The Constant Heart
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.
Ooooh! How could she do this to me? I thought we were partners, equal in every way, but no. Her oh-so-wise warrior princess self just took off and left me here, like some piece of excess baggage she didnt want to carry along. Why, the very arrogance of that woman, thinking she knows whats best for us both!
"I need to make sure that the pass to Kastri is clear, Gabrielle," shed said to me this morning. "If the fighting has reached there, well have to double back around Marinos - it could take days! Otherwise, Ill come back and--"
"Youre not leaving me behind, Xena... are you?" I refused to believe she would, not after all wed been through, but the stony look on her face was already giving me my answer.
"I need to move fast; Argo cant take us both, and you know it!" Shed turned from me then, and began to tie off her bedroll at the horses saddle.
"No..." I choked back my anger.
Xena could be so infuriating! Shed made up her mind, that was clear, and nothing I could do or say would change it. As if I had any words for her now. No, the cold detachment of her argument had robbed me of my ability to debate her, and instead I felt tears of frustration spring to my eyes. Suddenly, I was a little girl again, being hurried off to bed by my mother, shut away in my dark room, alone. Below-stairs, I could hear the laughter and celebrating of my family: aunts, uncles, cousins, while I lay punished. Guilty of no crime other than that of my childhood. Youre too young, Gabrielle. Off to bed with you now!
"It could be too dangerous for you, Gabrielle," Xena had stopped fussing with Argo, and faced me with a strange look in her bottomless blue eyes.
So now we get down to it. Id thought as much. She didnt think I could handle it, handle myself, if things got rough.
"How dare you," I swore, "after what weve been through these past few years! Havent I proven anything to you?"
Xena shook her head and, for a moment, I thought I saw a look cross her face - was it worry? Regret? With Xena, who knew. She moved close to me and placed her hands on my shoulders.
"Youve got nothing to prove," she insisted. "This is about me. I couldnt go through... I - I cant risk..."
"Say it, Xena," and my voice was hard. "You dont think Im up for the job. Fine. If thats how you feel, then I wouldnt want to go with you anyway!" I spun out of her grasp, and stalked off a few paces. I didnt want to give her the satisfaction of seeing how hurt I was.
"Wait for me here, by the lake, Gabrielle."
I refused to turn around, but I was surprised to hear how tired her voice sounded now, before shed even begun her journey.
"I should be back in just a couple of days, I promise."
There was silence, for a moment, and then I could hear the crunching of her footsteps against the ground as she walked away from me. Argo neighed softly as Xena mounted her, and my heart nearly burst when I heard the squeak of the leather as she adjusted herself in the saddle, signaling her imminent departure.
"Just what I am supposed to do here, anyway?" I slightly turned my head and gruffly tossed the words off over my shoulder.
"Do what you do best... you could write - make up a story?" she suggested, and my bristling sigh was the only answer I would give her.
"See you in a few days," she said, and then she added, simply, "Wait for me."
There was the tap of her boots lightly heeling Argo, and with a "yah!" she galloped off down the road to Kastri.
Finally, my defenses crumbled, and suddenly I could not bear the thought of her leaving without gazing upon her one more time. I turned to look after her, and saw the sunlight glimmering off the hilt of her sword, her dark tresses flying in the wind... the ease with which she kept her seat on the big war-horse. I allowed my tears to flow freely at last. Of course I would wait for her, I thought. My heart left me no choice.
Once upon a time...
Ugh! Cant I think of anything more original than that? I lay my quill across a nearly empty piece of parchment, and place both atop my travel bag. The sun has already begun to ease itself towards the hills in the west, where I know Kastri lies. Xena has been gone for hours now, and its taken me that long to settle down and get a grip on my emotions. Im still angry with her; she hasnt heard the last of this.
I glance around the area Xena selected for our rendezvous, and I must admit it: she has chosen well. There is a small lake not far away - the pale, deep blueness of its waters do not remind me of Xenas eyes - and we are surrounded by a ring of trees and forest growth that shields this secret place from all but the most prying of passersby.
We stocked up on supplies in the last village, and now I know why. Xena mustve known even then about the trouble up ahead, and planned accordingly. I feel the flush of anger rush to my face, as I consider how bloody prepared she is all the time.... never caught unawares... and I fight it. It will do me no good to start ranting for a second time this day. After all, theres no-one around to hear.
It will be time soon to gather up firewood for the evening, but perhaps I can put a few more words to parchment before then, preventing the day from being a total waste. I pick up my quill once more, concentrating, but I stop. There is a slight motion to my left... near the lake. I smile when I see my companion: a large deer stares back at me, eyes black as coal, senses on full alert. An unusual white blaze on its chest stands out against cinnamon fur, and its plush velvet nose quivers at me as if ascertaining whether Im a friend or foe.
Foe it decides, and it kicks its way back into the forest. Figures. Seems like everybodys leaving me today. Now... lets try this again.
A long time ago, there was a gallant, handsome young warrior named Demeter. Demeters strength and bravery were known to all the people throughout the land, and the master he served - King Memnos - looked upon him as if he were a son. Indeed, Demeter had pledged his absolute loyalty to Memnos and his kingdom, as first-in-command of King Memnos army.
But if Demeters might belonged to Memnos, his heart was owned by none other than the fairest, most beautiful maiden in all the realm - Dulcia. The daughter of King Memnos.
Not too bad, I think, and I chew on the tip of my feather, not bad at all.
There are just a few ghostly wisps of a cloud skipping across the moonlit sky, and a slight shiver runs through me. I toss two more branches on the fire. It burns brightly; Im pleased with the job I did constructing it. Xena wouldnt have taken nearly so long, I know, but I like to think that what I lack in quickness I make up for in quality. The chill begins to fade.
I am comfortably full from a meal of barley stew I did not particularly relish eating; somehow, I realize, the simple food I cook seems to taste just a bit better when its shared over good company and warm conversation.
The harsh call of a nearby night-bird startles me into a breathless freeze, but I hastily recover. Darn it, Ive been alone before, why am I so jumpy? I force the heat of embarrassment from my cheeks, and why should I feel that way, anyhow? No ones around to see me.
I sit down by the fire, pulling my bag of scrolls close, and I lean back for a moment and gaze up at the sparkling indigo of the night sky. And I wonder where Xena is, right now. What is she thinking, and is she safe?
When she rode away from me this morning, I was so angry with her I could barely think straight. My pride was in full flower, that was for certain, and so Id refused to even bid her good-bye. Id shown her, hadnt I?
I try to swallow away the lump that has formed in my throat, and I pick up my quill.
The noble Demeter - so straight and tall! - and the golden-haired Dulcia, met every evening by the shores of a quiet, beautiful lake not far from the castle. A small, lattice-wood gazebo stood near the sandy waters edge, and it was there, one starry night, that the two lovers were betrothed.
King Memnos was overjoyed when Demeter asked for his daughters hand. He could not wish for a more noble and fitting husband for his Dulcia. The kings heart was at peace, knowing that one day, his trusted lieutenant, his beloved son - would one day rule his kingdom. "I am a fortunate man indeed," Memnos thought.
Whats that? My heart quickens at the sound of - footsteps? - in the darkened wood. My staff lies nearby and I slowly reach over and grasp it, keeping my eyes all the while focused in the direction where I heard the noise. The barley stew is doing flip-flops in my stomach right now.
"Whos there?" I cant help but call out, and I feel quite satisfied at the strong, unwavering tone in my voice. Im not some little girl lost in the forest; easy prey for men of bad intentions.
"You!" I release a great gust of air. It is the deer from this afternoon - I can see the distinctive white marking on its chest. It holds me in its gaze, staring at me from the edge of the wood, just beyond the circle of light thrown by my fire. Maybe its the shadows playing tricks on me, but the deer seems even larger than I recall; its crazy, but the simple presence of it makes me feel a little better.
"Thought I scared you away!" I say. The deer blinks at me but stays put. "Suit yourself." Oh, great. Just great. If Xena could see me now, talking to a dumb animal. Well hey, I rationalize, its not like shes never had a conversation or two with Argo! Im satisfied with that thought, and return to my parchment.
Preparations were under way for the wedding of Demeter and Dulcia; it would take place in the spring of the following year. A celebration in which all the people of Memnos kingdom would rejoice! The happiness of Demeter and Dulcia knew no bounds, as they planned the perfect future for their life together.
But alas, all was not well in a neighboring land to the west, ruled by a spiteful warlord - Nadra. Fighting broke out, and soon word reached Memnos that his kingdom and his people were gravely threatened. It was soon decided that Demeter would lead a force of the kings best men against Nadra.
How bitterly Dulcia wept, begging her love not to depart! "I cannot live without you," she cried.
Of course, Demeter hated to leave Dulcia, but his duty to his king, and the safety of the kingdom, over-ruled his passion. "Never fear, my beloved. I will return," he swore. "Until that day, my heart will keep watch over thee!" And with a bittersweet kiss, he left her.
I stop writing, and put down my quill. The flames of the fire are dying, and I have neither the energy nor the desire to build it up again. The deer has left me, retreating back to the forest from whence it came. There is a tightness that grips my chest, it will not release me; an ache in my gut that I cannot shake.
I am alone.
Well, its been quite a boring day, waiting around for the return of the warrior princess. All right... let me rephrase that. It wasnt as bad as it could have been. Well... actually, it wasnt too bad at all! I had a nice walk around the lake after breakfast. Most of the shoreline is soft and sandy, but there are a few sections where a tumble of rocks rise up from the water, creating a sharpened ledge perfect for sunning or swimming. If one were inclined to do so. I am not.
I practiced with my staff right through lunch; I didnt realize how the time had gotten away from me until my stomach rumbled! Solari and Ephiny would be proud to see how proficient Ive become. To think, when I was just starting out, I boinked myself on the head with this Amazon weapon!
Id sat down and had a light meal of salted beef, and considered that I wasnt really missing Xena too much on such a productive day. Only a few times had I thought I heard Argos hoof-beats approach. My friend Demeter... oh... did I mention - Ive named my deer friend Demeter? I know its silly, but I couldnt go on talking to him without giving him a name! And Demeter was convenient!
Anyway, Demeter came by while I was eating lunch, and he was at his boldest yet! I tossed him a bit of the beef, and at first he shied away, nearly plunging back into the forest. But I spoke softly to him, coaxing him out, letting him know he need not fear me, and back he came. He licked at the meat tentatively at first, then he took it in his mouth, tossing it upwards, finally swallowing it in one great gulp. Success!
Demeter is gone now. Hes probably gone back to tell all his friends about the free lunch he had! The position of the white-hot sun overhead tells me that its late afternoon, and the perspiration from my exertions this day cause my clothing to stick uncomfortably to my skin. I think maybe I will have that swim after all. But before I do, I want to make use of this daylight while I can...
How Dulcia worried over her Demeter, and each day and night she prayed to every god she knew to petition for his safe return. King Memnos shared in his daughters concern, but he knew that so courageous a warrior as Demeter would rather die for freedoms sake than live under the rule of tyranny.
Each evening, Dulcia would walk to the small gazebo at the edge of the lake. There, looking out over the placid blue waters, she would remember the first time shed met her betrothed - on the pathway by the shore. It was at the lake where theyd fallen in love, sharing with each other the secrets, hopes, and dreams that theyd never dared to tell another soul.
It was here, awash in her solitude, that Dulcia felt closest to her far-away warrior. One evening, not long after Demeter departed...
Do I want to do this? My feather hesitates in the air above my parchment. Awww.... why not! I feel inspired.
... after Demeter departed, she noticed a young deer grazing on the wild grasses that grew along the line where the forest met the shore. It was a beautiful thing, with sad dark eyes and a white blaze on its chest. It took no mind of her, calmly chewing on the soft grass, and, truth be known, Dulcia did not mind its company.
Thereafter, Dulcia would see the animal each evening at sunset, and she took comfort in its appearance, talking to it, even, and she found that doing so helped to soothe her aching heart....
Whoa - what am I doing here? I blow a puff of air on my parchment to dry it off. I dont care. Its my story. And right now, Im going for that swim.
"Gabrielle.... You know, if I could do it all over again, Id take the southern route!"
Through the misty haze of my deepest, shaded memories, I can hear so clearly Xenas words of apology and regret.
"Im SO sorry..."
She thought I couldnt hear her, and even now she thinks I never did, yet I remember it all, with a calm, focused clarity unlike any I have ever known before. Yes, Xenas words come back to me, through that thin veil which shields our lives in the present from that which may come after. I hovered near that passage for a time, I know, and scared Xena to within an inch of her life.
I made the decision long ago to travel with her, to wherever the fortunes and the fates might lead us. To share in the life we chose for ourselves, and to be responsible for the consequences of those choices. I know Xena blames herself for what happened to me in Thessaly, taking me into a war zone. But for me, the horror of those few days was a learning experience Ill never forget.
I worked side-by-side with Xena, saving soldiers lives - regardless of whose side they fought on - watching her breathe a blaze of life back into those who before had shown only the tiniest of sparks. And we lost some, too. For deaths hands reach far and wide, and we know not on whose heart at last her favor rests. Never before had I felt so close to Xena, as I did during those days. It was like a battle to her, fighting for each life, and I know how hard she fought to reclaim mine. I thanked her, afterwards, for what she did, and I wonder now at how she struggles; she will never forgive herself for what happened, and yet there is nothing to forgive.
So maybe Xena was worried about taking me into a place where there was fighting, I consider. If she thought it might get rough at Kastri... well, I still dont like it, but I suppose I understand. Even so, how does she think it makes me feel to watch her ride off into battle, into the unknown, not knowing when or if shell return?
No, she will come back. And as I gaze into the campfire, I can almost see her face flickering before me. She promised me she would return. And Xena keeps her promises.
"Xena will be back tomorrow, Demeter." I say to my silent companion. Hed sniffed his nose at a wedge of cheese Id tossed his way earlier, when he first emerged at the edge of the thicket. Not interested. I did have some of the salted beef left, but darn it, that was going to be my breakfast. Hell have to wait until then.
I idly chew on a last bit of bread; I thought I would be ravenous this evening, after my days activities, but no. My appetite has deserted me, for now. It occurs to me that I should think about setting a snare or two; perhaps I will tomorrow.
Its been two days.
"Well set a snare after breakfast, Demeter, and have a nice rabbit stew ready for Xena."
Demeter snorts softly, and I shoot him a sidelong glance. "You do like rabbit stew, dont you?" I laugh aloud as he rears up slightly and takes off back into the forest. "Guess not."
I stretch my arms out overhead, releasing some of the muscle tension from my busy day, and I think of the Demeter who lives on my parchment, and his love - Dulcia - and I wonder what will become of them.
Demeter and his army traveled to the west, to where King Memnos lands bordered against the evil warlords. It was here that Nadra had done the most damage, and like all wicked men, he fought to take over that which did not belong to him; in this case, the kingdom of Memnos itself.
How saddened Demeter was when he saw the suffering the people had endured under Nadras punishing hand! The warlord had to be stopped, and so Demeter led his troops bravely into battle against the enemy.
Though the fighting was fierce, his mind and his heart were never far from his beautiful Dulcia. All this: the risk, the pain, his very purpose - was for her. Her love gave him strength, her confidence in him - his conviction. As the contest wore on, it was difficult to tell who held the upper hand. One thing was for certain, many men were sent to the Elysian Fields long before sunset.
The day was drawing to a close, and the dusty clay from the battlefield rose up into the air, giving the sky a bloody cast. The men were tiring, and though the fight was too close to call, it appeared that the tides were shifting and that the forces of King Memnos would not prevail.
Demeter recognized what was happening and instantly seized upon the solution. There was a small opening in Nadras lines, and behind it lay a pass that - if it were captured - would seal Demeters victory, and prevent Nadra from receiving reinforcements from the west. Memnos kingdom would be safe.
Demeter was astride his horse at the top of a ridge that led to the pass; a small group of his choice soldiers were behind him. As he looked down on the path they would ride, he knew his maneuver would insure their success, but oh, how dangerous it was! Nadras men could crush him from either side.
The young warrior knew what he had to do. The safety of the kingdom, and his Dulcia, were at stake. With a silent prayer to Athena, he flung himself into the breach, his men at his side, and fought like a wild man. Nadras divided line could not recover in time to prevent Demeter and his soldiers from taking the pass. The remainder of Demeters forces took heart from their leaders bravery, and regrouped against Nadra. The pass, and the battle were won, as Demeter had known they would be.
But as Nadra retreated back though the pass, he took his vengeance on the young man who had sealed his fate. He grabbed a spear from the hands of a lieutenant and, with an oath, flung it at Demeters back. The brave warriors life ended there, instantly, and he died with Dulcias name on his lips.
At the moment Demeter expired, Dulcia had been walking through the courtyard of the castle. She collapsed to the ground in a faint, with icy fingers of dread gripping her heart. She woke to the startled, worried gazes of the courtiers; they wondered what fright had possessed her so? Dulcia kept it to herself, though she knew without a doubt what she feared was true: Demeter was dead. Still, when formal word came several days later of his brave death and the great victory, Dulcia was thrown into a mourning that extended far beyond grief, into the realm of shadows and despair. Her father the king tried to comfort her, but she would have none of it. In her mind, she had died along with Demeter that day.
I dont think I can write anymore just now. Im feeling... tired. I open my bedroll and lie down. In the brilliantly clear night, its easy for me to pick out the constellations: theres Ares, the rat, and Orion. I listen to the silence. After a time, I squeeze my eyes tightly shut, and force my body to relax. As exhausted as I feel, I can already sense it - sleep will not come easily to me this night. And I am afraid of what I might dream.
Schrufft! There it is again! Theres a noise nearby and its startled me awake. Normally, I could sleep through a troop of Persians marching through, or so Xena says, but I never did fall into a deep sleep last night. In a reflex move, I reach for my staff and do a quick inventory of the campsite. Its not quite dawn. There is a faint, orange luminescence in the eastern sky; I can see it through the curtain of trees that surrounds me. The fire is nothing but a pile of faintly glowing embers, and there, standing in its ebbing light, is Demeter.
"Demeter, what are you doing?" I breathe a sigh of relief that its only him.
Demeter is already way ahead of me in the breakfast department; I see hes somehow worked opened my travel bag that contains our supplies, and is helping himself to the salted beef.
"Noooo!" I groan, and he falters in his task, pawing at the dirt and then backing away a few paces. "Now what am I going to eat?" I question him, but he doesnt seem inclined to answer me.
I get up out of my bedroll, and feel the cool of the pre-dawn air on my skin. "Look at what youve done!" I complain, but my tone is not an angry one. I re-pack and stow away the food, more carefully this time, and tie it off in a nearby tree.
Aaah well... the beef is already ruined, so I might as well let him finish it, I think. I pick up the remainder of the unfortunate cow, and sit down on a flattened stone near the fire. I loosely arrange one of my furs up around my shoulders to ward off the chill I still feel.
"Cmere boy!" and I beckon him with the meat. But Demeter is wary now - where has the rest of the food gone?
"Sssshhh..." I say, "Its okay... I wont hurt you... are you hungry?" I waggle the food in front of him. I can see the desire in his eyes, hes already had a taste or two of this treat, and wants more. He takes a step towards me, making a soft, snuffling sound.
"Thats it... good boy..." I encourage him, speaking to him gently, and closer, closer he comes, until finally he nips at the meat in my hand and quickly backs away. I do not flinch, I show no fear, and I continue to hold the meat out steadily. Demeter returns, more confidently this time, and leans in for a small bite of the beef. I can feel the gentle tug as he takes it from me.
"Good... good boy!" I praise him, and soon, I find that Demeter and I are both eating breakfast, and sharing spirited conversation. Well... at least hes a good listener. Wait until Xena hears about this!
The kingdom was safe, and for that, the people rejoiced. But all Dulcia knew was sorrow and loneliness. Each day, after Demeters death, she traveled to the lake-shore, dreaming of the love she knew would never return. She tortured herself, grieving over the life together they would never share. And she cried a flood of tears that threatened to drown the very lake itself.
All the while, there was a silent witness to her suffering - the deer who made its home by the lake. It still appeared each evening at sunset, though now Dulcia was oblivious to its presence. It gazed upon this beautiful, tortured woman, ignorant of the cause of her melancholy... mystified by her change in behavior and yet knowing, somehow, that it should not leave her side.
So profound was Dulcias heartache, so moving were her prayers, that Aphrodite herself heard them. Indeed, Athena too had not turned a hard heart to Demeter, when she heard his battle cry and dying wish - it was all for Dulcia, and how he hoped she would be safe.
Hades was waiting to take Demeter on that final heros journey to the Elysian Fields, but the two goddesses intervened with the god of the underworld, on Demeter and Dulcias behalf.
"See how great the love of the gentle Dulcia is, for her Demeter!" Aphrodite said. "Surely we cannot allow her to whither away... to die of a broken heart!"
"And such a noble warrior Demeter is, he served me well in battle and led his men to victory in my honor!" Athena added. She would not allow herself to be overruled by Hades. "He did not live to receive his just rewards in life, can we not grant him his dying wish now?!"
Hades was a fair god, and he knew that had it not been for the cowardly act of Nadra, Demeter would have lived. And his godly associates did have a point. Still, he had a job to do. And so, in the end, he decided to let Demeter himself choose.
"Demeter," he said with a flourish, "I offer you the Elysian Fields, the reward in the afterlife that you so richly deserve. Yet you have petitioned the goddesses here to intercede on your behalf. What would you have us do?"
"Please," Demeter said, "May I please have one last look upon my beloved Dulcia?"
Hades frowned for a moment, and then--
"Well... well... well! What have we here?!!"
I drop my quill to the ground beside me, and my heart leaps into my mouth. Two swarthy-looking men have somehow crept close to the camp, and are now nearly upon me. Zeus! If only I hadnt been so involved in my writing on this warm morning, I mightve heard them sooner!
"Hi there!" I say, trying to sound indifferent. "Just passing through?" I slowly reach my hand behind me, groping for my staff. At least, I think its still behind me.
"Yeah... were just passing through all right, missy..." one man says, giving his partner a sidelong grin, and I can see that hes missing a few teeth. Ugh.
"...and well be on our way, as soon as we get what we came for!" They both move closer to me, their dirty, stubby hands reaching out.
There! I feel my staff.
"WAIT!" I shout, leaping to my feet and swinging my staff around to a level position in front of me. "Youd better back off, or someones going to get hurt!" Im secretly pleased at just how intimidating I sound.
The ruffians hesitate, apprising the threat I pose to them. They look doubtful, initially, and then wordlessly decide that two against one - that one being a girl - are still pretty good odds. "Somebody is gonna get hurt," the bolder of the two - my toothless friend - sneers, "but its not gonna be US!"
"NO!" I take a step backwards. "You dont want to mess with me," I say. "My friend is just over there in the woods," I motion behind me, "and shell be back any minute. Perhaps youve heard of her: Xena, the Warrior Princess?" A wary look passes between them. "And let me tell you," I laugh, "she slept on a rock last night and is in one really bad mood!"
"Shes bluffing!" Toothy says to his buddy, and they turn on me again.
"Try me! Oh Zeeeenaaa!" I call out. Uh-oh, Ive really gotten myself into a jam. Now would be a good time for Xena to reappear, but my heart begins to sink as reality sets in.
Suddenly, there is a great crashing sound from the woods behind me. What the--
"XENA!!!" Toothy screeches. "Lets get out of here!" And he nearly tramples his partner in his zeal to escape.
"Out of my way - you--!" his friend gives him a shove.
I release a hoarse laugh as I watch the two trip away, their feet working furiously beneath them.
"Good timing, Xe--" And I turn to welcome back my friend, who stands there straight and tall, chest heaving, nostrils flared in anger. Eyes big and dark-- dark? Yes, for my savior is Demeter.
"Oh, its you!" I say, slightly crestfallen. He looks at me curiously, as if to determine if Im okay, and then he stomps off back into the woods. It is only then that I start to tremble; I cant tell whether Im laughing or crying. "Thanks, Demeter," I shake my head and look towards the west - towards Kastri.
I dont know why I let those two brigands bother me; Ive been out-of-sorts since Demeter chased them away. Im sure, if it had come down to it, that I couldve handled them. Its late-afternoon now, and I dont feel like walking, I dont feel like swimming, I dont feel like eating, and my stupid quill keeps gobbing up the inkwell. Darn it! WHAT is keeping Xena?!
I turn an eye to the sky and see weve only a few more hours of daylight left, and as the sun slowly starts to slip to the west, my heart sinks too. Its not like Xena to be overdue, without sending word. Something must be wrong. What if there was fighting at the pass? What if---? I shudder at the thought of what ill wind might have befallen her.
Once before - no twice - I thought Xena had left me and crossed over. The last time was by far the worst. That great gulf of emptiness I felt, knowing that the better half of my soul had been ripped from me - I dont know if I could bear it again. There are things worse than death, like living without the one you love. And I know a little bit about both.
I havent seen Demeter in a while, and I wonder: where is he? Well, Ill try to finish this story while theres still some daylight left. I never did set those snares today, but at least I can show Xena what a productive bard Ive been while she was gone. After all, this story thing was her idea. Now... where was I before those creeps interrupted me?
Hades frowned for a moment, and then--
Oh - okay. I hope Demeter gets his wish. In fact, Im going to make sure of it!
Hades frowned for a moment, and then agreed. "Very well. One final look upon Dulcia - and then you MUST decide!"
In a twinkling, the three gods whisked Demeters spirit to his love. And there, in the gazebo, he saw her. At first he did not understand - why was she weeping so piteously?
"She mourns for you, Demeter!" Aphrodite said. "Her heart is broken in two."
"Yes," Athena nodded in agreement. "She has lost the will to live."
"No..." Demeter was devastated. How could he leave her this way? And yet he knew he must. If only he could comfort her! In the midst of his anguish, he saw the deer with the white blaze on its coat, standing not far from Dulcias little gazebo. He thought he could almost discern sympathy on the animals face, as it looked upon his love.
"What I would give, if only to be that deer, to be near her once again, to watch over her!" And at that, he knew what he wanted. "Please... oh great god Hades and beautiful goddesses, please - grant me this one wish!"
Hades knew that Athena and Aphrodite had more experience in matters of the heart. Still, he could not believe what Demeter was asking. "Are you sure? I offer you the Elysian Fields, yet you choose to take on the form of a poor, dumb creature of the forest?"
"Yes! I do!" Demeter replied, feeling hopeful for the first time since Nadras spear pierced his chest, robbing him of his future.
"This is your wish, Demeter?" Aphrodite smiled. She knew Demeters answer already, and she knew it matched the wish that Dulcia offered up every night by the lake: to be with her betrothed again.
"I would give it all up to be faithful, forever, at her side." Demeter swore. "To watch over her, always."
Athena waved her golden scepter. "Make it so." In a sudden explosion of other-worldly smoke and flames, the gods were gone. And so was Demeter.
My nose twitches a couple of times before my mind registers what I smell. I pause in my scribbling, and sniff at the late afternoon air. It carries on it the faint scent of a campfire. Not too close, yet not so far away that I cant detect it. Im sure its not those men from earlier; theyre bound to be long gone, by the looks of abject fear Id seen on their faces. Even when shes miles away, Xena has that effect on people! I smile.
Curiosity overcomes my guardedness, and I put my writing things away. I sling my travel bag with our valuables in it over my shoulder just in case; best not to leave it unattended, and I pick up my staff and head off in the direction the winds are coming from. If Xena returns while Im away, then shell just have to wait for me. In a hesitant gesture of hopefulness, I turn back and quickly scrawl her a note on a piece of parchment: "Gone to visit the neighbors. Back soon. G."
I hear the voices of several men as I approach. Ive been walking for 10 or 15 minutes now, along the road to Kastri, in fact, and the smells of a cook-fire have gotten stronger.
I round a bend in the road, and there, in plain view, are a group of soldiers up ahead. Theyve made a small camp off to the side, in a natural open glade. With some relief, I can tell by their uniforms they are a detachment of Athenian soldiers.
"Hello!" I greet them with a slight wave.
"Hello maam," a soldier who appears to be their leader approaches me. Its apparent that these men have seen battle recently; theyre slightly the worse for the wear, bruised and bloodied. Yet there is an air of elation that courses among them, I can sense it. Today was a good day for fighting.
"Where do you travel from?" I ask.
"Kastri," the leader tells me.
I swallow hard. "What happened there?"
"We won, didnt we boys?" and he turns around to acknowledge the cheers from his men gathered at the campfire. "Were heading back to Marinos for some rest and relaxation!" He grins, and then a look of concern passes over his face. "Listen, miss. Youre not traveling alone, are you?" And he looks past me, searching.
"No," I say. "I - Im waiting for a friend of mine. Perhaps youve seen her: Xena of Amphipolis?" The conversation around the campfire quiets, and the men look at each other, and then at me, with solemn appreciation and wonder.
"Xena..." their leader says and theres a distant look in his eye, remembering.
"Yes - have you seen her?" Yes or no, I fear equally whichever answer he might give me.
"Did we ever - she was magnificent! Without her the pass - and the battle - surely wouldve been lost."
I laugh awkwardly. "Thats Xena - always sticking her nose in if she thinks she can help!" I hold onto my staff with both hands, trying to steady them. "Where is she now?"
The leader returns from his reverie. "I dont rightly know, miss." Sympathy skips across his face. "I lost sight of her at the pass... didnt see her after that. I - Im sure shes okay." The doubt in his voice is plain.
"What about the other men from the pass?" I try to remain calm. "Are any of them here?" I try and push past him.
"Im sorry..." he says softly, and he grips my arm, stopping me. "The battle at the pass was fierce - your friend led the first wave in, and there were no survivors from it that weve come across..."
"No... NO!" My heart starts to pound. "It cant be. Ive got to find her!" And I try to pull away from the soldier. To Tartarus with what Xena said about my waiting for her! She cant do this to me - not again. I wont let her! I wrench out of the mans grasp.
"No - wait - dont go off alone!" He calls after me. "Itll be dark soon - stay here and have something to eat!" Im passing by their campfire now, and one of the men offers me piece of meat on a spit.
In an instant, I take it all in. Theres more of the meat cooking over the fire. Its venison. Behind the men, tautly stretched between two branches, is a cinnamon hide with a white blaze in front.
I feel ill. "Whats that?"
"Deer!" a soldier cheerily replies. "And it wont get any fresher!" He waves the sickening flesh in front of me. "We just killed it. It was the craziest thing, the way it stood there... it didnt even try to get away..."
A pounding siren in my head drowns out the rest of his words, and I press onward, stumbling down the road to Kastri. I fight off the numbness, the raw fear that snakes its way around my heart and my mind. My breath comes in hitching spurts. Xena needs me. If she cant come to me, then I shall go to her.
The sun has closed out another day; a golden-violet hue paints the western sky ahead of me, and behind me the cobalt cloak of twilight threatens to enshroud me all too soon. Im not sure how far ahead Kastri is, and I dont care. I will keep walking through the night, if I have to. I know Xena would do the same for me.
I ignore the tears that stain my face, and I push away any thought about what harm might have befallen Xena, for I irrationally fear that by even thinking the worst, I will give credence to it, make it a reality. Poor Demeter... and a sob catches in my throat. Im sure its all my fault, that if I hadnt tried to tame him, he wouldnt have been caught by the soldiers.
I know that life and death are the foundations upon which nature flourishes and grows... it is the way of things. I cant blame the soldiers, though I want to. And I feel a flare of anger at Demeter. Why did he let himself get killed? Why didnt he run away when he had the chance?
I trip over a root on the road, and I curse at it. Oh, why did Xena go off without me? I drive my staff into the ground with each step I take.
She tries to protect me by leaving me behind, tries to keep me safe from harm, but doesnt she realize that Id gladly choose to perish at her side... rather than die the thousand deaths I live when Im away from her?
I feel it before I hear it, the vibration of hooves upon the ground; I hear it before I see it, the steady cadence of the horses canter. And at last I dare myself to raise my eyes; I gaze down the road and then I see it, the horse and the rider, bathed in a faint backlit glow from the far horizon. It is her.
And as she approaches, my last reserves of composure shatter, and I cant say anything for the tears I cry. "Oh Xena..." I manage to get out between my choking sobs. Gods, how embarrassing this is, when I wanted to be so strong for her!
"Gabrielle!" she cries, leaping off of Argo before the horse has even slowed to a stop. "Are you all right?"
She rubs her hands up and down my arms, and then holds me out from her, looking for signs of injury. Of course, what a sight I must look! I wish I could take away the worry from her eyes. "I - Im fine!" I squeak. "Are you?"
"Im okay!" she says, but I can see the bloodied rag of a bandage she has around her upper left arm. Fortunately, other than that ugly wound and a few smaller cuts and bruises, my warrior seems otherwise in one piece. I start a new wave of weeping, thanking the gods for answering my prayers.
"Whats the matter?" she asks, drawing me close and stroking my hair.
"I was just... worried about you, thats all."
We hold each other for a time, until Xena finally ends the embrace. "Cmon," she says, and Argo whickers restlessly. "Lets get out of here." I watch the warrior easily swing up into the saddle, and she reaches a strong arm down to me. A wry smile crinkles across her dusty, dirtied face.
"This time," she says, "youre riding with me."
The gods had granted Demeter his wish. At the instant the warrior was transformed, a strange feeling passed over Dulcia. She was in her usual place that evening, by the lake, when it enveloped her. The same sensation shed felt when Demeter was slain, and yet this time... it was different, somehow. Something in the balance of nature had changed, and she knew not what. She looked out towards the forest, and there her friend the deer stood. The animal caught her eyes with its own. Eyes that were so wild, so untamed and yet... so familiar.
She continued to return each evening to that place near the water, and each time the deer would be there, never too close, yet never far away. And one day she realized that somewhere, along the way, the veil of pain had begun to lift... that the ache in her heart didnt cut quite so deeply. She began to think, she confided to her deer friend - who shed named Demeter in honor of her love - that her life might just go on after all. But she would never forget Demeter... he would live on inside her beating heart.
As time passed, Dulcia married a good man, Lord Ramos, and that alliance strengthened the kingdom of Memnos. After the death of the king, Dulcias son, Loris, became king.
The years flew quickly by, and Dulcia still found herself relaxing with walks to the lake-side. The gazebo had long since tumbled down into ruin, but she would always think of the lake as such a calming, healing place. And during those walks, Demeter - the man whod first taught her of love - was never far from her thoughts.
Dulcia grew old; children and grandchildren came, yet she still retained a remarkable beauty that shown from within. She would gaze out over the lake, and think it extraordinary how a herd of the friendliest deer lived nearby - surely they must be related to that first, gentle deer of long-ago. Always, there would be one who boldly approached her, with a striking white blaze on its chest. And she felt at peace. At home. Loved. She died there, one clear summers eve, with a deer standing watch not far away.
And that is why, to this very day, the spirit of Demeter lives on, embodied in a deer of the woodlands. Part creature of the wild, part caretaker of the soul; offering love, comfort, and protection to the weary of heart. He exists in the shadows, emerging only when needed to offer his services. He is the guardian of the forest, the constant heart.
"What are you writing?"
I place my quill down at the sound of her low, rumbling voice, and I smile. We have returned to the designated place of our rendezvous; in a sense it is fitting: Xena promised she would return here, and she has. We both have cleaned up, and I insisted on putting a fresh strip of cloth on the angry red streak that cuts across her arm. A gift she received from a Persian, she said.
"A new story," I answer her. "After all, it was your idea!" and she returns my smile.
Things were quiet over dinner: stale bread and cheese again, due to my lack of industriousness in the snare department. Xena didnt seem to want to talk too much about what had happened at Kastri, and that was fine with me. Id already imagined the fighting quite well enough on my own, thank you. It was enough for her to know that I cared - and I could feel that she did know it. And although I was overjoyed to have her by my side once again, my heart was still heavy with the stark, sudden loss of my Demeter. How could I ever begin to explain this to Xena? I knew she was baffled at my reactions this evening. Thankfully, Ive regained some of my self-control that was lacking earlier.
When our meal was done, I resolved to finish my story, and Xena moved to sit on a nearby log. There, she produced her whetstone, and began to sharpen her sword. It was a sound that soothed me, centered me, as it did Xena; more quickly than Id anticipated, I reconciled Demeter and Dulcia in my own way - forever.
"Id like to hear it," she says, returning her attention to the blade.
"Soon," I reply, and I hope she cannot hear the catch in my voice. I dont feel confident that I can get through the story now without bawling my eyes out. Its too soon. And what would Xena think?
I look up, only to be captured by her brilliant blue eyes. Its too late, I know it. She can tell somethings wrong. Why is it that she can see into my very soul, and know how I feel, when so often I cannot begin to fathom her?
She replaces her sword in its scabbard, and begins to move towards me.
"Xena I--" We both pause to look towards the edge of the wood, where theres a rustle of leaves and branches. A small, cinnamon head pokes its way out of the thicket, and curiously takes us in.
"Ohhh..." I cant believe it... its a miniature Demeter, with the same white blaze on its chest. No longer a fawn, yet not quite full grown, it gives us the once over. Then, with an impatient snort, it bounds back into the forest.
"Cute," Xena says. "Not much more than yearling, I think."
How Xena got next to me so quickly I do not know, perhaps because I was blinded by my weeping. Zeus! Will my well of tears never run dry? Xena must think Im a basket case.
"Sshhh... what is it Gabrielle?" I can hear the anxiety in her voice as her warm arms enfold me.
"Xena... I was so worried... I thought Id lost you forever!!" There, it was out.
"What?" Xena is incredulous. "I promised you Id be back!"
I embrace my warrior in a hold so tight that I think I surely must be crushing the life out of her. I breathe in deeply the spicy, leathered scent of her, and I feel the gently defined muscles of a body I know better than my own. I need her now, right now, more than I ever have, and when her lips find mine, I can tell she needs me too.
"I thought you were going to read me your story?" A teasing smile tugs at the corner of her mouth, as she eases me down onto a hastily thrown blanket.
"Let me show you instead," I breathe, and then I am lost in her.
Comments welcomed at: Belwah82@aol.com
Return to The Bard's Corner