Circle of Stones by Mary Morgan
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Disclaimer: Xena and Gabrielle belong to Renaissance Pictures.

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 her.

"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 ears.

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 something here.

Xena raised one eyebrow. "They were that desperate not to hear a story?"

"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 minute.

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 within her.

"What have you done to her?" She watched her knuckles whiten on the hilt of Xenaís sword. "Tell me, or by the Gods Iíll make you."

"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 slip.

"You canít free her, or any of the others," the voice replied.

"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 enough.

"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 there."

"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 do?"

"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 day."

"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 contentment.


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