Xena and Gabrielle
And The Terrifying Mystery of The Darkness
Copyright 2005 by Julia Noel Goldman aka Xena's Little Bitch
Description: A Halloween first time story, written for the Royal Academy of Bards Halloween Thang.
Disclaimers: X&G are the property of those other folks, but the story is mine, including the erotic scenes of two chicks together.
Thanks: to Camille Atkinson for the... assistance, and to The Bardic Circle for the feedback.
Didja like it? Tell me: email@example.com
Full night has fallen and I am preparing for bed, a ritual that is both familiar and terribly new. For example, part of the newness is that there is no actual bed. It's a pile of furs on the ground upon which I sit as I brush my hair. It's not candle light but the glow from the campfire that subtly illuminates my surroundings, leaving most areas in darkness. As I always have, I wonder what that darkness holds, and, as I always have, I tell myself not to be afraid of it. Nothing was in the corner by my dresser, and nothing is in the shadow next to that big rock now. I wish the clouds would part to reveal the moon so I could be sure. Xena is out there somewhere in the night, checking around to make sure that we're safe. Xena has this way of making everything feel dangerous and safe at the same time, but if she is out there looking, then there is no one standing next to the rock, watching me.
I put my brush in my bag, because that's where I keep pretty much everything now, and lie down on the furs, covering myself with more of them. It's cold and windy tonight--we've traveled along the edge of a storm for days, Xena says. Sometimes I still miss the night sounds of our house in Potadeaia, the familiar sound of my father's snores, and the creak from that one floorboard in the kitchen that signaled Lila's midnight snack. But the night, out here in the wild, it holds more sounds than all of Potadeaia. Xena has reassured me as to what most of them are, but every so often there's one that even she seems concerned about. So I think about the silly things Lila used to talk about in her sleep until I hear Xena's footfall nearby. I can recognize it already: I don't know how, but I always know when it's her and not somebody else.
"You awake?" she asks quietly.
"Yes. Is everything all right?"
"No one standing over there by that rock?"
Alone in the night in the dark in the forest with Xena.
"Do you ever get scared, Xena?"
"Nah. Not scared." She sits down on the edge of my furs by the campfire and lifts the jug of wine from the grass. I watch her drink. She's used to people watching her, both because she is so beautiful and because they are concerned as to what she will do next.
"Well, what if not scared? What's kind of like scared but not scared?"
"It's a matter of self-control. If you are prepared for a situation, you know there is no reason for fear, so you push it out of your mind."
"I see. Can you give me an example?"
Xena rests back on an elbow and continues to drink. "What kind you want? I got a million of 'em." She smiles ruefully and shakes her head. I wonder if I will ever know everything she's done, every story she has to tell. She tells parts of stories, and she tells them when she feels like it. Makes it hard to get a full picture, and perhaps that's the way she prefers it.
"Just talk to me."
"Okay, there was this one time. A long time ago. I had this small band of men and we spent most of our time drinking and looking for trouble or whatever came our way: mercenary work, kidnapping, blackmail schemes. That kind of thing. Anyway, this one night we were on on the road--we'd found what we thought was a treasure map, and it was clear that you had to go at night to see the signs. So, when the moon was full and we followed it to what seemed to be a burial ground." She pauses to take drink and stare out into the night for a moment. "I told everyone to be careful--with burial grounds you just never know. Learned that the hard way at a giant's burial ground once. What is it about you that makes me tell you these things?"
"My innocent curiosity?"
"Ummm. So I stood on the edge of the burial ground and listened to the wolves howl for a moment or two. The moon disappeared suddenly and it was very dark. I heard one of my men step on a twig and I ordered him to stand still. Then there was a thrashing, and he called out, and I felt bits of dirt hit my face. Then there was silence. Now, I wasn't scared because, even though I hadn't specifically prepared for this situation, I had some idea of what we were dealing with, so silently I drew my sword and did a couple passes around myself. Nothing. Someone whispered my name and I told him to shh. Someone else whispered that he was afraid, and someone else whispered they forgot which way we had come from and then there were footsteps and silence and then a scream and thrashing sounds, and suddenly the whoosh of something taking flight. Just as suddenly, the clouds let the moonlight fall upon us, and I saw a creature hovering in the air, holding one of my men by his shoulders with its talons. I heard my other men scream, and I could smell their fear. I grabbed the knife from my boot and threw it at the creature's head, where it imbedded itself with no visible effect. The moon was covered again and I called out 'Follow the sound of my voice and we'll make it out of here.' I heard a few grunts of agreement and some tentative shuffling. I knew that more of my men were going to die here. They were afraid and they had started to move into the burial ground in the darkness. 'Come this way!' I whispered loudly, and continued to make small whispery sounds to try to draw them to me without alerting the flying creatures. I was inching in the direction I believed we had come from, and I felt a presence near me. 'Follow me, we're outta here!' I yelled, and took off. I heard footfalls behind me and the sound of wings flapping and men screaming and part of me hoped that the moon would not come out again. The last of my men and I ran for half a mile before the moon came out and we stopped to catch our breath. 'What in Tartarus... were those things?' one of my men gasped. I said didn't know. I looked around and realized our party was half the size it had been earlier that evening. 'So you figure that wasn't a treasure map, Xena?' Marcus asked me with a smile. 'I figure it wasn't a treasure map,' I answered. 'And by the way,' Marcus added, 'those were dryads.' And from that night on, we promised ourselves we'd be a little more skeptical. The end."
I clap quietly. "I was scared just listening to that story, Xena. I hope we never run into any dryads. I don't even want to know what they are."
"We easily could run into some, or something worse, Gabrielle, but if we do, I'll be there," she says, which is somewhat comforting, but nothing like a roof over my head would be.
"Will you sleep by me tonight?" I ask quietly. She looks at me sharply in the moonlight and then nods, dragging her furs closer to mine.
"There are lots of bad things out there, Gabrielle. Scary, bad, mean things, and some of them have a score to settle with me. I told you that going in."
"I know." Somehow, this is not comforting.
Xena rolls over and goes to sleep. I lie there for what seems like hours staring, wide-eyed with terror, into the endless darkness of the night. Eventually my eyes start to close I hear whooshing sounds. I open my eyes and they stop. I look at Xena and her eyes are closed. Nothing to worry about. Probably just bats. Or something? I inch closer to Xena. My eyelids flutter closed again and I am walking up stairs. It's early morning, I can see it through the window on the staircase, and then I trip, falling up the stairs, jerking myself awake and into a sitting position. I hate that dream. I reach for the flask of wine and take a gulp, hoping that it will help me sleep. I'm so tired. I look at the rock and there is no one there. I look at Xena's face as she sleeps. Pretty isn't the word. I take another swig and cork the flask. Slowly I inch even closer to Xena. There's a chill in the air: Fall is starting. I think of the pies Mother used to bake in Fall and I really can almost smell them. The wind rustles through the leaves above my head and soon I am dreaming again, of pies and fresh jam and a fire in the fireplace.
The next day finds us in an unusually quiet village. Everyone's a little bit on edge, like in that village where I was kidnapped by those followers of Morpheus. Now that I think about it, I realize I hadn't been scared in those fights against those big warrior guys. I felt confident that I could figure out what to do. Some of the boys in Potadeaia used to call me "scrappy" and I kind of liked that. Like I was one of those cute puppies that nip at your heels. And this thought goes into the "things I won't be sharing with Xena" box. Well, the puppy part anyway. The first part proves her point about how one can control one's fear: confidence and foresight... I think.
Of course we head for the tavern, the place I've learned that the best information is found the most quickly. It's deserted inside, except for the people who have no choice: the classic balding tavern keeper, and his rather busty redheaded daughter--for her sake, I hope she's not his wife. Xena sits me down at a table and goes to talk to the tavern keeper. I read the bawdy carvings in the table top. This must have been one interesting tavern before whatever's going on now began. I shiver. There's something unpleasant in the silence and the amount of time Xena spends talking to the tavern keeper makes me uneasy. I stare at a shelf of jugs on the wall in front of me. As I watch, one slides forward and falls off the shelf, shattering on the floor. I jump in my chair. What was that?
Finally Xena returns to our table with bowls of something and mugs of foamy ale.
"What's going on here, Xena?"
"He's not talking," she says, beginning to eat.
"What took you so long then?"
"Sometimes it takes a while to hear nothing. Eat."
"I bet you heard something," I say, my mouth full of stew.
"Well, the subtext was clear enough."
"Something or someone has the people here scared, Gabrielle. I don't know what it is or where it is or what it's doing, but everyone who could get out of here has left over the last two days. Whatever it is feels very different from your average looting warlord."
"I can feel it too," I say, suddenly shivering again.
"That gift of prophecy you promised?" She grins at me.
"Maybe," I say, trying for a mysterious smile. She actually laughs at me. "And I just saw a jug move along that shelf and fall off all by itself. So what's the plan?"
"Don't know yet."
By evening we have a room on the second floor of the same tavern, and I'm soaking in a hot bath. I don't know where Xena keeps her money. I think she likes it that way. The bath is wonderful and it's been weeks since my last one. I can live like this. With Xena. Don't know if anyone else would be worth it, but for reasons I still don't quite understand, I'd go to the end of the Earth with her. She'd even know how to get there, I bet, and have terrifying stories about how she found out. I shiver and sink lower into the bath.
"Enjoy your bath. I'm going back downstairs to see what I can see."
So I enjoy my bath, glad there are numerous, thick candles lit in the room so I am spared the fearful mystery of the darkness. I dry myself off, wondering if this is always what life with Xena will be like. Will we ever live somewhere? Did she travel around aimlessly like this before we met? Is sleeping on the ground something she enjoys? I don't have the guts to ask her these questions. I shake out my brown skirt and my blue shirt before putting them back on, and brush my hair out again. I decide I will go down and meet Xena in the tavern, perhaps have something for dinner.
In the main room I see a few old, nervous men scattered about at different tables, all with more than one mug in front of them. From the looks of them this was never a particularly prosperous or sophisticated village. Where is Xena? I find myself wandering the back hallway of the tavern looking for her. It's quiet and badly lit, like walking through a series of big wooden boxes with doors here and there. Where could she be? Wouldn't she have told me if she planned to go out? Doesn't she know me well enough by now to know that if she doesn't tell me where she's going, I will figure it out on my own and end up there, one way or another, and the other does not always turn out so well? Now that's how to place blame!
Towards the end of the hallway, I see a shaft of light emanating from a partially opened door. Silently I move down the hall until I can see around the edge of the door from the shadows. My heart beats double as I see Xena, her face buried deep in the neck of the barmaid, whose eyes are closed, a look of pleasure on her face. She leans back against a pile of white pillows, her long red hair spread out like a sunrise, Xena's right hand under her skirts somewhere. I can't believe it. I will not gasp. I will not give myself away. They are so beautiful and the moment is so intense for me that I can't stop watching. Xena's left hand is fascinating to me, caressing the barmaid's breasts over her bodice. I can only see Xena from the back, and I wish so badly that I could see her face. I really need to stop watching, so I tear my eyes away and walk quietly back to our room, not stopping to eat.
I wait for Xena in silence, in the dark, and wonder what's going on. Something scary is going on, and not only that but Xena does it with girls! I am amazed, I just never thought about it before and now that I do, there are so many thoughts I can't even find one clear enough to start thinking about. After a while, the door to our room opens and Xena enters, with a tray. She puts it down on the table, and gestures for me to join her.
I sit and ask her if she found out anything about the situation. I lift my mug of ale and watch her over it. Who is this woman? I want so badly to know her, to know everything about her, and I wonder if that will ever happen. The thought that it won't makes me sad, so I continue to hide my face behind my drink.
"I talked to some of the old guys in the bar. They were mostly too drunk to hide their fear, but not drunk enough to tell me what was going on. The barmaid noticed my questioning and took me back to her room. From what she told me, I think we have a restless spirit."
"A ghost?" I almost laugh. She nods and gives me a sharp look. "You believe in ghosts, Xena?"
"I believe what I see, so yes, I believe in ghosts. Gabrielle." I have the feeling this is not one of the times she's going to tell me a story, but I ask anyway, even though part of me is screaming to ask about the barmaid.
"So will you tell me about the ghost you saw?"
Xena sighs. "I don't have any stories you'd like. Sometimes people die and they don't move on, they stay in a place for reasons of their own. If you go to a place like that, and your eyes are open, you see ghosts."
"Did you see them here when we arrived?"
"No. But they might not be around. From what Miranda said, these ghosts don't seem so interested in being seen."
"Miranda?" I feel jealous. Jealous.
"She say anything else?" I ask. Wow, that was sharp.
"Details about what the ghost seems to be doing. I'm too tired to go into it. I'll tell you in the morning."
End of conversation. There's no reason she has to tell me about the barmaid. Miranda. None of my business. I drink my ale and try not to think about them together. I'm not sure if I believe in ghosts, but if Xena does, it seems unlikely that they don't exist. Suddenly the window slams shut, sending a gust of air into the room, extinguishing all the candles. I jump in my seat and then sit there frozen.
"Things like that," Xena says casually, re-lighting the candles at the table. "Slamming windows, knocking stuff over. The jug you saw fall." She looks at me from under her bangs. "Scared?"
"Me? Scared? Nah." I smile. The way she looks at me, I can't avoid smiling. "Would you light the rest of the candles, please?" She smiles at me again and proceeds to walk around the room, lighting the candles. She stops at the window, opening it and looking out at the night. The moon is orange and has an unusual texture. Kind of like an orange, really. I've never understood where that whole cheese comparison came from. Lila and I used to argue about that all the time. I sigh.
"What do you think the moon looks like, Xena?"
"Like the moon, of course, Gabrielle. What else would it look like?" She returns to the table and finishes her stew. I'm slightly drunk. I never drank back in Potadeaia. There was never any liquor in the house, and it's not like I was going to go to the tavern and order an ale.
"You're so imaginative, Xena."
"Thanks." Xena moves the dishes aside on the table in front of her and leans over to take off her boots. "Time for bed?"
"Yeah. I think I've had enough for one night."
"Me too," says Xena, smiling. Yeah, I bet you've had enough, Xena--you bedded the tavern wench! Tavern wench? Oh gods. Time for bed. I sit in my chair and watch as Xena contorts her arms to bend around her back and loosen the ties of her bodice, wondering, not for the first time, why she doesn't ask for my help.
"Can I help you with that?" I ask before being aware that I am speaking. I feel my cheeks get hot.
"What?" asks Xena, not really paying attention.
"I asked if I could help you... It just looks like a pain to untie the laces from your angle, and I thought maybe I could... assist."
"Sure," she says, taking a few steps towards me and then turning her back and lifting her hair with one hand. My hands shake as I touch the leather, and I finish loosening the ties. She shrugs and lets her hair slide down her back, her clothing falling to the floor around her.
"Thanks." Xena, now naked, walks over to the bed and gets in.
I suddenly notice there is only one bed in the room. Would I have even noticed that if I hadn't seen her with Miranda? Just like sleeping on the same furs on the ground, after all. Except for the naked part. She even keeps her boots on when she sleeps outdoors--of course, I do now too, but... Anyway, point is, she's naked and she sleeps with girls and she's my beautiful hero and there's only one bed. I walk slowly around the room blowing out candles. I take off my top and my skirt, leaving them to hang off the back of the chair, and walk over to the bed in my dirty white shift. I look down and Xena is already asleep. I blow out the candle and get into the bed, putting as much distance between us as possible. Xena snores. I lie on my back, staring at the dark between me and the ceiling, listening to the strange sounds of the ghosts in the other rooms, or maybe just the normal sounds of this tavern at night. I feel the urge to move towards Xena in the bed, to put my arms around her as I always want to, but it feels somehow different. Because it is different, now. I had thought before that I wanted to be close to her because I was scared, or because I wanted to cuddle. But now I'm not sure why I wanted to be close to her, or why I want to be close to her now. I think time passes as I lie there on my back thinking about her and Miranda, thinking about why I never kissed Perdicus once, even though we were betrothed, thinking about what might happen if I stay in the bed with her all night.
Suddenly I can hear the animals out in the tavern's yard are restless, and so am I. I can't spend another minute in this bed, so I slip silently out of it and back into my clothes. Downstairs in the tavern, there is only the tavern keeper asleep behind the bar, and I sneak past him easily.
Outside, it is dark, and I wonder why I am there. The moon is hidden and there are barely enough stars to see by. I walk into the yard and I can hear the snuffling and quiet whining of nervous pigs, nervous dogs, and the odd hoots of nervous owls. I wonder how I can tell that they are nervous when whatever is affecting them doesn't seem to be affecting me. I walk through the short gate and into the road. No one is out. I imagine I hear music, or singing, almost silently on the breeze. But I know no one is out here singing in the middle of the night in this desolate, haunted town. Wind rustles in the trees and when the wind dies down, it's clear that there really is a sound coming from somewhere. Now I am scared because I don't know what it is, and I'm alone, and it's dark, but I focus on my Xena skills and try to figure out what direction the sound is coming from. There are one-story buildings along the road that goes through the middle of this small town, so I take a left and walk a few paces, stepping over branches pulled loose by the recent storm. The sound does not get any louder, so I turn around and walk in the other direction. The moon comes out and I try to avoid looking into the shadows, all the shapes against the building, some stationary, some mobile. I continue to move towards the singing, because it's definitely singing now, and I am drawn off the road and around the side of what was once a barn, before the fire that destroyed most of it.
The layers of shadow fascinate and disorient me. Leaves upon trees upon fences upon rocks, and way past all these shadows, down by what I think is a tree stump within the huge shadow of the barn, is the shadow that is singing. It's a tiny shadow and it doesn't scare me. I am not scared at all now, and the singing is soothing. I don't know the language or the tune, but I think it's a little girl. I stand still, listening, waiting for the moon to come out again so I can walk up to her without scaring her--or being scared myself in case it is not really a little girl. I imagine the song must be a lullaby, it is so soft and loving. The clouds drift away from the moon and in the dim light before me sits a small girl.
I hold my breath and keep watching her as she sings. Probably she is 5 or 6, and even in this light I can see that she is dark skinned, perhaps from Africa, with braids halfway down her back. Her face is very serious, very innocent, very wise, very worried, and very pretty. Her hands resting in her lap, her eyes closed, she sings without hesitation, without self consciousness, without fear. I have to let my breath go, and as silently as I try to do it, she notices. She stops singing and her eyes snap open, focusing almost immediately on me.
"Hi," I say, "My name is Gabrielle." I smile at her. The little girl looks at me calmly and stands up, brushing the dirt off her dress.
"I am Abrihet," she says quietly.
"Nice to meet you. My friend and I are just traveling through town. It seems pretty deserted, huh?"
"Yes," she says.
"Do you live here?"
"I don't really live anyplace. I ended up here."
"You don't remember?"
"Not really. Or maybe I don't want to. Or maybe I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay. That's fine. Thanks for telling me your name. Is there anything else you want to tell me?"
"Why would I want to tell you something?" she asks, not suspiciously, just wondering. She holds herself straight, unafraid, but does not move to close the wide gap between us in the dark, and neither do I.
"I guess 'cause you're a little girl, alone outside in the dark, singing, in a strange town. And people generally think I'm easy to talk to."
"I don't know. I think I have an open face or something. I have some kind of light, people say."
"My name means bringer of light." She smiles as she says this.
"Really? That's wonderful. To be a bringer of light. My name means messenger of the gods." I smile back.
"I don't think it matters, really."
She ponders this for a moment. "Do you think there are gods?"
"I've met some, so yeah, I think so."
"I don't think they care though, Gabrielle, about what happens to people."
"Maybe not. Not in the way some people think they do, or should, anyway."
Her attention is pulled towards something I can't see and she watches it as she speaks. "Aren't they supposed to care?"
"I don't know. I don't think there are rules like that for gods. They seem to do what they feel like doing."
"Like, if there was a flood, and people died in the flood. The gods would have made the flood, and killed the people, and then they wouldn't help them."
"Maybe. Sometimes they help."
"Not this time."
Abrihet stares into the shadowy forest and says, "There was a flood. Near here. A few days ago. It was scary. A lot of people died. They were so afraid and the gods did nothing."
"Were you here then?"
"No. I got here after. But they were still scared. They're still scared now."
"The people who drowned?" I ask, as I endure a full-body shiver.
"Some of them drowned. Floods can kill people in lots of ways. Scary ways."
"How do you know?"
"They tell me." She pauses for my reaction. I project mild interest, concealing my fear. I hope. "I hear some of them, afraid, lost. I try to comfort them, by listening, talking, singing to them. I don't know what else to do. The more I open myself to them, the more of them they are, and they're here a lot now."
"And they've started scaring the people in town, haven't they?"
"Yes. When they get mad they make noise and bang things and people get scared. Everybody's going away."
"I see. So listen. My friend--her name is Xena--she knows about stuff like this. I bet she could help you figure out how to help them."
"You think?" She moves towards me quickly. Her smile is the sweetest thing.
"Yeah, I think. Come on." I put my arm around her shoulder and we walk slowly back to the inn. I guess I really do have a way with children.
Nothing has changed at the inn since I left it an hour or so before. The tavern keeper snores in the main room, Xena snores in our room. Abrihet and I tiptoe in and I put my finger to my lips. She does the same and smiles. I light a single candle on the wall by the door. We walk past the bed and Abrihet looks down at Xena as she passes. I am amazed that Xena is sleeping through a stranger entering our room, but maybe she knows there's no danger. Or so I still assume.
I point Abrihet over to the table where most of our dinner still sits. She looks at me and I nod, then we sit down together to finish the bread and stew. We eat in silence, lost in our own thoughts of ghosts and floods and gods and women kissing each other--or perhaps that last part is just me--and Abrihet is soon yawning. I realize too late that I am falling asleep in my chair, and then I am opening my eyes in a bright room, looking up into Xena's sleepy, curious face. She arches her eyebrow and tilts her head towards Abrihet, still sleeping deeply, snoring quietly, slumped in the chair across from me.
"Hi. Am I the only person in the world who doesn't snore?" I whisper.
"As I said, you wish. Who's the kid?"
"Abrihet," I whisper, "I ran into her outside last night. She's trying to help the ghosts: they're sad and scared and the gods aren't helping them."
"What ghosts? Or for that matter, what gods?" Xena chuckles softly at her own excuse for a joke.
"She says there was a flood. And as far as gods go, don't ask me. I don't see much helping going on myself."
"Yes, someone mentioned a flood a few towns back. I thought as much, from the clues we saw along the road, and the weather. A huge storm, people said, with terrible rain, lightning, and flooding--perhaps a volcano caused a tsunami. I'm not quite sure. Where's she from?"
"She didn't say. She's kind of mysterious. You know, sits out in the dead of night singing to ghosts and stuff. Not your average kid."
"Maybe not by your standards. I guess I should go get us some breakfast."
"No!" I whisper way too quickly, knowing who would be down there in the tavern awaiting her, "I'll go. You wait for Abrihet to wake up. I told her you knew about ghosts and stuff."
I smile and leave the room, walking slowly down the hall. So much has happened in such a short time--arriving at the scary ghost village, seeing Xena with Miranda, meeting Abrihet, starting to consider the reality of ghosts and further question the usefulness of gods, and not enough time to think about anything, never mind write about it in my scroll! And here I am on my way to face Miranda and I forgot to even run a brush through my hair!
In the main room, the tavern keeper still snores behind the bar, but Miranda is there, looking glorious and well-rested in a tight yellow dress that shows off her bust impressively. She's only a year or two older than I am, and realize that, if not for Xena, I would still be spending my time sweeping up after people in a small town just like this one.
"Good morning," she says cheerfully.
"Good morning. I'm Gabrielle."
"Miranda. I haven't started cooking yet, if you were in the mood for breakfast."
"Then I shall start. Can you give me half an hour?"
"Yeah. Yeah, and, if you could keep your hands of Xena, that would be great too." I say this so matter of factly that I could swear it's not me talking. In fact I am both impressed and embarrassed.
Miranda looks confused and hurt. "Why?"
"Because she's mine." After I say it, I realize it feels right.
"I didn't know. She never said anything."
"Well now you know," I say, and suddenly I feel like I am being unkind to Miranda--she did nothing but have sex with an attractive stranger. Perhaps I have a jealous streak?
"I wouldn't have, if I'd known. Though she wouldn't have been easy to resist." Miranda's smile is a smile to be envied.
"Yeah. I understand. And to be honest, she's not officially mine yet, if you know what I mean." I blush.
"I do. Gabrielle, I grew up here in this town, helping my father with the tavern. Life here is very, very boring, and I feel like I'm always waiting around for something, I'm not sure quite what. Maybe some tall dark stranger to ride in and take me away from all the many glories of this tavern and this town where nothing ever really happens. You know?"
"Yes, I remember all too well." It was only a few months ago that my dream of a romantic rescue came true, if not quite as romantically or seamlessly as I had imagined it would. "Xena was that person, for me."
"I understand, Gabrielle." She gives me her sweet smile, and it almost makes me want to let her have Xena. But I won't. I will have Xena. Somehow...
Miranda says, "I should go cook."
"We've got a little girl staying with us, so breakfast for three would be great. Thank you, Miranda."
"My pleasure, Gabrielle."
"And thanks for understanding."
"Thanks for letting me off easy," Miranda says, smiling. Yeah, I can see why this particular barmaid would interest Xena.
I head back up to the room, wondering why it is that I would imagine Xena might forgo the pleasures of a woman like that for mine own. I open the door to our room and am amazed to see Abrihet, laughing in the bathtub, with Xena sitting on a chair behind her, washing her hair. There's soapy water everywhere, and I can't remember the last time I saw Xena laughing. Such a lovely moment of pure, childlike joy for two people who hold a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. A wonderful moment to witness.
"Hey Gabrielle!" says Xena, suddenly noticing me.
"Hey Gabrielle!" echoes Abrihet.
"Hi guys. Breakfast is cooking."
"Great," says Xena, "Did you see Miranda?"
"Yes, I saw Mirannnnda," I say, drawing out her name as long as I can.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Xena asks casually.
"You know what it's supposed to mean," I reply, equally casually.
"Hmmm," Xena says, then tells Abrihet to get out of the tub so she can dry her off. I can't help but check, and it's good to see that Abrihet has no scars, so perhaps she was not brought here as a slave--mysterious dark skinned children who can't or won't say where they're from often have disturbing scars, both inside and out. Of course, I've heard tell stories of children who are not children, changelings, and gods in disguise, and various terrifying creatures that choose at times to disguise themselves as children so as to more easily prey on the innocent. I shake my head sharply back and forth, and focus my eyes on the vision of the Destroyer of Nations putting a pair of tiny, dirty socks on a smiling child. That's better. Stay focused. This town's got me spooked. The sun just doesn't seem to shine much here, and I'm starting to feel the presence of the ghosts all around me. Their sadness and their anger. Every so often I hear something break far away, or the tail end of a scream on the wind. How are we supposed to do something about this situation? Faith in Xena is the way, I know. If I just believe in her, everything will work out okay in the end.
Soon we're all clean and dressed and headed down to breakfast. Things smell good when we get downstairs, and we sit at a table near the window that Miranda has obviously set for us. I sit across from Xena and Abrihet, my back to the room. It's still early, so no one else is there, and within moments Miranda brings us a tray of hot breads, preserves, dried fruit, and tea.
"Thank you," I say, by which time Xena and Abrihet are already eating. I introduce Miranda to Abrihet. Abrihet looks up at her and does a double take before smiling and saying hello. Miranda gives her a warm smile and a little wave. There is an instant spark between them, some kind of recognition or connection. A past life, perhaps? Or maybe it's just that the ghosts are making us all insane.
"You're welcome, Gabrielle. Is there anything else you'd like to eat?"
Xena chokes and coughs, then pours hot tea down her throat.
"I think we're fine for the moment," I answer. She returns to the kitchen. "You okay?"
"Fine, fine," rasps Xena.
Abrihet laughs. Miranda returns with a cold mug of water and puts it down in front of Xena.
"Thanks," she says, not looking up.
"No problem." Miranda goes to sit at a table nearby where there is a pile of dirty potatoes and a big bowl, and resumes peeling.
I take a cautious sip of tea. Xena frowns at me.
"Okay, so, Abrihet. The ghosts," prompts Xena.
"Yes," she answers quietly, "The ghosts are all around, and they're angry about what happened, how they died from the storm and the flood, how everything and everyone they had is gone. They're confused about the gods and if they displeased them somehow."
"How do you think we can help them, Abrihet? What do you think they want?" asks Xena earnestly.
Abrihet thinks for a moment, perhaps listening to ghosts, I can't tell, and says, "They want an explanation."
"That makes sense," I say. We all want explanations for the awful, senseless things that happen in the world. I watch Xena think. She's so beautiful. Okay, okay, I want her. I admit it. There it is. It's not hero worship, it's not just a crush--I want what she gave to Miranda and that's all there is to it. I've got to figure out some kind of plan, something that's not lame.
Xena stands up from the table and pushes back her chair. "I will be back," she says.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
"To get an explanation." And she is gone.
"Well then," I say brightly, "What shall we do today?"
"I don't know," says Abrihet, smothering a third slice of bread in strawberry preserves.
"Is there something ghosts like that we could do, you know, try and cheer them up a little 'till Xena gets back?" I ask, feeling like an idiot. I only just barely believe in these ghosts, and that's only because I can feel their pain like a fiery whisper at the back of my mind.
"They like singing and music and games. Stuff kids like." Abrihet nods as she says these things, proud in her knowledge. "They also like nice smells."
Miranda laughs. I turn around to face her. "Wanna help?" I ask.
"Of course. I know! I've got all these wind chimes I used to hang at the back door. I loved them, but the neighbors complained." Miranda shows Abrihet where the chimes are, and they go out back to hang them. I look around the pantry and find jars of incense, piles of which I place on a bricks and light, before spreading them around the tavern's main room. Soon I can hear the sound of the chimes. It makes me smile. There's just something wonderful about chimes. So cheerful and yet so mournful. Just perfect for the occasion, really.
I find Miranda and Abrihet in the kitchen, where delicious-smelling things are baking. Abrihet is covered in flour and Miranda is laughing. I stand outside the kitchen door watching, as Miranda gestures for Abrihet to sit down.
"Want to learn something fun?" she asks the little girl.
"Of course!" Abrihet sits up straight at the kitchen table, her attention focused totally on Miranda. Who is this little girl and where did she come from? Traveling with Xena I have learned that sometimes you just have to accept things as they come: some things just won't be questioned. Miranda is folding an old pink bed sheet into a small square.
"You watching?" she asks Abrihet, who nods vigorously. Miranda produces a large pair of scissors from a drawer and begins cutting shapes in the square of cloth. Abrihet watches, fascinated. Miranda puts the scissors down and notices me in the doorway.
"Give me a hand, Gabrielle," she suggests, and holds out the folded cloth. I walk towards her and take the edge she offers me in my hand. Then Miranda, holding the other edge, backs away from me. I watch Abrihet's delighted face as the sheet unfolds before her.
"What is it?" I ask, unable to see from my angle.
"A bunch of little girls!" she says. "What a great trick! You'll teach me how?" Miranda nods, and hangs her work from two nails on the kitchen wall.
"Would the ghosts like it if we ate the delicious smelling bread?" I ask hopefully. Abrihet laughs.
"Yeah. They'd love it."
We sit at the big table in the middle of the tavern's main room together and tell stories and eat cool grapes and warm bread and try to entertain the ghosts as much as we can. Only Abrihet is a singer, but we do our best to sing with her, all teaching each other new songs and laughing at our mistakes. We make a stage out of benches and I stand on it to recite some of my favorite stories and poems, some about Xena, some classics I've had memorized since I was a child. Abrihet watches me raptly from her perch on Miranda's lap as I tell the stories of Orestes, King Midas, how Xena and Hercules freed Prometheus. I just like to tell stories. And I really, really like making people happy that way: the looks on their faces as I speak, their applause at the end of a story. I've never performed for ghosts before but I imagine I can feel their attention and appreciation.
After a while, we go out into the garden and pick flowers together. There are kinds of flowers I can't name in the garden, beautiful flowers painted colors I've never imagined. I can feel that the ghosts around me are calmer, though still very, very sad.
"I think we're helping the ghosts a little," Miranda says, tying a ribbon around a big bunch of flowers.
"Yes, I think so," answers Abrihet.
"So many of them were so young," says Miranda.
"Yes," says Abrihet, "You can tell?"
"Yes. Sometimes it's like I can feel things other people can't feel," Miranda says.
"Me too, Gods are supposed to be able to know how people feel, but still they don't seem to care," says Abrihet. "I mean, when I know that people are in pain, it makes me sad, it makes me want to make them feel better."
"Me too," says Miranda.
"Me too," I say, "Come on, let's get these flowers in water."
So we go back in and cut their stems nicely and arrange them in vases all over the tavern and we end up having so many we put a little vase in each of the guest rooms as well. There's no one to be seen anywhere, not even Miranda's father.
"It couldn't smell better in here," I say, and I don't think it could. Fresh cookies and pies, flowers, incense, a fire in the fireplace. I could live like this. Xena can't, though. I just know that. I bet when she was a warlord she lived like a king, having anything and anyone she wanted, and, knowing her, that's why we sleep on the ground. I am doing her penance with her, simply by being with her and loving her. So strange. But I guess that's part of what love is: taking on someone else's pains and problems, along with their joys and strengths. She's just got a lot of backstory, and I feel like I know only the tip of the iceberg as far as the plethora of deeds she is atoning for. For instance, I can't begin to imagine who she's gone to get an explanation from, or why she thinks they'd be willing to give one to her.
It's late afternoon when Abrihet and I make garlands of flowers for each other's hair and I give Miranda my old pan flute. She plays for the ghosts a while, the three tunes she knows how to play. I tell her she can keep the instrument--I barely have time to write anymore, never mind play the flute. Such a nice day we have made for the ghosts, and also for ourselves. I think it's been a while since any of us has had an afternoon like this. I feel like the woman Xena had sex with last night, and the mysterious little ghost-talker are my friends now. I tend to come to care about people unusually quickly. People have said I am too trusting.
Suddenly, Xena bursts in, her hair all crazy, covered in dirt and sand and leaves.
"Hey there. How'd it go?" I ask her, grinning at her because I can't help it.
"Not badly. We've got to head over to that town that flooded. I'll meet you there. And bring the ghosts." Xena turns and heads back outside. Seconds later, she pops her head back in and says "And bring the packs I'm leaving outside." And she is gone.
Miranda looks at me curiously.
"It's best to do what Xena says," I answer. "I'll get our stuff together. Abrihet, can you convince the ghosts to come with us?"
Abrihet looks like she's concentrating. "I'm going to go outside and talk to them." She exits.
"I'm going to come with you." Miranda tells me.
"Where's your father?"
"He left this morning for the village just north of here. He said he's had it with things breaking and he's staying there 'till this is over. He wanted me to come, but I have to stay and help."
"I don't know what Xena's got planned, but it's probably dangerous and frightening."
"I want to come. To help the ghosts find peace. And to look after Abrihet. I feel like I'm... supposed to keep her safe."
"Do you have any horses?" I ask. Luckily, she does.
After some hurried preparations, we are in front of the inn and I watch Miranda mount her horse and pull Abrihet up behind her. Abrihet's astonishment and Miranda's smile... a lovely moment. I pack a third horse with Xena's supplies, and we are on the road. We've got some strange supplies, and I really wish I knew what Xena's plan was.
After we've been riding for a few hours, it begins to get dark, and I am more afraid than I'd like to be. Too many bats fly across the road, from tree to tree, too many frogs making way too much noise. Never mind the constant presence of the wailing dead. I try to ride so fast that I can't hear anything. If we make it through this alive, I'm gonna make some kind of move regarding Xena. Of course, just because she likes sex with some women, that doesn't mean she likes sex with all women, and possibly not with me. She could have absolutely anybody, man or woman, god or mortal: who would not accept her attentions? Xena is amazing. Every movement, every well-chosen syllable, every fight, every kill, every smile, every moment she is alive she is fully Xena and that's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. So effortlessly graceful and sexy. I feel very comfortable on this horse, and that makes me feel just a little more confident about what we're going to do. I mean, whatever we're going to do.
We ride up to the top of a hill and look down at a ravaged town bathed in moonlight. Many two-story buildings are flooded almost all the way up to their roofs. Bodies, pieces of wood, barrels, all float together in the muck. Giant branches everywhere, crushing rooftops, moving with the odd movements of the water. I realize that we are all crying and the sadness is so intense because we are surrounded by the ghosts of the people who died in the town below us. Suddenly I realize that their bodies are all probably down there under the water. Death surrounds us and yet I still don't completely understand what death is.
It's dark, but the moon is full and the sky is cloudless. It's windy, and I feel so much energy on the air. In fact, I don't think the air has ever felt more full. So much strength and emotion. We stay on our horses, though Abrihet is now sitting in front of Miranda. Xena rides up to us, still covered in mud and twigs.
"So, how's the plan coming along?" I ask.
"I think it will work. There are a lot of variables. We won't know 'till it's over."
"Of course," I say.
The wind gets higher and higher, and I look over at the sea. Suddenly the water becomes more agitated: glowing white foam, whirlpools and waves, and then for a moment it looks flat and black in the night. It's terrifying and I wish Xena had her arms around me. Then, the water rises quickly, high into the starry sky, taking shape until it looks almost like a man. "Poseidon," I whisper. Xena nods and gestures for me to keep quiet. I feel the ghosts around me begin to give off heat, and realize they are glowing, somehow visible, faces with vague features floating on the air. The wind picks up again, and everything is flapping and flying around, from my hair to the bats and the owls, to Miranda's sexy dress. I wonder where I could get a dress like that. Then the sky opens up and within it appears the face of Zeus, which looks like it is made from clouds, and it is gigantic, taking up half the sky.
"I am Zeus, ruler of the Gods." His voice is deep and echoes through the valley, giving me goose bumps. "I have been summoned here to give an explanation for what happened in this place only days ago. This is my land these are my shores do with as I will. It is not my place to explain, what happened I have no need to: I am Zeus. All that happens is my will, or the will of my family, and the repercussions of our actions do not necessitate explanation or apology. We are gods, you are mortals--there is a clear, wide line between us which should never be crossed." I wonder, then, what he is doing here. What kind of favors did Xena call in for this phenomenal scene to be occurring? I look at Xena out of the corner of my eye for a moment, but then...
"I am Poseidon, lord of the seas," declaims the giant man of water, "This is my bay to do with as I will. Like my brother, I also have no need to explain, but so often I hear mortals wailing on about why why why did this or that happen, and sometimes I take a moment out of my immortal life to answer. My brother and I were fighting. I am not going to tell you what about, or what boats may or may not have been at sea at the time. When we fight, we fight big: we are Gods. The weather got a little out of control, and we did not consider the possibilities of what might result from our actions in regards to your homes or your lives. What happened had nothing to do with you."
I feel the ghosts restless around me. I wrap my arms around my shoulders in a vain attempt to stop shivering.
"What has happened, has happened," Zeus booms, "There is nothing we can do to change it."
Abrihet stands up on the stirrups of Miranda's horse, her dress flapping wildly in the wind, and looks up into the sky at the gigantic visions of the gods. She looks very formidable for her age. "Can you do nothing to help these people? I have sung to them, talked to them, listened to their stories. I am only a little girl, and you are very powerful beings. There must be something you can do to ease their pain."
Zeus' grumble is thunder across the night sky.
Poseidon bows towards the glowing images of the ghosts, ripples of water flowing through his huge form, and says, "There is something I can do. And I will do it. But I want all of you to know, and remember always, that I still despise Xena: Warrior Princess." I see Xena nod in acknowledgment as Poseidon raises his arms, pointing towards the town, and slowly the water flows down the roads and towards the sea, pouring back into Poseidon's own form, endless as it is. In moments he has pulled all the water out of the town, revealing destroyed buildings, and countless bodies. It is a devastating sight. The ghosts look down at themselves and their glow begins to fade. Zeus and Poseidon slowly disperse back into the air and the water. Xena looks at me and shrugs.
"It's time to bury the dead," she says. Now I understand why all the shovels.
We slowly ride down the hill into the town, following Xena as she rides towards the graveyard. We sit on our horses, looking down into the ravaged mud where the graves stick out sideways, and pools of water have collected everywhere. There are bones protruding from the muddy dirt in places. It is a very sad thing to see.
"I think burial is out," says Xena. "A funeral pyre it will be."
So we begin the horrifying job of collecting drowned bodies. As we do, I feel the ghosts beginning to fade away. Xena builds a huge pyre out of logs. It's quite beautiful, and we gently place the bodies upon it. The sun is starting to come up by the time Xena lights the pyre. We're all exhausted, covered in dirt and mud and blood, but we have achieved our goal. We stand together as the funeral pyre burns and the souls of the dead begin to move on to wherever it is they will go. So many possibilities. Xena and Abrihet each sing for the dead as their bodies burn. I can't explain how much energy there is in the air--the dead moving on and saying their goodbyes, the intensity of the singing, the attention of the animals in the forest around us, the lingering sense of the power of the gods, and the power of the elements themselves. Water, Fire, Earth, Air, all joined in to create and to resolve this situation. I wonder if those elements would still exist if the gods did not. Without Poseidon, there would be water, certainly, wouldn't there be?
"We did it," whispers Abrihet, "They are beginning to find some peace now, they are leaving!"
We stand there for a while, watching the pyre burn, my arm bravely wrapped around Xena's waist, Abrihet's head resting against Miranda's thigh. Miranda absent-mindedly pats the girl's head and I realize that, on top of everything, we have brought these two people together.
"Let's go home," says Miranda, and we mount out horses and ride slowly back to the tavern. Miranda's father is already back behind the bar, and there are at least 20 people, men and women, drinking and eating and laughing at the various tables.
Abrihet is asleep and Miranda has carried her into the tavern. "She can sleep with me tonight. You two should be alone. I'll bring you up some hot water."
"Thanks," Xena says.
We stagger up to our room and fall onto the bed. A night of hauling dead bodies around is enough to exhaust anyone. We sit silently next to each other, untying our boots and I unlace Xena's bodice again. I like doing that. Miranda enters and fills the tub with warm water.
"Good job today, Miranda," I say.
"Yeah," grunts Xena.
"I'm glad that I could be part of it. See you in the morning."
Miranda smiles and exits, perhaps relieved that Xena is not hers.
"Okay, Gabrielle, what's going on?" Xena asks as the door closes.
"Huh?" I answer, taking off the last of my clothing and getting into the tub. "It's not too hot. Just perfect. Get in." I've changed my mind: I don't care if my seduction is lame, as long as it's just the tiniest bit subtle.
Xena disrobes and squeezes into the tub. There's only enough room for us to sit facing each other, our bent legs pleasantly crushed together.
"Roomy," says Xena.
"Yeah," I say .
"Feels good. What's going on with you and Miranda?"
"Me and Miranda? The issue is you and Miranda!"
"Me and Miranda?"
"Last night, in her room, remember?"
"Of course I remember. But that's not what's up with you and Miranda."
"Ha. Lean over and I'll pour water over your head," I suggest. She does. I pour warm water over her hair, then massage in some of pleasant smelling soap from the jar on the table next to the tub.
"You and Miranda," she prods.
"I saw you two last night, in her room. This morning I told her it better never happen again, and then today, I feel like we became real friends. I figure that's about it on me and Miranda. Oh and I plan on suggesting that Abrihet live with her--I think they really like each other, and they both need a friend. I'm pretty sure Abrihet doesn't have family, at least not one she wants to be with."
Xena raises her head and looks at me through a gap in her drenched hair. "You warned Miranda to stay away from me?"
"To not touch you, actually, if I recall." I pour more water over her head, trying to appear calm while spilling water all over the floor.
"I think her knuckles may have brushed mine when she was serving breakfast."
"Then I shall kill her. "
I lean over and Xena pours warm water over my head, massaging in the perfumed soap. The water flows along down my legs and Xena's, warming our knees. It's better than no bath at all, and the conversation is quite invigorating.
"Why don't you want her touching me, Gabrielle?" Xena asks quietly, preparing to rinse my hair.
I pause. I can feel my voice cracking already. "Because when I saw you with her, I began to realize that I want to touch you like that, you and no one else. And I want to be the only one you touch like that. I know that's asking a lot, and you don't have to acquiesce to the second part of my desire if you don't want to."
Xena stares at me from across the small tub with wonder. "I imagine I will acquiesce to anything you desire, Gabrielle," she says, "Let's get out of the tub and see if I'm right."
I am stunned and start to get up. I realize I have no idea what I desire from her sexually. Oh my gods. Xena also starts to get up. We find that we have become wedged into the bathtub together, our backs pressed against the sharp edge of the tub, our legs pressed up against each other's, unable to rise more than a couple inches.
"This is funny," I say, "It's like the time when--"
"Stop! Okay, let's sit back down."
We slowly lower ourselves back into the tub.
"I will get out first," she says, slowly easing her legs from where they are wedged against mine. She slides up and out of the tub carefully, and stands above me, dripping like a female Poseidon.
"Oh yeah," I say, for the first time looking at her naked body with focus, boldly allowing my eyes to linger on spots that in the past I have studiously avoided, feelings I have never felt before coursing through me. Her body is flawless. I want to press myself against her. She bends over towards me and puts out her hand and I take it. Easily she pulls me up and I step out of the tub. I seem to be having a hard time meeting her eye suddenly, and I don't let go of her hand--it's so warm and makes my hand feel so full. I feel her take a step towards me, and the heat from her skin radiates against my breasts and my stomach to create a sensation that is more than nice. I stare at the drops of water sliding down her neck.
"You up for this or what?" she asks softly, and I look up into her eyes. She smiles, and her eyes shine at me.
"Yeah, I'm up for it." I shiver, though I think the ghosts have all gone.
Xena kisses me. Her lips are soft and everything in my body suddenly changes into something else. Something unrecognizable and wonderful. I put my hands on her wet hips and pull her closer to me, wondering all kinds of stuff and hoping none of it matters. Xena's hands are on my naked back, and it's so good that I wonder if it was somehow purposeful that hers are the first hands to touch me like this.
"Oh, yeah, sorry. What?"
"Where were you?"
"Right here. Totally right here." I just smile at her. I am so getting what I wanted.
"What are your desires?"
"Um, for you to make mad passionate love to me because I don't know what in Tartarus I'm doing."
"You crack me up. It's easy. Just do what I do. And pay attention."
So I do. For the rest of the night and on into the morning.
The sunrise finds me lying across Xena's body, covered in sweat, gasping for air.
"Had enough for one night?" Xena asks.
Xena laughs and holds me tightly against her. "You don't have to worry, Gabrielle," she whispers "about me touching anyone else."
"I'm glad. I love you, Xena." My smile feels too big for my face.
"Me too. Let's have some breakfast. Or lunch." I can't believe how I feel. "Me too" is more than I'd hoped for.
The main room is crowded this morning, the news has traveled fast that the ghosts are gone. I overhear little snippets of conversation as we walk towards a free table; people are relieved and gossiping. Just as it should be. Xena and I sit down and stare at each other across the table.
"You're the one who's blushing."
"I used to stand in the forest and watch you at night," Xena says quietly.
"That was you by that rock the other night?" Xena nods. I'm amazed that she did that, that she wanted to, that she realized her feelings before I did. She's not one of those "feelings" people.
Abrihet runs up to the table and jumps up onto the bench next to Xena.
"Hey!" she says.
"Hey yourself," says Xena.
"We did it! We got the ghosts to move to the next place!"
"You did a great job, Abrihet, with everything. You're a very brave, smart little girl," I tell her.
Miranda comes over to the table, carrying a tray. She gives us a look like she knows exactly what we've been doing the last few hours. I blush.
"Xena, how'd you get Zeus and Poseidon to help last night?" asks Miranda.
"That's a good question!" I say, turning towards Xena.
"Let's just say I have a lot of information that some folks want kept confidential."
"Ahhhhh." Melinda nods.
"You mean you threatened to tell secrets?" asks Abrihet.
"The secrets of the gods?" asks Abrihet, awestruck.
"They're not much different from anybody else's secrets, you know," Xena confides.
"Wow," says Abrihet.
"Gabrielle and I will be heading out later this afternoon," Xena says, blowing into her mug of hot cider.
"I thought as much," says Miranda, "We will miss you two."
"Yeah. Please come back and visit us sometimes," says Abrihet.
"So you're staying here?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
Miranda smiles and moves to stand behind Abrihet with her hands on her shoulders. "For now. We might hit the road later. We've got a lot to learn from each other."
"I'm gonna learn to cook!"
"And I'm gonna learn how to communicate with ghosts!" says Miranda, grinning. Abrihet may not be Miranda's tall, dark stranger, but she certainly is something different. Not everyone can have Xena, after all!
I laugh. I will miss these two. But that's what life is like when you live on the road: you never stay anywhere for long so you can't get too attached. But if you have the right traveling companion, and you can handle sleeping on the ground most of the time, it's not a bad deal when it comes down to it.
Xena is laughing as she turns to me and says, "And you've got another scary story to add to your repertoire!"
"I know. It's practically writing itself!"
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