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The Bards Song
by Martin Tapparo
(occasionally known as Satachrist)
Foreword, Forewarning and Disclaimer (three in one):
Hello, dear reader. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your interest in my tale. However, there are some things that have to be said before you can enjoy the doubtful pleasure of reading this story of mine.
I think I should mention that this is my first attempt at fan fiction, so do not expect expertise. Im still a beginner and the story will reflect that. On the other hand this could be quite refreshing.
English is a foreign language for me and Im still faaaar from mastering it in any sense. Well, even this could prove to be quite refreshing though.
The story itself is rather untypical. Thats a fact and in its essence thats neither good nor bad. In fact it depends entirely on you.
However, theres violence and bloodshed. Consider yourself warned.
Maybe you should know that there is some sort of subtext contained here. No, nothing pornographic or anything, not much to worry about really. It just had to be said.
Oh yeah, and the usual. Of course, as everyone knows, I cannot, will not and dare not make any claims concerning Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Callisto, Autolycus and the rest of the bunch. Renaissance Pictures and MCA Television would probably be very enthusiastic to tell you why.
Balor, Cian, Manannaun, Eleith, Lugh, the harp and the whole story of Cians quest belong to the mythology of the Celts, to be exact: the Irish. I didnt take that too seriously though, for I swapped it all around a bit to better fit the story.
Galen, Leonder, the appearance of the harp and most remaining characters are my own invention. Pooh, this should complete the list. If I forgot something Im sorry. Only human. Even if some of my friends told you otherwise.
Time index: indefinite. Maybe it never happened.
Last not least the music:
"The Bards Song" (was slightly altered to fit the theme)
If you liked, hated or what-ever-ed the story, please e-mail me: email@example.com
Now, like so many stories before our tale starts at the darkest time of the day, somewhere in Greece...
The Bards Song
|Chapter I to III||Chapter IV to VI|
Chapter I: The Battle Never Fought
A bolt of lighting turned the warm and peaceful night for one moment into a dreadful reflection of hell. Then it was dark again. The figure of a handsome young man of tall stature with broad shoulders and strong muscular limbs moved through the sleeping shadows. As his face gazed up at the full moon for one second, one could see that his face was beardless and his skin fair, almost pale. The lunar light painted his long flowing hair almost white and let his eyes appear as green as the forest. The eyes of a dreamer...
He moved on, stalking through the woods as fast as he could dare without being too noisy. There was no question that it would find him, sooner or later. It was impossible to escape a god. The young man stopped behind a giant bush. He knew that nothing natural could hide him from the eyes of this monster, he did not even try. He would make his last stand here and now. He was tired of running.
With utmost care he opened his bag and drew out a harp. It was a beautiful instrument, made of light wood and ornamented with strange symbols arranged into a sign of ancient power, and strings sparkling like stars. Although it was completely undamaged, one could see that it had to be very old. It was his dearest and most precious treasure. In his hands it could be turned into an artefact of healing or destruction. It was now time to use it.
Another flash split the sky accompanied by a growl that sounded like thunder. It was near. The young man stood up and closed his eyes, preparing himself for the fight. When he could feel the rumbling of heavy footsteps in his knees he stepped out of the bushes, to face his terrible enemy.
The thing was close to twice his size. His skin was black and red and looked like it had been burned. His hands were formed like claws, making any other weapon appear ridiculous in comparison. Yet his most powerful weapon was his gaze. For although one of his eyes looked rather normal, the other was huge and swollen. If you looked carefully you could see a small ray of light emerging from the closed lid.
So they stood in front of each other. Neither of them had anything to say to the other. Everything had been said. The time of battle was here.
The huge eye opened and a ray of white flame burned into the direction of the young man, turning everything that stood in its way into smoking ashes. But the young man was already gone. From another direction a voice accompanied by the sweet sound of a harp could be heard. Together they formed the melody for a simple but effective song.
A few steps behind the monster a tree burst and fell into his back. The tree broke in three pieces but the monster merely turned his head towards the direction from which the voice had come. With his normal eye he intensely searched his surroundings. Again a melody invaded the woods. This time it was deeper and more organic.
The giant felt the ground giving way beneath him. The hole would have swallowed him, had his hands not instinctively taken hold in the bare Earth. Mobilising some of his unnatural strength he pulled himself out of the hole.
As he stood there, his body still not showing a wound, he threw back his head and laughed. It was a horrible noise that echoed through the trees and made all of Earths children flee in fear. It was an impressive display of might and he was well aware of that. No one, least of all a mortal human being could stand against this ultimate authority.
As the laughter slowly died down, a new sound began to fill the air. Its notes were smooth and soft, its melody dark and brooding. Black mist began to emanate from the darkness, consuming every light in its vicinity. Moon and stars vanished. Suddenly the giant understood.
With panic blazing in his eye he desperately tried to escape the mist but in vain. It had already entirely surrounded him. His huge eye opened and a bolt of light devastated the Earth around him. It was useless. No light on Earth was strong enough for this kind of darkness. The giant could feel his flesh become weak and his mind become sleepy. He sent another bolt into the night but with no effect. His next growl was a cry of agony and embarrassment. He had been tricked! By a human!
A movement in the corner of his eye made him pause. His arm reached out into the dark and grabbed a familiar figure.
The music stopped.
The giant laughed again.
The young man could taste his blood in his mouth as the claws were slowly breaking his body. He had failed. He had not been careful enough. All the planning and the preparation were for naught. And there would not be a second chance. But he would not let it end like this! There was still enough time for one last song. And with his rips piercing his lungs, lifting the pain up to unbearable levels, the bard sang his last song, laying a terrible curse onto both, the god and himself.
And both were gone the next morning, leaving only an area of burned earth and a harp.
101 years later
"What do you mean by untalented? You havent even heard me! Perhaps Im not as good as you but thats only because I havent had enough practice!"
"Gabrielle, I did not say I dont want to hear you sing, I just dont want to hear you now."
Xena was not in the mood for a quarrel about musical qualities. The recent news she received from the last group of wanderers they had met on the road had been quite disturbing...and irritating. Apparently whole villages simply vanished together with its inhabitants, leaving only circles of burned earth. Up to now seven entire villages were missing. And it all concentrated in this area. Since sunrise they had been searching for clues. Still there were no results in sight.
"Not now, not now. Thats what you say all the time. Look Xena, youre quite good. Why dont you give me lessons?"
"Cause the last time I gave you a lesson, it resulted in you about killing me."
Gabrielle looked perplexed. "But those were fighting lessons. And apart from that it was Callisto in your body, not you. I am asking you to give me lessons in singing."
"Considering both types of demises, Id prefer death by sword."
"Very funny, extremely funny. You know Xena, your attempts at humour are as pitiable as ever."
"Better than your attempts at singing, thats for sure."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and opened her mouth.
"Dont!" Xena said at once with played fear in her voice. It nevertheless sounded very convincing. "Please?" she added pleadingly.
"Would you mind saying that again while kneeling tied and naked in front of me?"
An evil glance into Gabrielles direction.
"Hey, I was just kidding. Are you the only one whos allowed to do jokes here?"
"Pervert," said Xena smilingly and just loud enough for Gabrielle to hear.
"I heard that!"
"Thats what I intended."
A friendly quarrel every day... She needed this. It formed a counterweight to this otherwise grim situation.
"What exactly are we looking for?" asked her companion.
"I dont know," responded the warrior, "but Im determined to find it."
She stopped at the line were the grass turned into black earth and kneeled down. She rubbed a small amount of sand between her fingers. It was still hot.
"Looks like this area had been burned down," remarked Gabrielle.
"Yes," said her friend, "and it happened less than four hours ago. Were getting closer."
"Closer to what?" asked Gabrielle.
"Ill tell you when I know."
The bard examined the other side of the spot.
"Xena, what do you think has happened to all these people? Its like they all vanished from the face of the earth. How can this be possible? Vanishing without a trace."
"They left a trace. These footprints leading away from the circle are fresh Gabrielle get down!"
A spear passed Gabrielle only a few inches above her head. Xena drew her sword, ready to defend herself against the attackers. There were five of them. Their looks were strange enough. Their skins were black and blistered and their eyes were white like the sun. They attacked without a sound and used primitive wooden sticks and their bare hands as weapons. But it would be a mistake to underestimate their strength. They were dangerous.
All right, perhaps Gabrielle was injured, probably unconscious. Xena would have to do this fight alone, and in a hurry.
Gabrielle had not heard her. She felt like she was dreaming. In her dream she could see a light shining in the grass, only a few feet before her. Her vision was blurred, but in dreams this is not unusual. The white satin rays were caressing the wet grass, finding their ways through the natural labyrinth like ghosts. Gabrielle could watch them approaching, their soft voices were calling for her. Inviting her to come closer, closer... So she slowly crawled towards the light, her senses fixed on that certain point. She heard neither the worried voice of her friend calling her name, nor the sound of the metal against wood. And she was getting nearer. The light became more and more distinctive, and when she was close enough she saw that it had the form of an instrument, a wanderer-harp to be exact. Now, the structure of this harp was certainly very unusual, even exotic. For what she knew, it was definitely not Greek. However, it was the most beautiful instrument she had ever beheld in her life. The ornaments displayed strange symbols and the arms were made of radiant light wood. It was like the harp had an aura of its own, like it was alive. As she touched it she could feel that it was warm like a human body and she could sense a pounding like a heartbeat in her palm. The darker patterns of the wood had the configuration of blood-vessels, and it was as if blood was rushing through them. She picked it up from the ground and it was like touching the skin of a human being. She almost blushed.
Gabrielle was suddenly aware of a hand on her right shoulder. If it had been a dream, she was now waking up. But it had not been a dream. She was awake and she was still holding the harp in her arms. A wave of disorientation flooded her mind, letting her almost lose consciousness.
"Gabrielle, are you all right? Gabrielle!"
She opened her eyes again and looked up to her friend who kneeled before her. It was obvious that Xena was worried.
"Ehm, I dont know. I...," she looked down a the harp in her hands. "Yes, I am...o.k....really."
Xena seemed to be relieved. With one quick glance she scanned the area and finally let her eyes rest again on her friend.
"The spear probably hit you on the head. You didnt hear my shouts, did you?"
The bard looked confused. Her mind was still trying to get a grip on the reality around her.
"No...I did not hear you. What happened?"
"We were assaulted by five men, if you want to call them that. They had sticks as weapons and no armour, two of them fought barehanded. They had severe burns all over their body but paid no attention to the pain, although it must have been excruciating. They simply surfaced, from one moment to the other they were here. And after I defeated them they vanished in the same way, without a trace."
Gabrielle thought about this.
"Their eyes were white and their whole appearance was evidently supernatural. I believe that some evil power is at work here."
"Possible," said Xena. "But this doesnt look like him at all. In fact, it is stranger than anything Ive ever seen."
Chapter II: The Dreaming
They prepared themselves for the night. The fire in front of them had almost died down and Xena was busy finding suitable wood to keep it going. She insisted on keeping guard for the first half of the night. Gabrielle lay on her blanket, her eyes were gazing at the stars. She could watch her mind drifting away into another world, stepping sideways. The blanket under her body, the stars above her, everything was so far away...
The dry sound of breaking wood brought her back to reality. It was a very unpleasant sensation. Xena arranged the small branches into the pattern of a gate and set it on fire. A warm tongue gently stroke Gabrielles bare arms.
"Thats nice," she purred.
That typical ironic smile played on Xenas lips. "Im pleased to hear that you are satisfied and comforted, my lady."
Gabrielle felt the harp beside her and ran her fingers down its arms. She tapped its pulse with her fingertips and watched with great fascination.
"You still havent told me where you found it," said Xena, eyeing the harp suspiciously.
"It was lying in the field," Gabrielle explained without taking the eyes off the harp. "I saw it shine from the distance. I knew that I had to pick it up. It was like it was calling me, calling my name."
"Calling Gabrielle, Gabrielle, come here and get me?" said Xena, trying to lift the general mood...and failing miserably.
"Yes," Gabrielle replied. It was evident that she meant what she said.
"Youre sure your heads ok?"
"Xena, this is very serious. Dont you understand? It was waiting for me. I know it. I saw it lying there, untouched, unblemished. How is that possible?"
"Hmm." Xena examined the instrument with her critical sight. It looked vaguely familiar. Just where had she seen those shapes before? No, not now...
"So you found it in a field, waiting for you. Be happy. This is not an every day event. We will research the matter as soon as our business here is finished. Promise. Just do me a favour and dont play it while Im in earshot."
The bards eyes narrowed. "That was a joke. I mean, it was supposed to be one, right?"
Gabrielle shook her head and sighed.
"Xena, would you do something for me?"
"Of course. Anything you want."
"Stick to your weapons and leave the word acrobatics to me, will you?"
"Just as you wish, my lady. Im bowing before your wisdom, my lady. Is there anything else, my lady?"
"No. You may go now. Ill call you when your service is needed."
"Youre overdoing it. Keep in mind that Im one of the most terrible warriors in existence."
"You want me to fetch my staff?"
Xena sat down beside Gabrielle and kissed the smile off her face. Safe tonight. There will be enough time for dark thoughts tomorrow.
For a while they sat like this. One leaned against the other, viewing the dance of the flames. But Gabrielle could not stop thinking about the harp.
Finally she turned her head to the warrior princess. "Xena, its warm like human skin and its beating as if it had a heart. Can a harp have a heart? Come, touch it. Do you feel it?"
Xena bent over and touched the instrument. Her expression was very serious. "I feel nothing."
"But you have to, its there, here," Gabrielle uttered, leading Xenas hand to the place where the pulse was most distinctive. Xenas expression did not change.
"Nothing. It is simple cold wood. A very fine instrument nonetheless. You can be glad to have found it."
Gabrielle did not know what to say. How could it be possible that she did not feel anything? The heartbeat was there... Tomorrow. She would think about this tomorrow. She was too tired now. It had been a long day. She would have a good nights rest and think about it tomorrow.
Her friend was again busy with the fire. After watching her for a while Gabrielle simply had to say something.
"Where did you get the wood?" she asked with unconcealed disinterest.
"This place was once a forest. Some of the trees are still living. Most have withered away though after the biggest of them had been cut down to make place for the fields. The farmers settled down and built a small village, over there where we found the black circle. Im not sure how..."
Her eyes wandered to the place were Gabrielle lay and she saw that her friend was already soundly asleep. Her right arm was locked around the harp like around a lover. Xena was not content with the course of events. Gabrielles behaviour was exceedingly peculiar. Saying that this instrument was alive. She was probably still suffering from that head wound the spear had dealt her this afternoon, although there was no wound visible. Well, she would worry about this tomorrow. For now Gabrielle was sleeping, and as long as she was sleeping she would not come to harm. Tomorrow they would see what to do further.
Xena sat down and watched the fire burn.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes she knew she was dreaming. A picturesque forest was surrounding her, letting the night appear more colourful than the day. The sky was lit by the crystal light of stars. The moon above her was full and of an unnaturally grand size. Around her the trees whispered among themselves although it would have been impossible to define the sound. But none of this was scaring her.
Gabrielle stood up and looked around. Xena was not there, meaning that she had not yet entered the dream world, however, Gabrielle could feel that she was not alone. She suddenly realised that she was still holding the harp in her arms. Beholding the instrument she saw that its aura was brighter than ever. It shone with the light of the stars and the strings reflected the moons rays, absorbing them and being absorbed by them at the same time.
After looking at it for a while, Gabrielle began to understand a meaningful truth. The harp did not belong in her world, it belonged in this world, into the dreaming. That was why no one else found it until now. It had never been there. But how did she find it then? Her vision had become blurred and she had experienced a dreamlike sensation before she first beheld the harp. Had her mind been crossing over somehow? But how? And why? If there were any answers to these riddles she would surely find them here, in the dreams.
Gathering her courage and her natural curiosity Gabrielle stepped toward the forest. She was positive she had to begin her search there. Somehow the trees parted as if to make way for her.
Gabrielle walked on. This path had to lead somewhere. With the harp held tight to her breast she began to explore the depths of the fantastic wood. The colours the trees exhibited became gradually more unnatural, and the eerie green tones began to mix with flaming red and deepest blue. She was delving deeper into the dreaming.
The path in front of her was now clearly visible, yet Gabrielle knew that it ceased to exist as soon as she passed it, so she did not look behind her but kept on moving forward.
From one moment to the other the man was standing before her. She could not recall how he got there, he simply was. He was tall and broad-shouldered with strong arms and a trained body. His eyes were the colour of the forest and his hair shone like the moon. It was impossible to guess his age but Gabrielle had to presume that he was still young although older than herself. He looked at her with a dreamlike expression, the kind a poet might give to the source of his inspiration. No menace was enclosed in his face that appeared burdened with sorrow and wisdom.
For a minute (or longer; who can say how long a dream-minute is?) she could do nothing but stare at him in amazement. Then he spoke:
"You have to be Gabrielle. I was expecting you. Come. There are some things I have to show you."
He turned around and began to walk down another path with slow steps.
Then she closed her mouth and followed. It was difficult to define why he made such a great impression on her. His voice was unusually warm and resonant and he had a strange foreign accent. After a while she decided that it had to be his sheer presence enhanced by the atmosphere of this dream forest. However, she was now absolutely certain that this was not a normal dream.
She hurried her steps to catch up with the young man. When she grabbed his shoulder he stopped and turned around smoothly. Gabrielle did not have her patient day, she wanted some answers.
"Who are you? Why am I here? What will you do with me?"
The young man smiled. "Oh, these are a lot of questions. One after the other. I am Galen and you are here because it is your destiny to be here. And I will not do anything with you if you do not wish it. For now I will show you what this place is. I think you are interested in learning this."
"This is the dreaming," Gabrielle said. "It is a place in the dreams."
"Yes. But this place is very special. You could call it my private niche in the dream world. Few things or persons dare to come here uninvited. It is my personal small realm barely touched by the rest of the dreaming." The young man continued his way.
"What do you mean? I dont understand!"
"You will. In due time."
"Where did you get the Typical-Mysterious-Man-Vocabulary-Book? I thought it was out of print by now."
"Listen. Just tell me what this is about. Leave out the enigmatic part."
Galen smiled. "Funny to hear those kind of words from your mouth. I thought you would be a poet. Very well. This realm is mine. It lies beyond Morpheus planes yet you can reach them if you follow the path. It is my home and it succumbs to my will. My imagination and my memory created everything that you can see. Is that clear enough for you?"
"Yes. I suppose. Thank you. Sorry, I guess Ive been rather impolite. Its been a very hard day. Would you mind telling me how you got here in the first place? I mean, youre not just here on vacation, are you?"
With his right arm the man pushed away a tree branch revealing a small plane behind it.
"Observe," he said.
In a cloudy whirl of images Gabrielle saw a man arriving at the coast of Greece, seeking something, hunting a monster, a one-eyed gigantic monster, fierce with hate and bloodlust, a flash blinded her eyes, a dark night, a fight fought with unusual weapons, a collage of melodies and provoked emotions, a terrible failure and a curse. Then it was all over. Gabrielle could not recount the minutes or hours it took but on the other hand time plays only a minor role in those realms.
She found herself lying on the ground, sweating all over, her hands filled with earth.
"Now its my turn to excuse myself. Please forgive me, and let me help you." He offered her his hand. When she was up again she held his arm until the world stopped shaking again.
"I did not consider the fragility of the human mind. It must have been a very disorientating sensation. Youre by far too weak to experience this amount of information at once."
"No more compliments or Im going to feel flattered," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
Then she understood suddenly.
"That warrior," she said, "that was you."
The man let the branch move back into its place. He looked at her now with a stern face. The images had recalled memories that were seemingly painful to him. His eyes were gleaming with grief.
"I am not a warrior. I am a bard. Some say that I was the greatest bard of my age."
"I wish someone would say that of me," remarked Gabrielle lowly and regretted it the moment the words left her mouth. He was serious.
"My country lies in the far north. It is a beautiful island, filled with green forests and proud mountains, the highlands. My race is called the Aes Sidhe. I came to this country over one hundred years ago."
"You saw why. You saw him. Balor. A god among men, the dark side of the light, the destroyer. It was our failure that let him escape his prison and flee to this country. Someone had to stop him, and I was selected for the task. If I failed he would have the whole land burned down to ashes and all inhabitants enslaved."
"The circles of burned earth we found at the places where the villages should have been."
Galen nodded. "It was his evil eye. It destroys everything he looks at."
"You mean his looks can kill."
"What about the villagers?" Gabrielle was almost afraid to ask. Sometimes the truth is not what youd like to hear.
"He probably turned them into his minions. Servants of death. Balor burns their hearts and souls to make them obedient. Then he gives their outsides the look of their insides to destroy their will. The destructive light of their master can be seen in their eyes. The lucky ones die during the process.
Gabrielle swallowed. "And those who survive?"
"Wretched creatures. They follow every wish of their master to the word. They possess neither conscience, nor mercy...nor life."
Images of the battle passed Gabrielles mind. She had to ask him.
"What happened? What happened back then?"
"I had tracked him down that night," the bard told her. "At night his powers diminish. He is the destructive side of the light. Darkness is his nemesis. I summoned the darkness through one of my songs, so I could bind his spirit and send him back. But I was incautious and he caught me. I failed."
He looked down. Gabrielle thought of something to say, to comfort him.
"I am sure you did your best. It was not your fault."
"It was my fault," Galen said securely. "But there was just enough time to lay a curse unto me and Balor. I was gone but he would lie dormant for exactly one hundred and one year. I thought it would give me enough time to find another bard who could finish the task I was too minor to accomplish. The years have passed but I finally found someone."
At least five moments went by (and thereby greeting the other moments they knew from work) before the subtle message got through to her.
"Me?" Gabrielle exclaimed, genuinely surprised. "Why me?"
Galen pointed at the item in her arm. "You found her. That is the sign that you are the right one. The harp remained hidden in the dreaming until destiny would lead the right one here to cross her path. You saw her, did you not?"
Looking down at the instrument Gabrielle noticed that it exactly fitted the curve of her arm.
"She is yours?"
"Yes. It is a very special instrument, the greatest heritage of my people. The gods brought her to us and only the best of all bards would be worthy and able to play her. It is a magic item, made at the dawn of time by non-human hands. The powers sleeping in her are impossible to guess.
"When the Tuatha De Danann, our race of gods, came to my country they brought five gifts with them. The harp of Dagda was one of those gifts. It made him the ruler of human souls.
For now she shall be your instrument. You are destined to use her."
"But...but...I..." Gabrielle stammered. She knew she did, but she just could not help it. "Look, Im not a bard of any importance or even worth notice. I am still a beginner. And...and a harp...I dont even know how to play it...and I cant sing. Even Xena says so and shes my best friend..."
"I will teach you." Galen said calmly. But Gabrielle could still not accept the situation.
"Why...why dont you finish it? I mean I could help you and Xena could come too, but you should really do this bard stuff. Youre better than me..."
His face became serious again. "You did not understand, Gabrielle. I am dead. I died the night I fought Balor. He was my doom. I used the harp to escape death and flee into the dreams but this is only temporary. As soon as Balor is back in his tomb I will go to the underworld where I belong. I need you. I need you to fight in my stead. Balor has to be defeated or he will enslave your country and burn down everything that is alive."
Her head hurt. She did not know that ones head could hurt in dreams.
"Well, I have to sleep on that..." She reflected on what she just said, shook her head and started again. "All right, I will do it. When do we begin?"
"Not now. The sun will rise in a few minutes. You have to go," said Galen.
Gabrielle looked down at the instrument in her arm and stroked it. "What about the harp?"
"Keep her. My life and my soul are contained in this harp."
She looked into his eyes and understood. "Your heart...your heart beats in her."
Galen smiled. "Good-bye, young bard. Tomorrow we will meet again."
She could feel the light touching her face. Gabrielle blinked and smiled back at the sun. Every morning is a new beginning, a new chance to master your life. Make every morning your best. Perhaps she should write that down. Well, she would not have even dreamed of...the dream!
The muscles of her stomach tensed, forcing her into sitting position. She could see it so clearly now; the forest, the stars, the bard...Galen, Balor, the destroyer. Suddenly the light of the sun disturbed her, hissing and spitting into her face. The dark side of the light...
"Gabrielle, whats wrong?"
She was breathing rapidly, hyperventilating. The pictures hit her, one after the other. Inwardly she cried for them to stop. Too strong... They twined themselves around her like hissing serpents, spitting their poison into her mind. Instinctively her hand lashed out and grasped the item lying there. She pulled the harp close to her and the visions began to fade...slowly. The harmonic beating against her breast was soothing and calming. Her own heart soon began to join into the rhythm. She could feel herself calming down.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes the first thing she saw was her friend looking truly concerned. One hand was gently squeezing her shoulder. Involuntarily she had to smile. This was surely the first time she saw Xena almost helpless.
"Say something, Gabrielle...whats wrong?"
"Im ok," Gabrielle responded. "Just a bit...I had such a strange dream. This bard... the god...Xena we have to stop him!"
"Stop who?" She looked even more worried than before, and certainly more puzzled.
"This monster... he called it Balor. He is alive and hes responsible for the villages..."
"Gabrielle, I dont understand a word youre saying. I really want to know what you saw but you have to tell me one thing after the other. Now, who is this monster you keep mentioning?"
Yes, stay calm, she told herself. You dont sound even the least bit believable if you continue babbling like a little child.
"There was this man, Galen, hes a bard, or he was a bard one hundred years ago. And he fought against a god called Balor. He was able to curse him before he died but now Balor has returned and again threatens our lives." Gabrielle knew how all this sounded. Damn, she could not even believe it herself. It was so far away now...
"Listen to yourself. Bards, monsters, gods, curses...you had a nightmare, Gabrielle." Xena was in a better mood now. This was sure ground for her.
"But Xena, it was so..."
"Real? Dreadful? Horrific?" Xena interrupted.
With a mildly surprised expression and her mouth half open the young bard tried to hide her astonishment.
"Well, this is how all my dreams are, every single night. Theyre all horrible and theyre all very real. They torture me while Im asleep but they are only dreams. Just dreams. You had a nightmare."
"No wonder that you spend most of your time kicking everyones butt. Dreams like this can really mess up your whole day."
Xena smiled, leaned closer to her friend and kissed her on the forehead. "You will forget it."
Perhaps she was right. Just a weird dream, nothing more. Yes... Why the hades did she have such a hard time believing it?
They followed the trace from the lost village. Neither of them had any idea where it would finally lead them. But after all that was the interesting part.
The sky looked like a flying ocean above their heads. The lack of clouds gave the sun all the strength it needed to cast its flames upon Earth and her diminutive inhabitants. No mercy for the weak. The temperature was somewhere near boiling point. Small drops of sweat glistened on Xenas skin as she lead her horse Argo down the dirty path that winded down the hill. But Gabrielle did not see her. Her eyes were focused inside.
The face of the young man was again quite vividly roaming her memories. The sad face, the white hair, the noble bearing... She tried to hold fast to this image to not see its nightmarish counterparts again. The tall trees that guarded the road reminded her of the surreal forest in her dream. Was it her dream at all?
She could hear Xena talking with someone.
"...yes, thank you. Are you sure you have enough water? Farewell then."
A family of four clad in grey rags passed Gabrielle as she looked up. What were they saying? Water. Yes, she needed some water now. She filled her mouth with the warm liquid, closed her eyes and swallowed. Better. She stepped beside her friend.
"What were you talking about?"
Xena did not even look at her.
"Werent you listening?" she asked.
"No, Ive been...occupied. Thinking. You know what that is, dont you?"
A slight smile passed Xenas lips.
"Well, they said that if we continue to follow this path, we will eventually end up in a small village called Melana."
"Why are they leaving it?"
"Theyre not. These people were inhabitants of a neighbour village. But it is deserted now. Like every other village in its vicinity."
"You mean they vanished, too?"
"No. I rather get the impression they dont want to be near Melana. They said that it is a bad place. Haunted."
"Is it deserted, too?"
"No. Its the only village in this area that is still inhabited."
"I dont know. If we can trust the word of the old man, by demons."
"Demons? You mean the kind that reside in Tartarus?"
"Apparently not. He said that they were originally humans. But then they turned into demons."
"Did he say how?"
"And you believe him?"
"Theres no need for belief. We will see it ourselves. Tomorrow we will be there."
No need for belief. Gabrielle could feel it. They were coming closer.
This time Gabrielle was not surprised to see the magic forest. And she was not surprised to see Galen waiting for her. She remembered the last night now. She wondered how she could have forgotten it.
"Hello. Uhm. You know, my friend does not believe that you exist."
"Do you believe it?"
Gabrielle looked at him very closely. Then she was embarrassed for doing it.
"Of course I do. I mean, youre standing right in front of me, arent you?"
She now saw that she spoke to pure air. Her eyes widened in disbelief before she heard his voice behind her.
"Think about it again, Gabrielle. Just because Im here, doesnt mean that Im real."
She turned around to face him.
"But you are. You..."
Behind her. Again.
"Listen, this is not funny. It is not easy to believe you when youre constantly switching places."
His face was serious when he spoke.
"But that is exactly the point. You cant believe your senses now. You have to believe me. Do you understand?"
Strangely enough she did. Her head indicated her determination.
"Good. Then we shall begin."
"I have brought your instrument," she said and took the harp from her back.
"For now it is yours, Gabrielle. And it is more than an instrument."
"Well, what is it then?"
"Anything you want," said the bard. "Her powers are incredible even for me to grasp. She will become a part of you and you will become a part of her. You have to treat her like a lover, not like an item."
Gabrielle gazed at the harp. It was as if the harp was returning her gaze... expectantly.
"I understand," she said and breathed deeply. "Im ready now."
Galen nodded. His hand gestured to a place under a giant tree. Dry moss covered the ground like a carpet and the moon shone partly through the leaves, leaving pale delicate patterns on the surface. She looked at it more closely, running her hand up and down he bark.
"What kind of tree is this?"
"It is an oak. They are the greatest trees of my home country."
"It looks comfortable. Let us sit down and begin."
And that was what they did.
In this night the dreams of many people where filled with images of music, green leaves and a couple who sat under a tree and sang together. Those who awoke the next morning and still remembered the dream, wondered whether they were idealising their youth as so many grown-ups do. Their mind would focus on the face of the young woman, her smile and laughter like sparkling raindrops in the summer sun and the endless eyes of the young man who taught her the art of music. At the same moment they were certain that it was not their dream, not their youth but they would not think about this too much for the beauty and serenity of the picture was enough to make them forget their woes for now. They would go out and wander the far hills, simply to hear the breath of the wind and feel the touch of the sun. They would leave everything behind them to spend a few hours away from the cruel life they know, to experience some moments of their forgotten years.
"I cant do it," Gabrielle said and stood up. She had just lost the last drop of patience she had left.
Galen sat there and watched her like a teacher would watch his young pupil who said that she would never touch a book again in her life.
"Gabrielle, youre doing very well. Why dont you try again? It is easier than you think."
The young bard-in-training shook her head and displayed her trademarked its-no-use-smile.
"This isnt working. Im a storyteller, not a musician. I never laid hands on an instrument before."
"But she likes you," Galen said, stroking the harp in his lap. "She enjoys your touch. You can play her if you really want to. She feels comfortable in your hands."
"This is ridiculous. How can a harp feel comfortable? Is that a poetic expression?"
She knelt down and let her fingertips glided over the wooden surface. A pleasant humming went through the harp. Gabrielle was reminded of a purring cat. Taking a deep breath she sat down again and took the harp into her hands. Her teacher smiled sympathetically.
"Well? You want to try again?"
Gabrielle nodded and touched the strings, gently. For an instant the moon shone more brightly than before, illuminating the instrument with its white radiance. Twin stars looked at Gabrielles face, trying to read her expression. Finally she returned Galens gaze. When their eyes met something strange happened. The surroundings suddenly turned dark and for one moment their eyes were everything that existed, that ever existed. At once the entire universe was reduced to the light of two green twin mirrors reflecting each other. This light was thrown back and forth between its two sources, amplifying with every reflection.
The moon did not know what to do, so it discretely turned away and grinned, waiting for the moment of intimacy to pass. Oh the young, it thought and tried to remember with some difficulty the days when it had been young itself; so long ago. When the colours returned to the trees it dared to peer down again. Both were seated as they were before. But that did not need to mean anything. Nothing was certain in the dreaming.
Then Gabrielle closed her eyes, embraced the harp and began to play anew. This time the melody filled the whole forest, ascended to the skies and penetrated every heart in the dreams. Her voice bathed the night in visions of romance and wonder, so that even the sleeping flowers unfolded to hear her mild words, and the beasts of the darkness stood still and wept over so much beauty. And in this night many people would dream of a song, a haunting melody that encircled them in their sleep, yet none of them could remember it when they awoke. They could still recall how safe they felt with their eyes closed but the melody was forever lost.
"Did I do this?" Gabrielle finally asked. Galen nodded. "But...but how? I mean I cant sing like this."
"Let your heart lead your voice, Gabrielle," said Galen. "Your heart created this."
"But it is impossible! My voice is untrained...and I dont know a thing about singing."
"Yet your heart does. The dreams show you how you should sing. They make your inside visible to the world. You have the soul of a musician, Gabrielle, and the dreams know that."
"So I wont be able to sing like that when Im awake?" she asked almost pleadingly.
"No. At least not yet. You have a long way to go. I will show you your way as well as I can but you nevertheless have to walk it yourself. No one can do that for you."
"Yeah, the usual," she said. A slight trace of disappointment tainted her tone. "Well, I guess I will still have to practice a lot, huh?"
"Yes. Probably. Dont be dejected. You have the talent, we just have to find a way to mobilise it."
"Unfortunately we dont have much time."
"But we have her," Galen said and pointed at the harp in Gabrielles arms. "She will help you. She loves you already, otherwise you would not have been able to create such melodies. We will make it. We have to."
Gabrielle faced him. Her hand searched for his and held it.
"Galen, I want you to know that I am so very glad that you helped me with this."
Galen laughed silently. "You seem to forget that it was me who asked you for help."
"That is true but," Gabrielle looked at the harp "it was you who taught me how to create music. I am grateful for this experience...and for you."
She leaned closer to him, touching his bare arm.
Gabrielle blinked. What was she doing?
"Ahm, Im sorry. I dont know why..."
"The dreaming," Galen said. "It is still filled with the essence of your song."
With a smile he drew close to her and kissed her lips.
"Or maybe it is just us."
Gabrielle beheld his face. And she kissed him passionately, her arms crossed behind his neck, his hands caressing her back. The morning after the night a young man of unknown heritage would suddenly feel the urge to write poetry, about romantic, about roses, about two lovers kissing in the moonlight. Funnily enough he would do this while sitting under a tree. And that is how he would do it for the rest of his life.
Half asleep, half awake she lay in his arms, watching the forest as it constantly changed its colours while adapting to the moonlight. His hand went through her shining hair.
"Galen," she said. "Will you really go to the underworld when this is all finished?"
"Yes. These are the rules."
"There are always rules," Gabrielle concluded. "But wouldnt it be possible for you to stay in the dreaming. In my dreams?" she added with a smile.
Galen looked at her with a thoughtful expression.
"Yes," he said at last. "Yes, I think it would be possible. I would leave this realm and reside in your sleeping mind from then on until you die."
"Will you do it?" she asked. "Will you stay with me while Im sleeping?"
"Is this what you want?"
His fingertips caressed her golden cheeks.
"Very well," he said. "When this is over I shall become a part of your dreams. To be honest I dont think that there ever existed a more wonderful thought. Thank you."
"Youre welcome. In my dreams," Gabrielle whispered and kissed him.
The whole next day was spent exclusively in Argos back. The trees began to get taller the closer they got to their destination. The entire surrounding assumed a darker and somehow more menacing form. Once it even appeared in the form of a highwayman but that matter was no more than a nuisance and settled in a few seconds ("Who are you? Where do you think youre going? Argh!" "Xena. This way. Sorry."). The earth beneath their feet (or beneath Argos hooves) turned invariably black. Burned. After a few miles even the grass of the steppe refused to grow. Barren land lay before them.
So Gabrielle seized the opportunity and practised her at harp. Xena did not fail to notice that it did definitely not sound like mere tinkling.
"Didnt I say that you should not play it in my presence?"
"Thats what you said."
"Well, forget it. I actually have started to like it. You never told me that you could play the harp. Where did you learn it?"
"In my dreams."
"Oh. Am I right when I presume that you do not intend to get more specific on this matter?"
"Fine. Were not in our talkative mood today, are we?"
"So...hm...great. You know what? Argos a better travelling companion than you."
"I got it."
"Why do you refuse to sing in public?"
"Stop it. Tell me. Why did I never hear you sing except when youre alone."
"I dont want others to see what my inside looks like."
Gabrielle remained silent.
"When I sing, my heart takes over and I become vulnerable. Do you understand?"
Gabrielle said nothing.
"Thats not exactly what you wanted to hear, huh?"
"No. I mean yes, it truly was what I wanted to hear. You cant estimate how much I wanted to hear that from you. "
When the night cast its everlasting shadow over the world they finally reached the village Melana. Both were extremely surprised if not shocked by what they saw.
"But its absolutely ordinary," exclaimed Gabrielle.
Xenas eyes narrowed. Looks could deceive, that was what the hair at the back of her neck told her. Something was terribly wrong here. The odd feeling was so distinctively present that she could almost throw her chakram at it and expect to hit it.
"We have no choice. Well go down and take a good look. If any trouble gets in the way, well withdraw first, make a plan and return. No risk, no heroism. Ready?"
They both dismounted and silently approached the village. After three minutes they had reached the outer limits. Nothing happened.
With two short hand signals Xena told Gabrielle to turn left, patrol the area and return in ten minutes. She would go right.
Xena watched her friend melt into the shadows and then turned to spy out her part. She has learned so much in such a short time, Xena thought. Theres really no reason to be worried. She would probably be able to easily make it on her own, no doubt. Still Xena could not suppress a shudder when Gabrielle was out of sight.
She did not need more than a few minutes to understand that all the houses were still inhabited. If they were demons they had to be very corporal. Xena could smell fresh food and molten wax inside. Nothing unusual. In fact it was all too usual. She didnt like it one bit.
"Hey, what are you doing there?"
"Ah well, sir, I..."
The sword leaped into her hand before she could even think about it, and her feet covered the distance to her friend without her knowledge.
A band of six men surrounded Gabrielle like a dark half moon, slowly drawing in. Both of her arms were in height of her shoulders, diplomatic position (she was smart enough not to start a fight right there), and Xena could see from her face that her voice had slipped into a friendly lets-talk-about-it mode. The best thing she could do, the warrior thought. Action!
Xena jumped, sword in hand, over the heads of two men right into the circle. A second ago she had decided that it was not the appropriate time for her trademarked yell. It would only attract more foes. These people did not know who they were dealing with, and she didnt feel like giving a demonstration of it now. At the moment she was content to scare the shit out of them.
The eyes of the men suddenly grew bigger. Two of them tilted their heads backwards incredulously as they tried to follow Xenas course. The rest inspected her from head to toe, only to conclude that they did not understand what they were seeing.
"Well? Oh, go on. Simply ignore the fact that Im here."
"Eh..." said a bearded fellow who looked like a half-civilised grizzly. "You sure?"
"Sure," Xena purred, smirking. The mans glance wandered from her face to her sword, considering which part of her was more believable. Since he was not very bright he decided to choose the part that was smiling.
"So...eh...now, where did you say you found the harp?" he asked Gabrielle.
Gabrielle shrugged with her shoulders. "About twenty meters from the village Deiara... from the place where it once had been, that is. Xena? I think you can put down the sword. These people dont look like demons to me."
For once Xena had to admit that Gabrielle was right. These villagers did not look like demons. They did not even look menacing. To be exact, she seriously doubted that there were any less demonic looking creatures in the world.
Her sword wandered back into its sheath, leaving its mistress helpless in the arms of (more or less) civilised conversation. Well, that was Gabrielles part.
"And who are you?" asked another man who could have easily been mistaken for a scarecrow had his hat been pointed instead of slouched. "I mean you dont look very...ehm...ordinary if you get my meaning."
He involuntarily registered Xenas expression.
"Not that extraordinariness would be such a bad thing, no, no... eh...far from it..."
As his straw, er, hair began to show the first signs of panic, often referred to as sweat, Xena determined to assume a more friendly and less threatening position.
"Listen, you have nothing to fear from us. We just followed the tracks that lead away from the last village that vanished and it led us here. Is there anything you can tell us about this, anything youve heard, seen or experienced?"
She really attempted to sound as friendly and as devoid of threat as possible yet when she slightly spread out her arms to support the meaning of her words the men still took two fast steps backwards. She had never estimated her jumps to leave such a great impression.
"Xena? Would you mind if I talked and you waited? Please?"
Resigned the warrior princess stepped behind her companion.
Gabrielle turned to the scarecrow and smiled. She knew that her tactic was successful the moment the man smiled back at her.
"Good man, have you lately seen a mannish type of monster or monstrous type of man, about ten feet tall with claws..."
"Gabielle, what are you..."
"...black skin and..."
"I dont think this is..."
"...shht, I know what Im doing one eye big and swollen, one rather normal, turning things into ashes when he looks at them?"
The mans face got as pale as that of a still living man could get. The smile had disappeared along with the colour. He nodded.
The bard smiled triumphantly at Xena who could only respond with simplistic confusion.
"You belong to it...him?" the bear asked hesitantly, not taking his eyes from Xenas black leather outfit and the still sheathed sword.
"No, we are..."
"What the bloody hell is going on here? What are all you blooming idiots up to? What can a bunch of stupid morons like you be up to anyway? Go back in or youll make acquaintance with the hard end of my broom!"
A small wrinkled creature of indefinite gender but with a black hat and a matching broom pushed her way into the circle. When she saw the two strangers she turned back to the grizzly and slapped him hard in the face.
"What bloody kind of hospitality is this supposed to be? No wonder no one wants to come here anymore! Prepare a meal and something to drink or I will teach ya manners, do you hear me?"
The hairy man gently rubbed his cheek, at the same time trying to fight back the tears in his eyes. As the small creature lifted her arm for the second time he was already hastily heading for his home.
Now the creature faced the guests. Xena noticed how the wrinkles set into a new configuration. It took her a few moments to realise it should display a smile.
"My name is Leonder and I am the head of this rat hole. I have the honour of addressing?"
Gabrielle reacted quickly. "This is Xena, warrior, and I am Gabrielle...a bard. Ehm, is Leonder a...female name?"
The creature grunted. "Of course it is. You thought my parents would give me the name of one of those hairy beasts?"
"So you are in charge here," inquired Xena.
"If Im in charge of anything worth to be mentioned. But if you mean that those bastards listen to what I have to say and occasionally even obey my instructions then the answer is yes."
Xena stepped forward and knelt down in front of the woman to catch her eye.
"Have you noticed anything... unusual in this area? Something that does not fit in? Some strange incidents?"
"Listen young lady, I may be out of my best years but Im not completely dumb. Since the guy with the big eye surfaced here, the shit is boiling. He and his chaps devastated the whole neighbourhood. Our village is the last one that is still inhabited, and only because I refuse to go. Strangely enough he leaves our homes and my men in peace. His guys can be seen occasionally but I sure havent seen HIM for quite a while now. He didnt make the impression to be all fit when I saw him first and last time. Maybe hes takin a nap or whatever. Anyways, you wanna stand here all night or get in and have a punch or something?"
"The kind that is delivered with fists?"
"Mmh. Of course you can use your hands if you prefer that. But I can recommend our cups. You look like you could use some. If you care to follow me..."
Joined by scratching noises the womans feet started to move the rest of the body towards the nearest house.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other for a moment. Then they did as they were told.
Chapter III: Waiting for the Night
They spent the rest of the night at the fireplace in the womans house which she called the "centre of all bloody thinking in this town". Some of the men, two other women and a few children had joined them. The punch was indeed delivered in cups, or rather in mugs, or to be compromising, in muggish cups...or cuppish mugs. Anyway they were big enough to contain more "punche" than Gabrielle could put away without demonstrating her newly acquired singing talents. Xena found that she was singing better than in sober state. Nevertheless she took away the bards mug when she encouraged the warrior princess to sing a duet. It was one of the occasions where Xena was thankful for having studied pressure points. Fortunately there was one for temporarily cancelling the effects of alcohol. Gabrielle was very enthusiastic about this performance since it meant that she could drink more of the "pooonch" without fearing the results. Xena did not tell her that the results would not strike her before tomorrow...and then the harder. She thought there was no use telling. She would know it by morning anyway. Xena would tell her then.
Up to now they had learned that Balor had come to this place three weeks ago. That was when the villages began to disappear. The connection was very obvious. Less obvious was how he had vanished again. One of the men, the scarecrow, said that he had seen how the monster went to the field outside the village they called Litholea. Seven tall stones were standing there, arranged in the pattern of a circle. No one could say when they were put there initially or who put them there. It was often enough tried to bring them down but it proved to be an impossible task. If the bony man was telling the truth, which he was, since he was simply too afraid to even think of lying, then Balor had entered the circle and dissolved. Everyone agreed on the fact that he was never seen again. Only his soldiers prowled the neighbourhood from time to time, and only by day. Therefore the villagers preferred to live by night when they felt less threatened.
"They are disturbing things," said one of the women. "Their presence can be felt ten miles against the wind. And I do not like their looks. Their skins are black and blistered and they smell of burned flesh. Eyes white like the sun. I dont like them at all."
Everyone else agreed on that fact, too. So, they became night creatures. They adapted very quickly and gained a certain security by moonlight when they wandered the fields and paths. The others began to whisper about demons who lingered around in the darkness but that would not have been enough to drive away the inhabitants. But with the Melanas wandering about by night and the burned men prowling about by day, it soon became too much for the farmers in the neighbourhood. They favoured an existence that was more secure and less strange. So they left. Nobody reckoned with anyone finding their way to Melana. But seemingly two persons did.
Xena now understood the reaction they had provoked from the villagers. They were not used to new faces, especially not if they were accompanied by looks that were considered "unusual".
A third young man began to speak who would have looked quite normal had it not been for his spiky hair that manifested as a couple of tiny flames frozen in time and his grave acne problem.
"Some of us had dreams of him. Of a battle, too. And..." his gaze held the harp for a second then it returned to the fire, "...and this strange instrument."
"Thats why you asked about it," stated Gabrielle who suddenly felt the urge to cover the harp. "You recognised it."
The acne case could not stand her gaze for long. "Yes...and...last night...I saw you, too. In my dream. Ehm, you were very beautiful," he said lowly.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said for she couldnt think of anything else to say. She gave him a kiss on the cheek (where the acne was not too intense). The young man blushed and smiled invariably for the rest of the night.
But they did not only talk of serious business. The kids wanted to be entertained and asked Gabrielle for stories and she was very happy to give them as many as they could endure. Considering the childrens lack of change in the small secluded village it was a lot.
"Even bards need a break," Gabrielle would say a few hours later.
"All right. Lets say...fifteen minutes?"
"I rather thought about fifteen hours. Its bedtime anyway. We should all have some sleep now."
"Just another story! Good-night story! Please?"
"No, really, if I start to tell another story now Im going to fall asleep myself. Tomorrow, ok? Tomorrow Ill tell you as many stories as you want. Promise."
"Tomorrow, tomorrow, the usual..." the children lamented. But it didnt sound too convincing because they were in much too good a mood to be anything less than anxious. The children obeyed the call of their mothers, the men the call of their wives and Gabrielle the call of her bed. When they had all gone only Xena and Leonder were left.
"May the gods send them the nightmares they deserve!" the old woman croaked.
Xena was fooled no more than she was a few hours ago.
"You love them a lot, dont you?"
Leonder smiled despite of herself. "They are a bunch of half-witted oafs who would make an exceptional deal if they exchanged their brains with those of a few dead sardines. But you simply have to love them. Morons, yes. But my morons. Luckily the kids are by far brighter then the parents. I hope they will leave this rat hole as soon as theyre old enough to not be mistaken for game."
"How old are you?"
"A very indiscreet question to ask a woman. Your companion is more adept with words than you."
"Yes." Xena smiled. "Yes, that she is."
"Take good care of her. Shes a good girl. Would be a shame if anything happened to her."
"I would never let anything happen to her."
"Anyone ever told you that youre suffering from severe over-confidence? Youre wrong if you think you could protect her from everything."
"Im trying my best."
"Is that enough?"
"Gabrielle...is very clever. A regular smart-ass sometimes. She can take care of herself."
"Thats what I wanted to hear. You know, I watched you the whole evening. You never left her out of sight for more than four minutes."
Xena looked down at her empty hands. "She is so...fragile."
"You just told me she could take care of herself. Look, you have to stop worrying about her."
An evil glance darted towards the old woman.
"You want to tell me what I should do and what I should not?"
"The gods beware!" exclaimed Leonder with mild exaggeration. "How could I dare to give the great Warrior Princess orders?"
It was Xenas time to be surprised. Depression followed on trail.
"You have heard of me?"
"Only the best I hope?"
"Then you hope for nothing. I have very good and reliable sources."
Xenas body tensed. She searched for a hint of forgiveness in those old eyes. She was not sure what she found.
"Those days are over. I have changed. I am not the person I once was."
"Bullshit. Everyone is who she is. Theres no way you can be anyone else but yourself."
The body switch with Callisto suddenly crossed Xenas mind. If you knew. She smiled inwardly but said nothing.
"But I believe you when you say you have changed. Change is good. Things have to change to continue existing. The children grow up. The parents grow old. And the old die."
She laughed dryly. "Life is not a circle but a never-ending roller coaster."
"Forget it. No idea why I said that. A long winding path I mean. It never ends, it goes on and on and on, changing its face as you go along. Lots of surprises on the way. Good and bad ones. I sure had my share of fun. But eventually it ends for you to make way for another being, another idea, another world. The old things must not stay beyond their time. They have to pass when their time has come."
Leonder chuckled. "Not yet, not yet. I still have some plans. Dont think Im foolish. I know how old I am. But believe me when I say that I am still capable of doing some things you would never dream of."
Xena nodded sympathetically. "I believe you."
"Bet you do. Strange, innit? You believe an old hag youve just met but your friend you dont believe."
With a jump Xena was standing directly in front of her. Her hand reached for her sword. "How do you know?"
"I simply do. Lets leave it at that. Please take a seat. Its uncomfortable for me to look up to you."
Xena sat down. The tension stayed. From now on she would keep eye contact with the woman.
"You believe me but you dont trust me. Thats good. I didnt really expect anything else. You have a certain reputation," said the old woman.
"Who are you?" asked Xena with only the slightest trace of menace.
"Im Leonder of Melana. Pleased to meet you."
"Thats not what I wanted to hear."
"I guessed that much. Theres no need to worry. Trust me, no, believe me, thats what you do, right? Im just an observer. I wish no harm, neither you nor your friend."
"You would have a hard time doing that anyway."
"Think so? You should never underestimate your enemies, Xena. But since thats not what I am its of no consequence whether you do or not. In fact I want to help you stop Balor."
"Is he a nuisance for you?" the Warrior Princess asked, irony swinging in her voice.
"A nuisance for me, a fatal danger for the rest of the world. He has to be defeated, theres no other way. Hes still half asleep, thats why he doesnt wander the lands already, sowing devastation along the way. But the hour of his awakening is near. Very near. We dont have much time left."
"What should I do?"
"See? Now youre asking me to tell you what you should do. Oooh, the evil glance again which is supposed to make me shiver. No sense of humour, have we? I will tell you what you should do. Listen to your friend. Shes cleverer than you in many ways. And she has a certain talent. I detected it in her the first moment I saw her. YOU could never stop Balor, no matter how hard you tried. But Gabrielle can. Listen to what she has to say. And for the gods sake, stop treating her like a child! Shes more mature than you think. In a way shes more mature than YOU will ever be."
"What talent are you speaking of?"
"Oh, tee hee. Find out yourself. Maybe she will tell you. Maybe not. I would never spoil you this little surprise. Tee hee hee."
Xena got up and paced to the door.
"Where are you going?" asked Leonder.
"Without a good-night kiss?"
"Youre overdoing it."
She gently closed the door to their provisory bedroom. She watched how Gabrielle lay there on her blanket, her knees exquisitely bent, her head resting on her hands. Her peaceful and innocent face let her appear so strikingly beautiful in the moonlight that Xena had to fight back a tear. Fight. That was what she had to do. All the time. She always told herself that she kept fighting to protect others... to protect Gabrielle. That was of course a lie. A worse one even for she was not only lying to others but also to herself. She kept fighting because she liked it. Gabrielle did not. She struggled when it was necessary, she never ran away from danger but she did not fight for the sake of fighting. And Xena loved that part of her more than anything else. Well, that and her lovely stomach.
Xena put the metal of her armour and her weapons somewhere beside her head. Habit. Then she lay down on her back and stared at the place where the stars should have been. Habit. Then she rolled over to Gabrielle and placed an arm around her stomach. Well, you know.
A questioning sigh, barely audible except with a lot of imagination, escaped Gabrielles lips.
"Its just me, Gabrielle. Sleep," Xena hushed.
In the existence of a person there are always some moments he or she does not altogether hate. And then there are those moments the said person even enjoys. For Xena this was one of the later type of moments.
"Im sorry. Im back again," Gabrielle said. "I have no idea why she called me."
"Maybe she just wanted to hear your voice. I would understand that perfectly," said Galen.
"I mean it. You made a lot of progress. Your voice is in tune with that of the harp. Together you can create music. Gabrielle, is everything all right with you? You seem to be slightly distracted."
"Just a bit numb. Maybe its the punch."
"Someone hit you?"
"No, its...ah, forget it. So, Im a bard now, correct?"
"Not yet. You still miss the most important power."
"And that is?"
Galen gestured to the usual place under the oak tree. Doubt crept into Gabrielles face.
"Magic? You mean I could really do..." She looked at the harp then back at Galen. "...Magic? It was no joke?"
"Sit down, Gabrielle."
"Now look. It must be absolutely clear that youre now on the verge of danger. The ground youre about to tread is filled with pitfalls. It will not be easy. Yet the rewards are tremendous. I have to ask you this. Do you want magic in your life?"
"Of course, you..."
"No. You have to understand what this means. When you say yes, the world will change for you. Nothing will be as it was before. You will be able to look behind the curtain and see the hidden realms beyond."
"But I already do. I mean I can feel this place. And I can feel you."
Galen shook his head. "Up to now youre only a visitor in this realm. But the direct contact with magic will make you a part of it. If you chose this path the world will be more exciting, for sure, and more colourful but also more dangerous. If you say no and thereby deny magic everything will stay as it was before you met me. You will never remember any of this."
"Not even you?"
"No. Because in this exact moment the world of magic, including me, will cease to exist. Or rather it will never have existed for you."
"No, you cant. Once you made the choice theres no way back."
"Thats a toughy," said Gabrielle, whining.
"I know. It is the climax of your studies and probably the greatest decision in your life."
"You didnt tell me about this."
"I didnt want to scare you."
"Well, you just did. Cant I decide it tomorrow?"
"Im sorry. But you have to make the choice now. As I said theres no way back."
"But if I say no it is over, right? Everything you taught me... the music...it will all be gone. And Balor. I need this magic to defeat him. Its the only way. Thats why you were so keen on teaching me."
"Yes. Normal weapons would have no effect. Only the magic can hurt him."
"A wonderful choice youre offering me."
"Im very sorry. A part of me hoped that you had no talent at all, so that this would not be necessary. But you demonstrated an excellent natural grasp of music. Youre the only one who can finish it. Im sorry."
"Oh, stop it." She breathed deeply, her sight wandering the landscape. Until she finally shook her head and spoke.
"I do not really have a choice. If what you say is true theres no way changing course now." She smiled nervously. "Im more than a bit afraid. Dammit, it scares the shit out of me. Huh. Aint that silly? Afraid of the unknown..."
"Youre right to be afraid."
"Oh thank you! Just try to build me up!"
Galen waited for her to continue. Her reaction was sensible. A long time ago he had to make the same choice and his reaction hadnt been all that different.
"Ill do it," she said at last.
"Do you want magic in your life, Gabrielle?"
"Yes! Damn, yes! I said I did, didnt I?"
"I had to ask you. These are the rules."
"Rules. Of course. There are always rules."
"More than you think."
"Great, simply great. So..." Gabrielle scanned her surroundings suspiciously to see if anything had changed already. But the forest looked as normal as an enchanted forest in the dream world could look. Somehow she was a bit disappointed.
Her mentor lowered his voice. "Now, we can begin."
With his pale hand Galen sealed Gabrielles eyes and kissed her forehead. The harp started to glow in anticipation. The whole forest fell silent. The moon arced an eyebrow. Everyone was listening to the initiation of the young bard. Her mentors words floated to her on the midnight breeze. It was barely audible yet she understood every word perfectly.
"Gabrielle, you have to know that music had always been here, so had magic. Both originated from one source. They are one. This power is older than men, older even than the gods. You now have to reach out and take this source to you."
"But where?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Shh. Look inside. Use the harp as a guide. Seek..."
Galens words lost themselves in the eternity of Gabrielles mind. The silence that followed was so profound it could be distinguished as a separate noise. One of her senses groped for the space inside her. She could see although she was sure that her eyes were still closed. A path showed her the way. The way to where? To what?
The air around her bought forth voices, both gentle and hard, soft and strong, brave and weak. Yet they all belonged to her. And there were lights, bright and dim, strong and flickering, blazing and dying. She knew that those were hers as well and she found them very distracting.
"Do not stray from the path," echoed a female voice that was not her own. It sounded familiar though...
"Go forth Gabrielle. I will await you at the end..."
Gabrielle treaded onto the path. The smell of honey and roasted nuts found their way into her nose. Go forth...
She could now identify a golden shine at the place where the path lead her, not unlike the light she had once seen in the field.
The intensity of the impressions shifted. But she paid no attention to the lights or the voices. They were distracting, yes. But her mind remained focused on the shine in front of her.
A woman was waiting for her at the end of the path. She was clad in white garment and her hair had the colour of freshly fallen snow. Her face appeared to be young yet her eyes as blue as the sea told Gabrielle that she was looking into the depths of eternity.
"Welcome Gabrielle," said the woman. She was at least a head taller than the young bard. Her beauty made Gabrielle cry.
"You have reached the end of your journey."
The woman stepped aside to reveal a small spring that produced a golden liquid. Gabrielle knelt down and looked up to white woman.
"Go on. This is what you were looking for."
"I know you," said Gabrielle silently. The woman smiled like the sun.
"Of course you do. We are lovers."
She bowed down to the bard and kissed her passionately on the lips stroking a cheek with her delicate fingers. Gabrielle could feel her heart warming. Lips as soft as the morning sun...
She stared at the woman for what felt like ages, drinking every detail of her beauty, savouring the remembrance of those lips.
Gabrielles hand reached for the spring. Warm yet clear liquid passed her palm and returned to its source. With both hands Gabrielle formed a bowl and kept some of the liquid in it. She looked at her moving image in the golden mirror for an endless second. Then she closed her eyes and let the water pour into her mouth.
It tasted of glamour and covered her throat with the essence of enchantment. When the substance penetrated her heart Gabrielle moaned. So pure...
The colours intensified for one heartbeat and returned to their former state. Yet nothing would ever be again as it once was. Everything was different. It had always been. Forever.
A wolf howled in the distance. She could hear the stars weeping.
A voice coming closer, becoming more present. So many notes in one word...
"Open your eyes."
Pictures of a familiar forest unfolded. She could feel the whistle of the trees in the night. Gabrielle felt at home.
Galen looked different. An entire universe of depth had been added to his being. She could perceive a glowing inside him, a golden shimmer. She looked into his eyes and was not surprised to see a flowing stream instead of her own reflection. A satisfied smile crossed her lips. For a few more moments her mind rested on a cloud of thoughts. Then it returned to find out what its mistress would do next.
"Magic?" Gabrielle whispered.
And Gabrielle learned.
She learned to make the music obey her wishes although she would never dare to command the melodies. She rather begged them to help her, to stand by her side for the task she intended to perform. And they were only all too happy to do that if the bard gave them a rewarding smile.
She learned to flatten the tides of her yet untamed stream, to direct it with her heart and let it flow into the music. The harp guided her on the way, and Gabrielle understood now what Galen had meant. She was a lover. And Gabrielle loved her.
Yet all her efforts were for naught when she had to laugh. And she laughed a lot for the trees and the beasts of the forest were telling a great many funny stories. But above all was the enchanting voice of the harp that guided, encouraged and teased her. And of course there was Galens deep resonant humming when he taught her new wonders of the art.
The night passed like a feverish dream. Delirious in its intensity, glorious in its images. Gabrielle could feel the grains of time fall one after the other. The hours tasted like salt on her tongue. Flares of glamour shot into her head.
Drunk. Drunk on magic...
With the speed of habit Xena gathered her armour and put on the missing parts. The sun was just setting, flooding the horizon with its blood-red wine. She had dreamed of wolves. The heap that was Gabrielle did not move.
Xena smirked expectantly. Then she gave her friend a soft shove with her foot.
"Gabrielle. Time to get up. The sun has set already."
Not the least trace of movement was visible.
"Nnnnhhhh..." And it did move. Although it sounded like a dying lama while doing so. Well, Xena had expected no less.
With a not very kind-hearted movement of her hand she pulled the blanket off Gabrielles head.
"Come on, Gabrielle. We have a lot to do."
"Dont shout at me..."
"I am not shouting. I..."
Xena took a few steps back. Her face displayed the smirkiest smirk a warrior princess ever dared to use, even when no one was watching.
"Come now. Breakfast is ready."
She listened to the gagging sounds with curiosity.
"You prefer squid or ashes? Both are available in generous amounts."
"The squids of course raw, just as you like it."
"Blah! Get the hades out of my head! Oww..."
"Even I wouldnt dare to come that close, Gabrielle."
"Oooh. Its all your fault."
"No, its yours."
"How could you..."
"How could you? I told you not to touch the stuff. I told you it would have consequences."
"Leave me alone!"
"As you wish, my lady. I expect you in Leonders house in an hour."
She turned to go, then looked like she had forgotten something. Leaning closer to Gabrielles head she shouted "And Good Morning!"
Gabrielles watched Xenas legs with amazement as they left the room.
"I wonder whats so good about this morning. Ooh."
Then she looked in anger at the walls.
"And you stop shaking, dammit!"
Three and a half hours later she arrived at the "centre of all bloody thinking in this town". She had thought about attempting to use magic to cure her "illness" but she didnt feel like singing. Not at all. She was afraid that something other than words would leave her mouth when she tried. Xena and Leonder looked up when she came in. The flames of the fireplace let their shadows dance in circles. Gabrielle felt a wave of disorientation break somewhere near her stomach.
"Hey, thats the place where I sleep. Puke somewhere else!" exclaimed Leonder.
"Yes, Im ok. Thanks for your concern."
"Gabrielle, were trying to discuss what well do next," said Xena seriously. She gave Leonder a quick glance and turned to her friend again. "Do you have an idea?"
Gabrielle startled. Had she just heard her name hammering into her far too big substitute for a head?
"Me? You ask me? I mean no...eh...no, I have no idea."
She looked into the round and couldnt shake off the feeling that she had intruded a closed society. Oooh, shake... "What?" Gabrielle said.
"I said, do you think I should go and check the circle of stones for clues?"
"You are really asking me that?"
"Yes, I want to hear your opinion on this."
"Ok Xena, what is going on..."
All three could hear the voice from the outside clearly.
"Who is the man who calls?" asked Xena as she got up and unsheathed her sword.
"It must be Filios. That fool never understood that we dont have any guards."
All three hurried out of the house. Well, two hurried. Gabrielle hobbled pitiably behind them.
Six burned yet walking corpses had found their way into the village. One of them was holding the grizzly man by his throat. Blood was running through its black fingers.
"Dont you hurt him you bastard!" screamed Leonder as she ran towards the corpse, waving her broom like a weapon (which it was).
In an instant Xena had back-flipped the way to the creatures and was already swinging her sword at the chest of the first. These bodies were in a more severe state of decay than those she had seen the previous night. But she trusted her instincts when they insisted that these here were even more dangerous. For example, their reaction time was by far shorter.
In seconds Xena found herself surrounded by the enemy. No chance to fight them all at once. They didnt have weapons. Probably because they didnt need them. The bony ends of their fingers, although everyone else would have called them claws, were as sharp as razors. Xena doubted that any other weapon would have been more effective.
With one ear she heard the old woman shout at the corpse who had grabbed one of her children.
"Congratulations! You succeeded in making me VERY angry!"
A set of roughly hushed syllables went off into the darkness. A "thump" was heard when Filios butt connected with the ground. A mournful excuse for a toad looked up at him in bewilderment.
"There you have it!" yelled Leonder. "Dont you ever mess with my kiddies again, you freak!"
The toad croaked something that could be interpreted as a promise and hopped away into the night.
Clarity surged into Gabrielles head. This was serious. She had to be completely aware of what was going on. Her heart jumped when she realised that she had left her staff in the room. Yes, she remembered now. She had desperately tried to grab it but it had always leapt away from her. Too late now, damn!
She had just started her run to the house when a new and yet infrequently used thought positioned itself in her mental way. Out of sheer habit Gabrielles mind tried to drive it away (shoo, shoo!) After all it stood in her way and hindered the other thoughts movement. But the thought insisted on staying right where it was. When she had tried every possible alternative she finally faced it...
Of course, she had her weapons with her. Her voice and...she fumbled for the instrument at her side... and her harp. Together that would be...
Her mind was not yet clear enough to come up with something truly creative off the cuff. So she sang the first words that rolled from her lips.
Stumble you too
Silly. Idiotic. Even embarrassing. But it worked.
As the legs of every single corpse suddenly crossed (at least of all those who could still cross their legs; the toad remained undisturbed this time) they all fell onto their skeletal faces. For an observer who had at least a trace of black humour and a sense for the macabre it might have looked like a domino game.
After a shocked second Xena seized the opportunity to demonstrate to each foe the modifiable weight of her sword. Gravity and Xenas muscles formed a deadly partnership for the duration of five well aimed blows.
A dry cracking noise fled from Earth as the heads shattered and the rest of the bodies broke apart from the impact. What was left of them could have been mistaken for a pathetic attempt at bone divining.
The destroyed bodies turned into ashes and were blown away by a strange upcoming breeze. It moved them into the direction of the stone ring.
Everyone (including the toad) watched the process with fascination.
"Very interesting," remarked Xena as she cleaned her sword in the brown grass.
With fast steps she went over to Leonder who tended the bleeding wound on Filios neck.
"Not as bad as it looks," said the old woman when she heard the warrior princess approaching. "He will be all right. Did you hear that, Filios, you bloody bastard? How often do I have to tell you that it is useless to call for guards when there are none available?"
Xena left them to their family matters and advanced on Gabrielle instead. The bard waited patiently for her to arrive, smiling innocently.
"Gabrielle, we have to talk."
"What happened out there, Gabrielle?"
Xenas expression made it plain that she was not in the mood for jokes. So, Gabrielle thought it was now the right time to tell the truth.
"Why are you doing this?"
"You know what. I am deadly serious and you try to be funny."
"At least Im more successful at being funny than you at being serious, thats for sure."
Xena threw the chair aside and crossed the room. She knelt down in front of Gabrielle to be on one level with her. It didnt work.
"Ill ask you one more time. What happened?"
"Ok. What would you like to hear?"
Xena had to realise now that no matter what her friend said she wouldnt believe it anyway. Listen to her...
Letting the tension slip out of her body the Warrior Princess sat down on the blanket beside the bard. Stop treating her like a child...
"Gabrielle, why dont you tell me what happened?" she said in a softer tone.
"I told you. Magic."
"You cannot perform magic."
"You saw it yourself. Do you deny that?"
Xena had to think about this. It was true. She had seen something. But a very strong part of her refused to accept what she had seen.
"But how is this possible. I mean..."
"I channelled my magic into the harp and together we formed a pattern of glamour that..."
Xena stared at her.
"Ok, ok. I sing and play what my heart tells me and can create magic this way. All right?"
"Why have you never told me?"
"Because I couldnt do it before today," said the bard as if it were the most reasonable response in the world.
"Where did you learn how to do magic?"
"In my dreams."
"Well, theyre actually not MY dreams but I feel quite..."
"The whole story?"
"The whole story."
"Pooh. So, once upon a time..."
And Gabrielle told Xena everything that had taken place while she had been asleep. Maybe she left out some certain details concerning Galen and a certain kiss under a certain tree. But except for that she told her friend everything as clearly and as dramatically as possible.
She thought of herself as extremely funny when she finished the tale with the sentence:
"And therefore the bard told her friend everything that had taken place while she had been asleep. And it went like this..."
"Ok, ok, I get it. Bally heck. And you didnt tell me one word about it."
"I did now."
"Not acceptable. You should have told me when it happened the very first time."
"I did that, too."
Scenes from the morning two days ago passed Xenas inner eye. Yes, Gabrielle had told her. And she hadnt listened, hadnt believed her. A stranger you believe but a friend you dont believe...
"Im sorry," Xena said with sunken head. "I should have believed you. Youre the only person I trust."
Gabrielle smiled and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
"No harm done."
The bard then took a utility out of her bag and began to brush her friends raven black hair. Xena relaxed visibly, closing her eyes and letting her head tilt back lightly.
"We still dont know what to do about this Balor," she said at length.
Gabrielle sighed inwardly but she sensed that it was time to talk business now.
"I will ask Galen for advise. He will know how to get through to this monster. And as soon as were close enough well send him back to where he belongs."
Gabrielle couldnt see the sadness crawling into Xenas face.
"You," she said. "You have to fight him back. And I can just stand there and watch you two conjure the hades out of each other."
"Well, you could still beat up some of his minions."
"I feel so helpless, Gabrielle."
"Everyone has the right to feel helpless sometimes. Even a great warrior princess like you."
"I fear to lose you."
She can take care of herself. Shes very clever...
Without a warning Xena embraced her which made Gabrielle almost drop the hairbrush.
"I dont want to lose you, Gabrielle." Tears were glistening in her eyes. One of them found its way down her cheek. "I couldnt live without you."
"Youre such a smart-ass sometimes, do you know that, too?"
"Shh. Dont speak."
Gabrielle held her like this for a very long time. She would do the remaining two hundred and forty-eight strokes tomorrow.
"This is a tale of times long gone. Some say it was better to live then but thats what the old always say, and I doubt it. As all tales of old it is strange, even unbelievable at times. But it is the story my master had told me and I will tell it to you in the same way.
"In those days lived a smith who was gifted with the power of magic. Not our magic, not music, it was a power of its own. And he kept it secret, so that only he could use it. His name was Gobinu.
Gobinu called a dear treasure his own. For in his possession was a wondrous cow which gave enough milk for the whole country."
"This is impossible," said Gabrielle.
Galen smiled. "As I said, it were wondrous times and they produced strange stories. But the truthfulness of the stories are irrelevant. If I could continue now without further interruptions..."
"Im sorry. I know how distracting this can be. Continue."
"Very well. Balor launched an attempt to steal the cow and thereby let the inhabitants of my country starve. But he was only partly successful for he could only grab the halter. Still it was a partial success since the cow belonged to the halter and hence it would go anywhere the halter was.
"So, Gobinu had to guard the cow all the time lest she would run straight into Balors hands.
One morning Cian who was well known as a great warrior and hero begged the master to smith a sword for him. Now a sword made by the magic smith Gobinu was certainly an excellent weapon and would grant its wielder an advantage in battle. The warriors and the swords reputations were enough to drive every enemy away in fear.
"Gobinu knew this but how could he refuse such a deed for a famous hero? He agreed to smith the sword under the condition that Cian would guard the cow until the deed was done. Cian was of course more than happy to do that.
"So, he guarded the animal conscientiously every day and night. Until a band of young men like himself came to report him that the sword was as good as finished. But the master would need his help for the last part. And he left the cow unguarded."
"Who were these men? Did they really belong to the smith?"
"The story doesnt reveal it. What mattered was the result. When Gobinu, who feared the worst, and Cian returned, the cow was gone and the country was doomed to die of starvation.
"But Cian was a hero of some renown wherefore he proposed to bring the cow back himself.
"It was obvious that he would have to enter Balors realm to do that. And there was surely nothing more dangerous than this. Yet it had to be done. And Cian swore that he would rather die than return without the animal and its halter.
"Balors realm lay in the underworld. Cian had to cross the Dark Waters that separate the dead from the living."
"Sounds familiar," said Gabrielle.
"I beg your pardon?" Galen couldnt quite conceal his annoyance at being interrupted again.
"I mean it is similar in our country. When you die you tread the shores of the river Styx. You pay Charon the ferryman with a coin that was laid under your tongue at your funeral and he brings you to the other side of the river. To Hades realm. Ehm... just a thought. Sorry for interrupting again."
"Hm. Interesting. There are indeed similarities. However, the river I mentioned had no name. And the name of the ferryman was not Charon but Manannaun. He was the god who gave immortality. In a way that made him mightier than all the other gods. But at this time he ferried the Dark Waters in disguise.
"Therefore Cian did not recognise him when he bade the god to take him across the river.
"Manannaun agreed to do it but not without payment. He demanded Cians fine cloak. In exchange he would give the warrior his own. And he wanted half of what the hero would bring back when he returned, except for the halter.
"On the other side Cian made a wonderful discovery. The cloak of the ferryman had the power to make him invisible. Thus he could get all the way into Balors hall without being seen."
"Like Hades helmet," exclaimed Gabrielle quickly without thinking. "Ehm. Hades helmet also has the power to make its bearer invisible. Just thought youd like to know that."
"Oh well," muttered Galen. "I think its no use telling you to stop interrupting me. Therefore I will not tell you to do it. I should have known.
"Now, Cian was in Balors hall and demanded from him the cow and the halter. But Balor would not be bested so easily. He told Cian to plant apple trees in the dark garden. When he was successful, both the cow and the halter would be his. Of course Balor knew that this could never be done for his foul breath made all plants in his garden wither.
"Nevertheless Cian tried. And while he did so he discovered a black tower not far from the dark gardens. Therein Balor kept his daughter Ethleim for he feared a prophecy that said that he would be murdered by his own daughters son. No one was allowed to go in or get out of the tower.
"But Cian entered it using the magic cloak he had received from Manannaun. He found Ethleims chamber. And as they beheld each other they fell in love.
"The tale says that they loved each other intensively for one night and one day but the truth is that time meant little in the underworld.
"This love brought forth a child. Lugh, the god of the sun who was born from the darkness. A counterweight to Balors destructive light and his poisonous sight.
"Ethleim gave Cian her son and the halter and bade him to bring Lugh away from this dark place, into the lands of the living where he could grow up in light.
"Again the cloak hid Cian and his son as he returned to the river. Manannaun awaited him there, asking for his share of the treasure. Cian said that he had nothing except for the halter and his son. That was when Manannaun revealed his true nature. He offered him to take care of Lugh in the Lands of Eternal Youth and train him, so that he would become an even greater warrior than his father.
"Cian was glad for the offer and accepted.
"When Lugh grew up his mentor would equip him with an armour and the sword of light. And he would let him drink of the gods potion of immortality."
"Ambrosia. We call it Ambrosia."
"Lugh became the god of the sun and a member of the race of the gods.
"Later, no one knows how much later, a great battle was fought on the field of Meg Tured.
The Tuatha De Danann, the race of gods, fought against the Fomors, Balors race of demons. The gods won and Balor was defeated. It was the duty of my people to guard him and never let him escape. We failed."
He lowered his gaze. Gabrielle walked over to him and took him in her arms.
"I am here now. I will finish what you have started. It will be done."
Galens face turned grim. He nodded.
"Where will I find him?" inquired Gabrielle.
"When the moon attains its full form, a gate will open. It will lead you into his castle."
"The stone ring outside the village. But the gate will not be visible. You will have to use magic to make it appear. Gabrielle," Galens face showed signs of worry. "It will be very dangerous. It is possible that you will not survive. I want you to know that I will always be with you. You will never be alone in the dark halls." Their gazes met each other. "You will not fight him alone."
"I know," said Gabrielle. "Is there anything else I should know?"
Galen looked at the harp.
There were two nights before the moon would be full.
The first night was spent resting mind, body and soul.
Gabrielle told the others in Leonders house what she had learnt about Balor. In the tradition of the bards she retold the tale of Cians quest and the birth of Lugh. She continued with the description about Balors fortress and how they would pass the gate by moonlight. Everyone listened to her and some wondered where she had gathered this information but no one dared to question the wisdom of the bard.
And although no one talked about that matter it was clear that only Xena and Gabrielle would enter the Moongate. But Leonder insisted on joining them and Xena couldnt sway her from this aim ("I bloody hades know what Im doing! Dont you bloody dare to stop me, young lady! I was already adventuring when you were still...").
So they were three and that was the end of the discussion.
After the last words had died down Gabrielle took the harp to her breast and played some tunes to warm the hearts of those present. So, the night passed in music as Gabrielle used her talents to comfort the people around the fireplace. Finally when the dawn approached (the darkness is deepest before dawn) she played a song Galen had taught her for the moments when darkness was close and strength and courage was needed. These are the words that filled the air of the small house that night:
|Now you all know|
The bard and her songs
When hours have gone by
I close my eyes
In a world far away
We may meet again
But now hear my song
About the dawn of the night
Lets sing the bards song
Tomorrow will take us away
Far from home
No one will ever know our names
But the bards songs will remain
Tomorrow will take it away
The fear of today
It will be gone
Due to our magic songs
Theres only one song
Left in my mind
Tales of a brave man
Who lived far from here
Now the bards songs are over
And its time to leave
No one shall ask you for the name of the one
Who tells the story
Tomorrow will take us away
Far from home
No one will ever know our names
But the bards songs will remain
Tomorrow all will be known
And youre not alone
So dont be afraid in the dark and cold
For the bards songs will remain
They all will remain
In my hopes and in my dreams
Theyre always in my mind
These songs of hobbits, dwarves and men
And elves, come close your eyes
You can see them, too
When the last notes of the song left the room everyone understood that it was indeed time to leave. Tomorrow would be the last night before the Moongate opened. And they would spend this night planning, preparing for the task.
Even the children walked away in silence and did not ask for stories. They knew there would be no more stories for now. Not until the strangers had succeeded...or failed.
Leonder gave Gabrielle an enigmatic smile when she left the room. Somehow the bard had the feeling that the old woman knew more than she would admit and it gave Gabrielle a lot to think about on her way to her room.
Xena sat there on her blanket, her face grim as if she were mentally preparing herself for what lay before them. The act of sharpening the blade should support this scenery. But Gabrielle knew her too well already to be fooled by such minor attempts at disguising her sadness.
The warrior looked up to her as if she hadnt heard her come in and tried to smile without much success. Gabrielle positioned herself beside her. She tried to determine the path to take and concluded that the direct way would be the best.
"Its about me, isnt it? Youre still afraid to lose me."
It was a statement, not a question. Xena said nothing but her body tensed visibly. Her face took on the consistence of stone.
"Why, Xena? We have been in danger before but you never had so much fear. Why?"
The warrior faced her and when the sky looked upon the forest the mask of stone crumbled. The sky began to weep.
"It is this premonition. I have a very bad feeling about the whole thing. Ive..." she breathed deeply lest she started trembling. "Ive never felt so helpless before. What should I do?"
The forest smiled back at the clouded sky. "Lie down. Here."
Hesitantly Xena laid her head in Gabrielles lap. And Gabrielle sang for her.
|Why so lonely? |
Here you may rest
Lay your head
Down at my chest
Darkened days brighten
No more to frighten
Will you be mine
Until the end of time?
Why so lonely?
Ill give you shelter
Comfort you, carry you
Through our lives
Darkened days brighten
No more to frighten
Will you be mine
Until the end of time?
Why so lonely?
Ill be the one
You always can turn to
I am yours
For as long as you want to
Lend me your heart
I will shelter it
Until the end of time
When she had finished the song she could feel Xena sleeping. Her body and face were completely at ease. A golden light glimmered behind her closed lids. She was dreaming.
Now, if this isnt magic, Gabrielle thought.
Xena was standing in the middle of a forest. And despite her best intentions she could not remember how she got here. But she felt that the trees had eyes.
A young man was approaching with decent steps. He did not look menacing although his stature labelled him a warrior yet he carried no weapons. However, Xena had learnt to be careful the hard way. It was difficult to forget a lecture life itself had taught you more than once.
When he was standing right before her and still hadnt said a word she decided that it was up to her to do the job.
"Who are you? Why am I here? What do you want with me?"
The young man smiled. "Oh, these are a lot of questions. One after the other..."
The Bard's Song continues...
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