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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.
The embers of the campfire flickered in the darkness and the young woman bent forward with a handful of twigs to bring them to life again. She didn't remember it being this cool on her last trip to Corinth. It had been a year since she had passed this way but the path seemed different. The landmarks were undisturbed, the signposts in place but somehow the road seemed longer, dustier, with more twists and turns than when she had last made her way to the city.
She threw more wood on the fire and lay on her bedroll, listening to the crackle as the twigs snapped in the heat. It was a bigger fire than usual but she needed the warmth, needed its company as the flames danced like a living thing before her. If only Xena and Argo shared the campsite with her, then their presence would have been enough to comfort her. But this journey was hers alone and whether it was by choice or by necessity she was still not sure.
Last year she had sat by a smaller fire, scribbling on parchment late into the night, eager to arrive at the city gates, anxious to tell her tales to any and all. She had been disappointed that Xena had not wished to join her, had rankled at the perceived slight, but the hubbub of the city, the excitement of the bards competing, the bounty of tales to hear and to tell had filled her imagination and she had pushed the thought of her warrior friend to the back of her consciousness. And when she did think of her, it was not so much as a friend but as a protagonist, not so much as a woman but as a hero to push her plots into motion, to bear the weight of her philosophies.
And she had failed. But it was not only that another bard had won the prize. Her defeat had been more humiliating than that. She had been booed from the stage, had heard the splat as soft and rotting pieces of fruit had landed on the floor beside her, had felt their wetness on her clothes and body. Xena had warned her of the depths of their hatred for the Warrior Princess, how the memory of the siege by her army would linger like a battle scar. Too late she had understood Xena's refusal to come with her to Corinth. As a bard she was welcome. As Xena's friend, she walked in the shadow of their anger.
And then she began to doubt. How much of her defeat was due to the subject of her tale and how much to the telling of it, she wondered. She had earned many a dinar on the road with Xena in taverns and inns where travelers were as hungry for entertainment as they were for the food steaming on the platters before them. But Corinth was a city, not a backwater village, and audiences there were more discerning, more demanding. Perhaps her tales were not as fine as she had hoped. Even the weakest candle seems bright in the dark.
Maybe she had lost the knack, maybe she had never really had it at all. Of late she had spent more time practicing with her staff than perfecting her meter. As her pulse quickened to the sounds of an attack, as she moved to the rhythms of combat, she knew she had become less of a bard and more of a warrior than she had ever intended. But it had not always been so. Once her sole aim had been to be Xena's bard, to let others know and admire her as she did, to make the stories of Xena's present deeds rise above and beyond the darkness of her past crimes. Now she was uncertain. Maybe she could do more good fighting at Xena's side than telling tales after the fact.
And then her disappointment and confusion had been compounded by guilt. She had waited for Xena at the inn and as the days passed, her impatience turned to anger, her anger to worry and fear. It had been more than a week before the warrior had finally appeared. Her greeting was little more than a breathy whisper, her voice muted by the aftereffect of a neck wound as she shrugged and commented, "Had some.......trouble." And Gabrielle noticed that she limped as she led Argo to the stable.
She had berated herself that she had not been there at Xena's side to protect her but had been too busy telling her tales to an audience who hooted and swore in contempt. The half healed wounds on the warrior's leg and neck were like angry fingers pointed in blame as Gabrielle's eyes were drawn to them again and again. And she guessed rightly that they were now more painful to her than to the woman who bore them.
Xena had at first tried to reassure her, had whispered that she had not been alone, that she had met a friend who had cared for her. When Gabrielle suggested that they head back that way to say thanks, Xena had shaken her head and smiled. "That's all right.......Already did." Characteristically, Xena had not been forthcoming with any details and Gabrielle had not wanted to pursue it when it was such an effort for her friend to speak at all. And as the weeks passed and Xena's voice returned, there had been new adventures to occupy their attention.
She pulled the bedroll up over her shoulders and rolled onto her back. She looked up at the stars and hoped that Xena had found shelter tonight. She smiled as she thanked the gods for a friend who understood her so well, whose guiding hand was so subtle. As the time neared for the competition, Xena had steered their path toward Corinth, saying there was a healer nearby she wanted to study with for a week or so. Gabrielle could accompany her there if she wished, for the healer was also a scholar with a library filled with parchments and scrolls that she might enjoy. Or perhaps she could spend the time in the city.
Xena was giving her an opportunity to resolve her doubts, she knew. The warrior had many skills but it was confidence that gave them their force. Gabrielle had lost that confidence and her own skill lay broken and powerless. It was an ax without a handle, a bow without a string. One could not test its worth until it was mended and tried again. As she and Xena had walked the path towards Corinth, Gabrielle knew they would part company as they had before. She smiled at the thoroughness of Xena's plan. This time her friend would be close by, safe in the fellowship of another healer, busy in the study of potions and herbs. Xena would be honing her own skills as Gabrielle tested hers. There would be no distractions, no complications.
The heat of the fire and the thickness of the bedroll combined their comforts and she felt herself drifting off into sleep. Gabrielle knew she had to go back to Corinth. She would tell her tales again, not because it was so important to win the contest and bolster her pride. But she had to make them listen this time, to listen and to forgive. Perhaps then the healing would begin - for them and for Xena.
Gabrielle pushed open the door of the inn and stepped into the cramped dining area. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light of the windowless room but the sound of rough voices, scuffling feet and wooden trenchers told her that it was crowded, just like the others she had visited this morning. It seemed like every bard and would-be bard in Greece had come to Corinth to try his luck in the competition. And for every bard there were twenty others who'd come just to hear the tales and enjoy themselves.
She stepped up to the bar and leaned forward to talk to the tall barmaid wiping dishes there. The woman's cool green eyes had followed her progress from the street and she nodded a welcome as she bent down to hear. Gabrielle raised her voice to be heard above the hubbub. "Any chance I can get a room and a meal here?"
"I don't know about the room but the meal is easy enough." The barmaid's eyes scanned the room professionally and she gestured with the dishcloth. "There's a seat at that table in the back. You can sit with Sandor."
"Are you sure he won't mind?"
"He won't mind if you don't mind." She gave a wry laugh and added, "Go ahead. He could probably use a little company."
It was little wonder that she hadn't seen the empty seat before. The table was under a stairway, pushed against the wall. Its lone occupant was a big man who sat in the shadows, quiet amidst the commotion of the travelers around him. His dark wavy hair tumbled down to his shoulders and Gabrielle cast an appreciative eye at his chiseled good looks.
"Mind if I sit here?" Gabrielle settled into the chair and set her staff beside her. When she raised her eyes she saw him more clearly and understood why this last chair had remained vacant. Half his face had been scarred by fire, his cheek and brow drawn and discolored. By unconscious habit or intent he had turned it from view and Gabrielle felt his unease as he faced her. She smiled her reassurance. She had learned much about pain in her travels with Xena and knew that scars were not to be feared or disdained. Xena had more than a few on her body and even she had collected one or two in their travels. They were reminders that those who bore them had cheated Death of a victim, at least for a while.
"My name is Gabrielle."
"I'm Sandor." He smiled and reached out to shake her hand. His eyes were lively and quick and as the barmaid had surmised, he was pleased to share his table. "Have you come to hear the bards? They say it's quite a show."
"Actually, I've come to compete....." In minutes they were chatting like old friends. He was a woodcarver, he told her. He had lived by himself in the forest for many years until a friend had encouraged him to try his luck in Corinth. It had been good advice too. The very first day that he'd dragged his cart to the marketplace he had not only sold some carvings but a wealthy merchant had hired him to decorate a new villa. He had worked hard and saved his money and she heard the pride in his voice as he remarked that he planned to open his own shop soon.
The barmaid brought a bowl of stew to the table and Sandor raised his hand in greeting. Gabrielle noticed that his eyes met hers with pleasure and guessed that his appreciation was not solely for the stew. She was strikingly attractive, statuesque, with long hair that shone either red or gold, depending on the light. But she seemed tired and there was a wariness in her face that discouraged easy exchange. She nodded to Sandor and turned to Gabrielle. "I spoke to the innkeeper. He said there are no rooms left. Even the stable's filled. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle shrugged as she watched the barmaid walk away. "Another night under the stars, I guess."
Sandor shook his head. "There are a lot of thieves and roughnecks in town. It might not be safe for you out there alone."
She laughed. 'I'm used to that sort of thing. I travel with Xena." She paused but there was no reaction to the warrior's name from the woodcarver. That's right, he's not from Corinth, she thought.
"Well, look..." He leaned forward. "My lodgings are above my shop but there's a storeroom below with a cot I use sometimes when I'm working late. You're welcome to stay there. Believe me, there'll be nobody to bother you." He added, laughing, "Not even during business hours. I'm not much of a merchant."
Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then nodded her thanks. When she offered to pay for her lodgings, Sandor shook his head. "I'll be happy just to have some company for a few days. It'd be nice to have someone to talk to. As you can probably tell, I love to talk. Besides, when you're tired of listening to me babble, you can test out your stories on me. I like to listen too." He leaned back in his chair, as delighted as a child with a new toy. "It's the best thing I ever did, moving to Corinth. There's always interesting people to meet, always something happening."
As Sandor and Gabrielle finished their meal, the innkeeper passed their table in search of his barmaid. His dark, ferret-like face was tight with irritation as he called her into the kitchen and the rumble of his angry words filtered through the thin wall.
"I saw that, Petra. I saw you give that cheese to that damned kid. I told you I'm not here to feed beggars. They're like dogs. You feed one, they all come sniffin' around. I'm not runnin' a charity here. That's coming out of your pay."
Her voice was low, almost bored. "Take the damned dinar. It was just a hungry kid. Think of it as good for business. Give him something to eat now, maybe he'll find somebody else to rob later on. A stale cheese end....You won't miss it."
"Yeah, well maybe you won't miss this job either when I throw you out on your behind, I catch you doing that again. I'm warning you, Petra. You give any more scraps to beggars, that's the end of the road."
Sandor and Gabrielle exchanged glances as the tall woman brushed past their table. The innkeeper's words had been loud enough for most of the customers to hear and all eyes were on Petra now. She took up her cloth and wiped down the bar with unnecessary vigor and it was clear to all that she was just barely holding her temper.
One of the men at the end of the bar, a laborer by his looks, had slapped his palm on the counter at the mention of her name and pointed at her now, leering. "Petra, huh? I thought you looked familiar. I know you."
She glared at him in warning and muttered something softly that sent the customers closest to her into gales of laughter. Angry now, he approached her and leaned over the bar until his face was inches away from her chest. "Of course, you weren't so generous back in Athens. As I recall, you weren't giving anything away until you got those dinars in your hand first." He turned to the crowd, pleased that he had captured their attention with his wit. "Course, it's not cheese we're talking about here. More like a nice piece of...."
He never saw it coming. The earthenware mug crashed down on the top of his head and his chin hit the bar with a force that rattled his teeth. Petra put her hand on his forehead and pushed him off the counter like a leftover crust of bread and he tumbled to the floor with a thud.
The laborer's friends rushed to his side and one raised his arm to strike the angry barmaid. But another patron deflected his blow and soon the entire dining room exploded into chaos. The patrons took sides at first, Petra's supporters versus the laborer's, but soon all combatants were brawling with the gusto of travelers ready for any kind of excitement.
Gabrielle and Sandor watched from their niche beneath the stairwell as food and drink flew through the air. Sandor searched the crowd for a glimpse of Petra and found her beside the bar, armed with a wineflask, swinging it at any and all who dared approach her. Sandor pointed to the door and began to edge his way around the crowd, gesturing for Gabrielle to follow him. They were halfway to the door when Sandor jerked backward suddenly, Gabrielle's staff inches away from his face. He was startled by her move but then she turned it around and Sandor saw the knife blade embedded in its side. "A trick a friend taught me," she remarked.
"Someone's going to get hurt." Sandor sighed, changed direction and waded into the fight. First he grabbed the two men nearest him by their tunics and as Gabrielle opened the door, he threw them both outside. Then Gabrielle swung her staff and knocked the knife from the hands of another brawler. She headed in the opposite direction from Sandor and slowly they began to make their presence felt.
Meanwhile, Sandor had grabbed two more men and knocked their heads together soundly, dropping them to the floor. As Gabrielle worked one end of the room, Sandor concentrated on the other. Two by two he cut a path through the melee until he stood by Petra's side. "That's enough," he roared and the sheer volume of the sound was enough to still the room. "Get out of here before I get mad."
In seconds the inn was deserted. Only Petra, Gabrielle and Sandor were left standing amidst the spilled wine, overturned plates of stew and broken furniture. Then the innkeeper slowly emerged from behind the bar, his eyes wide with shock as he surveyed the damage.
"Get out of here." He glared at Petra, his lower lip quivering in rage. "And take your friends with you. I run a respectable place here. I don't need no damn whores behind the counter, causing fights and wrecking the place. Get out of my sight. You're fired."
Petra spat on the ground, missing his foot my inches. "Respectable, my ass. You're a miserly old bastard who waters down the wine and cheats anyone you can every chance you get. I'm glad to be rid of you." She started to walk past him.
"Where do you think you're going?" He put out a hand as if to stop her but drew back when he saw the anger in her face.
"I'm gonna get my things."
"Oh no, you're not. Anything I can get for them goes toward the damages. And that goes for your wages too. You're lucky I don't call the magistrate and have you thrown in jail." He tugged on his tunic, all self satisfaction and self righteousness. "Don't come back here again. You need a place to stay, there's a brothel on the other side of town. I'm sure they'll find a bed for you there."
Her fist was speeding toward the innkeeper's face when Sandor stepped between them. He bent over as if to brush his pants and her fist flew over his shoulder with a swishing sound. Gabrielle watched in amusement as Sandor's backside collided with the innkeeper and sent him sprawling to the floor. The dust had barely settled as Sandor turned and politely took his arm, helping him to his feet.
"Sorry," he said, "Gotta watch myself. Someone could get hurt." Sandor voice was soft, mild and the innkeeper cocked his head in confusion. He had a suspicion that he had just been threatened or warned but Sandor's demeanor was so calm, so controlled that he hesitated to respond. "Yeah, sure," he muttered. With one last glare at Petra, he turned and stomped back behind the counter.
Gabrielle stifled a smile as she, Sandor and Petra emerged into the harsh sunlight. The barmaid nodded to them both and muttered "Thanks" before heading down the street.
Sandor stared at Gabrielle, surprised at the sudden departure and shouted after Petra, "Hey, where are you going?"
Petra stopped and turned to face them both. She shrugged her shoulders, "Doesn't much matter."
The woodcarver looked at Gabrielle as if for help and then seemed to make up his mind about something. "Wait. I need a woman like you..."
"I'll bet you do but I don't do that anymore."
Sandor flushed beet red and Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand as she saw the ghost of a smile on Petra's face.
"No, no. This is a business proposition," he protested.
"Let me tell you, big fella. It always is."
This time Gabrielle laughed out loud and Sandor suddenly realized that both women were amused by his consternation. He had often been the object of ridicule but to be teased like this was a new and pleasant experience. He smiled broadly and continued. "Come to my shop and listen to what I have to say. If you're not interested, you can leave. No harm done. It'll only take a few minutes." Petra turned to face him and Sandor noticed that her lip had been split in the fight. "Look, your lip's bleeding. Come on. You can wash your face, have some tea and figure out what you want to do next. Give yourself a chance to pull yourself together."
Petra seemed hesitant, then shrugged and fell into step beside them. Why not? She had no place to go and nothing left to lose.
It was only a short walk to Sandor's shop and within minutes the trio had reached their destination. The heavy door creaked as he pushed it open and ushered the two women in, for once silent as he allowed them into this, his sanctuary. It was almost as if after inviting them to his home, he regretted the decision as he placed himself and his work under their scrutiny. He knew that his work was good but he was still unsure that he would be able to make a living at it without the patronage of wealthy men. It was the approval of people like these, everyday citizens, townsmen and their wives that he would need to keep his independence, to make a living.
Unlike most shops on the street, this one was bright and sun filled, for Sandor had made a window in one wall that welcomed the sun and provided the light by which he worked on his carvings. The smell of freshly cut wood and the scent of oils filled the chamber and the room was warm and welcoming, much like its tenant. Gabrielle felt very much at home here and even the wary Petra felt the stiffness in her neck and shoulders begin to fade as she looked around.
For it was Sandor's work that dominated the shop even more than his actual presence. His carvings were strewn about, almost carelessly - leaning up against the walls, lying in the corners, spread out across the counters and workbench. Everywhere there was wood, some finished pieces polished and shining in the sunlight, others only half formed, promises of the carvings to be, while yet others were little more than blocks and planks awaiting the craftsman's hand to be transformed.
Petra and Gabrielle looked at one another in wonder. The carvings were beautiful, each one artfully wrought, displaying an imagination and skill that neither had expected from the bearish Sandor. His disfigurement seemed incongruous, out of place in this room were so much was a whisper from perfection. Gabrielle ran her fingers over the surface of a wooden box, half expecting to feel the soft down of the dove carved there instead of the smoothness of the polished oak that met her hand.
Meanwhile Petra stared at the carving of a horse that stood on one worktable. It reared and hung in space, frozen in time, and as Petra looked into its eyes, she felt the life and movement there as if it would break free at any moment. Sandor had caught the power of the beast in the ripple of its muscle, the will of the animal in the twist of its neck, the fire in its eye. This was a horse that would be tamed by no one, a horse that would accept only a rider whom it judged worthy, a rider who would be its equal in courage and loyalty. She picked the carving up and held it in her hand, admiring.
Gabrielle caught the motion out of the corner of her eye and glanced at the carving that Petra held. Perhaps it was the pale color of the wood or the startling pose, perhaps it was the woodcarver's skill in rendering such an animal, but her response was quick and sharp. "It looks like Argo," she almost whispered aloud. And then she smiled to herself, shaking her head. Only a few days and she was missing them already.
"They're beautiful, Sandor," Gabrielle spoke softly as Sandor led them upstairs to his lodging. He nodded his thanks, but she saw the smile of pleasure on his face. "Your carvings belong in a place like Corinth where people can see them. You were right to leave the country and come here."
"Well, that wasn't my only reason for coming but I appreciate the compliment." Sandor introduced the women to one another and then busied himself putting the kettle on. Then he sat them down at the table and set out cups and some bread carefully as if he were trying to figure out what he was going to say now that he had them here.
He handed Petra a bowl of warm water and a cloth and she dabbed at her lip, waiting for him to begin. She and Sandor had never exchanged more than a few words before and she was suspicious, doubtful. She needed a place to stay for the night and she would suffer his story if she had to. She shook her head and promised herself that she would not be here long. Once she had a few dinars in her pocket, she would be gone. Another city, another inn perhaps. It didn't matter where or when. The only thing she knew was that she would never go back to Athens. That part of her life was over. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back. Her life was like so many rooms, one leading into the next, their doors shut and locked behind her, passageways that led nowhere. She heard the drone of his voice and brought herself back to the present.
"It's not quite ready yet. All it needs is a little straightening up." Sandor poured the tea and settled down. "When I first got to Corinth, I worked for a merchant who was building a new villa. He paid me a fair price but I really want to work for myself. I don't want to be at the beck and call of overbearing men with no taste and too much money." He looked at Petra like a lawyer arguing a case before a judge, anxious, determined. "If I can, I would rather sell my wares a piece at a time, to people who appreciate them. But I'm not a shopkeeper. That's where you come in."
Sandor got up and began to pace as he spoke. It was clear he had gone over his plans many times before in his mind and Gabrielle and Petra looked at one another as he walked to and fro, nervously, excitedly.
"Petra, I've seen you at the inn. I've watched you. You're good with numbers, you can even figure out accounts in her head. You're careful in your work and honest with the customers. I need someone like you to work in my shop. " He stopped for a moment and looked her in the face, afraid she would laugh or leave. When she did neither, he smiled with relief and continued. "I'm much better at making carvings than selling them. Besides, I'm too damn ugly to run a business. People are more tolerant in Corinth than where I came from but I'm not kidding myself. It would be a lot smarter to have a pretty woman behind the counter than a pock faced old craftsman like me. Well, what do you say?"
Petra was about to laugh when something in Sandor's eyes held her back. He was like a puppy, this one, she thought, with those big brown eyes. A big child with big dreams. He doesn't even suspect how the city can beat you down, can take all you have and then throw away the carcass. She bit back the sarcasm that was her usual reaction and sighed. It wouldn't pay to aggravate him. He was big, this was his house and she needed a meal and a bed tonight.
"Sandor, how am I supposed to help you? I don't know anything about running a business. You've seen me hand out food and drink, that's all. Besides, you don't even know me. I'm a stranger to you. How do you know I won't take off with your money first chance I get?"
Sandor shrugged. "It's a chance we'd both have to take. You don't know me either. How do you know I won't get you to set up my shop, work for me and then cheat you out of your earnings like the innkeeper did?"
Petra's seemed at a loss for a rejoinder. Sandor sat, hopeful. She had not rejected his offer outright, as he had feared and he was certain that the longer the silence, the more likely it was that she would take him up on the job. He had been rash perhaps to make such a suggestion at all but the trouble at the inn had seemed to create such an opportunity for him.
Petra sipped her tea and looked him in the eye. Her green eyes were clear, her expression frank when she finally answered him. Her voice was low, almost daring him to contradict her. "It wouldn't work, Sandor. That man at the bar was telling the truth, you know. Word'll spread. It might not be good for business to have someone like me here. I'm not the kind of person most people like to have around."
Sandor cut more bread and handed her another slice. "Neither am I. But if we're here long enough, they'll just have to get used to us, won't they? What do you say? You can always walk out that door whenever you want."
"All right. I guess we can give it a week or two."
Sandor beamed. "You can stay as long as you want but I have to be honest with you. I can't pay you very much but I can offer you a room and meals as part of your wage. So if you and Gabrielle don't mind sharing the storeroom for now, I can get an extra cot....."
Gabrielle nodded, "I'll be leaving right after the competition. Sooner than that if I don't make the finals. I don't mind sharing if you don't."
Petra nodded her agreement. At least she'd have a roof over her head tonight. Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad after all. She had thought it wise to remind him of Athens but he had seemed neither titillated not appalled by her confession. Perhaps Sandor was different, perhaps he truly didn't care.
But even as the thought passed through her mind, Sandor rested his palms on the table. "Then it's settled. You stay. There's only one condition I'd like to make about the arrangement."
Gabrielle saw Petra stiffen and look at Sandor with a sudden flash of cynicism. "I know. You run a respectable place here and you don't want me earning any extra dinars on the side. The only customers I'm to bring in here are yours, not mine." Her tone was sharp, disgusted.
Sandor smiled, unmoved by the change in her tone of voice. "Actually I was thinking more along the lines of would you cook? It's a wonder I haven't poisoned myself, the things I do to innocent meat and vegetables."
Taken by surprise, Petra laughed in spite of herself. It was a deep and throaty laugh, rough as if from neglect and Sandor was pleased to hear it, thought it almost musical. He determined that from that moment on he would amuse her as often as possible, until the rough edges were worn away and the laughter flowed easily and lightly from her throat. He looked at Gabrielle and caught a flicker of understanding in her face, as if she had read his mind and knew what a challenge it was to bring laughter to one who had lost the gift. Foolish imaginings, he thought. Sandor, you can be such a damned fool sometimes.
It didn't take long to convert the small storeroom into suitable sleeping quarters. Sandor moved some tools and wood out to the shop while Gabrielle and Petra set up a borrowed cot adjacent to the one already there. Sandor brought down a small chest of drawers and a lamp from his own lodgings and soon the room was ready.
Gabrielle was eager to register at the competition and as she and Sandor departed, Petra declined their invitation to accompany them. She was tired, had a headache. She would start to prepare supper, if that's what Sandor wanted her to do. In truth, she was glad to be alone. It had been an eventful day and Petra knew she must sort things out. Sandor's offer was unexpected and seemed to be a stroke of luck but experience had taught her to reserve judgment. So often her luck had run out, so many times a supposed friend had caused her grief, caused her pain that she readied herself for flight even as she rested in her new surroundings.
Once again she had no belongings, no money, nowhere else to go. How long before Sandor's offer would fail her too? Even if he were sincere, how long before he became embarrassed by the talk that would surely follow the scuffle at the inn? And if by some act of the gods he did succeed, how could she do what he asked? The only business she had ever conducted had been in darkened alleyways and she had not even been a success at that. Her career had been brief and disastrous. Sandor might be better off if she just helped him get started and then left.
She climbed the stairs to Sandor's room. It was neat but spare and there were surprisingly few personal belongings for someone who had been in Corinth for half a year. It was obvious that he had put all his effort and earnings into the shop. She would not have thought he was a man fired by such ambition. He wanted independence, to be sure, but he was modest about his talents. He was probably the best woodcarver in Corinth but never once had he confessed that to be his goal. He seemed to want security rather than wealth, had desired to make a home here, to establish roots. She smiled to herself ruefully.
She found Sandor's larder, a wooden box with some vegetables, a little dried meat, a tin of lard, a sack of flour, some dried herbs, a box of salt. Petra sat at the table and looked around her almost helplessly. She felt a chill and realized that she hardly knew where to begin. It had been so long since she had cooked for anyone. She had served the food at the inn but that was different. There had been no planning, no choices. The innkeeper had thrown together the stew, had baked the bread. She carried food to and fro, that was all. The platters might have been bolts of cloth, sacks of feed, any merchandise to place before a customer in trade for dinars. It was commerce, not cooking.
And now she had agreed to cook a meal, many meals. Oh well, it would be just one more reason for Sandor to regret his hasty offer. She had not given much thought to food in so long. So many nights she had never eaten at all. There had been only slop to eat on the slave ship that had brought her to Greece and not much more or better after that. When she had finally escaped, she had hidden in the woods and eaten berries and fruit. They had tasted good, clean, untouched by the slavemaster whose hand had offered stale bread or wielded a whip with the same indifference.
She had made her way from one village to the next but there was no one willing to hire a runaway and a Trojan at that. She'd sometimes begged for scraps from fellow travelers on the road until she had found herself in Athens and had finally made her way at a job where no one gave a damn about her past and cared even less about her future.
She emptied the wooden box and found some cooking utensils nearby. They were as beautiful as everything else Sandor created. The knife handle was a graceful curve, made to fit a big hand, one larger than her own. But she liked the feel of it - solid, strong, comfortable. She began to chop the vegetables and in minutes they were ready. She filled the kettle with fresh water and added fuel to the fire. A quick soup would probably keep him happy and the little bard was a guest, not likely to voice any preferences.
But they had eaten all the bread with their tea and would need more to soak up the broth. Petra opened up the flour and smelled the freshness of it as the pale dust rose from the neck of the cloth sack. She put her hands into its softness and felt her fingers sink in. She put some in a wooden bowl, added water and began to form the dough, feeling its texture change as her fingers worked it from a rough grainy mass into a warm smooth ball. Its surface responded to her touch as she pressed it into the tabletop, worked it with her palms, stretched her fingers around it, pushed and pulled it. Unconsciously, Petra began to hum, lost in the pleasure of a pursuit common to many but so long forgotten by her.
There was no specific moment in which she decided that a loaf would not do but almost as if her hands had suddenly taken control, she flattened the ball out on the table. She looked around the room, then went down to the workshop until she found a heavy wooden dowel that would serve her purpose. Then she began to roll out the dough and swiftly cut it into squares. Without thought, without deliberate plan, she added the meat and vegetables, folded the dough into neat, precise triangular pies. Then she pricked a design into the top of each one with the point of the knife and set them in the oven to bake ever so slowly.
Her work done, Petra sat by the window, watching the traffic on the crowded street below. It seemed odd to sit here in late afternoon, the sun's warmth on her face, waiting for someone to come home for supper. She closed her eyes and leaned backward. Her headache was gone now and she dozed, relaxing in Sandor's comfortable, oversized chair.
She had no idea how long she slept or if she really slept at all. Gradually she became aware of the aroma that filled the room. The pies were baking and they were fragrant as a flower. She felt warm, partly from the oven, more so from memory as images and recollections flashed across her mind. She was anxious for the pies to be done now, ready to feel their heat on her hand, in her mouth. She remembered how good they had always tasted, how the steam would rise when her teeth cracked the flaky crust, releasing even more of their bouquet into the air. She remembered how Caryl would always say that these were the best ones she had ever baked, how he had always saved one or two to put in his tunic pocket when he went out to plow. She remembered how the baby had held them in his chubby, awkward fingers and had rubbed the crusts against his sore gums when he was teething....
She sat up abruptly and looked around Sandor's lodgings, startled, her eyes darting around the room as if expecting to see someone there. But she was still alone and she cursed as she saw that her hands were shaking. She crossed her arms before her and held her hands tight against her sides, willing them to stop, rocking back and forth. But instead she felt the tremor spread to her chest and for the first time in years, she felt the tears come.
"Entry fee? What are you talking about?" Gabrielle stood before the registration table, staring at the bored young man who sat there. "There was no fee last year."
"Well, last year was different. This time it'll cost you five dinars to say your piece. Even at that we got about thirty bards signed up this year."
"Thirty?" Gabrielle was dumbstruck. "There can't be thirty bards in all of Greece, let alone here in Corinth."
The registrar laughed. "Nothing like a three hundred dinar prize to get somebody to try a new line of work. You going to pay or not?"
Gabrielle fumbled in her pouch. She hadn't come this far to turn around now but she mourned the loss of her spending money. Thank the gods Sandor had offered her lodgings. She handed over the money and sat on a bench nearby. She scanned the faces of the other bards in line and recognized none of them. There were a few adventurous boys who were probably not even spectators last year. They would soon learn that the telling of a tale was not as easy as they expected. Anyone could tell a joke in a crowded tavern and get a laugh but there was so much more to it than that. But she couldn't fault them for trying. Three hundred dinars was a lot of money and well worth a trip to Corinth.
She spotted a group of travelers newly come to the registration and thought that one or two looked familiar, looked like students from the Academy. They would be real competition for the farmboys, she thought. Or for me, she realized. The news of the prize had added another dimension to her efforts, had added complications. She had come to test herself and her skills - that she had been clear about. But she was not at all sure what she should do now.
She could play the Academy game. She understood the classics, knew the subjects and styles that were expected. She knew the meters and the rhymes. She knew what would please the crowds who cared about neither but who knew a good story when they heard one. Tales of heroes and their exploits, tales of gods - There was so much she could do with three hundred dinars. She could buy parchment and ink for herself, could buy Xena a cloak to replace the one that had been torn when she had been hurt last year. She could send some back to her sister Lilla and there would still be enough left to see them through the winter, Xena, Argo and her. Maybe she could.....
But she reminded herself, the competition had cost her five dinars already and she hadn't come here for money at all. She had come to tell her tales her way. She had not come to pander but to explain, not to dazzle them with tricks but to deliver the truth. If she could only do that. She was older now, wiser. She had seen more of the world, understood more. It was not an impossible task, to tell tales to those who were anxious to hear them. Let others do battle over the prize.
"Hey, weren't you here last year?"
Gabrielle looked up to see a young man pointing in her direction. "Yes, I was."
"I thought so." He nodded to his companions and she tried to read the expression on his face. "You're the one who told the story about Xena. Well, I wouldn't have thought you'd have the nerve to show up again. I'm glad to see you're back."
"You are?" Something in his smile rang false and she waited for his response. "Have you heard other tales of her conversion?"
"No," he laughed. "But my old man sells fruits and vegetables not far from here. You ought to be good for business."
Gabrielle walked away, the sound of their laughter following her footsteps. Well, nothing like a challenge once in a while. She sat down on a bench next to a middle aged man who seemed pleased at the turnout. "Are you competing?" she asked him.
"No, I'm one of the sponsors. My name is Titus. I'm a merchant here in Corinth. " He was richly dressed and Gabrielle noticed the rings on his fingers, gold and silver, every one. "We're furnishing the prize. It was my idea to offer one this year. And it really brought the crowds in. About time they listened to me."
What a windbag, she thought. For lack of any other diversion, she decided to lead him along. "It's really unusual for a merchant to be so supportive of the arts."
"Well, it's not bad for business either. The competition has bought lots of travelers to town. Some want to compete and some just want to listen to the bards. But they all spend money while they're here. Besides, I think it's very important for men like me to become more involved in civic affairs." He smiled as he looked at her. She was so attractive, he thought. So easily impressed too. "One hand washes the other, as they say."
Gabrielle smiled to herself. And I'll bet your hands are pretty dirty, my friend. He was a shady character for all his pomp and attire and she had seen dozens of others like him in her travels with Xena. Probably made his money in slavers or the like and now wanted to be a grand man in town, trying to buy a little respectability.
"My fortunes are very closely tied to the city. I've just built a beautiful villa here and my business is....." His voice droned on and Gabrielle sat up quickly. Perhaps this was the merchant that Sandor had spoken of.
"It must be very hard to find talented builders and craftsmen when you have a project like that. I'm told that the very best carpenters, sculptors and masons work mostly in Athens. There are so many temples there that they just...."
"That place is overrated. I have one of the finest homes money can buy, here or in Athens. I have the grandest mantelpiece you'll ever see, one that'll match anything you can find anywhere. It was carved by a local woodcarver who's a master of his craft, only he's too fresh from the backwoods to know it yet. I was smart enough to get him before he realizes his worth. Next year it'll cost you five times that much to get a mantelpiece like that."
Gabrielle lowered her head so that he could not see her disdain. Suddenly she felt angry that such a shallow man should have taken advantage of her new friend. Well, perhaps she could do him a good turn now. "A new villa is so exciting. It must be very gratifying to invite others, especially your rivals, to dine with you in the middle of all that grandeur. The food must taste like gall to those who have never achieved what you have. And you know, I would have given anything to have seen the grand banquet you must have had for a special occasion like this. So many men of wealth and influence have come from all the other city states to visit Corinth and listen to the bards. Not to mention the other sponsors and city officials. What a wonderful opportunity for you to make the right connections, if you know what I mean. And once they saw that fine home of yours, I'm sure they knew what caliber of man they were dealing !
As Gabrielle rose to leave, she could see that Titus was deep in thought. More than likely he would return home to send out his invitations and order his cook to prepare a feast. And tonight or tomorrow, as he displayed his wealth and the objects it could buy, there would be those with just as much money and certainly more taste who would see Sandor's work. Certainly they would marvel, perhaps they would ask a question or two, and then hopefully they would seek out the scarred woodcarver for treasures of their own.
As they say, she said to herself, one hand washes the other.
She had gone only a few blocks when she saw Sandor sitting alone on a bench, watching the children play in the city square. "Hi," she said, settling down beside him. "Waiting for someone?"
"In a way." He smiled his hello and turned his gaze back to the square. "My wife and daughter are living somewhere in Corinth. I haven't seen them in years. That's why I came here. I want to find my daughter."
"You think you might find her playing in the square? Corinth's a big city, you know."
Sandor shrugged. They sat in silence for a few moments, then Gabrielle spoke softly. "It's none of my business but I saw wounds like yours in Troy. Were you and your wife separated by the war? Maybe your wife doesn't know you're back. You know, she might be looking for you too." Gabrielle was trying to reassure him but his lips were a thin tight line as he considered her words.
"No, it's not as easy as all that. I'd already come back when she decided to leave. She wanted excitement, opportunity. She's a beautiful woman and likes pretty things. They both deserved better than I could give them. So I let them go and made my home in the woods. But now I've decided to start over. Who knows? We could meet again."
"You might get your family back, Sandor. I think you'll really be a success when people see what you can do. Maybe your wife will hear about you and..."
Sandor smiled. "No, that's not it. I'm sure Mara would be happy if she never had to look at me again. I just want to make sure my little girl is okay. I just want to see Lora again."
"Your wife may not want to give her up, Sandor."
"I know that. I don't want to disrupt their lives. If Lora has a good home, enough food, clothes, if she's happy, that's all I need to know. I just want to be able to see her once in a while, to be there if she needs me. I just want what's best for her."
Sandor stood up abruptly and cocked his head in the direction of his shop. He'd said more than he had intended and seemed embarrassed. "Let's go see if Petra's still there. I can't wait to see if she can cook. " He stopped and then bent over as if to confide in her. "But she looks like the kind who wouldn't hesitate to give us what for if we came home late for supper. Did you see her swing that wineflask at the inn? We'd better get going or we'll be in trouble."
They were both laughing as Sandor opened the door of his shop. The smell of fresh baked pies greeted them and Sandor seemed stunned. Gabrielle was halfway up the stairs before she realized that he was still standing by the door, enjoying the sensation. "Are you coming?"
Petra stood by the window. Gabrielle thought she seemed tense, like an animal ready to bolt if there were any sudden movement. She nodded at Sandor and Gabrielle and was silent as they looked around the room. She had set the table for the three of them with Sandor's wooden cups and bowls neatly placed on the tabletop. The kettle was steaming on the hob and the room was warm, redolent and it seemed to welcome them even as Petra stood back, wary and distant, unable or unwilling to share such comforts.
Sandor commented, "You've been busy." Petra waited until they were seated and then brought a platter from the oven to the table. It was covered with a white cloth to keep the heat and Sandor folded it back, slowly. He looked at the golden pies, at the patterns she had poked in the crusts before taking one in his hand. "You've baked them the Trojan way. I haven't had these since the war."
It was as if he had slapped her. She flushed, the color filling her face for a moment and then she spoke, almost in a whisper. Her voice was angry, accusatory. "You were one of Menelaus' men. In Troy."
He nodded, puzzled by her reaction. "Yes, for a time."
"Is that where you left the other half of your face?" Her words hung in the air, ugly, angry, as if inviting attack.
Sandor held the platter up, offered it to Gabrielle. Gabrielle looked at him, expecting to see the hurt that she knew he felt, but his features were impassive, unreadable. He put a pie on his own plate. His voice was calm, as if he had not noticed her tone. "Yes. Is that where you left your manners?" There was silence for a moment before he continued. "They smell wonderful. I never expected anything this nice."
Petra turned to face the window and tried to catch her breath. He hadn't deserved that. It had been a stupid and cruel thing to do. It looked like Trojans had already given him enough pain for one lifetime. Why take any more from her? Why did she always have to ruin things?
He crooked his finger at her as if she were a child. "You'd better sit yourself down if you're going to eat any of these. I can't promise I'll be able to stop myself once I start. My manners are apt to slip a little too when food's concerned."
She slowly slid into her chair. She stared at her plate, at first unable to look him in the face, until finally their eyes met and Sandor saw the regret and the pain there. She had always seemed so distant, so detached at the inn. He suddenly realized that his rash offer of a job could be far more complicated than he had thought - for himself and for her.
Sandor whispered, "That's all right. I've heard worse, much worse." He offered her a pie and sat back in his chair. "I thought we might start going over the stock tomorrow. And we should figure out how to display the carvings I already have. Maybe I could put up a few shelves. What do you think ?" He rattled on, anxious to put his plans into action.
After a while, he asked Gabrielle about the competition and asked a dozen questions about the rules, the other entrants, the kinds of stories that would be told. Petra kept her silence and busied herself clearing the table. Soon she headed downstairs to the storeroom, leaving the two of them to their conversation. Sandor poured more tea and Gabrielle sipped it thoughtfully.
"Do you think she'll stay, Sandor? It's almost as if she were trying to make you send her away tonight." Sandor shrugged and she continued. "I think if you hadn't held your temper, that would have been the end of it."
Sandor studied his fingertips in the lamplight. "I think it was just something she had to get out of her system. She knows she's free to go anytime she wants. I won't quarrel with her. You see, I try not to lose my temper. I'm a big man and I know how easy it is for me to hurt someone even if I don't mean to. Kill them, if it comes to that." His voice was barely a whisper. He sipped his tea and then he continued.
"Besides, I'm not angry with Petra. I understand her better than she thinks. I know what it's like to be an outsider, to be an outcast like her. She's a Trojan in a foreign land, a woman alone." His eyes were liquid brown in the lamplight and his voice had none of the banter she had come to expect from him. He was quiet, remembering. "I saw what the war did to those people. As terrible as war is for soldiers, I think it's even harder on civilians. If you're hurt or if you see a friend fall, you can use your anger when you're fighting. Sometimes it's the only thing that keeps you alive. But the women..." He shook his head, remembering their faces. "They lose their homes, families, everything and have nowhere to put their anger. They can't use it up in battle. They just carry it around like a heavy load. Sometimes for years. Sometimes forever."
Gabrielle remembered Sandor's words as she and Petra settled in for the night. The Trojan woman seemed younger, almost girlish as she sat on her cot, braiding her red-gold hair. But she seemed reluctant to talk and had responded to Gabrielle's questions and comments with soft monosyllables. She's not much for chitchat, the bard thought. She smiled as she remembered her first few months on the road with Xena. The warrior had been more likely to talk to Argo than to her. Well, if she could wear down a warrior princess, she could certainly make some headway with a barmaid.
"Sandor seems like a sweet, generous man," she began. When Petra merely grunted she went on. "You were pretty hard on him at supper. He's just trying to help."
Petra lay back on her cot and pulled the thin blanket up over her chest. "Well, I've been helped before. Sometimes men say they want to help when what they mean is they want to help themselves to everything you've got. I'll wait a while before I make any judgments, good or bad."
Gabrielle sat on the edge of her cot, leaning forward. "I don't think Sandor is like that. He's gone through a lot and I think it's made him more compassionate. He understands other people's pain."
Petra gave a short, sharp laugh that cut through the air like a knife. "Don't be a sentimental fool. Some people who've known pain just get to be experts at it. They start to enjoy it, want to spread it around. They take advantage of soft hearted idiots who feel sorry for them. I've known lots of men like Sandor. The ones who are maimed or crippled." She sat up on the cot, her eyes flashing, her hands picking at the blanket as she spoke. Gabrielle watched her, saw the tension in her body, heard the fear in her voice.
"They come to women like me when everyone else rejects them. Some of the others wouldn't even look at a cripple or take one on, no matter how much they offered. Because sometimes they're filled with rage and resentment and they take it out on us." She turned away from Gabrielle and stared at the coarse blanket covering her body. "The only time I was ever beaten by a customer was a man marked just like Sandor. I felt sorry for him. And then he almost killed me. That's when I decided to come to Corinth and got the job at the inn."
Gabrielle instinctively reached out to put her hand on Petra's forearm to comfort her but Petra pulled away, so quickly that it was as if Gabrielle's fingers were on fire. She leaned back without comment and lay down on her own cot. "Well, I've just got a feeling about Sandor. I don't think he's like that. I think he's trying to come to terms with his past and everything that's happened to him. He's come to Corinth to find his wife and daughter."
"What do you mean, find them?" Petra was curious, despite herself.
"He didn't give me any particulars. But I get the impression that his wife left him when he came back from the war with his face scarred."
"Well, if he wants her back, he's a bigger fool than I thought."
"No, he just wants to see his daughter again. I hope he does. It would at least put his mind to rest." She rolled over on her side to face her companion. "Do you have any family back in Troy?"
Petra was silent and Gabrielle regretted that she had asked the question. She reached and snuffed out the lamp "I'm sorry. That's none of my busi..."
"I had a husband and a son. The Greeks killed them both." Gabrielle heard the cot creak as Petra turned her head on the pillow and faced the wall.
"I'm sorry. I'm a widow too," Gabrielle confided. "But I travel with my best friend and we look out for one another. She's my family now. Her name is Xena... "
Petra lay in the darkness and listened to Gabrielle talk about the warrior. And after Gabrielle had fallen asleep, Petra lay still, staring at the ceiling, wondering how a woman so steeped in evil had been able to turn her life around so that a gentle bard would call her friend. It was a pretty story but hardly a path she could follow. She was not a warrior and there were no great deeds of daring she could do for atonement. Even if she had the courage, there would be no bard at her side to chronicle the deed, no one to take her arm if she faltered or to stand by her if she failed. She rolled over and closed her eyes. Let others fight the battles. Tomorrow she would help Sandor put his shop in order. And if she could keep her temper, that would be victory enough.
Gabrielle leaned back and felt the warmth of the sun on her face. She promised herself that tomorrow she would get here earlier and sit in the shade under one of the trees that lined the clearing. She wasn't scheduled to speak until then but half the fun of a competition like this was the opportunity to hear the others. Even if she knew most of the stories, some storytellers had a clever turn of phrase, a way with a tale that always made it time well spent. Last year there had been much to learn as she listened. And afterward there had been others who were as eager as she to talk about technique and to swap tales and legends that they had heard.
But this year she was not so sure. The addition of the prize money had changed the nature of the competition. Last year all the entrants had been practicing bards, some more famous than others. But this year anyone willing to part with five dinars in exchange for a chance at hundreds more could call himself a storyteller.
And the crowd was restless. They had come to be entertained and as the hours passed, they became less tolerant of the weaknesses of would-be bards. There was hooting and shouting if a bard did not meet their expectations and a small group of young men seemed to revel in the opportunity for rowdiness. Gabrielle noted with disgust that one of the young men, the one who had addressed her the first day in Corinth, had come prepared. He carried a sack and laid it at his feet when he sat down. Full of fruit and vegetables from Daddy's shop, she thought. Well, I've been meaning to pay Sandor back for his hospitality. Maybe I can catch a few for supper as they fly past my face.
She roused herself enough to see that yet another bard had approached the stage. He was more polished than the last few and seemed at ease as he faced the crowd. There was an expectant hush as the Corinthians settled back for some real storytelling. His introduction was flawless. He had chosen to tell the tale of Celesta's capture by Sisyphus and how Death was made powerless. At first there had been joy and wonderment but then had come the stark realization that such a gift had its price. There was no death but there was still pain. But now it was pain without end, without relief.
Gabrielle listened along with the crowd and shook her head in surprise. He was telling one of her stories, one she had told time and again in taverns and inns, how Xena had saved Celesta from her captivity and mankind from endless suffering. For a moment she felt a rush of pleasure that her stories had reached this far, that others had found them worth repeating.
But her self congratulation was short lived as the words of the unhappy bard were drowned out by the shouting of the crowd. The very mention of Xena's name had set them off and there was a chanting that started as a dull rumble and ended only when the judges rushed the startled storyteller offstage. Gabrielle watched as he passed her, shocked at the sudden change in his fortunes, angry and disappointed.
There was relative silence for a while as the judges conferred with one another. Gabrielle guessed that they would call a halt to the day's competition. It was late in the afternoon and the crowd seemed to be losing its patience. She pitied the next bard in line for it would be hard to gain the audience's attention again. Being the last performer was the dread of every bard in a competition like this one. Many of the listeners would rise and head for home even as the bard still spoke, anxious to be on their way before the streets became crowded. Those who stayed would be distracted, irritable.
And so she cursed softly as she saw one of the judges approach. He bent his head and whispered that the next two bards had changed their minds about performing and would she please follow him? Her first reaction was to shake her head and demand to perform next day as scheduled. But she reconsidered. Why delay? If she were to fail, might as well do it now and rejoin Xena that much sooner. There was no question of winning the prize since that was no longer her aim. She had come to test her skill and to tell the truth. Now or tomorrow, let it be done.
The crowd quieted a little as she took her place on the stage. There was a little laughter, some shuffling of feet as they regarded her slight form, her common clothing. This might be even more sport than the last, some thought. But there was something in her manner that made them pause. She was confident, seemed so sure of herself as she paused to look out over the audience before she began. It was as if she were memorizing their faces, introducing herself to each and every one of them. And they responded in spite of themselves and when she began, her voice clear yet intimate, they listened.
I'll tell you a tale and I swear that it's true
Of a young village girl like me and like you.
But her life is a lesson understood by so few,
Let me speak of the blue-eyed young maiden.
She was open and loving, clever and strong,
And her beauty was matched by a voice filled with song.
But the pleasures of childhood don't last very long.
So it was for the innocent maiden.
She gave of her love when passion was new
To a warrior lad she thought to be true.
He collected his trophy and when he was through,
Dishonored his trusting young lover.
She buried her pain, held it deep in her breast
And showered her love on the ones she knew best:
Her mother, her brother who fondly confessed
He worshipped his beautiful sister.
All day long they had heard stories of gods and goddesses, of heroes who had saved the world. They had heard legends about titans and immortals and the exploits of generals and soldiers in Troy. But it was her words that moved them, touched them as none of the other bards had. For the first time that day, they were as one: the teller, the tale, the listener. More than one woman sat on her bench, shaking her head, remembering first love and old hurts. Many a man, older and wiser, nodded too. Everyone had known that girl or someone like her, perhaps had loved that girl, once upon a time.
Then a warlord drew near and appalled by the sight,
The villagers gathered, preparing for flight.
But inspired by her words, they decided to fight
And followed their fiery young leader.
She took up the sword and stood at their head.
Expecting defeat, they knew victory instead.
But when it was over, her brother lay dead,
Slain as he fought by his sister.
Her grief was so vast, she enclosed it in rage,
Kept it tight in her soul like a beast in a cage.
And the path of her life found a different stage.
She became a steely eyed warrior.
She built up her army and without pretense,
Conquered each village nearby as defense.
So did her life as Protector commence,
Nevermore to know peace like the maiden.
"Just in time for supper." Sandor welcomed Gabrielle as she walked into the shop. "Petra has made honeycakes for dessert and tonight we're going to celebrate!"
Gabrielle looked at the two of them. "And I bought a flask of sweet wine we can pour over them. But how did you hear so soon?" Sandor and Petra exchanged glances and Gabrielle laughed at their confusion. "We both have something to celebrate, don't we? I was one of the winners today. I'm in the semifinals."
Sandor shook her hand. "Congratulations. I never doubted for a minute that you'd succeed. But I'm sorry - We were so busy in the shop we never got to the competition. Maybe you'll repeat your story for us sometime?"
Gabrielle nodded, looking around. Sandor and Petra had spent the last few days organizing the shop area. His smaller carvings had been collected and stood proudly on the shelves that now lined the walls. The horse she had admired, the one that reminded her of Argo, held a place of honor on one shelf, standing by itself, the first carving to catch the eye as one entered the door. She had seen Petra holding it and guessed rightly that its placement had been her idea. "The shop looks great. You'll be open for business in no time."
Sandor could hardly contain his excitement. He stood beside Petra and beamed as he said, "We already are. Petra sold a serving tray this afternoon. For fifty dinars! Can you believe it? Fifty dinars! I wouldn't have had the nerve to ask for twenty. But a woman stuck her head in the door to see what was going on and before you knew it, Petra'd made the sale."
"It was worth more than that, Sandor. It was beautiful." Petra spoke softly. She seemed amused by Sandor's enthusiasm and smiled that he would brag about her salesmanship while disregarding his own skill in creating the piece. "I could have asked for eighty. But she knows she got a bargain and she'll be back. And I know her. Her husband has a tavern near the city councilors' meeting hall. They'll all see that tray. It's a good opportunity for you."
Gabrielle watched the two of them as they moved a large table to a corner of the shop and she was pleased to see that they were getting along so well. Sandor's excitement was obvious and not unexpected given his hopes for a new life in Corinth but Petra also seemed more relaxed, more cooperative than Gabrielle would have predicted. After the exchange at supper the first night and Petra's curt account of her past, Gabrielle had been surprised at her gradual change in demeanor. She had been so defensive, so hostile to anyone who dared to offer friendship when their paths had first crossed.
But now it was almost as if she were enjoying herself. She seemed to have a knack for organization, an innate business sense that had not found expression before. She seemed to sense which carvings would look best in the light of the window, which would be more impressive in shadow. Gabrielle had watched as she directed Sandor's movements, as she pointed to a carving and then chose its new resting place. As they worked, the shop was transformed. Sandor's carvings were not merely pieces of merchandise lined up for sale. They were decorations that lent beauty and symmetry to the room.
Other shops were a challenge, an invitation to barter aggressively. Make an offer, counteroffer, give a little, take a little, come to terms - It was a song that merchants and buyers knew well. But Sandor's shop would be different. There was a sense of peace here, a sense of wonder that a craftsman's hands had formed such things. Customers would come the first time out of curiosity but soon they would return, drawn by the siren song of his art, to appease that hunger for loveliness that lives in the soul, that longing that is born when a child first reaches for a flower or a brightly colored cloth. Sandor had the gift to create beauty but Petra seemed to recognize its own special kind of seduction and to understand the depth of its power. Perhaps it was because in a life so filled with pain and darkness, she had hungered for it most.
Petra nodded as Gabrielle excused herself from the supper table. The meal had been a good one and Sandor had talked the whole time. He was so pleased with the day's events, so full of plans and new designs for his carvings that he had barely taken time to eat. Even before Gabrielle had left the table, he had decided to make a sign for the shop, one that would not only identify it to passersby but that would be an example of the work he could do. Petra could hear him at his worktable now, hear the scrape of wood against wood as he chose his materials.
She poured a mug of hot tea and put a honeycake on a plate to take down to him. She smiled to herself. It had not taken her long to pick up the old habits, to play the cook and housekeeper again. And Sandor was appreciative. He thanked her for each meal, as if it were not his own dinars that had bought the food. And his compliments were heartfelt, she suspected, for he ate all that she put before him and searched for snacks besides. She had had to turn her face away from him once, catching her lower lip in her teeth to keep it from trembling as she had seen him take one of the leftover golden pies and slip it into his tunic pocket to take down to the workshop. A different time, a different place, another man, but it had seemed like she had been here before, it seemed like she belonged here now. She could almost make believe that the last four years had never happened.
She leaned against the doorway to the storeroom and watched him work. The lamplight was golden, the room almost dark and she wondered how he could see as he marked the wood. The scars on his cheek pulled at his brow but she knew that the hot oil spilled from a Trojan parapet had not touched his eyes, that he could see as well as any. At least he had been spared that. The gods may have taken his looks but his imagination was unbounded and his hands were sure as he worked the wood before him.
Petra had known many men's hands. She'd first known Caryl's touch, remembered the warm caress of her lover, her husband. And after the war she'd felt the impatient blows of the slavemaster's fist as she worked the fields. In Athens she had known the nervous fumblings of schoolboys and the gropings of drunken soldiers. Finally there were the hands that had hurt her so badly - hands around her neck, fingers tight around her throat, cutting off her breath, hands hitting her face, her body. She shook her head, despairing that the contentment she had felt in the kitchen was gone now and harsh memory in its place.
She would let no one touch her now. She could not, for it brought on a fear that was sudden and ungovernable. Better to pull away than to break down. She supposed she had offended Gabrielle when she had drawn her arm away so suddenly. But a touch, even a sympathetic one, was more than she could bear and the young woman had seemed to sense her unease.
Sandor had not touched her, had not even brushed against her as they worked together in the shop. His hands were big and strong, the fingers long and blunt. She watched them as he lifted the heavy wood as effortlessly as if it were a piece of Gabrielle's parchment and knew what damage he could do if he used them in anger. But she had not seen him angry yet, even though she had foolishly, stupidly goaded him towards it that first night. He had been wiser than she, more controlled. She admired him for that, she had to admit. She watched as he brushed sawdust from the wood's surface with his fingertips, like a parent stroking a baby's cheek. He was careful, almost tender, as if the wood were a living thing, as if he were afraid of hurting it.
She felt herself shiver and turning away, stepped back into the darkness.
Sandor walked down the street with a contentment he had not felt for a long time. The warrior woman had been right. Less than a year in Corinth and he was ready to open his own shop. He had a home, a job, new friends. If he could see Lora, know she was safe, then it would be perfect.
And his new clerk was more valuable than he had hoped. True, she was quick to anger, even quicker to take offense but she seemed to be trying to keep that under control. It would take time to prove to her that she was safe now, that she could trust him. He was sure that it was a matter of trust, that she was not as cold and hard as she appeared. She was like a wild thing cornered in an alley who would bare her teeth to threaten those who would do her harm. The pity was she would do the same to those who wished to help. He knew that it was not always easy to tell them apart but what a price to pay in friendships lost.
Sandor entered the shop and proudly looked around him. Everything was organized and in its place. The carving of the warrior woman's horse held a place of honor separate from all the others. Sandor had been pleased when Petra had singled it out. It was her favorite, she said, and Sandor had readily agreed when she suggested that it not be sold, that they keep it. "For good luck," she had said. Sandor nodded, though he felt it had already brought him more good luck than he ever could have imagined.
Petra had a knack for displaying his wares, an eye for which carving would look best by itself, which pieces should be grouped together. He would have thrown all his carvings out to the forefront of the store but she had other ideas. Only a few out at a time, she said. Let them find something new every time they come. Soon they'll drop by regularly, just to see. And what they see, they'll want to take home with them.
She was smiling now as she stood behind the counter. Sandor was struck by the sight of her, first that she would smile at all and second, how it lit up her whole face. He backed up a few steps. "Excuse me," he shrugged. "I think I'm in the wrong shop. My clerk doesn't smile like that. Actually, she said she could smile if she had to but then I'd have to pay her more."
"You can afford it. Or at least you will pretty soon. Sandor, Titus had a party at his new villa last night and everyone got to see your work. They love it, Sandor. One trader is coming in this afternoon to talk to you about a mantlepiece, he liked Titus' so much. And that woman who bought the tray? One of the city council members ate at the tavern and saw it there. He came in looking for another tray but I talked to him a while and now he wants you to make a lectern for the town hall. It would be good to do something like that, Sandor. They'll pay you enough to give you a good start. And even better than that, everyone in town, rich and poor, will be able to see it and enjoy it."
It was the most she had ever said to him and Sandor was stunned. Her smile faded as she stared at him, waiting for a response. Still he could find no words.
She shifted her gaze from his face to the counter. "I'm sorry if I overstepped my bounds. It's up to you to pick the jobs you want to do, not me. I shouldn't make promises you have to keep." She picked up a cloth and began dusting the counter, already immaculate. "I told you it'd be a mistake to hire me as your clerk."
"You're right." Sandor sat down on a stool by the counter and looked into her eyes. "I underestimated you. All I expected was a clerk, someone to make change. But you have more skills than I bargained for. You have a talent for showing off my pieces so they catch the eye. And you know how to deal with people, Petra. You're a good businesswoman. Most customers won't even look me in the face. I was looking for a clerk when maybe what I really need is a partner."
It was Petra's turn to stand speechless. She put down her dustcloth and stared at him. "You're crazy. We've been working together less than a week. You don't know me. A partner? That's insane." She looked at his face, the puppy dog eyes. "How could we work together? We're nothing alike. We'd be at each other's throats in a month. You know what your trouble is, you're an artist with your head in the clouds and you're too damned innocent for your own good. You don't know what the world is like. You shouldn't be trusting everybody. You're just asking for it, go around asking a tired old whore to be your partner."
Sandor laughed. "I don't trust everyone. But I trust you." He held up his hand as she started to sputter a denial. "It doesn't matter that it's been less than a week. My whole life was changed by a woman I hardly knew. Even now I don't know her name."
Petra looked at him in disbelief. But Gabrielle was the storyteller, not Sandor and she could tell from the sound of his voice, the warmth in his eyes that this was a story he had told no one else but one that had great importance to him.
He went on. "Her horse brought her to me. She'd been badly hurt and she couldn't speak. But I could tell that she was special, that she had courage and a good heart. She stayed only until her wounds were healed and she could ride again. Not long at all. But she's the one who encouraged me to trust myself and take a chance. It's because of her I came to Corinth." He stopped, the memory of the warrior too warm and the depth of his feelings too great to say more. He realized that he had probably been drawn to Petra because she reminded him of the woman warrior. They had the same courage, intelligence, the same self reliance. And even more, he felt the same sorrow and loneliness in both women that he had known himself and which drew his sympathy now.
Sandor shook himself from his reverie. "Maybe I'm not so crazy. We're a good team, you and I. We balance each other out. I make carvings, you can sell them. I'm an innocent babe in the woods and you're a wise old woman who can protect me from thieves and cheats. Besides, I love to make people laugh and you part with a smile as if it were your last copper coin. You're a challenge for me."
Petra closed her eyes, shaking her head, unwilling to see the eagerness in his face. It couldn't be that easy, nothing was ever that easy. Good luck never came her way. There had to be a catch. The gods were just setting a trap, a week's respite before they did their worst again. But she wouldn't drag Sandor into it. "Don't go making plans, Sandor. I'm like your friend in at least one thing. I'm not the kind of woman who stays in one place for very long."
But Sandor was not so easily discouraged. He leaned across the counter and said softly, "Well, maybe no one has been smart enough to ask you to. I'm asking you, Petra. Just think about it. We could make a new start together, you and I." He rose and started up the stairs. "Meanwhile I have to start thinking about a mantlepiece and a lectern."
Supper was particularly pleasant that night. Gabrielle had brought home a sack of fresh fruit, insisting that she had made the purchase in self defense. "There'll be that much less in the market if they decide they don't like my story tomorrow." Then as they ate grapes and sweet melons, she repeated some of the stories she had heard that day. Petra and Sandor sat enthralled as she recounted her stories, first the tale of Narcissus and Echo and then a new fable about a fox and some grapes that had been popular with the crowd and had quickly become one of Gabrielle's favorites. Though it was repeated by everyone, its true author was said to be a slave named Aesop. It was simple and wise and even Petra was moved to laughter when she heard it.
Afterwards Gabrielle and Petra had returned to their cots in the storeroom when the stillness of the darkened shop was broken by a loud and insistent pounding on the shop door. Petra lit the lamp and with Gabrielle following, admitted the unexpected caller.
"I'm looking for Sandor." Her tone was sharp, imperious and she was easily the most beautiful woman that Petra had ever seen. She was slight and slender, her golden hair framing her face in gentle ringlets. Her eyes were dark brown, flashing now in excitement and her skin seemed flawless, smooth and creamy. She was richly dressed and the golden earrings she wore gleamed in the lamplight. She bore the scent of delicate perfume and standing beside her, Petra felt awkward and ungainly, suddenly aware of the roughness of her own hands as she fingered the threadbare material of the shift she wore, the only one she owned.
"Where are you, you bastard?" The vulgarity of the remark seemed incongruous coming from such a woman, more shocking than if it had been said by any drunkard in a tavern. There was a creaking on the stairs and Sandor came halfway down. His eyes narrowed as he looked at their visitor. "Hello Mara. It's been a long time."
"Not long enough to suit me. What are you doing here, Sandor? I saw Titus' mantlepiece last night and I knew it had to be you." She advanced to the foot of the stairs and followed him as he went back to his lodgings.
Petra and Gabrielle looked at one another and silently returned to their cots. They had sensed Sandor's embarrassment and they lay quietly, trying not to hear the voices that rang out above them.
"Why've you followed me? I won't go back to you, you must know that by now. That marriage was a joke and I curse my parents for forcing me into it -stuck in that damned village all those years, sweeping sawdust off the floor. I won't go back to being the woodcarver's wife. You might as well pack up your little blocks of wood and head back there right now. I've made a good life for myself and I won't let you ruin it."
Sandor voice was a low rumble. "I don't care what you do, Mara. I didn't come to Corinth for that. All I want is to see my daughter again."
"Leave her alone. She stays with me. Besides, she thinks you're dead. And as far as I'm concerned, you are. I've got a new man now and she's got a new father. She's better off, Sandor. He's rich and he's handsome, respected, everything you're not. What do you have to offer her? Wood shavings on the floor and people laughing behind your back. Go ahead, make your little carvings for Titus. I don't give a damn. But if you so much as try to talk to me or Gregor on the street..."
"Gregor? You're with Gregor?" Sandor's words echoed in the small shop and for the first time Gabrielle and Petra heard anger in his voice. They had pretended sleep and had pulled the blankets up to their chins rather than acknowledge Sandor's distress to one another. But now Petra's lips were a tight thin line and Gabrielle could feel her anger from across the crowded storeroom. She sat up, all pretense gone now as she listened to the heated exchange from upstairs.
"Gregor makes his money in the slave trade. I don't care how respectable he thinks he is now. He preys on other human beings. You took my daughter there? That's not right." His voice was louder now and he paused, as if he realized how dangerous that anger was. There was a moment's silence and then he continued, his words softer but marked by a sense of desperation. "Look, you don't want her, you never did. Let me take her. Then you'll be free to do whatever you want, go wherever you please. I don't want my daughter living off the sweat of slaves."
"Don't give me that. You're the one keeping a whore in the backroom of your shop. Everyone's talking about how she moved in here when the innkeeper threw her ass out. What's the matter, Sandor? Tired of paying for it, you had to set her up in your own home?"
Mara's words were sharp as a slap and Petra recoiled at their force. Gabrielle's first reaction was to look away, not wanting to see the pain in her face. But instead she forced herself to look into Petra's green eyes, hoping to counter Mara's venom somehow. But Petra was looking away, stunned as she heard Sandor's reply.
"I don't give a damn what people say." Sandor voice was low and calm but there was a rage and contempt there that was only barely under control. "Her past is no business of yours or mine. She was earning an honest living at the inn when I met her and she's doing the same in my shop. Remember that when you're lying next to Gregor the slave trader and then tell me who's the...."
Petra and Gabrielle heard the sound as Mara's hand struck Sandor's face. There was silence for a moment and then Mara spoke, her words so soft it was almost a caress. "One word to him, Sandor, and I'll kill you. I swear I'll kill you."
"Go back to Gregor, Mara. I only wanted to see Lora before but now I swear to you, I will get my daughter back. And I'm not afraid of your threats. You've wanted me dead before and I'm still here."
"Every time you put your clumsy hands on me I wished you were dead. All the time you were gone, I prayed some Trojan soldier would do it for me. But don't be so sure of yourself, Sandor. 'Cause this time I have money and that might be enough. I'm warning you. Leave me alone or you're a dead man."
They heard her footsteps as she ran out of the shop. Sandor remained upstairs and for a moment there was silence. Then they heard his footsteps as he walked across the room to sit in the oversized chair by the window. There would be no sleep for him tonight and little comfort, for neither Gabrielle nor Petra could console him now. His pain was too new, too private.
Gabrielle waited a few minutes and then turned to put out the lamp. She was about to whisper her goodnight to Petra but the words stopped in her throat as she looked at the older woman. Petra's face was pale and hard, her green eyes frosty and distant as she sat ramrod straight on her cot. For one brief moment, Gabrielle was reminded of Xena and as she drew the blanket up over her shoulder, she shuddered in the chill night air.
There was little conversation at breakfast. Sandor was quiet and it was clear that he had been disturbed by the late night visit. Gabrielle tried to concentrate on her presentation for the competition and Petra was the most distant of all. She seemed tense and distracted, much as she had when she had first come to Sandor's shop. She declined his invitation to join them when he suggested that he might accompany Gabrielle to the competition. Too much to do, she mumbled.
Sandor seemed to relax as he and Gabrielle walked together. He began asking her about her stories. Telling a story was like carving a design, he supposed. First one had to have an idea and then summon one's tools and materials to give it form. Somewhere along the way it seemed to take on a life of its own and the master became servant to the art. Was that how it was to a storyteller?
They were deep into conversation before Gabrielle realized that they had taken a different and more roundabout route to their destination. She was startled when Sandor suddenly stopped in midsentence. He looked around as if surprised to find where his path had led them. He and Gabrielle were far from the noise of shops and taverns now and were surrounded by the homes of wealthy merchants and public officials.
They stood across from a beautiful villa, its stark white columns rising in front of the building like guards that would block entry to the uninvited. Its grounds were carefully tended and the whole was encircled by a sturdy wooden fence. Much care had gone into its construction but the overall suggestion was not one of a graceful and wealthy home but instead it seemed like a fortress. Without a word, Gabrielle sensed that this was the home of Gregor, the slave trader.
She heard Sandor move beside her and followed his gaze into the yard. There was a young girl playing there and Sandor stared at his daughter for the first time in years. She had been transformed from the chubby toddler of his remembrance to a tall and lanky seven year old. She was blond like Mara but even from this distance, Gabrielle could see she owed more to Sandor for her looks than to her mother. She had the same big brown eyes, the same jawline, She even seemed to have his strength as she grabbed a low hanging tree branch and swung herself gracefully into its hold. She sat swinging her legs in the air, looking dreamily into the clouds, oblivious to the two who watched her from the street.
Gabrielle looked at Sandor and his face was pale, drained of color. She saw his hands tighten on the fence posts until his knuckles were white and thought that he would surely vault over the wooden boards and run to his daughter at any moment. His hands anchored him to the spot instead and much as his arms longed to hold her, he was still as a statue as he stared at the girl.
Gabrielle looked away, as if it were an intrusion for anyone to see such utter heartbreak as was etched in his face. Instead she took his arm, hoping that her touch would comfort him. His muscles were iron bands beneath the thin material of his tunic and she doubted that he even felt her hand. "It'll work out, Sandor. We'll think of a way."
But then he released his grip on the fence and put his hand atop hers. He shook his head and mumbled, "I'm sorry," and his voice was low and breathy. Without a word, without another glance into the yard, he turned from her and walked quickly back down the street towards his shop.
"Hello. I never saw a lady carry a staff before. Are you an Amazon?" Lora had tired of her perch and wandered over to the fence. Her face was open and friendly, a softer rounder version of her father's.
Gabrielle smiled at the little girl. "Not really, but the Amazons are my friends and one of them gave me the staff."
"Do you fight with it?" Lora sat on the grass and smiled at the pretty blond woman. She was bright and inquisitive and apparently loved to talk. Definitely Sandor's child, Gabrielle thought.
She nodded. "I use it to defend myself sometimes. Most of the time I use it as a walking stick when I travel. It never leaves my side. It's a good friend, just like the Amazon warrior who gave it to me."
Lora eyes sparkled at the idea of a real live Amazon warrior. "I'd like to go to Amazon country. But my mother and I are stuck here. With Gregor. And he's not even my real father." The smile left her face and she began fidgeting with her sandal.
" Where's your real father?" Gabrielle knew it was unwise to question the girl but somehow couldn't stop herself.
"He was going to meet us here but he never came. Mother says he must be dead. I'm the only one at school with a real dead father." She noted the fact as if it were a distinction of sorts.
Gabrielle smiled, liking the little girl for her frankness and good humor. "Do you remember him?"
Lora squinched up her eyes a little as if trying to squeeze the memory forward. "A little bit. He had marks on his face and he was real big and I used to sit on his shoulders. He would tell me stories and make me laugh. Gregor never tells me stories. I don't like Gregor. He's mean. That's why I'm going to go away and be an Amazon. Do Amazons have little girls that I can play with? I don't have anybody to play with here. What are Amazon little girls like?" The words tumbled out and she sat forward, excited by the conversation.
"Lora, get in here." A shadowy figure stood in the doorway of the house and shouted at the child. Gregor, Gabrielle supposed. She tried to get a glimpse of him but the light was too dim and the distance too great. His voice was commanding, impatient, as if he were used to giving orders and having them obeyed without question. Lora responded and quickly rose to her feet. "Gotta go. Thank you for telling me about the Amazons." She headed for the house reluctantly. Halfway there she turned around and waved. Gabrielle raised her hand in farewell, thinking of Sandor and his child and wondering how the gods could have seen fit to separate two souls with so much in common.
Petra was surprised to see Sandor return to the shop so soon. He hurried past her without a word and merely nodded as he rolled up his sleeves and went into the workroom. Usually Sandor treated his tools with care but this morning she heard the scrape of wood, the clang of metal as he readied his tools and materials for the workday with a new intensity. She bent to her own tasks but soon heard him curse aloud and slam his chisel to the floor. She leaned against the doorway and looked in on him.
He had driven a splinter into his right hand as he had worked, probably a common enough occurrence for a woodworker. It was a bad cut and Sandor was having some trouble trying to remove the sliver of wood with his left hand. Petra hesitated as she watched him struggle. She wished that someone would enter the shop, that Gabrielle would return, that anything or anyone would give her an excuse to let him be and go about her work. She felt cold and unsure as she looked at his hand, at the blood that covered his palm. She closed her eyes for a moment and felt dizzy as she heard her own heartbeat, felt her breath come hard and fast. So much like that other hand but then the blood had been her own.
Slowly, carefully, she took a deep breath, pursed her lips and then sat by Sandor's side. Wordlessly she took his hand and began to examine it, gingerly, fearing it. Without so much as a glance at the face of the startled woodcarver, she wiped the blood away with the corner of her apron and very slowly and carefully, began to dislodge the splinter from his hand. She could feel the tension in his forearm, feel the anxiety that was separate from the pain in his hand. Somehow she knew.
"You found her, didn't you?"
Sandor was silent and Petra wondered if he wouldn't speak or couldn't. Then he nodded. "She looks like me. I mean, before. And she's all alone. She shouldn't be alone like that."
Petra bent her head, unable to meet the sorrow in his eyes. She felt his fingers ball into a fist, felt his hand shake with anger. "I never should have let her go. I figured with Mara she'd have a chance at a better life than with me. Well, I've got to get her back." Suddenly he made a sweeping gesture with his arm that all but sent Petra over the side of the bench. His hand flew out of her grasp and sailed into the air as he raised his arm above her face. It was not meant as a threat and they both knew it but for one brief moment he saw the panic in her face, felt her fear. He was frozen, unsure of his next move.
But then Petra drew a deep breath and expelling it with a sigh, grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand back down until it rested on her knee. "Sit still. You're worse than a kid." She was calm now, in control, and she held his hand there with a sureness she had not felt before.
Her remark surprised him, defused his anger and Sandor suddenly felt for all the world like a small boy at his mother's knee. He almost laughed aloud at the picture of the tall woman boxing his ears like a schoolboy but instead he sat quietly and watched her as she worked on his hand. Her grasp was strong, her movements efficient but her touch was gentle, her fingers surprisingly soft. Sandor smiled, pleased at the unexpected kindness.
Finally she removed the splinter and laid it on the tabletop. He found himself staring into her clear green eyes and was about to thank her when she questioned him instead. "When your wife threatened you.....Is she really capable of something like that?"
Sandor shrugged, "As long as she wouldn't have to get her hands dirty. Mara thinks money is the answer to everything. And Gregor has money. If the price is right, anything is possible." Sandor looked at his hand. "You know, it's funny. A year or two ago, I wouldn't have cared. It might even have been a relief. But not now. I'll be damned if I'll let my daughter grow up with her. I'm not going to stand by quietly this time. I'm not going to let my Lora down again."
Petra filled a basin with water and brought it over to him. She stood silently and watched as Sandor washed the blood from his palm. He waited for her to speak, expecting more questions as he wrapped his hand in a clean cloth. He said, "I wouldn't blame you if you left now. If Mara does find someone to do her dirty work, it could be dangerous to be around me. I don't want you getting hurt."
Petra looked into his eyes and saw the sincerity there. He was genuinely afraid for her, she realized. Quietly she gathered up the basin and the cloth, anxious now to escape from the softness of his eyes. She rose but then stopped at the door and turned to him one more time. "None of this is any of my business. This is between you and your wife. But let me tell you, Sandor. Don't do anything stupid. You don't know these people. I do. Gregor has men working for him who'd kill you just for practice, let alone for money. You won't be much use to your daughter dead in an alley somewhere."
Sandor looked at her and nodded. Their eyes met before she could turn away and in a soft voice he asked, "So you'll be leaving? "
Petra answered even more softly, "I don't know yet."
Gabrielle leaned against the rough bark of a shade tree and let her mind wander. So much had happened since her first presentation at the competition. The drama that was unfolding at Sandor's home was real, not the embellished fables of these hopeful storytellers. The turns of its plot would wind around living, breathing people and would change their lives in a hundred different ways. For good or for evil one could not predict, for life seldom had the balance and symmetry that a bard could create in a story. A good storyteller would tell his tale, gather the action and dialogue neatly together and tie off the package with a clever moral. There would be no loose ends, no inconsistencies, no injustices. Such a pity that Life was not held to such strict rules.
But some of the tales told here today were true. Certainly hers would be. If only she could tell it as she planned. How soon before the crowd would grow weary of the tale? Could she make them listen until the end? If she would make them see her friend as she did, she must hold off their anger long enough to make them hear the whole story. She must hold their attention and somehow turn their minds from curiosity to understanding. Perhaps she had failed already What if they had already tired of her little mystery?
The rank amateurs had been eliminated in the first few days and her rivals now were bards more skilled in the telling of tales. She raised her chin and resolved that she had come this far and would not waver now. For all that Xena had done for her, for all that she had learned at the warrior's side, she owed her that much. And there could be no greater test of a bard's skill than to make an audience listen to a tale they did not wish to hear.
When her name was called, she walked slowly to the stage. Again she had been called late in the day but the crowds had not yet dispersed and as she looked out over their faces, she realized that many had waited just to hear her words. There was an expectant hush as they settled in their seats and Gabrielle felt her pulse quicken as first one cry and then another was raised. "The Village Girl." "What about the Village Girl?" "More about the Maiden!"
And so she began:
I'll tell you the tale of the village girl's life,
Nevermore to be simply a mother or wife.
Her hands more accustomed to swords or a knife,
There was no turning back for the warrior.
She won the respect of men who were wild
And under her sway even they reconciled
To her rule that no harm came to woman or child
And each man had a chance to surrender.
But she longed for a partner to stand by her side,
To lie with when passions can't be denied.
A Roman she'd captured wooed her and lied
That their destinies bound them forever.
There was silence now as Gabrielle's words held them. The sentimental tale of the village girl had enchanted them but the unexpected twists of the story now brought an excitement that only tales of the gods and immortals had furnished before. And there was suspense too, for the bard had said the tale was a true one. But unlike the legends they had heard from childhood, the ending of this story hung tantalizingly out of reach. Would it end in triumph or death? Only the bard knew and the audience listened intently.
And then he betrayed her, condemned her to die,
To hang from a cross with her cohorts nearby.
But still the defiance gleamed in her eye.
So he shattered her legs with a hammer.
Crippled in body, her soul bent with hate,
To die on that cross would not be her fate.
Her pain and her anger combined to create
A woman whose heart cried for vengeance.
Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle caught a flicker of motion on one of the benches. A middle aged man with the look of a soldier about him suddenly bent to whisper to the woman seated next to him, pointing to the stage as he spoke. He knows, she thought. Maybe he fought in the army against her, maybe he has heard the tales in his wanderings. She paused for a moment, expecting him to cry out Xena's name, to shout his indignation and bring her song to an end.
But the woman shrugged and put her fingers to her lips. She would hear the end of this story and softly whispered to her companion. He looked at the stage and nodded. For one brief second, his eyes met those of the bard and narrowed as he made his decision. Then he sat back and Gabrielle continued:
So once more her life took a violent turn.
She lived but to kill, to plunder and burn.
There was many a lesson she had yet to learn
Before she would master that fury.
But the depths of her soul hid more worth than she knew,
Though it would take time for its light to shine through.
And then all the wondrous things she would do
Once she let down the walls of her anger.
It was late next morning when Gabrielle was awakened by a loud and insistent pounding on the shop door. She had not slept well and knew that Petra was restless too, for she had heard her toss and turn as the town crier sang out at midnight. Now the noise awakened them both and the women rose to find four armed city guards at Sandor's door.
"We're looking for the woodcarver," their captain demanded and as if on cue, Sandor descended the stairs.
"What is this all about?" He looked puzzled and scarcely awake.
"You're under arrest for the murder of Gregor's wife, Mara. She was found dead this morning. Someone broke into their house last night and apparently killed her in her bed. A neighbor saw a big man leaving the house after the lamps were out and everyone had gone to sleep."
Gabrielle stood before the captain. "There are lots of big men in Corinth. Why come here?"
The captain dismissed her as insignificant and spoke to Sandor directly. His tone was bored, as if he were anxious to have this over and done with. "We began questioning servants and townspeople . We know your wife left you and you came to Corinth looking for her and your daughter. That's no secret. You've asked just about everyone in the city if they've seen them. Your neighbors told us that Mara visited you in this shop a couple of days ago. They heard you shouting at one another, heard threats. She left here angry and upset. And then you were seen in front of her house yesterday morning, staring at the place. Probably figuring out how to get in. Well, it seems like you found your wife after all, didn't you Sandor? I'm betting you threatened to go to Gregor unless she paid you off. But she said no, maybe pushed you too far. So you killed her."
Sandor stood speechless, as if trying to make sense of the words. He started to shake his head in disbelief but stopped as he realized that the captain was awaiting a response. He looked at Petra and Gabrielle like a traveler searching for landmarks on a road, lost and desperate for a familiar sight. "No. That's not so. Where's my daughter? Is my daughter all right? I want to see her."
The captain signaled his men to encircle him. "The only person you're going to see is the magistrate."
"I didn't kill her. The last time I saw her was here in the shop two days ago."
The captain snorted, bored with the inevitable declaration of innocence that accompanied an arrest. But as he turned to leave, Petra stepped in front of him, blocking his way. "He's telling the truth. He never left. I'll swear that he was with me. All night."
Sandor stared at her, shocked by the unexpected lie. He moved as if to reach out for her but one of the guards grabbed his arm instead. The captain turned to look at Petra and his eyes took in every curve of her body, for the thin shift she wore seemed to accentuate rather than cover her form. With a subtle turn of her head, a gradual shift in stance, she suddenly seemed to project a sexuality that was urgent, primitive. Gabrielle looked into her eyes and saw the disdain there, the self contempt. This had been her job, to make silent promises to strangers with merely a look or a gesture, to offer her body as a means to survive. Only now it was Sandor she needed to protect.
The captain's eyes lingered and his gaze never left her breasts as he said, "I don't doubt you could keep a man busy all night but..." he added, "I'm not about to take the word of his..."clerk."'
Petra looked at Gabrielle, then at Sandor. There was a desperation in her eyes and then she looked away until her gaze met the captain's. Her voice was soft, flat. There was no hint of the seductress now. Instead she seemed weary and defeated. "I know he didn't kill her," she said.
The captain seemed amused, enjoying this moment of diversion in what had promised to be a rather routine arrest. He lifted an eyebrow, skeptically, and asked. "And just how do you know that?"
Her voice was little more than a whisper but it seemed to fill the room. "Because I did."
Petra was silent as she sat on the rough bench in the cold cell. She stared at the dirt floor as if she were too weary to lift her head and the ground was as good a place as any to focus her attention. Gabrielle's voice droned on as she stood on the other side of the cell bars.
"Petra, listen to me. The magistrate will call for a hearing tomorrow at the very latest. We have to prepare a defense." She gripped the cell bars in frustration. "Petra, look at me, please."
Finally Petra raised her head and slowly, as if it were painful to move at all, she met Gabrielle's gaze. "Why bother with a hearing? I did it, I'll hang."
Gabrielle shook her head,. "You were just trying to protect Sandor. You think he did it, don't you? Just because someone saw a man there doesn't mean it was Sandor. A man like Gregor could have lots of enemies. You don't have to lie for him. Sandor didn't kill anyone."
Petra swung her legs onto the crude bench and lay down, as if the weariness were too much to bear. "No, that's not it. I know Sandor didn't kill her. I told them, I told you. I killed Mara."
"I can't believe that. You're not a murderer."
Petra put her forearm over her eyes, blocking out the light that streamed in through the barred window, sealing off her line of vision. She would not look into Gabrielle's eyes now and there would be nothing revealed in her expression. "You don't know me and neither does Sandor. Someone must have seen me. I'd taken Sandor's cloak and I'm tall enough that someone could mistake me for a man in the dark." She shook her head. "I tell you I did it. I got in through the storeroom and I went to her. And then I put a pillow over her head and I killed her."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't believe you. And if it were true, then you were just trying to save Sandor's life. We have to explain the circumstances to the judge. Even if they find you guilty, maybe you can be sentenced to prison instead of being executed. Than at least we'll have a little more time to try to get a pardon."
"Look Gabrielle, let it go." Petra moved her arm and sat up on the rough boards. Her green eyes were cold and distant as she met Gabrielle's gaze. She shrugged her shoulders. "It's over and I'm tired. I've been so tired for so long." She turned away. "How is Sandor? They're not accusing him of anything, are they? He had nothing to do with it. Has he got his daughter back yet?"
"Not yet. He's too busy arguing with the officials. He's trying to explain everything. Petra, he's not about to let you hang, not without a fight. Even if you don't care, he does and I do too. Talk to me, Petra. Please tell me what happened." Gabrielle sat on the floor outside the cell and hugged her knees to her chest. "Damn it, I'm not leaving here until I hear the whole story."
Petra looked at the bard and felt the urgency in the young woman's expression. Gabrielle's eyes were green as her own but they were lit with the fire of compassion. "I care" she had said, and Petra, despite the cynicism that was her habit, her shield, believed her. Slowly she began to talk. "I was worried about Mara's threat so I went to the tavern to find out what I could. I know a bounty hunter named Bartok. Well, when I asked him about Mara, he told me that she had offered him 500 dinars to kill Sandor."
Gabrielle was shocked." Five hundred? By the gods...."
"He told me he had refused, that he was a bounty hunter, not an assassin." Petra had gone back to studying the ground as she told her tale. "I wouldn't have thought he was that particular. Usually Bartok will do anything if the price is right. But I knew it was only a matter of time until she'd find someone else to do it. That's a lot of money. I know men who would kill you where you stand for half that." Petra gave a short laugh. "Shows you how stupid I am. I decided to reason with her. I figured I could threaten her. Leave Sandor alone or I'd tell Gregor she wasn't really a widow. I wasn't sure it would work but I figured it was worth a try."
Gabrielle watched Petra's face as the tale unfolded. The words tumbled from her lips in a rush, as if once she had decided to speak, she could not control their flow. Her voice was quiet, her tone matter of fact as she explained how she had taken another woman's life.
"When I worked at the inn, I met some of the girls from across town. I know what it's like to live that life. Nobody gives a damn. So whenever they were sick or down on their luck, I'd slip them a little food. They'd told me about Gregor. They said that he'd taken a widow for his wife and taken in her daughter so that he could look respectable. But he told them that was all she was really good for, so he sent for them." She paused and turned to face Gabrielle as if to see if she should continue, as if curious to know if anyone were listening. "They told me where his villa was, how it was set up. They used to sneak in through the storeroom so that Mara wouldn't know. After you fell asleep last night, I went over there. I swear I was just going to talk to her. But when I got inside I looked around and I couldn't help myself. The things they had, everything that was in that house just tore me up inside. !
Men like Gregor, they're vultu
res. It wasn't enough the army came and slaughtered everyone who stood in its way. Then the slavers like Gregor came and picked up the rest of us, anyone who was left alive and worth a few dinars. Sold us like cattle and got rich by it. It wasn't right. And on top of it all, Mara was going to use that blood money to kill Sandor."
Petra's words were a whisper now. "She was asleep, didn't hear a thing. I figured that was the only way Sandor would ever get his daughter back, if Mara was dead. He loves that little girl. He'll be a good father."
There was silence for a moment. Then Gabrielle asked, "Well if you did it, why didn't you run? You had all night to get away."
"I couldn't kill her. At least I thought I couldn't. I put the pillow over her head and pressed down on it. But then I thought I felt her move and I pulled it away." Petra looked at her and for the first time her eyes were bright, filled with emotion. "I've done a lot of things to be ashamed of but I've never killed anyone before. I thought she was still alive when I left. I put my hand on her throat and I could have sworn I felt a heartbeat. But my hand was shaking so badly, I guess I just imagined it."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Sandor and I will figure something out."
"Sandor's been good to me. I don't know why. Mara was a fool to leave him. She didn't know how lucky she was. But he deserves better than either one of us. Let him get his kid and move on with his life." She shook her head and smiled ruefully. "You know, it could be killing Mara, even by accident, is the only thing I've ever done that comes to any good. Let it go, Gabrielle. Let me go."
Both women had been so intent on Petra's story that neither had noticed the tall figure that now loomed over Gabrielle. Suddenly Sandor's shadow fell across the floor as if covering the two women like a warm sheltering blanket. He had heard every word and looked into Petra's startled eyes as he said, "No, Petra. I was looking for a clerk and I found myself a partner. I'm not about to let you go."
Petra looked into Sandor's face. She looked at the scars that covered his cheek, the determined set of his mouth. His face was like some inept drawing made by a child, the features twisted and bent. But his eyes held her and she could feel his sincerity. There was no dishonesty there, nothing false to cloud their gaze. Nor would there ever be, she realized. She lowered her head and for the first time in years, she put into words what she had felt so often but had never dared to say. "Sandor, I'm scared."
Wordlessly the woodcarver stretched his arm through the bars. For a moment Petra hesitated and then, slowly she reached out and Sandor closed his fingers around her own. Even as the shadow of the gallows fell across the prison yard, Petra closed her eyes and felt the warmth of his touch as it filled the emptiness she had known for so long.
"So you're the dead husband, eh? You look pretty lively to me." Gregor's cook sat back in her chair and her eyes traveled back and forth between her two guests. She was an enormous woman, with shoulders and arms well muscled from years of lugging heavy pots and kettles to and fro and hands roughened from pounding and punching dough into submission. Gregor might have been lord of the villa but this woman was clearly mistress of the kitchen. "What do you want from me?"
Before Gabrielle could speak, Sandor bent forward. "I want to see my daughter. Please. Is Lora all right? She wasn't the one to find Mara's body, was she?"
The cook's expression softened as she recognized the woodcarver's anxiety as genuine. The woman sat for a moment in silence, torn between loyalty to her Master and sympathy for this gentle man sitting before her. She looked at the scars on Sandor's face and then at the pleading look in his eyes. Lora's eyes, she thought, big, brown and clear reflections of all the emotions that lay inside. The child would need a father now, she thought and she knew that Gregor would be an unlikely candidate for the job.
She shook her head and met Sandor's gaze. "No, I'm the one who found her when I brought up the breakfast tray. Lora was here downstairs, eating in the kitchen." She could almost hear Sandor's sigh of relief. "She spends a lot of time here with me. Gregor doesn't like having her underfoot and Mara knew better than to upset Gregor."
Sandor sat back in his chair. "How is she taking all this? She must be frightened."
"She cried all morning. I finally got her to drink some warm milk and I got her upstairs to her room about an hour ago. I suppose you want to see her." Sandor nodded and she smiled to see the nervousness in his face. "Go ahead. It's the first room at the top of the stairs. Go to her."
She and Gabrielle watched as Sandor rose and headed for the staircase. He hesitated for a moment, as if he were suddenly unsure of himself. He had waited almost four years for this moment. He looked back at the two women as if for a sign. Then he squared his shoulders as if he were marching into battle back in Troy and started to climb upwards to the room where his daughter slept.
The cook poured herself a cup of tea and offered one to her guest. She seemed to relax a bit and looked at Gabrielle's eager face with some anticipation. She was already somewhat of a celebrity among the other servants she met in the marketplace, for Gregor's house was the biggest and grandest in Corinth and she held an important position in it. Her tales of banquets and dinner parties were much sought after by the others. But this was the most exciting thing that had happened in a long time and she was in the very middle of it. This was not a snip of gossip to be offered and then forgotten. People would talk for years about the murder at Gregor's place.
When Sandor disappeared from view, Gabrielle turned to the cook and took the measure of the woman in one glance. The older woman's face was impassive, almost bored but there was an excitement in her eyes that betrayed her demeanor. It was not that she was unsympathetic or unfeeling. Her concern about Lora was genuine. But Gabrielle knew that for some people there is a certain fascination, an undeniable morbid thrill that comes when a murder occurs.
Gabrielle settled back into her chair. "I'll bet you'll be busy later on when people start coming by to offer their sympathies. Gregor is lucky to have someone he can trust to take care of all that. You must've worked for Gregor a long time to have earned that kind of respect."
She sipped her tea, delicately, carefully and nodded. "It beats being a slave. All the servants here used to be slaves, including me. You have to be damned good at what you do for Gregor to put you to work in his own home. He's pretty demanding but once you're here, it's nothing but the best. Good food, nice quarters. But you have to be on your toes too. Gregor tells you what he wants but then if you don't measure up, you're out on your behind. But he's always been fair to me. I can't complain."
"Things must have changed a lot for you when Mara and her daughter came. What was she like? You must have known her pretty well."
The cook leaned forward. "No, she wasn't one to get too friendly with the servants. We did our jobs and disappeared. She was here for the Master's pleasure, not ours." Her tone became whispery, almost confidential. "But she was a strange one. She never seemed to care about anyone except herself. Even her daughter got pushed out of the way. She wanted to be a great lady. Spent all day buying clothes and primping in front of her mirror. But she was a good match for him. As pretty as he is handsome. And just as particular about everything. By the gods, she had a mouth on her if one of the servants didn't follow her orders just so. Never with Gregor though. All milk and honey with him, she was. Knew where her bread was buttered, if you ask me."
"It must have been a shock, finding her like that. " Gabrielle's tone was sympathetic but she smiled to herself as she realized the woman was holding court as ably as any bard in the competition.
"You know, it's funny. When I saw her lying there she looked almost like a statue. Beautiful but hard, if you know what I mean. That's what she was like. At first you found yourself staring, she was so perfect, but then it was almost like she wasn't real. She was a pretty woman all right but there was no blood in her veins. No heart." She shook her head, gestured towards the staircase. "No one had any idea she had a husband hidden away somewhere. It's not hard to see why she left him. Not pretty enough to suit her, I guess." She shook her head in disgust.
"Did you always bring her breakfast in her room?"
"Yes. It was a little later than usual and she hadn't called for her breakfast. When she didn't answer my knock, it made me a little nervous so I went in to check on her. When I turned her over I could see she was dead, so I called Gregor right away and he took over after that." She sat back and met Gabrielle's eyes. Her tale told, she leaned forward and her voice softened as she sought information of her own. "I know Titus' cook. She says that Sandor's carvings are beautiful and that he talked about opening a shop of his own here in Corinth. Do you think he'll stay? Lora's a nice kid and I've got used to having her around. It's sure as Hades Gregor will be glad to get her off his hands and I'd like to think I could see her again."
Gabrielle smiled at her. " I'm sure all you have to do is come by Sandor's shop. Once Sandor knows you've been kind to his daughter he'll consider you a friend as well. He's one of the nicest, sweetest men I've ever met. And he's missed his daughter so badly."
The cook nodded. "And she's missed him. A child needs someone to love and she's waited too long already."
Lora's room was in half darkness, for the cook had closed the shutters to keep out the daylight. Sandor hesitated in the doorway. It was as if he were afraid to approach her and instead he looked around her room and used the time to still the shaking of his hands, to try and overcome the tightness in his throat while his daughter still slept, unaware.
The room was small but the furnishings were delicate, expensive. Sandor shook his head. The chairs and beds of children should be strong and sturdy, he thought, even more so than those meant for adults. He remembered how Lora had jumped up and down on her bed in childish excitement, waiting for him to finish in his workshop, eager for him to come and tell her bedtime stories. He had made his great oversized chair large enough to hold two people, father and daughter, and had placed it right beside her bed. Its great carved arms had held them both in its embrace just as Lora had pressed her body into the curve of Sandor's powerful arm, safe and content as they shared laughter and secrets together. He had sat beside her when her sleep had been disturbed by childhood nightmares, had held her in his arms when her body was warmed by fever. There was no chair in her room now and Sandor wondered when anyone had last watched over h!
Sandor smiled, recalling how her bed had once been filled with wooden animals he had carved for her, how she had refused to sleep without her rabbit, her dog, her pony. Mara had called it foolishness, said it was a waste of time when he could be carving goods for paying customers. But they had laughed together, giving the figures names and stories. Lora had shared his delight in the frivolous, the whimsical while Mara had shaken her head and called them both fools.
So he knelt by the child's bedside, like a penitent in a temple. So much time lost, so much to make up for. She was lovely. Not as delicate as Mara but her beauty would be of a different sort. Her features were stronger, more pronounced, and Sandor knew that she owed at least that much to him. She resembled the toddler he remembered but she had grown in many ways. She wasn't a baby any longer, she was a young girl. And a stranger to him now, as he was to her. How could they begin again? What could he say, what secrets could they share now? Perhaps Mara had been right. What could he offer her? For years she had lived in luxury. Perhaps she too would resent having to live with a disfigured woodcarver, as Mara had.
He moved, trying to position his body so that his scarred face would be turned away from her if she awoke suddenly. But his knee brushed against something and Sandor bent down to see what it was. Lora had hidden pieces of parchment beneath her bed and Sandor reached down for them, cursing his clumsiness. Quietly he spread them out on the floor, to smooth out the creases he had made.
They were drawings, fashioned on bits of parchment and drawn with sticks dipped in charcoal from the fire. Sandor looked at them in the half light and smiled to himself. She had talent, he thought. Each was drawn with a few bold strokes, pictures of animals, so it seemed at first glance. But there was something odd. Sandor looked closer, holding one to the light. It was a sketch of a cat, stretching in the sunlight as it sat on a soft pillow. But the face was Mara's, no doubt at all. Sandor picked up the next and chuckled softly. The cook's face looked back at him from atop the shoulders of a barnyard hen. And the sleek, sly fox had to be Gregor. He placed them back under the bed carefully.
And then she turned her head on the pillow and he could see that she was startled to see him there.
"Don't be frightened. The cook told me where you were. Are you all right?"
She nodded but her eyes never left his face.
"You don't remember me. It's been a long time. My name is Sandor...." He was about to say more but she suddenly reached out to him. Sandor was taken by surprise as she put her fingers on his chin and slowly turned his face until she could see him clearly.
"I remember. You used to tell me stories. And you made me a wagon shaped like a pony that I used to ride around in. You're my father, aren't you? But you're supposed to be dead." She sat up, apparently unconcerned about the scars that he had tried so desperately to hide.
"You and your mother thought I was dead but we had just lost each other. But I've found you now." Sandor watched as the mention of Mara brought fresh tears to the child's eyes. Her lip began to tremble as if the memory of that morning had suddenly hurt her again. Sandor got up from his knees and hesitantly sat on the bed beside her. He leaned forward and whispered, "She's not really gone, you know. They say that those on the other side can hear whenever anybody who loves them thinks about them. So whenever you think about her, she'll be listening."
Lora nodded her head but her shoulders began to shake with grief and fear. Sandor reached out for her and suddenly she filled his arms once more and he felt her body pressed against his shoulder, felt the wetness of her tears on his neck. "And I'm going to talk to Gregor. I want to take care of you again. Would you want to come live with me?" Sandor held his breath, waiting for her reply.
He heard her voice, muffled as she buried her face in his shoulder. "Yes, please. I don't want to stay with Gregor. He doesn't care about me."
Sandor tried to speak but for a moment the words would not come. He held her tighter and then he whispered in her ear, "I do. I always have and I always will."
The shutters had been pulled in Mara's room and the bed where the woman had died was in half darkness. Gabrielle stood in the doorway and looked in. Perhaps the shutters had been pulled in respect for the dead, perhaps to insure privacy. Perhaps they had never been opened at all that day. But there was a chill in the room that was not due to the darkness alone.
It was a charming room, tasteful and elegant. The canopied bed had doubtless been stripped when Mara's body had been removed but servants had hurried to bring the room back to order, to cast away the unease that hangs in the air when Death comes and to pretend that busy hands can make things the way they were again. Now the bed was covered in fine brocade and the blanket that was folded over the pillow was soft and dyed a hue more often seen in faraway lands. The candle holders on her dresser were golden and the scented tapers in them slender and milky white, not the tallow stubs that most people knew. Even the floor itself was covered with mats that had been woven by expert craftsmen. Apparently Gregor had spared no expense to keep Mara content and although Gabrielle had seen the courts of many kings and princes in her travels with Xena, she had seldom seen such wealth as this. Blood money, Petra had called it.
She sat down at the dressing table, almost surprised to see her own face reflected in the glass, half expecting to see Mara's there instead. But never again would the glass hold that image and Gabrielle considered her own reflection now. There was nothing wrong with her own face, she thought, even if it were not in a class with Mara's. The features were regular, her expression open and friendly. She had collected a glance or two from fellow travelers and when she had loved Perdicas and been loved by him, she had known what it was to feel beautiful too.
But Mara's beauty had been extraordinary, breathtaking. Now as Gabrielle sat at her dressing table, she shook her head in surprise. The surface was covered with vials of creams, lotions and perfumes. Many a healer had less to work with to save a human life than Mara had to maintain her beauty. What nature had not provided, Gregor's ships had carried back to Corinth. There were cosmetics from all over the world: kohl from Thebes, attars from Rome, rice powders from the land of Ch'in. There were dozens more, some whose uses were unknown to her.
She smiled to herself, wondering what Xena would say of such things. Xena seemed to be unconcerned about her own appearance, unless of course it could prove useful to distract an opponent. Certainly Xena's many lovers had not been unaware of her striking good looks. But even as Gabrielle sat here before Mara's glass, Xena sought to learn from a healer which plants and herbs could heal a wound and cure a fever, not which could soften the skin or bring color to one's cheek. Gabrielle knew that the true source of Xena's attraction, what drew most people's fascination was not so much how she looked but what she did and who she was.
Gabrielle opened a vial and closed her eyes as the scent of attar of roses drifted into the air. She shook her head and wondered that Mara had labored so hard for physical perfection but had neglected or rejected so much of real value. She had hurt Sandor in ways that only intimates can, had denied her daughter the love that Sandor longed to give her and had refused his love herself. She looked at the bed where Mara had lain and shivered. The room was cold, for the fire had gone out hours ago. But the sudden chill had little to do with the fire. Rather it seemed like Death itself was hovering in the air.
Gabrielle sat at the dresser and stared at the vials in silence. After a few minutes, she closed her eyes and tried to organize the thoughts that whirled in her brain. Bits and pieces, impressions and facts - she tried to make them coalesce, to form a solid wall that would protect Petra from the hangman's noose. There was so little time and her desperation added fear to the mix. And so she sat in the stillness of the darkened bedroom, until she felt Sandor's hand on her shoulder, breaking her reverie. And moments later she followed him into the sunlit streets that led back to his shop.
Gabrielle sat beside Sandor on the rough wooden bench and waited for the magistrate's arrival. The courtroom was crowded and Gabrielle recognized many of the faces from the bardic competition. This was a greater attraction, she thought wryly. Such an unusual cast of characters - the scarred craftsman, the beautiful murder victim, the rich and powerful slave trader. No wonder that the crowd wanted to get a look.
And the stakes were higher. It would be more than a pouchful of dinars to be won or lost this day. One woman was dead and another seemed doomed to the gallows. And the crowd anxiously waited to see the drama played out before them. They would search the faces of Sandor, Petra and Gregor to see which held grief, rage or shame. The magistrate would give a final verdict but each person in the crowd would decide for himself where his sympathies would lie.
Gabrielle sat and listened to the hum of conversation that seemed to fill the air of the courtroom. She had come to Corinth to test her skills, to see if she had the talent to tell tales that would hold people's hearts and challenge their minds. Well, now she would be put to a test more demanding than any bardic competition. She would be the one to speak for Petra if the magistrate allowed and she prayed that her words would form the bridge from the facts she knew to the suspicions she held. If only she could lead her listeners across that distance, for she was sure that if her words were true they would easily bear such weight. But in her heart she knew that there was more conjecture than fact to work with and that the journey would be as much discovery for her as for them.
There was a hush as the guards entered and led Petra to a seat across from Sandor. She glanced quickly at him and at Gabrielle but then turned her face forward. She seemed tired but her face was a mask and if the crowd had expected to see fear or guilt written on her features, it was not to be. She looked like a woman who had faced death before, one who was ready to accept her fate whatever that might be. There was a quiet dignity about her and the crowd stared, eager to know more.
Sandor leaned forward, trying to sit as close to her as he could. He responded to Petra's glance with a smile and a nod but only Gabrielle could see how he rubbed his palm on his thigh, how he drummed his fingers on his knee. Gabrielle reached over to grasp his hand, partly to show her concern, partly to still his movements.
And then the magistrate entered and called everyone to order. Gabrielle watched him as he took his seat. He was solemn and deliberate and Gabrielle hoped that he would be fair as well. Before he could even speak, she had risen to her feet and the hum of the crowd broke off abruptly as she began. "Your honor, I would like to speak for the accused."
The magistrate was startled but settled back into his chair. "There's little that can be said. The suspect has confessed to the murder of the woman Mara. This is not a trial. I am here to declare an appropriate sentence, not to determine guilt or innocence. And it would seem that the only choices open to me by the laws of Corinth are execution or life imprisonment at hard labor. If you wish to plead for her life, you can speak now."
Gabrielle looked at Petra but the woman avoided her eyes. Gabrielle thought she had seen a flicker of hope there and went on grimly. "There may be a third alternative, Sir. It may be that when we are done you can release her."
The Magistrate had been patient but Gabrielle's comment seemed to anger him. "Don't waste our time with foolishness. If you wish leniency for the accused, say so and be done with it. A murder has been committed and I will allow no one to make light of the circumstances."
"A murder was committed, your Honor but Petra is not the guilty party." Gabrielle paused and waited for a moment. "Please. Let me prove to you that this crime was not done by her hand. Let me prove it to her as well." Gabrielle turned slightly but it was enough for the spectators to realize that she was addressing them too. "Just half an hour. Let me speak to a few of your townsmen so that we can understand what went on. A half hour is not so much to ask for when a woman's life is at stake." She walked a few steps forward until she stood only a few feet away from the magistrate. "I've heard Corinth is a city marked by order and the rules of law. I've heard that one can find justice here, that one's actions can be judged with fairness and understanding. Prove to me that I have heard right. "
The Magistrate nodded. "I have no desire to condemn an innocent woman, if you can prove to me that is the case. You may speak in her behalf and call whatever witnesses you need who are present here today. But I warn you, I will tolerate no lies or deceit."
The first person that Gabrielle called forth was Gregor and the crowd fairly strained to see as he rose from his seat and walked to the front of the room. He was average in height, slender, and he moved with a sensuous grace usually seen in athletes and dancers. He seemed aware that all eyes were upon him and reveled in it, for his entire appearance was aimed at display. His clothes were expensive, carefully made, and his hair and beard were neatly clipped to emphasize his clear cut features. He was the very model of a handsome man and Gabrielle thought what a striking couple he and Mara must have made.
Gabrielle waited for the crowd to settle and began. "I'm sorry for the loss of your wife. I'm sure it will bring peace to your mind to know the truth and to begin to put this sorrow behind you. Could you tell us how you met Mara?"
Gregor studied the young woman for a moment. It was clear from his disdainful expression that he thought little of her and her questions but it would be unseemly to avoid answering. He looked at the magistrate who merely shrugged and turned to Gabrielle, apparently resigned to this interrogation. "We met about five years ago when I was on a buying trip in the country."
Gabrielle's glanced at Sandor and his expression was a clear sign that this fact had been unknown to him. Five years ago he had been in Troy, trying to survive, hoping to come home to his wife and daughter again. Gabrielle gestured for Gregor to continue.
"I'd heard about a woman who was selling carvings that her husband had made before he had gone into the army. She said that he'd been gone for years and that she figured he was dead. She needed the money because she planned to go to Corinth one day soon. I was struck by how beautiful she was. I'd never expected to meet anyone quite so lovely and elegant in a tiny village like that. We became friends and after that I often stopped to visit her if I were passing that way."
"So you got to see her often?"
"As I said, we became friends, close friends." He looked smug and there was little doubt of his implication. It was the answer Gabrielle had hoped for but she nonetheless avoided Sandor's face. To be deserted by a wife was painful enough without discovering that she had been unfaithful too.
He continued. "A few years ago I settled in Corinth and one day I met Mara at a banquet. She said she and her daughter were staying with her sister. We renewed our acquaintanceship and we were married soon after that."
Gabrielle paused for a moment. "So you never knew that her husband was still alive, that she had deceived you?"
Gregor's lips met in a tight line and his eyes narrowed as he nodded. He was angry and Gabrielle was not sure if the cause was Mara's deception or the fact that the whole town was now aware of it. He was proud and haughty and her dislike of the man grew as she went on. He had not cared if Mara had had a husband when he had first bedded her but now he was furious that he had been made the fool in his turn.
Gabrielle turned to the crowd and continued. "You were generous enough to take her in, to care for her daughter. And she'd lied to you. Some men would have been furious to have been used like that. Many's the man who would have been angry enough to kill her himself."
Gregor began to stroke his mustache with his finger and it was clear he was trying to maintain his temper. "I didn't know her husband was still alive until after her death. Besides, I'm an honest trader, not a vicious thug."
"Of course." Gabrielle watched as Gregor returned to his seat. But it's not as if one could not be both, she thought as she gestured to Sandor to take his place before the magistrate. For a moment the two men stood shoulder to shoulder and the crowd studied the contrast they made. Both had shared Mara's bed but it seemed to be the only thing they had in common. Next to the huge and powerful Sandor, Gregor seemed like a petulant boy. Moments before they had envied him, his wealth and position but as Sandor stood before him in his simple workman's clothes, the woodcarver had a natural strength and dignity that seemed more admirable, more sympathetic. He was common, as they were and his wife had left him for a rich man. Mara had lain with Gregor in Sandor's own bed as he lay wounded in Troy. Almost without their knowing, the crowd began to shift its sympathy, to switch sides as Mara's story unfolded.
For Gabrielle had begun to think of the people in the magistrate's hall as a unit. When she told her tales, she turned her gaze from one face to another, making the story more personal, focusing so that each listener would feel, if only for a moment, that the tale was shared by just the two of them. But this was different. The buzz of their whispers seemed to wrap itself around them like a sheath and they became as one to her, like a spectral beast whose heart and mind must be mastered. Their responses were almost palpable to her and she could sense the shift of their reactions and emotions as if it were a breeze that blew this way and that. If she must succeed she would have to guide the beast, would have to climb upon its back and ride it to the end of the journey. Petra's life depended upon it.
Gabrielle paused for a moment while Sandor stood before them. Every time she had been with him in public, he had sat in the shadows or turned his scarred face from view. But now he stood for all to see and she looked into his eyes, fearing the pain and discomfort she expected to see there. But Sandor stood tall and his gaze rested not on the people staring at him but upon Petra. Gabrielle suddenly realized that for all her quick temper and brusque ways, Petra had probably given Sandor more encouragement in his art and shown him more simple kindness in a week than Mara had in all their years of marriage.
And Petra returned his gaze. For once her expression was neither guarded nor cold and her face seemed younger, vulnerable. It was as if they were the only two in the room as their eyes met and in that brief moment there was a sort of declaration, a sudden flash of warmth and respect that passed between them. He nodded and smiled as if to reassure her and Petra turned her gaze to her fingers knotted in her lap as the color rushed to her face.
Gabrielle began to question him and his answers to her questions were short and to the point. Yes, he was a woodcarver who had come to Corinth six months ago.
"Your wife left you more than three years ago. Did you know about her friendship with Gregor?"
Sandor shook his head. "No. I thought she was staying with her sister. She'd always hated the village and talked about going to Corinth."
"And you figured that's why she left you?"
Sandor was silent for a moment. "Things had changed when I got back from the war. Mara was a beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She wanted a better life for herself, a life I couldn't give her. I could understand that she didn't want to stay with me. That's why I let her go and didn't follow."
The crowd listened to him and their admiration grew. He had just learned of his wife's betrayal but spoke of her without anger. He never mentioned his disfigurement but they knew enough of Mara to understand what her reactions must have been when he returned from Troy. The man who had lived in the forest to escape the scorn of his neighbors was winning their respect now.
"And your daughter? What about her?"
Sandor lowered his head and spoke so softly that only the people in the first few rows could hear his words. "I thought when she found that better life, Lora would share it." He looked at the faces before him for the very first time. "I thought my daughter would be better off if I weren't around to cast a shadow on her happiness. So I stayed away."
"And why did you decide to come to Corinth now?"
For the first time, Sandor smiled and his natural good humor was infectious. "Well, I finally realized I deserved a better life too."
For a moment there was laughter in the hall and someone in the back sang out, "Good for you!" Gabrielle smiled to herself and felt the warmth of the crowd's reaction. Whatever the outcome of this hearing, Sandor's life would be different. He had gone from pathetic monster to local hero in a few short moments and Gabrielle knew that there were many who would visit his shop now just to meet and talk with him.
"Were you angry when you finally found out where she was?"
"Her life was her own. I had no claim on her anymore. But I was angry when she refused to let me see my daughter."
"Did you threaten her when she wouldn't let you see her?"
"No. I just told her I was determined to get my daughter back."
"At what cost? Did you threaten to kill her if she didn't hand her over?"
"No. She threatened me. She said she'd have me killed if I so much as spoke to Gregor. That she had the money to hire someone to do it. His money."
Suddenly all eyes were on Gregor. He sat stiff and quiet but his eyes were cold, his face stony. He was not a man to be trifled with and Mara's deceit had cost him. He had been duped by a mere woodcarver's wife, his power and wealth used without his knowledge, behind his back. And now every damned laborer in Corinth would know and laugh at him.
Gabrielle looked at him and was almost moved to pity herself. Another life forever twisted by Mara and her greed. Had she been aware of her own power or had she just blindly moved from one victim to the next in her quest for admiration?
As Sandor stepped down, the magistrate's voice rang out clearly, impatiently. "The deceased woman is not on trial here. I have heard nothing so far to influence my sentencing of the accused. If there are any facts that pertain to the accused woman Petra or the murder of Gregor's wife, get to the point or else sit down and let's bring the proceedings to a close."
Gabrielle called for Bartok and cursed to herself when he could not be found. He had left town earlier, the innkeeper said, and she knew now that a link in the tale was lost to her now. So many gaps and mysteries, so many guesses and theories to bridge in her mind. She sought to make sense of it all even as she stood seemingly calm and relaxed before the crowd.
And so the innkeeper was next to speak. Unlike Gregor, he seemed to enjoy his moment of glory on the stand and rattled on about his connection with the barmaid. He loudly stated that she had worked for him for almost a year. She had appeared one day, badly bruised and beaten. She'd said she'd come from Athens and needed a job and so he took pity on her.
Gabrielle shook her head. He was trying to ingratiate himself with the crowd, to get a little of the free publicity and good feeling that Sandor had garnered. But he was not Sandor and she remembered his greed and unfairness at the inn. "I suppose it never hurts to have a pretty barmaid working for you. Surely you noticed how attractive she was when you hired her."
"Yeah but I run a respectable place. I never laid a hand on her."
"Did she have many other admirers?"
He fidgeted in his seat. "Yeah, lots of men tried their luck but she kept to herself mostly. I didn't ask questions. I figured she'd got beat up by her husband or her boyfriend and had taken off. It wasn't my problem as long as she did her work."
"So why did you fire her?"
"I caught her stealing." He said it with all the self righteousness he could muster.
"Money? She stole money from you?'
"No, I caught her stealing food. She was giving scraps to street urchins and beggars. She had no right to do that." There was a murmur from the crowd and he began to be uneasy with the questions. It dawned on him that the court was filled with potential customers who would sympathize more readily with the hungry and homeless than with him.
"That the only reason you fired her?"
He grabbed onto the question as a falling man reaches for a rope to break his fall. He sat back in his seat, confident again. "No, I also found out she was a prostitute. There was a barfight one day when one of the men at the bar recognized her."
Gabrielle paused while his comment was repeated to those in the back. When she spoke again the room was quiet. "She worked for you for a year. In a job where she met dozens of men every night, she kept to herself and tended your customers until closing. That sounds more like an honest barmaid than a prostitute."
The innkeeper scowled at Gabrielle, knowing that her questions had ruined his attempt to swing the crowd his way. He was annoyed and grumbled, "Once a whore, always a whore."
There was a low rumbling. She had done her work, had done nothing to earn the innkeeper's dislike but give away scraps of food to the poor. They jostled one another to get a better look at Petra now and her expression was as dignified and controlled as that of Sandor. What she thought was her shame was now common knowledge but there were many in the hall who suddenly hoped that she would somehow escape the hangman's noose.
"Have you seen her since you fired her?"
"Only once. She came in the night of the murder. I saw her talking to some men, mostly thugs and ruffians. I figured she was trying to drum up a little business. She talked a long time to Bartok the bounty hunter."
"Did she leave with him?"
"No. She left by herself. Early. Before ten. Bartok was in a pretty good mood after that. I figured he was going to meet her later on and get a little action."
Gabrielle turned to the magistrate and added, "But we know that she went to Gregor's after that and I can swear she was back in her bed long before midnight. I know because she and I are sharing lodgings at Sandor's workshop."
The magistrate shook his head and rubbed his chin. "Have you anyone else to question? I won't waste all day here."
Gabrielle nodded. "Just one more. Please."
He nodded and Gabrielle called Gregor's cook forward. She was dressed in her best clothes and carried herself like a queen. She savored the attention this spectacle had brought and she knew that the crowd would listen to her every word. "Yes, I knew Mara. She was beautiful, a good match for the Master. And the little girl is a blessing."
"You were the one who found the body?"
The cook leaned back. She paused, playing the crowd like a veteran storyteller. It was her moment. "Yes. And I was really surprised. She usually started the day yelling for her breakfast. But this time she hadn't called. It got to be late and after a while I went up to check."
"Why did you wait so long?" Gabrielle asked the question and for one brief moment doubted herself. She had anticipated each answer to her questions before but now she was guessing, hoping the answers would fall into place. She held her breath as she waited for the cook's response.
"Well....," For a moment the woman seemed hesitant, almost embarrassed. "I was afraid that Gregor might be there and I didn't want to disturb them. The night before Mara demanded a new silken robe be set out at bedtime and she ordered her maidservant to put scented candles by her bedside. I was pretty sure that she expected company." She avoided Gregor's eyes and went on. "But next morning when I got upstairs I heard Gregor in his own room and when no one answered my knock I just went in. I thought she was asleep at first, tucked under the blankets, all warm and cozy. But she never moved so I turned her over and found that she was dead. That's when I called Gregor. He thought she must have had some sort of fit during the night but then the groundsman found out that someone had broken into the storeroom. We sent for the captain of the guards and he started questioning everyone."
Gabrielle turned to address the magistrate. "And at first suspicion fell on Sandor. But it was Petra who entered the house, went to Mara's room and put a pillow over her head in anger and in fear for Sandor's life. And next morning the guards found her at Sandor's shop." Gabrielle paused and turned to face the crowd once more. "But you can't help but wonder. Why didn't she take off in the dark of night before anyone even knew a crime had been committed? She's not a stupid woman. Why kill Mara and then go back to her bed as if nothing had happened when it would have been so easy to leave Corinth altogether?"
She turned to face the crowd, pausing so that her questions could turn in their own minds. Her voice changed in tone, as if she were answering their questions instead of her own as she continued. "I'll tell you why. It was because she thought that Mara was still alive. She was angry enough to put a pillow over the sleeping woman's head but she couldn't bring herself to kill her. The woman who lost her job because she fed hungry children didn't have the hatred in her that it takes to kill another human being. She stopped and instead she reached out and checked for a pulse. And she thought she felt a heartbeat. No need to run away if your victim merely slept. It's not a crime to wish someone dead. If it were, there would not be enough gallows in Greece to do the job."
There was nervous laughter in the court now and but it ceased quickly and there was silence as Gabrielle went on. "Next morning when she learned Mara was dead, Petra assumed that there had been no pulse, that she had killed her after all. And so she confessed to the crime. But she was wrong. Mara was still alive when she left."
Gabrielle turned to face the magistrate and then the captain of the guards who stood at his side. The magistrate seemed puzzled but the captain was more direct in his response. He began to look around him nervously. There was a hint of anger in his eyes as he saw his case begin in unravel. "Everyone was so eager to make an arrest, so anxious to please the richest man in Corinth that no one asked the right questions. Petra couldn't have killed Mara. Gregor's cook had to turn her body over in the morning. You don't kill someone by putting a pillow over their ear. And dead bodies don't turn over."
She paused as the crowd began to stir. "And Mara had been still warm by midmorning. "Warm and cozy," the cook said. Yet the fire had gone out in the room. If she had been killed before midnight, the stiffness and cold that death brings would already have begun. But it wasn't so. We could question those who removed the body if you don't believe me."
A man stood up from the crowd, excited to find himself part of the drama unfolding. "That's right. I took the body out of the room. I've picked up lots of bodies and she's right. This one wasn't even stiff yet."
Gabrielle wheeled around, her voice raised to be heard over the growing noise of the audience. "It's true that Mara was killed but not by Petra and not with a pillow."
The Magistrate was flustered, shocked to find the proceeding turning into such chaos. "That's preposterous. There was no sign of violence, not a bruise on her. She had to have been suffocated."
Gabrielle turned to face Petra and her next statement was directed at her no less than at the officials who would direct her fate. For she too must understand the truth. "No. She was poisoned."
Now it was the cook's turn to rise in her seat and to shout angrily. "That's a lie. Everyone ate the same thing at supper. No one was sick. That couldn't be. Poison be damned."
Gabrielle raised her hand for quiet as the noise in the room threatened to overcome anything that would be said. "No, it wasn't in her food. Gregor has one of the finest cooks in Corinth. She had nothing to do with Mara's death." Gabrielle pulled something from the pouch around her waist, walked to the magistrate's desk and put a small vial there. "Mara killed herself with this."
The Magistrate had lost control over the courtroom and now almost shouted to make himself heard. "This is ridiculous. Now you say it was suicide?"
"No." Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "Mara was a woman who would deceive anyone to get what she wanted. But in the end she was finally deceived herself. The woman who valued beauty above all else, who sacrificed her home, her husband and honor itself died in its pursuit."
Gabrielle's voice shifted in tone as she felt the crowd's fierce attention, their desire to understand. "I travel with a woman who studies plants as a healer, one who has saved many lives with her knowledge and skill. But we're very different, she and I. When we walk through the forest, I take delight in the scent of the flowers, their colors. She has had a harder life than I, one filled with pain and suffering and I sometimes despair that she can't see their loveliness as I do. Instead she sees a flower and thinks which part will cure, which part will kill. Someday I hope she'll see the beauty in the flowers as I do but for now I'm content to learn their other uses from her. And I have learned."
"Beauty was an art to Mara. It was her life's work, her craft. She wanted wealth and luxury, wanted to be admired and taken care of. And her face and figure were the goods she had to barter. She understood the value of her appearance and she learned to take advantage of the tools of the trade. It wasn't enough that she had been born beautiful. She needed the herbs and powders to maintain it. She knew their uses just as Sandor knows his carving tools, as well as Gregor's cook knows her meats and spices. And Gregor was a trader who could get everything she needed. There was no cosmetic too expensive or so rare that Gregor's ships couldn't bring it to Corinth for Mara."
"Like this one." Gabrielle reached for the vial and every eye in the room followed her movements. "It's made from a flower the Romans call Belladonna. It means "pretty woman" and Mara used it that night. She was expecting Gregor, readying herself for a night of lovemaking. She put on the silken gown, lit the scented candles, applied the expensive perfumes, the lotions. And then she used the belladonna. Just like the wives and lovers of rich Roman noblemen, she put a few drops of the liquid in her eyes, to make herself more desirable. A few drops and a woman's eyes grow larger, so she looks like a doe in the forest or a woman aroused to the heights of love and desire. Perhaps Mara needed it more than most, for her only real desire was for admiration and wealth and it would seem that she knew nothing about love."
"But this time it was stronger than usual. It was the belladonna used by oracles to help them reach their second sight. Less diluted it brings on an almost trancelike state. Mara would have been oblivious to everything. She was probably in that stage when Petra came into the room. She wouldn't struggle but she was still alive. Petra had really felt her heartbeat before she'd left. The poison had done its work later on. More drops, stronger perhaps, as she lay helpless. Until her heart would race and then stop. There would be plenty of time then to wipe her face, move her limbs, tuck her in so that it would appear that she died peacefully in her sleep. No one would suspect murder."
Gabrielle's voice was low but there was no one in the room who could not hear her words, for the crowd was silent, anxious to hear. Many of them bent forward in their seats as if to be nearer to the words themselves. And all eyes were on the short blond woman as she unfolded her tale.
"But too much had gone on already. Mara had confronted Sandor, fought with him, threatened him. And Petra had decided to protect him. She'd broken in and failed to kill Mara on the same night that someone else would try to do the same and succeed. But no one was going to believe that Mara died in her sleep now that so many events had taken place that would arouse suspicion. Events that you knew nothing about, Gregor, or else you might have actually pulled it off."
The Magistrate slammed his gavel down on his desk for quiet and motioned for the guards to be ready as Gabrielle confronted the trader. "Bartok came to you for a payoff, didn't he? He was the man that the neighbors saw leaving your house that night. No wonder he was in such a good mood at the inn. He could easily pass up Mara's offer if he could make a better deal selling information to you. If Mara were willing to hire someone to kill Sandor, she might do the same to you one day. Then she would be a rich widow with you and Sandor gone. She'd lied to you before. You knew you couldn't trust her. So you paid Bartok off and told him to leave town. You didn't know that he had already talked to Petra. You figured once he was gone, no one would know. And It would be so easy to get rid of her. Just tell her you wanted her that night. She would never say no to you. And you knew she'd use the belladonna. Maybe you gav!
to her right then, a special little gift just for her."
"Oh yes, she was getting to be more trouble than she was worth. She'd given you an air of respectability and she'd been a beautiful, elegant hostess for your villa. Gregor the family man. And it had worked. She'd given you what you wanted but she'd played you for a fool. A woman from a tiny backwoods village. You'd given her your name, shared your home, your bed, taken in her child and all along she was laughing at you. She outsmarted you, Gregor. You were no better than Sandor, just another stupid husband to use and discard later when you got in the way."
Suddenly Gregor's face crumbled. The elegant facade that the trader had assumed dropped away and the brutality and selfishness that had made him such a success in the traffic of human souls shone in his very expression. "She was a lying bitch. I'm just sorry I didn't have the pleasure of squeezing the breath from her throat myself." He continued to rant but his words were lost in the shouting of the crowd as the guards rushed forward.
Then it seemed to Gabrielle that everything was in motion. The guards led Gregor away as Sandor leaped to his feet and rushed to Petra's side. Within moments the Magistrate released her. She stood dazed and unsure as Sandor stood beside her, as if she could not comprehend the sudden change from imminent death on the gallows to freedom. She nodded absently as the Magistrate spoke. "You are free to go. But learn to keep your anger in check. I don't want to see you in my courtroom again. Remember that not all who appear here are lucky enough to have such an eloquent defense."
Petra turned to Gabrielle and began to thank her when Sandor wrapped his arms around them both and lifted them off their feet like children. He threw his head back and whirled them around effortlessly, so filled with relief that only movement could express it.
The crowd began to rush out into the street, eager to report to those unable to squeeze into the hall. After a few minutes Sandor, Petra and Gabrielle found themselves alone. Sandor sat on the bench, as excited as a schoolboy. "You know, if you need someone to teach you how to keep your temper, I'm pretty good at it. Of course knowing you, it might take a while. Years maybe."
Petra shook her head. It was all too much, it was all happening too fast. "I'm sorry Sandor but maybe it's best I just move on. I'm grateful that you stood by me and...." she paused as if the words had to be forced out of the hiding place in her heart, " ...I care for you. But Sandor, trouble follows me around like the tail on a horse and I can't rid myself of it. You've got your daughter now. You'll be busy enough raising her. A child is a big responsibility. Besides, I couldn't stay. I'm not the kind of woman who should be around a young girl. People will talk."
Sandor's voice was low and Petra could barely hear his words. "I almost lost Lora because I was afraid people would talk. I thought I wasn't good enough. And instead I only cheated us out of the love we both needed. I'm not about to let you make that same mistake." He smiled and as much as Petra tried to pull her eyes away from his face, she could not turn away. "You said I was too damned innocent for my own good. What better person to teach her the dangers in the world than someone who's known them and pushed them away? I'd like her to grow up knowing a woman who is smart and honest, works hard, one who gives food to children even if it means her job. I don't have much to offer. I can't promise the shop will be a success and it won't be easy raising another woman's child. I know you could go somewhere, get a fresh start and do better than me...."
She put her fingers to his scarred cheek and shook her head. "No. I could never do better than you." She hesitated and moved closer to him. Then slowly, she leaned forward and kissed him softly. Sandor wrapped his arms around her, felt the warmth of her and the kiss deepened, changing from Petra's shy thank you to a mutual promise of the passion and devotion that would mark their life together.
"I said we'd make a good team, you and I." Sandor smiled at her, reluctant to let her go.
But Petra stepped back and could not quite shake the fear that was a part of her, that she had grown accustomed to as misfortune dogged her path. "It's not going to be that easy, Sandor. There'll be plenty of obstacles in the road for both of us."
Sandor nodded. "I know. But we each made it this far traveling alone. And it's always good to have a hand to hold if you feel you're going to stumble. Or to help you up if you fall."
And then he held out his hand and for one brief moment she had a mad urge to run, to flee before the Fates noticed her happiness and ruined it. Sandor's next words were few and simple but they sang to her like a poet's song. She reached out as she heard him say, "Let's go home."
There was an hour or so before the finals of the bardic competition and Gabrielle considered going to Sandor's shop to pack her bag. Perhaps she should leave now and seek out the home of the healer where Xena studied. Winning the prize had never been her goal and she wondered if her tales of Xena would be heard one more time. She was sure that there were those who guessed the subject of her tale and she dreaded the possibility that she and Xena would be rejected once again.
But she found herself walking toward the gathering nonetheless. She had accomplished part of her goal, at any rate. She had been able to hold a crowd with her words, had had the skill she needed to save Petra from harm. And it seemed that she had saved more than that, for now Sandor, Petra and Lora might have a chance to become the family that each of them yearned for.
Saving lives was a daily matter for Xena and her sword and chakram but it was a new and delicious feeling to know that perhaps this time she had done the same with her own art. And so she would try once more to use that skill for Xena's sake. If they could only understand her as she did. If just some of the hate could be pushed aside and sympathy lead to forgiveness, then it would all be worthwhile.
She was surprised to hear the commotion that her arrival created with the audience. The story of Petra's defense had passed through the town and a huge crowd had come to see the little bard who had worked the miracle. There was applause and people shouted out her name as she took her place among the other bards. She looked out across the faces of the audience and felt their welcome, felt their support.
And there on the front bench, in a place of honor, sat Sandor, Petra and Lora. The child sat between the two of them and their happiness seemed to radiate towards her. Gabrielle waved at them and with a pang she thought of another friend, one whose affection and guidance she depended upon. If only Xena could be here, she thought.
For she could not see to the very back of the audience. There were no seats to be had there and the listeners who stood came and went as fatigue overcame them. All except for one crippled woman, wrapped in a dark cloak who stood silently leaning on a crutch. She had arrived early in the morning and stood now in the afternoon sun. She was like a tree or a rock - motionless, her head bent and hidden in the folds of her hood and soon no one paid any attention to her presence at all.
But for one old man who was intrigued by her. He sat on the last bench, the one that by common courtesy was left for the lame and women heavy with child. He leaned on his cane and when the tale being told failed to catch his imagination, he focused instead on the people around him. For years he had substituted observation for movement, had spent many hours speculating about strangers, noting their clothes, their manner, their stance. He prided himself that he was rarely fooled, that he could tell a scribe from the calluses on his hand, that he could listen to a traveler and guess his homeland to within thirty miles.
He watched the cloaked figure warily. He was old and wise and knew that others were not above pretending injury to get a seat. At first he thought it was so with her. But she made no move when an old man left his place on the bench and a young pregnant woman almost pushed her aside to get to it. He leaned back and studied her. Those who would mimic the lame were awkward, their movements exaggerated. But he saw how she leaned lightly on her crutch, almost unconsciously as if it were an old familiar extension of her body. There was no wasted motion, no shifting to and fro. He knew from experience that when it hurt to move, it was best to be still.
He leaned forward and addressed her. "It's your legs, ain't it? I can see by the way you stand. My legs ain't worth a damn either. They was broke, huh?"
The woman turned to face him, startled by the remark. She nodded and spoke quietly. "A long time ago."
He sidled over and made room for her on the bench. "Come on, sit down." He was surprised when she shook her head and refused. She seemed almost embarrassed by his kindness, as if she were unworthy of it.
"Come on. I know how old wounds can ache. Set yourself down." He patted the bench and smiled up at her, as if their handicaps were a secret society to which only the chosen could belong. "There's only so much you can do to handle the pain yourself. Sometimes you gotta let others give you a hand....and it looks like you been hurting long enough."
This time she moved slowly towards the bench and sat beside him. He grunted in satisfaction and turned his face towards the stage, ready for the next bard. But then he felt her hand on his forearm and heard a soft voice murmur, "Thank you." He turned to face her and for a moment the movement of her head brought the hood back to reveal the flash of beautiful blue eyes and a warm smile. He smiled in return as she drew the cloak around her head and they both sat back to listen. They had missed the first verse but the young bard had paused before continuing, as if waiting for a signal. But there was only silence as her listeners waited for her to go on, anxious to hear more, even now that the subject had been revealed....
From maiden to warlord she'd stood all alone
And the weight of her guilt was as heavy as stone.
Now the rest of her life is a quest to atone.
She is Xena, the Warrior Princess....
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