Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of MCA/Universal.
by Mary Morgan
She was glad it was dark when she woke. Daylight confused her. It was too bright, much too dazzling. Stark glares and absolute shadows battered her sight. Dire need made her move through the day, but she preferred it for sleeping. Night was much better. Then the landscape glittered with silver and gilt. Shadows were full of rich tints, burned with the shades which are secret to tarnish. No detail escaped her once evening drew on. Her other senses were equally sharpened. She could hear a pine needle drop in the forest, scent prey half a night's journey away.
She stood up and stretched. Powerful muscles responded. She thrust out her muzzle and tasted the wind. What she smelled drew back her lips till her teeth flashed white in the moonlight, raced down her spine, raising coarse hairs. Scents surged through the darkness and called her. She leapt high in the air and for a moment let the sweet madness direct her. Here was the purple of blood, there the storm-grey of wolf pack. Both made demands on her now. The swift tide of night swirled around and within her.
But something restrained her. Something deep in her mind made her make herself calm, made her settle again. No longer drunk with the darkness, weakness assailed her. She had not eaten for days. Something kept her from hunting and feeding. Her hunger arose and nearly over-powered her, but she mastered it still. Another scent had claimed her attention. She had followed it here, and would follow it further. Golden, entrancing, it soothed her and whispered of something called home.
The mare was beautiful. Muscular, compact. Andreas stooped, ran his hand over her hide, then down her foreleg. "She'll be ok," he said, over his shoulder. "Just strained a tendon. Some liniment and a poultice and, most of all, one or two days of rest, and she'll be good as new." He stood up and turned to face the scrawny, red-headed woman who had brought the mare in. "Do you want me to treat her?" he asked. She nodded, relief written plain on her pallid face. Then a shadow slipped over her expression. She reached into her pack and brought out a purse. Tipping the contents into her palm she held it towards him, eyebrows raised and head tilted. "That's more than enough," he said, smiling down at her. She paled even more and sat down abruptly on a bale of straw. When she looked up he could see that tears filled her eyes.
"Uh," he grunted, embarrassed, feeling more than usually huge and clumsy. Making up his mind, he cleared his throat, "Care for some of my lunch?" She nodded, then looked doubtful again. "I've plenty," he said. It was true. They fed him well. They even paid him. Blood money, he called it; as though it could pay what they owed him. He limped over to her, extending the rough wooden platter so she could snag a hunk of brown bread, a chunk of goats' cheese. He could tell from the way she fell on them that she'd eaten little for days. "Half-starved," he thought to himself. "Tended to the mare, though." He watched her eat, neatly but quickly. "Poor soul," he thought, feeling a sharp pang of guilt. This strengthened when she looked straight at him and smiled. It was a very sweet smile. "I should tell her," he decided, surprised at himself. "If she's quick and leaves by the back door, she may get away."
But he'd left it too late. The smithy went dark as shapes blocked its door. Oppides and two of the layabouts who spent far too much time in his inn. They advanced on the woman, hemming her in, looming over her. "What's your name?" asked Oppides. He frowned when she raised her brows, shook her head.
"She can't speak," Andreas said quickly. This earned him a scowl, but then the meaning sunk in.
"Dumb!" The inn keeper grinned. He glanced at his friends, inviting them in on the joke. "Just makes it better then," he said to the woman, extending his hand to her cheek. "Silent women make the best wives."
He howled when she bit him, cranked back his arm preparing to strike. Andreas moved first, jostling the inn keeper, but making it look as though he had merely been trying to keep out of his way. "Watch out, you cripple," Oppides snarled. He was ready to strike at the blacksmith, but the red head darted between them and made for the door, grabbing her staff as she did so. She dodged around Milos and thwacked Sentes hard on the knee, then pelted out into the square.
She might have got away, Andreas thought later, if the light hadn't dazzled her. As it was, she ran head first into Asmonia, who had been waiting, brawny arms crossed, for her husband. "Can't do anything right, can you, Oppides?" she said, looking down at the woman, who was shaking her head, half stunned. She reached out one beefy hand and gathered a hank of red hair, then yanked it up till the woman was on tiptoe and could see straight into her eyes. "Don't mind my husband," she leered, "it's me you've got to look out for." She left it a moment, then drove her other fist hard into the woman. "So see that you do," she said, letting her drop and leaving her gasping and writhing.
That evening, Andreas hobbled over to the inn at his usual hour and sat in his usual corner. In time, his usual plate of boiled meat and black bread arrived. The small woman carried it. He glanced at her surreptitiously and winced. Bruises had flared all over her pale skin and a thin cut edged one corner of her mouth. He felt guilty again, but still baffled. What could he do? He had thought of trying, hadn't he? Never done that before. And it would have come to nothing. Naturally. Nothing good ever happened to him. Or to this village. Overwhelmed by self-disgust, he bobbed his head and avoided meeting her eyes. He was afraid they would accuse him.
He was down to his last chunk of bread and sopping up juices with this, when Oppides stopped by. He slapped down a mug full of ale. "On the house, blacksmith," he said. "Good day's work." He nodded at the woman, who was on the far side of the inn's one room, collecting used plates. "Know what?" His breath stank of stale beer. "She really can't speak. Asmonia worked her over, but not a single peep." He clapped a hand on Andreas' shoulder and shambled back behind his bar. The blacksmith squirmed, wrapping his huge, callused hands round the mug. He wished he could empty the ale on the floor, but that would be noticed. So he swallowed it fast. It tasted of rust.
He had planned to leave straight away, but then the village council arrived. Asmonia rushed out, bossed Oppides as he ran a few tables together, told the woman to bring each of the elders a mug of good ale. Then the innkeeper's wife settled herself in their midst. Andreas knew what this meant. They had come to discuss the red-haired woman's fate. As he half hoped, they sent her away while they did so, but he hung around in his corner and listened.
"Any risk of trouble with this one?" Demades asked Asmonia.
"No. Nothing to fear. She can't even talk. Just two dinars in her purse and her clothes are worn to a thread."
"Perhaps she's an escaped slave?" Demades worried.
"Not likely. She doesn't know how to obey, and there's no mark of a collar." Asmonia was flushed and sweating in the inn's smoky light. Andreas guessed she was already several mugs ahead of the rest of the council.
"And a virgin?"
"Well, no." Asmonia, aware that this was a flaw, became expansive. "But there can't be a husband. Who would let his wife wander the road like this?"
Oppides bustled over and gave her a dutiful kiss. "Not any one who cared for her, dearest," he said.
"So, she's got what she asked for, then." Demades sounded like a man convincing himself.
"Right. Woman roaming around on her own in a remote place like this. Dressed like that. It's not decent. Better off married anyway," one of the other elders mumbled. In his corner, Andreas blushed. He'd half-thought this himself.
"In any case, we agreed. The village needs new blood. Not enough women to go round, and what there are don't last long." Oppides was obviously feeling more than usually confident this evening. "Except the best of them, of course," he added hastily.
Andreas reflected that the innkeeper was partly right. The village was remote, surrounded by wilderness, its stock preyed on by wolves. Life was hard here, and most of the farmers were single or widowed. There were few children to help with the work. Peddlers were rare and no one else came by choice. Of course, they had a blacksmith who doubled as a horse doctor, but only because they had made sure he couldn't leave.
Thinking about this, letting himself feel the familiar ache in his ankles, he failed to hear the rest of the discussion clearly, but pieced together what they had decided easily enough. The woman would be left with Asmonia for a few days. "Break her in," he'd heard Demades snigger. Then the single men could draw lots for her. As for the horse? They'd take it to Birubas for the market next spring, and split the profit between them. "Only fair," Asmonia said. "We'll have to feed her all winter."
She went back to fetch the woman after that. "Let's see what we've got," she'd explained to the council. She was back within minutes, fuming. "She's got away." She turned on her husband. "Why didn't you lock the back door?" It turned out that he had. The woman had climbed out of a window. "Serve the bitch right if the wolves get her," Oppides mumbled, under his breath.
Andreas, watching as Asmonia formed up the posse next morning, wished again he could do something to help. That cowed look must have been a ruse, he reflected. The woman had been biding her time, waiting for a chance to escape. For a minute he played with the hope that she might succeed, but then Sentes brought in his hounds, and he knew she was lost. Thick necked and broad chested, the dogs never lost a scent and could run for a day without rest. He hoped Sentes would keep them leashed, at least, though at present it was taking all the man's strength to keep his brutes at heel. Feeling wretched, Andreas decided to follow anyway. There was no question of his keeping up with the hunt, but if he persisted he might arrive in time to do some good when they caught up with her.
They ran her down just before sunset. Andreas arrived as they combed through the copse where the dogs had finally brought them. The hunters were tired and bad tempered. The woman had driven them hard, laying false trails, doubling back, walking through water whenever she could. But this was their country, and the dogs were relentless. She broke cover just before they reached the thicket in which she had hidden herself, but there were men everywhere now, and she was exhausted. Dodging and twisting, she ran until someone launched himself at her legs and brought her down with a thud.
All the while, Asmonia studied her thoughtfully. A speculative look crossed her face as she weighed up what had happened. "What were you hiding in there?" she asked her. The small woman, still gasping, shook her head, spread her arms wide, gesturing, "Nothing". Asmonia smiled. Her eyes narrowed. "Let's go see," she said, sweetly. When Andreas saw despair cross the small woman's face, he knew that the inn keeper's wife was right, yet again.
She came out holding a large bundle. Something wrapped up in a cloak. Placing it on the ground just in front of their captive, she flipped back a fold and peered at what was revealed. "Now, what have you been up to?" she asked the small woman. "Robbing the dead?" She gripped an edge of the fabric and yanked. The bundle unravelled and pieces of armour, a sword, a round thing with sharp edges spilled out. "Not nice, stripping dead warriors. Not such an innocent, are you?" She was leaning right over her when she said this.
The woman looked up. Her face had flushed brick red. Now it paled and her eyes glittered with anger. She met Asmonia's gaze and held it, unflinching. The inn keeper's wife backed off a pace. Then she stopped herself, squared up to the red head and let fly with a blow which knocked her back onto the ground. "Count yourself lucky we don't hamstring you like Andreas there," she said, very softly. "But a man needs a woman who can work in the fields." After that, the innkeeper's wife stalked off back to the town, lugging the pack and leaving the men to bring back their captive.
Oppides got to her first, his mood more than usually ugly. He swung back his foot, meaning to kick her upright. "Hear that?" Andreas shouted. Oppides staggered, span round, glared at the blacksmith. "Just then - howling. Sounds like a pack on the move," Andreas continued. Oppides hesitated. As he did so, they all heard it. Faint but clear: the howl of a wolf carried to them on the wind. Andreas sagged with relief at their luck. He stooped, eased up the woman, feeling how thin she was through the cloth of her shirt. After he stayed stubbornly by her, hobbling slower than ever to match her own faltering pace.
They beat her for what she had done, and chained her and left her without food for the next day. Andreas made himself watch it, made himself watch as she slaved in the inn, visibly failing, dragging her feet against the weight of the shackles. Not closing his eyes to what happened was the least he could do. Then he went back to his smithy. He had made those chains, he reflected. He heated up iron, filled his hands with a hammer, pummelled the soft amber mass on his anvil. He was calmed by the pulse of his work. It took him to places in which he could live with himself.
But at night, he lay awake thinking. By dawn on the third day, he could endure it no longer. He waited till it was light enough to see, then slipped out of his smithy and picked his way slowly to the back of the inn. It was cold. A chill wind blew from the North, rattling dried leaves around, howling like wolves. He hunched his shoulders and hurried on.
"Hey!" he whispered through the window. Something stirred in the shadows at the back of the room and he watched as she picked herself out of a tangle of bedding and stood, shakily. Not sleeping, either, he guessed. "Come over here," he mouthed. But she shook her head and held out her hands, which were bound. The skin round the rope was reddened and raw. She had been trying to work herself free. Now his eyes had adjusted, he could see that one end of the chain round her feet had been uncoupled and run through a ring in the wall. Deeply ashamed, he held up the loaf he had brought. She nodded, and he tossed it towards her. It rolled on the floor and stopped just out of her reach. But she smiled at him none the less. "Sorry," he muttered, trying to think of something better to say.
She had got down on her knees and was stretching out for the bread, when the howl froze them both. Andreas spun round, nearly losing his balance. It came from the stable. Something was in there. With the mare. He made for the sound, cursing his legs, cursing the villagers for maiming him. He lost his balance and sprawled to the ground, got up and kept on going. Behind him he could hear doors opening, men stumbling out of their houses, confused shouts, but he was first in the stable.
It was there in the door, looking towards him, looking beyond him, its eyes slitted against the dawn's light. A wolf black as night and huge as a pony. It was snarling. Threads of saliva hung down from its gleaming white teeth. It had crouched back on its haunches ready to spring. The mare, in the shadows behind it, was sweating, her eyes rolling, stamping and rearing, frightened out of her wits. She shook her head, and white foam flew through the darkness. "Calm down, girl," he murmured, hearing the others crowd up behind him. "In a moment," he thought, "it will attack." His knees almost gave way. Then he caught sight of its eyes. "Something odd there," crossed his mind, as the creature finally leaped, over his head, over the heads of the others and into the street. Then it was gone, and the mare quietened down, and the others dispersed, suddenly aware of how little they'd had time to put on.
The hunting party set out an hour after dawn. Most of the men were involved, grim and tight-lipped. This wasn't the same as hunting the woman. They hated wolves. Every beast they lost threatened them all with starvation. A wolf ready to come into the village was a danger far too great to be left even a day. Asmonia said little as she handed out bundles of bread and dried meats, subdued. She even pecked Oppides on the cheek by way of farewell. Later she took that moment of softness out on the red-headed woman. Long before evening there were fresh marks on her cheeks for failing to carry water quickly enough, chop fire wood neatly enough, polish tables brightly enough. Asmonia was shrieking insults in her direction when the hunters returned, bringing the wolf, bound and netted.
"I think the beast's ill," Demades said as they toasted each other's success. "You saw. It could have torn out Sentes' throat and been gone clean away. But it didn't."
"The fight just went out of it," someone agreed.
"It's starved," someone else added.
"What's the difference? This is a gift from the gods!" Oppides had been first in with the net, and was feeling heroic. "I say tomorrow we burn it. Make a fine offering to Zeus. We'll burn it alive."
"I don't think it'll just trot onto the pyre by itself," Demades slurred.
"No problem. We'll stun it and truss it and bind up its jaws."
"Who will?" Milos raised his eyebrows comically, took his time looking round at all their faces. Suddenly everyone had something else to absorb their attention.
"We'll draw lots." Asmonia elbowed her husband to one side, squeezed herself down on the bench beside him. "We'll kill two birds with one stone. White pebble wins a new wife and the honour of tying the wolf." She was smirking at her own cleverness. "Fair enough?"
There was grumbling, but rather less now. Some of the men flicked quick glances towards the red headed woman, who was tending the fire. They made a show of reluctance but they agreed. Andreas swallowed. Something was tight in his throat. It had happened too fast, he thought. He realised now that he'd hoped to rescue the woman, break her out, set her free. He felt tears sting his eyes. At that moment she glanced into the shadows, where he was sitting as usual. He saw there were tears on her cheeks.
The next morning, woman and wolf were brought out. Asmonia had put a white gown on the woman, and towered by her side, holding onto her tightly. The wolf was dragged on in the net. Wood was piled in the middle of the square, brands already flaming nearby. Andreas watched all this numbly, aware of some strange feeling growing inside him. It strengthened while Demades made a business of emptying the urn, showing everyone there was only one white stone among all the blacks ones, and afterwards refilling it. Then the single men, stood in line, picked out their stones. Each held his tight till the last should have chosen.
Demades had almost drawn level with Andreas. The blacksmith's palms were sweating, his mouth dry. Self contempt seared him. "Is this the best you can do?" he raged at himself. "Queue up with the others? You're just an accomplice." But what if he won? He'd let her go free. Of course he would let her go free. He allowed his gaze to drift towards the red-haired woman. What he saw baffled him: she did not look afraid at all. Her attention seemed turned inwards, like someone absorbed in tracking down a half-remembered thought.
The howl shocked them all. They had forgotten the wolf, forgotten to fear it. The howl promised that they would all pay. Somehow it had managed to snap and bite through the net, leap free of its strands. It was crouched ready to launch itself at them, head swinging from side to side, teeth bared in a mask made of shadows, eyes glaring. "Its eyes!" Andreas thought. There was something strange about their colour, he was sure of it. Then something else snagged his attention, and he shifted his gaze a little. The red haired woman, an expression of astonished recognition flooding her face, was also staring the wolf. Still snarling, it froze for an instant and stared back at her. Its eyes, they could all see now, were a vivid blue.
After a second of silence, the men dropped their pebbles and reached for their swords and their spears. They surrounded the wolf, but kept a wary distance. Its forelegs were straddled, its head low, its eyes still fixed on the red headed woman . Sentes drew back his arm, balanced his weight on his back foot and made ready to cast. He got no further than that. Moving fast, the small woman twisted out of Asmonia's grip and thumped him, wrenching the spear from his hands. Then she was past him and facing the wolf. "Get back," various voices called out, and this man and that jabbed the air between them and the wolf. She kept moving, keeping her back turned towards them, keeping always between them and the wolf. Holding its eyes.
Then she spoke. Andreas gasped. She could speak after all. She was talking to the wolf, he realised. "Xena," she said. Just one word. Very quietly. The way people say "morning" after a very dark night. "I recognise you," she went on, ignoring everyone else. "I said that I would. No matter where, no matter what you looked like." She threw back her head and looked up at the sky. "You've lost. I've broken the curse. Now release her!" Her voice was hoarse with disuse. It broke as she shouted these words.
The men shrank back in horror. The form of the wolf seemed to flicker, to become piercingly bright and then inkily black, to wink into sight and wink out. When it came back, a woman stood in its place. Tall and black haired, pale skinned and stark naked. They were spell bound.
But Asmonia cried, "It's a demon," and spurred on by her they charged at the pair. The tall woman, Xena, swept the red head behind her and leapt up in the air, felling two men with her kick. She spun round, seizing a spear which thrust itself at her and twisting it free of its owner. Meanwhile the red head had dashed the head of her spear into the ground to break off its point, and now was using the shaft to block other assaults. In spite of their peril, she seemed much more at ease, her face filled with light.
Andreas felt something shatter inside him. He hobbled as fast as he could into the Inn, aiming for the bundle with the sword, determined to use it to help them. "I can do this," he kept repeating to himself as he levered up floorboards, exposing the cache where the innkeeper's wife stowed her loot. But when he came out, sword clutched in his hand, it was already over. Not a single armed man stood in the square.
That left Asmonia. She blanched as Xena loped up to her, but she did not run. Xena rocked back on her heels and drew back her hand, but the small woman had followed her. She reached up and caught it. "Don't," she said quietly.
Xena snarled. She looked at the hand grasping hers, taking in pale skin which was still marked with bruises, the sore on the wrist. Her gaze snapped back to Asmonia's face, which was white and gleaming with sweat. "Don't ask me not to do this." Shadows moved on her skin as muscle gathered itself just underneath it.
"Please, Xena." The small woman kept her voice soft, kept it gentle.
Xena did not move for a moment. Then something retreated within her. Looking down at the small woman's face, she raised the hand clasping hers to her lips. "Gabrielle," she said, simply.
Gabrielle smiled. Then she frowned. "Gods, Xena, you're so thin. And we've got to get you dressed. I don't know where they've put your things." But she did not move. It seemed she could not take her eyes from the warrior. Both seemed to have forgotten Asmonia, who edged away from them, still shaking.
"You kept them, then?" Xena sounded a little uncertain.
"Of course I did." Gabrielle sounded surprised. "I knew I'd find you."
Andreas coughed at that point, to attract their attention. "Here," he said. He held out the sword and the bundle which contained the rest of Xena's gear, trying to avert his eyes as she reached out for them. Then he turned his back discretely as Gabrielle helped her to dress, hearing the rustle of cloth, the creak of leather, the clink of metal while she did so.
Looking the other way, he caught sight of Asmonia. She was staring blankly at her husband, who was struggling up from the ground, keeping his face turned away from her. "Go help your friends," he said to her, and was amazed when she did so. "Collect all the weapons and put them over there," he said to the innkeeper, and the man also obeyed him. "Comfort your wife," he had wanted to say. He might just as well have bidden a wolf guard a flock.
After that, Andreas turned once again. He blinked, seeing splendour. The sunlight had grown golden as the afternoon waned. When its light met the bronze of the warrior's armour, it splintered, leaving glittering needles to lance through the air. Thus it appeared to the blacksmith that Xena stood wrapped in a nimbus of spun metal strands. Armed, she struck him as far more frightening than any wolf. Evidently the others thought so too. He was dimly aware of the furtive noises they made, slinking away over the beaten earth of the square.
He cleared his throat again, and when they looked at him, asked Gabrielle, "Why were you silent?" He thought he knew, but wanted to hear her speak once more.
Xena raised her brows. "Gabrielle silent? And I missed it? That was some curse."
Gabrielle frowned at her ferociously. "OK, OK, joke over." She paused a moment. Her expression sobered abruptly. "I woke up from what I though was a nightmare one morning, and found that it wasn't a nightmare at all. Xena had vanished, and I was the only one who could get her back. I remembered that from the dream. I just had to keep quiet until I found her. The first word I said had to be Xena's name and I had to speak it to her. That was the only way to break the curse." Then her face changed again. She grinned up at the warrior, evidently brimming over with delight. "No big deal," she said softly. "And I warn you. I've plenty of words stored up." She produced a mock scowl.
Xena threw up her hands. "I surrender!" she said, rolling her eyes and grimacing. "So, how did you know?" she asked, and now she smiled gently.
"That you were the wolf?" Andreas realised that once again they had forgotten he was there. "I just knew. I knew you were near anyway, I could feel it, and when I saw you, I was certain. No big deal," she repeated.
Xena quirked her eyebrows. "No?" she inquired. She threw one arm over the small woman's shoulders and drew her close.
"What about you?" Gabrielle asked, after a moment.
"Well, I didn't remember who I was. I just lived like a wolf. Except that I couldn't. Something kept telling me that if I gave in too much, hunted with the pack, killed and ate meat, that sort of thing, I'd never get back. So I didn't." Her gaze went inwards for a moment and her face tightened, the high cheekbones standing out starkly. Then she shook herself. "No big deal," she echoed her friend.
"He didn't mean to give you a chance, did he?" Gabrielle said, harshly. Her eyes grew hard. "Why...."
Xena answered, "We can probably both make a pretty good guess. But what would be the point? He's lost anyway." She looked down at Gabrielle. "Hey!" she said. "I do the wanting revenge thing. You do the forgiveness. Ok?" She waited until the small woman's face softened into a reluctant smile. "That's better." But her eyebrow quirked and she made no move until the smile had warmed her friend's eyes.
"How did you know to come to me?" Gabrielle asked, after a moment.
Xena's brows drew together. "Well," she said vaguely, "it just seemed the right thing to do." Then she drew the small woman even closer to her and dipped her head for a moment, kissing the top of her head. "Yes, that's it. The right thing to do," she repeated.
They were gone before dark. Gabrielle would not stay another night in the village, and Xena did not try to persuade her otherwise, though this was an odd time to start on a journey. Nor would the small woman re-enter the inn, even to reclaim her things. Andreas went in for her. He came out carrying some food he had wrested from Asmonia, but she would not take it. He watched as her skin paled and lines appeared between her eyebrows and around her mouth, and felt guilty again for his part in putting them there. Xena reached out a hand to smooth them away. Her face was stormy, but she stuck by her promise.
"Come with us," the small woman said to the blacksmith a little later, as they made ready to leave.
"I belong here," Andreas replied. It was true, but he was tempted. He let himself look at her. It was for the last time, he knew. "Gabrielle," he thought. Her hair, he noticed, was more golden than red now. But perhaps it was the evening sunlight. It was bringing out golden specks in her eyes as well. "They need me," he added, jerking his head towards the village. Which they did. And going with her would hurt far too much, in the end. "I'm not a good walker. I'd only slow you down." He was aware that he was saying too much. "I have to stay," he insisted, catching the warrior's gaze as he said this. It was surprisingly soft, even sympathetic. "It's for the best," he finished, and saw her dark head move slightly in respectful acknowledgement.
The two women rode out together, heading south. Andreas felt a prickle of professional pride as he saw the mare was completely recovered. He watched till they vanished from sight. Then he sighed. He limped back to the smithy, skirting the unlit pyre, and stumbling on something. He looked down to see what it was. One white stone gleamed in the dust. He stooped, picked it up, cleaned it, and let it rest for a moment in the palm of his hand, as if judging its weight. Then he clenched his hand, closing his eyes for an instant. When he walked on, the stone was safe in his pocket.
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