by Judy (Wishes)
This story is the first in Wishes' Xena Trilogy.
Walking down a winding road with Xena, side-by-side, Xena leading Argo. Creak of leather, bird song, insects buzzing. Heat from summer sun and rising from the dust beneath our feet. I try to memorize the sights, the smells, the music of this life.
I glance at Xena, who looks straight ahead, alert, but relaxed. As usual, she feels me watching her and returns my gaze. I raise an eyebrow, a skill I've been practicing, and she smiles. I wonder again when Xena is more beautiful, this tall, raven-haired friend of mine. Grave and forbidding like a bronze statue of a warrior, her face all planes and angles, cobalt eyes cold and impenetrable? Or like this? "You're thinking poetry," she states in her husky voice. The smile stays.
"May I hear, or do I have to wait until tonight?"
"I was just thinking about the beauty of this day of traveling." A partial lie.
She looks around and takes a deep breath of summer-scented air. "It IS beautiful," she agrees.
I could go on like this forever, walking with you down this road, I want to say.
Xena stops smiling. Argo's head comes up at the same instant. "Easy," Xena soothes. "I heard it. One horse, coming this way." I'm not sure whether she's talking to the horse or to me. In one fluid motion, Xena leaps on the golden mare. No discussion. My friend rides swiftly toward the sound I can't yet hear. She and Argo, always galloping toward danger. I hurry along behind, my staff at the ready. No longer just a tag-along, I will back her up, if she needs it.
Around the next bend, there are now two horses standing in the road, Argo and a dirty brown animal, which even I recognize as a cart horse. Standing near the horses are Xena and a man in shepherd's garb, a short man with broad shoulders. They appear to be arguing quietly, their voices having that sharp back-and-forth quality of controversy. The man gestures freely with one hand. Xena's hands are quiet and, to my relief, hold no weapons. As I approach, Xena looks my way and nods. She says something to the man, and he, too, looks my way, his voice and hand suddenly quiet.
As I reach them, Xena tells me, "He was looking for us, to get our help with a problem." I notice she doesn't introduce us, a strange omission for Xena, who is polite when swords aren't drawn. When the man hesitates, Xena makes a half-introduction. "This is my friend Gabrielle. You may talk about the problem in front of her." I feel the warmth I always do when Xena calls me friend. "I should have known this," the man says, and I notice his rich, deep voice. "Gabrielle, the youthful bard with the red-gold hair." He bows, and I notice for the first time that he is crippled. His left arm hangs useless and withered at his side, and his leg on that side is twisted and shorter than his right. His eyes follow mine, and I blush. He laughs. He is a handsome man, his brown hair thick and curly, his eyes warm and nut-brown, with almost no whites showing.
Xena urges him to tell his story. "Start at the beginning so Gabrielle can hear."
"All right," he agrees, moving his gaze from my face to Xena's, "but not here. I've been riding that old dray-mare for days, and I'm tired. Let's find a place to sit--in shade--and I"ll tell the whole story." Xena nods, and we move, with the horses, to a shady spot near the road. Having refreshed himself from our supplies of food and water, the man, whose name I still don't know, begins his tale.
IN THE YEARS since I left your army, Xena, I have turned my hand to many tasks in order to earn a living. Most recently, I have. . . .assisted in the raising of sheep near a village called Locoan. It is a peaceful life and yields me all the wool I wish to wear and all the mutton a man can eat. But, lately, there has arisen a problem that threatens the tranquility of Locoan and its countryside. To be exact, a serpent has entered our pastoral paradise. No, I'm not speaking metaphorically, Gabrielle. A serpent, or perhaps I should call it an enormous snake, has taken up residence in a cave near the village. He sleeps by day and comes out at night to prey on our flocks and herds and has even been known to take the random pig, should one be available.
He--or she, my not being expert at the identification of gender in such a species--has not yet taken any villagers, that we know of. Before the type of predator was known, however, several hired hunters were sent out to seek it. None have returned. Some human bones at the entrance of the monster's cave may be a clue to the hunters' fates. Being a witness to certain events involving this serpent, and remembering well my childhood friend and one-time commander Xena, I took it upon myself to find you and bring you to Locoan. Once I learned that you were in Achaea, locating you was not problem. All I had to do was ride and ask, ride and ask.
Ending his tale, the man falls silent and looks expectantly from Xena to me and back. I have to smile at the eloquence of this supposed shepherd and wonder at his history with Xena. He returns my smile.
"Did the people of the village choose me to rid them of this pest," Xena asks, "or was it all your idea?"
The man stops smiling. "Neither, Xena. The serpent requested your presence."
There being a couple of hours of traveling time before dusk, we set out for Locoan. Although Xena scoffs at the idea of a serpent inviting her to his cave, there is no question that she will go to the aid of the villagers. Since she has decided to change her life from doing harm to doing good, Xena will refuse no just request for help. Nor will her guilt allow her rest after such a request is made. Xena and the man mount their horses and ride a little ahead. I notice that, mounted, their difference in height is not so apparent. They seem to be in conversation, their heads tilted slightly toward each other. I think how handsome are these two, both from the Thracian village called Amphipolis. Following on foot, I feel excluded. Even though I usually refuse, Xena could have offered me a ride this time!
At a crossroad, Xena and the man halt their mounts, and I hurry to catch up. I see Xena hand him something. He makes a salute, striking his left chest with his right fist. I have seen Xena exchange this salute with old comrades, those few who remain from her campaigns. Xena nods, but does not return this man's salute. Seeing me approach, he smiles, but, before I reach them, he turns his horse, and, kicking it into an ungainly trot, hurries away to the north. I wonder if he resents what Xena has done or, rather, has failed to do: a second insult in one day from an old friend.
Xena's address to me is curt, and I remember the tone from early in our relationship. "We go south and west to the coast. Do you want to ride?"
"No," I say, "but. . . ."
Xena has already turned Argo and is trotting toward the setting sun.
It is fully dark when Xena halts Argo and tells me we will make camp. The homely routine of setting up our simple camp usually works a subtle magic on Xena, relaxing and humanizing her. By moonlight, Xena gathers enough wood for a small fire. She lights it quickly, using materials from a pouch she wears at her side. Xena has taught me this chore, telling me that being able to start a fire quickly under any conditions could someday make the difference between life and death. I remain a slow and clumsy fire-maker, so Xena continues to make the fires, except in our most leisurely camps. Xena has not hunted for two days, so our meal consists of the dried fruit and hard bread I carry in my sack. Xena takes her share from me with thanks, and we sit by the fire to eat.
Although my mind is filled with questions, I wait until after we have eaten to speak. "Xena, that man? He said you grew up together. In Amphipolis?"
In the firelight, Xena's face remains serene. "He was a friend of one of my brothers. Later, he rode with my army for a while. His going with me was ironic under the circumstances. I'm not sure why I let him. Maybe because he always. . . .amused me."
I wonder what was "ironic" about the circumstances and how he "amused" her, but I ask instead about our new mission. "Did he explain anything else about the serpent? How could a monster like that ask you to come to it?"
The only shadows on Xena's face are from the dancing flames as she reassures me. "Gabrielle, when we get to Locoan, and I enter that cave, I will find a big snake. That's all. If it's a danger to the village, I'll kill it. Would you like a snakeskin belt or a pair of slippers?"
"But your friend," I protest, "he said it was the serpent that wanted you to come."
"That man is not my friend," Xena states firmly. "He is someone I knew in another life. In this life, YOU are my friend."
As I wrap myself in my bed robe, I feel again the warmth in my soul. Stars above, soft ground below, sweet smell of smoke, Xena keeping faithful watch. All is right with my world.
The next day starts out much like the day before, except that now we have a destination and a reason for our travels. Xena rides ahead more often, returning frequently to ride or walk beside me. When she is with me, I talk of inconsequential things: the weather, the road, the particular blue of this perfect summer sky, the food I will buy in the next village we enter. . . .I KNOW these are inconsequential things. Everything we think and talk about does not have to be of earth-shattering importance. If no one talked about inconsequential things, we would all be as silent as Xena.
Xena surprises me in the late afternoon by suggesting that we make camp. "I saw a stream up ahead," she says. "You can bathe and rest. With any luck, there may even be a deeper pool that hides a fish or two. . . ."
Although tempted by Xena's suggestion of a bath and a meal of fresh fish, I notice that she hasn't included herself in these plans. "We don't need to stop yet. I'm not that tired or that dirty," I say.
Xena chuckles. "Or that hungry?" She knows my weaknesses as well as I know her strengths. Xena dismounts and hands me the fire-making materials--and Argo's reins.
"We're entering an area controlled by the LoSethe," she informs me. "I want to scout around a little before we try to cross their territory."
"The LoSethe?" I ask.
"It's a local cult, kind of an anti-Bacchus tribe."
"If they're against Bacchus, they should LOVE you," I say, remembering my short career as a Bacchae and how Xena ended it, as well as at least one incarnation of Bacchus.
"They worship the Titans and believe the Titans will return someday to overthrow the Olympian gods," she adds.
"Oh," I say. "That's not good. You're all that kept some of the Titans from returning. Do you think these LoSethe know about that?" I ask.
"That depends on whether your account of that little adventure has gotten this far," Xena says. I hope she is kidding. "Anyway, although I've never had any trouble with this particular cult, I want all the information I can get before we move on."
Xena shows me the place she has picked for our camp. It's on a rise that slopes down to a swift-moving stream. "It's perfect," I say. "Xena, we could have a swim together. Are you sure you don't want to. . . ." I realize that my friend is gone.
I unsaddle Argo and release her to graze. Looking at the fire-starting materials and at the stream, I decide on a dip in the stream first. I see a pool that might hold fish. I'll tackle a fire later if there's something to cook on it.
It is dark. I've eaten my fish and placed Xena's on a rock by the fire so it will stay warm. I hear movement in the area outside the fire's glow and know that these are not sounds made by Argo. I lay aside my parchment and quill and pick up my staff. Xena enters the circle of light. She sees me standing at the ready and nods approvingly. "Good, Gabrielle," she says, always an encouraging tutor. "You heard the noise I made and went into a defensive posture just outside the area of light." She points at the fire and makes one correction. "I'm glad you got a fire going, but it's too big. Remember, make as small a fire as will fit your purpose." Xena sniffs. "In this case, the purpose of cooking fish. Is that mine?"
"Yes, I already ate mine," I say, a little guilty, like a child who can't control her appetites. Xena sits on her bedrobe, which I've laid out by the fire, and begins to eat her fish. In the flicker of the firelight, her light eyes are shadowed by fatigue. Knowing her great endurance, I wonder how many miles she has walked and run tonight.
Then I see something dark and wet-looking covering her left arm from shoulder to arm band. Blood? "Xena, you're hurt!" I cry.
"Yes, I noticed," Xena says dryly. "There's still part of an arrow in there." She continues to eat. I grab a firebrand and hold it behind her to get a better look. Most of the blood has dried, but a thin trickle of still-red blood leads to a piece of wood. It is imbedded in the back of Xena's left shoulder. Firmly imbedded, I discover, when I touch it.
Xena's breathing gives a little catch, the only sign that my touch has caused her pain. Having finished the fish, Xena looks up at me and says, "I was able to break off the shaft, but I can't reach the wound very well. You know what needs to be done."
I know, but I hate it.
I go to the saddlebags to get Xena's medical kit. I also get a skin bag that holds, not water, but wine. Xena looks approvingly at the wineskin and reaches for it. Then she withdraws her hand and shakes her head. "I need to stay alert," she says. "The LoSethe did this. I guess they haven't heard about our little Bacchae adventure."
"Did they follow you?" I ask, wondering if I should whistle Argo into the camp.
"I led them around half of Achaea before coming back here. I don't think they'll find us. . . .unless they see that bonfire."
I hastily kick a few large sticks off the fire and cover them with dirt, reducing the size of the blaze by half. Xena nods approvingly and goes on, "But, just in case, I better keep my wits about me."
So I use the wine instead to bathe the area around the wound, then squirt some on the wound itself. Xena never winces, although I do. As Xena has taught me, I pass the blade of the knife through the flames of our fire. Then I cut. . . .
The next morning, Xena is up before I. She has brewed some tea from the herbs in her medical kit. She offers me a cup. "This helps with swelling and fever," she says with a smile, "but it tastes good, too."
I take a cup and sit beside her. I want to ask how she feels, if she doesn't think she should rest today, but I already know her answers. So, instead, I ask, "What's the plan?"
"We need to cross this territory to get to the coast. Any other route will take too long."
"Then let's get to it," I say. "Let me change your dressing." Then: "Do you think I could catch another fish?"
At Xena's request, I ride behind her on Argo. For once, I don't object. Knowing my fears, Xena lets me hug her tightly and rest my head against her back. With morning has come the realization that a few inches to the right would have put that LoSethe arrow through Xena's heart--and thus through mine. I tolerate Argo's movement and height in order to treasure the only physical closeness Xena will regularly allow.
I am telling Xena a story about how Apollo regained the Delphi Temple from the serpent Python when Xena tenses and pulls Argo to a halt. Argo, too, is nervous, and she dances in place. I feel her legs lifting and falling, although we don't move forward a step.
"They're near--the LoSethe," Xena whispers. I look around. There's little cover, a couple of large rocks and a few trees. But if Xena tells me a hundred giants are concealed there, I'll believe her. "Gabrielle, we can fight or run," Xena says. "If they weren't archers. . . ."
"Run," I whisper back.
"Good choice. Hang on!"
Xena releases the tension on Argo's reins and shifts her weight forward. Argo seems to melt under us, dropping lower and stretching out. Xena puts her right arm back to steady me, but I am glued to her back, leaning forward with her, burying my face between her shoulder blades. "YIYIYIYIYIYIYIYI." I realize that Xena's yell is more a shout of joy than a battle cry.
When Xena pulls Argo to a mere gallop and finally to a walk, the mare is breathing hard and blowing. I smell the musky odor of our sweat mixed with Argo's. Xena says kindly, "Gabrielle, we've stopped. You can let go and get down now." I realize how tightly I'm holding on. I loosen my grip around Xena's waist and raise my head to look around. We seem to be alone, and there's no obvious pursuit. Xena reaches down casually and removes an arrow that has pierced one of the saddlebags. She examines it briefly before dropping it to the ground.
"Would you like to get down?" she asks again. Forgetting her injury, I grasp her left arm so she can help me to the ground. She doesn't protest, but there's a sharp intake of breath as my feet touch the road. I look up and see that she has bled through the new bandage.
"Get down," I say. "You've reopened the wound." Xena meekly dismounts and, after she has assured herself that Argo is unhurt, she allows me to inspect her shoulder. The wound is draining freely, but it looks uninfected.
"It's a good thing you're a fast healer," I say as I clean the wound with water and then wine. "Does that hurt?" I ask.
Xena glares at me, and I see the storm clouds gathering behind those blue eyes. Then she shakes her head and smiles, "No, Gabrielle, that feels great. Now, give me the wineskin, and I'll show you where wine belongs."
The next day, we are nearing the coast. I can smell the sea on every breeze from the west, and seabirds can be seen wheeling on the offshore winds.
"Are we near Locoan?" I ask Xena.
"I think we're a little south of the village," she answers. She points to the northwest. "It should be over there."
"Are we going to the village first, or will we try to find the serpent's cave by ourselves?"
"Well," she starts, and I know I won't like what's coming next. "You go on toward the village, and I'll catch up with you. I want to look around a little first."
"You're sending me to the village where it's safe, while you go after this monster by yourself," I say, translating her words into her intentions.
"No, Gabrielle, you're better with people than I am. You go on to the village, find out what's going on. I'll check the lay of the land and join you later." Xena gives me her most innocent look, one that usually melts my heart. I fold my arms across my chest and stare at her. I've not been the recipient of so many Xena "looks" without learning one or two myself.
In the end, she lets me have my way. My heart expands with the realization that this happens more and more often.
With Xena leading Argo, we walk into the village together. As we have done so often, we find the village alehouse, no different from the other humble houses, except for a post for tying horses. Xena enters first, ducking beneath the lintel post. I pause at the door to let my eyes adjust to the torchlight after the bright late afternoon sun. There are two rude tables with chairs. A couple of kegs set on end serve as a bar. We choose a table and sit down. As always, Xena sits where she can see both the room and the door.
An old man, gray-haired, but with blue eyes almost as bright as Xena's, walks over. "Welcome, warrior," he addresses Xena. "I am Bintas. What would you like?"
"Bread, meat, if you have it--for both, please. Ale for me."
He leaves, returning soon with beautiful crusty loaves of bread and cold meat, venison, I think. He carries a flagon of ale for Xena, and he's added a cup of goat's milk for me.
"Thank you," I murmur and am eating almost before the words are spoken.
Xena takes a drink of ale and laughs. "We've been on short rations for several days, Bintas." She puts several coins on the table, and the old man takes only two.
"We could use some information," Xena says. She hands the man one more coin and motions to an empty chair.
He returns the coin but sits. "You'll be my last customers today. Before night falls, everyone will be indoors, along with all the livestock they can squeeze between their beds!"
I almost choke on my goat's milk. "You mean the people here bring their animals inside their houses at night? Doesn't that get a little. . . .messy?"
"Better a little mess in the house than no animals in the pastures and pens. You see, miss, there's a serpent that slithers through the countryside at night. Any animal--or person--not behind locked doors after dark promises to be snake-food before dawn!"
"Has anyone seen this serpent?" I ask between bites of meat. It IS venison, pit-cooked, lean and lightly seasoned. . . .
The old man nods. "Two that lived to tell the tale. Sentes, the sheep farmer, and his hired man. They were looking for a missing ewe and stumbled upon a MONSTER." He is warming to his tale, and, as a storyteller myself, I know further questions won't be needed. Xena sits quietly, eating and drinking, but I know she's listening and will remember every word. The old man continues:
IT WAS EARLY EVENING when Sentes' hired man, the cripple, I forget his name, came into this room to get Sentes. Upset, he was. Said he was counting the sheep as he put them in their pen for the night. Noticed that a young ewe that had lambed only two days before was missing, her and the lamb. He searched the pastures near Sentes' house and didn't find them. So he rode to the village on Sentes' old dray-mare to see what else he should do.
Sentes had already had a couple of ales, and he seemed to take the loss better than his hired man. After buying a couple more ales for each of them, Sentes decided they should go look for the sheep. They both got on the old horse and rode away.
Much later, Sentes came back in here by himself. He was shaking like a man with the palsy. He downed two flagons of my best, and that steadied him enough to tell us what happened.
He and the hired man looked all over the countryside for those sheep. They finally rode down to the shore. There wasn't any reason to think that the sheep would be there. But you know how it is when you've looked for something in all the possible places, what's left but the impossible, eh? And do you know what they found? Not the sheep, no. They found a long track gouged right in the wet sand. Sentes said it looked like someone had dragged a heavy bag along the shore. Sentes and his man followed this track, and it led them to a cave.
At the mouth of the cave were two or three piles of BONES--some sheep and some HUMAN. Sentes and the hired man entered the cave. Sentes was armed with a dagger and four flagons of ale. He also knew that the other man always hid a short sword beneath his shepherd's cloak.
Inside the cave, there was a stench so terrible both men started to gag. They were going to leave, but then they heard a hiss. Sentes was suddenly looking at the largest serpent he had ever seen. The serpent raised its head to about the height of this warrior here. The rest of its body trailed back into the darkness of the cave, where moonlight couldn't reach. Sentes said that the part he could see was as long as four horses and about as thick as a man's body.
"Did the serpent speak then?" I ask, forgetting not to interrupt.
Bintas asks, "How did you know?" Then he goes on:
THE SERPENT LOOKED at Sentes and then turned its attention to the hired man. "I know you," it said. "Put away those thoughts of killing me. Your small sword can't reach my spine before I bite off your good arm." Sentes said the hired man took a step back then and put his good arm behind his back. The serpent said, "Only one can kill me and, in doing so, be reborn. The warrior with the winter heart must try what gods and mortals have failed to do. Purity of heart alone will win the day." The serpent roared, and Sentes ran from the cave, the hired man limping along behind him. They jumped on the horse and rode back here. Sentes entered and told his tale. He didn't kill the serpent that night, but his story killed my business.
"And the hired man?" I prompt.
"He rode off into the night. Nobody has seen him since--him or Sentes' horse." He shakes his gray head in sympathy. "Can't say I blame him."
Xena finally speaks. "Did the. . . .serpent mention a name?"
"What? A name? Oh, you mean the warrior? Sentes said no, but he also said the hired man, all the way back to town, kept saying a name. Xena. Xena. Over and over. Sentes said the poor man seemed as scared of that name as of the serpent."
By this time it is getting dark outside. Bintas insists that we bed down by the alehouse's small hearth, and Xena agrees. After adding a log to the fire, the old man starts toward the back room, where he sleeps. He pauses one moment. "You're her, aren't you? Xena?"
Xena nods, and we prepare to sleep.
The next morning, we buy breakfast and supplies from Bintas and head for the coast. Xena is in a hurry, and my sack is temporarily heavy, so we both ride. We gallop to the crest of a hill, and suddenly the sea stretches before us. I've never been this far south on the Peloponnese, and the view thrills me. Between rocky cliffs and coastline, a white beach gleams in the morning sun.
"Oh, precious, azure Aegean," I start to recite.
"Actually, it's the Ionian Sea," Xena corrects my geography. But she holds Argo still, and I know she's feeling the moment, too.
I want to run along the shore composing and reciting an ode to the Argonauts or to Odysseus, still wandering somewhere on that foaming sea. . . .Xena taps Argo with her heels, and we fly down the steep incline to the sand. At the water, I tap Xena sharply on the right shoulder, and she stops to let me slide off. Xena gallops Argo northward along the beach, then whirls the mare to come racing back toward me. Her long dark hair trails behind her, and she rises slightly in the saddle to urge more speed. As she gets nearer, I see her lips are open, teeth flashing in a wide smile. I am stunned. Of all Xena's expressions, I have never before seen this look of purest joy. Xena waves a salute as she passes me, and then is off down the beach. I look after her until she and her golden horse round a boulder--and are gone.
"She IS a goddess, isn't she?" I am startled to hear a male voice echoing my private thought. I turn to look into nut-brown eyes.
"I still don't know your name," I say.
He laughs and holds out his good right hand to grasp mine. "How inconsiderate of Xena not to introduce me," he says. "I am Lotan." He kisses my hand before releasing it.
"How could you get back here so soon?" I ask. "When you left Xena and me, you headed north."
Ignoring my question, he says, "I would love to stroll with you along the shoreline, Gabrielle, but the deep sand makes walking difficult for me." Indicating a flat rock near the water, he invites me to sit. "There are some things I need to tell you before Xena returns." His eyes and tone have turned serious.
"About the serpent?"
I sit beside Lotan, facing the sea, my loyalty battling with my curiosity. "I want to know more about Xena," I finally decide, "but only what she will tell me."
"Xena won't tell you, and your not knowing will cost her life."
With that pronouncement, Lotan tells me Xena's story. And, gods help me, I listen.
IF YOU COULD SEE the Xena I knew as a child, the changes in her from then to now would break your heart. She was a beautiful child, of course: black hair, pale skin, eyes blue as the Aegean. But the most remarkable thing about her was her smile. Gabrielle, Xena had the sunniest disposition of any child ever born in Thrace. She was the favorite of everyone in the village, cheering the hearts of even the grumpiest. I knew her well because I was best friend to her brother Lyceus, and Lyceus and Xena were inseparable. Ah, what that pair might have grown to be if not for Cortese. . . .
I interrupt. "You were there, at the attack by Cortese?"
"Yes," he says sadly. "A childhood riding accident robbed me of my value as a warrior, but I was there."
THE VILLAGE HAD HEARD for several weeks about Cortese' attacks--in Thessaly and then northward into Thrace. The elders thought to buy him off, as they had done with other warlords. But refugees from other villages spread the word: Cortese took lives and plunder, not tribute. Some of the young men started to talk about resistance, Lyceus among them.
"Lyceus?" I murmur.
"Yes, shh," he reminds me.
LYCEUS TOOK AFTER his father, long absent in some war. Lyceus, from an early age, had a warrior spirit. He could stand no injustice, and, thanks to him, village bullies learned not to pick on me, the cripple. Lyceus loved to practice the arts of war, and he got Xena to practice with him. She doted on her younger brother and would deny him nothing. Lyceus was just as proud of Xena and often bragged of her skill with a sword. So, when word came of Cortese' imminent attack, instead of running for the hills, as our elders advised, we staged a defense.
"Oh, Xena agreed with Lyceus and added her voice to those urging the fight. Later, her words were all some, including her own mother, chose to remember."
ON THE DAY of the attack, we set up defensive positions around the village. Lyceus read to us from a Macedonian book on strategy, and we tried to follow that long-dead general's plan. Lyceus and Xena put me behind a wall and told me to watch and remember all that occurred. Those two stood in the front of our line at the most vulnerable point. Lyceus wore over his shirt and leggings bits and pieces of his father's old armor. Xena dressed in a short tunic of the whitest fabric. Each of them held a sword.
Our wait wasn't long, for Cortese' men attacked swiftly, some riding and some running toward the center of our line. But they were preceded by flights of arrows. Lyceus went down during the first flight. Struck through the breast, he was dead before he hit the ground.
"What did Xena do?" I pictured her falling to her brother's side, cradling his head, as I had held poor Perdicus, and going mad with her grief.
"She didn't see him."
AT THE FIRST battle cry from Cortese' men, Xena ran to meet them, sword raised high. Most of the young men followed her and so escaped the arrows aimed at their original line. Lyceus and the few others who didn't follow Xena died in a spot that never needed defending. None of Cortese' men ever got that far.
When the dust and the cries of battle settled, most of Cortese' men lay dead or dying, and the rest had fled. In the center of the carnage stood Xena, her sword still raised as she sought one more foe. Xena's dress was scarlet, but, when someone finally managed to safely approach her, we learned that none of the blood was hers. Every young man who stood with her that day was dead or wounded. But not one scratch was found on Xena.
That's when I told Xena about Lyceus, and she seemed unable to understand who I meant. Finally, she came out of her battle trance, and she understood. She left Amphipolis before Lyceus' body was entombed. Her mother swore that she would have no daughter from that day forward.
"She just left?"
"Xena left the village of her mother and was gone for about a year. When she returned, she was much as you see her now, a warrior skilled in deadly arts."
"You said you traveled with her army."
"When Xena returned, she told us that she would conquer all of Thrace and then subdue Thessaly and Achaea, as well. All of the young men wanted to follow her, and most did--to the later grief of their parents. Unable to be a warrior, I went along and did what I could." A small smile plays around his lips. "Xena always said that I amused her." He shakes his head, and the smile is gone. "I was with her to see the first part of her plan nearly accomplished."
"Why did you leave?" I ask.
"One day Xena overheard me singing a bawdy song about some of her. . . .skills. Although I was drunk, she had no sense of humor about it. She whipped me and left me by the side of the road."
I know some of the stories about Xena as a warlord, but I can't believe this of Xena at any point in her life. "Xena had you flogged for a song?"
"Listen carefully, Gabrielle. She didn't HAVE me flogged. She did it herself, probably with that whip she still carries. Maybe there's still some of my blood in its braids." For the first time, some bitterness enters his voice.
I sit for several minutes. This story started well, with the sunny-natured Xena, the sweet girl I had often imagined would have been my instant friend. Then it turned dark and bloody, no surprise, but not in the way I had always imagined. I had often shivered in the night at Xena's cries, thinking of the tortures she had endured at the hands of that monster Cortese. What abuse must it have taken to turn a gentle girl into a feared warlord!
"Cortese didn't overrun the village? Ever?" I ask, trying still to make reality fit my imaginings.
"No, Gabrielle," he says. "Our side won."
"Lotan, I shouldn't have heard these things," I protest. "You said that hearing them would save Xena, but I don't see how. . . ."
"Because of what the serpent said. I thought at first he meant that only Xena could kill him. The warrior with the winter heart. Was there ever a fighter with an icier heart than Xena's? But now I realize what the second part of the message meant--about purity of heart winning the day. Xena can't kill the serpent. If she tries, she will be killed because, whatever else has changed, Xena's heart is too stained with hate and guilt to ever be cleansed."
My face is wet, and I realize that I'm crying. Oh, to be able to unhear what Lotan has said. To regain the image of the innocent girl turned into a savage warlord by the abuse she endured. For with what has that girl been replaced? A born warrior, one with a natural talent for dealing death?
As if I have conjured her with my thoughts, Xena appears. She is smiling and leading a cooling Argo. Relaxed by her wild ride, Xena drops beside me on the rock. I hastily wipe my eyes. Lotan, who must have seen Xena coming, is gone.
"What are you doing sitting here on a rock? I pictured you running up and down the beach, shouting verses at the sea." Xena places an arm around my shoulders, a sign she is willing to be close.
I shrug off her arm and rise. "Are we going after the serpent tonight?"
Hurt crosses Xena's face, but she answers, "Yes, I'm going at dark. The moon isn't full, but it will give enough light. I hope to catch the snake when it leaves its cave to feed."
I don't protest the "I" instead of "we." "If you're going on a snake hunt tonight, why not get some rest? The sand is warm and soft. You can nap while I hunt some pretty shells."
Xena studies me, then agrees.
We set up our camp on dry sand above the tide line. Xena keeps watching me as if looking for a clue to my strange mood. I try to chatter, but I find myself falling into silences. . . .Xena lays her sword and chakram aside and, at my suggestion, removes most of her armor, as well. She lies on her bedrobe and closes her eyes. I think about her recent wound and blood loss and decide that she will soon be asleep.
I walk down the shoreline and toss pebbles into the dark blue waters. I listen to gulls crying overhead and watch them ride the air like eagles in Xena's beloved mountains. I stop trying to forget what Lotan told me. I remember instead that I love Xena, no matter what she has done--or what she has been--in the past. I know Lotan is right, that she will not survive an encounter with the beast that calls her to him. I ask myself if I love her enough to bear her hatred. . . .forever.
I return to our camp. Xena, for once, is sleeping peacefully. Bending, I carefully take Xena's sword from its scabbard. As when I've touched it before, I feel its weight and dark power. I lift the hilt above my head, and the point hovers over Xena's body. I must choose my target carefully--to deal a wound that will disable for a time, but not for life. My target chosen, I know the weight and balance of the sword will do the rest.
Breaking my dread concentration to glance at Xena's face, I see that her eyes are open. She doesn't move or speak. She waits.
After too many seconds, I lower the sword.
No anger in her voice, she asks, "Why?"
Sobbing, I throw myself into Xena's arms. Stroking my hair and murmuring soft syllables, she comforts me. When I've regained control, my sobs turning to silent tears, I tell her Lotan's story.
The sun is setting as Xena leads me back to the stone where I had sat, mesmerized, throughout the afternoon. "Is this where you sat and listened to his tale?" Xena asks.
I nod, unable to speak. I feel that I may never speak again.
"And that is where you stood when he appeared? At the water's edge, before the tide went out?"
"And you walked to this rock?" My eyes follow as her hand traces the path of my disloyalty. I look and, finally, I see. The sand still holds the impressions of my feet. My trail from the shoreline to the rock is clear. One trail.
"I walked alone."
"You said his name was Lotan," Xena says.
"That's what he said, Xena. You didn't introduce him before, so I didn't know," I explain.
"My bad manners have cost you dearly, Gabrielle. That man who came to us in Achaea was a part of my past--better forgotten than introduced to you, I thought. His name is Choren, and he was a friend of my brother Toris."
"Toris, not Lyceus."
"Toris. He, like my older brother, fled the village before Cortese' attack. That's why I said it was ironic that he later joined my army--as a common soldier, Gabrielle. All his limbs were in working order then."
"The part about your whipping him. . . ."
"Choren had a weakness for wine. One night, I left him as sentry in a very tall tree. He took his wineskin with him. He got drunk and fell out of the tree. If he hadn't been hurt so badly, I probably would have whipped him--or worse. As it was, I set his broken bones as well as I could and left him with the family of one of the other soldiers. I never saw him again--until he came after us with the serpent's invitation. When he left, I gave him a couple of coins, and he rode north, probably looking for the nearest tavern."
"I still don't understand," I say.
"The. . . .thing. . . .that talked with you this afternoon, Gabrielle, it wasn't Choren. I don't really know what it was. But I know that name."
"Lotan," she repeats. "I heard the name when I was with the wandering tribes of the Levant: Lotan the Deceiver. Lotan the Serpent."
The moon is rising as Xena mounts Argo and adjusts her sword and chakram. When I reach out my hand, she hesitates, then reaches down and lifts me to my place behind her. We race down the shore, the sand lit to silver in the moonlight. The sea, now glassy and mysterious, lies to our right. Newly aware of tracks, I notice that we are following Argo's trail from this afternoon. I guess correctly that Xena has already found the serpent's cave.
The cave entrance is a dark, gaping mouth against the light-colored rock of the cliff. We dismount. Xena ties up Argo's reins and releases her. One whistle or call will bring the loyal horse at a run. Xena lets me walk to the cave with her, but stops me from stepping inside.
"Gabrielle," she says. "You must promise me that you will go no further. . . .No matter what you see or what you think is happening. One step could mean both our lives."
I look down, unwilling to make a promise I can't keep.
"Gabrielle!" she commands. "Look at me."
Reluctantly, my green eyes meet relentless blue.
"You listened to Lotan today," she reminds me, "and you believed everything he said, the lies and the truth. Acting on his words, you were willing to maim me in order to save my life."
I cringe inside, more ashamed than I have ever been. If she orders me out of her life after this night, I will go.
"Act just as resolutely on my words now--and for the same purpose. Do NOT cross this threshold, no matter what. Will you promise me, on your own pure heart?"
I nod, but she waits for words. "I promise that I will not enter the cave--no matter what happens. I swear on both our hearts."
Xena does something she has never done before. She salutes me with the fist to chest motion she shares only with her warrior comrades. Then she turns and walks into the cave.
As my eyes become accustomed to the change in light, I realize that what seemed pure darkness inside the cave is relieved by moonlight entering its mouth. I can see Xena stalking the perimeter of the cave. Suddenly, she stiffens and looks toward the interior. There is slow movement there and a smell. . . .a sour stench approaches. . . .and then I see the snake, for that is what it is. As Xena had predicted, it is a very large reptile, but just a snake, after all.
Xena stands her ground in the center of the cavern as the snake draws near. She is holding her sword over her head, parallel to the ground, her left arm extended from her side for balance. How often I have seen this posture and its swift results!
I feel a presence at my side and turn to look into the warm gaze of Lotan. "She'll be killed," he says, "and it will be your fault. You know her heart is not pure. . . .You know she will die and not be reborn."
"Be gone, serpent!" I say the words Xena has taught me and turn away. When I glance back, he is gone.
The snake rears its head, a large portion of its body also rising above the ground. Its head is level with Xena's, and I realize the reptile is larger than I thought.
"Welcome, warrior," the serpent says. I cannot describe its voice or from where it issues. It just IS, pounding inside my head. "I have waited for you."
"Who are you?" Xena asks.
"I am known by many names: Apep, Lotan, Leviathan the Tortuous, Jormungandr. . . .I myself prefer Zu, for I AM the primordial serpent, the father of all my kind that crawl on their bellies across the earth. And you are Xena, who has come to kill--or to die."
With those words, the serpent's head rises higher and grows larger--until his head fills the cavern above Xena. Xena kneels to a defensive posture and, now using both hands, lifts her sword above her head.
The serpent opens his vast maw and releases a terrifying roar. His mouth descends and closes, and Xena is gone.
Although I see no one, Lotan's voice whispers urgently, "Help her! Help your friend!"
I raise my staff. Every muscle of my body fights my will, my promise. Xena, I will trust you, I scream in my mind! I will not betray you again! The serpent roars, this time ending in a scream of pain. I see a sharp point burst through his soft underside, just behind his terrible jaw. The point moves downward, extending the slit, and becomes a blade. Bright red blood and other fluids pour out, and, when the wound is long enough, Xena tumbles out to land hard on the ground a dozen feet below.
The serpent shakes its head, its life's blood covering the walls of its cave. It swings its massive head at Xena, as if to crush her, and Xena grabs hold, allowing herself to be lifted above the ground. She pulls herself up and, balancing on the monster's skull, she raises her sword. As the serpent raises its head yet farther, trying to smash its rider against the cave's rock ceiling. Xena thrusts her blade downward with all her strength. The blade finds its home, driving to its hilt into the serpent's brain. The great head drops like a boulder, Xena tumbling off and slamming into the ground. The beast lies still, as does Xena, unconscious and covered with the monster's blood and slime.
Hoping that the serpent's death has released me from my promise, I enter the cave and kneel beside Xena. She opens her eyes, but I see little awareness there. I check her limbs for broken bones, and, finding none, I urge her to get up. "Xena, you know I can't lift you. You have to get up. I'll help." Still groggy, she follows my instructions. The stench that covers her is so great I retch as I touch her, but I hug her to me. Together, we stagger from the cave.
We make our way to the sea, and there I let her kneel as I use saltwater to bathe her. I cleanse Xena's body as a midwife would clean a newborn child. When her mumblings have been soothed to silence, I whistle for her horse. With Argo's help, we'll return to our camp, where I'll watch over her and keep her safe while she heals.
Once, when I ask how she feels, I think she murmurs, "Reborn."