Breaking the Ice
by Mary Morgan
The sun will rise to the right of the finger stone this morning. It has done so for the past thirty mornings; by this calendar, it has been spring for just so many days. The sun will light a bitter landscape. A wind from the pole sweeps it, blasting snow into drifts, scouring bare earth. No new growth, anywhere. The wind rattles in bleached grasses, sets icicles jangling, howls round corners and along stone walls, thrums in nets hung waiting for the shoals to start running. Waves seethe on the shore. The people of the settlement will wake soon, to the cold, to the barren fields, to the forbidding sea. They will wake to the knowledge that still the spring has not come.
But the watcher has. It has come down from the Moss, which lies beyond the edge of the settlement. Now it approaches a field of grass-covered mounds. The watcher is not deceived. It knows it is looking at turf roofs over shallow circular walls around much deeper dwelling pits. It knows that under the ground lie more than a hundred souls — men, women and children, huddling together for heat. Most are in the main dwelling now, the roundhouse, the settlement’s hall, but a few have kept, defiant, to their own steadings. The watcher grins. It tastes the fear that they feel in their dreams and grows stronger. It tastes their guilt and grows stronger still. It can see them all clearly; mere matter cannot confuse its vision. The bodies within are like fish in the sea to this watcher. It can net them whenever it chooses. It chose last night.
The watcher hefts the smooth, round object it holds in its grasp, places it carefully on an enclosure wall. This wall points directly to the roundhouse entranceway. They will see this first, it knows. It grins wider. This is the fifth time it has come to the settlement since the start of the false spring, and each time it has come closer. Soon it will come right up to the door. It detects movement within the dwelling. It feels the weight of the dawn on its hide. It is time to go, for now. It will be back. Meanwhile it has left tokens behind. Five skulls to watch for it by daylight.
They called me Bren. At first I thought it meant slave, then that it meant woman. When I had been in the settlement for almost a year I learned that it meant “other.” I am tall, fair-haired, larger-boned than these small, black-haired people. Other. I told them my name often enough over that first year, but they never used it, were not interested in what I had to say. I was there to work for the people, like their knives, like their ploughs, like their small, stubborn sheep. If I meant more to them than those, it was because they dragged me from the sea and saved my life and kept me for their own. As they keep everything the sea washes up for them.
The next year was the worst. I still kept telling myself that my father would find me, and that anyway things would be better. They would understand me better once I learnt to speak to them, would recognise me for what I was. I learned to speak to them, but it made no difference. They understood all they needed to about me: I was Bren, who was other, a gift of the sea, entirely theirs and nothing more.
By the end of the third year, I stopped thinking of home. I knew my father would not come for me. No one would come. Even my dreams stayed clear of the south. I did not long for honeyed winds, nor for warm nights, nor for valleys lush with vines and olive. I did my best to forget my own name and the sound of my language. I suppressed all my feelings except for my pride, which turned small and cold. Finally, I even denied myself hope, knowing its pain. In this way I found life in the settlement possible. After that, time at least passed.
For seven years, time passed. But then a year came which was different. The winter was harder than any I remembered. It was harder than any the settlers remembered, too. Twelve of them died. Their bodies were stored in outhouses since no pick could break the iron grip of cold on the ground. Those who survived could not speak of the deaths. Guilt weighted their tongues. They moved little, spoke less, ate sparingly. The stores, stretched, lasted till spring, though they were down to the scrapings of their bins. But the spring did not come. The ground did not soften, the shoals of rainbow-scaled fish did not arrive. The settlers conferred among themselves, consulted those who Dreamed, could find no answer beyond the obvious one, which they would not speak, and the obvious solution, which they shunned. There was guilt enough already.
Instead they wrapped themselves in hides and furs, staggered to the stone circle that stands on high ground, above the village and the Moss. There they sacrificed breeding stock, seed corn. For a day they prayed to the Frost Fathers, begged them not to break the land with the iron might of their cold. Nothing happened. A few of the settlers began openly to urge those older ways of placating the Lords of Winter and bringing back the spring. For the most part no one listened. Until the deaths began.
I knew there had been another before I even opened my eyes that morning. The fear stank in those confined quarters. It was my fear too. It clawed at me, made me close my eyes tighter, curl myself small as I could. But that did not help. In the end, I hauled myself upright and went to look out of the roundhouse door, climbing steps slick with frost to reach it. Five skulls, I noted with detachment, aware I was too calm. The nearest, the most recent, was as white and smooth as the others. Whose was it? I wondered. I pulled my cloak about my shoulders and leaned against the door frame, prepared to wait. Tork, the chief, was a dark shape against the pale sky, moving from steading to steading, asking his questions. He disappeared into one, then re-emerged, his face set and white. “Ter,” he said, to the settlers who clustered at the foot of the stairs. Ter. An old man, whose particular skill was leather-working and who had lived alone since the death of his wife. He had had a son, drowned three years ago. A whole family gone, then, I thought. As though the land was consuming these people, was erasing them from itself. Who next? was the question I saw on each of their faces. Weakened by hunger already, this weakened them further. I felt a chilly satisfaction of sorts. I had been cold and alone for ten years. This was the best I could manage by way of vengeance. It did not, I discovered, make me feel any better.
With a gesture, Tork gathered all his people around him. His glance flicked beyond them, rested on my face. I moved forwards too, stood at the back of the group and listened. “We will all sleep together now.” A command. He had not issued one on this subject before. The few who had chosen to stick to their steadings shuffled their feet, glanced aside. They would obey. “Three will stand watch over the women and children,” he went on, jabbing with stubby, black-nailed fingers at the three he had chosen. He detailed five others to take to the boats, to hunt for such food as the cold sea might offer. “The rest of us will search the ground.”
“Keep them busy,” I said to myself. “Keep them moving and busy while they wait for the night. Time enough to sit still and worry then.” It would do no good. They all knew that. There was never any trace, not in the place where the person had been seized, nor anywhere else, though they combed the paths and enclosures, climbed the slight slope to the circle of stone, ranged to the verge of the Moss. But it was better than nothing. One had to do something. They knew that as well.
At midday, one of the searchers shouted. “Brenner!” I thought I heard him call. Others? I thought to myself. At this time of year? An unnamed feeling stirred inside me. It drew me out of the roundhouse and so I saw them arrive. They were escorted by all the searchers, who crowded around, obscuring my view. Then Tork strode forward and the men parted before him, allowing me a glimpse of who stood there. Two figures, wearing furs and hides like anyone else, but one was extraordinarily tall. There was some tension; spear points were lowered, axes raised. The smaller figure crouched slowly and laid a staff on the ground, then stood, arms outstretched, hands open. Tork walked till he stood just out of reach of the strangers and stared at them, his shoulders hunched, his head down. I knew he would be staring at them from under his brows, taking his time, thinking. He could think with more menace than anyone I ever met.
Finally he jerked his head and turned abruptly, leading the whole procession down into the roundhouse. The strangers stripped off their outer clothing then, and I saw what they were. Two women. One small, with reddish-gold hair; the other tall as me, blue-eyed and dark. Their expressions were difficult to make out. Smoke from the peat fire wreathed through the roundhouse before making its way to the vent in the roof, the firelight flickered and shifted. I wondered why I was not surprised by their arrival; surely I should be. Yet I seemed to have been expecting them. Or at least the tall one.
I could not take my eyes off her. Her black hair, the strength of her. A warrior for sure. Not someone who could be caged, or made to do anyone else’s bidding. She spelt freedom to me, and revenge. I felt my chest tighten and my face flush, and shrank back into the shadows. From there I looked at her companion. Pale and sullen looking, I thought to myself in disapproval. This impression strengthened, the longer I looked. No taller than the settlers, but with a weak, a soft face. The sort of person who would hesitate, think of others, let their concerns come first. Caged by conscience, even before circumstances took away her freedom. I hated her. She must be the warrior’s servant, though she looked unfit even for that. She could hardly be her friend.
“What are you doing here?” Tork was asking them.
It was the smaller woman who answered, surprising me. She looked too much a stupid peasant girl to have learned the settlers’ language. But then, a warrior would not stoop to such a chore. “To trade.” She spoke the words haltingly, but graced them with a sudden, lop-sided smile. I sneered to myself. The warrior had brought her to play court to the settlers, obviously. It was all she was good for. Her tone was low, I noticed, and she made no sudden movements. Servile, ignoble. They would listen to her, if she could continue to avoid giving offence.
“What do you want?” Tork folded his arms across his chest and considered her carefully.
“Amber,” she said, “and walrus ivory.”
I was not surprised. The settlers took small quantities of such stuff south with them to trade in mid-summer, and ships had, twice that I knew of, called then too, taking all that the settlement could supply.
“What do you have?”
The woman looked back at her taller companion then, who moved forward quietly and gently laid a large pack down on the ground. Unrolled, it revealed a quantity of goods forged from iron. Fishhooks and needles, I saw, work knives of good quality, pins, axe-heads. Usually the settlers would have found these most acceptable, though they would not have shown it. They could not work metal. What they made, they made from stone. Now they viewed the contents of the pack almost with disinterest. Few deceived themselves. It was unlikely any would survive to use these things.
Tork shrugged, not dismissively but to indicate an end to these preliminaries. “We will talk more of this later.”
There was no question of food. They ate only once a day now, in the evening. The two women stood uncertainly in the centre of the room. When it became clear that no one was paying them any heed, they went to one side and sat down. After a minute the smaller woman opened her pack and took out what looked like dried meat and trail bread, handing some to her companion. From my own vantage point, I watched them, or at least the taller one. There was a careless grace to her. It spoke both of supreme physical confidence and of a total indifference to what anyone might think of her. I remembered this posture from my childhood. I had grown up among people who held themselves in this way. Once I had hoped to join them, even lead them myself eventually.
They sat close together against the wall. The smaller woman was younger too, I decided, but she looked oddly older as well. There was a tiredness in her face that had nothing to do with their journey. Now that it was still and not smiling it fell into an impassiveness that suggested the exercise of constant control. Though she stayed near to her companion she did not touch her at all, and rarely looked at her. The taller woman, on the other hand, was constantly stealing glances in her direction. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps she was more than a servant. But she was not much of a friend. And she was soft, just as I had suspected. Two of the bolder boys had crept close while the women ate. She was sharing her food with them, looking beyond them and encouraging more children to join in. I supposed the warrior had stopped eating, had handed her food over to her companion because the sight sickened her, as much as it did me.
The more I watched, the more I found myself resenting this small woman, the more I wanted to be in her place. After ten years of grovelling to my inferiors, I longed for companionship with an equal. But she was in the way. Such a waste, I thought to myself, staring at them openly by now. And so I was caught in an intensely blue gaze. The warrior had shifted the focus of her attention and looked across the room straight at me.
She touched the smaller woman’s shoulder and nodded, almost imperceptibly. Neither looked at me again, but I was not deceived. They were here for me, I realised, and for a second a great gale of some feeling rose within me. I vaguely remembered it, tentatively named it hope. I forced it back, at once and viciously. Hope hurt. I knew this well. Hope destroyed.
Time passed slowly in the roundhouse in winter. In one part a group of women were preparing the evening meal, what there was of it. Three of the fishers had returned home with nothing. The fish the others had brought were few in number and very small. In another part of the building there was spinning and weaving, the mending of clothing and stitching going on. Tools were being made and refurbished as well. Children helped here and there, or played in a group as far from anyone else as was possible. They did these things quietly. The settlers were rarely noisy, not in grief, nor joy, nor fear.
Searching for something to do that would allow the warrior to approach me, I picked up a jug of water and carried it over to the palettes where the sick were lying. Shortly after, I became aware of a presence by my side, looking at the old woman whose face I was wiping. The smaller woman had come as well, I realised with irritation. Ignoring the companion, I looked at the warrior, who quirked an eyebrow. I found myself saying, in the language of my childhood, which seemed to shape my mouth in strange ways now, “There’s nothing you can do. It’s hunger.” Why should she care? I didn’t. This was wasting time.
The tall woman looked back somberly, but a shadow of some deeper feeling passed over her companion’s face. It lent a brief moment of vivid emotion. Then it stilled, but not before I at last put a name to the expression that governed her features. Grief, perhaps even despair. She was working hard, but hers was not a face suited to secrecy. I was learning to read it well enough. I found it disgusted me. She will get wet eyes and want to help them, I said to myself. That was all she was good for.
The warrior had moved on. Now she was leaning over little Vessli. When she looked at me this time, I answered, “She has the eye sickness. A lot of them do, in the summer, but hers hasn’t gone.”
The warrior lent over the child again, smiling at her briefly, then saying, “Gabrielle?” The younger woman moved off at once and was back swiftly, carrying another of their packs. She opened this to reveal a store of herbs and several small pots of ointment. The warrior let her long fingers stir gently through these before selecting a sprig of something that had dried to a purple colour. “Infuse this in some boiling water,” she said, her tone making the words a request. Gabrielle was gone longer this time, but not much. When she returned her companion used the water to clean Vessli’s eyes before smearing some ointment carefully around them.
“Any more?” she asked, looking at me. I kept my face still, refusing to show my disapproval. These creatures had treated me as a slave for years. I had not expected my rescuer to spend time healing my captors. Nevertheless, I told her who else was afflicted. She treated four settlers in the same way, several more for different ailments. At first the settlers gathered round, watching doubtfully. Wonderful, I thought to myself, this will get them killed all right. Teach them to treat barbarians like people with souls. But after a time the others ceased looking at them, simply let them get on with their work. The warrior glanced round, saw they were no longer observed. She looked at her companion again, raised an eyebrow once more. Gabrielle now reached out a hand to touch me on the sleeve.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she said gently, meeting my eyes with a steady green gaze. “Your father sent us.”
My father. I dug into my memories and retrieved the image of a large man, red-bearded. I had once believed that he could do anything, even stop the sun its passage across the sky. Even find me and take me home. I was cooler in my estimate of him now, but could give him his due. It took courage and strength of will to transplant a village from Macedonia and plant it as a new colony near Syracuse. He had done that. And managed to bring me up single-handed, despite my mother’s death in childbirth. I had been ready, almost, to forgive him for failing to rescue me. And now there was this. Stirring up feelings I wanted to forget. I felt my face flinch and Gabrielle’s hand tightened on my arm.
“Take a deep breath,” she advised softly, “and another.”
When my breathing had settled, when I had control again, I only just managed to stop myself throwing off the small woman’s hand, stop myself showing my contempt for her. Did she actually believe I was shocked, that I hadn’t guessed? I looked back at her, and she let her hand fall.
“How?” I asked, judging it the most natural thing I could say in the circumstances. I already knew what I wanted, and it was not to go back to my father.
“He never stopped looking. In time he came across one of the pirates who took you, who told him they had sold you to a slaver plying routes north of the Pillars of Hercules.”
I nodded. The slaver had been carried much too far north by a series of gales, and eventually been wrecked on this shore.
“Will they trade for you?” This was the warrior.
I looked at her for a moment. “No,” I said at last. They would not. They did not trade in people. I looked enquiringly at the tall woman.
“Her name is Xena,” Gabrielle said. Apparently she had read my face. “She’ll find a way to help you.”
I studied the warrior carefully, wondering how I could get what I wanted from her. She looked stubborn. I would have to be careful.
“We’ll go tonight,” the warrior said. “When they’re asleep. We’ll take a boat and be a league away by morning.” She glanced at her companion, almost apologetically, but the younger woman gave no sign that she had noticed. I would, I told myself fiercely. She wouldn’t have to beg me for a response.
“See?” Gabrielle said to me. I could hardly bring myself to look at her, had to fight to keep my face expressionless. “She always knows what to do,” the small woman went on. “Is there anything you want to take with you?”
I hesitated at that, almost changed my mind. There was one thing. But then I considered a little more. There would be so many difficulties, and who knew what would be for the best. I shook my head. Why tempt fate? In any case, their plan would not work. I said as much.
“Why?” Xena was looking at me, a little amused.
I bridled. I had survived all this time without anyone’s help. I knew the place better than she did. “Did you see the skulls when you came in?”
“We were hoping it wasn’t their standard welcome for hawkers and tradesmen,” Gabrielle said, straight-faced. But they had kept on anyway, I thought.
“Something is stalking them. At night. It leaves just the skulls. They won’t let their guard down.” Said in Greek, the first part of this sounded childish, fantastic. Though the tales of the gods were not bloodless.
“It’d better steer clear of us, then,” Xena said.
I looked at her levelly and felt my lips purse themselves. Gabrielle was staring at us intently. Now she said. “Do you want us to deal with that before we leave?”
The question startled me. I realised that I did want exactly that. I could not imagine why. All the same, I said, “The winter has gone on for so long. They’re nearly starving. And then this. It’s not fair.” It was part of the explanation, and I seemed to believe it.
“This is a barren place,” Gabrielle remarked, non-committally.
“In the summer it’s beautiful, full of light. The sea burns like molten silver and teems with fish. At night, a cold fire hangs in green folds from the sky.” I had to say it.
“How can you stand to live without trees?” Gabrielle sounded merely curious.
“There’s nothing to block out the sky, though.” I was feeling defensive.
“There have been trees, surely.” The warrior rapped a beam at her back. “It’s not all drift wood?”
I shrugged. What did I care? Gabrielle said, out of a thoughtful silence, “I bet they did it. Cut down too many trees so there wasn’t enough shelter for the saplings. And introduced sheep. They’d eat the new shoots.” She stopped, grimaced apologetically.
Of course, that was what had happened. But long ago, when they first settled this land. Foolish behaviour. Just the sort I’d expect of these people. Just the sort she would understand. But Xena said, smiling slightly, “I’m impressed,” and reached out to move a strand of hair from the smaller woman’s cheek. Gabrielle’s face stilled, but she did not move away.
I felt something burn like acid in my gut and half turned from them. Across the smoke-hazed hall, the settlers moved with the sluggishness of hunger and exhaustion, their faces drawn and hopeless. In spite of myself, I said, “This year is different, somehow. The wind should have changed by now and the air grown warmer. And with the killings on top of it.” I paused, expectantly.
“These things happen,” Xena said, her tone flat. “Life is full of unpleasant surprises. You endure, or you don’t.” She turned her head to look at her younger companion. “I suppose we could stick around till we’ve dealt with it, though.” She raised an eyebrow, and lowered it when Gabrielle nodded. “Right then. Tell me what happens.”
I was left floundering. Nothing happened. They went to bed at night, rose in the morning. Sometimes someone had just, well, gone, and a skull been added to the line on the wall. No signs. No traces. I said as much.
“But so far it’s always been people in outlying steadings?”
“Xena,” Gabrielle said quickly, her voice low.
“Best way to catch it,” was the terse response.
“Then I’ll be with you,” her companion shot back. Not soft now, not hesitant. Determined.
Xena looked at her carefully. Her eyes were hooded and her face still. “Right,” she said.
Tork accepted their offer with little fuss, once Gabrielle managed to make it clearly. Since it included the warrior’s demand that he have the skulls removed and decently interred, it took a little time to persuade him. He was afraid of giving further offence. However, he eventually gave in. It was their choice and might help, he was obviously thinking. And if they failed, then at least he would not have lost two of his own people. I knew he would not let me go as well, for that reason if no other. But I wanted to stay with them, or at least with the warrior. I saw myself proving myself to her, saving her, being carried away by her. The small woman was never with us in these dreams, which never lasted long. I cursed Tork for stopping me, and Gabrielle for stealing my place, and I watched Xena for what remained of the day.
As the light began to fail, Xena unwrapped the blanket roll she had carried in on her back. Within it was a sword, so large that I doubted any man in the settlement could lift it. It drew them like honey draws ants. While they looked on, Xena took out a whet stone, settled it comfortably in her palm, and sharpened the blade, her strokes long and careful. Soon a small circle had surrounded her, men on the inside, children beyond. Just looking.
Gabrielle had apparently been dozing, but at length, perhaps when she judged them sufficiently enthralled, she opened her eyes and asked, “So, what do you think is doing all this?”
Most of the men shrugged and shuffled, but did not move off. Ker finally said, “It comes from the Moss.”
“No.” The speaker was his nephew. “Don’t be foolish.” I knew why he was so angry. These were thoughts the settlers did not dare say even to each other. Gabrielle quirked her eyebrow in passable imitation of her companion.
“I smell it, the Moss. After it has come.” Ker looked stubborn. No one argued. They remembered the smell, dark and stagnant. He went on, “And after Terkel — who can tell?”
“Hold your tongue. This is not something to talk about in front of them.” The nephew glanced at the women sidelong. He did not look too sure of himself.
“We have nothing to hide.” The old man had picked up the doubt. He settled himself more comfortably, began to speak again in the tones he used when telling the children one of his stories. Gabrielle, for a moment, had just their expression on her face. Then she turned to the warrior and told her what had been said. Throughout Ker’s narrative, he paused so that she could translate his words for her companion. Actually, I suspected this was unnecessary. I was watching her closely enough to see thoughts cross her mind, understanding sharpen her eyes. I believed she could understand what was being said as well as Gabrielle could, and that they had simply decided the younger woman, the less threatening one, should speak for them both.
“It was just after mid-winter. Many winters ago, this will be. Tork’s father’s father was chief then. It was a bitter winter, and what made it worse was a sickness that weakened our children and old people. Many died. We began to fear there would be no one left by spring. Just like now.
“Then the dreams started. We all had them. The Frost Fathers whispered to us in our sleep. They told us that we must make a sacrifice to them if they were to release their grip on the land, if they were to help us and give way to the sun. The Frost Fathers told us that was what they did, the folk who built the stone circle. They sent us dreams of blood and at length we answered them. We chose Terkel because he was strange. You know. He had never grown up. Most of us did not count him fully human.
“His mother pleaded for him, reminded us of his skills, cast doubt on the origin of the dreams, accused us of cruelty and cowardice. We were afraid. We stopped our ears and hardened our hearts. Eventually we took him to the Moss and killed him and left his body there. That was where the elder folk left their sacrifices to the Frost Fathers, and where they did execution, too.”
I was listening as raptly as anyone else now. I had not heard this story before. It was not one they would want to share with brennen.
“His mother would not accept that we had done right. She railed at us and screamed out promises of vengeance. We fed her and kept clear, judging it best. One night she wandered away and was never seen again. I’d guess she’s in the Moss as well. With her son.”
Ker stopped talking and looked at his audience. Only the warrior was unshaken. The rasp of her whetstone had not paused during his tale and kept going now, as Gabrielle asked. “You think it’s a matter of vengeance then? A mother avenging her son?” As he pondered his answer, Xena’s eyes, their expression unreadable, drifted across to her young companion. Gabrielle’s gaze was abstracted, her face even paler. Two lines furrowed between her brows.
“Yes,” he said finally. “Or a curse.”
“Hm.” Xena smoothly whipped her sword up. It hissed through the air. She studied the play of firelight on its blade. Even in the smoky atmosphere of the roundhouse, it shone out brightly. Satisfied she picked up the scabbard, sheathed it. “We’ll see.”
They set out for the steading just before the light failed, walking past the wall where the skulls had stood without a second glance. Gabrielle carried their supply bag and some bread the settlers had spared from their lean supper. I watched them cross to the outlying mound that marked the place they had chosen to wait in. Frost glittered on the stones of the walls. There was a keen wind. It raised little spirals of loose-lying snow and fluttered their furs. They had to lean into it to walk at all.
I spread my sleeping fur by the stairs that night and lay with my eyes closed, listening intently. I could hear the settlers sleeping around me. That rustle was one of the guards, stretching, that cry a child in the grip of a nightmare. I got up and made my way to the nursery, where boys and girls lay tangled together like a litter of puppies. The settlers pooled their children, who treated all adults as parents. I knelt to stroke a sleeping brow. All safe, I thought to myself, not inquiring why I should care about this. I squatted, leaned my back against the wall, found my eyes drawn irresistibly back to the doorway. What was happening on the other side of the settlement? In my mind’s eye I saw the two women sitting much as I was, watching the opening, firelight gilding the warrior’s drawn sword. Would they speak to each other? I imagined breath frosting the air between them.
When the battle cry came, I was on my feet before its echoes had finished, and hard on the heels of the guards as they burst through the door. What I saw, froze me, and them as well. The warrior, sword upright before her, holding it two-handed. Her companion, grasping her staff, circling round to her left. Between them, immense, a form made of fog and of blizzard. It flickered, now looming here and now there, almost managing to be everywhere at once. Its head was turning this way and that way, its arms sweeping the air. The air cracked and froze all around it. Each one of its gestures made tornadoes of hail twist through the air. It raised its head and let out a roar. Ice blasted the warrior, tearing her cheeks with its fine needles. She took a pace backwards, and it followed.
Behind it, the other woman rushed forward, flailing her staff, shouting, “Xena!” The wood merely passed through its body. Off-balance, Gabrielle fell to her knees, recovered herself, had the staff upright again and firmly grounded as the shape swirled itself round and bore down upon her. Screaming, the warrior leapt forward, aiming, I guessed, for the creature’s shoulders, meaning to ride it and hack it from behind. But she too passed through it, catching herself at the last moment, tucking herself into a roll that brought her alongside her companion. The shape towered above them, remorseless as winter.
Gabrielle turned her head then, and caught my eye. “Bring torches!” she yelled, her voice barely distinct above the howl that was part of the monster. I was aware of movement behind, knew the men were obeying her shout. I could not move at all. Xena moved again, flipping sideways, letting her sword cut through the air in a long, lazy curve. Clouds whorled from its surface, hung for a moment, then shot for her throat. They hardened to hands. She fell to the ground, gasping. Now the shape knelt above her, its fingers locked round her neck.
Gabrielle seized the first torch to reach her, thrusting forward, ramming it home in what should be the bowels of the monster. Screeching now, the thing reared itself up, taking Xena part of the way and then dropping her to bat with its hands at itself. Gabrielle ran to the warrior’s side, holding the remains of the torch, which had guttered and died. As it looked down, she hurled the smoking stump with all of her might, screaming defiance, striking the thing on its head. Nothing happened. It bunched itself again, swinging back arms, meaning to shred her and take back the warrior. She would not budge. Calmly, she spread her arms, raised her chin, meeting its gaze.
I took a torch and with the guards attacked the thing from behind. I found I wasn’t thinking of Xena, not even of myself. It was the children’s faces that were at the back of my mind. Most of the settlement was outside now, carrying firebrands and axes, despairingly joining the fight. The monster flicked them aside again and again, but could not deter them completely. In any case, I thought, it seemed distracted. It turned and turned, trying always to set its eyes upon Xena and Gabrielle, who were upright again, each holding a torch and fighting in step with each other.
Then something seemed to happen inside the creature. The milky swirls set, its pale outline hardened. Seeing her chance, Xena leapt forward and this time found something to grasp. She set her hands on its head and bent it backward with all of her might. Slowly, incredibly, it bowed itself into an arch of fluid ice. When Xena had the thing bent almost double, when it was plainly in danger of cracking, it changed again. She fell to the ground, holding nothing but mist. Streamers and strands of it unravelled from the bowed shape and curled into the air. For a second they held different shapes, an old woman and a young man among them. Then they faded. Everyone looked round. The sun was rising behind the circle of stone.
“Is it over?” Tork was squatting in front of Xena, who was resting her back against the stone of the roundhouse.
Gabrielle ignored him, dabbing a cloth at the shallow cuts on the warrior’s cheeks. When she was done, she looked round. “What do you think?” she asked.
“It doesn’t feel over,” he answered. “We still feel afraid.”
Gabrielle looked at him closely, then nodded. “Yes. It feeds on your fear. And on guilt.” She paused, waiting for him.
Tork hesitated. Then he swallowed, and said, “At midwinter, we decided to feed only those strong enough to survive. The oldest and weakest we left to die.” He swallowed, finding the words painful to say. “It was my decision.”
Xena said, through Gabrielle, “It was the right thing to do. It saved your lives.”
The chief looked up. “That did not make it feel right,” he said. After a minute, he walked away.
I watched the two women again. Something was easier between them, I saw. Still, when Xena reached out her hand to take Gabrielle’s, the smaller woman flinched. “How can you touch me?” she said, very low.
“What do you mean?” The warrior’s voice was bewildered.
“There must be something wrong about me, something dark,” her companion said. Her face reddened, then paled. “Why else would all that happen? Why else would they use me? It was my fault. All my fault. You thought so too, and you were right.” Her voice ground into silence. She stared at her hands and swallowed painfully.
“No!” the warrior said. She sounded astonished now, and her companion looked up at her for a moment. Xena looked as though she was going to say more, then looked as though she couldn’t find the right words. Instead she reached out her hand again and seized Gabrielle’s. “No,” she said again, softly, shaking her head. Xena was about to add something to that when I stepped forward. I could not bear to hear any more. Of course, I had realised by now that I was jealous, but that didn’t stop me. Why should it? I had a right to be jealous, I said to myself. I was my father’s daughter, and worthier of the warrior by far. I was her kind.
“What Tork hasn’t told you,” I said, more for the sake of saying something, “is that a few of the settlers are talking about going back to the old ways. Doing what they did to the boy in Ker’s story.” As I said it I realised I was afraid they would, and that I didn’t want them to.
“Throw someone into the Moss?” Xena asked.
I nodded. “Do you want to see it? The Moss?” I ventured at random. Anything to keep them apart.
“Might as well,” she replied. Gabrielle had been frowning to herself all this while, but then she looked up at me and nodded too. I felt a moment’s fury, then a possibility presented itself to me, and I kept quiet.
It did not take us long to reach the Moss. I wondered what they made of it: the huge, flat expanse dimpled with tussocks of flag wort and bog grass, humped here and there with banks of dirty-white snow. Xena looked unimpressed, but Gabrielle shuddered. “What a terrible place to end up in,” she said softly. “All alone, sinking deep under that.” She fell silent.
Xena put an arm around her shoulders briefly, then turned to look around. She spotted the stone circle and started out for it, then paused and looked at her companion doubtfully.
“I’ll wait here, I think,” Gabrielle said. Her face was shadowed again. Xena sighed, but went on.
Gabrielle sat down close to the edge of the Moss, on a boulder piebald with lichen. I stood behind her. She was watching the warrior’s progress and so was I. When I judged her well out of earshot I said, “Of course, they might be right.”
“Who might?” She sounded listless.
I moved in closer. “The settlers. It worked the last time, after all.” It might work this time too, I said to myself. It could be my parting gift to them all. And I’d take my guilt with me. It wouldn’t hang around to plague them.
“They’re better than that,” she said.
I was a little startled. There was animation in her voice. I hadn’t expected it. “They’re just barbarians,” I said, more to convince myself.
“How can you say that?” Gabrielle turned around, looked up. I could see she was startled to see me just behind her. She stood up herself. We were so close I could see flecks of gold in her eyes as they met mine. She was still looking up. I had only to lean forward a little and she would over-balance. She held her ground. “They stopped the sacrifices.”
“Running out of people,” I said callously.
“They were terrified, but they still fought to help us last night,” she went on.
“Even animals fight bravely when their backs are against a wall.” I was nerving myself for my next move.
“They fed you through the winter.” That stopped me for a moment. They had. I had not expected it. I thought they would leave me to tend to the dying, with no food for myself.
“You wanted us to help them. You cared,” she went on.
That should have done it. That should have reminded me that the worst cage is the one we build for ourselves. It should have made me act, but it didn’t. I recognised the truth when I heard it.
“That’s how it is,” Gabrielle said gently, through my silence. “You harden your heart so that nothing worse can happen to you. But something always gets by you. Something will always find its way in.”
I wanted to say that only the weak felt that way. I tried, but I could not. Gabrielle was watching me calmly, though she was a little pale, and her breathing was slightly hurried. The woman who stood in my way. I looked beyond her. Wreaths of mist were lifting idly from the Moss.
She knows, I thought. Why doesn’t she do something? Why does she just stand there and talk? I wanted to answer, because she is a coward, because she believes in conscience, because she is not worthy of the warrior. But I had seen her fight last night and I knew she was no coward. I was the one who had frozen. And she was fighting now, in her own way.
Time stood still. I heard a gull wail, the moan of a seal, the sea’s salty lament. A number of things occurred to me then. That not all heroes wore swords. That to endure was a victory in its own right. That staying alive was no cause for shame. That coming to terms did not mean defeat. I could feel barriers set in my mind ten years ago waver like water freed from the frost. I was certain of only one thing: whoever I hated, it was not Gabrielle.
I took one step back. As I did so, I became aware of a presence not far behind me. Xena, of course. I wondered what she had seen, what she had heard. I turned, expecting to see anger directed against me. But she was looking at Gabrielle, her expression strained.
Gabrielle took a deep sigh. She moved round me, and stood between the older woman and me. “It’s all right,” she said. She smiled at the warrior. “Don’t look like that. I’m all right. And I’ve got an idea.” She went toward Xena and patted her middle lightly. “You want to hear it?”
Xena looked down at her. “What’s changed?” she asked, ignoring everything else. I hung back, but listened anyway.
“Suddenly I’ve remembered that I’ve got something to live for.” Gabrielle’s face was serious again for a minute, her voice a little deeper than usual. Then she smiled again. I blinked. It was a smile of great charm.
Involuntarily, Xena smiled back. “Me too,” she said then. She glanced at me, her eyes ice-cold, but I knew the danger was past.
Gabrielle went on, looking round to include me in what she had to say. “You saw it, didn’t you? Last night. How the light made it solid enough to fight. And it was more than the light, I think. It was everyone out there, fighting together.” Xena nodded. She had reached out her hand and rested it on the younger woman’s shoulder, apparently unconscious of the gesture.
“I think it’s strongest when people hide from it, or fear it, or feel guilty for making it,” Gabrielle went on.
“I think you’re right,” Xena said. “Things are best out in the open,” she added, more to herself, I felt. Then she went on, “Can we use that?”
“I think so.” Gabrielle’s smile widened to a grin. “We’ll use my secret weapon. We’ll talk it to death.” She tilted her head to one side and raised her eyebrows. “Trust me.” Her face stilled and she seemed to shrink into herself.
“I trust you,” Xena said. When Gabrielle’s face twisted, she went on, “I’m the one who shouldn’t be trusted.”
Gabrielle shook her head in vehement denial of this. “We trusted one another last night, didn’t we?” She waited till Xena met her eyes. “That’s how we lived through till the morning.”
“That’s it, then. Let’s try this miracle cure of yours,” Xena said then, and headed down for the settlement.
It took them the rest of the day to persuade Tork. In the end, he had looked at me, asking, “What do you think?”
I suppressed my gasp, making myself respond calmly. “I think they are right,” I said. I could feel the whole settlement watching, aware of a change. Then I repeated Xena’s words, “Things are best faced out in the open.” As I said this, as I felt Tork’s dark brown eyes on my face, I felt something thaw in myself, felt emotions I believed I had killed long ago.
The next morning, just after dawn, we all walked up to the Moss. We were weak from the winter, but filled with fresh hope. Seeing the enemy and winning a battle had fired us. When we got to the edge, Tork stepped forward. He looked down at the Moss, frowning, reaching inside himself for the right words. At last he said, his voice clear and strong, “We have come to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness.” He called out a list of names, the twelve who had died during the winter, and one more. All the rest of the settlement followed suit. Each one named Terkel. When my turn came, I added, “My father.” There was someone else, but the name would not come to me.
Finally Gabrielle stepped forward. When she got to the edge of the Moss she turned round and glanced back at the warrior who came to stand behind her, resting her hands on her shoulders. I didn’t recognise any of the names they spoke, but at the end I heard Gabrielle and Xena both say, very softly, each other’s names and, after that, “Myself.” Xena bowed her head, rested her cheek on her friend’s reddish gold hair.
We turned to go. As we did so we realised the wind had changed, that it came from the south. We could feel the sun’s warmth at last. Here and there in the Moss, pinched buds finally opened, clenched petals unfurled. Drifts of blossom as yellow as butter danced in the wind. I fancied it was stroking my face as soft as a fern, and that it smelled faintly of honey. A settler shouted and pointed far out to sea. I shielded my eyes against the dazzle, shook my head. Finally I could see a leaf-shaped disturbance of water quite close to the shore. Light danced in a myriad sparkling points. The shoals had returned. Men rushed down the slope to their boats, pausing only to snatch down the nets.
“Now will you come with us?” the warrior said very quietly.
I looked at the children, searching for one in particular. “No,” I replied. I felt something inside myself healing, settling in place. In my head, I added the name I had looked for. Letis. The name my father had given me. “What for? My life is here. But tell my father I love him.”
Xena followed the direction of my gaze. A group of toddlers had lined themselves on the edge of the Moss, were solemnly throwing stones into it. Gabrielle had been watching the child for some time already. A red-haired boy, larger than the others although he was younger. “All right,” the warrior said. “It’s your choice.” Gabrielle looked at me, and smiled.
They set off the following morning, heading south. Each day would take them deeper into the spring. They left their trade goods and some herbs and unguents, took with them amber and ivory, just as two peddlers should. We are a proud people. We would not have let them go with less. All the same, I knew, the women took with them something they valued much more highly. Gabrielle had spent the night writing down some of Ker’s stories, her face young as the children’s; Xena watching her with delight. Now and then the younger woman had looked up to return her gaze, her own face lit with an enchanted smile. I wished them both well, and was glad they had found their own spring. As for me? I look at my son, and let myself hope.