By Belle (Bel-wah) Reilly
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
Authors note: in honor of Stephanies brilliant idea, although I had no time to write a new trick or treat story, I did polish up this old chestnut, one of my first-ever fanfic stories written in a burst of inspiration on Halloween 1998. So, if youre willing to excuse the excesses of a nascent writer, feel free to enjoy!
A sighing, restless wind swept down from the darkened sky; it reached out with chilled fingers to challenge a flight of swallows lifting off from a stand of ancient oak trees. The birds struggled against the invisible current, crazily listing and yawing their way skyward, constantly shrieking their disapproval at this unseen adversary. Uneasy at the approaching darkness, they were determined to reach their evening roost before the sapphire ribbons of twilight faded into night.
The damp-cool gusts that signaled a change of seasons puffed their way over the earth, scattering dying leaves and skittish wildlife in its wake; stripping the landscape and leaving it in a nearly barren limbo - removed somehow, from what was, and not yet transformed into what will be.
The road from Thracia to Calaye was little more than a path really, and a muddied one at that, thanks to a drenching rain that had fallen during the afternoon. Limbs on the trees lining the track swung heavy and low, and moisture weighed on the boughs and leaves like a guest who had overstayed his welcome. But storm clouds had given way to clear; the downpour had ceased, and the fat dollop of a full-moon-rise was just beginning to announce its presence overhead.
A small deer poked its head out of the undergrowth, sniffing carefully, curiously, at the cool, moist air. It paused for a moment, letting the breeze ruffle its velveteen fur. Satisfied that the coast was clear, it lazily returned to its foraging. The deer was a young one, not two summers old, and it chewed deliberately on the wild remnants of sweet-grasses growing at the base of a cottonwood, unaware, at first, of the danger that approached.
Another taste of the natural delicacy - and it froze, its senses kicking into hyper-alert, suddenly aware that the balance of nature had changed. The chirruping sounds of the forest had stilled, locked fast into a fearful silence along with the deer. A crashing sound suddenly broke the ponderous quiet, together with a terrible growl, hurtling closer and closer - it was nearly there!
The deer did not linger to meet its fate. With a panicked flick of its tail and nary a backward glance, it bolted into the thicket.
"Darn it, Gabrielle - there goes dinner!" The tall, dark warrior princess gazed longingly at the quivering branches indicating the spot where the deer had made its escape.
"Dinner? I dont think so, Xena. " Gabrielle, the fair-haired bard of Poteidaia, was clearly vexed. It had been a hard day of difficult travel over rough terrain. "The last thing I feel like doing right now is field dressing a deer." She sighed and leaned up against a nearby cottonwood tree, propping herself up with her staff. "Why dont we just keep on going until we reach Calaye? Im sure we can get supplies there."
Xena reluctantly replaced her chakram at her side and turned to face the young blonde. "What?" the frustration in her voice was plain. "Gabrielle, not ten minutes ago you couldnt stop complaining about how your feet ached, and how you wished we would stop for the night!"
"I said no such thing," Gabrielle replied, miffed. After all, changing your mind was a womans prerogative, right? She deliberately avoided Xenas piercing blue-eyed gaze and instead devoted her attention to plucking at spatter of mud on her skirt.
Xena put her hands on her hips and released a sharp burst of air. "Obviously," she ground out through gritted teeth, I misunderstood."
"Thats alright." Gabrielle said sweetly, reaching out and patting the warrior on her muddied arm. "We all make mistakes. But if you insist..." she leaned down and picked up a loose branch, and she waved it in Xenas face. "Id worry more about how youre planning to build a fire out of these wet sticks."
It had been a long day on the road for both women, traveling over unknown territory, in not the best of weather. Under better conditions, they wouldve surely made it by now to the small village of Calaye that stood on the far side of the forest. The settlement was the halfway point in their journey to meet old friends in the seaport town of Pontios. Xena had been glad theyd decided to leave Argo behind as theyd both struggled to make their way, and she had not been unaware of the bards increasingly labored breathing and slowing pace as theyd slogged along the sodden path. She guessed now that Gabrielle was simply having trouble admitting with any finality that shed had enough this day and needed to stop here - in spite of the promise of a warm bed at the end of the road.
The dark of night was fully upon them now, and they were out in the open in an unfamiliar area. Even with the best of luck, if they stopped now the most they could hope for would be a meal of stale bread and over-ripe cheese, followed by a cold, fireless night in a forest that, truth be known, left Xena feeling slightly unsettled. Probably just her instincts confirming that shed never traveled this path before, she considered. But whichever they decided - camp or press forward - they needed to decide now.
Xena assumed an impatient stance and turned her eye towards the moon overhead. "Look, do you want to go on to Calaye or not?"
With and exasperated sigh, all the fight went out of the bard, and the weariness of the day took over. "Well... its probably not a bad idea if we stopped after all..."
"Sssssh!" The warrior angled her head towards the trail, her ears cocked and alert.
"Xena - if you go after that deer again I swear Ill..."
"Gabrielle!" Xena held up a hand to silence her friend. "Do you hear that?"
And there it was, barely audible over the whispering moans of the swaying trees the very real sound of a woman crying. Xena was already moving up the path to find its source, and Gabrielle had to quickly shove off after her to keep up. She had no intention of being left behind in the dark.
"What the--?" Xena paused as they curved around a slight uphill incline. Not ten paces ahead of them, a young woman sat on a large rock by the side of the road. She held her head in her hands and wept piteously, uncaring of the wind, the dark, or her dangerous solitude. Her long black hair was pulled back from her face, gathered in a delicate oyster-shell clasp, and she was dressed in a simple, long white gown. The moonlight reflected from the garment, giving the woman an almost translucent appearance.
Gabrielle was the first to move, breaking ahead of Xena in her rush to comfort the woman.
"Whats the matter - can we help?" she inquired, arriving breathlessly at the womans side. But the bards words only caused the womans wailing cries to escalate.
"Whats your name?" Gabrielle tried again, sitting down and placing an arm around the womans quaking shoulders. This contact seemed to calm her sobs, and she lifted her head from her hands as Xena drew up to them.
"Are you alone out here?" the warrior demanded. Xena briefly eyed the surrounding area and saw no sign of any other travelers. Not that there was much to see in the gloom. Gods, what was this woman doing here? Despite the soft light from the harvest moon, this forest was no place for a woman alone, at night. Something wasnt right here, Xena thought, feeling a mild annoyance with herself at her inability so far - to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
The lone traveler turned her head up to the warrior, displaying a mottled, tear-streaked face that failed to mask the fine features and porcelain skin that spoke of an uncommon beauty. "Marah."
"What?" Xena found herself feeling even more confused such a beautiful woman, out here all alone!
"Marah," the woman repeated, swinging her gaze from Xena to Gabrielle. "And yes, I am alone."
"Marah," Gabrielle gently began, "What happened?" The bard offered her a drink from their waterskin, but Marah waved it off.
"I was on my way to Calaye," she said haltingly, "but the weather turned bad and it it slowed me down."
"Tell me about it," Xena rolled her eyes at the bard, who responded with a stern look that hushed her friend.
Gabrielle returned her attention to the woman. "Go on."
"Id traveled too far to turn back, and with the darkness coming I didnt know if I could go on. But I have to, you see. Perseo is waiting for me!"
"Who is Perseo?" Xena wanted to know. She shifted her view to the adjacent woodland, thinking this Perseo might appear from nowhere, as had the woman, apparently.
"Perseo..." Marah said, a pale blush stealing across her cheeks, "... and I are going to be married."
"Aaaaah..." the bard sighed knowingly. There was nothing she enjoyed more than a tale of romance.
"And your families are against it," Xena cut in, studiously ignoring the bards withering gaze.
Marah instantly jolted to her feet. "How did you know?! Did my parents send you...."
"Calm down!" Xena put her hand on the agitated womans shoulder, doing her best to keep the girl from bolting. "Why else would you be out here alone?"
"Look, Marah," Gabrielle shot Xena an evil glare. Why wouldnt Xena simply leave this sensitive chat to her? "Let us help you. We were just about to camp for the night, and tomorrow"
"No no, I have to keep going!"
"I promise," Gabrielle said, again reaching for the woman, "tomorrow everything will be fine, and well take you to Perseo--"
"No!" Marah desperately spun away from the bard, twisting up her hands in the folds of her gown. "You dont understand... Perseo is waiting and... and ."
"And what?" Xena demanded, clearly impatient.
"The Mordello." Marahs voice was hushed with fear, and her eyes looked past Xena and Gabrielle, trying to penetrate the darkened woods beyond.
"The Mordello," Gabrielle said flatly, all thoughts of romance expunged from her mind. "What is that?"
"Its a terrible, evil beast that lives in these woods." Marah was nearly frantic now. "Thats why weve got to keep going. If we stop, it will find us and--"
"No need to worry," Gabrielle quickly recovered. "Its just as easy for us to continue on to Calaye tonight. And we can take you with us - to your Perseo, right Xena?" Gabrielle gave the warrior a look that would brook no argument.
Xena shook her head and picked up their traveling bags, chuckling softly. Well, at least theyd be moving again. And this poor girl did seem to need their help. Gods, how had she made it this far on her own? "Best idea Ive heard all day!" The warrior winked at the bard.
"And dont you worry about the Mordello, Marah," Gabrielle said confidently as the three began to resume their trek in the moonlight, "not with Xena around!"
Gabrielle and Xena lived the majority of the time in the out-of-doors; it was a life that the both of them had voluntarily chosen; a traveling bard and a warrior in search of redemption. From one day to the next they rarely knew what lay in store, and yet their lives together had attained a level of intertwined existence and harmony that seemingly defied all odds. And as they traveled along the dank, darkened trail this night, periodically speckled with faint splashes of light from a harvest moon, Xena logically knew that the there was no beast to be feared in the forest. Man, however, and the threatening unpredictability he possessed, was another matter. Even with that, she did not fear for herself. Rather, it was the life of the bard whom she journeyed with that she had long ago decided she would give her own to protect.
Xena watched the two young women ahead of her; how Gabrielle kept chattering away, trying to draw out Marah in conversation. Many a time, along their travels, Xena had enjoyed her young friends storytelling. It helped to pass the day... soothed her, even the times when Gabrielles tales would descend into silly monologues, barely requiring a grunt or a nod of encouragement from her for her companion to continue. But now, the warrior could see Gabrielle was having a tough time of it. Marah seemed to have a single-minded sense of purpose: to get to Calaye and to her Perseo.
Must be some guy, Xena thought to herself, to spur the delicate-looking woman out of her village on such a risky undertaking. Although, as rough as the path was, Xena noted that Marah appeared to be virtually flying along the trail, showing no signs of fatigue. Unlike the bard, who had now breathlessly moved on to an inquiry of what Perseo did for a living. Xena kept to the rear, content to let the headstrong stranger take the lead, while she herself guarded their backs against the "beast" this Mordello.
Right. The fanciful imaginings of a young womans nightmares, no doubt.
The warrior smiled as she recalled how Gabrielles eyes had grown large as saucers back on the trail when Marah had described Mordello to them: a terrible creature with a fanged boars-head and snout, placed on the body of a Zeus-knew-what. Quickly, the bard had tried to hide her fear, but not before Xena had detected it. Mordello or no, these women would be safe tonight, the warrior resolved. She would see to it.
"So... Perseo works for his father at the inn, does he? Must be interesting!" Gabrielle stumbled over a tree root. "Although sometimes working so closely together with your family can trigger a whole new set of problems, dont you think?" the bard prattled on. "Why I remember one summer when I had to help my father at the Poteidaia sheep-shearing festival. Let me tell you, things got pretty hairy between us--"
"We must get to the inn!" Marah interrupted her, casting a worried glance up at the moon. "Before my family knows Im gone... before the Mordello strikes... I must be with Perseo! " and her voice wavered at that last.
Gabrielles heart nearly broke as she looked upon the determined woman. She had rarely seen anyone in such a passionate state of distress. Marah was heading towards her love, and yet the bard was still dismayed by the profound feelings of sadness and melancholy that were rolling off the girl in waves. Shed tried everything, and there was nothing she could do to snap her out of her despair. Fine help Xena was too, lagging behind them and avoiding any conversation. It was almost as if the very presence of her and Xena were of little consequence to Marah, although shed been insistent that they accompany her.
"So, once you and Perseo are married," she tried again, "will you work with him at the inn, or stay at home and--- AAAAAHHH!!!!" Gabrielle screeched, nearly lifting off the ground in fright. "Whats that?"
"Gabrielle!" Xena quickly covered the ground to her friends side. "What the--"
"In there!" the bard jabbed her staff towards the forest. "Behind that bush! I saw something--" Gabrielle had locked her arms so tightly around the warriors leathered waist that Xena literally had to pry herself loose, all the while holding back the smile that played at her lips. She headed towards the bush. Admittedly, there was a slight rustle in the ebony-colored branches there. Perhaps it was the wind.
"Heeere, Mordello! Heeeere beastie, beastie!"
"Careful, Xena!" Gabrielle was scandalized. "Dont antagonize him!" The blonde peeked from behind Xenas back, staying within scant inches of her, unconsciously mirroring her every move.
Xena cast a quick glance at Marah. She was rooted to the spot where she stood, her unfocused eyes directed upon the bush, paralyzed with fear. The bush shook again, and this time it was obvious to the little group that its movement had nothing to do with the breeze.
"Heeeeyaaaa!" Xena cried, extricating herself from the bards iron grip to go plunging into the undergrowth.
Gabrielle fell back, landing indelicately on her rump. Muttering under her breath, she propped herself up on the palms of her hands. "Xena!" she called out.
Nothing, save for the play of the wind whistling through the trees, whirling and swiping through the shadowed mist that had fallen.
"Xena?" she tried again, her voice was tight with fear. She leaned forward, trying to see into the black thicket. Her heart was pumping out of control now, and a cold tremor tingled down her spine. What if Xena were in trouble? What then? Well, shed just have to go after her, wouldnt she? She swallowed hard, preparing for one last call.
"Xen-- yeeaaaaaahhh!" the bard curled up into a defensive ball as a dark shape hurtled out at her from the bushes.
"Heres your Mordello, Gabrielle!" she heard a low, familiar voice say. Cautiously, carefully, the bard blinked open one eye, and then the other. There, looming above her in the moonlight, was the magnificent warrior princess. And gripped tightly in her hand was the monster: a rather large, demonic-looking lop-eared rabbit.
"Xena! Why you ." Gabrielle sputtered, struggling to her feet.
Xena laughed, gave the bunny a quick pat on the head and with a soft "off you go" released it back into the forest.
"Xena... Ill get you for that!" Gabrielle vowed.
"Hey!" Xena protested with a smirk. "You shouldve seen the fight that little bugger put up! Maybe hes one of Mordellos cousins, eh?"
Under normal circumstances, Gabrielle mightve been willing to indulge in a bit of verbal sparring with her friend. But she saw that Marah, unconcerned now by their little drama, had already resumed her quest for Calaye.
"Can we just get moving again Xena, please?" she said, tugging on the warriors arm. "This place is starting to give me the creeps." Gabrielle started off after Marah. "Marah - wait up!"
"Starting to give you the creeps!" Xena shook her head and chuckled under her breath. It had been a long time since shed seen the bard so jumpy. Still, she couldnt resist having that bit of fun with the rabbit. But seeing how badly Gabrielle had been frightened, how the blood had rushed from her face, Xena had to admit she now felt a twinge of remorse.
Just a twinge.
The three women pressed on into the night, guided by the light of the moon overhead and Marahs unerring sense of direction. The beautiful woman may have appeared frail and delicate, Xena thought, but she had an internal strength and fortitude that impressed the warrior greatly. It was just the pervading silence... a separateness about her, that threw Xena off. And she knew not why.
A pair of nighthawks were hunting overhead; Xena recognized their persistent "peeenting" call. She doubted the birds would have much luck this night, for the mists hanging low on the forest floor would be sure to obscure their prey.
"How much longer?" Gabrielle shivered against the encroaching chill.
"Not too far. We must keep going... Im coming Perseo," Marah said, never averting the dark pools of her eyes from the path ahead.
Sighing, Gabrielle dropped back a few paces to walk with Xena. The ache in her feet had long since retreated to a dull numbness. Her back felt as though shed been hauling a barge on the river Dorna, and - darn it - Xena looked as unruffled as ever.
"When we get to Calaye, if we ever get to Calaye," the bard muttered, "Im going to sleep for a week."
Xena grinned. "Im sure Perseo will be surprised to see us land on his doorstep at this hour," she said.
"As long as hes got a bed, a bath, and a hot meal with my name on it--" Gabrielle paused. A cloud passed over the moon, temporarily blocking what little light it had offered. An owl hooted, low and mournful, from somewhere within the primeval forest.
Its call went unanswered, as the woods fell silent.
The bard looked up at Xena, and then followed her gaze towards Marah. The woman had stopped in the path, and swung around to face them both.
"Nooooo!" A look of abject terror marred her features.
"What is it?" Gabrielle cried out, running to her side with Xena close behind.
"The Mordello," she breathed, looking past them into the wood.
It was not the wind that caused a rustling of the leaves, nor a rabbit that emitted a growling hiss that reached an icy-cold hand around Gabrielles heart. She moved protectively in front of Marah, and locked eyes with Xena. "Dont tell me - this time its a raccoon right?"
"Or a bear..." Xena shrugged. Afterwards, the warrior could not recall making the conscious decision to draw her sword. Rather, it was an instinctive move, born out of years of survival-based training and discipline.
The brambles moved again, and another low hiss slithered out of the fog. "Xena..." Gabrielle turned her wide eyes toward the sound, and tried to keep the near-panic out of her voice, "... does a bear hiss in the woods?"
And in a flash of fangs, fur, and claws, it was upon them. Larger than a calf, yet smaller than a man, it levered itself directly towards Gabrielle and Marah. Sword at the ready, Xena lunged to block its path.
"Sheeeyah!" she cried, plunging her blade towards its middle section. Xena felt herself carried forward by the force of her thrust - and by the gods if she didnt know better, it felt as if shed passed right through the creature! Off balance, she fell to the ground, and her weapon clattered from her grip onto the slick earth. The beast didnt appear to be harmed at all. What she had done was distract it from Gabrielle and Marah.
The Mordello turned on her, as beast that had to have come straight from Tartarus. It reared up on its hind legs, pawing razored hooves at the misty air, and Xena could see then that it had a barbed tail swatting dangerously from side-to-side. Shed be sure to stay clear of that. The creature bellowed and snarled as saliva dripped from its mouth. Xena groped for the chakram that hung at her waist, but her hand came up empty. Lost it in that tumble, she thought, and she watched as the Mordello gathered itself to leap at her. Xena reconciled herself to the fact that she could do nothing but prepare herself for the blow, and try, somehow, to give Gabrielle and Marah a chance to escape.
"Aaaaah!" In a blur, blonde hair flying, the bard blocked the Mordello, swinging her staff against the back of its legs. Or so she had thought.
Xena saw that Gabrielles maneuver had nearly the same result as her own swordplay. The force of her movement took her off her feet, and the beast gave no indication - other than a slight pause in its attack - to show that it had been affected. The bard hit the ground in a heap - temporarily stunned. The Mordello turned on her, cocking its grizzled head. "Rrrrrrraaaah..." it moved closer, its snout snuffling at the insensate girl.
Not Gabrielle! Xena seized this moment of its distraction to act. "Why you big, smelly sack of..." In one fluid motion she kicked off the ground, grabbing her sword in the process, and drove on the beast with a series of thrusts and parries that wouldve decimated the strongest of men. Again - the sum of her efforts had no effect.
"Yah!!!" Xena swung at the creature, one more useless stroke, and then she felt herself captured by the hateful, bloodshot eyes of the Mordello. For the first time, Xena was afraid. This was no misshapen creature of the forest. No, there in its soul-less eyes she saw a sentient flicker; this was a being whose only purpose was destruction... and death.
She was fighting a shade and a very determined one at that. Xena found herself out of options and out of time as the beast reared back and struck out at her. The force of its blow was real enough; she could feel the hot fire of its claws upon her shoulder, sending her flying backwards into the base of a tree. Uh-oh... Xena thought as she felt her head craaack against the tree-trunk. Though her world spun crazily, she tried to focus on the shadow of the beast in the moonlight as it prepared to lash out at her again, so close now that she nearly gagged at the scent of its fetid breath.
"Leave them alone!" It was Marah, galvanized into action, somehow inserting her body between Xena and the beast. In her hand was Xenas sword, and as she confronted the creature of the darkness, for the first time it showed fear. It stopped dead in its tracks, and let loose a soft, keening whimper.
Xenas head was still swimming as she looked upon the scene unfolding in front of her. Bathed as they were, in the glow of the moon, the Mordello appeared to shimmer and take on a less corporeal form. At the same time, Marah, too, seemed to radiate a gentle light from within, guiding the way for the thrust of her blade.
There was no doubt that the sword had found its mark this time. With an agonized roar, the Mordello grabbed for the cold steel that skewered it, and Marah stayed toe-to hoof with the beast, showing the same unwavering sense of commitment to the fight that she had shown for their journey. What happened next, Xena could later not be entirely sure of. There was a flash of brilliant, white light. The dreary forest was suddenly awash in a blinding mid-day sun, spotlighting Marah and the creature locked in their deathly struggle. Another flash, and Xena lost sight of the two, and then, against her will, she lost all sense of herself.
"Xena... Xena... wake up!" Pale blue eyes opened to see the worried green ones of the bard hovering over her. "Thank the gods!" Gabrielle breathed, helping the warrior to a sitting position. "Xena... are you all right? What happened? Wheres Marah?"
The warrior gingerly felt the lump on the back of her head and looked towards the clearing where shed last seen the Mordello and the girl. Her sword lay on the ground, a silent witness to all that had occurred. "I... I dont know," she said slowly, allowing the bard to guide her unsteadily to her feet. There were no footprints other than their own, no sign of the desperate struggle that had occurred - nothing.
"What if shes lost, or hurt, or...." Gabrielle swung her eyes to the thin rivulets of blood tricking down the warriors shoulder, "and look at you, Xena." She touched a hand to her friends gauntlet. "We have to take care of this."
"Not now!" Xena said more sharply than shed intended, shaking off the bard. "Lets get out of here. Cmon." She started to move, and then let her eyes drop down to the bard. The younger womans arms were crossed in front of her chest, and she stood trembling in the cold night air. Clearly, the young woman had been shaken by recent events, though she fought hard not to show it.
"B... but Xena..." her teeth chattered.
Xena could not help it, she gave the bard a quick squeeze, running her palms up and down the gooseflesh of her arms to warm her. She finished with a peck on the top of her soft golden-blonde head. "Ssssh... dont worry." Xena knew that the caring bard could not help but fear for their newfound companion. "If Marah went anywhere, she headed towards Calaye." She separated herself from Gabrielle and snatched up her sword and chakram from the muddy earth. "Ive had about enough of this forest to last me a lifetime. And then some."
A blast of wind took the door out of Xenas hand as they burst into the tavern. The shock of visitors at such an hour did not surprise the few occupants of the main room: a middle-aged man stood behind the bar, while at a side table an elderly man sat quietly, nursing his drink.
"Hello!" Xena said in greeting, eliciting nothing but a low grunt from the barman. The warriors eyes adjusted to the interior firelight, and she took in the simple, rough-hewn furnishings; a few tables, benches, and chairs. The bar itself occupied the length of one side of the room.
When she and Gabrielle had finally trailed into Calaye, this building - though it had looked more like a tavern than an inn - had seemed the most likely place where theyd find Perseo. Now, she wasnt so sure. Slowly, with Gabrielle on her heels, she approached the bar, knowing that the both of them must look a sight.
"Sorry to bother you, friend," she began. "But were looking for the inn-keepers son. This is the only inn in Calaye, right?" she punctuated the air with a wave of her arm.
"I am the keepers son," the barman slowly replied, not taking his eyes off them.
Xena looked at the balding, overweight man before her. Surely, there must be some mistake. She felt a soft nudge at her side - it was Gabrielle, sidling up to the bar and taking a seat. "Look... sir... I know we must appear..." she turned a sideways glance to the muddied, bloodied warrior at her side, her ebony hair shining in the firelight, and she could not resist plucking a dead leaf from above Xenas ear, "... unsavory to you," she turned her attention back to the barman, "but this is important. Were looking for Perseo. Its about Marah. Maybe youve seen her?" The bard held out her hand level to Xenas shoulder. "Shes about yea high, with dark hair, wearing a white gown and---"
"Marah!" The barman blanched, sagging against the back of the counter.
"Yes," Xena interjected, dabbing unconcernedly at her shoulder with a cloth Gabrielle had produced from her pack. "Do you know her? She was traveling with us for a time in the forest, until we ran into this... this creature of some sort...."
"The Moredello," Gabrielle supplied, fussing with Xenas wound. The warrior lightly batted her hand away.
"Thats right," Xena said. "If you havent seen her, we should probably find Perseo and organize a---"
"NO!" The barman cried out. "It cant be!" And he wrung his hands tightly to keep them from shaking.
Xena reached across the bar to calm the man. "Easy... take it easy." The fear seared across the mans features reminded her uncomfortably of the look shed seen on Marahs face, just a few short hours ago. "Well help."
"Theres no need." A soft, tremulous voice spoke up from the table where the old man sat.
Slowly, he stood, and Xena could immediately see that he wore his years like a heavy burden weighting upon his shoulders. His face was creased with the weathered lines of one who has seen many seasons, and a few gray wisps of hair still sprung out stubbornly from his scalp. Yet he sported a plush beard that extended down to nearly his waste and, though bent with age, his eyes still shown with a spark of blue that immediately arrested Xena.
"Who are you, old man?" she wanted to know.
The cold winds shook the little tavern and the roof creaked in a timeless complaint; but the thick, pressing silence within the room was broken now only by the pops and crackles from a dying fire. "I," he said at last, "am Perseo."
Xena and Gabrielle were held spellbound as the wizened old man told them his tale. More logs had been put on the fire, Xenas injury had been tended to, and warm drinks were delivered to the two friends by Parno the barman, Perseos son.
Xena spared a glance at her little bard. She knew the young woman had been pushed to the limits of her endurance by their journey, and yet her eyes were bright with excitement and curiosity as Perseo spoke.
"I waited for her, of course," he said, sipping at his own drink. A small droplet fell unnoticed upon his beard and was quickly lost there. "Wed heard rumors of the Mordello," he shivered, "an evil thing that walks the earth on nights of the harvest moon, but we were young and in love. What could possibly harm us? We thought them foolish legends, nothing more."
The two women glanced towards one another, linking eyes for a moment. They knew first-hand that the Mordello was no legend.
"When she didnt arrive, I went looking for her, of course. By then, her family knew she was gone - and we all joined in the search. But there was not a trace of her, save for a torn, bloodied piece of her gown--" his voice caught in his throat, "I found it near a campfire that shed tried to start." His face was etched with the pain of his memory. "She mustve finally stopped for the night... the weather was bad you see. "
A log splintered into smaller embers in the fireplace, and Parno moved away to tend the flame. He had heard this sad tale before.
"Sounds as though she was right at that spot where we first encountered her," Xena observed.
Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Yes. We we were going to make camp for the night--" and a tremor shook her body. Xena reached out to put a comforting arm around the bard.
"Good thing you didnt," Perseo said, shaking his head. "The Mordello"
"Wouldve attacked us as we slept." Gabrielle finished. Though her face was flush and heated from the warm fire, the slash of color across her cheeks could not hide the pale undertone clinging to her features.
"Yes," Perseo said. "I have no doubt of it."
Xena sighed and took a deep draught of the sweet, spicy beverage that Parno had prepared. She didnt believe in ghosts, and as she journeyed through life shed found that most evil in this world had a rational, human explanation behind it. Gods knew, shed been behind more than her own share of it. Even so, she was sorely pressed to explain the events of this past night. "Youre saying with Marahs appearance she tried to save us."
The old man wagged his head. "That would be my Marah," he said, lost in his thoughts. There was a quiet, for a time, and then he continued. "Of course, the years passed and I got on with my life... married a good woman - Parnos mother." He nodded towards his son, now busily cleaning glasses at the far end of the bar. " But I never forgot her. And I never will."
"How sad." Gabrielle said, her eyes filling with tears at the thought of the old mans suffering. "And poor Marah... out there all alone."
"Tonight," Perseo said, taking the bards hand tightly in his own, "Id like to think she wasnt," and he gave her a tired smile.
A cock crowed somewhere in the village, and Xena turned her eyes towards an eastern window. Sometime during Perseos storytelling, the winds had died down to a flutter, and there was the warm hint of a new days sun flirting with the horizon.
Parno was suddenly at the old mans side. "Come, father," he said, and Xena noted the affectionate, considerate way he took the old mans elbow, guiding him to a standing position. "Time for bed. You can talk more in the morning."
The barman turned to Xena. "Im sorry for your trouble tonight."
"It was no trouble," the warrior quietly replied.
Parno nodded towards a doorway at the side of the bar. "Theres a room with a bed there you can use, please, be our guests."
"Thanks," the warrior said. A bed sounded good. She groaned inwardly when she stood, her taut muscles protesting the recent abuse theyd been subjected to.
"Lets go, Gabrielle," she said, but it was as if the bard hadnt heard. Parno was ushering his father past them, and the young woman reached out to the old man.
"Are - are you sure theres nothing we can do?" Gabrielle implored him, wanting to believe that somehow, someway they might still be able to help Marah.
Xena could see now that her friend, always a sensitive soul, was having a difficult time coming to terms with what had happened. She wrapped a strong arm around Gabrielles shoulders, knowing there could be only one answer to the girls question.
"No." Perseo replied. The fatigue of the long night, underscored by his many years, was plain in his voice. "From time to time, on the night of the harvest moon, unfortunate travelers on the path go missing. Its not for me to say why that beast from Tarturus walks the earth then. But theres nothing you can do now, any more than I could on that same night... more than 50 years ago."
Xena could see the bard gulp hard and choke back her tears. "Were sorry for your loss," Gabrielle said simply as the old man shuffled past. "So so sorry."
"Its alright," he said, almost to himself. And he paused one last time, gazing at them with a pair of bright blue eyes that saw far beyond the two friends, past his son and the inn, back across the years to that long-ago time. In his minds eye, he could see her once again, his beautiful Marah.
One day, soon, he would rejoin her.
"Twas long ago," he cried softly, "so long ago."
"No," Xena whispered as the men departed, and she drew Gabrielle close in a fierce, protective embrace. "It was only yesterday."
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