Gabrielle closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Honey, she thought, and heather. She could hear the wind humming in the dried grass of high summer and a single bird singing up above. She tilted back her head and opened her eyes. The sky was sheer and blue. This early in the day, she could still see the moon, though it was visibly dissolving away. Like salt, she thought idly. Like a drop of seawater dried to salt on a silken sail. Like a… No, it was no good. Despite all her efforts to calm herself, to turn the scene into a lyrical landscape, she shivered.
Behind her, she heard the whisper of linen on leather, the hushed ring of bronze armour. Xena feels it too, she realised. The tension here, which strung the wind and the grass and the high, taut sky. She took a step forwards, the tall grasses brushing against the skin of her knees and her thighs, and rested a hand on the stone just beside her. Then snatched it away again, clutching her staff and breathing in sharply.
"What is it?" Xena's presence, alert and on guard behind her.
"I don't know." Gabrielle looked at the stone in bemusement. It was broad and quite low, a nondescript grey. Facing East, it had been soaking in sunlight since dawn. She could feel warmth radiating from its surface even here. So why, when she laid her palm on its side, had she shuddered as if she'd touched ice? "It felt, wrong, I suppose." Wrong, she thought to herself. Some bard you are. But how else to put it? Cold hardly made sense, and was not nearly enough. She had felt what she felt in her gut, and in her head. Her spirit, rather. Something cold in her soul. How could she tell Xena that? It sounded foolishly sentimental to her own ears.
Beside her now, Xena was stretching out her own hand. "Don't!" she wanted to say, but she held her tongue, and watched instead, seeing her companion's hand flinch a little, before planting itself, fingers spread wide, upon the stone. That's my Xena, she thought. "Well?" she asked instead.
"Cold?" Xena's voice was as doubtful as her own. She took her hand away and wrung it briskly with her other. Then she said, "Desperate," much more decisively.
Yes, Gabrielle thought, yes, that's it. Trapped and despairing. And she shuddered again.
Briefly, Xena rested her hand on her shoulder, as she said matter-of-factly, "Well, whatever is causing this, it can't be what has those villagers so spooked."
Gabrielle swallowed, then nodded, if doubtfully. She looked up into Xena's face and smiled brightly for her. The other woman studied her through slitted eyes, and finally returned the smile. "Perhaps there really isn't anything terrible up here," Gabrielle ventured. "Perhaps they just said there was to get rid of us." As she spoke, she felt a little burst of confidence. Yes, I'm on to something here.
Xena raised one eyebrow. "They were that desperate not to hear a story?"
"Funny," Gabrielle returned dutifully, while her mind went to work. "That mayor guy," she said after a brief pause. "There was something about him. The way he wouldn't look at you, and just spoke to me, but wouldn't meet my eyes. And all those hand gestures. You know. As if he was acting sincere, instead of being it?"
"Yeah." Xena's brows drew together. "All the same, the village was frightened of something."
Gabrielle had to agree. When the mayor had spoken of the disappearances, of people coming up here and not being seen again, then there had been the ring of something else in his voice. And the people around, standing in the dusty square - they had looked scared. Pale skin, red-rimmed eyes, mouths pinched with grieving. Yes, there was something more, all right.
They both looked about them. A grassy enclosure, surrounded by a dry-stone wall, on the unexpectedly smooth summit of a rocky hill sparsely studded with olive trees. Undistinguished, apart from the scattering of largish stones arranged more or less in a circle. Nowhere to hide. The olive trees below were small and gnarled. Not much cover there, either. The women could plainly see goats picking their way from tuft to tuft between the twisted trunks of the trees. They looked back at each other, simultaneously raising eyebrows in bafflement. Gabrielle chuckled at this, and Xena's lips quirked.
"I'll give it another go round," she said now. "You stay here."
She was gone before Gabrielle could object, and the bard shook her head in annoyance. Xena, Xena. How can I watch your back if you don't keep it near me? She stepped away from the stone, starting out on a sweep of the immediate area. After a while, she stopped walking and leaned on her staff as she studied the scene before her. Several more stones, she noticed, some larger, some smaller, and a tangle of sun-bleached grasses between them sprinkled with poppies and hare bells. As blue as her eyes, she thought, trying out in her head the lines which introduced Xena into her latest story. Perhaps not: hare bells might be Princess, but they certainly weren't warrior. As blue as the sea in summer when…. She let herself dream for a minute.
Perhaps it was longer. The day was hot, and after too many weeks of hard walking and several close encounters of the unwashed and brigandly kind she was really very tired. Xena as well, though she wouldn't admit anything of the sort. All the same, Gabrielle could tell. It worried her, just a little. Unfortunately, this village hadn't turned out to be one where you could take a nice little break. Considering such a break, and a suitable location for it, Gabrielle found herself startling awake. She must have dozed off while she was standing there, she realised ruefully. What had awakened her? A sound? Something creeping up behind her? She wasn't entirely sure.
Or was it someone not coming back? "Xena?" she said, softly. As she said it, a prickle of alarm raised bumps on her skin. How long since the warrior had been gone? Why hadn't she returned? "Xena?" Her voice was much louder this time, and she was looking around her.
Nothing. Stones, and grass, and silence. What had happened to the bird? To the crackle and clicking as crickets moved through the grass. "Xena!" She could hear the panic in her own voice and made herself stand still and breathe deeply. When her heartbeat no longer pounded in her ears, she walked back to the place where she thought she had seen Xena last, and followed the route her friend had taken, out of the enclosure where the stones lay and to the left.
Gabrielle had nearly completed the circuit when she saw something. A glint to her right, inside the enclosure again. She scrambled over the wall, clumsy with panic, and ran towards what she'd seen. It was, as she had known it would be, Xena's sword. The new sword, made, the smith said, from metal which had fallen from the sky. It was lying on the ground beside a stone which was coloured a light bluish grey, and was slightly taller than the others. "Xena," Gabrielle whispered, leaning her staff against the stone and kneeling to pick the weapon up, afraid of what she might see. But the blade was spotless. She rose to her feet, watching numbly as it reflected first the blue of the sky, then, in a searing flash, the bright disk of the sun.
She nearly dropped the sword when, behind her, she heard a sound she instantly recognised as the one which had roused her before. An odd sound. Sibilant breathing, mingled with another, that of a body passing through the thatch of dried grass. A body dressed in something that snagged the grasses softly. And a hissing, like shingle boiling under the assault of insistent waves. Intrigued, she almost turned round. Then the echo of her own "Don't!" rang in her ears, tinged with overtones of a deeper voice, Xena's voice, and she froze instead.
"Are you looking for someone?" another voice asked, mildly, behind her. A woman, she noted, and that was all she could tell. Not young, not old; even the accent was neutral. Not quite the dialect of the villagers, nor any other than she could recall.
"A warrior with black hair?" the woman persisted. Gabrielle could feel herself grow tense and had to fight her urge to spin round, to demand, "Where is she?" But the longer she kept her back to the voice, the more sure she was that this was the right thing to do.
"It's very rude not to answer, you know." The voice was still gentle. "Or don't you care where she is?"
Gabrielle readied herself. "Where is she?" she asked, pleased that her voice was reasonably steady.
"You're very close to her." Having got a response, the owner of the voice behind sounded a little stronger, a little more excited. "Far closer than you know." Now the voice was filled with self-satisfied laughter, and Gabrielle felt a surge of anger rise within her.
"What have you done to her?" She watched her knuckles whiten on the hilt of Xena's sword. "Tell me, or by the Gods I'll make you."
"What will you do, little mortal?" The voice was plump with mockery. "Stab me with your friend's sword? She couldn't get near me, for all she was a warrior."
Was? Was? Gabrielle nearly sagged to her knees, feeling deathly cold. What are you going to do? Faint? Much good that will do! Are you giving up? she raged at herself. This is Xena you're failing. She never gives up. "You must have tricked her, then," she flung back defiantly. Besides, the owner of the voice was right, Xena was still close. She could feel her.
"Just a little." The voice oozed smugness. "Only a little, but I had to make her look at me. I merely called her name. 'Xena,' I said." But the voice, for an instant, was like Gabrielle's. "She turned right away. You should be flattered. You, however, I'll meet on equal terms. Face to face." Now the voice tried to flatter.
"I don't think so," Gabrielle replied. "I know what you are." She was afraid that she did, even though that little voice at the back of her mind which always stood to one side and observed everything calmly was saying, You fool, that's a myth, Gorgons are just a myth. It's all a trick.
"Then you know there's nothing you can do. Not for your friend, and not for yourself. Turn round and I'll let you keep her company for as long as stone endures."
Damn, Gabrielle thought bitterly, she's good. An appeal to heroic despair: it's almost tempting. "Why should I?" she countered. "When I can kill you and free her instead." Keep her talking, Gabrielle, while you think. And she might let something slip.
"You can't free her, or any of the others," the voice replied.
"There's always a way out." Gabrielle worked to settle her voice, and fill it with Xena's arrogant self-confidence. That always piques them, makes them talk. She had seen it happen, often enough.
"Yes indeed," the voice agreed amiably. "There's a way out. In fact the solution is very simple. But you'll never see it." Now it sniggered and taunted, enjoying some private joke. "Not that you should want to free them. It would be cruel," the voice went on.
Succulent, Gabrielle thought with that observant portion of her mind. Cut it and it will bleed sap. Aloud she said, "And why is that?" Keep her talking. Thoughts whirled through her head. The creature was probably right. She didn't have a chance against her with a sword. But what did the philosophers say? That light was produced by the eyes, and flew at an object like arrows, and that was how one saw, when the object was hit? Presumably, then, the light produced by this creature's eyes was different and had a deadly effect, but only if you met its glance. Eyeball to eyeball. So what would happen if…?
"Imagine yourself imprisoned as they have been, with no sense of time and no hope of release. How would you feel? Terrified? Maddened? Desperate? How long could your mind and spirit endure?" the creature was saying.
And, at the back of her own mind, the small voice was pointing out, But you don't really believe that stuff about the eyes. You think light comes from the sun, don't you remember? That it comes from the sun, bounces off things and enters the eyes.
With an effort, Gabrielle blotted both voices out. She didn't have another plan, after all. Now or never, she thought to herself, and tightened her grip on Xena's sword once more.
The creature must have seen the shift in her stance, the slight shimmer which ran along the blade as the tremor in Gabrielle's hands made the weapon shake. "Oh, don't be such a fool," said the voice contemptuously, not a bit afraid.
"I think you'll see I'm not the one who's the fool," Gabrielle replied, working to get the tone of her voice and the angle of the sword just right. Reflected in the blade, she saw the sun, then the sky, then the top of the stone in front of her. Careful, careful. You get just one shot at this. She moved her weapon a little to one side, tilted it a little further.
She heard, "Oh, you're such a boring little…." And then the voice stopped.
Gabrielle held the sword in position as long as she could, though soon its weight, and the odd angle, overtaxed her wrists and she had to let it drop. Still she waited. This could all be another trick. But nothing happened, and at last, very cautiously, she turned round.
There was a stone behind her. Roughly the height of a woman, and a shimmering silver colour. She knew it hadn't been there before: she'd have had to walk round it to reach Xena's sword. Presumably she had done it, had succeeded. Though that thought withered as she realised she was still alone.
Xena. Despair hit Gabrielle in a wave. What had she hoped? That the creature's, the Gorgon's, death would release its victims? Yes, she had hoped that. She only admitted it now, when it was clear that she had failed. Now I know what it means when people say their hearts have turned to stone. The weight in her chest was so heavy, left so little room for her lungs, that she staggered, and kept her balance only by putting out her hand to brace herself against the stone where she had found Xena's sword.
"Oh, Xena," she said. "What shall I do?" She caught an echo of her own voice, long ago, prattling on about bringing down mountains with music. Some hope. Was this the best she could do? Weep and moan and come up with childish plans? She groaned in self-loathing. Then the Gorgon's voice came back to her. "How would you feel?" she had asked. To be trapped in the rock, to be conscious and know that you were part of the rock, always blind, always deaf, no movement, not even breath. She could imagine it only too well. Stifling darkness. Unbearable pressure, bearing in. She will go mad, she thought. She cannot endure it. Half blinded, half deafened, gasping for breath, Gabrielle beat at the stone until blood ran from her hands and exhaustion at last overwhelmed her.
It was nearly evening when she opened her eyes again. She was lying with her cheek against the stone, which threw a long shadow away from her towards the East. The bird's back she thought weakly, hearing its song and aware that there was only one voice she wanted to hear now. And since she never would, since therefore she would never leave this place, since there was no other way she could join Xena - well, there was only one thing to do.
She reached for the sword one last time, finding it infinitely difficult to lift. It reflected the sky again, the field of stones, and then, briefly, herself. Gabrielle kept manoeuvring the blade, distantly amazed that there was no trace of her grief to be seen on her face. Surely she should look different? But no. Her face still looked the same, under the dried blood, the mud.
The mud? She tilted the blade again and looked at her face. She had got blood from her hands on one cheek, but the other was blotched with a smear the colour of the stone against which she had been leaning her face. She turned back to it, running her hands over its grey-blue surface. A little dent there, she realised. Not even that: a dimple. She had been crying earlier. She knew this from the itchy feel to her eyes and the way her skin felt so tight. Her cheek would have been wet with tears when she fell against the stone.
What had the Gorgon said? She remembered "solution" and "sea". "Xena," she breathed. "I know what to do. Hang in there. Wait for me." She had gasped the words and started running out of the enclosure without making any conscious decision to do so, Xena's sword clasped in one hand. Her staff she left leaning against the blue-grey stone. The sky had turned richly golden and her shadow leaped ahead of her, pointing its long finger down the rocky hillside towards the village. They'll give me what I want, she swore to herself.
At first it seemed that they would not. The Mayor had obviously been surprised to see her. When he learned that she had defeated the Gorgon he had been amazed. "You did it? You killed her?" Gabrielle noted that he did not sound entirely pleased, that in fact he sounded frightened, but she ignored this for the time being.
"Yeah. And now you owe me, and I'm taking payment. All the salt you've got, and water, and people to help me get it back up there."
"You're mad, woman," he snarled at her. "We're a poor village! Give you our salt? Get out of here!" He glanced around, saw doors opening and villagers coming out. He raised his voice, clearly meaning them to hear and take their tone from him. "Get out, before we show you how we deal with lying vagrants like you." He stooped and picked up a largish stone, hefting it a little uncertainly, his eyes flickering around him.
It occurred to her at that point that the villagers must be incredibly backwards. They were all out there by now, standing beside the Mayor, gaping and silent. "Come on!" she yelled furiously, and waved the sword. When they shrank away from her, she became even more angry, and darted forwards to seize a woman by the shoulders and shout in her face, "Do you want to leave them up there? Don't you want to get them back?"
The woman winced: the hilt of the sword was digging into her shoulder and the lunatic's dirty face was pressed up close to hers. She paled, and then the meaning of what she had heard seemed to strike her, and she paled some more. "Get them back?" she repeated weakly. "You can't get them back. He says so." She pointed with her chin in the direction of the Mayor. "He says that all we can do is stop her coming down here and taking all of us." Around her, one or two villagers stooped to pick up their own stones. Most did not.
"Yeah? Well he's wrong." Gabrielle stopped. What can I say to convince them? Why waste the time? It's running out. She wrenched her mind away from the thought of Xena, coffined in stone, steadied herself, started again. "Look, let's try it this way. If I'm wrong, you can stone me afterwards." She wiped the back of her free hand over her face and tried to calm herself. "Please," she said, suddenly quiet. "What harm can it do?"
"Don't you dare, Marta," the Mayor said. "I forbid it. She's lying. The Gorgon could still be up there, waiting to take you all. I've saved you all these years. If it hadn't been for me, the monster would have come down and killed us all. This way, most of us survived. You have to listen to me." He balled his fists and his face reddened.
He had gone too far, Gabrielle realised. The woman in front of her shot him a glance of pure hatred, and then nodded abruptly, and called, "Tomas, Isander, do what she says. Let's get salt and water up there before the light goes completely." She turned, then glanced back at the Mayor. Gabrielle wanted to scream at her that they must go now, that there was absolutely no more time to waste. But she stopped herself somehow.
The woman said, "We've done a lot of things I'm ashamed of because of you. You've made cowards of the lot of us. Well, not anymore. You got that?" He glowered back at her, and she finally just waved one hand at him. "Oh - why don't you take a running jump, you worthless piece of…" She swallowed and silenced herself. "We let you. It's our fault too. Just get out of here, ok?"
Almost all the village went with them in the end, and it was dark when they reached the enclosure in spite of their haste. They mixed salt with water by the light of torches, rubbed it into the stone with their hands. Gabrielle's lacerated skin stung as she applied the solution, but she ignored this, rejoicing as she felt first a softening, then flesh clothed in leather just before Xena dropped limply into her arms.
"Have another," Gabrielle coaxed. "You have to keep your strength up."
"You have it," Xena replied. "I'm not the one who petrified a Gorgon and a whole village all in a single day."
"Flatterer." Gabrielle wrinkled her brows at her, but kept the sweetmeat firmly under Xena's nose. The warrior's colour was better, she was happy to see, but she couldn't get out of her mind the feel of her partner's limp form and cold flesh after she had been freed from the stone. Like one dead. The phrase had kept repeating itself in her head during what was left of the previous night, as she lay wrapped around Xena in Marta's spare bed, leaving her partner's side only to pile more wood on the fire. Even now, she couldn't quite relax. Xena was still too detached, too remote, still had not met her eyes. The warrior's own had been dark as slate when she finally opened them that morning: or so Gabrielle had feared.
That was too close, she thought tiredly. Way too close. Some of the other victims, villagers selected as placatory sacrifices, or travellers tricked up there in their place, had not survived. Several times, and she still felt nausea as she remembered this, she had heard a damp slap as bones still wrapped in rotting flesh slumped out . Other stones had dissolved to release people so lost in themselves that nothing could rouse them, or so demented that they could not be calmed. One had burst out of the stone circle and was, even now, being sought by his grieving relations. Perhaps the Gorgon had been right. Perhaps there had been no way of rescuing them after all. Perhaps not even Xena… Panic rose in her and she closed her eyes.
"Hey." She felt something brush her finger tips and realised that Xena had relieved them of the marzipan titbit, was crumbling it between her own fingers. She also realised she was being studied closely. "That's enough of that," Xena said. Her tone was suddenly animated and firm. "Unless you're sorry you got me out of there." She raised an eyebrow dramatically.
"Course I am. What's it going to get me, after all? More blisters on my feet, more fish in my face, more knives at my throat. More ambushes. More brushes with the gods. I can hardly wait." But Gabrielle felt tears prick her eyes all the same. You're over-tired: can't you take a joke now? She looked away abruptly, concentrated on the view through the window. What there was of it. It was night again. Despite the candle light in their room she could just make out stars, sprinkling the sky like grains of salt.
"Hey," Xena said again. She was still looking carefully at the bard's face. "It's over. Everything's ok. Even this pathetic excuse for a village. And it's all thanks to you."
Well, the mayor had gone, and the Gorgon's stone was buried deep under the grass of the enclosure. That was something. Gabrielle turned her head back and shook her head at the warrior. Then she summoned her determination and made herself smile. "Just shows you how desperate things had got."
"No." The force behind the word startled her. "No, don't you do that." When Gabrielle went still and the tears sprang again to her eyes, Xena lent forward and placed a large hand on either side of her face. "Don't you go running yourself down," she said, her voice very quiet now. She caught Gabrielle's gaze and held it. "We were all lucky to have you, and don't you forget it."
Something swelled in Gabrielle's chest and closed her throat. Whatever was in her face made Xena lean still closer and say, very softly, "I'm ok. Really. You got me through it. I never felt completely alone: I could always feel you, near by."
Yep. Like hare bells, I was right. Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes just as thoroughly as Xena was searching her own. Okay. We got lucky. She's all right.
The tears escaped then, and Xena caught them on her thumbs, rubbing them away. "Nothing to say?" She had lightened her tone. Now she sounded gently teasing, though her face was still serious, concerned. And something more. "That was a compliment, and you richly deserved it. So say 'thank you'."
Gabrielle felt a bubble of genuine laughter rise inside her and dispel the last shadow of fear. She brought her own hands up to cover Xena's. "Thank you," she repeated obediently. Her face lit with a delighted grin. "Anything else you'd like me to do?"
Xena smiled back. Her eyes darkened and something kindled in their depths. One eyebrow quirked. Then, unexpectedly, she sobered. Her hands dropped and she looked away and looked back. Gabrielle could see her throat working. When her smile stiffened and she said, "I'll get back to you on that," Gabrielle knew it was not what she had wanted to say.
"Right. I'll stick close till you think of something, don't you fear." She reached out and clasped both the warrior's hands in her own, letting the gesture say the rest.
Xena's smile softened again, lit her face. Her long fingers intertwined with the bard's. "You do that," she said, in contentment.
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