Circle of Life
It was ironic that in these moments, when she was closest to death, that she felt the most alive. That she only felt free within the circle of battle, where past and future became mere concepts and she was lifted of the burden of both. Now mattered. Now was the only thing that meant anything to her.
Xenas grin was almost a rictus of death. No, it was a corpses rotting smile just after the muscles slackened, much as her own muscles had loosened some few seconds into the battle. A simple drawing of a sword had been enough to determine Fate. These men would soon be dead. Soon.
Theyd already begun to suspect it.
She occasionally wondered what would happen if Gabrielle knew that Xena was not amiss to prolonging the action. That the longer the fight, the more time she was allowed in which to savour the incredible simplicity of life. The draw of the sword across the air and flesh, slicing through both with clean, even strokes. The slipping of her leathers over her body, tightening and giving around the movements of her muscles. The tender flogging of her hair upon her face as she whipped around, the scene beyond barred by the raven strands.
And then there were the moments in which she was surrounded by attackers, and her world narrowed to one of such sharp focus she couldnt even tell the difference between the bodies that charged at her. Her world was as short as the sharp breaths it took to carry her between one parry and another.
She dispatched her five in a symphony of movement and sound: twirling among them, her yell following behind. The punctuated grunts as they died, the muffled bass booms as they fell, their leathers and brass bits creaking faintly; it was all part of the song that she sang. In her ears beat the rhythm of blood. She knew it so well. She lived by it, and because of it.
As the beat thundered to a halt, she took a deep breath, heard that sound as a single, separate thing, and felt the numbness seeping back in, filling that empty space. Drowning her in the cold.
It spread everywhere: first through her fingers, then up her arms, down her legs, clouding her eyes and her mind and reaching down into her heart . . .. Where it stopped. Where it was kept at bay, only just, but it couldnt reach past the fire that burned there, the golden light
Xena straightened up, looking around instinctively for Gabrielle. The small bard was having no trouble fending off her attackers, for which Xena gave no small thanks. Two of the brigands lay like discarded dolls in the grassy expanse; Xena had no doubt they were still alive. The last was trying to block the swinging staff, though his efforts were ineffectual with only his bare hands as a shield. Gabrielle was becoming quite the expert at staves, she mused. After taking a moment to consider her fighting form, Xenas thoughts turned towards her friends health. Her eyes roamed the petite womans trim figure with careful deliberation, feeling herself relax minutely as each part was considered. There were no visible bruises, no blood darkening her clothing or seeping onto her skin. Good. The blonde favoured no particular limb, and was indeed handling the staff with beautiful, mesmerising strokes. Excellent.
The warrior suddenly realised she was staring at her bard with what would certainly be considered a foolish grin, but she didnt mind. Gabrielle wasnt hurt. That was the most important thing.
One of the men on the ground groaned, but Xena barely spared him or his friend a glance. Because they were Gabrielles foes, they would live.
Xena took the moment to wipe off her sword on the cleanest patch of one of the dead mens cloaks before sheathing it. Then she took out her knife and began digging at some of the dirt under her nails. After a moment, she even yawned.
There was a solid clunk as the staff connected with the mans temple, and as he fell, Gabrielle tossed her head, the golden hair catching the sunset light. "All right, Xena, I get the point."
"No, Ive got the points, youve got the end of the stick." The dark warrior smiled at her own joke. "Can we get a move on? I want to make Athens before the end of the week."
Gabrielle huffed as she balanced herself with one hand on the staff and rearranged her skirt with the other. "Hey, I didnt ask them to attack us!"
"Can we argue on the road?" Xena whistled for Argo.
Gabrielle was looking around at the bodies. "Are you sure theyre just bandits? I mean, theyre not after us? Specifically?"
"Not everyones after us, Gabrielle." Xena frowned, wishing it didnt, however, feel exactly the opposite. She rechecked Argos girth. "At least, not all at the same time. No, these are just a band of thieves. I ran across them a few years ago. Looks like they havent changed much."
"If you met them a few years ago . . .." Gabrielle quickly ran through her memories of her life with Xena. "It wasnt with me, so you must still have been a warlord."
"Im surprised they lived to tell the tale." Gabrielle smiled up at her. "See? Heres proof you didnt kill everyone you met."
Xenas eyebrows rose, but she forbore to point out that many of the men had died regardless. Only now she hadnt had the excuse of being evil, had she? Now it was merely self-defence.
There were times that being good was a line that was nonetheless smeared with blood. Blood that she shed.
They picked up their pace again, the two women walking companionably side by side. Occasionally their shoulders brushed, their arms touched, their long hair flicked at the others skin. Xena felt long-limbed and loose. The fight had relaxed her, and now she felt she could properly enjoy the evening walk with her friend. That's pretty much what it felt likeas though home were just over the next hill.
A seductive thought. A frightening thought.
"So, what are you thinking?" Gabrielle asked her.
Xena kept her smile to herself. Of course the bard would talk. Sometimes it surprised her that the two still had something to say, even after so many years. "Im thinking about my boots."
"What? Youre kidding me." Gabrielle slapped at her shoulder in disgust. "Its a gorgeous evening, wonderful weather, we are still alive, and all youve got on your mind is your boots?"
"No, Ive got those on my feet." She lazily kicked at a small rock, watching it bulls-eye a particular knot on a stump some five metres ahead. "I was thinking that I might want to have a new pair made up while Im in a city with a proper tanner. I think these have walked through water one too many times."
"But I thought we were only going to be in Athens for a night."
"Were not hurrying anywhere. We could stay a few nights, maybe see a play or two." She slanted a knowing glance at her young friend. "You could go see your friends at the College."
The blonde laughed, a happy sound, and Xenas numbness pulsed, pleasure shooting through the dark centre. "The great Xena? Just hanging out? Is that even possible?"
"Weve gone to Tarterus and back and you can ask that?" Xena smiled, and it felt real, even to herself. "Yeah, I can do that. I might even . . ." She looked down her nose at the bard. "Take a bath." She waggled her eyebrows. "Care to join me?"
"Id like to see you try to stop me." Gabrielles grin was simply too infectious, and Xena felt her smile seeping into her soul.
The cold snapped back with the scream.
Gabrielle gripped her staff and looked around. "What was that?"
"You mean who," Xena corrected grimly, and took off toward the sound, pulling her sword as she ran. The scream had been one of desperation and fear and pain, not of anger. She didnt fear a trap, but rather what she would find.
And who she would become when that happened. Yet her feet carried her swiftly towards the invisible circle, and her heart ached for battle. Her blood pounded, her breath quickened. The forest became brighter around her, the colours deeper, the lines sharper. She was aware of Gabrielle, tailing her, but it was much like being aware of her arm, or her foot. The bard was simply there. Something else led Xena forward.
She burst out into a clearing and immediately saw the woman sprawled in the grass by the small creek. She took in the blood and the womans agonised face, and the cold inside her threatened to swamp her again.
Gabrielle exploded out into the space and stumbled to a stop, gasping for breath. "Xena? What is it?" She noticed the woman and frowned. "What?"
"Shes having a baby." With the coldness back in place, Xena could function without mourning the lost opportunity. She whistled for Argo, whom theyd left back on the path. "Gabrielle, a fire. And rags. Hurry!"
Together the two worked as a fluid team, ransacking their meagre supplies and setting out what they could. Gabrielle snorted as she grabbed the remains of what had been her only shirt. "Well, Im glad I washed this after you last used it."
Xena didnt answer as she knelt by the woman. "How long have you been in labour?" She didnt really need an answer, she just wanted the woman to focus on something other than the pain.
The woman screamed wordlessly, but her hand groped for Xenas. Her grip was weak, brown hair plastered with sweat against her red face, green eyes bloodshot. Her thighs were slick with blood.
"Its coming!" Gabrielle warned, and grabbed some clean cloths before hunkering down between the womans legs. Xena looked at the pot theyd managed to fill with water and put on a hastily built fire. It would never be ready in time.
Xena put her free hand on the womans belly and looked expectantly at Gabrielle, who took a visible breath and nodded. And bent forward. The woman screamed as the next wave of pain racked at her body. Gabrielle gritted her teeth and looked up. "Got it."
Xena bore down relentlessly on her free hand.
The womans scream spiralled up until the painful register was broken into whimpers. Her hands curled into talons and clawed at Xenas arms, but the warrior didnt slacken the pressure until the bard looked up. "Okay, Xena."
She caught at the womans hands then, wrapping her long fingers around the delicate wrists and binding them easily. She stroked the womans face, wiping the sweat from the brow. "Shh," she whispered. "Easy. Your babys fine. Youre fine. Rest now."
"My baby?" The woman whimpered and tried to raise her head. "Is my baby all right?"
Gabrielle had efficiently cut the cord and wiped the baby, clearing the mucous membranes and making it less of a slimy wet thing and more of a human. She settled the squalling creature in the cradle of the weak womans arms, smiling at her. "Youve got a boy. Hes fine. Hes beautiful, in fact. Both of you will be just fine."
The woman looked at the baby, and tears slipped down her wet cheeks. But she said nothing, merely closed her eyes, and in between one breath and another was asleep.
Xena moved down under and took a look herself, nodding at Gabrielles work. The woman was simply drained and filthy; there was no actual permanent damage done. With some rest and clean rags, the mother and son would be fit to travel.
And travel they must; Xena could not understand what the woman was doing, so far from home and hearth. The stranger wore no cloak, carried no weapon, and rode no horse. From the tracks etched into the grass, Xena surmised that the woman had simply stumbled into the clearing and dropped.
Which didnt bode well.
Gabrielle remarked on it moments later, as they refilled the pot from the trickle of creek. "Is she as alone as she looks?"
The warrior wrung out the soiled cloths. "Yeah. But she couldnt have travelled far."
"You think theres a town nearby?"
"Theres gotta be. Even in a wagon, the jolting would be too painful for her to go a long way." Xenas eyes travelled around the clearing restlessly. "Probably not more than a half hours ride."
"How can you tell?"
"Shes got soft shoes on. If shed been walking any distance through the forest, theyd be cut to ribbons, as would her feet. But theyre only torn."
"It doesnt make any sense. Why do you think she wanted to be away from everyone when her baby was born?"
"I dont know." Xena got to her feet, helping her friend up with one hand. "I guess we ought to ask them, when we get there."
"Were going?" Gabrielle didnt look too surprised.
"Well give her a few hours of rest, first."
Now Gabrielle turned to look at her. "Tonight? Xena, shes just given birth! Shes too weak! And think about the baby!"
"Think about the father, Gabrielle. And her family. They must be worried about her. What about them? Shouldnt they know that shes all right? And the baby? He needs proper care. If she dries up for any reason, hes dead. Doesnt he deserve a better chance than that?"
"What if shes got a good reason for not wanting to be there?" Gabrielle said slowly. "Huh?"
"Ive already thought about that."
"And being with us might be the safest way to come home." Xena turned to look at the bard, and for one moment, she felt the numbness flicker through her face. Gabrielles eyes shuttered, and the warrior knew the bard had seen the dark side shining through her yet again.
She turned away, wishing that the dark circle within her wasnt so damn hungry. What scared her was that it was so peaceful, as well.
"Youre taking me back." The woman, who had muttered that her name was Iridia, looked up dully from the travois. Gabrielle noted the tears that tracked down her thin face, and the haunted look in her eyes. Iridia hadnt let go of her baby, but clung to her young son as though he was the only real thing in her world.
"Yes," Gabrielle said, dropping back to keep pace with the makeshift sledge. "Youll be home soon. With your family." She pitched her voice to be soothing, but immediately knew that shed have to do better than that. The woman stiffened with the last word. Interesting. Family was not a happy topic. She temporised. "Youll be safe."
Nope, that brought a similar response.
Third time the charm? "Youll be safe, because Xena wont allow anyone to harm you or your baby."
She wondered if shed pushed another button, or if Iridia had simply gone through too much tonight. "Its too late," Iridia moaned. "Much too late. I dont want to go back. Dont make me go back! Hell be there!"
Gabrielle shot a quick look at Xena, who was leading Argo. Although the warrior didnt turn around, Gabrielle was certain that shed heard.
"Your husband?" she asked softly, trying to contain her anger and pity. Wouldnt do to feel until she knew the story. Hadnt Xena taught her not to assume things?
"No," Iridia sobbed. "Ive lost him." She clutched her baby, and it gave a startled squawk. Iridia only cried harder, and the bard wondered if she should fear for the baby. "He killed him!"
"Someone killed your husband?"
She hated to question the distraught woman further, but Gabrielle had to know what the two of them were walking into. She untangled the webs of the story with care, and tried to follow the plot. "Was it murder?"
Iridia only nodded, overcome with grief. The baby began to wail, a pitifully thin counterpoint to the womans crying.
The travois stopped, and Xena was suddenly kneeling beside Iridia, holding a cup to her lips. "Here. Drink this." Gabrielle idly noted that, even if the woman had any objections, the warriors hand underneath Iridias chin more or less forced the issue. The bard briefly wondered what was in the cup, apart from the water.
"Dont make me go back," Iridia pleaded after the drink.
Though Gabrielle wasnt too sure about the idea herself, she supported her friend, who had the uncanny and rather selfish knack of being right most of the time. "Youll have to face it sometime, Iridia. And we wont let anything happen to you." She glanced at Xena. "We promise."
Xena didnt look at her, but instead smoothed the hair off the new mothers forehead. "Relax, Iridia. Well stop here a few moments, and let Argo rest."
"I beg you, stop now. We can still get away!"
"I dont like to run away," Xena replied evenly, moving to sit back against a rock. Gabrielle plopped down next to the travois.
"Thats what my husband said," Iridia sniffled. "And hes dead because of it!"
Gabrielle looked at Xena, and their eyes met. The bard was getting the picture; shed been around the warrior too long not to have several different scenarios in mind.
Her suspicions about the drink were affirmed when Iridias head lolled back on their sleeping furs in just a few minutes.
"It wont hurt the baby when he breastfeeds," Xena reassured Gabrielle.
She was ashamed to realise she hadnt even wondered. "What do you think?"
"I think the town is just over that hill."
"About Iridia. And her husband."
"I think were about to find out." Xenas voice was casual, but Gabrielle suddenly noticed that her sword was unsheathed and lying near to hand. The bards own staff, of course, was right beside her.
Now she could hear the rustling in the bushes. Whoever it was obviously wasnt trying to sneak up on them. Not when he was calling out so loudly.
Gabrielle kept quiet, waiting for Xena to choose to make the first move. The warrior still lounged back against her perch, the picture of comfort. As though she couldnt simply burst up in a moment, ready for action.
The man stumbled into their path, and froze. Gabrielle suddenly realised that he was terrified at the sight of them. Until his eyes adjusted, and he saw the travois.
"Iridia! Youre safe!" He tottered to the side of the travois and caught sight of the baby. "Oh, gods!" Falling to his knees, he reached out to touch the sleeping womans cheek, then suddenly patted her face. A tightening across his shoulders, and he whirled around to face them, though Gabriel noted that he made no sort of threatening moves towards them. "What have you done to her?"
"Shes exhausted," Xena said mildly. "Shes just had a baby. Who are you?"
"A friend," he murmured, his eyes returning to the still figure. "A friend of the family."
"Speaking of family," Gabrielle interjected, "what happened to hers?"
The mans shoulders bowed with sorrow. "Her husbands dead." He turned to face them now, falling into a loose pile of legs and rags. "Perhaps he was one of the lucky ones. You should leave, too, as quickly as you can. You should probably take her, when you go. If you leave now, you might still live. I beg you, take her."
"This is why men arent oracles." Xena sighed audibly. "Why dont you tell us whats already happened, instead of what might happen?"
Xena and Gabrielle turned to look at one another. As one, they shrugged and looked back at the man. "Care to start somewhere else?" Xena invited silkily.
He sighed. "My name is Midicus. I live in Delamide, just over the hill there. Were a small town, just a few families. We all help each other. We raise horses, good horses, that thrive on the rich grass in the valley."
"Delamidian horses. Ive heard of them. Good farm horses."
"It was a place of peace. Until the Beast came, two days ago." Midicus shivered. "He wore armour and rode a war horse. Came in the morning, with the first light, and demanded rule of the town. He gave us one night to collect our wealth. He ordered us to pile it all in the town square, ready for him in the morning. He would take the money, then return at nightfall to take control of the town."
"You didnt give in," Gabrielle said. She racked her brain for any memory of a marauder named the Beast. Nothing came up.
"No. Of course not. It seemed funny, at the time. We didnt think . . . he was only one man."
Gabrielle thought of how many enemies had thought the same of Xena. Only one person, against so many. But she knew better, now, and so did those who were not yet dead. "Go on."
"We made a plan. We were going to fight against him. Five of our men, myself included, would face him in town, when he came to collect the treasure."
"Was Iridias husband one of those men?" Xena asked him.
"No. He had a baby on the way. Lannis wanted to, but we convinced him to stay at home, with his wife. Even though we were sure we would beat the Beast, we didnt want there to be any chance of an accident." He took a deep breath. "We were wrong."
"You were beaten."
"In a heartbeat."
"You dont look too bad," Gabrielle noted. There were no obvious bruises on his face, though the night could hide many things. He could still move, at any rate. Though he had practically fallen, rather than sat, down.
"It was so fast. He just . . . whirled. And it was over. We were on the ground. One of my friends had a broken arm. Another had some broken ribs. Our best fighter broke his ankle. I had the Beasts sword at my throat." He broke off a moment and looked away. "The townsfolk had come to look on. They saw us fail."
"You werent trained warriors," Gabrielle told him softly. "You were horse breeders."
"We were five men against one," Midicus said wearily. "Thats what we thought. We didnt realise that we were merely five men against the Beast. We had no chance." He dragged a shaking hand across his face. "But we werent the ones to pay the price for our folly."
The two waited.
"We lay there on the ground. In shock. We could not do more, with our pride and bodies broken. And the Beast laughed, and told us that we would regret our actions. He told us that he would make sure that we lived to regret it. Another would die in our place. Lannis was standing nearby at his door, with Iridia. She wanted to show support for us, so he helped her just a few steps out their door. He wasnt even close to us . . . but the Beast reached him, and killed him. Before we could blink." Midicus cleared his throat. "He killed Lannis on his own doorway, in front of his own wife. Chopped through his legs, and just as Lannis began to scream, slit his throat. Lopped off his head and lifted it by the hair, displaying it for all to see."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, almost unable to bear the picture that formed in her all-too-imaginative mind.
Xena moved slightly, and her chakram scraped against the stone behind her. The sound brought them all back to the present, as Xena had probably intended. "And Iridia fled."
"We only noticed her missing afterwards, when wed all gone back to our homes. After the Beast had told us the second part of our punishment."
"Which was?" Xena didnt sound surprised that there was more to the story. But, of course, she wouldnt. She was familiar with the routine.
"That he would come back tomorrow. That we would have our riches in the town square and our women in a ring around the pile. And that he would take our wealth and five of our women." He took a deep breath. "And if we tried to resist, or run away, he would hunt down and kill five for every one that lifted a hand against him."
Gabrielle ran down the list of curse words that she knew, in all the different languages, and couldnt think of an appropriate one. Her voice would have come out shaky, anyway. She looked up to see Xena watching her.
And then she really wanted to tremble.
Xenas blue eyes bored into hers, and Gabrielle felt the cold stare as a physical assault. The gaze was relentless, and behind the attack, the darkness roiled within the warrior, so close to the surface. So hungry.
And yet she waited.
Though Gabrielle wanted to shrink away from the howling madness behind her friends eyes, she forced herself to meet that gaze and nod. Ever so slightly.
Xena blinked, and the hunger was gone. Just like that. Now there was only cool expectation and distant interest in the here and now.
Gabrielle knew that Xena had asked her permission. Freedom not only to fight the Beast, but also to stop him, permanently. Which meant either crippling him, or killing him. Xena needed to know, now while they had time to think, to reflect, that it was all right to act against him.
And that shed given it, because she knew that Xena needed that from her.
She could only feel a painful dullness within her. Tomorrow, the Beast would meet a creature far darker than itself, and though she hated what shed heard of him, she felt pity for the man himself.
They reached the village just before dawn. Midicus was fairly sweating with worry, for both Iridia and themselves, and was hanging back by the travois, having been made to understand that neither woman would change her mind. Xena and the bard were on either side of Argo. Gabrielle felt the first feelings of worry deep in the pit of her stomach, but it was strangely reassuring. One didnt survive years of Xena without incredible respect and confidence for and in her abilities, but, as Xena said, it was more dangerous when one didnt feel anything at all.
She wondered, not for the first time, undoubtedly not for the last, what Xena was feeling. A quick glance at the warrior showed that Xena was pacing forward fearlessly, practically sauntering into the village. Sounds filtered out between the few houses, hushed sounds. Like mice in a wall.
They rounded a corner to see some villagers, all male, piling sacks by the well in the town square. The mound was pathetically small. Gabrielle looked around for the women, but only heard muffled crying from within the houses. Children were peering through open doors and windows, their faces pinched.
"Theyre already dead," Gabrielle muttered to herself. Xena looked back at her, but said nothing.
The bard felt a small sense of relief, which she immediately damned herself for. The Beast had created this fear, yes. But was it fair to sic the Warrior Princess on him? Without a trial?
"Can I talk to him first?"
The warrior didnt laugh, though Gabrielle wouldnt have been surprised at that reaction to her request. "I dont think this is the kind of guy who wants to talk."
"But will you let me?" Please, she added silently. Let me at least try to not let him do this to you.
Xena looked at her, holding her with those startling eyes. "Okay," she said finally. "You can talk to him. From a safe distance."
Gabrielle wondered if the safe distance, as defined by Xena, was a matter of metres or countries. "Thank you."
Xena was looking at a young man with a crutch who was hobbling towards them, but her words were for Gabrielle. "If the Beast makes any move towards you, I wont have to tell you to get out of the way."
She shivered. "No." She understood.
The young man stumbled to meet them, his face white and drawn with pain. His forehead was smudged with dirt, his hair tousled and greasy, and his eyes were tortured dark pools. His gaze travelled over the two of them, and then back at the one man in their group. "Midicus?" he said faintly. "I dont understand. Did you not find her?" Then he noticed the travois, and his moan was audible. "Oh, dear gods!" He tottered forward, and Gabrielle feared he would fall.
"Shes okay," the bard hastened to assure him, "shes just recovering. She had her baby last night. We found her some way from here."
The man grabbed the travois poles for support and looked at the sleeping woman. He shook his head in sorrow. "Poor girl," he said quietly. "You should never have brought her back, Midicus. The two of you might have been able to get away. Instead youve brought her back to suffer even more than any single woman here" He broke off in confusion, having suddenly remembered the other two. "And you dare to bring more? Knowing what you do? Are you mad? Ladies, didnt you know what you were walking into?"
"Thats actually why were here," Xena replied casually, narrowing her eyes at the lightening sky. "So how much time have we got left?"
"I dont understand," he said. "Do you have a plan?"
"No plan needed."
He looked Xena up and down. "Youre a warrior, both of you are. You dont plan on fighting him, do you? Both of you?"
Xena shook her head, her black hair picking up blood-red highlights from the dawning sun. "Ill fight him alone."
Gabrielle kept quiet, though she was flattered at having been mistaken for a warrior. Then again, she probably was considered one, nowadays.
The blond hunched his shoulders. "Begging your pardon, but weve already tried that, lady. Five of us, all at once. And look how we fared. How we failed." He gestured feebly with his hands. "Yesterday I was the towns champion. If ever there were a challenge, I took care of it." His voice dropped down to a whisper. "Today I am a slave."
"Only to your fears," Xena said grimly.
"We cannot ask you to fight for us. Youd be better off saving yourselves. The Beast hasnt seen you yet; you may still make it out of here before he catches sight of you and thinks you one of us."
"Youre not asking me," Xena stated. "Im volunteering."
Gabrielle finally spoke up. "Let her," she urged. At his continued frown, she stepped forward and used her voice, as shed learned. Imbued it with trust and just a shading of respect. "Youve got nothing to lose, and everything to gain."
For a moment, hope bloomed, but it died a quick death. "Butbut what if he should wwin? No offence meant, lady, but we cant take our chance, and I dont think you should, either! If he wins, you die, and we face his wrath!"
"I dont intend to let him win," Xena said calmly. Gabrielle noticed that though the warriors hands rested casually on her waist, her knuckles were pale with tension and her eyes were distant.
Gabrielles staff was suddenly heavy in her hands. She knew that if she took a moment to reach out and touch her friend, that pale skin would be cool as marble.
Whatever Xena became in these moments, it was enough to assure the towns champion. He nodded slowly, and Gabrielle thought she saw something else in his mind. It was fear. She reached out to touch him before he was consumed by yet another beast. "Hey," she said softly, and smiled gently. "Well do everything we can to help you. We promise."
He looked from one to the other. "Youll kill him? Please?"
Gabrielle didnt turn up to look at Xenas expression. "Hell never bother you again."
Xena moved off, her even strides carrying her towards the pile of sacks. The bard knew it was only long experience that allowed her to see the impatience that Xena kept in check.
"How much longer do we have?" she asked the champion.
"Not long enough," he sighed, and held out his hand. "My name is Aramy. For however long its worth."
"Im Gabrielle. And thats Xena." There was no reaction to the name. Good. They didnt have time to deal with that issue, as well. "Im going to need some clean rags. Hot water. Quickly."
"Yes, now. Hell be here any moment, after all." She turned away to go after Xena, muttering softly, "and any moment after that, well need them. Gods help us."
She caught up to the warrior, who was standing in the middle of the small square, gazing at the decorative well, the gnarled shade trees. Gabrielle tried to see it through her eyes, and knew exactly what Xena was thinking.
"Its easy, isnt it?" she said softly, wishing that she didnt know how to see it this way.
"Its the kind of town that I almost used to wish I could bypass. Its so easy to take, its not a challenge. Its not even an effort. I probably would have razed it to the ground out of disgust for those whom I saw as being trapped here."
"Im surprised that they didnt just get on their horses and go. They breed them, so theyve got enough."
"But its early spring. Nothing here to ride."
"Most of the horses here are mares. Too pregnant to ride. The young ones are under two years old, if theyre still here. Most breeders sell the offspring at the age of two, when you can ride them, but before theyre trained."
"So everyone stayed."
"At home. People will cling to what they know, even in the face of terrible fear. Especially then." She turned suddenly. "Hes here."
"Where?" Gabrielle turned, looking, but saw nothing. She waited, and in a few moments, a black horse came thundering through the single street.
"He sure knows how to make an entrance," she commented. Xena only lifted a brow.
When he came closer, Gabrielle felt her stomach turn. The black horse was ornamented, small bones woven into his mane and tail. The saddle was made of some strange, porous leather, and brightly-coloured hair flowed from a spout atop the visor. The armour had straps of leather and fur dangling from the shoulders. One of the leather strips was caked a dark red. When Gabrielle saw that, her suspicions were confirmed, and she had to take a moment to turn away.
He wasnt a man, he was a monster.
"I still want to talk to him," she said, but her voice sounded weak, even to herself.
The townsfolk scattered around them, fleeing back into their houses; apparently, word had gotten out that Xena intended to fight for them. Gabrielle was glad. She hoped no one had seen that one particular ornament.
In a way, she told herself, the townspeoples actions showed support. And it gave Xena more room.
The two women waited.
The man thundered into the square, dragging back on the reins. The horse bunched under him, haunches dropping to slide into a stop. He looked around once, the plume lashing his faceplate, and laughed before dismounting.
"You must be joking."
"Youre the only one laughing," Xena noted.
"We need to talk," Gabrielle told him. "While you still can." She hadnt realised that shed tried to step forward until she felt Xenas hand lock around her arm.
He saw that, and swept off his helm to reveal golden locks and a godlike face. "Scared?"
"Selfish," Xena replied, showing her own teeth. Gabrielle wondered if anyone could mistake that gesture for a smile. "I want you all to myself."
"For the town."
Another short nod.
"Just you and I, eh?" He smiled, sensual lips parting with just a hint of laughter curving them. "Youre Xena, arent you?"
Gabrielle knew that the warrior was getting bored.
"I was hearing rumours. People said youd changed." His eye was drawn to the small pile of riches. "But I guess that underneath, youre still the same, arent you? You still want control. Power."
Xena sighed. "Do the bard thing, Gabrielle."
He looked at her now, and she didnt like that. His eyes were cold. Hard. They made a lie of his smiling countenance, made her want to squirm away, grab her staff, and bash the light from his gaze. "Youre a bard?"
"I may have to keep you around. Xenas bard, to match Xenas head on my pike and Xenas hair mounted on my helm."
Xena shook her head. "Dont ask for much, do you?"
"Just what I can reach out and take. I like your horse, too. Not that she matches the colour scheme, you understand."
Gabrielle couldnt find anything within those mocking, dead eyes. She didnt feel anything but horror, and disgust, and . . . the first stirrings of hate.
She was aware of the silence that blew through the town, at the collective breath that was held. He had done this; he had changed it from a happy, boisterous place to a dead shell.
Hed struck a man down in cold blood. An innocent man. In front of his pregnant wife.
Even the Furies wouldnt dare interfere.
She stepped back, feeling strangely relieved. "Hes all yours, Xena."
"Finally," the warrior growled.
The Beast smiled.
Gabrielle watched Xena change, and wondered if she shouldnt have tried harder.
A willing opponent. A reason not to stop.
The circle closed.
She felt it snap around her, as strong as Damascus steel. With its bars securing her, she could let herself go and not worry about hurting someone.
He bowed slightly, mockingly, but she just saw them as motions in an equation. The solution was found in the battle, and not the enemy. He was merely a means to an end.
She could feel him breathe. She could sense him move. She knew what he thought less than a heartbeat after it went through his mind.
She was incredibly, almost painfully, alive, the heat flaring within her, melting out the ice that had held her still. Please, she thought in a secret corner of her mind. Please let him be good, let this last.
He turned on her, in that moment. And that secret corner rejoiced. His sword rang out from his sheath with a sound like a clear bell, the morning light running down the blade like blood.
She danced out of the way, and her sword was in her own hand, held with the familiarity of years. Xena flowed into a thrust and enjoyed the energy of the parry. The two blades sliding together made a high, keening sound that spiralled up into a painful register.
It became a dance of movements. A pulsing of muscles, marked by the beats of her heart and the pounding of her feet. Action, and reaction. When he pushed, she pulled. Their wills beat at each other with edges sharper than their swords.
She had no real idea of how long the battle lasted. There was no time, in the circle. There was no past and no future. She was alive, in this moment. She was so alive it hurt.
But it was so simple. As always in the circle, for these moments, it was so simple.
That peacethat freedomwas what she needed. And as she leaped, as she ducked, as she danced, she felt the luxury of living.
Which couldnt last.
He was good; he was better than good. He knicked her twice, and she felt the sting as her blood seeped out. He smiled, but he couldnt know how good even that small pain felt. It proved that she was still alive.
She tugged her sword through his shirt, taking care not to do anything more than nick him in return. He paused long enough to look down at the thin red line and laughed at her.
She heard it as a distant sound.
Her skin was tingling with the weight of the air around her. Her senses were incredibly sharp, every sensation magnified. Even the light that gilded their bodies was nearly too much. She swirled through it as though through water, every breath precious. Every moment both delicate and painful. It could have gone on forever.
He began to thrust wildly; he began to parry with lacklustre strength. She grew angry with him for not being good enough. She felt the circle crumbling around her and knew the cold was waiting, just beyond.
Her thrusts grew more forceful, weighted with her anger. With desperation. Like a drowning woman fighting for those last, precious breaths, she allowed her anger to sharpen her edge.
He was bleeding from a dozen places, fighting less like a man and more like a beast. She whipped around from a kick, her sword floating with the movement. He saw it coming. She saw the fear in his eyes and gloried in it even as she frantically tried to feed the embers of the flames within.
The cold was waiting for her. She yearned for the heat even as she swung.
But it wasnt . . . it wasnt the same. This was a different source, a different flame. That which came from the deepest recesses of her heart
She deliberately angled the blow, hitting him with the flat of her blade. She followed that up with a bounce-kick that sent him reeling.
Xena looked up, beyond the circle of her creation, to meet Gabrielles eyes.
There was acceptance there.
But within the warrior, as with the bard, was something else. Something . . . alive.
The Beast rose up, but she was warmed by the light within and not desperate to reclaim the sensations. It was a simple, short matter to twist her wrist and swing.
The pommel crushed into his temple. There was a brief flash of white as his eyes rolled up, and then he crumpled at her feet.
She stared down at him a moment, then paced through the square, noticing that the daylight had changed in colour and slant. A full candlemark had passed. And still Gabrielle waited for her.
"You could have killed him, you know." There was no censure in the bards tone, only curiosity.
Xena looked down at her hand, suddenly realising that her grip was slick with blood. Was it hers? There was a thin slice along the back of her hand that seeped the precious liquid. "It wouldnt have made me feel more alive," she said softly.
Gabrielles gaze travelled to the cut, and the bard raised her hand. In her fist was a rolled-up rag; by her feet was a bucket of water. "It was hot," she remarked. "About half a candlemark ago. Want to pull up a rock?"
Xena sank to a graceful rest, checking to make sure that the sprawled body of the Beast was still in the square. He was. She didnt think hed be going anywhere soon.
Gabrielles hair stroked Xenas skin as the bard leaned over her, and she felt the coolness of the rag that Gabrielle applied gently to her forehead. There was a slight sensation.
She didnt remember that one. It didnt even hurt, though Gabrielle bit her lip in concentration. Her pupils contracted even as Xena watched, and the latter suddenly had to restrain herself from nuzzling into the bards healing touch.
The warriors eyes ranged over her friend. They were so close that she could smell Gabrielles faint, delicate scent; it soothed her as nothing else could. The tiny hairs on her skin rose in response to the light careful touch of the bard. Sensation crackled into life like a wildfire. Suddenly Xena felt incredibly, painfully alive.
Without thinking, she reached out and touched Gabrielle, wrapping her fingers around the slender wrist.
Gabrielle stilled and looked at her curiously. Xena couldnt do anything, caught unprotected. From herself. After a long moment, the bards expression changed from curious to concerned, and she drew the back of her free hand down Xenas cheek.
"What is it, Xena?"
Its you, the warrior thought. Its you within me that keeps me alive. You make me feel. "You," she said slowly. "You keep me from being a beast. Youre the one that means Im not like him."
The bards free hand moved up and absently stroked her forehead carefully, and Xena closed her eyes and gave in to impulse, leaning in. Her skin tingled, and she felt each grain of dirt beneath her, the strength of the rock behind, and the power in the hands that held her. She savoured that simple, humbling touch. It was a gift. It was life.
Xena rubbed the pads of her fingers over the bards skin. Not so soft anymore, the little bard. But still as gentle. And still as bright.
She opened her eyes.
Gabrielle cupped her cheek and kissed her forehead. "You saved these people."
"As you saved me." She closed her eyes and smiled, giving herself up to the heat growing in her heart.
Return to The Bard's Corner