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by Fawn Patton
Along the green ridge, against the burning sunset, streamers of smoke spread like gossamer strands against the sky.
"That doesn't look promising..." Gabrielle let the words trail away, inviting comment.
"No. It doesn't." Xena picked up the pace, leading Argo up the trail.
Sighing at her friend's taciturn nature, Gabrielle ventured another question.
"Do you think someone attacked Therris?"
"Only one way to find out," Xena swung up into Argo's saddle. "I don't suppose there's any use in asking you to stay here?"
Gabrielle shook her head, jaw set in a determined line.
"Didn't think so. Follow as quickly as you can, then. I may need your help, if there are survivors." With that Xena set heels to Argo's sides, and galloped up over the hill.
Toiling up the last switch-back of the ridge, Gabrielle paused to breathe deeply as she finally reached the crest. Hands on her knees, it took her a moment to regain her breath. Then she straightened, and immediately felt like the breath had been knocked from her once more.
The slaughter below was incredible. Bodies of men, bodies of horses, weapons and banners lay spread across the plain like broken toys. Two camps lay at opposite ends of the field, and each seemed deserted. In the center of the plain, the remains of a tiny village lay, a smoldering ruin. But that wasn't where the majority of the smoke originated. Instead, a huge funeral pyre shed palls of black smoke upwards, to hang against the ever darkening sky.
As quickly as she could, Gabrielle made her way down the steep
slope, slipping and sliding on loose rock, using her staff for
balance and support.
The young man piling bodies on an unlit pyre winced and looked away as Xena rode up.
"Take what you want from the plunder. We have no use for their weapons or armor anyway. Bring your armies through, conquer the land, we won't stand in your way. There's only twelve of us left, and we don't have anything worth stealing..."
He trailed off as Xena remained silent. Swinging off her horse, she looked him in the eye.
"I don't have any armies, and I don't want plunder. I'm just a traveler, passing through."
He shrugged, and went pack to shifting bodies. A slight man, he
could barely move the heavy-set soldiers. In a numb sort of daze,
he simply rolled any that he couldn't lift, continuing with his
grisly task as though he were loading sandbags onto a wagon. Compassion
darkening her eyes, Xena dropped Argo's reins and grabbed the
ankles of the body he was struggling with. Surprise made him freeze
for a moment, but then, accepting her aide, he continued his motion,
dumping that body and reaching for another.
A quick glance over her shoulder to check on Gabrielle reassured
Xena that the Bard had made it to the top of the hill, and was
about to start down. Damn good thing, she thought, these people
were going to need all the help they could get. And right now,
what they really needed was comfort, and solace, and healing for
the soul. Not exactly the sort of thing Xena was good at, but
fortunately, she knew someone who was.
"What's your name?" Gabrielle rocked back on her heels, waiting for an answer. The boy sat silent, hugging his knees. He didn't seem inclined to talk.
"All right, you don't have to tell me. But I was just going to ask if you wanted any food. Everyone else is out by the fire, getting ready to have stew. Did you want some?" He stared at her, blank. Sighing, she got up and went out, ducking under the tree branch that supported this corner of the lean to. Xena had built it that afternoon with an ingenious interweaving of living branches and leaves, and saplings cut from near by.
"Here, take this to him. Maybe the smell of food will get his attention." Xena handed a bowl of steaming meat broth and vegetables to Gabrielle, along with a nut-bar from their supplies.
"What's wrong with him?"
Xena shrugged noncommittally. "Achenon says that his parents were killed in front of him. I think it may have been worse than that, but I can't get much out of these people..."
"Do we even know his name?"
Gabrielle smiled up at the warrior, grateful for the additional information.
For Xena, the following days were a blur of hard physical labor and frustration. The villagers didn't talk among themselves, and they wouldn't tell her what they planned to do after they'd finished cleaning up the mess of two completely devastated armies. She didn't think they knew what to do, and what was worse, she didn't think they cared. They had a task in front of them, a job that kept them busy, and they worked late into the night at it. Up early to start again, she didn't think they'd even be eating if Gabrielle hadn't made sure that there was good, hot food ready when they came back to the camp.
And so, unable to get through to them, all she could do was help them sort through things in the camps, haul the bodies away, and cut wood for the huge pyres.
Only Teremon wasn't working, and Gabrielle, who wouldn't leave him alone at camp. Not that anyone resented her seeming idleness. They barely acknowledged her existence.
Tomorrow would see the end of their task, and Xena feared the
silence, the darkness in their eyes, the grim depression that
was sure to follow.
"And so the lion let the mouse go, laughing at the concept that a little mouse could ever help him in any way. But months passed, and the mouse did not forget his promise of aid. One day he heard a terrible noise in the wood, and being a curious mouse, he snuck up close to see what was going on. There were men, buzzing around a huge net like hornets from a fallen wasp's nest..." Gabrielle trailed off, sighing and pushing her bangs out of her face as Xena walked back into camp. Nodding, the warrior crouched down by the fire to help herself to a roasted rabbit.
"Hi, Xena. I was just telling Teremon a story..."
"How is he?"
"He'll eat, if I hold a spoon to his mouth. But other than that? Nothing."
"Hmmm. Well, keep trying. There has to be some spark in there, or he'd have crossed over long since..."
"What did the mouse see?" A small voice interrupted.
Gabrielle froze, and then turned around; slowly, carefully, as though the boy might disappear in a puff of smoke if she so much as sneezed.
"You know, the mouse in the forest. What did he see?"
"Well, uh..." Gabrielle licked her lips nervously, glancing at Xena for support. Xena shrugged, raising an eyebrow in Teremon's direction.
"He saw the men, and he saw that they had a net thrown over something huge. Something that was struggling to get away. Whatever it was, in that net, it was making horrible noises, and the little mouse was very afraid. But he needed to know what they were doing, these strange intruders. So, softly, he crept in closer. Finally, when he was almost close enough to be stepped on, he could see that the thing they had captured was, in fact, none other than his friend the lion. And he knew he had to find some way to help. So he hid in the bushes, waiting to see what they would do.
Well, it had taken them all day to track the lion, and now it was almost nightfall, so the men decided to make camp. They laughed at the roars and struggles of their captive, mocking him because he could not rend them limb from limb as he so obviously wanted to. And eventually, the lion fell silent, and the men fell asleep.
The mouse knew his chance had come. So he crept to the lion, and began chewing on the ropes that held his friend down. All night he chewed, till his jaws hurt, and his little paws were sore from holding onto the strands. He knew he had to finish the job by morning, or the hunters would kill his friend. Finally he had weakened all the ropes, and he woke the lion with a little nip to the foot. 'Quiet!' he said, 'or the hunters will surely hear you.'
And the lion stayed quiet, letting the mouse explain what he had done. 'Thank you, little mouse. You are brave beyond your size, and I will not forget your kindness. Now stand back, and I will have done with these puny men.'
And with that, he burst free from his prison, bounding deep into the woods before the hunters could even struggle free from their blankets. They marveled at his strength, wondered at his speed... but they never even knew that in truth, they had been beaten by a tiny, humble, insignificant little mouse."
As Gabrielle wound her story to a close, strange emotions played over Teremon's face.
"That mouse, he was very brave, wasn't he?"
"I think so."
"I wish... I wish I was brave, like the mouse. Then my parents wouldn't be gone."
Gabrielle sucked in a long breath, not quite sure how to respond. "Well, it's never too late to be brave. You can be as brave as that little mouse now. Would you like that?"
He nodded, hesitantly.
"But I'm not brave."
"Sure you are!" She spoke in a soft voice, but flashed him her most winning smile.
"Do you know what being brave is, Teremon?"
He shook his head.
"It's when you're scared, and you go ahead and do what needs to be done anyway. I bet you're scared right now, aren't you?"
"Well then. You're talking to me, even though you're scared. Doesn't that mean you're being brave?"
"I... I guess so."
"You see, it's not that hard. Here," she stretched out her hand. "Why don't you come sit next to me, and you can tell me a story. I'll stay right here, and if you need it, I'll help you to be brave."
"Can you do that? Really?"
"Sure I can. Just watch me!"
Smiling, Xena stepped away from the fire, heading for her bed
Standing in the golden afternoon sun, hands wrapped around her staff, Gabrielle looked out over the now peaceful vale.
"That's the last of it. It's pretty amazing, really. Your valley is clean again, even the remains of the fires have been swept away by wind, and rain, and time."
Xena watched from beneath half lidded eyes, gauging the effect of Gabrielle's words on Achenon. It had been two weeks since they entered the valley, and he was much changed from the man he had been that first day, when she helped him pile lifeless bodies on an unlit pyre. Unfortunately, she couldn't say that those changes were for the better.
Thinner now, his cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken. He looked as if he had not slept through the night since they arrived. Well, he probably hadn't. Nightmares followed in the wake of war, like carrion crows.
Now he turned away from her, waving at the beautiful green grass that stood in fallow fields.
"Oh yes, pure and pristine. Almost untouched. You'd never know that less than a month ago, a thriving village sat in this valley. My father settled here fifty years ago, built a home, invited others to join him. Together they planted, toiled, worked, and finally raised something greater than themselves. No, it was no great temple, no marble monument. But it was home to over a hundred people. It was my home. And now it's gone. Wiped from the land, as if the gods had reached down and decreed that we never existed. "
Turning back, he fixed Xena with a piercing, accusing stare.
"Tell me, Xena, warrior princess, what do the common folk do now? Now that everything we've ever known, everything we've worked towards is gone?"
Gabrielle's eyes grew wide in surprise, and she opened her mouth to defend her friend. But before she could speak, he lashed out again.
"Oh yes, I've known who your friend was all along. I know a murdering, plundering warlord when I see one. You may think that this sort of work is appropriate penance for you, that it somehow makes up for all the pain you've caused, but I want to know if anything can ever make up for what I've lost..."
Laying a hand on Gabrielle's arm to keep her silent for a moment, Xena looked at him with clear blue eyes. Inwardly, though his words stung, she was satisfied. Gabrielle had finally prodded him into taking the first step, that is, asking what comes next, instead of just shuffling along like a zombie.
"No, Achenon. Nothing I do, nothing anyone does, can ever make up for the senseless, mindless cruelty that took your home, your family. That's just not the way the world works. Nothing I do can bring them back. Nothing you do can. I'm sorry." With that, Xena turned and walked away.
Nonplused, Gabrielle stood silent for a moment. Then, gathering herself, she started afresh.
"You know, you may not be able to bring back your family, but you can control what you do from now on. That's the only control any of us really has. You can let that hate, that rage, continue to eat you. That's the easy way. That's what she did." She motioned at the retreating Xena.
"Her village was conquered, just like yours. By a warlord named Cortese. And when she cleaned up the mess, she let that fear, that anger, that despair build up inside her. Is that what you want? To end up some day, standing at the head of an army, looking out over a valley just like this one? A valley you destroyed, in the name of peace. In the name of safety?
Or maybe you'd just rather sit here until you wither away like a dead flower, and blow away in the wind. I'm sure that would make your dead family happy..."
She waited for a response, but Achenon seemed to have run out
of words. He simply looked at his valley, numb once more to the
world around him. Finally, at a loss, Gabrielle headed back to
"Xena?" Gabrielle searched around the camp, finally spotting her friend in a clearing a short ways off, the spot where they'd tethered Argo. Carefully grooming the horse, Xena didn't seem to hear her call out.
Moving close enough to lay a hand on the warrior's arm, Gab tried again.
"Xena, are you all right? You left in kind of a hurry..."
"I'm fine, Gabrielle. I just thought that he needed to hear what you had to say. If I had stayed, he wouldn't have listened to you. He was too busy trying to get a rise out of me."
Leaning her head on the welcoming shoulder, Gabrielle let out a bitter sigh.
"Oh, Xena. You should have stayed. Maybe you could have talked some sense in to him. I don't think he listened to me at all. I hope he didn't. All I did was loose my temper at him. He's suffered enough, without that."
Setting down the horse brushes, Xena turned so she could wrap her arms around the bard.
"What did you tell him?"
Gabrielle quietly recounted her tirade, word for word, sparing herself nothing. Then, when Xena did not immediately respond, she steeled herself and asked:
"So, how badly did I mess things up?"
Xena cringed as she felt Gabrielle tense, expecting harsh criticism. Her heart ached, as she saw the side of the bard that she rarely viewed, the one that must have been hurt so many times, in subtle ways, by people she loved.
"Oh, no," she breathed. "No, you did fine. Gabrielle, he was wallowing in self pity. Not that he doesn't deserve to grieve, he does. But he wasn't. He was just spiraling around like a hawk on a line, chasing his tail. What you said... that was exactly what he needed to hear. Maybe now he'll start thinking about where he's going, instead of being trapped where he is."
Gently stroking Gabrielle's fine, red-blonde hair, she wondered if she'd said enough. After a moment, the bard pulled back, looking up at her with reddened eyes.
"Do you really think so?"
"I know so."
"But," Gab shook her head. "Why did you leave me there, floundering for something to say? If you knew what he needed to hear, why didn't you just tell him? I felt so, lost!"
"Because, even though I knew the kind of thing he needed to hear, I knew that I didn't have the right words. I didn't know what to say to him. But you... you did. Instinctively, you came up with exactly the right way to approach him." Xena smiled.
"That's your gift. Besides, even if I'd known what to tell him, he wouldn't have listened to me. You saw how he felt about my past. Anything I said to him would have bounced right off. I'm too easy a target, too good a resting place for that hate. But he can't hate you, not the same way. There's nothing to blame you for."
"Well," Gabrielle called up a mock growl, wiping away traces of tears. "Warn me next time you intend to leave me to sort things out, okay?"
"All right. I promise."
And as the green shadows fell around the twined figures, a small
bird sang. Deep in the heart of the wood, once more, there was
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