It would probably help to read Caves first. Maybe. Then again, it might not.
Long, long ago... when we all lived in the forest, and none of us lived anywhere else, an old woman, older than the forest, came into a village. She stood in the centre square beneath an ancient oak tree and looked around with her piercing green eyes. All the people stopped whatever they were doing-- milking cows, or spinning thread, or drawing water. They came out of their houses and their barns and gathered around the woman, for she was very old and still very strong-- she called to them from her heart to theirs and so they came out.
They stood around her in silence and she looked upon each face in turn, and then she spoke to them.
"Come with me."
The old woman, who was older than the forest yet stronger than the oak she stood beneath, shuffled through the crowd around her and into the forest. And some of the people standing around shuffled after her, but most just stood there until she was gone and the ones who would follow her were gone. They woke as if from a deep sleep and looked around. Some of their children were gone, some of their wives and husbands, their mothers and fathers. And some of them had lost no one, and they were secretly glad.
And that year the cows gave less milk, and the thread was coarser, and the water harder to draw. Winter came early and stayed late-- they cut down much of the forest for firewood and it did not return.
It was a lovely day. The sun was bright but not too hot, the breezes were soothing and unobtrusive... the blacksmith was obstinate, evil-tempered and insulting.
That last was a real shame, Gabrielle thought, watching from the doorway. It wasn't as if he had anything else to work on. The job they'd asked him to do wasn't exactly taxing, either. Repair a teeny little nick on Xena's sword.
"This metal's a worthless alloy!" the smith sneered, "It won't take any kind of heat before warping out of shape. I don't waste my time on crap." He tossed the sword contemptuously down on the counter and folded his arms.
From deep inside the huge hood and tunic Xena'd made her put on before she'd agree to let Gabrielle come with her into this village, the bard grinned widely. Watching Xena negotiate with this oaf was a real treat. She relaxed against the door frame and nonchalantly fiddled with her staff.
Xena strove to keep her voice even and her temper in check. "Look. It's very simple. All I want-- "
"Lady, you don't understand. Take this... pig-sticker and go. Don't forget your little dwarf on your way out." He turned away from her in dismissal.
Gabrielle's eyes widened. Dwarf, eh? Her estimation of the smith's native intelligence dropped from squirrel to rabbit. 'And that's rather generous of me,' she thought, as Xena reached across and grabbed a handful of the man's hair. Pulling him backward over the counter she popped his neck in two places. As he gasped for air, she hissed at him, "Thirty seconds to learn a whole new set of manners.... twenty-seven.... and to say you're sorry to my friend... twenty-one... and apologise to my sword while you're at it... eighteen... and agree to fix it... fourteen-- "
"Okay! Please-- I'm... sorry, I'll fix... it... right up... please.. ow!"
Xena released him. As he writhed in the aftermath, she picked up the sword and looked at it thoughtfully. "Needs a good polishing while you're at it." She laid it carefully on the counter. "I'll be back in two candlemarks."
She turned away and strode out the doorway, Gabrielle following. They walked purposefully down the street toward the tavern where they'd left Argo early that morning. There were few people on the road, though it was mid-morning. The ones they did meet shied away from the pair. Xena was accustomed to being given a wide berth, but this was something different. Not like the last time she'd been there, alone, three days before. Even the stableboy had run off when they'd shown up earlier.
They reached the tavern and went inside. It was gloomy and smelled of long-ago ale and a faint hint of spoiled milk. Dots of sunshine speckled the floor of the taproom from round windows set high in the walls, ironically enhancing the darkness of the unlit areas. It was deserted, though they could hear the innkeeper rummaging around in the kitchen behind the bar. Gabrielle trailed closely behind Xena as they eased their way over to the back of the taproom and sat down at a table partially hidden by a pillar. Xena bent low, almost poking her head inside of the bard's outsized hood.
"Stay here, while I arrange for something to take up to our room," she whispered. Gabrielle started to push back her hood, but Xena quickly grabbed her wrist. "Don't even think of it. Just sit. Here."
"I'll bet. Looks it, too." Xena gave the top of the hood an affectionate slap as she turned away, effectively cutting off light and air from its interior. Gabrielle readjusted the brim irritably and looked around the room through the narrow opening. On a high shelf running around the main taproom were a jumble of odd objects, some useful, others whose purpose she couldn't begin to understand. Half-hidden by an old frying pan, she spied an intricately carved statue. She narrowed her eyes... a horse... no-- a centaur? Gabrielle started to rise for a closer look, but just then three men stumbled into the room. She sank back down in her seat and watched them shamble toward the bar, where Xena was still waiting.
Xena heard them enter, but did not turn around just yet. She listened... three men... two lightly armed.... one of them fell heavily over a chair and cracked his head on a table leg. She winced slightly, hearing his yelps. His friends didn't bother to help him, but crowded up to the bar near Xena.
"Hey, Tandis! Get your scrawny butt out here!"
"Yeah! We... want... shervice," the third man hiccuped and slumped to the floor. Xena looked down without moving her head. She noted the growing puddle on the floor beneath him with distaste and moved down the bar a few feet.
"Wassa matter wit' you? Don' like hones' workin' men's comp'ny or sumpin?" the second man glared at Xena and then glanced down. "Oh... heh... sorry 'bout that. Nico's a good guy usual..."
He got no further as the first man, who had risen shakily to his feet and meandered farther back into the room, shouted, "Timon! Nico--" He stumbled wild-eyed into to the bar, upsetting a small stool. Timon looked over at him. "What?"
"In th' back-- whole room's infested wi' 'em. C'mon!" He grabbed Timon's collar and attempted to drag him away from the bar, when Xena smoothly blocked their path.
"The... person back there is with me. Is there a problem?" She glared at them. The innkeeper picked that moment to stick his head out of the kitchen. "No dwarves allowed. House rules." He promptly disappeared again.
"Wit' you, eh?" Timon snarled at her, "C'mon, Andreas," he continued, drawing his sword, "time to earn our pay!"
Xena moved into a defensive stance as Andreas began to draw his sword, but then both men visibly blanched and backed away. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Gabrielle had risen from her seat and was standing with her staff a little behind and to her left. "Well, gentlemen?" the warrior drawled.
The two men charged them. The warrior leapt into the air, kicked out twice and landed easily on her feet. The men were down on their backs, groaning, their weapons on the floor several feet away. Xena looked back at Gabrielle. "If you'd just stay seated, I'll bring you your meal." The bard shrugged and spread her hands before returning to their table. On the way, she stopped to climb up on a chair and pick up the statue that had so intrigued her earlier.
Xena knelt down and lifted Timon and Andreas in each hand, setting them on their feet. With a shove, she propelled them out the door and into the street. Once in the sunlight, she spun them around to face her.
"I don't. Want. To see. Either. Of your. Miserable. Faces. Again. Understand me?"
They glared at her sullenly, chests heaving. Timon's eyes dropped first, and nodding, he tugged Andreas to follow him down the street. Turning back to the doorway, she nearly collided with the innkeeper, who had one of Nico's arms around his shoulders and was helping the half-conscious man to walk.
"Nico, I swear before all the gods, you have a lotta nerve, tossing away your pension in that gambling house and then coming round here to pass out... messing my floors... beg pardon, m'am, be right with you... known you all my life or I'd nail your hide to my door as a warning to worthless tosspots. There. Your home's that way." The old drunk slowly shuffled down the road, Tandis watching him with a deeply troubled look. He turned back to Xena, with difficulty rearranging his features into a welcoming expression. "Sorry for all that, m'am. They're good lads, most of 'em, most of the time, anyway." They re-entered the tavern as the innkeeper continued, "Now then, I've got a nice stew set by, and a fresh batch of ale on tap. There's some trout also, if you'd care for anything lighter."
They were well into the taproom now, and Xena glanced over to where Gabrielle was slumped half under the table, playing with the centaur, "Two mugs of ale and a couple bowls of stew, I think. Do you have any nutbread for my friend?"
Tandis glanced over, for the first time catching sight of the bard. Gabrielle waved politely. He stared at her a moment, then spun around to face Xena. "Friend?! Of all the-- Out! Both of you!"
Xena and Tandis whirled around. Gabrielle stood up and threw back her hood. "Just what in Tartarus is going on in this town?" she asked the man.
He stared at her, his mouth hanging open. Xena flew to the door and slammed it shut.
Gabrielle looked from the innkeeper to Xena and back. "Is anyone going to answer me?" She stepped forward into a pool of sunshine. Her eyes glittered a brilliant sea-green.
Tandis shut his mouth, blinked and turned to Xena. "You were better off when she was a dwarf."
In the next year a young man came to the village. He stood in the centre square beneath the ancient oak tree and looked around with his dancing green eyes. All the people stopped whatever they were doing-- feeding pigs, or chopping wood, or pulling weeds. They came out of their yards and their fields and gathered around the man, for he was very young and yet very strong-- he called to them from his heart to theirs and so they came out.
They stood around him in silence and he looked upon each face in turn, and then he spoke to them.
"Come with me."
The young man, who was younger than the brook new-sprung from the earth yet stronger than the oak he stood beneath, strode through the crowd around him and into the forest. And some of the people standing around strode after him, but most just stood there until he was gone and the ones who would follow him were gone. They woke as if from a deep sleep and looked around. Many of their children were gone, many of their wives and husbands, their mothers and fathers. And all of them had lost someone, and they were all in great sorrow.
And that year the pigs grew less, and the wood was spindly and burned slow and cool, and the weeds choked the good plants. Winter came early and stayed late-- they cut down even more of the forest for firewood and it did not return.
"Xena," the bard said, between spoonfuls of the inn's wonderful stew, "I don't understand. What's the problem these people have with green eyes?"
"Some legend or other." Xena shrugged, finishing off her mug of ale. "Never paid much attention to it, myself. Only barely remembered it in time last week to leave you in the cave." She stared at her empty mug. "Shoulda done that this time, too." she muttered.
"I heard that. Here, have mine, I don't want it." Gabrielle pushed her mug over to Xena and leaned back against the warrior, idly running her fingers over the centaur statue.
"I've found that nutbread you were askin' about earlier, Miss," Tandis said as he walked over to their table with a large covered loaf and a jug of ale. "Like your ale, then, do you?" He smiled happily down at the bard while refilling the empty mug Xena'd left in front of her.
"Um, thanks," Gabrielle replied, "really, that's not... uh... say, Tandis, do you have a moment?"
"Sure, just let me move a pot off the fire." He turned back toward the kitchen, leaving the two women alone for a moment. Xena downed the rest of her mug and promptly swapped with the bard again just as the innkeeper re-emerged.
"Right, then, miss, at your service-- goodness, you're a thirsty one. Here--" He poured her a fresh mug before she could blink. "Thanks again," she said, kicking Xena under the table. "Sir, when you said that earlier, about us being better off when I was a... dwarf? What did you mean? I thought dwarves were just a legend?"
"Well, miss," Tandis said, sitting down in a chair across from them, "strictly speaking, you're right. No such things as dwarves." He shrugged and continued, "Around here, though, and remember I'm only repeating what I'd heard as a lad growing up, there's some folks as what we here in the village call dwarves." Absently picking up Gabrielle's untouched mug and sipping from it himself, much to Xena's quiet amusement, Tandis leaned back in the chair and thought. Gabrielle took the opportunity to study him. A small man, not much bigger than herself, with bushy grey eyebrows overlooking black eyes. His hair was shot with grey also, but his skin was still a smooth, unwrinkled light tan. She jumped a tiny bit when he began to speak again.
"They've got their own settlement in the hills to the north. Used to be a fair lot of traffic between us and them, but that was long ago. They don't come here now. We don't go there."
"Why's that?" Xena asked casually, breaking off a piece of nutbread.
"Bit hard to explain, but..." Glancing over at Gabrielle, he went on, "That statue you've got there was one they made. Used to do some pretty fancy stone carving at one time. We've got good masons here, but it's not anything like what the hillfolk could do-- but don't you go repeating that. The guild's right sensitive about it. Anyway, that little centaur, feel how cold it is now?"
Gabrielle nodded, and the innkeeper stood. "Well, just you wait a bit, miss, I'll be right back." He dashed off to the stairs and disappeared. Gabrielle looked at Xena, who shrugged and then stood herself and sauntered off to the kitchen without a word. Gabrielle returned her attention to the statue. It was beautifully detailed, down to the bowstring in the figure's hand. She was marvelling at the skill it had taken to carve that when Xena returned with another mug and a jug of water. "Here. Thought you might be getting thirsty."
"Thirsty? Absolutely dry--" the girl replied as she downed the entire mug and poured another. "What's he up to?" They could hear doors being opened and shut, and once a metallic clang as something heavy dropped off a shelf. The innkeeper reappeared as Gabrielle poured her third mug of water, carrying a stoneware bowl and a raised cooling rack.
"Haven't had much call for these things, forgot where'd I'd left them," He set the bowl on another table and the rack beside it. The two women watched in silence as he quickly filled the bowl with kindling from the hearth and lit it. With the small fire going well, he set the rack above it, then turned back to their table. "Right, then. Now the statue..." He carefully placed the statue on the rack and stood back. "In a bit you'll see what I mean." Glancing back at their table he noticed the second now-empty jug for the first time. "Goodness, miss, begging your pardon, but where do you keep it?" Gabrielle smiled weakly at him and shrugged. Picking up the jugs he headed back for the kitchen. "There's plenty more, though. Tapped a fresh barrel just this morning."
Gabrielle turned to Xena. "You're not doing a thing for my reputation, Princess."
"Like it's been worth anything since you started tagging after me," Xena grinned, then her eyes widened as she looked past the bard to the statue. "Gabrielle... how much of that ale did I have?"
The rising heat from the small fire had caused the legs of the figure to turn from a dull ochre to a translucent pink. As they watched, the rest of the centaur slowly shifted colour until the entire figure had become as glass, with the colours of the fire undulating gently about through it. The little centaur almost seemed to come alive, its muscles to clench and relax, its chest to rise and fall, ever so slightly. Last to be affected by the change was its head, and as it, too, reacted the bard left her chair to stand as closely to it as she could, scarcely daring to breathe. "Xena..." she whispered, "his eyes are green."
In the next year a person neither old nor young, neither male nor female, came to the village. This person stood in the centre square beneath the ancient oak tree and looked around with cold green eyes. All the people stopped whatever they were doing, digging roots, or carving gravestones, or fighting over scraps. They came out of their huts and their alleys and gathered around the person, for the stranger was neither young nor old but yet was very strong-- the stranger's heart called to their hearts and so they came out.
They stood around the stranger in silence and that person looked upon each face in turn, and then spoke to them.
"Two years running you would not come with me. Your children did, and your wives and your husbands, and your mothers and fathers, but not you. Have you gained so much by your stubborness?
"For the last time: come with me."
The people standing around murmured in their hunger and pain and sorrow, for these things tore at them so that they could not fall under the stranger's spell. And then one, and then another, plucked stones from the earth and threw them at the person under the ancient oak tree, and then one, and then another of the stones struck the stranger in the head and over the heart that ceased calling them. And the stones flew in the air so thick and so fast that they covered the person completely and all there was to be seen was a pillar of stones under the oak tree.
And that year even the roots gave out, and the gravestones covered all the open land, and people ceased to fight over scraps, for there were too few people and no scraps at all. Winter came early and stayed late-- they cut down even more of the forest for firewood and there was no forest left.
"That's it. That's the problem in a nutshell," the innkeeper said, setting two full jugs of ale on the table and refilling their mugs. "Seemed more and more of those things were showing up with green eyes, until pretty soon we just didn't want to have anything more t'do with their makers." Taking a heavy cloth from his belt, he carefully lifted the statue from the rack and set it away from the brazier to cool again.
Gabrielle reluctantly sat down again, finding it hard to watch the little centaur revert back to dull stone. Shaking her head, she raised her mug in a salute of surrender to Xena and took a long drink. The innkeeper turned to Xena, "You don't often find young folks with a head for ale on 'em as she's got."
"No, well, she's had a lot of practise," Xena deadpanned, enduring another surreptitious kick, "and we travel a lot. Often the water's not drinkable, so...."
"True enough," Tandis agreed, "why, many's the time I've heard travellers in here complain of the water-- they say it gives them a bellyache something fierce-- there, miss, you oughten to swallow so fast--" He stood up to help Xena pound the back of the choking bard and continued, "Not that I've ever noticed any problems, but then I s'pose it's just a matter of being used to it."
Regaining her composure, Gabrielle vowed a private and thorough revenge on her erst-while best friend. A small burning sensation flashed through her midsection and she amended the vow to include the entire village. 'First things first, though,' she thought. "Tandis, I still don't quite get the part about the eyes. What do the villagers have against green?"
Tandis stared down at the table. "It's been said," he said slowly, "a green-eyed person will destroy the village."
"Destroy it?" Gabrielle frowned. "Destroy it how?"
The innkeeper looked up then and smiled. "Well, that depends on who you ask. Some say tis by fire, others by flood, still others say that if one with green eyes so much as focuses 'is cursed sight upon a single villager, the whole town will straightway sink into the earth, leaving naught behind, not a stick nor a stone."
Xena drawled, "You don't seem convinced, yourself."
"Oh, well, then..." He stood up, and looked over at the door. "can't believe everything you hear, can you now? And what I believe is that if I don't open up for business soon, I'll have the whole town standing outside that door."
"All right... Gabrielle, let's go on up to our room."
In the next year no one came. The ones who still lived gathered their axes and their knives, their rags and their hides, their hammers and their chisels, and left the village by themselves.
They came here. And they, the mothers and fathers of our mothers and fathers, said to each other that in no way, by stealth or by sunlight, would such ever come to trouble them again. And since the only way they could know if such a demon walked amoung them would be by the green light in its eyes, they vowed to put all those with eyes of the sea or the spring leaves to death, whether they be wanderers or their own new-born children.
And that year winter came late and left early, and was very mild throughout. They caught wild cattle and tamed them, and sought out the wild tubers and tended them. They trapped wild boars and penned them, and worked the stone to make houses instead of gravestiles, for no one died. They grew strong, and bore many children. And the few they bore with the eyes of the demon they carried out of the village into the hills and left them there.
And even their mothers did not weep over them.
They were well up the stairs when Gabrielle doubled over, groaning. Without a word, Xena wrapped an arm about the girl's waist and half-carried her the rest of the way. Once inside the room, she helped her onto the bed.
"I've got some herbs in the bag that will help, and on the bright side, they'll mix with ale as readily as anything else."
"Okay... just stay there. I'll be right back."
Xena hurried back down to the taproom. It was now quite crowded. As she made her way through the knots of customers she overheard a number of comments on the inn's having been closed earlier, some serious, some joking. She signalled Tandis and ordered another jug of ale. His eyes grew wide. "For...?" She nodded, and he could only shake his head as he filled the jug. Handing it to her, he said, "Truly, m'am, I've never seen the like."
She just shrugged, picking up a new mug from the shelf behind the bar and carried it all back to the room. Gabrielle still lay on the bed, flushed and sweating. "Xena... this is worse than being seasick," she gasped.
"I know... shh, try to relax if you can, I'm hurrying."
Xena quickly found the herbs and stirred them into a mug of ale. It frothed and foamed over the sides, before going completely flat. Gently lifting the bard's head, she said, "All right, take a deep breath, and swallow it all."
Making a face at the taste, Gabrielle managed to choke it all down. She leaned back against Xena. After a moment she looked up and whispered, "You're dead, Princess. If I live to see another sunrise, you're dead." Xena started to laugh, but Gabrielle cut in, "Don't do that! Shakes the bed."
"Okay... shh." She felt the girl's forehead and was relieved to note it was cooling down. "In a few minutes you should be much better. Here, lie back down. I need to get my sword back and check on Argo."
"Tell Argo... I forgive her..."
"Just try to get some rest, okay?" Xena shook her head and quietly eased out of the room, making sure to latch the door behind her. Once downstairs she noticed that the crowd had thinned considerably. The ones that were left seemed to take more notice of her than before, but Xena was used to that kind of wary attention, and ignored it. She strode purposefully through the taproom to its outer door.
Not the next year, nor even the year after, nor even the year after that, but in the year after that one, a stranger did come to the new village, but he aroused no alarm, though he was hooded and cloaked. And the people gathered around him in wonder but not in fear, and they stood in silence for a moment. And suddenly he threw back his head and laughed, and they laughed with him, and all could see his eyes were merry and joyful, though they still were hidden in the hood of his cloak. And our mothers and fathers felt no need to discover the colour of the stranger's eyes, for he was obviously no threat to them, being so unlike the tales they had heard of the demon, that had so long ago tricked away their own mothers and fathers, husbands, wives and children.
And the stranger said no more, but left still laughing, and our mothers and fathers laughed with him as they waved good-bye. The next day he returned with others of his kind, also hooded and cloaked, and with waggons full of wondrous things wrought from stone. There were table tops and oil lamps, bowls and spoons and vases and urns. But most marvelous of all were the little fire statues that when heated over a flame or built into the back wall of a hearth would become as polished jewels with the colours of the fire dancing all through them.
Our mothers and fathers bargained for the stonework, but the strangers asked little of them, just a bit of bread or a haunch of meat and for the fire statues they asked nothing at all. And when all was dispersed and the waggons empty of stone but full of food, the strangers laughed again as they left the village, and again our mothers and fathers laughed with them as they waved good-bye.
After she was gone and the door shut behind her, one of the villagers mused aloud, "Heard summat odd about that warrior earlier today..."
"You're always hearin' things-- have ye no work t'do, Eupator?" replied a tanner in a stained apron, leaning against the mantle and picking his teeth.
"If you were as efficient as I about your own tasks, ye'd 'ave a bit to spare of a mornin' on more'n th' hides before yer face!"
"If I were... save it, laddie," The tanner sauntered over to Eupator's table and sat down on the edge. "So, what'd ya learn, then, w' all yer efficient freedom?"
"That there warrior was seen goin' about the street this mornin' wit' a dwarf."
"Seen?! By who?"
"By Armineus the smith, for one. And for another by Nico. Says he saw it here, in this room."
"Get on w' yer. Arm's always seein' dwarves, and Nico's a tosspot-- been one all 'is life, since 'is son were taken that 'is wife died bearin'... if he said he saw the sun overhead at midday, I'd want a second opinion. It's been many a long year since any o' th' hillfolk came to market here."
"Well, it's easy settled... dinar says there's been a dwarf here."
"Right, then, you're on. Tandis! Hey, Tan! Need you to settle a bet."
The innkeeper strolled out from around the bar over to their table. "Well?"
Eupator set his mug down. "All right, Tandis, you just answer, and none o' yer fancy logic: has there or has there not been a dwarf in here this day?"
Tandis looked him in the eye and replied, "There has not. Will that be all?" At Eupator's resigned nod, he went back to his bar.
"Told you," said the tanner, pocketing Eupator's dinar. "Nico's a drunkard. Shouldn't ought to listen to a word he-- Zeus' ears!"
The effects of the drug plus the ale had left Gabrielle feeling light-headed, though less thoroughly miserable. In her confused state, she'd conceived the idea of going downstairs to ask for more nutbread to settle her stomach. The heavy hood flopping behind on her shoulders, the bard staggered down the stairs, using her staff as a prop.
The remaining customers stared for half a minute at the apparition in the doorway at the foot of the stairs before exiting the tavern as one. Hearing the noise, Tandis hurried out to catch Gabrielle as she staggered out into the taproom and helped her to a seat.
The strangers came every month after that. The little children called them dwarves, for they were always hooded and cloaked, and they worked in stone. The strangers took no offense at this, though they called themselves only the hillfolk.
This went on for many a year, the hillfolk coming each month with their stoneware and leaving with food, and our mothers and fathers traded what they didn't want to other strangers passing through and so grew rich in dinars. But they never traded away the little statues that melted in the flame and yet kept their shapes, for these were gifts of the hillfolk.
Argo was doing well on the stable's supply of oats, and the smith had silently, if grudgingly, returned Xena's sword to her with the nick neatly repaired and the entire weapon oiled and polished. Well-pleased, she hummed a tune as she turned the corner onto the tavern's street.
And immediately jumped back as a crowd of frightened and angry villagers surged around her. Those who recognised her snarled in her direction but continued on their way. She grabbed the arm of one of them and pulled him to the side.
"What's all the excitement?" she drawled.
"You should know." He spat onto the ground and glared at her. "You brought it here."
"One o' them cursed folk, warrior!" He twisted out of her grasp as she stared at him. "And ye c'n just take 'er on out again, or-- or we'll take 'er out for ye!" He turned and sprinted down the street. Xena continued to stare after him a moment before hurrying the other way to the inn.
She strode through the open door and into the taproom, immediately going over to where Gabrielle hunched over the stone top of a table, resting her forehead against its cool surface, her staff loosely held in one small hand. Xena sat down on the bench next to the foggy bard and laid a hand on her shoulder, gently rubbing at the knots.
"Gabrielle?" she asked quietly, "Swee-- Gabrielle, are you all right? Did they hurt you?"
"No... they... they left. Xena, I'm sorry, I didn't know they were here." The bard lifted her head from the table and blinked fuzzily at Xena. There seemed to be two of her, and Gabrielle was almost certain there should only be one. Looking at her, Xena smiled, partly in relief at her words and partly at the young woman's expression. 'Looks like a blond owl at noon,' she thought, as she pulled the bard back to rest her head on her shoulder.
"I thought..." Gabrielle continued, "some more nutbread..."
"How's the stomach?"
"Better... I just feel so... weird."
"Yeah, I can tell. Wish I'd had somthing besides ale to mix those herbs with--"
"Don't talk about ale, please." Gabrielle shuddered.
Tandis emerged from the kitchen. "Here's the last loaf of nutbread for your friend, m'am." He set the platter on the table and cut off a few slices. Gabrielle started to sit up, but Xena held her back, breaking off small pieces and feeding her with them. "Stay where you are," she murmured, "don't want you keeling over and knocking your head on the floor."
The innkeeper turned away and noticed for the first time the open door. As he crossed over to close it, Timon and Andreas blundered into the room, blocking his path.
"Out o' th' way, Tandis!" Timon hiccuped. "We've come f'r th' demon."
"Look 'ere lads-- there's no demon here," Tandis answered, smoothly blocking their view of the two women.
"S'what you told Eupator about th' dwarf..." Andreas tried to put his hand on his sword hilt and missed.
"And I was right about that, too, wasn't I?" Tandis continued, putting a friendly hand on their shoulders and smiling.
"You-- yer twistin' things again, Tan," Timon growled, "We've our jobs t'do--"
He got no further as the innkeeper brought their heads together with a smart crack. As the two men crumpled to the floor, Xena looked up. "Can you close the door, please? There's a draft."
Tandis closed his eyes and silently counted to ten. 'Warriors...' he thought, and then aloud, "Workin' on it, m'am!" as he stepped over the prone bodies and pulled the door to, throwing the heavy crossbar over it. Turning, he continued, "If ye've finished tendin' to yer... friend, there, we've a bit of a problem."
Xena looked down at her charge. "Had enough, yet?" A soft snore answered her, and she said to herself, "I'll take that as a 'yes'." She eased out from under the young woman and laid her gently down on the bench. Rising, Xena walked to where Tandis stood over the two unconcious men. "Them again? I thought I disarmed them."
"One o' the noonday rush took their weapons back to 'em; said 'twouldn't do for th' town watch to go about wit'out their swords."
"The town watch?! If you ask me," she mused, "it's a wonder they haven't tripped and fallen on their swords long before now."
"True... it's a hereditary job, y'see, and up till now, there's been no call for them to actually do anything, if ye take my meanin'."
"And now there is?"
"And now they think there is, yes."
Xena disarmed the two once again, and together with the innkeeper she trussed them up and carried them down cellar. Once back in the taproom they sat down to work out what to do next. Gabrielle still dreamed on the bench, Xena noted with relief. 'The longer she sleeps, the better off she'll be when she wakes.'
"Um, Tandis," Xena asked over a fresh mug of ale, "aren't you going to be in a, well, awkward position when that pair comes to?"
"Oh, don't yer worry yerself none about that, m'am," the innkeeper waved a dismissive hand, "I'll spin 'em a yarn will have 'em thinkin' they'd tied themselves up and hopped down cellar under their own power. No," he went on, "the problem's not th' fate o' our fabled village protectors, but rather," he set down his mug and stared pointedly at the sleeping bard, "how t' get th' two o' you down th' road in one piece."
They were still discussing it when Xena looked up to see that the roof was on fire.
And sometimes the outsiders, pleased with the good fortune they saw in the village, settled down to live here. Once in a great while, one would bear a child with eyes of the sea or the spring leaves, and wake one morning soon after to find the babe gone from its cradle. Then they might stay on in the village, but most often they left and never came back.
And once in a great while a trader would come through, and his eyes would be the colour of the demon that was, and such a one would not leave, but he would not be seen again either. After a time the traders grew more wary, and no more of these came to trouble us.
And then came a time when our mothers and fathers saw that when the newest statues of the hillfolk were set in the fire, their eyes were demon's eyes, glittering green and glowing. And when next the hillfolk came to trade, no one would trade with them and they left with their waggons full of stone, and no one laughed or waved good-bye.
And our mothers and fathers gathered up all of the fire statues they could find and took them up into the hills and left them there.
Xena quickly gathered Gabrielle in her arms and followed the innkeeper into a back hallway. Tandis stopped before a small door set in a side wall. Motioning Xena to him, he gave her the staff he'd snatched up and whispered, "This leads into a little courtyard... I dump rubbish in it. There's a gate in th' back wall. Beyond is a downslope to a creek bed. If you c'n get that far, you should be all right."
"What about you? And our friends downstairs?" Xena demanded. "I don't think you can talk fast enough for all of these people-- it's your inn they're burning, after all."
"Most of it's stone, 'twon't burn... th' lads in the cellar should make out all right. I was going t' say, wait for me at the creek-- I'll bring your horse 'round and you c'n get away wi' whole skins."
Just then Gabrielle began to stir. Xena set her on her feet and patted her cheek. "Gabrielle? You in there?"
"Where are we? What's--"
"No time. We're in the inn. It's on fire. We're escaping. There are angry people after us."
"Oh..." the bard smiled wanely. "Nothing new, then. Good."
Tandis hurried back down the hall as Xena handed the bard her staff. "We have to go through this courtyard and down to a creek. Can you handle that?"
"Sure," Gabrielle shrugged, "What about Argo?"
"Thought you didn't like Argo?"
"I forgave her, remember? And now I've recovered. Must be something in that."
"Whatever... she'll be along later with Tandis. Ready?"
"Right behind you." Gabrielle took a firmer grip on her staff as her vision doubled slightly and shook her head to clear it. 'Those herbs are as bad as henbane... pull it together, bard... show's starting.'
Xena bent over the latch and worked the bolt loose. She pulled the door open cautiously and peered out. The sun had almost set and cast long shadows through the litter of old bedsteads, broken tables and other unidentifiable but definately broken items scattered amoung the weeds in the old courtyard. She eased out, Gabrielle following her closely, and pulled the door shut behind them. They silently worked their way to the far wall. Xena cursed in a low monotone over the back gate's rusted latch. After some minutes she had it worked free and checked behind her for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle wasn't there.
With a wordless snarl, Xena spun around just as the gate crashed over on top of her, knocking her out cold.
Of the families that stayed on, one father was grasping and greedy, seeking only to hoard as many of the little fire statues as he could, and caring nothing for the tiny girl-child spirited away from her cradle as silently as an owl takes a mouse in a field. The mother wept long at first, but she later bore a fine son with eyes dark as a wormhole in an oak tree and forgot her grief in his smiles.
And this man kept an inn in the village, and hosted the traders passing through. To one of those he showed out of his store of fire statues a tiny wolf, lying at its ease and smiling out at the world, and the trader marvelled at the colours dancing through its body and the tiny green lights shining out of its head and offered a weighty sum of dinars for just that one. And so great was the greed of the father that he forgot the legend of the demon and even his own daughter that never was, and he took the trader's gold and gave over the little statue.
And this trader, knowing no better, made no secret of the deal.
Xena woke to full night, the weight of the gate still holding her down. She listened for a moment, and, hearing nothing out of the ordinary, eased out from under the slab of wood. Her eyes quickly adjusted to the moonlight. Looking around, she could make out the rusted places in the wall where the gate's hinges had given way, the forms of the rubbish in the courtyard and beyond, the standing ruin of the inn. Without much hope, she called out softly, "Gabrielle?"
A voice behind her answered quietly, "Not here, warrior."
Xena spun around. Tandis was framed in the arch of the gate's opening, Argo a dark shape behind him. She exhaled in relief. "Fancy meeting you here. Do you know where she is?"
"Maybe. But it's a fair hike out, and we'd best be gettin' on w' it."
"Half a second--" Xena looked around the enclosure once more and finally spotted what she sought in the weeds next to a smashed sideboard. Gabrielle's staff. She picked it up and walked over to Argo, breaking it down and stowing it in its place. She leaned against the horse a minute, gathering her strength and willing away the dark fears that nibbled around her thought. 'She'll be okay. I'll get there, I'll get her out of whatever it is, and we'll be on our way. Simple...' She squeezed her eyelids tightly together. 'Shoulda stuffed her back in that little cave in the first place and tied her down, before ever bringing her here. Stupid, warrior! Stupid!' She opened her eyes and took a deep breath. 'Never mind that, done's done. Just go get her.'
"All right, Tandis. Whenever you're ready."
The two moved silently down the slope and made their way to the creek bed. It was only the merest trickle at that time of the year, and they got across without making more than the slightest of sounds. Once on the other side, Tandis paused and turned around to the silent warrior. In an almost normal tone he said, "We're out of immediate danger, here... you should know-- I don't know where she is right this very minute--"
Xena's head went sharply up and she took a half-step back toward the village. Tandis jumped in front of her and held his hands up. "Wait, please! I do know where she'll be, where they'll take her, that is." Xena glared at him a moment, the urge to do something, anything, washing over her in waves, threatening to engulf her senses. With an effort she fought it down and replied in a steady voice full of menace. "Why shouldn't I take your worthless little... village apart, now, tonight?"
"They'll get scared, and maybe kill her, if you try."
"What's keeping them from killing her anyway, if that's what they want?"
"It's not their way. They never kill, not themselves... not directly. Please..."
Xena turned away from him abruptly and stared into the hills, black against the starry sky. "Okay, innkeeper, we'll do it your way." She turned back to him and her eyes bored into his head. "But if you're wrong... you won't have a village to return to."
Tandis nodded, and Xena relaxed with an effort, gathering up Argo's reins. "Well, then. Which way?" Not trusting his voice, Tandis merely pointed and they set off on the path leading into the hills.
"Tell me, Tandis... I've never really understood... why are you helping us like this?"
The innkeeper studied a callous on one hand before replying. "I had a sister once... at least, that's what my mother told me when I were a lad running about under the tables... I never knew her. She had eyes like your friend, like the sea-foam, like new-budding oak leaves... would you like to hear a story, pass the time, like?"
Xena sighed. 'Bards. Everywhere I go.' Aloud she only said, "Sure."
The innkeeper gathered his thoughts and ran over the thread of the tale in his mind before beginning, "Long, long ago... when we all lived in the forest..."
The watchmen of the village waited outside the inn of the greedy father that night, until all was dark and even the cries of the young babe within were quiet. They stole into the inn like mist in the forest, and when the sun rose again there was no more innkeeper in the village, nor, as they thought, any more fire statues in the inn.
The young mother stayed on, and hosted the few travellers that still came through, and nursed her boy, and laughed rather more often, for the father had been no great friend to her and the down in his fortune was an up in hers.
And the boy grew strong, but never big, and he wondered sometimes about his sister that never was. One year he asked the mother about it, and she only cried and then fell silent for a month or more, and he never asked again.
Gabrielle woke to complete darkness. She tried to open her eyes, but they were bound so tightly by a scrap of cloth that she couldn't even blink. She strove to feign unconciousness as she tried to work out where she was and what was going on. All she knew for certain was that she was lying face-down.
A memory filtered through... she was standing behind Xena, watching her work on the gate, and she came over queasy and started to pitch forward... someone caught her... not Xena. A hand muffled her mouth and another did something to her neck... and now she was here. Wherever here was.
Gabrielle fought down the panic... 'breathe... breathe.... okay, now-- first thing, is Xena here, too?' She extended her awareness around her, seeking any other sound, breathing, movement, a heartbeat... nothing. She remembered the time they'd spent in the cave, several nights ago, waiting for the dragons. Xena'd been so warm, wrapped around her... she thought of how the warrior's soft exhalations had stirred gently through her hair, how her heart's beating had echoed through the bard's own chest... she grit her teeth involuntarily and lay there, until her own heart once again slowed into time with her memory.
'All right,' she thought, calmer now, 'Xena's not here. So that means I have to get out of this and go find her.' Experimentally the bard rolled a shoulder and the panic began to rise again as she flexed a knee... she wasn't simply tied up-- she'd been swaddled, wrapped head to foot. 'Okay, this is not good... let's be honest, this is really very bad... Xena says there's always a way, just gotta stay calm and look for it...' Carefully she extended her tongue, and encountered not cloth, but hard-packed dirt. Spitting it out and stifling a sneeze, she began to work her hands forward and up, with a view toward enlarging the opening around her mouth and nose.
She heard the creak of a door opening somewhere above her, and the footsteps of people entering, and an odd shuffling sound she couldn't immediately identify. One pair of feet appeared to break away from the group and come closer. Gabrielle immediately stilled her movements and relaxed, concentrating on maintaining slow, shallow breaths. The steps became louder and hollow, as of someone walking downstairs, and then broke off. A warm glow filtered through the cloth over her eyes and she realised with some relief that she wasn't blind, though she'd not been conciously aware of being concerned about it. Something nudged her hard in her hip, and a man's voice called down from the head of the stairs, "'Ow's th' demon, then, laddie?"
"Still out, seems," responded the one who'd kicked her, and then receding, "'Ave ye got th' cart ready?" She heard the thumping of his boots ascending the stairs, and then muffled voices too distant to make out words.
'Demon?!' Gabrielle thought incredulously, 'First it's dwarf, now demon. What is it with these people?'
More thumping downstairs, then she was lifted by two pairs of hands and carried up.
"Mind 'er 'ead!"
"Hera's eyeteeth, lad, you want t' wake 'er up?"
"All right, all right..."
A bright light crossed her face and then was gone, the change in the air telling her they were outdoors. For a frightening moment she was suspended in mid-air, then something hit her in the side and she rolled over on it. 'Must be the cart... yuck-- what do they carry in here besides demons? No sneezing, bard...'
"Think you could be a little rougher, now?!"
"Eupator, yer a worrier, yer know that?"
"'S'not like it's m'job t' do this sort o' work--"
"Nor mine, either; what we been keepin' Timon 'n Andreas for all this time..."
She heard the voices continue up ahead as the cart began moving, and cautiously resumed working her hands up. Ironically, the trip up the stairs had loosened the swaddling cloths just a bit, and her task was considerably easier.
She heard splashing as they crossed through shallow water, then the way continued upward over bumpier ground. The cart slowed to a crawl as the men pulling it expostulated with one another. Listening, Gabrielle realised that they weren't merely worried, they were half out of their minds with fear, and the farther they went up the hill, the more afraid her bearers became.
She had just worked her fingers up to the opening around her mouth when the cart stopped altogether. The two men started arguing in earnest.
"This th' place?"
"Wha' d'ya mean, 'maybe'?!"
"I mean I don't know. I think it is..."
"You think. Well, what'd the old folks tell ye, then?"
"They said to dump 'er here... I think... you got the bottle?"
"In me pocket... no, wait-- it's gone."
"Gone?! Well, of all th' worthless--"
"Oh, gi' it a rest, will ya? Let's just hunt around here... I had it earlier..."
"Hunt around? An' th' demon wakin' any minute? 'Ave yer taken complete leave of yer senses?"
"Shh! We got t' find it, 'n give it to 'er, else she'll only come back an' destroy us all!"
With an effort, Gabrielle ooched her fingers out of the opening and pushed away hard. The fabric held a moment, but under this assault at its edge it gave way with a loud tearing noise. Her upper body free, she quickly tugged the wrap from her head and sat up, looking around. The men were standing a little way off with torches. Between the torchlight and their gaping mouths, they resembled fright masks, she thought. Thinking to alleviate the tension, she smiled at them.
They dropped the torches and ran.
Gabrielle stared after them a moment, then shrugged her shoulders and worked her way out of the rest of the wrappings. She got out of the cart and began working the kinks out of her muscles as she considered what to do next. 'The last time I saw Xena was in that courtyard back of the inn... to the courtyard it is." She walked over to the fallen torches and picked one up, then turned back in the direction of the path.
A stooped figure, hooded and cloaked, was blocking her way. Gabrielle started back, then stared as the stranger pushed back her hood, revealing a worn, wrinkled face out of which shone piercing green eyes. The old woman smiled and said, "Well, you've had a narrow escape, it seems."
"Yes... excuse me, I don't mean to be rude, but I've got to go find my friend--"
"Would your friend by any chance be a warrior?"
"Fight recently with a dragon?"
"Um, yes-- how did you..."
"I've a story to tell you. You like stories, don't you?" The old woman stepped forward and gently took Gabrielle's arm.
"Well, yes, but--"
"I'll tell you as we walk." The woman tugged Gabrielle toward the opposite end of the clearing. Almost against her will, the bard felt a compelling desire to go with her, and struggled against it. Observing this, the stranger reassured her, "Your friend will be along shortly. She's on her way now. Everything's all right, isn't it?" She smiled up at the younger woman in a confiding manner.
"I-- I guess so..."
"I'm sure of it." the woman replied firmly, "You just come with me. Now, about that story... "
And then after year upon year had passed, the mother in the inn did die, and her son buried her behind the inn, taking care only that she might be faced so as to look out upon the hills to the north.
And the years piled softly upon one another, heavy as the weight of a mattress carried through the streets, and in their sameness the new innkeeper could feel them as one year, but with days clogged and thick with memories layered into them. And once a year on the night that his mother had died, he took down from its hiding place the last little fire statue and set it in the flame of the hearth and stood before it till the dawn, watching the colours of the fire dance about in its body and the green light of its eyes shine out into the room.
Xena paused in a small clearing by the track they were following and looked up at the stars, estimating how much of the night was left to them. She became aware that her companion had ceased talking. She did a quick mental review of his last few words and decided that he must have finished his tale. "Nice story," she grunted, "so... they're not actually going to kill Gabrielle... just what are they going to do? She's not a baby, they can't just leave her for the wolves."
Tandis motioned her onward and they continued their climb. The scent of evergreens was all around them. "They don't leave th' babes f'r no wolves, either. They just leave 'em. Summat comes 'n takes 'em, don't know wha' tis, but it's not wolves. I remember oncet, when I were a lad 'n hidin' in th' rafters 'stead o' goin' t' bed like I ought, one o' them traders what had th' demon eyes, he stumbled in t' the taproom well after closin', half out his mind, woke me mother up. Said he'd been hauled up th' hillside 'n drugged wit' somethin', only he'd got free, knocked th' bottle w' the potion in't out o' th' man's hands and a lot spilt on the ground. They'd poured th' rest down 'is throat anyway, 'n rapped 'is head wi' a rock, t' keep 'im quiet. Said when 'e woke again, he could remember that bit, and some other things, but most was gone from 'im. 'E wandered around f'r a spell, but was confronted by someone who's face 'e couldn't see, on account o' the great hood 'e was wearin', and 'e turned and ran down the hill again, fetched up in our courtyard. In a terrible state, 'e was. His friends were still at th' inn, and they took 'im off that night."
Xena paused as the implications of this became apparent to her. "Wait, Tandis-- they're going to drug her and destroy her memory? She's a bard, her memory is her life."
Tandis stopped where he was, looking back at Xena. He suddenly looked very old. "M'am, that's all anyone's life is, what they remember of it. Please, if we hurry, we may stop 'em before they get that far. If not, well-- at least we c'n stop whatever 'tis that happens after."
Xena surged forward with renewed strength. "Are we ahead of them?"
"No. We're goin' up a different way, bit faster, maybe. They'll be takin' th' cart track. I'm hopin' t' flank 'em. You might want to leave yer horse up ahead-- we've some climbing t'do."
They gained a small rise and Xena saw what he meant. Their path continued up an incline a goat might manage, but certainly not a laden warhorse, not at night, despite the full moon. She secured Argo's reins and turned her loose, and the two people began inching their way up the steep slope.
At the top, Tandis paused to get his breath back, then leaned forward to whisper in Xena's ear.
"Right, then. Th' clearing's just down there." He pointed to a shadowed area amoung the trees below them. "Be as quiet as y' can, warrior, but be quick also."
With that he headed downward, Xena catching and passing him, now that she knew where they were going. When he reached the area a few steps behind her, he found her pacing around distractedly. She looked up at him. "She's been here, if they brought her in that cart. And there's some cloth in it, too, all torn up." Tandis nodded. "We're too late then..."
Xena gripped his shoulder. "Don't say that. Ever. We will fin-- what's that?"
Xena walked swiftly to the edge of the clearing and picked up the other fallen torch. It had smothered where it fell, but a few strikes of her flint caused it to flame anew. By its light they began a systematic search of the area. She was kneeling down, checking a footprint, when she heard Tandis yelp. She turned and began to draw her sword, but something made her wait.
Tandis stood next to the cart, looking level at a figure in a deep hood and cloak. Xena slowly let her sword drop back in its sheath as she walked over to them, being careful not to startle the newcomer. As she reached Tandis' side the stranger looked down at her and let his hood fall back. He smiled then, his eyes glittering bright green in the torchlight, and said, "Are you the hero who chipped his... her sword on a dragon's heart?"
Xena thought about it a moment. "I am."
"Good. Please-- come with me."
And they who had been children when the last waggons of the hillfolk rolled out of the village, still piled with stone and not with food, spoke sometimes of the dwarves to their own children, but with no real understanding, and the tales came to be of the wicked little folk of the hills, that tried to trick honest traders with false stone.
And though no one really noticed, green-eyed children ceased to be born to the village, and green-eyed strangers ceased to trouble them, till they'd almost forgot there were such folk in the world as had eyes coloured like the sea or the spring leaves.
On the way down the far side of the hill, Gabrielle listened to the woman tell a strange tale of a settlement of people faced with great hardship, and how the woman, who had dreamed of their coming suffering sought to alleviate it by persuading them to follow her to a more sheltered area, how she'd tried again and again, but still many would not go, despite the increasing hardships they endured where they were. And how finally, when they were greatly reduced in numbers, they had removed themselves to the valley in the south side of the hills. Gabrielle began to wonder just how old her companion was, but she put that question aside as the woman went on to tell of how the people whom she had gathered together began to find newborn babies left in the clearing, and the occasional witless wanderer, and how the only thing all these had in common were the green of their eyes.
"I felt responsible... there those poor people were, abandoning their own children and poisoning strangers..." the woman shook her head in regret, then went on, "We took the children in of course, and the wanderers, and cared for them. They grew to fine men and women, and still the babies appeared in the clearing. I felt the only way to stop this would be to reunite the two peoples, so I and some of the grown ones made the fire statues-- are there any left down there, do you know?"
"We saw one," the bard thoughtfully replied. "It belongs to the innkeeper, Tandis. It's very beautiful."
"Yes, they were... we made some other things, too, but that was just as a cover. Doesn't matter; it didn't work. So, I went away for a while and wandered the hills... I had another dream, this time of a great warrior, with a notched swordblade from a dragon fight... who stood in the centre of a village that housed both peoples. And no more babies left on the hillside."
Just as the woman finished her story, the two came out from under the trees into a beautiful valley with a cobblestoned street running up the center of it, glittering in the sunrise, and lined with small stone houses on either side. Gabrielle might have paused to admire the workmanship, but she caught sight of Xena and Tandis talking by a fountain. The bard broke into a run and launched herself into Xena's arms.
"Oof! We've got to stop meeting like this," the warrior grinned at her friend as the latter wrapped her legs around Xena's waist.
"Don't change the subject."
One eyebrow shot up. "What was the subject?"
"I forget. Put me down. When'd you get here? Hi, Tandis!"
The innkeeper smiled broadly in relief at the sight of the obviously healthy woman. "Hello to you, little miss, good t' see yer lookin' so well."
"Just a few minutes ago," Xena replied, setting Gabrielle on her feet. "We were just talking to-- Tandis? Where'd our guide go?"
Gabrielle looked around. "That's funny... Xena? The woman who brought me here-- she's gone, too."
"Yes, she was. Xena, she told me the most amazing story--"
Xena sighed. It was going to be a long morning after all, but at least Gabrielle was safe and sound. She cheered up. "Wonder if there's a tavern around here. We could sit in it, and I could prop up my feet." Spying a likely doorway, she started for it. "C'mon, you two. You need to swap stories anyway."
Until, that is, a warrior came into town, with a sword chipped on a dragon's heart and followed everywhere by a little person, hooded like the hillfolk of old but with eyes green as the sea-foam or new-budding leaves, and woke the tales from the fireside. And the mothers and fathers of the village as it is went to the last living mother and father of the village that was, and spoke to them, asking what there was to be done.
And the mother and the father of the village that had been looked upon their children and said only,
"Come with us."
And they went out into the hills, and showed to them the places where the little fire statues had been left, and the places where the tiny babes with eyes like the sea or the spring leaves had been laid.And they went back to the village, to the little hut at the edge of the holding, and showed to them the juice of the berry of the Lethe plant, still in its bottle on the high shelf. And when they took down the bottle and shook it, the juice bubbled and foamed, and its colour was the light, bright blue of the morning sky, and its foam the little puff clouds that ride the morning air.
And the mothers and the fathers of the village that is knew what to do.
Xena listened to Tandis and Gabrielle weave the theads of their stories together with only half of her mind as she sipped her ale. Suddenly reaching a decision, she downed the last of her drink and stood.
The other two looked up, startled. Xena frowned down at them. "You two stay here and finish up. I'll be back." She started toward the outer door, then spun back. Catching Gabrielle's eye, she said, "And don't get into trouble."
"You." Glancing up, she added, "Tandis, she has a real gift for it. Watch out for her, okay?"
Ignoring the bard's exasperated protests, she continued out the door of the inn and onto the street. The villagers were already about their business. Most ignored the warrior, though some glanced at her curiously and a very few smiled shyly in greeting. One of these last Xena stopped, and asked, "Who's in charge around here?"
"Oh, you mean the Eldest?" replied the older woman, still smiling. Xena privately thought her eyes were more blue than green, but..."
Xena shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."
"It's around this way. I'll take you, if you like."
Xena nodded and followed the woman around the corner, down an alley and up another street till they came to a small, neat little hut set well away from the main part of the village.
"Go right on in, you're expected."
Xena looked at her sharply as both eyebrows went up.
"Oh, yes... look-- if you need to see the Eldest, then she-- or he-- or-- well, anyway, you're expected," she finished with a laugh, "Oh, I'm Tanika, by the way. On second thought, perhaps I'd better go in with you."
Xena shook her head slightly but followed the woman up the path to the door of the hut, then stooped to pass under its low lintel. Once inside, she turned to see an ancient woman getting up from where she'd been stirring a pot on the hearth.
Xena cocked her head and regarded the Eldest. "Did we... meet earlier? On a hilltop, in a clearing?"
"Why, yes! How good of you to remember! What can I do to help you, warrior?"
"You know who they are, don't you? I mean, all of them?"
"Yes... yes, I do."
"Can you tell me?"
"Certainly. We'll start with young Tanika here... she's of the innkeeper's family, his elder sister, I believe... his name's Tandis, is it not?" Tanika nodded, looking from one to the other in bewilderment.
"And then on the next street over," the Eldest continued, "there's Altus and--"
"Wait, hang on," Xena interrupted, "We need Gabrielle for this-- she'll get it all right on a single hearing."
"An excellent suggestion," the old woman beamed. "We'll meet you at the fountain in a candlemark or so."
Xena nodded, then turned to her guide. "Well, Tanika, are you up to meeting your brother?"
"Tandis... is he here?" the woman replied in shock.
"At the tavern. Came in with me. He's been very helpful in all this, you know."
"I... yes, that would be good."
"Well, then," Xena smiled and, nodding good-bye to the Eldest, motioned Tanika toward the door, "Come on, let's go find him."
When the two returned to the inn, Xena was greatly relieved to see that Gabrielle and Tandis were still deep in conversation, and there was no sign of anyone's having tried to so much as pull the bard's hair. As they approached the table, Tandis stood to help Tanika to a chair. Gabrielle looked up and smiled. "Hey," she said softly, as the warrior slipped onto the bench beside her, "where'd you run off to? Missed you."
Xena grinned. "Right. In the throes of 'bard-thrall' you wouldn't notice if a herd of pigs came through the room."
"Yeah?" the bard shrugged. "Noticed when you left. Noticed when you came back, too." Changing the subject, she added, nodding at Tanika, "Who's this?"
Xena leaned over her and caught the innkeeper's eye. "Tandis, this is your sister, Tanika. Tanika, Tandis." She leaned back in her seat and signalled the barmaid for another round.
The two sat quietly, listening to the siblings' happy reunion, until the drinks arrived. There was some confusion as both Tandis and Gabrielle tried to pay for them, which the barmaid settled by explaining that one, they didn't use coin here, and two, it was on the house anyway.
After the barmaid left, and other two resumed their conversation, Xena nudged Gabrielle, "Hey, you. Need your help."
"Oh, yeah? What's the plan?"
"Outside. Wait-- let me finish this." The warrior swallowed the rest of her drink and stood, as Gabrielle followed suit. "We'll catch up with you two later." Brother and sister waved them on without missing a beat.
"Must be a family trait," Xena muttered as they threaded their way to the door.
Gabrielle grinned. "Uh-huh... You know, they have really good water here."
"Yeah? Lucky, that."
"Uh-huh," the bard replied as they ducked through the door. "Lets you off the hook-- Xena, who are all these people?"
A mass of green-eyed men and women, old and young, were milling around the street, talking, telling jokes, splashing in the fountain... in the centre of them all stood the Eldest, covered in hood and cloak.
"That," said Xena, pulling Gabrielle toward the centre, "is what I need you to find out."
The mothers and the fathers of the village that is caused the hooded stranger who followed so closely after the warrior to be bound up tight, so that she could neither move, nor speak, nor deceive the soul of any of the village with her demon eyes. And hiding her from the warrior, they carried her far out of the village into the hills beyond, to the place where they left such folk in years gone by.
But the warrior whom she followed, who had nocked her sword on the heart of a dragon yet still won the fight, saw straight to the heart of this mystery also.
And together with the innkeeper that honoured his mother with the light of the last fire statue, and who still mourned his sister that never was, the warrior sought her companion in the place beyond the hills, where the babes and the wanderers of the demon eyes went after their sojourn on the hillside.
And there she found her companion, and more besides. There were the babes all grown, and the wanderers with their wits calmed and cleared, if a bit short, and though their eyes were green as the sea or the spring leaves, they were not demons, nor were they demon kin.
And the warrior spoke long with the old woman who was the young man who was also the person neither old nor young, neither male nor female. And her companion sat with her, and listened and remembered.
And at the end of it all, the warrior knew what to do.
Nicodemus stood outside the stableyard, leaning easily on the fence rails as the handsome young man, his son, headed the stallion around again. The lad grinned widely at his father as he held the reins in his teeth and his arms out wide and took the horse from a walk to a canter and then a gallop, using only the pressure of his thighs and knees. Around and around they went, faster and faster, until horse and man blurred in the sunshine that shone through and around them, dancing in their bodies and glowing green from their eyes....
His head hurt. And his back. 'Not much t' wonder in that,' he thought, 'Nico, you old fool... go to sleep wrenched up under a water trough, yer not likely to wake same's if you had sense to find yer own bed.' He eased out under the trough and stood slowly. Horse-breaking injuries from long ago pinged into life, one by one, and he gritted his teeth. Time for a few glasses of this and that to take the edge off. He staggered out into the street, blinking in the sunrise, and began the long trek to the village inn. 'Tan's a good boy... Tan'll pull me a mug or two...'
He heard a commotion off in the distance but ignored it, working his way up the street with his head down and his breath coming in short gasps. He almost bumped into the golden mare's rump before he saw her. The animal merely stepped to the side and snorted at him. Nico looked up, startled, and forgot his errand in wonder at the sight. A warrior woman all in black leather sat astride the mare, gazing watchfully out at the crowd now forming all around them. In front of her sat a younger woman, quietly staring out into space.
Xena checked the edges of the crowd, satisfied to see that the newly woken villagers were completely encircled by the hillfolk, too sleep-fogged to put up any resistance. She touched Gabrielle lightly on her shoulder as she leaned over, whispering, "Showtime."
Gabrielle nodded without looking around, then refocused her attention on her thoroughly frightened audience. "Thanks for the warm-up, Princess," she whispered back, and then louder, "Long, long ago, when you all lived in the forest..."
The crowd quieted as she continued, skillfully weaving the story she'd heard from the Eldest with the one the innkeeper'd told her, driving out the fear and sorrow that had haunted these people for so many generations. The bard went on, describing the beauty of the little village behind the hills and the wonders the hillfolk, their children, had created there. As she did so, movement began in the farthest ranks, as the people of the hills pulled out from under their cloaks the fire statues that had been discarded, and began passing them forward into the ranks of the bemused villagers. The sunlight struck them and they began to glow all on their own. The people holding them forgot everything in the wonder of the sight, marvelling that they could hold the dancing fire in their hands and not be burned.
Gabrielle brought her story to a close and waited a few minutes, pulling the lists up in her mind. She looked around, and called out, "Armineus? Where's the smith?"
"Here, lass!" the burly man pushed forward. She smiled at him, and spoke in a quieter tone, "Your twin brothers, Altus and Eltis, are..." she brightened as the two young men named came forward also. "... here. And Nicodemus.... Nico the horsebreaker?" The old man stared up at her in mixed fear and hope. "Your son, um... Damidias? Ah, Damidias, this is your father Nico."
The bard continued calling the roll, but Nico didn't hear her as he looked up into the smiling face of his son. His own boy. As they embraced, he whispered, "Lad, y' look just as I'd dreamed ye."
And when the mothers and the fathers of the village that is met with the children that never were, the stones fell from their hearts and light entered in where the stones had been and the fire danced in their eyes.
And each heart called to each, saying, "Come with us."
And they gathered up their cows and their pigs, and their hammers and chisels, and their hides and their spinning wheels, and they went away with the children that had always been theirs and always would be into the hills where they stayed.
And they laughed anew as they left the village, and the warrior and her bard laughed with them as they waved good-bye.
Sometime later the following night, Xena settled down beside Gabrielle and accepted a mug of tea.
"Well, that all went pretty well, all things considered."
"Yeah, especially that bit with the statues... You're pretty smart, you know that? I mean, for a warrior."
"Mmm..." Xena looked casually up at the night sky and remarked, "So... you notice when I leave, huh?"
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she fought to keep a small grin from forming. "Uh-huh."
Xena looked at her sidelong. "And... you notice when I come back?"
"So," Xena continued, shifting her position so that she was facing the bard, "What else do you notice?"
Gabrielle pretended to think about it. "Well... I notice the way your skin turns from bronze to gold in the firelight..." she trailed a light fingertip up a muscled forearm, "and how your eyes are bluer than the newborn sky..." she gasped a little as Xena caught the trailing fingers in her free hand and began kissing them. "And how it makes my heart beat when you do that..."
"And?" Xena murmured.
"And... how much..."
She got no further that night, as the warrior stopped the bard's lips with her own.
The Bard's Corner