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