The Pendulum of Life
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.
A swollen, blood-red disc of a sun slips ever-faster towards the western horizon. I pause to watch its descent, marveling at its beauty. No matter how many times Ive seen a sunset or a sunrise, I never cease to be moved by it. I put my hands on my hips and stretch, feeling my back pop and snap in an achy response. Today has not been an easy one for us. The fire is lit, she has seen to that, and I sniff a bit as the near-chicory-scented wood smoke invades my nostrils. I take a few steps upwind, and return to my campsite duties.
We move around the clearing with a systematic familiarity, Xena and I, borne of our more than three years of traveling together now. I am the cook, preparing what she brings us to eat. She tends to Argo, while I lay down our bedding of hemp blankets and animal skins with utmost care; a warrior who has spent the night sleeping on an irritating rock is not the best of company in the morning! We pass through many lands together and though I stand an equal by her side, she is still my protector - the defender of all who feel the sting of injustice. It is for me to preserve the tales of her deeds for all time. For I am a writer, you see. A storyteller. A bard.
But most of all, I am Xenas friend.
The pot of rabbit stew begins to bubble. My mouth waters at the spicy scent of it, but I dont know that I will have much of an appetite tonight. I reach to stir the mixture with one hand, while with the other I move my saddlebag full of scrolls out of harms way. Xena has dropped it close to the fire, knowing that I always enjoy writing after weve finished our evening meal. I am uncertain whether Ill be able to bring myself to write about what has happened this day. Not tonight, anyway. But Ive already spied a large rock at the edge of our clearing, where I know Xena will sit after weve eaten, and where she will enjoy her own evening ritual - the cleaning and sharpening of her sword.
After a time, the night will finally beckon us to sleep. Most evenings, no words need even pass between us, each knows that the other is ready to bring the day to a close. We have come together, to this place of warmth and love, when once we were so far apart. Me, the little girl from Poteidaia, and she - the Warrior Princess.
I feel a presence come up behind me, and I smile. It is her.
"Mnnn... whats cooking?"
I turn around to face her. "You ought to know, Xena. You snared it no less than an hour ago." The mock-sterness of my voice did nothing to prevent a wry smile from creeping across her face.
"Juuuust checking!" she says, and gives me a wink.
"Its about done, if youre interested," and I return my attentions to the pot.
"In what youve got cooking? Always! Let me go check on Argo first, though. I wont be a moment."
I glance up to watch her leave, the armor over her leathers reflecting back the last rays of the dying sun, and I know that it was not always like this - this casual ease between us. I remember another campfire; far, far away from this one, and yet not so far removed. Not really.
We had not been traveling together long. Just a few moons. We were still scared and uncertain - still trying to find our way. Would our friendship work? Okay, so maybe I was the scared and uncertain one. Xenas moods were so hard to figure out. From one day to the next, she seemed to be barely tolerating my presence, even showing outright anger at times. I found myself walking on eggshells around her, knowing that shed been through alot and that this was a difficult time of change for her. I kept my hurt at her remoteness to myself.
The sheer force of her was overwhelming. Though she spoke only rarely, her silence could not hide the complex, heroic warrior I just knew dwelled within her - if only she would let it show. It was the glimpses of that person Id seen that gave me the courage and desire to leave my family, my home, and follow her. I desperately wanted her approval, and yet it seemed everything I did served only to inflame her wrath.
"Gabrielle, are you sure you dont want to ride?" shed tersely say, after Id stumbled again for the umpteenth time.
Id grit my teeth. "No thanks Xena." Her horse was just too darn tall. Xena would fall silent, and Id know that she was angry again. I was slowing us down. And so I worried when shed take off to scout ahead: was she so tired of me that she would not return? And at night, when she would leave to hunt or set a snare, it would not have surprised me had I been abandoned. But I was determined to accompany her on her journey towards justice and goodness, and so far shed not been able to shake me loose.
This day, we were on the road only an hour or two when Xena sharply reined in her horse. The mare whinnied in protest, scuffling at the ground with its forelegs.
"Xena, what is it?" I wanted to know. I saw her already tanned features darken, as her eyes trained on the horizon to the west.
"Ssssh!" she said, holding up the palm of her hand, straining to listen - to what?
I followed her gaze, and saw only darkened clouds hovering above the tree-line. Strange, on what had been such a bright morning. "The rain-clouds?" I asked, instantly regretting that Id disobeyed Xenas last request. Why couldnt I keep my mouth shut? I steeled myself for another stern lecture.
"Cmon Gabrielle, get on Argo." I was surprised when Xena held a hand down to me.
"Really Xena, I dont mind getting a little wet, you go on ahead."
"Get on the horse, now!" she angrily insisted, and I dared not ignore her now. With wisp of a prayer to the gods, I reluctantly clambered aboard.
"I - I dont understand!" I said, shutting my eyes against the view of the ground which now seemed oh-so far away. My arms were in a death-lock around Xenas waist. Tough. It was her fault I was in this position in the first place.
"Those arent storm clouds." And with a "yah!" she urged Argo into a full-out gallop. I barely kept my seat as the big war-horse thundered off. We were in for it now. I knew it.
I could smell the village of Nekkor before I could actually see it. The acrid smoke from burned buildings, grain stores, animals - and worse - invaded my being with a stench I knew I would never forget. Xena slowed Argo to a trot as we approached the edge of the small settlement - or what was left of it.
These people had been poor, and what little theyd had was now gone. Small huts were burned to the ground, a few larger buildings still smoldered; I could hear the charred, weakened walls groan and sag inward on themselves, at last tumbling to the ground in surrender. As with any battle, those who suffer the most are the very young and the very old. Nekkor was no exception. The bodies of the innocents were everywhere, and I forced myself to not turn away. Xena herself would do no less.
We helped the few survivors as best we could, but there were not enough herbs and salves in all of Greece to heal the internal pain of those poor people who still lived. I could see it on their faces. It was a look I would come to know well as my travels with Xena continued: a vacant look of helplessness, of hurt. Those for whom life and love and hope were now but bitter memories.
I stood by Xena as she carefully stitched closed a gash on the forehead of an elder of the village. Hed been hit with the flat blade of a sword during the attack. I took in his frail limbs, his weathered face, and I listened to his thin, reedy voice as he described the battle. I wondered that hed been able to survive at all.
Nekkor had been sacked by a raging warlord - Sentron. The old man told us how death had swept down upon them from the hills, rousting them from their beds or killing them in them. The attack was merciless and brutal, and the destruction had been swift and complete. I could see the expression that crossed Xenas face as she listened to the man, the coldness I saw in her icy blue eyes, and it frightened me.
Xena finished her work on the elder, and with a soft "youll be okay," she stood. Hours had passed since wed entered the village, and the daylight was now waning. "Weve done all we can here," she said and, placing her thumb and forefinger in her mouth, she whistled for Argo.
Numb as I was from the days events, I still cringed a bit when the big horse swung into view. "Are we going after Sentron?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"No..." Xena said, and not without a bit of regret. "Hes long gone by now." She swung herself up into the saddle, and turned Argo into a slow walk out of the village. Relieved, I fell into my usual traveling place slightly in front of them both.
"Well camp for the night," Xena said, "just over that next ridge."
I turned back to see her riding tall and straight in the saddle, showing little fatigue despite the rigors of the day. And I could see that her thoughts were far beyond the next ridge, far beyond the village of Nekkor. The determination on her was plain, and for a brief instant I feared for Sentron. As surely as I lived and breathed, I recognized that look. She would never stop looking for him. Never. And in her mind, by her hand, he was already dead.
moved through the camp quietly, trying to make myself useful and yet stay as clear of the warrior princess as possible. She stomped through the clearing like a troop of Scythians; angrily sparking a fire, shoving our bedrolls to the ground, slapping Argo off after shed groomed her, and finally sitting and working on her sword with a vengeance.
I put a cook-pot of stew over the open flame and tried not to jump out of my skin with every sharp scrape of the whetstone against her blade. The frightful events of the day and the fury of her mood were exacting their toll on my nerves. I knew she would not lash out at me - physically. But her silence hurt me even worse, if that were possible.
She barely offered me a glance when I told her supper was ready. We sat down close to each other, and Xena ate. Filling herself with the stew, she had an almost mechanical sense of purpose: eat, stay strong. I tried to get the stew down, but my stomach rebelled. I could still picture in front of me the slack-jawed faces of the dead; the children, the defenseless, the helpless - those for whom salvation would never come.
Xena gave me no thanks when shed finished, not that I expected it. She rose and quickly returned to the edge of the clearing, again taking up the whetstone and smoothing it across her blade until it shone like a sharp-cut diamond. Such a contrast to the lifes blood it had released in its time.
Nekkor... I thought, as I solemnly stood and began to clear up the remnants of our meal. For the so-called survivors of that village, the real horror was only just beginning. I could not turn my mind away from what I had witnessed this day, and the pain of that feeling quickly blossomed into a hurt and loneliness that Id been carrying with me since I left Poteidaia. Silent tears began to blur my vision, and still I could hear the wretched scrape of Xenas whetstone. Such a cold sound against the surrounding darkness, it only served to signal the escalation of my despair.
No! I would not give into it! Though blinded, I angrily reached out for the cook-pot, and promptly burned the palm of my hand. The pot fell to the ground, spilling what was left of its contents, and I savagely bit my lip to keep from crying out. There was no way Id give Xena the satisfaction now of hearing me weep. After today, I was sure shed put me on the first tinkers wagon back to Poteidaia. Maybe that wasnt such a bad idea after all, I thought, and a fresh wave of melancholy coursed through me. I plopped to the ground. Oh, I was crying now, alright, and I didnt give a fig if she heard me.
I dont know exactly when the scraping sound stopped, but at some point it must have. And then there was a soft voice behind me.
"Hey... let me take a look at that."
I could sense her sitting down next to me, I could see the dark outline of her shape through my tear-blurred vision. Like a child, I held out my hand to her. "It was the - the darn pot!" I said in a hiccupy voice, "I g-g-grabbed for it and - and I..." I wanted Xena to know that the reason I was crying - the ONLY reason - was the burn.
"Missed the handle, eh?" Xena finished for me.
"Yes," I replied, somewhat mollified.
My tears began to slow as she examined my hand with a gentleness that did not surprise me; Id seen her provide this same tender care to others over and over and again - today in Nekkor and at other stops along our travels.
"Ive done that myself, a time or two," she said, smoothing a menthol-scented salve onto my reddened palm and fingers. "Why else do you think I let you do the cooking?"
I looked up at her then, and was stunned to see the corner of her mouth turned up in a half-grin. I could not help but smile back at her, "And all this time I thought it was because you actually liked my cooking!"
Xena began to carefully wrap a clean linen strip around my hand. "Oh, I do," she said, and the earnestness in her voice gave me no reason to question her. Amazing, I thought, just this bit of conversation - over my scorched palm no less - and I could feel the aching vise around my heart begin to ease.
"This will be fine in just a few days, Gabrielle." She tied off the linen strip, patted the top of my hand, and leaned back onto a bundled bedroll. Her healing work was done, but she did not seem inclined to move away. For that, I was grateful.
"Uh-huh," she said, and we both allowed ourselves to be entranced by the dancing tongues of flame coming from the campfire.
"Xena," I said at last, "What we saw today in Nekkor... why? Why do people do that?"
I could feel the warrior stiffen next to me, and she did not answer at first. Her pale eyes took on a far-away look. Though she was scant inches from me, I knew she now was in a distant place where I feared to go.
"Why?" she repeated my question, and expelled a sharp whistle of air from her lungs, returning to the present. "Greed, desire," she paused, "hatred of others... and of yourself."
She turned to me then, and I did not shrink back from the pained expression on her face. Was Xena talking about Sentron now - or herself? She had once walked down the path that Sentron followed, though I found it difficult to think of this woman before me now as being capable of such carnage. Yet I knew to some degree that it must have been so. All I could see at that moment was a person hurting, and I didnt care if responding to that the only way I knew how got me into trouble. I put my good arm around her and gave her a comforting squeeze. Her leathers creaked as she sighed, and the relaxed feel of her against me told me that she hadnt minded my over-familiarity. Truth be known, Id needed that hug myself.
We watched the fire burst through a final, sparkling blaze, and then begin to die.
"Sentron will pay for what he did today," Xena said quietly, almost to herself. "We all do. One way or another."
I think its funny sometimes how the gods play with us. We are puppets dangling on their strings, childrens toys set into motion, acting out our lives drama purely for their enjoyment. Whether it was Ares or Hades who put us on the trail of Sentron once again, these three years later, I cannot pretend to know. Several days ago wed heard that Sentron and his men had attacked a nearby village - but it hadnt gone well for him this time. The local militia had fought well, and the warlord had retreated in disarray. When we arrived at the scene of the battle, the news was much different form the last time we crossed Sentrons path. From the exhausted but proud villagers, we heard that the villain and his men had retreated towards the heavily wooded hills to the southwest.
We were off. The hunt. Her face was flush with excitement; her prey was close and she knew it. I had an unsettling sense of deja vu when Xena hoisted me up on Argo, and we galloped for the hills. I didnt know what thoughts raced through Xenas mind, what she intended to do when she caught him. Would the Xena I knew be able to show him the mercy hed not thought to spare the people of Nekkor?
We tied off a sweaty Argo at the edge of the forest, and pressed into the plush canopy of trees. The trail was not hard to follow; the way had been paved in trampled-down brush and spatters of blood. The golden midday sun which burned overhead cut thin edges of light through the shade. It was hot enough, I thought, as I felt the trickle of sweat creep down my back. But Xena was unstoppable, pushing forward as though she were racing at Olympia, and it was all I could do to keep up with her.
"Xena," I panted, shoving damp tendrils of hair from my eyes, "if you intend to surprise Sentron --"
"Its been at least a day since the main party came through here," Xena said, barely breaking her stride to hold back a sheaf of branches so I could pass by, unimpeded. We had only trudged on another few steps when Xena froze, holding up her hand. I drew up close behind her, laying a palm on her shoulder.
"What is it?" I whispered.
In the quiet-thick heat of the forest, Xena simply pointed towards the path ahead. I looked, and listened, and then I heard it too. A groan. Xena unsheathed her sword, and motioned for me to follow her. Gladly, I let her take the lead.
We were about ten paces farther along, when the path suddenly widened into a small glade. I peeked my way around Xena, and there, propped up against a rotting log, was a man. By the looks of him, I guessed, a victim of Sentron. I quickly pushed past the warrior princess.
"Whos there?" He croaked, for he could not see. Circling his head and eyes was a bloodied bandage.
"Friends," I said, dropping to my knees at his side.
"Thank the gods," he fell back against the log. "Help me!"
"Easy now," I said, examining his injuries more closely. I was grateful he could not see the look of revulsion that I knew must have crossed my face. In addition to the wounds about his head, there was a bigger problem: a deep, gaping cut rent him open horizontally across his belly; the blood had oozed out of him, soaking through his shirt and clotting upon the ground beneath him. In the summer heat, flies were already swarming and bedeviling the poor man, and the overall effect of the scene was stultifying. Choking. I knew that even with the healing skills of Xena, he could never survive this. But we had to try.
I started to minister to him. "Xena, can you hand me--" and I turned to see her just standing there, sword still drawn, her entire body on full alert.
"Xena!" My tone was harsh, "What are you doing? He needs our help!" I turned back to the injured man, and noticed only then his signet ring, the gem-encrusted hilt of the sword laying by his side, and the horned helmet dropped not far away. It had provided him little protection after all.
"Back away, Gabrielle. Now." I knew what that low rumbling voice meant, and by now I had developed an almost involuntary response to it - I obeyed.
I stepped away from him, and now that Xena knew I was safe, I could see relief flicker across her face. Our eyes met briefly and she nodded. Quickly, she re-directed her attention on the downed man.
"Feeling a bit under the weather today, eh Sentron?" The bitter laughter from Xena surprised me, chilled me, and we watched him weakly, blindly, reach for his sword. I was rocked by Xenas bit of information. Yes, it was a wounded Sentron. After all this time. Abandoned to die by his men.
"Who are you?" Sentrons voice trembled. The arrogance and anger that had driven him in life were now tempered by an injury-imposed ignorance and the fear of a death he had to know was near.
He picked up his sword and waved it in a pathetic gesture of defense, but he did not rise. He would never rise again. "Its Xena of Amphipolis," she answered him, "And my friend Gabrielle." In one swift motion, before I could even react, she sprang over to Sentron and kicked the weapon away.
What little fight was left in him took flight with his sword, and he groaned and leaned back. "Xenaaaaa." he said, and his voice clung to her name.
Xena stood above the blind man, the tip of her blade touching his chest. "Ive been looking forward to this for a long time, Sentron. But it looks like someone beat me to it."
I turned to Xena, disbelieving. Surely, she would not kill this man. Not now.
His face blanched even more, if that were possible. His spirit was slipping away. "Ive heard of you, Xena of Amphipolis. We once had much in common, you and I."
"Not anymore," Xena said, pressing the blade harder against his ruined body, and I hoped she believed it to be true. I know I did.
"Go ahead - finish it, if you want." Sentron tilted his head up, exposing his neck to her. "Youll be doing me a favor."
At that moment my heart could not penetrate the deep blue ocean of her mind that lay behind her eyes - what thoughts were cast upon it or submerged within it, I did not know. I did move next to her, and placed my hand on the bracer of her sword arm. "Xena, " I said, and my voice broke with emotion, "We have to help him. Please."
The spell lifted. "Hes dying, Gabrielle," she said, and turned away from me. "Whatever you can do to make him more comfortable... do it."
In silence, I bathed him and bandaged him. Blessedly, Sentron took this time to drift off into a slumber that lay somewhere between sleep and death. Xena did not help, but nor did she hinder, and I did not mind the distance she put between us. Frankly, I thought it was for the best. She disappeared for a time, and then returned, dirty and perspiring, and she drank deeply from one of our water skins. Her appearance was evidence of her recent activity, she had to have been preparing the place where Sentron would lie.
"It wont be long now," I said to her, and we both watched, for a time, the slow, labored rise and fall of his chest. I turned back to Xena. "Thank you."
Wordlessly, she moved back towards the edge of the glade, and found a large rock there, fairly low to the ground. She eased herself down upon it, and out came the whetstone. I knew now that this ritual helped Xena to calm down, to focus, to center herself. And knowing that, I found a comfort in it, too.
The rhythm of Sentrons breathing changed, and I looked closely at him, thinking this was the last, but no. Somehow he found the strength to pull himself one final time from the clutches of the darkness that increasingly surrounded him.
"Take it easy..." I dabbed at his face with a cool, moist cloth.
The parched, cracked lips spoke. "You have a soft touch, friend of Xena."
I knew what he had done, what he was capable of doing, but all I saw before me now was a helpless, dying man. Hed become his legacy.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked.
"Its not for me to judge the life youve led."
Sentron released a raspy laugh which he instantly regretted. I could see right away the pain that followed his humorous indulgence, it knifed through him as surely as had the militia-mans sword. "Hades himself will do that soon enough."
"I think that people can change. I know they can." I caught Xenas eye. She was watching us intently now. The sharpening had stopped.
A fit of coughing wracked Sentrons body, and I did what I could to wipe away the blood that spilled from his mouth. His last moment was near, and he knew it. I could nearly touch the fear rising off of him.
"You know who I am," his voice was fading, "Youve seen what Ive done. Ask her!" He weakly waved towards where Xena had been sitting. The whetstone. So hed heard it too.
Xena sheathed her sword and came over to us. I smiled at her - I was glad she chose to be with me now. It was enough. She returned my welcome with a sad smile of her own.
"Ask her!" Sentron repeated.
"Shh... It doesnt matter now." I placed another cool cloth on his brow. I stroked his cheek and noted that his breathing calmed to a shallow slowness once again. "Its all in the past," I said. Here I was, trying to ease his last few minutes on this earth. More than hed done for his victims, and yet I could feel no malice towards this man.
I reached for his hand. "Relax... and let it go."
He clung to my hand now, tightly, not yet willing to find his release. "Please... forgive me?" His voice was hoarse and hesitant, desperate and unreconciled.
Confusion and sadness gripped my mind, even as compassion wrung at my heart. What did this man want from me? Did I have the right to give it to him? "I forgive you," I heard myself saying. Telling him what he needed to hear.
And as he expired, Xena squatted down next to me. "If only he could forgive himself."
I sense her presence behind me, and I smile. She has returned from tending Argo. We have traveled hard today and witnessed much. "Smells good," she says, and although I dont have much of an appetite tonight, I know I will have my share. Eat. Stay strong.
When our meal is done and the campsite cleared, we relax near the fire. The sweltering heat of the day has been replaced by the slight cool of a summers eve, and I lean back against my bedroll and study the celestial firmament, enjoying the touch of a soft breeze that wafts through the clearing. I reflect upon things weve been through together, Xena and I, and our journeys still to come. And yet so much of her remains a mystery to me.
What would she have done if wed come upon a healthy Sentron and his men? Made him a prisoner of justice, or merely dispensed her own brand of truth at the point of her sword? Even now, I do not know. And because I do not fear this warrior beside me, working on her blade, I will ask her. If she knows the answer, she will tell me.
"Xena?" I turn to her.
"Hmnnn?" The cadence of her sharpening swipe does not change.
"About Sentron, today. About... what he did..."
"Yeeeess," she answers in a slow drawl, and I can tell that she knows whats coming.
"Would you-- I mean... what if he--" Although I fancy myself a bard, there are times when I find myself at a loss for words, and now is one of them.
She pauses in her swordly ministrations, and turns her azure eyes to me. In that instant, I see her take in the look on my face, she sees what Im struggling with.
Xena puts her blade down and comes to sit by me, until we are both bathed in the fires glow. Sounds of the deepening night pervade around us, the welcoming chirp of the crickets, the hum of the katydids. A peace descends. "Youre asking," she says, "whether if he hadnt been injured when we found him, would I have killed him anyway?"
"Well," I gasp, relieved to be let off the hook, "Now that you put it that way - yes."
Xena was silent. How noble she looked now, the strong definition of her chin, the high slope of her cheekbones, receiving and reflecting back the light from the fire.
I press her. "Would you?"
"If hed come at me, or tried to kill you... yes." She picks up a small twig and throws it into the flames. "Other than that... I dont know, Gabrielle. I just dont know."
"You would have done the right thing, Xena," I say fiercely, convinced of this with all my heart. "I know it."
"Maybe," she says, turning her eyes down. "Before I met you, Gabrielle, all I saw around me was misery. My life... was misery. You taught me that there is something good in everyone... in everything. You believe that. I want to believe it too. Some days its just harder for me to see it."
She shakes her head, and I can see her brow furrowing deep in thought, struggling to work this thing through. How I want to help her! "Killing him today," she says, "wouldve been like killing a part of myself. A part of me that I want to die!"
"No," I say. If only Xena could see herself through my eyes - she would know. "Xena," I move close, wrapping my arm over her broad shoulders, "that part of you did die. Long ago. You saw to that. It died at the very moment when you decided to live your life for the greater good. I know it, and if youd just look into your heart, youd see it too!" I could not stop the tear escaping from the corner of my eye.
Xena awkwardly returns my embrace, laughing softly, releasing into the firelight whatever demon of her past shed held close within. "You make it sound so simple!"
"It is!" And I smile, feeling slightly idiotic as tears slip down my face.
"Look at you," she brushes my tears away. "Youve sprung a leak."
"What else is new," I say, and we both laugh.
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
"I mean it," she insists. "I can always count on you to believe in me, more than I even believe in myself." And she sears my soul with a gaze that I know will never cause me to doubt her.
"Im your champion Xena," I curl my arm around her again. "And I always will be."
With a deep sigh, Xena gives me another quick, chaste hug, and I know we have both been changed by this day. She stands, ruffles the mop of blonde hair on my head, and returns to her whetstone.
I pick up my scroll and begin to write about my friend.
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