Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
The Interview – Metaphorically Speaking
When I first sat down to write this long conversation out, that was all I was going to do. But, being a bard, I'm an inveterate storyteller, and automatically, I pick and prod. I want to see that everything goes together. How did that happen? How did that man get there? Oh, no, no, you've got to somehow make me believe this. Well, this conversation could never have happened if I was just a plain middle aged stranger, someone who had never travelled, never seen a bit of life. Never had a near death encounter with one of the people I spoke to in this conversation. You'd never believe a word I wrote, if I couldn't convince you these people would really tell me the things they did. So, I need to tell you a bit about me.
Life is a funny sort of thing. When I was a child, I wanted to be famous with the sort of desperation only a child can feel. By the time I knew what I wanted to do for a living – in spite of my parents' angry declaration it was a road straight to sleeping in the street with the fleas, I had mostly forgot about the fame part. The play of the words was more interesting. I banged my way through the Athens Academy of Performing Bards, but in the end they would have failed me or thrown me out if they could. The lessons in how to hold the attention of a crowd, successfully silence hecklers and the rest – those were great. When a teacher carefully explained why a sentence with action in is always better than a sluggish one hanging somewhere in the midst of heavy verbiage, I was right in there with everyone else. But as soon as the lessons in how to compose like Homer, and have an epic style like Homer, and use language just like Homer began, my attitude began to sour.
Homer wasn't even a real person. 'He' was just a name, slapped onto the patchwork of stories people liked to call the great story of the fall of Troy. Well, what's so great about it? The Greeks won, and it was lousy for everybody, including the Greeks. No, I wanted to hear more about Hekuba, and Kassandra, who is spoken of quite differently where I come from. Of course, it completely spoils it if you're aware that Helen was actually the ancient patron Goddess of both Sparta and Troy, and no queen Helen ever abandoned a husband to sail to Anatolia. Then, all you can do is sit there in bafflement, and wonder what the point was.
But of course, I digress. I refused to write like Homer, or even learn how. I had a gift, the Muses had touched me. Poetry and songs ran from me like water from a stream. I feared to ruin the gift, and silence the verses forever. So my defiance wasn't as intellectual and great for the freedom of bards everywhere as you might think. The gift of beautiful words had been with me since I was a child, when I desperately yearned to be famous. When the world was dark, or worries had me weighed down and miserable, I could depend on them to lift me up and keep me from giving up on everything. A quick turn of phrase, a short flight of imagination, and those obvious hidden little beauties of the world sprang into bright relief. It made it so I could look philosophically at breaking my leg in a riding accident, and curse fluently when the herbs wore off, leaving me in grinding pain while the next cup steeped.
So I left the Academy, writing my own way, as always, an officially acredited bard. And I became famous. People fell over themselves to get copies of my poems. I dealt with plagiarists and hangers on. I even played around in the vast pool of nonsense encompassed by the words 'wine, women, and song.' And at the same time, a fierce, blue eyed terror took over most of Greece.
Xena, her name was. I met her, when I stood at the top of the writing world, and she on top of the highest number of shattered bodies and lives in hers. Don't get me wrong, I didn't meet her on purpose. I made a foolish mistake, composed a poem throwing her deeds in stark relief. It wasn't quite an open work against her, but it had a tone a powerful warlord couldn't ignore. So it shouldn't have surprised me when her men smashed down the door of my room at an inn in Sestos, knocked me off the woman I was dallying with, and hustled me off to see the great warlord herself. If I hadn't grabbed clothes from my things on the way out the door I would have been nearly naked. The delay cost me a sound punch in the stomach and a kick in the groin. It was worse for them. They had to carry me to Xena's tent, and when she saw the state I was in, she was livid.
To this day, I don't know what she said or did to them. But never has a soul ever tried to lay a hostile finger on me since.
She came back into the tent some time later, and uncurled me from the agonized ball I had been in since the soldiers had thrown me to the ground. "Tell me when it hurts." she ordered.
"Now." I said, as indomitably smart assed as ever.
"Not quite what I meant." she growled. There was a little twinkle in her eye, though. Then she prodded and poked me, and made me flex things. Then stood nearby when my body finally untensed enough to let me answer the call of nature, and insisted on seeing the water. "You could be bleeding in there. A kick in the groin is no good for anybody." A point I could concede.
No blood, so she sat me down on her rough cot and handed me a cup of wine. "Go ahead, I'm not the poisoning type." she told me when I hesitated.
"Ahh – that actually isn't what I had in mind. You don't have anything to drink – where I come from, it's bad manners to drink before the host." The cup felt cold and unfriendly in my hands, like the look in her eyes.
"Don't tell me lies, bard." she snapped at me.
"My people don't lie."
"Your people? All bards lie."
"No, all bards don't lie. My people are the Samians. Samians don't lie." Xena looked no more satisfied than before, but she poured herself some wine anyway.
"I wanted to see the bard who was brave enough to sing unflattering verses in a town I just took over." Why, I wondered. To remember me better after you had me executed? There was a sensible idea. "I wanted to see the person who doesn't depend on drink and badly made armour for their power."
"Power? Me?" I asked, laughing a little. It made my guts hurt to do it, but I couldn't help myself. Dragged out of bed with a woman and kicked around at the whim of a warlord. You call that power?
"Convincing people with your words, getting into their hearts – that's power. Maybe I want it."
"It's too bad if you do. Words are hollow if you don't believe a word you're saying." No way was I teaching this woman how to control people more than she already did. What I said – it came straight from one of my best teachers. I had no idea what it meant, but Xena did. She looked stung, and then her face went shuttered and cold again.
"All right. Well, I'm not gonna kill you." she stood up, watching me drink the last of my wine. "Today. Set foot where I run the show again, and I'll make a point of sending you to the Fields myself."
That's how I came to return to my homeland, and kept my rare tours to the islands around Greece and the southern parts of the peninsula. I knew she meant it, and there wasn't a soul who would help me. Nobody else would hurt me either, as I've already said. She was Ares' Chosen, after all, and if whatever she had done to those soldiers had made one Tartarus of an impression. In the end, I chose not to court trouble, and avoided her. It was a scant four years later when word came to me on Lemnos she'd been killed, turned on by her lieutenant, Darfus. Everyone thought I'd join in the party over the end of the dread warlord. They didn't know I had ever met her. Instead I withdrew into myself, and went alone to sit by the sea. I was glad to hear she wouldn't be causing terror and pain anymore. But I couldn't celebrate it. I couldn't forget she had taken off her warlord's mask and shown herself to be a healer, checking me for serious injuries with gentle hands. Too complicated to simply hate.
Xena had reappeared, now a changed woman. And though I refused to admit it, I had changed too. Another year and a half of wandering, and playing to the crowds, and dealing with groupies and hangers on. Never knowing who was my friend for myself, and who wished for some of my fame to rub off on them. I was dead tired. All I wanted was to disappear, and quietly write my days away in some pokey little cabin on an emerald gem of an island in the Ionian sea. Now, this was extreme, of course. But the basic sentiment was a true one. So I rounded out my last run around the islands with a triumphal tour through Greece, then disappeared into the wilds of Anatolia. Later I learned I had unwittingly pulled a Xena. Went and died somewhere, then came back from the dead.
I started a school of my own on an island, of course, occupying a nice little cabin, admittedly. Soon I was busy, and happy, and strangely enough, people connected me less and less often to my huge, famous reputation. 'Oh, you have the same name as the famous bard? And you're a bard? Oh my!' they'd say. It was just too much to connect the middle aged bard who wore slightly shabby clothes and worked half days in a carpenter's workshop with the glamourous bard whose handwritten 'original' scrolls sold for princely sums I never saw.
And I had never been so relieved and happy in all my life.
One day my beautiful Kalliope walked into my life, and all unconsciously began to rearrange it. Before her, I was the last to leave work. The last to leave a party – oh, I still loved those – the first to start a rangy argument over nothing in particular. Still playing the part of a tinpot Zeus on occasion, and luckily never able to wreak quite the same sort of havoc. The idea of having children did cross my mind. But that kick in the groin must have done something, because not by hook or crook would the Fates grant me any. So I shrugged my shoulders and returned my attention to work, and parties, and rangy philosophical arguments. Who needed the responsibility, anyway?
And then Kalliope came along. She was hired by one of my assistants. I trusted their judgment, and didn't worry about meeting her. The first four times I spoke to her, I never knew her name. The next five times I had no idea she taught at my school. It was so funny when we finally got it sorted out. And then, I wound up leaving work a little earlier, to walk her home, because she was a stranger to the island, you know. Then the parties started to drag, and the raucous company of students and younger bards hard on my ears. So I took to finishing my evenings with Kalliope, sipping a cup of one of her curious herb teas. For the first time in Moons, I wrote a scroll of poems which were rich, and full, and three dimensional – poems, not the songs I could turn out on a dinar, or the prose I could turn out even faster. Poems like little pieces of feelings people could savour and taste for themselves. One of my assistants took a copy of it to the mainland – one of the few who knew me to be the very same famous bard who died tragically in the wilds of Anatolia, according to popular imagination. Or jumped off a cliff.
Suddenly, all Greece was afire. The great poet had produced a masterwork! The great poet hadn't died! Would there be a tour? Would they come out of semiretirement wherever they were? Or, the last work the great poet produced before their end! Priceless! And on and on. I ignored it all.
Here, I had convinced myself I was happy before, and Kalliope had messed with my mind. Imagine me laughing here, because I am as I write. It took me awhile, but I convinced her to marry me, and we had a beautiful ceremony in the spring. My life was full of wonders upon wonders – a good friend of ours helped out, and soon Kalliope had borne a beautiful daughter. All of my cocky declarations about responsibility – oh, I suffered for Moons from the teasing and the poking, and the prodding. I talk whether I need to or not, and I had made plenty of noise to try to convince myself my life before Kalliope was perfect.
This isn't to say only a married life is a happy one, or that only having a child can fulfill a life. She just made me see life can't be all labour and the occasional party.
Great gods, you're wondering – when will this bard ever get to the point? Quite soon, actually.
At the moment, I'm sitting at the work bench in my woodworking shop, my latest project and a bunch of tools pushed haphazardly to one side. It's nice in here. It smells good, and I keep it clean. It was an afternoon much like this one, the Sun just slanting into my western windows when a small, blonde haired Amazon with a staff gripped in practised hands walked in.
I was struggling with a set of drawers. The damned things make me miserable. They're the one thing I just can't get square the first time. It takes longer to keep them from sticking and squeaking and being a nuisance than putting them together to start with. I was glad for the break, and the chance to chat with a stranger. Every bard is a sort of informational magpie. We can't help it.
"Hello. What can I do for you?"
"Hello – I need a pen." A pen. A what? Most people walked in and asked me to build a chair, or a desk. The sort of pen she meant are pretty rare for the most part. Quills are cheap.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"It's a kind of fancy quill, basically, I saw some in Chin. Can you make me one?" Well, I had no idea. It had never occured to me to make a writing instrument from a chunk of wood that wasn't a brush.
"I'm not quite certain – I mean, the part you scratch on the paper with couldn't be made of wood after all." But now I was thinking. I had a small bow drill, and a good piece of hickory – maybe – "Come back the day after tomorrow." She smiled, a startling, face lighting smile, and I noticed her eyes were green.
"All right." she said. "But first, how many dinars?" I had forgotten all about the money, the idea had caught me up so completely.
"Oh..." I hadn't the least everloving idea. "Well – one little piece of hickory – half candlemark's work. It's the writing end that's the hard part. I'm thinking I'll have to call in a favour from the smith. Two or maybe five, if the smith wants to be paid instead." She hesitated, and tapped unconsciously on a case strung from her shoulder. Ah – served me right for making assumptions. I had assumed it was a gorytus, Amazons are almost never without bow and arrows. It was a scrollcase, she was a bard! A bard with a streak of the haggler. She wanted a good bargain, but she wanted the pen more.
"All right." she said again. "The day after tomorrow."
"Uh huh. What's your name, by the way?" Another one of those smiles.
"Gabrielle." and then she was back out in the afternoon Sun.
It took some haggling, and explaining, and a little just plain pleading, but I had finished Gabrielle's pen. Made of nicely polished hickory and an iron end to pick up the ink. Turned out far better than I expected. I had turned my attention to a half finished clothes chest when Gabrielle arrived, talking to someone. Her friend sounded eerily familiar, but I couldn't place her voice with my head stuck inside the chest, slotting in thin pieces of wood for the dividers. Shifting my feet a bit, I carefully maneuvered the final piece. The last piece was always the hardest, because the fit was snug, and if you were impatient or rough, the result was two handfuls of broken wood. A careful knock sounded abruptly on the wood in front of my nose, making me jump. Slowly, I straightened up, peeking over the edge.
"Hi." Gabrielle smiled a little. "I came for the pen – remember?"
"Yes, yes, of course. Hang on a moment." I turned quickly and picked it up from where it had been sitting on a little shelf, out of harm's way. "Made of all the good stuff. Turned out well, even if I am the one who says so." She had just taken it from my hand when I caught sight of her companion.
How would you react if a someone who had once promised to kill you if they ever saw you again showed up in your workshop? I think I handled it reasonably well. My face must have shown my shock, because Gabrielle's eyes got wide with alarm. "Hey, are you all right?"
"Fine." I replied, struck by how distant my voice sounded.
"Maybe you should..." I never heard what she suggested. I was too busy passing out.
A little while later, probably a quarter candlemark or so, I became aware of an eerily familiar sensation. "That's a nasty bump," a quiet voice I now recognized commented. Her fingers carefully probed the bump on my forehead, expertly checking for further damage.
"I wish I could have could have at least pushed the clothes chest out of the way." So, that's what I hit my head on.
"Pretty tough with a workbench in the way, my bard." Bard? Xena had a bard? My brain refused to wrap around it. My eyes came open after a moment of effort.
"Xena?" I croaked, still unable to believe my eyes.
"Yeah, it's me." she spoke quietly, her tone regretful.
"You'd rather be someone else?" I asked, the blow to my head limbering my tongue.
"No. I'd rather have done something else." Xena answered, helping me sit up.
"Believe it or not, I do have some clue about that feeling. Only a little one," I held my fingers up, a little apart. "Still, a clue all the same."
"Thought you were a bard." Xena said, moving away to a new subject.
"I am!" I blurted a bit defensively. "This is what I do half days. Helps my creative juices flow." Getting to my feet I added, "That's my school, down the road." Gabrielle looked surprised.
"Yes." Straightening my tunic and my hair, I grinned a little. "Got tired of my fame and fortune, and came here to start over. It worked out best for all concerned, I think." Her green eyes got very wide.
"You're – gods, I have copies of as many of your poems as I can find!" Now her eyes were bright with enthusiasm. "The most recent scrolls – they're amazing. It was more than worth the wait to see them." My face warmed under the compliments, and I tried to find something interesting on the toes of my boots.
"For a few years there were no poems to be had. The Muses have been kind and sent me new inspiration." Looking at the warrior, I noticed the lines of tiredness around her eyes. Things had been hard recently, if the well worn leathers and the thinness about her were any indication. "Well, today is a special occasion, isn't it. I'll close up shop, and we'll go have a cup of wine – maybe the healing gods never touched me, but the hospitality you showed me so long ago I can return." Xena laughed, a soft, bitter sound.
"Considering what lead to it, I'm surprised you're so friendly." She didn't know. By all the gods, she didn't know. She had no idea what a strange charm the frightening visit with her had placed on me. Well, of course, you're thinking. Logically speaking, of course she wouldn't know. My brain was too dazed for logical mode. So I explained, as we walked to my home, and I automatically collected toys and clothes tossed aside during a five year old's quick costume changes on the way to the hearth, and wine in smooth wooden cups.
"So in the end, a good thing came from it." I finished as I handed them their cups. "That's all I want in a day, for the unpleasant or hard thing to come out well in the end." Xena had watched me unblinkingly for a few moments, until I felt half naked beneath her eyes. "Something wrong?"
"It's bad manners to drink before the host." The first clue to her voluminous memory. Saluting with my cup, I drank, and watched in quiet fascination as the bard and the warrior finally tried their wine. So different, and so obviously together. If someone had come up to me and said they had seen the perfect couple, one six feet tall with dark hair and icy eyes, the other nearly a foot shorter, blonde haired with eyes the colour of the leaves in summer, I would have shaken my head, and added it to my list of things everyone sees differently. With the couple in question sitting by my fire, however, there was no denying it. Which all led to the question – what had possessed me to bring this woman, this person who had been a cold and vicious warlord in my only other experience of her, to my home?
Because she was so very different. I wanted to know how she could have changed so much. How she met the little bard who watched her every move with adoring eyes. And I wanted to know about this bard, the famous Gabrielle of Poteideia, who garnered quite a few adoring looks of her own.
All right, all right. So besides being a bit of a big mouth, I'm incorrigibly nosy. It's part of the bard-magpie thing.
"So, what brings you here? Surely not just for a pen." start with general and easy, then work towards the more complicated. Kalliope was always telling her mathematics students that – and after awhile, even I learnt it.
"Oh, Gabrielle wanted to visit your school. Not even seasickness could stop her." Xena smiled now, giving the smaller woman a nudge. She blushed a little, and cleared her throat.
"Your school is getting as famous as the Academy in Athens. Three of the best bards I ever heard were trained here – when I spoke to them they both mentioned the library, and that every one of your works was included in it. How could I stay away?"
I laughed aloud. "Oh, you are a silver tongued one, aren't you? Flattery is good, keep going." I winked at her, and she blushed. I was about to say more when the determined patter of five year old feet burst through the front door.
"Riff, Riff, see, see this!" Antiope tumbled into the room, hauling Kalliope right behind her. "Wrote a book!" she declared proudly, ignoring the strangers and plopping herself into my lap. Clutched proudly in her little hands was a somewhat misshapen little book, constructed from painted and pasted pieces of paper. Clearly marked on each page were shaky letters, carefully marked out in thick, purple streaks. It was the best book I ever read, and I told her so. We were so busy doing the parent-kid cute thing it took me a bit to clue in to Kalliope standing there, tapping one foot, clearly indicating she wanted to know just who the Tartarus these well-armed strangers were. Antiope looked up at her face. "Uh oh, Riff in trouble."
"No, Riff isn't in trouble, Riff just needs to explain a little bit." I corrected, crossing my fingers where my hand rested out of sight on her back. "Kalliope, this is Xena, and her partner Gabrielle." Uh oh. Maybe I was in trouble. My wife was looking completely and utterly unimpressed. Time for plan beta, or my butt was sleeping on the hearthrug tonight. "Gabrielle is going to spend some time at the school, and Xena is going to give me a bit of an interview – a sort of unbiassed look at the hero sort of thing." Noticing Gabrielle's eyebrows rising, I added quickly, "Unbiassed in the sense of, I don't live with her every day." Uh oh. Kalliope unimpressed to the left of me, Gabrielle unimpressed with me to the right, and me stuck in the middle.
"Hey, dat lady has purdy eyes." declared Antiope, having spent the last few moments in intent contemplation of Xena's face. Xena looked a little surprised, and then she smiled.
"Thank you. My name's Xena."
"My name's Antiope." how did a five year old manage to sound so grave? "You gonna save Riff?" A pair of astonished blue eyes stared at her in wonderment.
"Yeah, Riff's in trouble." Antiope reached out and poked at one of Xena's armoured knees. "You gots armour – only heroes gots that. Heroes save people." Ah, the impeccable logic of a five year old.
"Oh, I gotcha. sure, I can save Riff." now one dark eyebrow lifted at me quizzically. Damn, I was going to have to explain Antiope's petname for me – maybe not now, maybe not in a candlemark – but you can't pin someone into answering a bunch of questions without giving a little yourself. "So, we're starting the interview first thing tomorrow, right?"
"Tom – er, right, yes, precisely." I said quickly. Well I'll be damned. She is going to save me, I thought.
"Great, first thing tomorrow. It was nice meeting you Antiope, Kalliope. Thank you for the wine." And with that warrior and bard left for the inn, the other large building on the island besides the school. Nothing tests a bard's skills quite like having a famous ex-warlord and her partner over for a cup of wine. Kalliope wasn't too happy. Antiope couldn't see the problem. After all, what was wrong with having a couple of heroes over to visit?
The next morning, bright and early, Xena appeared at my office door. She was glistening with water, having taken a dip in a nearby spring before she walked over, because sword practise tended to involve sweat, she explained wryly. For my part, I shuffled parchment and rolled around my quills a bit, trying to frame some questions. I had tried and tried the night before, and been stymied.
"Everything okay? Your partner looked a bit upset last night."
"What? Oh, fine, fine. Kalliope was a little upset, but I got to sleep in my bed, so I figure it'll work itself out." In truth it was going to take a little while. Kalliope had turned her back on me and left me to my side of the bed for the night. Maybe talking to Xena would keep my mind off it for awhile, and inspiration for how to undo the damage would come to me.
The warrior nodded a little. "Cute little girl you two have there." I smiled.
"Yeah, she's great – exhausting – I can't remember ever having the amount of energy she does – and absolutely great." My hands moved automatically, framing the rough outlines of one of her latest creations. I had been talking for several long moments before I realized Xena was grinning broadly at me.
"Sounds like you've found something better than fame, huh Riff?" her pale eyes twinkled.
"Definitely," I chuckled. "Bet you're wondering where the nickname comes from."
"Fair trade, if you're going to be my inquisitor for the next while."
"All right." Gabrielle isn't the only one with a bit of the haggler in her. "After I finish asking questions, and writing down answers. Don't worry, I'll spread the joy and ask Gabrielle some too." A dark eyebrow arched.
"What are you going to give her?"
"She's got a pen she hasn't paid any dinars for, doesn't she?"
The scrolls and parchments had been shuffled twice. A fresh bottle of ink sat at the ready, as did a bunch of quills. And still, I wasn't quite sure what to ask her first. My eyes wandered over her, looking for something I had never seen before – which helped not at all. The image of her in that tent so long ago was as clear in my memory as an image freshly carved in stone, but nothing she wore or carried now was the same as then. And then my eyes picked out the silver ring attached to her belt. "Hey, what is that? Where'd you get it? Can I see it?" I blurted, sounding very like my favourite five year old.
Rolling her eyes a little, Xena unhooked it from her belt and set it carefully on my desk. "It's called a chakram, and its sharp, so take it easy, okay?"
"Sure," I replied, hardly listening. It fascinated me in spite of myself. "A chakram?" I quickly grabbed a quill in my free hand and was soon jotting down a description of the surprisingly heavy weapon.
"Yeah – it's from India." Maybe she expected such a short answer to suffice. I raised my brows at her.
"This is an interview Xena, not a short answer session." she snorted, and for a moment I thought she would leave.
"I left Greece for awhile, before I came back and built up my second army. I found my way to India pretty much by accident – I led a raid on a trading caravan from there. The merchants gave enough detail for me to find my way to it." she leaned back, her eyes going distant. "I wasn't even sure why I went. I just knew I had to go. There were a thousand new things to see, languages to learn – but instead of hanging around the cities, I went north, to the mountains. The third day there, walking so high up there was snow on the ground, three women tried to jump me. They were Amazons."
"Amazons!" I couldn't believe my ears. "In India?"
"Well yeah – some of the very first Amazons come from there. They wanted to know why I was there."
"What did you tell them? Must have been some kind of story, because you're here to tell about it."
"I told them the truth." Xena reached over and retrieved the chakram. "I told them I didn't know, I was just – there. Whatever was going on, I had no control of it, and it made me angry. So they took me to a clearing with three paths leading from it. 'Great Uma sent for you. You must go to her.' the leader told me. Then they left me there. There didn't seem anything else for me to do, so I picked a path and started walking." she fingered the chakram. "It lead me to a sheer cliff, a dead end. But I was too stubborn or too damned arrogant to go back and try a different way. So I climbed it."
"You climbed the cliff?"
"That's right. And at the top, a few feet away, was a roofless shrine, like the temples of Artemis in Anatolia. You know the kind – the walls built in a circle around a simple altar. This one didn't have a simple altar, though. It was a three sided pyramid, and one of these," Xena tapped the chakram. "on each of the faces. One with red jewels, one with green. And this one. The red one caught my eye first, and I tried to pick it up off the stone, but it wouldn't move. It's outer edge was flush with the stone, and the only place to grab was the inner one. I was drawing my dagger to lever it up when a hand landed on my shoulder. 'That one doesn't belong to you.' Another Amazon. 'Where did you come from?' I never heard her come in. It was unnerving. 'Nowhere. I've always been here. The chakram with the green jewels doesn't belong to you either.' and then she was gone, right before my eyes. Of course I didn't believe her, and pulled at the green one anyway."
"And that's how you got the chakram." Half a scroll from just one question – from a woman known for not talking! "Do a lot of people ask you about it? Chakrams aren't exactly everyday objects."
"Only nosy bards." drawled Xena, with a chuckle. "Speaking of which, I think I need to go find a particular bard. We'll chase you down after lunch." She had gone before a word left my mouth, so I closed it and returned my attention to my scroll. It was going to be a wild lunch, if this was any indication.
Students and instructors filled up the rest of my morning. One student came to complain about the lack of any instruction on Homeric epic. I offered to write a recommendation to the Academy at Athens and book them passage on the next ship to Greece. Always a tried and true means of dealing with that complaint. Another student came in to complain about being suspended for plagiarism. Unfortunately for her case, she had plagiarized some of my earliest work. If 'oh no' is a facial expression, did she ever have it. The instructors came to gush about Gabrielle. I simply had to convince her to stay, they said. "No," I replied. "I would have to convince Xena to stay." which completely baffled them, freeing me for lunch.
They were seated at a table tucked in the corner of the communal dinner room, gathering stares and whispers. Kalliope was getting her plate filled, and she watched me without speaking as I fell into line behind her. "Are you still angry?" I asked quietly.
"Yes." Kalliope said crisply.
"She sent people to hurt you!"
"No, she sent people to get me. They did the other things on their own initiative, and paid for it in spades."
"Why are you defending her?" Kalliope snapped. The question caught me off guard.
"Because she's all right." It was the wrong answer. Kalliope stalked out, taking her lunch with her. I handed my lunch to somebody else and wended my way over to Xena and Gabrielle's table. Maybe my wife was furious with me, and I had no appetite, but since this whole thing was getting me in so much trouble, I might as well finish it.
Gabrielle looked concerned and opened her mouth to speak, but I forestalled her. "Hey, do you two know anything about the Cleopatra dewigging incident?"
"No!" they said in forceful unision.
"Are you sure? I mean, word is you were guests of honour at the banquet where it happened." Yes, I was making sure they forgot about me.
"Yes." more unity. Hmmm.
"So the guy who says he saw your staff fall over and knock Cleopatra's wig off – he made it up." I directed this at Gabrielle, who squirmed a little. Enough to make me very curious.
"Whoever he is, he has a very good imagination. He was probably just looking for a chance to tell a Cleopatra story." Well, well – was that a note of sarcastic dislike?
"You don't particularly like Cleopatra, do you?" I asked her curiously.
"Cleopatra and I have a difference of opinion, about Xena." If the note in her voice was anything but jealousy, I'd pay dinars to know what it was.
"What sort of a difference?" I prodded. The idea of this bard feeling she owned Xena in some way was completely fascinating, especially since Xena seemed quite happy with it.
"Maybe you're curious about some of our other adventures?" Gabrielle asked pointedly.
"No, I..." the toe of a boot impacted my shin. Xena punctuated the act with a slight shake of her head and a raised eyebrow. I rolled my eyes to indicate defeat. "...I could ask about something else." A few moments while they ate, and my scrolls suffered for art. "Gabrielle, when you started travelling with Xena, you must of known what she had been doing mere Moons before. Why did you stay?" She gazed at me thoughtfully for a few moments.
"I know more about why I stayed now than I did then. But then – then I thought – she was all right. And she needed a friend." Well. Go figure. Apparently this was a general effect she had on bards. "Now – there's quite a few perks," she teased, giving Xena a nudge. "and we're a team."
A nudge to one of my own shoulders startled me, and I looked up. The cook was standing beside me, a bowl of soup and some bread in her hands. She set them down in front of me. "A certain someone keeps peeking into my kitchen, trying to see if you've had lunch or not. Eat already, so I can get some peace and quiet, will you?" I was about to refuse when Gabrielle neatly snatched up my parchments and put them out of reach.
"Hey!" what was up with this? We were both bards, what was she doing?
"I'm working for the greater good. You should probably eat that before it gets cold." she declared. A few people at other tables were watching in fascination. Knowing myself to be outmaneuvered, I took the spoon offered by the cook and went to work on the soup.
"What's it like, knowing Ares on a personal basis?" questions could still be asked, between mouthfuls.
Xena grimmaced. "It's not on a personal basis. It's more like a personal pain in the ass."
"Those do tend to be – rather personal, by nature." I commented, fishing a bit of chicken out of my bowl.
"You and Ares do have a weird relationship." Gabrielle added thoughtfully, examining my handwriting.
"No, he wants a relationship, and his presence makes me nauseous." She took a sip from her mug. "I seem to remember you saying a relationship is between two willing people."
"He wants a relationship?" this I could hardly believe. Ares' followers were not known for their rich and fulfilling family lives. "Can that really be what he wants?"
"Probably not. But it doesn't matter, because he won't get it from me." Xena leaned back in her seat and propped her feet up on the extra chair.
"We've run into him a couple of times when he was made mortal. Funny thing is, he wasn't half bad without his powers." Gabrielle peered closely at a section of my writing. "What letter is this?" she held the scroll up, pointing.
"Sampi." I answered automatically, biting into my bread.
"Mainlanders wind up using sigma or zeta instead, most of the time. Most times I only use it in my personal copies, because most readers would never recognize it."
"Anyway – I don't know. Maybe some people just can't handle having a lot of power." thoughtful green eyes flicked to the room behind me for a moment. "Sort of like the difference between Athen's latest dictator, and a bard who runs a school." The question took me aback a bit. Then I grinned.
"The power of persuasion." Wiping the last of the soup out of my bowl, and sparing a moment of surprise for how hungry I had been after all, another tack occured to me. "Tell me about all these strange rumours clustering around the two of you – like this mysterious rift. Is that for real, or is it wishful thinking on the part of the rumourmongers?" The two women looked at each other uncomfortably.
"Can we talk about that somewhere more private?" Gabrielle asked quietly, giving Xena's hand an unmistakable squeeze. Immediately I stood up, and we returned to my office.
"What have you heard?" Gabrielle asked once we were all seated, and I had my writing materials back. Xena had gone to stand by the window, staring out towards the sea.
"Just about a strong disagreement, and a parting of the ways for awhile. Due to Xena's earlier escapades, some less than savoury details were added – mainly from works of tattered cloth, seems to me."
"Strong disagreement is right – we couldn't agree on how best to deal with a situation in Chin. We weren't apart for long. Things just needed to work themselves out. Every friendship has to have those times, I guess." she looked so upset, and I felt like kicking myself upside the head for asking.
"The stories you're hearing about me beating her up, those are wrong." Xena said flatly, apparently directing her words out to the sea. "I didn't do that."
"No, you went and nearly got yourself killed in the first fight you could find when you got back to Greece." Gabrielle said a bit sharply. "The Amazons would never have stepped in, but they were afraid you were actually going to succeed in getting yourself killed. They thought you had lost your mind."
"No, not my mind." Okay, I absolutely had to get things calmed down here. Asking them questions wasn't supposed to open up old wounds or start up new ones.
"Hey, listen, this is definitely something we don't have to go into – I only wanted to get a sort of, nope, most of the stuff you've heard is hogwash. Maybe one day the scroll about it will get published sort of thing." Come on people, no pain and misery, alright? I already had it at home with Kalliope – gods on Olympus! What if it was contagious? In other words, I was feeling quite panicky.
"Take it easy – we settled these things a long time ago." Xena walked over to Gabrielle's seat, and knelt down beside her, squeezing her knee. The smaller woman bent over to give her a kiss in response, and I buried my head in parchment and ink until there was a knock on my desk.
"Ah, ahem..." I ran a finger over the rough edge of a battered piece of leather mostly used for shopping lists – the ink rubs right off. "Well, let's switch to some lighter subject matter, then. What do you do to relax? Cards? Sports? Parchisi?"
"What?!" they blurted. Giving myself a mental pat on the back, and feeling my heart relax a bit, I looked back at them. Almost identical expressions of incredulity. And they looked a lot better now they were touching each other. Interesting. I added a note about it underneath the reminder to get leeks for the stew tonight. "It's a game you play with dice, a few pebbles and a board. Maybe it's just a thing from the islands."
"What we do to relax – what does it mean to do that again?" Gabrielle teased her partner. "Great warrior who can hardly sit still." Said warrior shrugged. She looked still and comfortable enough, seated with her back propped against Gabrielle's legs. A second note added after the first: 'make a half decent seat for couples to sit together in in the office – make that two, should have one in the house, too.'
"We do what anybody else does – talk," Xena snorted, and gave Gabrielle a bump with one shoulder. "talk," Gabrielle repeated determinedly. "Star chase – it depends a lot on where we are. If there's a spring or something we can swim. If we're in town we can watch the bards in the local inn, that sort of thing."
"I like doing sword drills, myself." Xena drawled, neatly squishing the somewhat idyllic visions Gabrielle's description had been conjuring. "A bit of sparring. Some fishing."
"Speaking of fishing, can you actually do that with your bare hands?" the question had bugged me for years. Everybody said Hercules could do it, but I had my doubts – not because I considered it impossible for a mortal or demigod, but because the man is utterly graceless. There's not a smooth motion anywhere in that guy. Pretty tough to catch a fish if your movements comprise mainly the herky jerky and the stop and start.
"Yes." Xena replied raising an eyebrow. "Why do you ask?"
"Checking, checking – can't complain about rumourmongers if I never check my facts." my virtuous tone was almost enough to deflect any ideas about insatiable curiosity. Almost. Not quite.
"You two are obviously together," the comment gained me a couple of dry looks. "How do you deal with the all the men who couldn't get a clue if they were free for the taking in piles on the side of the road?" I got to see that far too often. It was so sad to see these guys all but bleeding with effort, for no reason, then getting angry when it all went for not. Even at the height of my women chasing I managed to figure out the various, 'Excuse me, I'm not even remotely interested.' looks and codephrases, meant to gently deflect my efforts but not damage my ego. Believe it or not, there are a few specific, unique ones clearly indicating, 'I have a huge significant other who is conveniently jealous.'
"Oh," Gabrielle sighed a little. "She gets them running after her and I have to do the sensitive chats."
"Right, you're such a martyr. What about when we were in Norway, huh? I don't know what hormones you were giving off, but I was starting to seriously wonder how many more lovesick puppies we were going to collect." Gabrielle mock whacked her on the back of the head.
"It wasn't that bad."
"No, it was worse – a couple of Beowulf's lines nearly made me sick. As if he even meant it."
"What do you mean? Some of the things he said were really sweet – okay, sort of cloying, but sweet."
"You didn't hear about everything he said. I got some information from other sources." Xena made a dismissive gesture. "He was saying it, and I was doing it. Big difference."
"Like what?" Gabrielle asked, sounding unconvinced.
"Let me see – going through the fires of Tartarus – leaping through big flames in general – jumping off of cliffs after you – following you onto cursed ships..." Xena ticked off items on her fingers as she spoke. Her bard was smiling fondly, not interrupting. Just playing with her hair. Finally Gabrielle said,
"I did tell them the only person for me was you, you know."
Things got wrapped up for the day after that. Having made them upset, and then lucked out and made them all happy again, I figured the least I could do was get out of the way and let them enjoy each other. Maybe I'd be be able to get Kalliope to talk to me.
The staff whistled over my head, and I thanked whatever deities were listening for my reflexes, such as they were. Gabrielle finished her sequence of movements, then planted the end of her staff and glared at me. "What were you thinking of? I could have knocked you into next week!"
"Yes, you could have," I agreed, feeling no doubt about it whatsoever. "Truth be told, it really was an accident. You were closer to the path than I thought." Gods it had been hard to find her apart from Xena – some questions have to be asked of people separately, because otherwise they give you very crisp, black and white answers. My plans for the scrolls about them were changing, and I needed the colours. "Opportunist that I am, now seemed like an all right time to ask you a question." Crowning the words with a smile, I waited.
"Is Kalliope talking to you yet?" Hey, who was the interviewer here?
"Sort of." Ridiculous, and pathetic, was how I sounded right then.
"You should talk to Xena about it." My jaw fell in the dirt. Gabrielle laughed merrily. "No, really. She's a total romantic." Jaw collected and cleaned off, but still no good for speech, I raised an eyebrow. "Talk to her about it." She started another long sequence of movements with her staff, apparently battling imaginary opponents.
"What I wanted to ask you – most people, including me – we see Xena basically as this stoic warrior type. Obviously you don't see her in the same way. Could you tell me how you see her?" Gabrielle leaned on her staff, watching me for a moment. I was sitting on a good sized rock, a scroll stretched out on top of a bit of board I carried when I was away from my desk and still wanted to write.
"I think," her tone reflective. "you're selling yourself awfully short – and Antiope, too." she smiled. "She sure is a cute kid." A deep breath. "Xena is so much more complex, then most people ever notice. It's almost like they don't want her to be complicated, like it would make her too human. They see this person who fights with a sword, and used to do terrible things. I see someone who struggles to do all the right things every day, and beats herself up when she can't get the impossible to happen. And there are days when she does the impossible." Gabrielle looked towards where a few birds were arguing raucously over some tidbit in the grass. "Xena remembers the damnedest little things. A little boy about Antiope's age – so many other kids got to talk to her and everything else, but he had to go to bed. He asked her to come back before she went away so he could talk to her too. I forgot all about it. We were busy helping the village chase off raiders. I thought we were on our way out of town when she insisted on stopping at this house." Gabrielle walked up and knelt beside me. "It was that little boy's house." she stood up again. "I see the warrior everyone else does – I just see the other parts of her too."
Finding Xena was much harder, basically because, I wasn't quite sure what she did all day while Gabrielle puttered around the school, and I was pestering somebody else. The smithy was emanating a Tartarus of a racket, as is the nature of such things, and I considered tossing the interview for today and losing myself in woodchips and sawdust. Then Xena's unmistakable voice boomed over the noise. "So you just keep doing that – folding it over and pounding it back in." There she was, working over some piece of iron with the smith. "Here to ask questions?"
"Well, I could go away and make something up instead."
"I'm sure it would be far more interesting than the truth – and then you'd have to make it into something else, because Samians don't lie." Take that! I chuckled.
"True enough." We left behind the heat and stench of the smithy, stopping by the communal well so she could rinse her face and arms. "No nasty, upsetting sort of questions today – well, they shouldn't be, it's not as if I decided yesterday, gee, I'd like to ask Xena and Gabrielle upsetting questions..." my voice trailed off. Xena was giving me the strangest look.
"It's a bard thing, isn't it?"
"The babbling thing."
"Ba – hey! I do not babble!" Rule number three of bardly life: never admit to babbling, under any circumstances.
"Right." And rule number three of warriors dealing with bards seems to be never to believe a bardly denial.
"When you first met Gabrielle, she was just this sort of lost village kid, right?"
"Maybe." The woman was starting to give me a headache.
"So why'd you let her stay? What got you two together?" I know what you're thinking. What has this got to do with what I asked Gabrielle? Everything – can't ask Xena quite the same question.
"She decided to stay. I respected her decision." Eight words. This could be a problem. Xena considered her boots for a few moments. "You probably want some big, huge, flowery answer. Well, I'm no good at those. And if we weren't connected to each other the way we are, I wouldn't tell you this much." I stood still, refusing to look a gift horse in the mouth – ewww, I think I just used a lousy fall of Troy metaphor. My deepest apologies.
"I never out and out went to Poteideia and left her there, because I loved her from the moment I first saw her. Did you get all that down? Because I'm not repeating it."
"Yes ma'am." Every time I thought I knew what she'd answer me with, she knocked me on my ass. Damn. For a few moments my brains did everything but work. "Don't suppose I can really follow up with a question about your horse, huh?" I asked, to give her some space to get her composure in order. She sat down quietly in the grass.
"Sure you could. It's quite a story – tell you what. I'll play bard over dinner so Gabrielle doesn't miss anything. She's pretty offended at being the second bard to hear how I got my chakram."
On the way home, I got to thinking. Thinking can get me in almost as much trouble as when I don't think, but my latest idea was looking quite practical. Right on cue, a poem began running around like my favourite five year old when she's completely deleriously happy about something. The crowning line popped up clearly first. 'And I say, it is whatever one loves.' Yeah, that could work.
It took some prodding and pleading, and general stubborning, but I got Kalliope to agree to a dinner with Xena and Gabrielle at the common dining hall – with Antiope in attendance, since she would never have forgiven us if she didn't get to eat with the heroes too. Kalliope almost tossed the whole thing when it became clear I meant for Antiope to come along. But when I got Kalliope to understand Antiope thought Xena was cool because she helped people, she warmed up just a little, in spite of herself.
The packed condition of the dining hall should never have surprised me, but it did anyway. All those people stuffed in there, to see and hear the warrior princess and her bard. Mind boggling, the whole thing. Honestly, I thought it had everything to do with them. Working my way through so many people, Antiope perched on my shoulders cheerfully looking everywhere and gravely warning me each time a collision with someone looked imminent. Kalliope was hovering a bit, her body language so overtly protective it was almost comical. Clearly nobody was going to mess with her daughter or her partner, no way, no how.
After we had eaten, and spent awhile on conversational nothings, Xena gave Antiope the ghost of a wink and said, "Well, I suppose I'd better hold up my end of the deal, and play bard."
"Coool!" Antiope declared. Then she plopped herself into my lap. I'm still her favourite easy chair, even now she's much bigger, and gets all embarrassed if I give her a kiss on the cheek in public. Eleven year olds – who can understand them? Besides other eleven year olds, that is.
Xena says she isn't a bard, but somehow I'm not so sure. Maybe Gabrielle is rubbing off on her. Or it could be her life is just so damned wild, it makes her a storyteller. I was expecting a tale of herd raiding, or a horse costing an outrageous fortune, or maybe of an unexpected gift from an old comrade, since I had no idea how long she had had the big palamino. Would you believe, she found the horse when she was a filly, in the wreckage of a barn in a flooded out village? She told all about how she cleaned the spindly thing up, and fed her, and kept her around even when her soldiers made various rude comments. By the time she got through explaining how she taught Argo some of her tricks, something she spoke with striking enthusiasm about, Antiope was sleepily determined to teach horses too.
"Great Gaea – horses to go with our menagerie of strays." sighed Kalliope.
"Could be worse," I began. She clamped a hand over my mouth.
"Don't say it!" she warned me.
The water lapped gently around the hull of the boat, sounding very like a series of gentle kisses. Kalliope tells me the only reason I think so is because I'm a romantic. I tell her the only reason she disagrees is because she's a mathematician.
The sea birds were circling around, watching hopefully for bits of bread or whatever else a careless human might drop. The sailors were patiently leading Argo up the gangplank, coaxing her a bit with apples and hay. I think she might have been playing at being balky for the treats. She's mighty smart, that horse. Xena walked up the plank and slapped her gently on the rump. "Go on and quit playing around." the horse blew some hay bits at her, neatly lipped up an apple, and jauntily followed the crewmember holding her halter. Gabrielle appeared a moment later, poking her arm. "No, not like that, like this." Xena poked her other arm. "How come whenever I say right, you go left?" Gabrielle looked testy, and didn't dignify the question with a reply.
"Well Gabrielle, Xena, I hope you've enjoyed your time here." I said, shaking their forearms, and making a wry face at Xena when Kalliope grudgingly did the same. "She's coming around." I whispered to Xena.
"So long as she comes around for you first. You're looking a little tense." I blushed to the roots of my hair. Was there anything the damn woman missed? Admittedly, maybe I ruined my own cause by spending a silly amount of time staring at my wife's chest – backside. Everything. Well, come on, I'm pretty sure married people are supposed to like ogling each other.
"I do have a couple more questions." Kalliope stared at me in wonder.
"About what? After you got started, you managed to ask them about food, what stuff they sleep on top of at night when it's wet so they don't wake up drenched – needled recipes out of Gabrielle and a bunch of tips from Xena I'm afraid to see the application of because I have no idea what they are – and if I hear one more word about the flying parchment!" If a bard babbles, they fade out. If a mathematician babbles, there's only one thing to do, so I kissed her right there in the middle of the busy dock. Pointer number one from Xena applied.
"A couple more questions?" Gabrielle asked, leaning on her staff, and watching us with an amused expression.
"The first one's tough, and very controversial." Oooh, I had 'em. "Only way to clear it up is a clear, yes or no sort of answer." Two pairs of wary eyes. "Breeches or strings, go ahead, you can tell – we're all adults here. I'll even go first. The only time I tried a string, the wedgy was nearly fatal." This drew snorts of surprised laughter, and I wondered if maybe I shouldn't try to do a little more comedy.
"Neither." Xena said sweetly, disappearing up the gangplank and into the boat before Gabrielle had had a chance to finish blushing.
"You rat!" Gabrielle hollered after her. Laughing a little she turned and said, "What's the other question?"
"Just another, for the official record one."
"Are you and Xena lovers?" instead of answering she turned around and crooked a finger. Xena hadn't gone too far as it turned out, and padded right back over.
"Which answer, the one for my mother or the one we used on you know who?" Gabrielle asked, tracing a spiral on Xena's breastplate with one finger.
"How about this one?" If the water closest to the docks wasn't the nastiest, smelliest, and typically shallowest stuff, I would have jumped in to lower my body temperature.
"Good for the official record?" Xena asked, having heard the line from me a few times already.
"Several." I replied breathlessly.
"What?" Oh Hades – I forgot all about that.
"Ah, it's nothing much." Xena folded her arms. "Antiope was just learning how to talk, and the high priestess of Aphrodite had popped by to say hello – she's an old friend. She was playing with Antiope, probably making her laugh because babies can hardly believe how goofy adults are willing to act in front of them, when she said, 'Now aren't you glad you gave up your wandering life among the riff raff and settled down?' And somehow I've been Riff ever since."
"You left out the best part, how long it took to get her to leave out the 'raff.'" laughed Kalliope.
"All right – well, looks like they want us to hurry up and let them sail this thing." Xena said.
"Be well. I'll send along copies of my scrolls for the library as soon as I can." Gabrielle smiled waved a little as Xena dropped a friendly arm around her shoulders. "It was great meeting you Sappho – and if you ever decide to tour Greece again, I'm sure I can arrange a nice Amazon escort – one way or the other."
"We'll see. See you later. Take care of each other you two." Kalliope waved as the sailors pulled up the gangplank, then the anchor, and the ship began to slip through the water, its sails bellying in the breeze.
"I wouldn't think too hard about a tour right now." Kalliope commented as we started toward the building our rambunctious daughter was cheerfully writing more books in.
"Why's that?" I asked, being as I had been preoccupied with needling my hapless interviewees, and was simply clueless.
"Remember how we were talking about girl's names, and you said you quite liked Kleis?"
"And how I had a bit of a chat with our friend who helps out with these things?"
"Yeah – it went awfully long, too. What was up with that?" Kalliope sighed in irritation.
"We're having another baby you ridiculous bard."
Well, a historian I will never be. One of my fellow teacher-bard sort of types here read this almost immediately after I wrote it. "Sappho!" she burst out. "How can you call this an interview? An interview is questions and answers, no buddy-buddying with the subjects."
"It was a spur of the moment thing – you make it sound so antiseptic." I complained. She was bothering me. A half finished poem was beckoning.
"You asked them maybe, ten – maybe twelve questions! And let them get away with short, unrevealing answers."
"Depends how you look at it." for example, whether your eyes are open or shut.
"Sappho! And the title – it has absolutely no historical value!"
"It's a very truthful title. Not everyone is searching for history, Kleio. Some of us are just bumping around for something that looks like truth."
"Speaking of truth – perhaps you could help do something about all the people running around in hysterics because they have located the famous bard Sappho, after years of absence?"
It looked like I was famous again. Pulled another damned Xena.
- The End