BREAKING THE ICE
by Mary Morgan
|Neither Xena nor Gabrielle (nor,
come to that, Argo) belong to me. They are the property of
The sun will rise to the right of the finger stone this morning. It
has done so for the past thirty mornings: by this calendar, it has been
spring for just so many days. The sun will light a bitter landscape. A
wind from the pole sweeps it, blasting snow into drifts, scouring bare
earth. No new growth, anywhere. The wind rattles in bleached grasses,
sets icicles jangling, howls round corners and along stone walls, thrums
in nets hung waiting for the shoals to start running. Waves seethe on
the shore. The people of the settlement will wake soon, to the cold, to
the barren fields, to the forbidding sea. They will wake to the
knowledge that still the spring has not come.
But the watcher has. It has come down from the Moss, which lies
beyond the edge of the settlement. Now it approaches a field of
grass-covered mounds. The watcher is not deceived. It knows it is
looking at turf roofs over shallow circular walls around much deeper
dwelling pits. It knows that under the ground lie more than a hundred
souls, men, women and children, huddling together for heat. Most are in
the main dwelling now, the roundhouse, the settlementís hall, but a
few have kept, defiant, to their own steadings. The watcher grins. It
tastes the fear which they feel in their dreams and grows stronger. It
tastes their guilt and grows stronger still. It can see them all
clearly: mere matter cannot confuse its vision. The bodies within are
like fish in the sea to this watcher. It can net them whenever it
chooses. It chose last night.
The watcher hefts the smooth, round object it holds in its grasp,
places it carefully on an enclosure wall. This wall points directly to
the roundhouse entranceway. They will see this first, it knows. It grins
wider. This is the fifth time it has come to the settlement since the
start of the false spring, and each time it has come closer. Soon it
will come right up to the door. It detects movement within the dwelling.
It feels the weight of the dawn on its hide. It is time to go, for now.
It will be back. Meanwhile it has left tokens behind. Five skulls to
watch for it by daylight.
They called me Bren. At first I thought it meant slave, then that it
meant woman. When I had been in the settlement for almost a year I
learned that it meant "other". I am tall, fair-haired, larger
boned than these small, black-haired people. Other. I told them my name
often enough over that first year, but they never used it, were not
interested in what I had to say. I was there to work for the people,
like their knives, like their ploughs, like their small, stubborn sheep.
If I meant more to them than those, it was because they dragged me from
the sea and saved my life and kept me for their own. As they keep
everything the sea washes up for them.
The next year was the worst. I still kept telling myself that my
father would find me, and that anyway things would be better. They would
understand me better once I learnt to speak to them, would recognise me
for what I was. I learned to speak to them, but it made no difference.
They understood all they needed to about me: I was Bren, who was other,
a gift of the sea, entirely theirs and nothing more.
By the end of the third year, I stopped thinking of home. I knew my
father would not come for me. No one would come. Even my dreams stayed
clear of the south. I did not long for honeyed winds, nor for warm
nights, nor for valleys lush with vines and olive. I did my best to
forget my own name, and the sound of my language. I suppressed all
feelings except my pride, which turned small and cold. Finally, I even
denied myself hope, knowing its pain. In this way I found life in the
settlement possible. After that, time at least passed.
For seven years, time passed. But then a year came which was
different. The winter was harder than any I remembered. It was harder
than any the settlers remembered. Twelve of them died. Their bodies were
stored in outhouses since no pick could break the iron grip of cold on
the ground. Those who survived could not speak of the deaths. Guilt
weighted their tongues. They moved little, spoke less, ate sparingly.
The stores, stretched, lasted till spring, though they were down to the
scrapings of their bins. But the spring did not come. The ground did not
soften, the shoals of rainbow-scaled fish did not arrive. The settlers
conferred among themselves, consulted those who dreamed, could find no
answer beyond the obvious one, which they would not speak, and the
obvious solution, which they shunned. There was guilt enough already.
Instead they wrapped themselves in hides and furs, staggered to the
stone circle which stands on high ground, above the village and the
Moss. There they sacrificed breeding stock, seed corn. For a day they
prayed to the Frost Fathers, begged them not to break the land with the
iron might of their cold. Nothing happened. A few of the settlers began
openly to urge those older ways of placating the lords of winter and
bringing back the spring. For the most part no one listened. Until the
I knew there had been another before I even opened my eyes that
morning. The fear stank in those confined quarters. It was my fear too.
It clawed at me, made me close my eyes tighter, curl myself small as I
could. But that did not help. In the end, I hauled myself upright and
went to look out of the roundhouse door, climbing twelve steps slick
with frost to reach it. Five skulls, I noted with detachment, aware I
was too calm. The nearest, the most recent, was as white and smooth as
the others. Whose was it, I wondered. I pulled my cloak about my
shoulders and leaned against the door frame, prepared to wait. Tork, the
chief, was a dark shape against the pale sky, moving from steading to
steading, asking his questions. He disappeared into one, then
re-emerged, his face set and white.
"Ter," he said, to the settlers who clustered at the foot
of the stairs. Ter. An old man, whose particular skill was
leather-working and who had lived alone since the death of his wife. He
had had a son, drowned three years ago. A whole family gone, then, I
thought. As though the land was consuming these people, was erasing them
from itself. "Who next?" was the question I saw on each of
their faces. Weakened by hunger already, this weakened them further. I
felt a chilly satisfaction of sorts. I had been cold and alone for ten
years. This was the best I could manage by way of vengeance. It did not,
I discovered, make me feel any better.
With a gesture, Tork gathered all his people around him. His glance
flicked beyond them, rested on my face. I moved forwards too, stood at
the back of the group and listened. "We will all sleep together
now." A command. He had not issued one on this subject before. The
few who had chosen to stick to their steadings shuffled their feet,
glanced aside. They would obey. "Three will stand watch over the
women and children," he went on, jabbing with stubby, black-nailed
fingers at the three he had chosen. He detailed five others to take to
the boats, to hunt for such food as the cold sea might offer. "The
rest of us will search the ground."
"Keep them busy," I said to myself. "Keep them moving
and busy while they wait for the night. Time enough to sit still and
worry then." It would do no good. They all knew that. There was
never any trace, not in the place where the person had been seized, nor
anywhere else, though they combed the paths and enclosures, climbed the
slight slope to the circle of stone, ranged to the verge of the Moss.
But it was better than nothing. One had to do something. They knew that
At midday, one of the searchers shouted. "Brenner!" I
thought I heard him call. Others? I thought to myself. At this time of
year? An unnamed feeling stirred inside me. It drew me out of the
roundhouse and so I saw them arrive. They were escorted by all the
searchers, who crowded around, obscuring my view. Then Tork strode
forward and the men parted before him, allowing me a glimpse of who
Two figures, wearing furs and hides like anyone else, but one was
extraordinarily tall. There was some tension; spears were lowered, axes
raised. The smaller figure crouched slowly and laid a staff on the
ground, then stood, arms outstretched, hands open. Tork walked till he
stood just out of reach of the strangers and stared at them, his
shoulders hunched, his head down. I knew he would be staring at them
from under his brows, taking his time, thinking. He could think with
more menace than anyone I ever met.
Finally he jerked his head and turned abruptly, leading the whole
procession down into the roundhouse. The strangers stripped off their
outer clothing then, and I saw what they were. Two women. One small,
with reddish gold hair, the other tall as me, blue-eyed and dark. Their
expressions were difficult to make out. Smoke from the peat fire
wreathed through the roundhouse before making its way to the vent in the
roof, the firelight flickered and shifted. I wondered why I was not
surprised by their arrival: surely I should be. Yet I seemed to have
been expecting them. Or at least the tall one.
I could not take my eyes off her. Her black hair, the strength of
her. A warrior for sure, even though she wore no weapons. Not someone
who could be caged, or made to do anyone elseís bidding. She spelt
freedom to me, and revenge. I felt my chest tighten and my face flush,
and shrank back into the shadows. From these I looked at her companion.
Pale and sullen looking, I thought to myself in disapproval. This
strengthened, the longer I looked. No taller than the settlers, where
the warrior was of my height. The sort of person who would hesitate,
think of others, let their concerns come first. Caged by conscience,
even before circumstances took away her freedom. I hated her. She must
be the warriorís servant, though she looked unfit even for that. She
could hardly be her friend.
"What are you doing here?" Tork was asking them.
It was the smaller woman who answered, surprising me. She looked too
much a stupid peasant girl to have learned the settlersí language. But
then, a warrior would not stoop to such a chore. "To trade."
She spoke the words haltingly, but graced them with a sudden, lop-sided
smile. I sneered to myself. The warrior had brought her to play court to
the settlers, obviously. It was all she was good for. Her tone was low,
I noticed, and she made no sudden movements. Servile, ignoble. They
would listen to her, if she could continue to avoid giving offence.
"What do you want?" Tork folded his arms across his chest
and considered her carefully.
"Amber," she said, "and walrus ivory."
I was not surprised. The settlers took small quantities of such stuff
south with them to trade in mid summer, and ships had, twice that I knew
of, called then too, taking all that the settlement could supply.
"What do you have?"
The woman looked back at her taller companion then, who moved
forwards quietly and gently laid a large pack down on the ground.
Unrolled, it revealed a quantity of goods forged from iron. Fishhooks
and needles, I saw, work knives of good quality, pins, axe-heads.
Usually the settlers would have found these most acceptable, though they
would not have shown it. They could not work metal. What they made, they
made from stone. Now they viewed the contents of the pack almost with
disinterest. Few deceived themselves. It was unlikely any would survive
to use these things.
Tork shrugged, not dismissively but to indicate an end to these
preliminaries. "We will talk more of this later."
There was no question of food. They ate only once a day now, in the
evening. The two women stood uncertainly in the centre of the room. When
it became clear that no one was paying them any heed, they went to one
side and sat down. After a minute the smaller woman opened her pack and
took out what looked like dried meat and trail bread, handing some to
her companion. From my own vantage point, I watched them, or at least
the taller one. There was a careless grace to her. It spoke both of
supreme physical confidence and of a total indifference to what anyone
might think of her. I remembered this posture from my childhood. I had
grown up among people who held themselves in this way. Once I had hoped
to join them, even lead them myself one day.
They sat close together against the wall. The smaller woman was
younger too, I decided, but she looked oddly older as well. There was a
tiredness in her face which had nothing to do with their journey. Now
that it was still and not smiling it fell into an impassiveness which
suggested the exercise of constant control. Though she stayed near to
her companion she did not touch her at all, and rarely looked at her.
The taller woman, on the other hand, was constantly stealing glances in
her direction. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps she was more than a servant.
But she was not much of a friend. And she was soft, just as I had
suspected. Two of the bolder boys had crept close while they ate. She
was sharing her food with them, looking beyond them and encouraging more
children to join in. I supposed the warrior was doing the same because
the sight sickened her, as much as it did me.
The more I watched, the more I found myself resenting this small
woman, the more I wanted to be in her place. After ten years of
grovelling to my inferiors, I longed for companionship with an equal.
But she was in the way. Such a waste, I thought to myself, staring at
them openly by now. And so I was caught in an intensely blue gaze. The
warrior had shifted the focus of her attention and looked across the
room straight at me.
She touched the smaller womanís shoulder and nodded, almost
imperceptibly. Neither looked at me again, but I was not deceived. They
were here for me, I realised, and for a second a great gale of some
feeling rose within me. I vaguely remembered it, tentatively named it
hope. I forced it back, at once and viciously. Hope hurt. I knew this
Time passed slowly in the roundhouse in winter. In one part, a group
of women were preparing the evening meal, what there was of it. Three of
the fishers had returned home with nothing. The fish the others had
brought were few in number and very small. In another part, there was
spinning and weaving, the mending of clothing and stitching going on.
Tools were being made and refurbished as well. Children helped here and
there, or played in a group as far from anyone else as was possible.
They did these things quietly. The settlers were rarely noisy, not in
grief, nor joy, nor fear.
Searching for something to do which would allow the warrior to
approach me, I picked up a jug of water and carried it over to the
palettes where the sick were lying. Shortly after, I became aware of two
forms by my side, looking at the old woman whose face I was wiping. The
smaller woman had come as well, I realised with irritation. Ignoring the
companion, I looked at the warrior, who quirked an eyebrow. I found
myself saying, in the language of my childhood, which seemed to shape my
mouth in strange ways now, "Thereís nothing you can do. Itís
hunger." Why should she care? I didnít. This was wasting time.
The tall woman looked back sombrely, but a shadow of some deeper
feeling passed over her companionís face. It lent a brief moment of
vivid emotion. Then it stilled, but not before I at last put a name to
the expression which governed her features. Grief, perhaps even despair.
She was working hard, but hers was not a face suited to secrecy. I was
learning to read it well enough. I found it disgusted me. She will get
wet eyes and want to help them, I said to myself. That was all she was
The warrior had moved on. Now she was leaning over little Vessli.
When she looked at me this time, I answered, "She has the eye
sickness. A lot of them do, in the summer, but hers hasnít gone."
The warrior lent over the child again, smiling at her briefly, then
saying, "Gabrielle?" The younger woman moved off at once and
was back swiftly, carrying another of their packs. She opened this to
reveal a store of herbs and several small pots of ointment. The warrior
let her long fingers stir gently through these before selecting a sprig
of something which had dried to a purple colour. "Infuse this in
some boiling water," she said, her tone making the words a request.
Gabrielle was gone longer this time, but not much. When she returned her
companion used the water to clean Vessliís eyes before smearing some
ointment carefully around them.
"Any more?" she asked, looking at me. I kept my face still,
refusing to show my disapproval. These creatures had treated me as a
slave for years. I had not expected my rescuer to spend time healing my
captors. Nevertheless, I told her who else was afflicted. She treated
four settlers in the same way, several more for different ailments. At
first the settlers gathered round, watching doubtfully. Wonderful, I
thought to myself, this will get them killed all right. Teach them to
treat barbarians like people with souls. But after a time the others
ceased looking at them, simply let them get on with their work. The
warrior glanced round, saw they were no longer observed. She looked at
her companion again, raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle now reached out a hand
to touch me on the sleeve.
"Donít be alarmed," she said gently, meeting my eyes with
a steady green gaze. "Your father sent us."
My father. I dug into my memories and retrieved the image of a large
man, red-bearded. I had once believed that he could do anything, even
stop the sun its passage across the sky. Even find me and take me home.
I was cooler in my estimate of him now, but could give him his due. It
took courage and strength of will to transplant a village from Macedonia
and plant it as a new colony near Syracuse. He had done that. And
managed to being me up single-handed, despite my motherís death in
childbirth. I had been ready, almost, to forgive him for failing to
rescue me. And now there was this. Stirring up feelings I wanted to
forget. I felt my face flinch and Gabrielleís hand tightened on my
"Take a deep breath," she advised softly. "And
When my breathing had settled, when I had control again, I only just
managed to stop myself throwing off small womanís hand, stop myself
showing my contempt for her. Did she actually believe I hadnít
guessed? I looked back at her, and she let her hand fall.
"How?" I asked, judging it the most natural thing I could
say in the circumstances. I already knew what I wanted, and it was not
to go back to my father.
"He never stopped looking. In time he came across one of the
pirates who took you, who told him they had sold you to a slaver plying
routes North of the Pillars of Hercules."
I nodded. The slaver had been carried much too far North by a series
of gales, and eventually been wrecked on this shore.
"Will they trade for you?" This was the warrior.
I looked at her for a moment. "No," I said at last. They
would not. They did not trade in people. I looked enquiringly at the
"Her name is Xena," Gabrielle said. Apparently she had read
my face. "Sheíll find a way to help you."
I studied the warrior carefully, wondering how I could get what I
wanted from her. She looked stubborn. I would have to be careful.
"Weíll go tonight," the warrior said. "When theyíre
asleep. Weíll take a boat and be a league away by morning." She
glanced at her companion, almost apologetically, but the younger woman
gave no sign that she had noticed. I would, I told myself fiercely. She
wouldnít have to beg me for a response.
"See?" Gabrielle said to me. I could hardly bring myself to
look at her, had to fight to keep my face expressionless. "She
always knows what to do," the small woman went on. "Is there
anything you want to take with you?"
I hesitated at that, almost changed my mind. There was one thing. But
then I considered a little more. There would be so many difficulties,
and who knew what would be for the best. I shook my head. Why tempt
fate? In any case, their plan would not work. I said as much.
"Why?" Xena was looking at me, a little amused. I bridled.
I had survived all this time without anyoneís help. I knew the place
better than she did.
"Did you see the skulls when you came in?"
"We were hoping it wasnít their standard treatment for hawkers
and tradesmen," Gabrielle said. But they had kept on anyway, I
"Something is stalking them," I said. "At night. It
leaves just the skulls. They wonít let their guard down." Said in
Greek, the first part of this sounded childish, fantastic. Though the
tales of the gods were not bloodless.
"Itíd better steer clear of us, then," Xena said.
I looked at her levelly and felt my lips purse themselves. Gabrielle
was staring at us intently. Now she said. "Do you want us to deal
with that before we leave?" The question startled me. It struck me
as uncannily perceptive, because I realised that I did want exactly
that. I could not imagine why.
All the same, I said, "The winter has gone on for so long. Theyíre
nearly starving. And then this. Itís not fair." It was part of
the explanation, and I seemed to believe it.
"This is a barren place," Gabrielle remarked, non-committally.
"In the summer itís beautiful. Full of light. The sea burns
like molten silver and teems with fish. At night, a cold fire hangs in
green folds from the sky." I had to say it.
"How can you stand to live without trees?" Gabrielle
sounded merely curious.
"Thereís nothing to block out the sky, though." I was
"There have been trees, surely." The warrior rapped a beam
at her back. "Itís not all drift wood?"
I shrugged. What did I care? Gabrielle said, out of a thoughtful
silence, "I bet they did it. Cut down too many trees so there wasnít
enough shelter for the saplings. And introduced sheep. Theyíd eat the
new shoots." She stopped, grimaced apologetically.
Of course, that was what had happened. But long ago. Foolish
behaviour. Just the sort Iíd expect of these people. Just the sort she
would understand. But Xena said, smiling slightly, "Iím
impressed," and reached out to move a strand of hair from the
smaller womanís cheek. Gabrielleís face stilled, but she did not
I felt something burn like acid in my gut and half turned from them.
Across the smoke-hazed hall, the settlers moved with the sluggishness of
hunger and exhaustion, their faces drawn and hopeless. In spite of
myself, I said, "This year is different, somehow. The wind should
have changed by now and the air grown warmer. And with the killings on
top of itÖ" I paused, expectantly.
"These things happen," Xena said, her tone flat. "Life
is full of unpleasant surprises. You endure, or you donít." She
turned her head to look at her younger companion. "I suppose we
could stick around till weíve dealt with it, though." She raised
an eyebrow, and lowered it when Gabrielle nodded. "Right then. Tell
me what happens."
I was left floundering. Nothing happened. They went to bed at night,
rose in the morning. Sometimes someone had just, well, gone, and a skull
been added to the line on the wall. No signs. No traces. I said as much.
"But so far itís always been people in outlying steadings?"
"Xena," Gabrielle said, quickly, her voice low.
"Best way to catch it," was the terse response.
"Then Iíll be with you," her companion shot back. Not
soft now, not hesitant. Determined.
Xena looked at her carefully. Her eyes were hooded and her face
still. "Right," she said.
Tork accepted their offer with little fuss, once Gabrielle managed to
make it clearly. Since it included the warriorís demand that he have
the skulls removed and decently interred, it took a little time to
persuade him. He was afraid of giving further offence. However, he
eventually gave in. It was their choice and might help, he was obviously
thinking. And if they failed, then at least he would not have lost two
of his own people. I knew he would not let me go as well, for that
reason if no other. But I wanted to stay with them, or at least with the
warrior. I saw myself proving myself to her, saving her, being carried
away by her. The small woman was never with us in these dreams, which
never lasted long. I cursed Tork for stopping me, and Gabrielle for
stealing my place, and I watched Xena for what remained of the
As the light began to fail, Xena unwrapped the blanket roll she had
carried in on her back. Within it was a sword, so large that I doubted
any man in the settlement could lift it. It drew them like honey draws
ants. While they looked on, Xena took out a whet stone, settled it
comfortably in her palm and sharpened the blade, her strokes long and
careful. Soon a small circle had surrounded her, men on the inside,
children beyond. Just looking.
Gabrielle had apparently been dozing, but at length, perhaps when she
judged them sufficiently enthralled, she opened her eyes and asked,
"So, what do you think is doing all this?"
Most of the men shrugged and shuffled, but did not move off. Ker
finally said, "It comes from the Moss."
"No." The speaker was his nephew. "Donít be
foolish." I knew why he was so angry. These were thoughts the
settlers did not dare say even to each other.
Gabrielle quirked her eyebrow in passable imitation of her companion.
"I smell it, the Moss. After it has come." Ker looked
stubborn. No one argued. They remembered the smell, dark and stagnant.
He went on, "And after Terkel - who can tell?"
"Hold your tongue. This is not something to talk about in front
of them." The nephew glanced at the women sidelong. He did not look
too sure of himself.
"We have nothing to hide." The old man had picked up the
doubt. He settled himself more comfortably, began to speak again in the
tones he used when telling the children one of his stories. Gabrielle,
for a moment, had just their expression on her face. Then she turned to
the warrior and told her what had been said. Throughout Kerís
narrative, he paused so that she could translate his words for her
companion. Actually, I suspected this was unnecessary. I thought she
could understand what was being said as well as Gabrielle could, and
that they had simply decided the younger woman, the less threatening
one, should speak for them both.
"It was just after mid-winter. Many winters ago, this will be.
Torkís fatherís father was chief then. It was a bitter winter, and
what made it worse was a sickness which weakened our children and old
people. Many died. We began to fear there would be no one left by
spring. Just like now.
"Then the dreams started. We all had them. The Frost Fathers
whispered to us in our sleep. They told is that we must make a sacrifice
to them if they were to release their grip on the land, if they were to
help us and give way to the sun. The Frost Fathers told us that was what
they did, the folk who built the stone circle. They sent us dreams of
blood and at length we answered them. We chose Terkel because he was
strange. You know. He had never grown up. Most of us did not count him
"His mother pleaded for him, reminded us of his skills, cast
doubt on the origin of the dreams, accused us of cruelty and cowardice.
We were afraid. We stopped our ears and hardened our hearts. Eventually
we took him to the Moss and killed him and left his body there. That was
where the elder folk left their sacrifices to the Frost Fathers, and
where they did execution too."
I was listening as raptly as anyone else now. I had not heard this
story before. It was not one they would want to share with brennen.
"His mother would not accept that we had done right. She railed
at us and screamed out promises of vengeance. We fed her and kept clear,
judging it best. One night she wandered away and was never seen again. Iíd
guess sheís in the Moss as well. With her son."
Ker stopped talking and looked at his audience. Only the warrior was
unshaken. The rasp of her whetstone had not paused during his tale and
kept going now. "You think itís a matter of vengeance then?"
Her eyes drifted across to Gabrielle as he pondered his answer, their
expression unreadable. The younger womanís gaze was abstracted, her
face even paler. Two lines furrowed between her brows.
"Yes," he said finally. "Or a curse."
"Hm." Xena smoothly, whipped her sword up. It hissed
through the air. She studied the play of firelight on its blade. Even in
the smoky atmosphere of the roundhouse, it shone out brightly. Satisfied
she picked up the scabbard, sheathed it. "Weíll see."
They set out for the steading just before the light failed, walking
past the wall where the skulls had stood without a second glance.
Gabrielle carried a pot of fish soup and some bread the settlers had
spared from their lean supper. I watched them cross to the outlying
mound which marked the place they had chosen to wait in. Frost glittered
on the stones of the walls. There was a keen wind. It raised little
spirals of loose-lying snow and fluttered their furs. They had to lean
into it to walk at all.
I spread my sleeping fur by the stairs that night and lay with my
eyes closed, listening intently. I could hear the settlers sleeping
around me. That rustle was one of the guards, stretching, that cry a
child in the grip of a nightmare. I got up and made my way to the
nursery, where boys and girls lay tangled together like a litter of
puppies. The settlers pooled their children, who treated all adults as
parents. I knelt to stroke a sleeping brow. All safe, I thought to
myself, not inquiring why I should care about this. I squatted, leaned
my back against the wall, found my eyes drawn irresistibly to the
doorway. What was happening on the other side of the settlement? In my
mindís eye I saw the two women sitting much as I was, watching the
opening, firelight gilding the warriorís drawn sword. Would they speak
to each other? I imagined breath frosting the air between them.
When the battle cry came, I was on my feet before its echoes had
finished and hard on the heels of the guards as they burst through the
door. What I saw, froze me, and them as well. The warrior, sword upright
before her, holding it two handed. Her companion, grasping her staff,
circling round to her left. Between them, immense, a form made of fog
and of blizzard. It flickered, now looming here and now there, almost
managing to be everywhere at once. Its head was turning this way and
that way, its arms sweeping the air. The air cracked and froze all
around it. Each one of its gestures made tornadoes of hail twist through
the air. It raised its head and let out a roar. Ice blasted the warrior,
tearing her cheeks with its fine needles. She took a pace backwards, and
it followed. Behind it, the other woman rushed forwards, flailing her
staff, shouting, "Xena!" The wood merely passed through its
body. Off-balance, Gabrielle fell to her knees, recovered herself, had
the staff upright again and firmly grounded as the shape swirled itself
round and bore down upon her.
Screaming, the warrior leapt forward, aiming, I guessed, for the
creatureís shoulders, meaning to ride it and hack it from behind. But
she too passed through it, catching herself at the last moment, tucking
herself into a roll which brought her alongside her companion. The shape
towered above them, remorseless as winter. Gabrielle turned her head
then, and caught my eye. "Bring torches!" she yelled, her
voice barely distinct above the howl which was part of the monster. I
was aware of movement behind, knew the men were obeying her shout. I
could not move at all. Xena moved again, flipping sideways, letting her
sword cut through the air in a long, lazy curve. Clouds whorled from its
surface, hung for a moment, then shot for her throat. They hardened to
hands. She fell to the ground, gasping. Now the shape knelt above her,
its fingers locked round her neck.
Gabrielle seized the first torch to reach her, thrusting forwards,
ramming it home in what should be the bowels of the monster. Screeching
now, the thing reared itself up, taking Xena part of the way and then
dropping her to bat with its hands at itself. Gabrielle ran to her side,
holding the remains of the torch, which had guttered and died. As it
looked down, she hurled the smoking stump with all of her might,
screaming defiance, striking the thing on its head. Nothing happened. It
bunched itself again, swinging back arms, meaning to shred her and take
back the warrior. She would not budge. Calmly, she spread her arms,
raised her chin, meeting its gaze.
I took a torch and with the guards attacked the thing from behind. I
found I wasnít thinking of Xena, not even of myself. It was the
childrenís faces which were at the back of my mind. Most of the
settlement was outside now, carrying firebrands and axes, despairingly
joining the fight. The monster flicked them aside again and again, but
could not deter them completely. In any case, I thought, it seemed
distracted. It turned and turned, trying always to set its eyes upon
Xena and Gabrielle, who were upright again and fighting in step with
Then something seemed to happen inside the creature. The milky swirls
set, its pale outline hardened. Seeing her chance, Xena leapt forward
and this time found something to grasp. She set her hands on its head
and bent it backward with all of her might. Slowly, incredibly, it bowed
itself into an arch of fluid ice. When Xena had the thing bent almost
double, when it was plainly in danger of cracking, it changed again. She
fell to the ground, holding nothing but mist. Streamers and strands of
it unravelled from the bowed shape and curled into the air. For a second
they held different shapes, an old woman and a young man among them.
Then they faded. Everyone looked round. The sun was rising behind the
circle of stone.
"Is it over?" Tork was squatting in front of Xena, who was
resting her back against the stone of the roundhouse. Gabrielle ignored
him, dabbing a cloth at the shallow cuts on the warriorís cheeks. When
she was done, she looked round.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"It doesnít feel over," he answered. "We still feel
Gabrielle looked at him closely, then nodded. "Yes. It feeds on
your fear. And on guilt." She paused, waiting for him.
Tork hesitated. Then he swallowed, and said, "At midwinter, we
decided to feed only those strong enough to survive. The oldest and
weakest we left to die." He swallowed, finding the words painful to
say. "It was my decision."
Xena said, through Gabrielle, "It was the right thing to do. It
saved your lives."
The chief looked up. "That did not make it feel right," he
said. After a minute, he walked away.
I watched the two women again. Something was easier between them, I
saw. Still, when Xena reached out her hand to take Gabrielleís, the
smaller woman flinched.
"How can you touch me?" she said, very low.
"What do you mean?" The warriorís voice was bewildered.
"There must be something wrong about me, something dark,"
her companion said. Her face reddened, then paled. "Why else would
all that happen? Why else would they use me?" Her voice ground into
silence. She stared at her hands and swallowed painfully.
"No!" the warrior said. She sounded astonished now, and her
companion looked up at her for a moment. Xena looked as though she was
going to say more, then looked as though she couldnít find the right
words. Instead she reached out her hand again and seized Gabrielleís.
"No," she said again, softly, shaking her head. Xena was about
to add something to that when I stepped forward. I could not bear to
hear any more. Of course, I had realised by now that I was jealous, but
that didnít stop me. Why should it? I had a right to be jealous, I
said to myself. I was my fatherís daughter, and worthier of the
warrior by far. I was her kind.
"What Tork hasnít told you," I said, more for the sake of
saying something, "is that a few of the settlers are talking about
going back to the old ways. Doing what they did to the boy in Kerís
story." As I said it I realised that I was afraid they would, and
that I didnít want them to.
"Throw someone into the Moss?" Xena asked.
I nodded. "Do you want to see it? The Moss?" I ventured at
random. Anything to keep them apart.
"Might as well," she replied. Gabrielle had been frowning
to herself all this while, but then she looked up at me and nodded too.
I felt a momentís fury, then a possibility presented itself to me, and
I kept quiet.
It did not take us long to reach the Moss. I wondered what they made
of it, the huge, flat expanse dimpled with tussocks of flag wort and bog
grass, humped here and there with banks of dirty-white snow. Xena looked
unimpressed, but Gabrielle shuddered. "What a terrible place to end
up in," she said, softly. "All alone, sinking deep under
that." She fell silent.
Xena put an arm around her shoulders briefly, then turned to look
around. She spotted the stone circle and started out for it, then paused
and looked at her companion doubtfully.
"Iíll wait here, I think," Gabrielle said. Her face was
shadowed again. Xena sighed, but went on.
Gabrielle sat down close to the edge of the Moss, on a boulder
piebald with lichen. I stood behind her. She was watching the warriorís
progress and so was I. When I judged her well out of earshot I said,
"Of course, they might be right.
"Who might?" she said listlessly.
I moved in closer. "The settlers. It worked the last time, after
all." It might work this time too, I said to myself. It could be my
parting gift to them all. And Iíd take my guilt with me. It wouldnít
hang around to plague them.
"Theyíre better than that," she said.
I was a little startled. There was animation in her voice. I hadnít
expected it. "Theyíre just barbarians," I said, more to
"How can you say that?" Gabrielle turned around, looked up.
I could see she was startled to see me so close behind her. She stood up
herself. We were so close I could see flecks of gold in her eyes as they
met mine. She was still looking up. I had only to lean forward a little
and she would over-balance. She held her ground. "They stopped the
"Running out of people," I said callously.
"They were terrified, but they still fought to help us last
night," she went on.
"Even animals fight bravely when their backs are against a
wall." I was nerving myself for my next move.
"They fed you through the winter." That stopped me for a
moment. They had. I had not expected it. I thought they would leave me
to tend to the dying, with no food for myself.
"You wanted us to help them. You cared," she went on.
That should have done it. That should have reminded me that the worst
cage is the one we build for ourselves. It should have made me act, but
it didnít. I recognised the truth when I heard it.
"Thatís how it is," Gabrielle said gently, through my
silence. "You harden your heart so that nothing worse can happen to
you. But something always gets by you. Something will always find its
I wanted to say that only the weak felt that way. I tried, but I
could not. Gabrielle was watching me calmly, though she was a little
pale, and her breathing was slightly hurried. The woman who stood in my
way. I looked beyond her. Wreaths of mist were lifting idly from the
She knows, I thought. Why doesnít she do something? Why does she
just stand there and talk? I wanted to answer, because she is a coward,
because she believes in conscience, because she is not worthy of the
warrior. But I had seen her fight last night and I knew she was no
coward. I was the one who had frozen. And she was fighting now, in her
Time stood still. I heard a gull wail, the moan of a seal, the seaís
salty lament. A number of things occurred to me then. That not all
heroes wore swords. That to endure was a victory in its own right. That
staying alive was no cause for shame. That coming to terms did not mean
defeat. I could feel barriers set in my mind ten years ago waver like
water freed from the frost. I was certain of only one thing: whoever I
hated, it was not Gabrielle.
I took one step back. As I did so, I became aware of a presence not
far behind me. Xena, of course. I wondered what she had seen; what she
had heard. I turned, expecting to see anger directed against me. But she
was looking at Gabrielle, her expression strained.
Gabrielle took a deep sigh. She moved round me, and stood between the
older woman and me. "Itís all right," she said. She smiled
at the warrior. "Donít look like that. Iím all right. And Iíve
got an idea." She went towards Xena and patted her middle lightly.
"You want to hear it?"
Xena looked down at her. "Whatís changed?" she asked,
ignoring everything else. I hung back, but listened anyway.
"Suddenly Iíve remembered that Iíve got something to live
for." Gabrielleís face was serious again for a minute, her voice
a little deeper than usual. Then she smiled again. I blinked. It was a
smile of great charm.
Involuntarily, Xena smiled back. "Me too," she said then.
She glanced at me, her eyes ice-cold, but I knew the danger was past.
Gabrielle went on, looking round to include me in what she had to
say. "You saw it, didnít you? Last night. How the light made it
solid enough to fight. And it was more than the light, I think. It was
everyone out there, fighting together."
Xena nodded. She had reached out her hand and rested it on the
younger womanís shoulder, apparently unconscious of the gesture.
"I think itís strongest when people hide from it, or fear it,
or feel guilty for making it," Gabrielle went on.
"I think youíre right," Xena said. "Things are best
out in the open," she added, more to herself, I felt. Then she went
on, "Can we use that?"
"I think so." Gabrielleís smile widened to a grin.
"Weíll use my secret weapon. Weíll talk it to death." She
tilted her head to one side and raised her eyebrows. "Trust
me." Her face stilled and she seemed to shrink into herself.
"I trust you," Xena said. When Gabrielleís face twisted,
she went on, "Iím the one who shouldnít be trusted."
Gabrielle shook her head in vehement denial of this. "We trusted
one another last night, didnít we?" she said. "Thatís how
we lived through till the morning."
"Thatís it, then. Letís try this miracle cure of
yours," Xena said then, and headed down for the settlement.
It took them the rest of the day to persuade Tork. In the end, he had
looked at me. "What do you think?" he said. I suppressed my
gasp, making myself respond calmly. "I think they are right,"
I said. I could feel the whole settlement watching, aware of a change.
Then I repeated Xenaís words, "Things are best faced out in the
open." As I said this, as I felt Torkís dark brown eyes on my
face, I felt something thaw in myself, felt emotions I believed I had
killed long ago.
The next morning, just after dawn, we all walked up to the Moss. We
were weak from the winter, but filled with fresh hope. Seeing the enemy
and winning a battle had fired us. When we got to the edge, Tork stepped
forwards. He looked down at the Moss, frowning, reaching inside himself
for the right words. At last he said, his voice clear and strong,
"We have come to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness. He called out
a list of names after he had done so, the twelve who had died during the
winter, and one more. All the rest of the settlement followed suit. Each
one named Terkel. When my turn came, I added, "My father."
There was someone else, but the name would not come to me.
Finally Gabrielle stepped forwards. When she got to the edge of the
Moss she turned round and glanced back at the warrior who came to stand
behind her, resting her hands on her shoulders. I didnít recognise any
of the names they spoke, but at the end I heard Gabrielle and Xena both
say, very softly, each otherís names and, after that,
"Myself." Xena bowed her head, rested her cheek on her friendís
reddish gold hair.
We turned to go. As we did so we realised the wind had changed, that
it came from the south. We could feel the sunís warmth at last. Here
and there in the Moss, pinched buds finally opened, clenched petals
unfurled. Drifts of blossom as yellow as butter danced in the wind. I
fancied it was stroking my face as soft as a fern, and that it smelled
faintly of honey. A settler shouted and pointed far out to sea. I
shielded my eyes against the dazzle, shook my head. Finally I could see
a leaf-shaped disturbance of water quite close to the shore. Light
danced in a myriad sparkling points. The shoals had returned. Men rushed
down the slope to their boats, pausing only to snatch down the nets.
"Now will you come with us?" the warrior said very quietly.
I looked at the children, searching for one in particular.
"No," I replied. I felt something inside myself healing,
settling in place. In my head, I added the name I had looked for. Letis.
Myself. "What for? My life is here. But tell my father I love
Xena followed the direction of my gaze. A group of toddlers had lined
themselves on the edge of the Moss, were solemnly throwing stones into
it. Gabrielle had been watching the child for some time already. A
red-haired boy, larger than the others although he was younger.
"Alright," the warrior said. "Itís your choice."
Gabrielle looked at me, and smiled.
They set off the following morning, heading south. Each day would
take them deeper into the spring. They left their trade goods and some
herbs and unguents, took with them amber and ivory, just as two peddlers
should. We are a proud people. We would not have let them go with less.
All the same, I knew, the women took with them something which they
valued much more highly. Gabrielle had spent the night writing down some
of Kerís stories, her face young as the childrenís, Xena watching
her with delight. Now and then the younger woman had looked up to return
her gaze, her own face lit with an enchanted smile. I wished them both
well, and was glad they had found their own spring.
As for me? I look at my son, and let myself hope.
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