DISCLAIMER: Xena and Gabrielle don't belong to me. They probably still belong to Universal, which kind of sucks since they're apparently not interested in giving us what we want, namely a Xena movie. But that's neither here nor there. The main point is that I don't intend any copyright infringement and am not making a profit from this li'l Halloween tale. The other characters are mine, not that anybody'd want 'em. :)
Secondly, this story is about a loving relationship between two women, so if it offends you or you're under 18 or it's illegal where you live, go play in some other sandbox.
If you want to feed the bard, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cave of Lost Souls
Copyright 2010 by The Bard of New Mexico
“Son of a Bacchae!” Gabrielle yelled. Xena stopped, bent over, and tugged at Gabrielle's boot to free her from the mud that sucked at it. “Does it ever stop raining in Britannia?”
“Not that I can tell,” Xena replied. She tipped her head forward so the rain that collected on top of the wide-brimmed hats she made for herself and Gabrielle would cascade safely in front of her instead of running down the back of her neck.
Gabrielle gathered her oiled leather overcoat closer around her and peered down the road. All she could see was slashes of green color through the thickening white mist that was turning blue as the sun sank lower. “How far off do you think the tavern is?”
“Quarter mile at most, maybe.”
Xena let Gabrielle lead the way. They tried the side of the road, the middle of the road, and finally the ruts that the carts' wheels made, but every step pulled them down into the churned up mud. After double the time it would normally take them to travel that distance, they finally worked their way up to the front door of the Duck's Delight Tavern. Bone scrapers sat just outside the door where patrons could rid their boots of most of the mud before going in, which Xena and Gabrielle did. A stable boy quickly appeared to take Argo.
Immediately when they went in, a small man behind the bar asked them what they'd like. Gabrielle, never willing to spend money if she could help it asked, “Would you be willing to swap two hot meals and drinks for a night of stories? I'm a bard.”
“Well....” The man scratched his yellow beard. “My wife might not like it.”
“Come on, folks,” Gabrielle appealed to the tavern patrons around her, “Wouldn't you like to hear a good story or two?”
“Well,” an old man with milky eyes and a gray hooded cape croaked in his aged voice, “I adjudge it's been a while since we've had any entertainment around here.” A few murmurs of agreement rose from some of the other patrons. The barman just shrugged his assent.
Gabrielle ordered two mugs of ale and two plates of roast beef. She asked the barman to hold her dinner until she was done telling stories, but to go ahead and serve Xena her dinner. Then she took the drinks and led Xena to an open table in the corner where Xena sat with her back to the intersecting walls. A stout, ill-tempered-looking woman with a very red face and arms came out from the back room with Xena's dinner and a basket of rolls and set them on the table. Gabrielle broke a roll in half and ate it slowly, not really tasting the bread as she picked her stories and mentally tried to put herself in them before she went up. She took a drink of her ale. Xena, who'd been quiet in deference to her partner's preparation, gave Gabrielle's hand a little squeeze. The light from the candle on the table covered Xena's face in an orange glow and enhanced the twinkle in her blue eyes. “Go get 'em,” Xena whispered.
Gabrielle's smile answered Xena's and she strolled to the room's center and placed herself on the stool, although she knew that she wouldn't be sitting for long. The room was quiet, but mostly because the patrons had been drinking since mid morning and some of them stared into the depths of their mugs, very indifferent to what was going on around them while others' heads hung down on their chests, almost completely asleep. Still, there were a few like the old man who were alert and politely gave her their attention.
She began, “It was an ancient time, a magical time, a time of peace....” Gabrielle was peripherally aware of some men who looked like battle-hardened veterans. Their ears perked up and they listened closely. At that good sign, Gabrielle plunged into her story and immersed herself in that time long past. “A mighty king boldly tricked Ares, bound him in chains that Hephaestus forged, and left Ares to rot in a dungeon....”
* * *
More patrons and more dinars rolled in as word of Gabrielle's performance spread through the village.
“That was wonderful,” the barman gushed when Gabrielle sauntered up to ask for a mug of water and her dinner. “It's the best night we've had in a year! You've most certainly earned your dinner.” His wife came out with four plates balanced on her arms. She seemed tired, but her mood also appeared to have improved.
“May I ask one more favor?”
“A place in your hayloft for a night or maybe two?”
“Stay two,” the barman quickly requested. “The roads are pretty impassable right now, but we're due for some good weather.” He finished sheepishly, “And maybe you can tell some more stories tomorrow night.”
“I'd be glad to.” She felt happy at the prospect of a day's rest out of the rain and mud. When his wife passed, the barman asked her to bring Gabrielle's dinner and a spare blanket.
“By the way, where is the next village?”
“If you're headed west, it's two days away.”
Gabrielle left the barman and was halfway back to her table when she was stopped by the old man's voice. “Aye, mighty fine tales, me lass, mighty fine indeed.... May I join ye? I have a story of my own for ye.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, not minding the extra company when she was in a good mood. She led the man to their table and Xena warily eyed him before she pushed out a chair with her foot so the old man could sit down. She'd heard what the man said and was up for one more story that evening.
Gabrielle guided the old man into the chair. “Thank ye, thank ye.”
“What kind of story,” she asked, almost unable to contain her joy at possibly learning a new story from a faraway land.
He hesitated then admitted, “It's not so much of a story as a warning to ye.” Xena's body stiffened. The man heard the waitress's approach and didn't say anything more until she delivered Gabrielle's meal and left.
He continued, “I heard ye tellin' Argus that yer headin' west.”
“It's a bad place yer going. Ye'll be travelin’ through the Forest of Shadows. Three, maybe four generations back, there was a horrific battle in those woods. There was a king from somewhere far to the east who wanted to conquer Britannia and the battle was his last effort. He’d suffered so many losses as his men engaged the enemy in a runnin’ battle from town to town that the enemy easily outnumbered his forces. Still, the king rallied his men for one final push and made a pact that victory would be theirs or they would all die. That last battle happened there,” the old man nodded generally toward the west, “in the Forest of Shadows.”
He raised his hand to order a drink and was silent until it came. He gulped down most of the contents and continued. “Now, the forest, that’s where the king’s men died in battle. To be sure, it is not a place where ye’d want ta go. Ever heard of shades, also known as specters, phantoms, ghosts?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle answered for both herself and Xena.
“These are no ordinary shades. The king’s men still lust for conquest and anyone who dares set foot in the forest are fair game. It’s almost dark as night in the forest, but the shades are blacker than black. Ye’ll see one out the corner of your eye and when you turn to look, it’s gone, then ye’ll see more shades flickering and flitting from first here, now there. Ye’ll feel like yer bein’ watched all the time, and if ye step one toe into the forest, those shades’ll surround you like hungry sharks and try to hurt you. There is one hope for travelers, though. There’s a road that cuts through the forest. A long time ago, our priests made the road, blessed it, and lined both sides with charmed pumpkins — we call them jacks - that never mold or decay. What’s more, they light themselves at night and keep the shades at bay. Travel as fast as ye can through the forest and ne’er set foot off the road!”
The man paused for a minute and seemed like he was done. Gabrielle commended him. “Good story.”
“Wait a moment, lass. I’ve not told ye about the Cave of the Lost Souls.”
Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose although the man couldn’t see it. A place with that name had to have a good story behind it. “Go on.”
“After the battle I just told ye about, the king and about half a dozen of his guards were the only survivors, mostly thanks to the king’s charmed shield. Rain poured from the sky that night as if the gods were mournin’ the foreign men who died on foreign soil. They clambered away from the scene of the horrific battle and, sliding and half pullin’ themselves up a steep hill by grabbing saplings that grew on the hillside, they found a cave that could hold them all, where they could build a fire and get in out of the rain.” The man’s brow wrinkled. “My only question is why they bothered.”
“What?” Gabrielle asked.
“Why did they bother? The end of the story, lass, as far as anyone knows is that they completed their pact. The king and his men committed suicide in that cave. Someone not long after that stumbled across the cave and discovered the bodies. He didn’t go in because of the wails within and what he saw as he stared into the cave scared him. Local legend hereabouts says nobody could get much out of him except for a few scattered phrases. Frightened him so badly that his brains were fair addled after that.”
The caped man rose to leave. “Thankee for listenin’ to an old man.”
“Thanks for the good story,” Xena replied.
He looked generally in her direction. “Lass, it’s more than a story. Heed my warning!” He left when nobody said anything further.
* * *
The next day, Xena allowed herself extra sleep and didn't stir when Gabrielle got up from beside her. Gabrielle quietly left for an early breakfast and Xena knew the bard would seek out the field they passed the night before to have someplace quiet to work on new stories or practice old ones for that night.
When it was time for the noon meal, Xena found some bread and cheese and a skin of water and brought it to the field. Just as she'd predicted, Gabrielle was there. The bard stalked imaginary prey one way, quickly turned on her heel, and paced back the other way. She threw her arms wide open in a dramatic gesture, all the while silently mouthing the words to herself. She tossed her head back twice, then closed her eyes and bowed her head.
Xena marveled at the way the sun backlit Gabrielle and turned the bard's whole body into glowing gold. Gabrielle had already lifted her head and was smiling at her, but what really put the answering smile on Xena's face was the fact that she'd be holding the living sunshine in her arms in a minute. Gabrielle obliged then looked up at her partner. “Today's been a good day.”
Xena raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yeah. Smell the wildflowers.” Gabrielle sniffed the air and caught the strong scent of wildflowers that sprouted in the sun-baked earth. “I get to practice and tell stories for the first time in a while and I get to spend the afternoon resting with you.” To prove her point, Gabrielle gave Xena a long passionate kiss, but broke it off when she laughed. “Okay, not 'resting' exactly.” Xena smirked and hugged Gabrielle again.
The bard got serious. “I guess you'd know this better than most people....”
The young woman looked into those blue eyes that she loved so much. “Seize with both hands all the happiness you find in the moment 'cause you never know what happens next.”
“Less talk; more kissing,” the warrior demanded and the bard easily gave in to the demand.
* * *
The sun shone as brilliantly the next day as it had the previous day. Gabrielle and Xena took a little extra time to enjoy breakfast, but still headed out early. The road leading west still squished a little under their feet, but Gabrielle didn't mind it as long as it wasn't traveler-trapping mud.
About three-quarters of a mile from the village, Gabrielle stopped and looked up. The sky, from a certain spot and eastward, was blue as can be with hot sun. From the imaginary line and westward, there were thick gray clouds bumping into and tumbling over each other, kind of like a rolling boil, Gabrielle mused. She noted the path in front of her and stepped foot across that weird imaginary line. The path was completely dry and hard, and yet, it looked like the dark sky could dump water on them at any time. Gabrielle also noticed the lack of lightning in the sky and she spied the carved pumpkins lining both sides of the path. “Xena? What do you think of the story that old man told us the night before last?”
Xena studied the sky and the path in front of them, too. She shrugged. “It's just a story.”
“This doesn't look like 'just a story' to me.”
They both fully stepped over the imaginary line. Gabrielle silenced herself and let Xena's and her instincts gauge the danger.
“It appears to be okay,” Xena decided.
“Did you just see that?”
“Something came out from behind that tree and ran to the next.”
“Are you getting caught up in the old man's story?”
“No. I don't think so.”
Xena then saw a shadow scamper from tree to tree and Gabrielle knew her partner had seen it. For her part, Xena could've sworn that the shadow was the figure of an old soldier.
Gabrielle asked with a sweet, teasing tone. “Are you getting caught up in the old man's story?” Xena said nothing. “Welcome to the Forest of Shadows!”
They plunged straight ahead and started their journey through the haunted forest. Conversation was rendered nearly impossible because when one of them spoke, they almost always paused in the middle of a sentence and scanned the area around them as they felt eyes on them or saw shadows darting through the forest. They took a break at what they judged to be noon. As the afternoon wore on, the storm clouds got darker and lightning appeared in the distance, yet the rain never came. The jacks' light revealed the path in the surrounding darkness. The women kept going until the lightning was nearly on top of them. An unexpected clearing adjoined the road and there was a cave on the other side of the clearing that were halfway up a large semi-steep hill.
“Looks like there's going to be a bad storm tonight,” Gabrielle observed.
Xena turned back to Gabrielle. “Yeah. I think we should hole up in one of those caves.” She pointed behind her. The bard looked past her and then turned her eyes on Xena again.
“What about the old man's story? He warned us to keep on the path, remember?”
“When have we ever let that stop us?”
“Xena, I'm really not in the mood to deal with those shades/shadow things. They've creeped me out and my hair's been standing on end all day!”
“I'd rather be in a nice, dry cave if the storm breaks, Gabrielle.”
“But it's not on the … path?” Gabrielle suddenly saw a small path that branched out from the main one. No jacks lined it, though. “Funny. I could've sworn it wasn't there a minute ago.”
“Really? Maybe we didn't see it in the darkness.”
Xena shrugged. “At least it'd be dry.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle sighed. She didn't like the thought of being camping on the open path with the lightning just about overhead.
They made their way to the hill and scrambled up, using saplings to help pull themselves higher. They finally climbed over a lip that jutted out just below the cave. Wind kicked up and they heard wails coming from the cave. Gabrielle shuddered.
“Wind. There's probably a hole at the other end of the cave.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle replied as she busied herself making a small fire. When the fire got good and started, Gabrielle saw a gleaming bronze shield in the corner, but ignored it. Xena, however, went to examine it further.
“Do you think it was that king's?”
“I don't know.”
“Well, come on. Dinner's ready.”
After they had a bite, they went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Xena woke up. The cave flashed an electric blue and a vortex swirled like a tornado.
“Gabrielle, wake up!” Xena shouted through the commotion.
When Gabrielle didn't show any signs of stirring, Xena turned toward her. There was a shadow figure looming over Gabrielle. A thin stream of bright green mist connected their mouths.
“NO!” Xena shouted and the figure hesitated for a moment. In a flash, Xena leapt across the room and back and covered herself and Gabrielle with the large shield. With the contact broken, Gabrielle woke up.
“Wha — what happened?” she murmured groggily, wondering why Xena held the shield over them.
“Sweetheart, we have to get out of here!”
“What's going on out there?”
“I don't know for sure. I think one of those things was sucking out your soul.”
Gabrielle's eyes widened. “We're in the Cave of Lost Souls?!”
“Apparently so and they tried to make YOU one.”
“What's the plan?”
“We're going to get up slowly and keep behind the shield and me. There are some boulders farther up the hill. Let's seal this place off for good!”
Gabrielle just nodded and got ready. Xena cautiously lifted the shield just a bit and was relieved when the shadowy figures of the lost souls didn't seem to be able to get at her and Gabrielle. She nudged the bard. They slowly got up and walked backward behind the shield until they were fully out of the cave. Then, they scrambled up the hill to the big pile of boulders. Xena figured out which one they needed to push to send the pile falling. She sat down, braced herself, put her feet against the boulder, and struggled mightily, but it wasn't moving much. Gabrielle got down too, put her feet on the boulder and braced herself. She looked over at Xena. “Ready, love?”
They pushed hard against the boulder. It moved only a little. They let up and pushed again, rocking the boulder slowly to gain momentum. Finally, the boulder tumbled over the edge and triggered a landslide of other boulders and rocks. When the dust below cleared, Xena and Gabrielle slid their way down the hill and hightailed it back to the main path.
Xena looked back at their handywork and pulled Gabrielle into a big hug. “That should do it.”
“Thank the gods!”