought into camp by the Zhytian delegation. The Zhytians had found her wandering on the plains between their territory and the Tseromazhans.
Omens and signs from the Windrider indicated that Arkhipa had been chosen to be the new avatar of Nav, to replace dead Yaga, whom no one missed or mourned. The woman was still trying to adjust to going from madwoman to respected shaman in one bound, but Gabrielle had a feeling that Baba Arkhipa was going to do just fine.
The Zhytian delegates, consisting of the abused girl's father, mother and other relatives, had been met at the entrance of the Tseromazhan camp by the tribe's new Tserina. To no one's surprise - except Xena and Gabrielle - it was Vivka who took royal charge of her people in a simple ceremony that had left her heartmate Rozena dissolving into proud tears.
"I don't enjoy taking the throne over my cousin's body," Vivka had told the bard with a rueful smile, "but I've tried escaping responsibility before, and it seems Holy Tabiti won't be denied. Now that I'm Tserina, I'd like to talk to you about strengthening the ties between the people of the plains and the Greek Amazons."
"I'd like that as well," Gabrielle had replied. "You know, I tried finding out why the Tseromazhans split off from the Greek Amazons so long ago, but the memory-keepers didn't know."
"It had to do with the status of men," Vivka had explained. "We believe that women and men can live together in harmony, while the Greeks forbid it. Rather than go to war over a difference of philosophy, we moved away and found a new home. Here, people are what they are, and no one judges them for it, so long as it harms none."
"It sounds like the Elysian Fields." The bard had recalled incidents among the Amazons, when women warriors had wanted to take permanent male lovers, and been castigated for it. Ephiny, her Regent, had certainly suffered for the sake of her centaur mate. She and Xena had had problems as well, when bigoted idiots took exception to their love-bond. Broken noses and smashed jaws usually followed, as neither she nor Xena suffered fools gladly.
Vivka had shrugged. "Not really. Our system works because we make it work. Every tribe has its share of wide-mouthed mudacks, but our laws and customs keep prejudice to a minimum. Well, we'll talk trade concessions later. I'd better go see to Rozena, before her head swells too big to fit inside the tent. The way she's acting, you'd think it was she, not Tabiti, who arranged the whole thing!"
Back in the present once more, Gabrielle chuckled at the memory and plucked the horn cup from Xena's fingers. Taking a long swallow of wine, she asked, "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"
Xena inhaled deeply and grinned. "Not in the last few moments. And have I told you that the next time you risk your skin, riding across leagues of hostile territory into a situation you know nothing about, I'm going to spank you until you can't sit down for a week."
"Promises, promises," the bard murmured.
"I mean it, Gabrielle. You could have been killed."
Gabrielle sat up, suddenly serious. "I knew the risks. You promised once that you'd never leave me. I never made the same promise to you with words, but my heart gave you the vow. Xena, I don't want to live without you. We would have died, yes, but it would have been together."
"I don't want you to die," Xena groaned. "Tell me that you'll never do this again."
"I won't. I can't."
"We go into dangerous situations all the time. I already worry about you getting hurt. I know you can defend yourself," the warrior added hastily at the warning glint in the bard's eyes, "but I also need to know that you won't do anything foolish if I... well, if my luck runs out."
"Our luck," Gabrielle said firmly. "All right, all right. I made you promise one time that if anything happened to me, you wouldn't get all warlordy and start trying to depopulate the world. I can tell you that I honestly wouldn't want to live if you were killed, but I swear that I won't actively seek death. But don't ask me not to try and save you, Xena. I love you too much to just sit back and watch you sacrifice yourself without doing my best to keep that from happening."
"Gods, you're a stubborn woman."
"That's just one of the reasons why you love me."
"Oh, really?" Xena chuckled lazily and pulled the bard down on top of her. "Hmmm... how do I love you? Let me count the ways..."
"Xena! Xena! Will you cut it out! We're not alone and..."
"Oh, nobody's really paying attention. If they were, I'd start selling tickets."
"Oh, now you made me lose count. I'll have to start all over again. By the way, I'm kind of sorry those face tattos won't last. They're pretty..."
"I was going to say strikingly sexy. I wonder, did you have them put on in other places? Mmm... maybe I'd better check... here and here..."
And the stars turned in their proper course, and the seasons spun as they should. The cycle of life and death, day and night, light and dark was in balance at last. The answer was love, and that beautiful word was picked up on the wind, whispered by the bright ribbons of golden grass, echoed by every heart.
The people of the steppes laughed, ate, sang and danced, content that all was right with the world - and a certain squirming, breathless bard and her beloved warrior - once again.
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