The Deer -- by Mary Morgan

Neither Xena nor Gabrielle (nor, come to that, Argo) belong to me. They are the property of Renaissance Pictures.

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It was an enchanted forest. Gabrielle was sure of this from the moment she entered it. The message came to her in various ways. She heard in the birdsong, in the sound of running water, in the whisper of the leaves. She smelled it as she passed by thick clusters of pale blossom. She felt it under foot as she strode along the mossy paths. She saw it in everything. The graceful trunks of the trees, the dancing sprays of young leaves, the shafts of light piercing the soft, blue shadows all around. Most of all, she sensed it. This place breathed peace to her.

She needed it. She was angry with Xena, who had left her behind like a child. "After all of these years, she still doesnít trust me," Gabrielle thought. "Or herself," she added, and sighed. "Why canít she tell me whatís wrong?" A small voice inquired, "Why didnít you ask? Why just make a stupid joke and then say yes, go on ahead and Iíll follow after as fast as I can? Shouldnít she know that you care?" The usual debate, she acknowledged, with no answer to soothe her, just the beauty and peace of these trees.

Soon, she began to sense that the forest was troubled. Something disturbed it. Concerned, she turned more attention to the matter, and was then afraid she knew the source. She turned to seek it out. Her search led her deeper and deeper into the heartwood. The further she went, the more she became aware that much more surrounded her than was fully in sight. In the corner of her eye, shapes moved, colours glowed. Later, she would dream of these things. Things shaped like small, white horses but moving like deer would dance before her. Fruit as round and bright as the sun would light up bowers behind thick veils of blue-green leaves. Birds with wings like rainbows would fly by her, not singing but chanting a language which she could almost understand. At the moment, however, she saw nothing clearly. Nevertheless, she was sure something was there.

She did not find the source of the troubling quickly. In time, however, she smelled something familiar, the scent of smoke, of wood burning. She headed towards it, aware that outside the forest the sun would be going down and the light failing. She had not thought what she would do if she had to spend the night alone in the forest, and so she chided herself. How Xena would scold her, she thought.

And then, like the fulfilment of a long-cherished wish, it was Xena she found by the fire. She was sitting on a swathe of emerald turf starred with pimpernel and speedwell. A stream slipped past nearby, through birch and rowan trees. The canopy drew itself back here. Stars blazed white in an indigo sky. The warrior looked up as Gabrielle approached, but she said nothing, just placed another dry bough on the fire and watched the bard as she approached. Shadows moved on her face, but it was only the firelight which made them. Her features were still. It was Gabrielle who spoke, of course.

"Xena, this is great. I didnít expect to catch up with you so soon. Were you waiting for me?"

Babble, babble, she mocked herself. As if she really thought this likely. All the same, she hoped. And she had to say something, break the silence somehow. When Xena unexpectedly answered, "Yes," however, she knew that something must be very wrong. She looked at the warrior closely. There was nothing obviously amiss. Her face was as pale and beautiful as ever, her hair in its usual vigorous disorder. She was looking at her fire and not at the bard now, and this too was usual. Still, Gabrielle could not shake off her dread.

"Have you eaten?" she asked next, partly to express her concern, partly because this was a matter she always took seriously.

"No," Xena answered, her voice very low. Gabrielle looked around her. There was no sign of any game. This was unlike the warrior and her heart sank still further.

"I have something left in my pack." She shrugged it off and extracted dried meat and fruit, flat-bread and a honeycomb. "Thereís plenty for two."

"Iím not hungry, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice sharpened with something like anger.

In spite of this, because her anxiety meant she must, Gabrielle said, "You should eat something. You must keep your energy up. Especially if youíre right and that friend of yours is in real trouble." She was still babbling, she knew. She took a deep breath and made herself hold it.

Xenaís head snapped round and she regarded the bard for a moment. The look struck Gabrielle like a stone. She recoiled. When Xena saw this, she made an obvious effort and smiled, weakly. "Youíre right. Iíll have some, then."

Now Gabrielle was really frightened. Sweat sprang out on the palms of her hands and she rubbed them against her skirt before handing portions to Xena. Her own appetite having fled, she forced down mouthfuls of this and that, watching Xena evidently do the same. When they had finished, she wrapped what was left and assembled the makings of tea. The bough, catching fire, spat out a volley of sparks.

They were sipping the brew before she mustered the courage to speak again. "Whatís wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," Xena replied. No tone, no colour left in that rich voice. On the fire, small, purple flames rippled over the bough and whispered hollowly.

Gabrielle decided the risk was worth taking. She edged forwards, laid her hands on Xenaís arm. "Yes, there is. You know that I know it. Tell me, Xena, please. Itís much worse not knowing." She waited till the blue eyes turned to meet hers, then caught the gaze and held it, not flinching even though the warriorís glare was bitingly cold. It was when Xena confided in her that she knew things could not possibly be any worse.

"Gabrielle, I killed a deer in the forest," she said.

Gabrielle patiently extracted the full story as they sipped their tea. The warrior had entered the forest as dawn broke. It had not struck her as enchanted at all. It was an obstacle to her, nothing more. Something to be got through as swiftly as possible if she were to answer the call for help. She had already been angry, gripped by a black mood, though she did not know why. This was just one more source of annoyance. Cursed, most like. She had had to hack her way through a barricade of briars to get into the place, and once in found no clear path, only a maze of possible routes winding between spindly pine trees over a floor carpeted with their rust-coloured needles. The light was dusty and dim, disguising what lay before her so that several times she fell into brooks and gullies, further confusing her. Her temper flared hotter. Looking up in the hope of regaining her direction from the position of the sun, she had seen only a canopy of black branches. So she had relied on her inner senses instead, trusting to them as a last resort.

From the start, she had been aware of presences around her, of being watched and of being stalked. From the corners of her eyes she saw shapes which later were to haunt her nightmares. There were imps which moved as if their limbs were jointed back to front. Their heads were oddly distorted and sprouted fine hairs and gnarled knots. They looked as if they had grown like roots in the earth. These creatures wore armour seemingly beaten out from cooking pots and pans and trays. Then there were beasts which hugged the ground and oozed their way along it, and others which crawled stealthily along branches just above her head. Birds which looked through human eyes and seemed to see inside her head flew by on leathery wings which snapped and rustled.

Because she was Xena, she attacked what she feared. When a shadow came too close, when it seemed to have lain in ambush and sprung out at her, she pursued the thing and killed it with her chakram. "I didnít know what I would find," she told Gabrielle now. "A chimera, perhaps, or a serpent. But it was a deer. Slender, white, a female and heavy with young. When I realised, I felt sick to my stomach. But thereís no helping it."

After that she would say nothing more about what happened. She told Gabrielle she should go to sleep. "Youíll have a long journey tomorrow," she said. Gabrielle had made careful note of every word spoken, aware each was chosen for a reason, aware of what was not being said. She had told too many stories not to have a good idea of what was missing from Xenaís tale. These last words seemed to her to confirm her suspicion. She concealed this and allowed it to look as if she gave way, going to sit on their bedroll. The warrior did not move, but her face was turned towards the bard, attentive and melancholy. "Goodnight, Gabrielle," she said. It sounded like "Goodbye," to Gabrielleís ears.

"Goodnight, Xena," she responded, struggling not to let grief colour her words. Then she settled back and slowed her breathing, but watched Xena through slitted lids. The warrior polished her armour and her sword, got up to fondle Argo and whisper something in her ears. After that, she sat down by her fire, in full armour still, gazing out at the darkness. Reflections of flames flickered all over her, Gabrielle noted, increasingly drowsy. And, though she had not meant to, Gabrielle now fell asleep.

Gabrielle awoke perfectly aware that she was still dreaming. She wondered what had awakened her and realised that she could hear music, coming from far off. It called her, and she felt impelled to answer this call, although it would mean leaving Xena alone. Illogically, she felt it was the warrior who needed her protection. However, there was really no choice in the matter. She got up and walked past her companion, whose eyes looked unseeingly through her as they stared at the flames. Going up to Argo, she told her to stand guard. The mare shifted and whickered as if she could hear her. Not that it would do any good. Their true defence, she knew, would come from whatever enchantment had reached out for Xena and now summoned her. It was saving them for something else.

Gabrielle sighed, and took one last glance back at the fire and the brooding warrior who sat by it. Then she headed out into the forest, finding her way easily since the moon had now risen. High and full, it turned all things to sable and silver. Moreover, she was now blessed with night vision. She wondered why she was not surprised. Instead she was marvelling at the reality of the dream. She had felt coarse hair under her hands as she stroked Argo, and now could feel, smooth and chill, slim blades of grass against the soles of her bare feet.

The bard was at first a little afraid that she would see the forest as Xena had. She did not. She saw it differently, however. Or perhaps the forest in this direction was different anyway. Where beech and hornbeam had been frequent before, here huge, old oaks dominated. Thick-trunked, splay-branched, thickly leafed, their cracked bark harboured a gallery of fantastic faces, all staring at her. Gabrielle was not frightened by these faces. They fascinated her, enticed her, invited her to write their stories. Nor was she frightened by the silence of the midnight forest, nor by the veils of grey tree moss which brushed her face. Beside her nameless fear for Xena, nothing could terrify her.

After a long time of walking, she saw light ahead, and came suddenly into an open glade. It seemed to be floored with silver. Tiny moons hung from each blade of grass, bowing them down. After a moment she realised that dew drops were reflecting the moon. She looked up. It was floating over the centre of the glade, huge and wrapped in a milky cocoon which gleamed like mother of pearl. Immediately beneath was a mound. A glistening path led towards it, for a breeze had sprung up, shaking the dew drops and making them shimmer. There was a black opening in the side of the mound - clearly a door. Gabrielle walked through it.

The darkness inside was total. She stopped, smelling cool earth and feeling as though she stood in the midst of a vast space. Then a voice spoke, but so deep and low that she could not catch individual words. She caught their meaning, though. "Gabrielle, a bard," she answered. It spoke again and she considered her answer carefully. Then she said, "I want safe passage for myself and my friend."

The voice said, "No." Anger made it distinct and deafened the bard. Gabrielle began to guess at a shape for its owner Ė an enormous, dark shape, all humps and bulging mass and leashed in stillness. She thought she could hear its breath now, and was disconcerted to realise she was breathing in harmony with it. She felt for a moment that if she stretched out her hand she would touch it, and that what she touched would be beating like a heart and as large and as old as the earth. Fear flared, and nearly escaped her control. Then she realised. What spoke was the darkness, the darkness which lay in the midst of the mound, which filled all spaces under the ground. It was the same darkness which filled all those spaces under the skin as well. Life was born in such spaces.

Taking courage from this thought, she said to herself, "Well, what if the earth does smother me now? I canít just give in and go. What will happen to Xena then? What will happen to me?"

So, "Why canít we go? What have we done?" she asked.

Pressing in on her now. Anger. Affront. A life taken from it. A forfeit to pay. She tasted blood on the back of her tongue. Its tang filled her lungs. She had to cough before she could speak again. The cough almost turned into retching. She forced out the words, none the less. "What is the forfeit?" But she thought that she knew.

The darkness closed in tighter around her. It leaned against her eyes and she closed them. Then she saw, the scene printed on the backs of her eyelids, floating, stained red. Xena under the mound, standing stiff-necked surrounded by darkness, defying the darkness. And she heard the demand which broke that defiance. Saw Xena beg on her knees. Forgetting herself, she shouted out, "No, donít do it Xena!" though she knew it was too late. The thing was already done. Then the darkness smothered her sight.

When she came to herself, Gabrielle found she was huddled up, arms tight round her knees, face resting against them. She drew a deep breath and then another. Her skin felt cold. She wiped both palms over her cheeks and found they were wet. Tears still seeped from her eyes. "No," she whispered again. She dragged her self upright. "I wonít let her do it," she yelled at the darkness. Nothing happened.

Then, like a gale, the darkness rushed by her and made a new shape for itself. For a moment, light dazzled the bard. When her sight cleared, she saw a lady, piercingly white, who lit up the darkness. Now she saw that they stood in a chamber roofed with oak roots. The ladyís hair was brown as the bark, her limbs graceful as boughs. "Are you a dryad?" Gabrielle asked.

"I am not. Iím very much older," the white lady said. "Older than dryads, older than those troublesome children you worship as gods."

Gabrielle thought this was true. She felt more at ease for a moment, but then saw her eyes. They were white. "Stone-blind," the bard thought at first, but the eyes were focused on her. Sweat stood out chill on her brow and her back. The eyes shone like twin moons. She sucked in a breath, clenched her hands. "Go on, you fool," she said to herself.

"I wonít let Xena give up her life to save mine,"

"That wasnít exactly the bargain," the white lady said, cool as a scholar discussing a treaty long past. "She bought your life and one day to bring you to safety and tell you goodbye." Her gaze glittered.

Gabrielle froze. "Dear Xena," she thought, "next time ask me." She nearly gave way to despair. Then she wondered, "Why tell me? Why appear to me here?" She looked at the lady, who smiled like a dagger in moonlight. "She likes to bargain. What does she want? What do I have that she wants?" As answers occurred, she mustered her courage and carefully marshalled her words.

Gabrielle woke early the next morning. The first thing she saw was their fire, which had died. The bough had burned to its husk, white barred with blue shadows. "Like the moon," the bard thought. Xena strode up. "Eat quickly," she said, "we donít have much time." Gabrielle did not reply and in minutes was ready to leave. When Xena told her to ride at her back, she obeyed. When the pace Argo set jolted her bones and rattled her teeth in her head, she did not complain. When they paused only to let Argo drink, she asked for no further respite. So they reached the edge of the forest as the day turned towards sunset and there Xena made her dismount.

"Go ahead now," Xena said. In spite of her words, she stared at the bard for a moment, not urging her on. "Book us a room at the Inn."

Gabrielle looked at her from under lowered brows. She had been fighting a battle with herself all this time. "Tell her to go herself," she thought now. "Do something. Knock her on her head and tie her to Argo and send her away." She almost smiled at this ludicrous thought. But was it more silly than trusting the lady? Gabrielle drew a deep breath. Whatever else was unsure, she was certain of Xena. She would not run. Nor would she want her to. Which left her no choice. "No," she answered, "I will not. Iíll stay with you, Xena."

Xena said, "You canít. Iíve a promise to keep." Xena paused, looking down at her friend. She reached out one hand and gently touched the bardís cheek. "Iím sorry I left you behind. It wasnít your fault." She paused, visibly trying for more words. When she could find none, she sighed and said, "Goodbye, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle caught the hand. "Thatís enough. I wonít say goodbye." She took another deep breath, and said, "Iím angry with you, Xena. Youíre hiding things from me." She calmed herself. "At least tell me the truth. Show you respect me."

Xena flushed. "Iíve given my word to go back," she replied.

"All the truth." The bard was remorseless. "What will happen when you go back?"

"Iíll pay for the deer." She watched Gabrielle.

"And I know how: why wonít you tell me? I dreamed all about this last night." She stood tall as she could and stepped close as she could to her friend.

Xenaís breath caught. She seized the bardís jaw and looked deep in her eyes. Then she sighed. "Damn the lady." She shut her own eyes for a moment. "I didnít want you to know," she said softly.

Gabrielle detected defeat in her voice, and felt the sting of tears. She suppressed them. "If you donít let me go with you, Iíll follow. You wonít be alone. Not when you mean to trade your life for mine."

"Itís not about you," Xena replied, letting her hand drop to Gabrielleís shoulder. "Itís my honour at stake." But she stayed where she was, and tightened her grip.

"Youíre right," Gabrielle said. "This isnít about me. Nor about you. Itís all about us. Weíre in this together." She watched Xena think about that. Then she said, "Donít you think I have honour as well?" Gabrielle paused. "Donít you think Iíll stick by a friend?"

Xena smiled, sadly. "I think you have honour. I know that youíll stick by a friend. But as a friend, Iíd much rather spare you."

"Thatís not your decision to make," Gabrielle said.

They went back together. The forest cleared a way for them and they rode along avenues bordered by chestnut and maple and ash. In no time at all they were back in the glade. There was the mound and seated on top was the lady. She looked up when they approached. Gabrielle saw with surprise that her clothing was russet as autumn and her eyes were no longer white. They were green as the leaves in her forest.

"Welcome back, Xena," she said. "Are you ready to pay for my deer?"

"Yes," Xena said. She dismounted and Gabrielle slipped down behind her. Then she took off her sword and with Gabrielleís help unbuckled her armour. When she was dressed only in her shift, she knelt and waited. Gabrielle, waiting beside her, reached down for her hand and took it in a firm grasp.

The lady stood and came down from the mound, stepping nimbly. When she reached Xena she said, "Gabrielle, give me the sword." Gabrielle glanced down at Xena. When she nodded she bent down for the sword and stepped up to the lady. She caught sight of her eyes and saw that now they were blue as the sky. The lady held out both hands, palms upwards, and she laid the blade gently across them. That done, she returned to the warriorís side. The lady raised Xenaís sword, hefting it with no sign of strain. She held it motionless a moment before she brought it down smartly. Although they tried not to, both women flinched.

Then Xena looked along the bright blade and into eyes which were gold as the sun. "Finish it now! Must you play games?"

The lady said, "Get up, Xena. Youíve paid for the deer." She was looking past her now.

Xena glanced sideways and saw Gabrielle wasnít surprised. "What have you done?" she demanded of the small woman.

Gabrielle didnít reply. She was gazing at eyes as dark as a lake in late evening.

The white lady said to the bard, "Donít think I wonít stick to the terms of our bargain."

"I know," Gabrielle answered. She kept herself still with an effort. She wanted to run and to sing out of pure gladness.

Xena stood up, advanced on the lady. "What do you want from her?" she demanded, her voice low, her eyes narrowed.

But she said it to the empty air. There was nobody else in the glade.

Then she turned back to Gabrielle. She said, "Tell me."

Gabrielle met her eyes. "I asked her spare your life." She watched one of Xenaís eyebrows lift and she sighed. "Well," she went on, "I did have to make her a counter offer."

"What?" Xena asked tautly.

Gabrielle shrugged. "My stories."

Xena took a hasty step forwards, then restrained herself. She rested her hands on the bardís shoulders and looked down into her face. "She didnít take them?"

"She said she couldnít, that theyíre not mine." Gabrielleís brow furrowed for a moment. That was how it felt, in a way. That the stories found her, rather than the other way round. Then she went on, responding to the flexing of the warriorís fingers, "But she said I could give them up in a different way."

"How?"

Xena was studying her closely. It made Gabrielle self-conscious. She felt herself redden, but said in a steady voice, "In no way thatís important. I gave her my name, I suppose. My stories will be told for years to come, but everyone will think other people have written them. Homer, for instance."

"But theyíre your stories." Xena was plainly upset.

"What matters to me is that theyíre told. Not who tells them." In any case, Gabrielle thought, I wouldnít tell any more without Xena.

Xena tightened her hold on the bard and flung back her head. "Well, if anyone is listening," she said to the air, good and loud, "and if they hold you to that bargain, hereís a bonus for them. They can have my name too. Let the stories of Homer and the others be about Hercules and Jason and Theseus. Not about me."

"But, Xena," the bard began. She had felt the warriorís words in her bones, heard them echo from the sky, flushed now with sunset.

"No," the warrior interrupted. She held the small woman from her, smiling gently. Then bowed her head and touched foreheads with her. "No, Gabrielle," she said very quietly. "You said it. Weíre a team. We either go together or not at all. In any case, who cares whether people who havenít been born yet think I did something or Odysseus did. Thatís not why I do what I do." Then she grinned. "What matters is that people are helped, not who helped them." She waited for a beat, looking into the bardís eyes. "Okay?"

"Okay, Xena," Gabrielle said, after a pause.

"Then letís get on," Xena said, rather gruffly. "Someone out there needs somebodyís help, remember?" She held on to the bard a moment longer, however. "Thanks, Gabrielle," she said, eventually.

Gabrielle held her gaze. The look in the warriorís blue eyes was wonderfully warm. She let herself bask in it, raising her hands to cover those on her shoulders. Something flickered white in the corner of her eye. If she turned round, she believed, she would see a white deer at the edge of the forest. The bard gave a brief nod to herself, then smiled widely at Xena. "Thank you," she replied.

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