Just Another Harvest Festival
The sun was setting behind the hills, outlining a fair size town in ochre and gold and dusting the treetops as it slipped away. A bluish gray fog of torch smoke drifted upward, carrying the scent of roasting meat and the smell of newly harvested fields down the road to welcome the scattered travelers heading up it.
Several groups laughed together as they walked towards the town gates, men and women, and two carts full of supplies being pulled by plodding horses whose hooves kicked up tiny pocks of dust that were just visible in the slowly fading light.
Behind the carts, but far enough to one side to miss both dust and the inevitable road droppings walked a cloaked figure with a sturdy staff, keeping a steady, even pace that ate up the road.
Beyond the town gates, a large square full of people and light was visible, the coming dusk bringing with it the sounds of celebration, as the air grew steadily cooler with the first hints of the coming winter.
The road passed into the town unbarred, and the travelers entered, the wagons rumbling to one side of the square to loud yells of welcome, and the groups of walkers breaking up and straying to one side and the other, towards tables filled with goods for sale and barrels of ale newly tapped.
The lone figure, though, eased through the square quietly, ducking past the drinkers and skirting the dancing square where good humored musicians were already warming up. Passing down a smaller side road, the figure came to the steps of the town inn and without hesitation mounted them.
Pushing the door open, the traveler paused to adjust to the lower light inside, then crossed over to where an older woman was sitting near a pot peeling a tuber. “Hello.”
The woman looked up. “Oh. Hello.” She said. “Here for the festival?”
The traveler pushed back the thick hood, revealing a head of shaggy blond hair. “No, just passing through, thanks. I’d like a room for the night.”
“Surely.” The innkeeper wiped her hands on her apron. “Are you traveling alone, girl? Dangerous roads in these parts.”
The traveler smiled briefly. “I know, but I’m used to it.”
The woman studied her shrewdly. “Well, let me give you one of the rooms up top then.” She went to a small table and slid behind it. “Cost a dinar more, but you can lock the door, yeah?” She slid a crude, iron key across the table. “Where are you heading?”
“Home.” A pair of mist green eyes twinkled a bit. “How much?”
The innkeeper studied her, then glanced at the worn, hardened staff the traveler was leaning on, powerful fingers wrapped around it. “One dinar.” She said. “And that’s only because I know you’ll turn away me giving it for free, Gabrielle.”
The traveler smiled easily. “No reason you should, Alesra. I can afford it. Has the harvest been good this year? Looks like everyone’s ready to celebrate.”
“Very good.” The innkeeper smiled back. “Strange to see you traveling by yourself, though.” She cocked her head in question.
“Long story.” Gabrielle glanced around. “I’m absolutely sure Xena’d rather be here with me. But anyway, thanks for the room.” She put down a coin on the table. “I’m going to keep a low profile, so if you don’t mind…”
“You’re not here.” Alesra waved her hand in a scrubbing motion. “No problem, Gabrielle. Anything you need, just let me know.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle pulled her hood back up and made her way through the main room of the inn towards the stairs that led to the second story. It wasn’t crowded yet, and she managed to pass the few straggling patrons without causing any comment and get up the steps to her room.
Pushing the door open she entered and pushed it closed behind her, glad to see a clean, comfortable space already lit by two strategically placed candles. “Whooa.” She unlatched her cloak and removed it, draping it over the back of the single chair in the room before she unlooped her carrysack from around her shoulders and set it on the bed.
Walking across the room, she paused to set her staff against the wall near the head of the bed, then she went to the one small window and looked out it.
Through the branches of a tree growing right outside the inn, she could see the square getting ever fuller with townsfolk and others gathering to celebrate the harvest. “Darn.” She exhaled. “Nothing I like more than a good party.”
With a sigh, she turned and went back over to the bed, opening up her bag and pulling out a thick, bound book and a small leather case. She set those aside, then she went over to the small table and tested the water in the basin on top of it with her fingertips, before she scooped up a double handful and splashed her face with it.
Cool, but not cold, and with a sweet smell, the water helped to clear the road dust from her eyes and as she wiped herself dry, she glanced up to catch sight of her own eyes looking back at her reflected in slight distortion from the square of polished metal in lieu of a mirror.
With a faint smirk, she ran her fingers through her hair and settled it into some sort of order. The candlelight flashed faintly against the crystal visible in the hollow at her throat, and she rested her hands on her hips, mentally debating if she should risk blowing her cover in order to shop.
Some things, Xena would have said, never changed. With a chuckle, Gabrielle turned and hitched herself up on the bed, opening her quill case and removing a quill and uncapping the ink. She opened her diary and found an empty page, dipping the quill point in and pondering the creamy parchment surface.
I’ve stopped overnight in Vallas. It’s harvest eve, and the place is buzzing, but I don’t want to go out there and get recognized and have to deal with all that, and anyway, I promised Xena I’d stay anonymous because she thinks it’s safer.
It probably is, for a lot of reasons. I know she knows I can take care of myself, but there’s a lot of people out there who know who I am and when it comes right down to it, I’m not the warrior she is and the last thing I want to have happen now is to get myself in trouble out here.
Another week, and I should be back home. I hope things are all right there, and Xena didn’t get into any trouble while I was gone.
What am I saying. I hope she didn’t turn the world all the WAY upside down while I was gone.
I know it’s driving her crazy not being here. Almost as crazy as it’s driving me. Especially now.
Gabrielle paused to suck on the end of her quill, as a gentle smile pulled her lips upward. Then she looked back at her page.
Should I use bringing back presents as an excuse for shopping? Maybe I can sneak down there and haggle for a few minutes and no one’ll be the wiser. I owe Dori something good anyway, for not taking her with me this time.
Besides, I picked up some dinars out here, so not every coin I have is stamped with Amphipolis’ sigil. That should be safe enough.
Decision made, she blew gently on the letters to dry them, before she closed her diary and put the quill away, standing up and tucking her dinar pouch under the belt cinching her roughly woven shirt around her waist before she got up and went to the door.
She paused to ponder her cloak, and then she decided the long sleeves of the shirt would suffice and she headed out the door, her leather boots scuffing lightly on the wooden surface as she trotted down the steps.
The inn had a back door. She’d noticed it on her way up to the room. She sidled down the back corridor and escaped out of it, bypassing the big room of the inn and ending up in a tree shrouded path already littered with gray and brown leaves muffling her steps.
The sun had already gone down, and she could feel the chill of the air against her face. She breathed in, a rich mélange of pine and dirt and bonfire mixed with animals and people and food – bits of home that yet lacked the familiarity of Amphipolis.
The path led right into the square, an she eased into the crowd, just one more roughly dressed traveler among them as she wandered past the well and to the merchant stalls busy with customers.
It was the usual mix. Harvest goods and clothes and warm things for the coming winter, mixed with oddities and knick knacks from townsfolk just looking to make a few dinars before the cold. She stopped to look at the leather crafter’s table, mentally thumbing through both her and Xena’s needs as she fingered the well cured hides.
“Nah.’ She chuckled to herself as she moved on. “She’ll pull my tail if I get her new leathers and we both just got new boots.” A cloth merchant drew her attention next, and she found herself drawn to a soft, beautifully woven blanket. “Oh, this is pretty.”
“Thanks.” The woman behind the table smiled at her. “It’s my work. A baby’s blanket – you see?” She opened it up and displayed its compact folds. “Nice color, isn’t it?”
It was. Gabrielle’s lips twitched. “I know someone it would make a perfect gift for. How much?”
The weaver studied her, and Gabrielle realized her confident pose and speech was likely at odds with the shepherd’s tunic and leggings she was wearing. Ah well. She met the woman’s gaze without flinching, figuring she was probably long past pretending to be the itinerant shepherd’s kid that had once lived in Potadeia anyway.
“Two dinars.” The woman finally said. “I worked a long time on it.”
Gabrielle leaned over and took a bit of the cloth, turning it to the torchlight and studying the weave. Then she looked up at the woman and lifted her eyebrow.
“All right. One and a half.”
“Make it one, and I’ll take this too.” Gabrielle touched a small woven bag hanging on a nail. “I’ve got a little girl who loves to collect things.”
The weaver scowled at her. “Robber!”
The bard smiled charmingly back at her. “I’ve gotten full sized blankets for two dinars just south of her. C’mon. This is for a baby.” She held up the coin and lifted both her eyebrows in question. The woman glowered, but held out her hand and Gabrielle dropped the dinar into it, collecting her booty while the weaver studied the coin before she put it away. “Thanks. Have a good harvest.”
The woman blinked at her. “And you as well.” She replied quietly.
Gabrielle folded the blanket and tucked the bag inside a fold, putting the whole thing inside her carry bag as she walked along, straying to one side as she smelled fresh meats roasting.
Backlit by a fire, men were busy at an iron grate, long skewers stuck with bits of roots and chunks of what she recognized as lamb grilling on it. Her mouth started watering, and she stood in line, and passed her quarter dinar to them in return for one, which she carefully bit into as she got out of the way of the patrons behind her.
“Mm.” She enjoyed the taste, sidestepping two men laughing as she continued along the stalls. A jewelry maker caught her eye and she slipped in behind a vigorously bargaining man as she poured over the pretty things laid out on the table.
Rings and twisted necklaces, and pretty pins – Gabrielle’s eyes scanned over them as she half listened to the dickering, until her eyes fell on a cloak clasp and stopped, widening a trifle.
Beautiful. It was a snake, twirling around in a circle and clasping it’s own tail, the very same symbol Xena had in her tattoo, but in the center were a pair of crossed swords with intricately done hilts and tiny jewel chips in the pommels.
She eased back and leaned against a nearby tree, waiting for the merchant to stop bargaining with his current customer. After a few minutes, she realized he was the kind of merchant who just liked bargaining people into the ground, and she frowned, debating on whether she wanted to play that game with him.
She was a good negotiator. That wasn’t in doubt, but she also sometimes didn’t feel like spending a half a candle mark just to gain back a dinar. That much she’d learned, or had rubbed off on her really, from Xena who didn’t have a moment’s patience for it.
“Ah, forget it.” The customer made a dismissive gesture with his hand, and turned and walked off. The merchant folded his hands over his stomach, apparently well content to have won the moment. He basked in that for a bit, before he looked over at Gabrielle. “Well girl?” He asked. “ Come to try me next have you?”
Gabrielle stayed where she was, nibbling on her kebab. “Depends.” She said. “Is that all your work?”
The look of pride in the merchants face told her the answer before he did. “Of course.” He said. “I have been making these beautiful things since was no older than you are, girl. I am the best.”
The bard mulled over just how many times she’d heard those words from just how many people over the years. “Do you just make pieces, or do you make things that inspire you?” She asked.
He turned and faced her, watching her now with interest. “Sometimes one, sometimes the other.” He glanced at the table. “It depends. If I see something that inspires me, then sometimes I will make a piece from it.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle finished the last bit off her skewer. She lowered it and pointed at the clasp. “What about that one?”
The man leaned over to see what she was aiming at. “Ah, that one.” He held a hand up. “That one is special to me, yes. That was an inspiration, for sure.” He said. “I made that just after the war.”
“The war.” Gabrielle mused. “With Andreas, that war?”
“Of course.” He said. “But do you know much of it?”
Gabrielle scratched the side of her nose. “I know enough of it to wonder if the inspiration for that piece was Xena of Amphipolis.” She watched his face in her peripheral vision, and saw his eyes widen. “It was, wasn’t it?”
He stared at her. “It was.” He agreed. “How incredible that you know. I was on the road at the end, and had the good fortune to see her. She has a mark, here.” He put his hand over his heart. “It is from that I made this piece.” He frowned, and lifted his hand again. “But I could only see a part of it. I know there was something in the center, that I could not see. I regret that.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle leaned back and crossed her legs and the ankles. “How much?”
The bard’s eyebrows shot up.
“Tis hammered gold, girl, and those chips in the eyes are real.”
Gabrielle pushed away from the tree and came over to the table, picking the clasp up and examining it. The metal felt heavy and solid in her hands, and the torchlight twinkled indeed off the snake’s eyes, and the inset pommels.
Finally she sighed.
The merchant chuckled softly. “Tis what they all say, girl. That one, I don’t think I will ever sell.”
Gabrielle opened her pouch and dug in it. “She’s gonna kill me, but what the Hades.” A much larger coin appeared in her hand and she dropped it on the table. “There you go.”
The man gaped.
Gabrielle tucked her precious purchase into her carry sack. “Thanks. Good harvest.” She started towards the dancing square, only pausing as she reached the edge of the square to turn, finding him watching her, the coin held in his hand. She waved and continued on her way, chuckling under her breath.
Xena wasn’t really impressed by finery. Gabrielle found a seat at one of the trestle tables, with a decent view of the dancing and not too close to the drums. However, she did like pretty things, and though she often groused at Gabrielle’s penchant for getting her everything under the sun, she also wasn’t shy about decorating herself with them.
Gabrielle knew she’d wear the cloak clasp. She smiled, and leaned back as a serving wench spotted her and came over. “Hi.”
“Hey there, gorgeous! What can I getcha?”
Well now. The bard grinned at her. “Mug of ale and whatever the plate is.” She said. “And if there’s any honey cake around, I’ll take some.” Another coin made its’ way out of her pouch and into the server’s hand.
“You got it.” The wench winked at her and slid the coin down between her breasts, bustling off towards the big open air cook fire.
Suppressing a chuckle, Gabrielle extended her booted feet under the table and crossed them at the ankles, satisfied to be an anonymous part of this celebration here in the cool night air, in this small town she didn’t know well.
It felt good to just be one of the crowd. In the dancing square, a few men and women were already up and stepping to the rhythmic beat of the musicians. Near the drums, a man was standing, clapping his hands and watching everything, and Gabrielle immediately pegged him as ‘that guy in charge.’
Every town had one. Even Amphipolis, though nowadays even the guys who thought they were in charge deferred to the people who really were in charge, and nobody had any illusions about that. Usually the ‘guy in charge’ wasn’t the reeve, he was the guy who thought he had everyone’s best interests at heart, most especially his own.
“Come now, Silas – let’s see you on the pipes then!” The man shouted, as the music paused. “Come on and show these fine people what you can do!”
Uh huh. Gabrielle watched the hapless Silas, a timid looking young man nervously fingering an obviously handmade pipe.
“Here you go, you pretty thing.” The wench was back, with a plate and a mug and a smirk. She put her load down and leaned next to Gabrielle. “Anything else I can do for you?”
“Not right now, thanks.” Gabrielle said. “It looks great.”
“Well, come find me if you want more where that came from.” The wench bumped her with her hip. “Mama’s the cook.” She sauntered off with a deliberate swagger.
“Wow.” Gabrielle picked up her mug and sipped cautiously, relieved to find a crisp, cold brew inside. She settled back and picked up a slice of the roast on her plate, biting into it as she watched the timid pipe player edge over near the other musicians. “What is it about innkeeper’s daughters and me anyway?”
The piper started to play, a quavering sound that was almost drowned out by the chattering crowd. Gabrielle listened, though, and after a minute, the talking subsided and the music became clearer.
“Ah, c’mon. We want to dance.” One of the men at her table groused. “Not listen to little boys whistling.”
“I think he’s pretty good.” Gabrielle objected. “He’s in tune, anyway.”
“Pah.” The man glanced at her, then shook his head. “Stuff for girls.” He said, as his two companions nodded agreement.
Tough crowd. Gabrielle turned her head a little, spotting a motion to her right. A slim girl, probably ten or so, was creeping up to sit near the musicians, her tow headed scruffiness reminding the bard very strongly of herself at a similar age.
She glanced up through her overgrown bangs and smiled wryly. Or now, even.
The piper finished and hesitated, then turned and got out of the way as the crowed booed their indifference. The man in charge frowned, looking around intently and clapping again. “All right folks, let’s get the party moving again! Get that cask open!”
A cheer went up, and the men near the cooking area gathered around a barrel, tugging at the bung sealing it. Gabrielle watched them for a moment, then she took a swallow of her own ale, settling down in her seat with a bit of bread and another chunk of meat, sighing in satisfaction.
Someone else’s problem, for a change.
A motion caught her eye, and she looked back over at the man in charge, who was arguing with the drummer, ignoring the child, who was looking up at him. Gabrielle watched the girl for a moment, once again seeing a reflection of herself there.
The man finished talking with the drummer, apparently unsatisfied. He looked around, then headed towards the lute player who was leaning back drinking some ale.
The girl got up and rushed over to him, tugging on his tunic hem. “Daddy!”
Gabrielle focused on them, the child’s voice clear in the surrounding buzz.
The man turned and looked down. “What are you doing here? Go home.” He said. “Get out of here! This is no place for you.”
“Daddy, c’mon, please? Let me tell my story!” The girl seemed oblivious to the disapproval. “They’ll like it! I know it! Please? Please?” She tugged harder on his tunic, almost hopping up and down.
“Stop it!” The man reached around and smacked her in the head. “Get out of here! Go home you little…!” He raised his hand again as she released him and stumbled back, then turned to scramble away and he went to chase after her.
Gabrielle was moving before she even thought about it. She put her mug down and slipped from her chair, ducking behind the table and circling the crowd as the man went to chase after the child. She intercepted him just as he crossed onto the path and put her body between him and the girl, who was struggling to get past the crowd and run away.
She just had time to set her balance before he slammed into her, her lower center of gravity coming to her aid as he was knocked off balance by this very unexpected obstacle thrown suddenly into his path.
“Oh. Excuse me.” Gabrielle said, loudly.
“B.. ah.” The man rocked backwards. “My pardons ah..” He squinted.
“Just a visitor to your fair town.” Gabrielle stood squarely in the path. “Sorry I got in your way.”
The man glanced past her, then shrugged. “Ah well, twas my fault for rushing about then, visitor. Welcome and good harvest to you.” He shook his head and turned, making his way back to the square where the musicians were starting up again.
Gabrielle waited for a moment, then she turned and started down the path, out of the square and away form the celebration. Ahead of her were homesteads, and as she walked along and the tiny yards started to form on either side of the torch lit path, it brought her childhood back all over again.
Harvest had always brought its mixed blessings. The music and the festivals and the ale and the expectations. She caught sight of a slim figure darting across the path, and she sped up her pace to follow. It hadn’t been until she’d met Xena that she’d started to enjoy them, especially that memorable one where she’d seen Xena tipsy for the first time.
Changed her mind completely about Harvest, that had.
Her ears caught the sound of a door closing nearby, and she looked past a rough hewn fence to see a small barn, half hidden in the trees to one side of a well kept farmhouse. Going on instinct, Gabrielle put her hand on the fence and hopped over it, keeping an eye out for dogs and vicious roosters.
The sounds of the square faded back, and she was aware of the trees rustling around her as she crossed the yard, putting her hand on the door and pausing before she opened it. She hitched her carry sack around to across her back to give her arms full range of motion, then she opened the door and slipped inside.
The barn was quiet. Only a single lantern was lit near the door, hanging safely on a hook, and it cast only meager light over the interior. It seemed empty, but as Gabrielle stood still, and focused, she could sense someone else there. “Hello?”
A soft rustle and a sniffle.
“I won’t hurt you.” Gabrielle. “I just wanted to hear your story.”
There was utter silence for a heartbeat, then slowly, from behind a feed bin, a small figure appeared cautiously, staying behind the wooden partition as she peered out at the bard. “Who are ya? The girl asked suspiciously. “How’d you know about my story?”
“I heard you talking about it.” Gabrielle eased over and sat down on an overturned water bucket, resting her elbows on her knees. “I’m just passing through town. I’m a storyteller too, and I always like hearing new ones.”
“You are?” The girl came out from behind the partition. “For real?”
“I am.” The bard assured her solemnly. “For real.” She watched the girl settle down on the edge of the feed bin, close enough to see her but with a still wary expression. “That’s a tough crowd out there.”
The girl frowned. “My dad never lets me tell stories to people. He thinks they’re silly.”
“Mine did too.” Gabrielle nodded. “He thought I was really strange to want to make things up and tell people them.”
“Really?” The girl hesitated. “Did you get punished?”
Even now, she felt the pang in her guts. “Yes, I did.” Gabrielle admitted. “For a very long time.”
“Oh.” The girl murmured, her shoulders slumping.
“But you know, I think if my father had realized just how important storytellers are, maybe he would have been happier about it.” Gabrielle told her. “Especially at times like this, at the Harvest when there’s all kinds of change going on and people get a little scared of that, you know?”
The girl slid her boots forward. They were old, and worn, and ripped in a couple of places. “No one ever listens to me.” She said. “They don’t care. All my family wants is for me to get married and bring in a dowry.” She said. “I should run away.”
“Well.” Gabrielle laced her fingers together. “My family wanted the same thing for me.. but you know, you can’t always run away from your problems. You have to try and change things so it’s better.”
“Is that what you did?” The girl asked, in a shy voice.
The bard ran her fingers through her hair and was forced to laugh. “Well, no.” She admitted. “Actually, I ran away.” She looked at the girl with a sheepish expression. “But it was sort of complicated. I did end up changing their minds though, and so can you.”
“I don’t think so.” The girl shook her head. “I just get hit all the time. What’s the use? I bet you couldn’t make them listen to you.”
Gabrielle found herself smiling. “I bet I could.” She disagreed.
“Prove it.” The girl said. “I bet you can’t make them listen to you. They’re all stupid and they don’t care.”
Ah. . The bard got up and extended her hand. “C’mon.” She said. “Let’s see if I can make you a believer.” The girl reluctantly stood and edged closer. “What’s your name?” She let her hand drop as it became obvious the girl wasn’t going to take it.
“Sasa.” The girl watched her warily. “What’s yours?”
“Let me make that my secret for a while.” The bard turned and pushed the door open, admitting the sounds of the harvest festival again. “It doesn’t really matter anyway, I’m a storyteller, that’s the important part.”
“I bet they throw stuff at you.”
Briefly, Gabrielle wished she’d brought her staff with her as she conceded the possibility. “Oh, I don’t think they will. I’m sure they’ll like my story.”
“Pfffppttt.” The girl made rude noise.
Gabrielle eyed her. “Tough crowd.”
The girl followed her at a few paces distance as she walked back down the path to where the square was. It was full of dancers now, and the party seemed in full swing.
“Stay there.” She told the girl, who was glad enough to hide behind the hay bales at the edge of the square. “Let’s see what I can do.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”
“I won’t.” Gabrielle studied the audience, and as the song wound down and the dancing started to break up, she walked forward through the crowd until she was at the front of the square, facing all the tables.
The man in charge hurried over. “Here now, watch out. Don’t stand in the way.”
Gabrielle folded her arms. “I’m not in the way.” She said. “I’m right where I want to be. I have a story to tell everyone.. Hope you don’t mind.”
The man was caught by surprise. “Ah, well.. ah.. “ He looked around. “This.. we don’t.. I don’t think that sort of thing goes well here, you see and..”
“How do you know?” Gabrielle cut him off. “Give me a chance and let’s find out.”
The man’s eyes narrowed and he took a step closer to her.
Without moving, Gabrielle shifted from being a nondescript shepherd to something a little more. “Careful.” She kept her voice low, but vibrant. “I’m not your kin. Try that with me and you’ll be in more trouble than you know what to do with.” She told him in a flat tone.
He hesitated, but maybe saw something in her eyes and stepped back again, lifting his hands. “Have your way.” He said. “When they chase you off with bones and sticks it’s not my issue.”
She watched him retreat, then she looked over where Sasa was sitting, winking at her as she waited for the square to clear. The time was welcome, as she considered what tale she’d tell – the threat of a non-compliant audience not something she really seriously worried about.
It wasn’t that she thought she was that compelling a storyteller.
Gabrielle stopped and glanced at the floor, drawing a small arc in the dust with the toe of her boot, acknowledging that well, in fact, she had come to think just that. Hades. She was the Bard of Athens. She’d entertained armies and kings, and demons and Amazons and Xena. She even kept Dori’s attention.
The crowd was buzzing, and she relaxed her posture, moving her hands from crossed over her chest to her hips and slowly turning so she could make eye contact.
She could see irritation there. People nudged their neighbors and pointed at her, and she could tell she was interrupting their fun. “Hello.” She projected her voice, easily cutting through the hubbub. “What a wonderful festival this is.”
More eyes fastened on her. “Then siddown and let us get on with it!” One of the men in the front yelled. “Who in Hades are you?”
“Oh.” Gabrielle ignored the belligerence. “I’m just an itinerant bard from down past the river.” She said. “I thought you’d like me to share a story with you for the Harvest.”
“Get out of the way! We don’t want no stinking stories!” The man shouted back.
“I said get out.. what??”
“Why?” Gabrielle repeated. “What’s wrong with stories?”
“We want music!”
“Why?” Gabrielle answered again, now aware that the audience was slowly becoming aware of this noisy stranger in their midst. “You know why I think you don’t want to hear stories?”
“I don’t care what you think!” The man yelled. “Get the Hades out of here!”
“I think you don’t like to think.” Gabrielle let her voice get louder, ringing a little over the square. “I think you don’t like to dream.”
The bard turned around and lifted her arms. “This is a Harvest festival. “ She turned to face him. “It’s about celebrating the gifts of the earth and being grateful for the things we have that will allow us to make it through the winter.”
“What?” The man said again.
Gabrielle gazed seriously at him. “It’s not about getting drunk and dancing”
The crowd tittered. Gabrielle scratched her jaw. “Wanna hear about the Trojan War?” She changed the subject. “I know all the good parts. The God of War even told me behind the scenes juicy tidbits.”
Now the man in charge just looked really confused. “What?” He looked around, realizing the crowd was laughing at him. “This is nonsense. Stories aren’t real.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle lowered her hands from her hips and took a step back, gathering the audience in as she scanned them. “That’s where you’re wrong. Stories are real. They are the way bards share the things they’ve seen, and the lessons they’ve learned.”
She could feel the interest. Feel the attention. Feel the opening of the mind she’d come to cherish as she’d spent more and more time being a storyteller.
“So this is my gift, that I’d like to share with all of you in return for the hospitality of your festival.” Gabrielle turned back to them. “Is that so wrong?”
The man’s jaw was hanging open. “Uh.”
The bard turned and looked at the crowd. “What do you say? Can I tell you my story?”
“Yes!” “Ah Hades!!” “Get on with it!” “Shut up!”
Gabrielle flexed her hands and cleared her throat. “Tough crowd.” She acknowledged. “You’re tougher than my toddler.”
“Tell us one we HAVEN”T heard!” One of the men in the front yelled suddenly. ‘A’ts why we didn’t want to hear none! Everyone as comes through here thinks they’re a bard and tells the same damn stories!”
“Exactly!” The man in charge recovered. “Who wants to hear the same old stuff? Now move out of the way and let the music start!”
Ah. Gabrielle was now faced with a challenge. Chances were, this close to home, a good number of the stories were either retellings of ones she’d told, or copies of her own. Her eye caught young Sasa watching her intently, and now, she realized, she was going to have to put her dinars were her mouth was.
“Now.. “ The man moved forward again, but Gabrielle lifted her hands and let out a whistle between her teeth, making everyone get quiet, and face her.
Something new. “All right.” Gabrielle agreed. “I’ll tell you something new.” She settled herself, and shifted her sense of self to that odd place where she could relate things she’d gone through from a view just outside herself. “I’ll tell you a story about danger, and friendship, and defeating the worst of odds, and how sometimes the only thing you have to get you through the darkest of times is your family and what they bring to your life.”
In the silence the sound of torches fluttered. “This story is about Xena.”
“We’ve heard all hers.” The man in charge interrupted.
“You haven’t heard this one.” Gabrielle shot right back at him.
Maybe it was the tone of her voice. The man subsided, and sat down on a bench, shrugging his shoulders. Gabrielle waited to see if he was going to say anything else, then she turned back to the crowd. “This is a story about Xena, and Ares the God of War, and how he almost lost his life, and his sword, in a place very far away.”
Everyone was now focused on her.
One thing that made it easier. She could tell Xena’s story and leave her own out. One of the great prerogatives of being the storyteller in the family. It allowed her to relate to others all the horrific and profound adventures they both had, without having to relive them while she did it.
A lie, maybe. Certainly it frustrated Xena who insisted she put herself in every damn story. But Xena didn’t understand what it was like, either.
“It was a time of great rains, and the river running past Amphipolis was rising fast, changing the landscape and putting everyone around it in peril…”
They fell into the story immediately. The rains that had overflowed her own home river had touched them too, and in such fresh, recent memory it captured them at once.
“This is new.” One of the women murmured, just loud enough for her to hear. “Was it the floods just past? Must have been.”
New. Yes. Gabrielle dove into the story just past when Xena had rescued her from being killed by the flood, when they’d started on that long, horrible journey together. “Xena rode the raft down the waterfall…”
New, and raw in her own mind. She slipped lightly past their personal journey to Hooters, and friendly animals, glowing ghouls and a God of War impaled on the unlikeliest of swords.
“She stabbed him?” A man gasped. “By the gods! How could she!”
How couldn’t she? “There was danger all around.” Gabrielle said. “It was a dark form, creeping in the night, and sometimes you have to protect your family even against the gods themselves.” She paused. “And she did.”
Gabrielle could see Sasa staring at her wide eyed. “Then the tough part started.” She said. “For if Ares was to live, and to regain his powers, he had to escape from that place, and Xena had to help him.”
Even the serving wenches were huddled near the fire, watching, their trays held down against their sides as they stood listening.
Under the mountain. Across the grasslands. The fighting. The killing. The dying. The anger. Then finally.. “And there it was. The end of the road. Just a rock wall and no where to go.” Gabrielle said, into absolute silence. “But they had to get out. “
Even the man in charge was sitting there, his chin in his hands, captivated.
Just another audience, in another town, listening to another story about people far away. Unreal. Make believe.
So were they right? Were they listening to her, or just listening to her words? Was she just another traveling bard?
What the Hades. “We had to get out.” Gabrielle corrected herself, in a mild tone. “So Xena took ropes, and she and I tied Ares into a cradle, and we started climbing.” What had she told them? That the story was a gift? Well, then it had to be hers to give.
She heard a soft gasp around the crowd. “By the way.” She felt a faint smile twitch her lips. “My name is Gabrielle.”
“Gabrielle!” Her name was passed from mouth to mouth, and she felt the energy change again, as the people’s eyes widened.
She waited for the buzz to subside again. “So we started to climb, and it was hard. The rocks were hard, and the cut our hands and it was scary to be up so high with nothing to hold onto.” She looked down at her hands, which still bore scars, faint ones, across the palms. “It hurt.”
“By the gods.” The women in the front whispered.
“Then it rained.” The bard said. “It rained so hard it almost washed us down the mountain but we kept going until we were near the top and then just when we could see the edge of the cliff, it fell in on us.”
The crowd gasped.
“It would have been so easy to give up.” Gabrielle said. “But we didn’t. Somehow, Xena just kept moving fast enough to beat the landslide and the next thing I knew I felt grass under my hands and smelled the sweet scent of earth instead of the rock and we were there. On top.”
The moment came back to her, Clear and sweet, as those few moments in her life were. She listened to the crowd react, letting the wonder and the excitement of their voices wash over her and realizing a sense of freedom she hadn’t anticipated. “And so Ares got his sword back, and all was right with the world.”
The crowd burst into cheers and clapping, and Gabrielle smiled at that, for reasons far different than they probably imagined.
It didn’t matter that the story wasn’t, quite, finished. They didn’t know that. They knew they thought they knew the end, and that was what counted.
She had given them a gift of her story, but they’d given her back a greater one, and she took the moment to savor it, as she let her arms drop to her sides, and once again felt hungry, and thirsty and what it was to be a bard.
Her own private Harvest festival. Xena would surely forgive her. She walked over to where Sasa was, and sat down, resting her elbows on her knees. “So.” She looked at her new little friend. “Did I deliver?”
Sasa was staring at her like she’d grown a second head. “You’re really Gabrielle the bard?”
“Wow. Xena’s Gabrielle?”
That brought a grin to the bard’s face. “Well, we debate who owns who sometimes, but yeah.” She agreed. “Did you like the story?”
“It was scary.”
“It was.” Gabrielle acknowledged. “But they all listened to me, didn’t they?”
Sasa nodded. “They sure did.” She admitted. “But that was a real story. You didn’t make it up.”
“That’s true.” The bard said. “All my stories are real. I don’t have to make them up.” She added. “All that stuff really does happen and all I have to do is write it down.”
Sasa studied her seriously. “Would it be okay if I just told everyone your stories? I don’t want to have to go through all that. It sounds really gross.”
Gabrielle started laughing. “Well, yeah, they sometimes are gross. But there are good parts.” She said, as the crowd surged timidly closer, and she was surrounded by interested chatter in which her name and Xena’s name were prominent.
“Really. “ Gabrielle felt a touch at her shoulder, and found her friend the innkeeper’s daughter there with a fresh mug. She took it, and lifted it towards the crowd, who were watching her avidly.
The harvest festival, as it was, had ended.
“Could you tell us another story?” One of the men asked, shyly.
“I thought you didn’t want to hear old stuff.” Gabrielle said. “Wasn’t that what you all were saying?”
A chorus of protest rose immediately.
Gabrielle chuckled, and turned her head to find the man in charge sitting quietly next to her.
“My apologies, Bard Gabrielle.” The man said, in a humble tone. “I was an absolute jackass and I deeply regret it.” He said. “I had forgotten indeed that harvest is a time for us to share, not be angry with each other.”
The bard looked at him. “Will you let your daughter tell stories now?”
The man hesitated, then he nodded. “Aye.” He said. “If she wants.”
Gabrielle offered him her hand. “Then a very good harvest to you.” She returned his clasp. “But if you’re just saying that to suck up to me and I find out otherwise, I’ll send a bunch of Amazons and seven foot tall men with hair and fangs to beat you up.”
The man got up and edged away from her, disappearing into the crowd. Gabrielle leaned back and sipped her ale, and pondered her next diary entry.
What was that Xena once said about her attracting trouble like bees to honey?
“Um… Bard Gabrielle? There’s a small issue maybe you could help us with??”
Bzz Bzzz Bzz.