These characters are not mine and I do not intend any infringement on the copyright thereto 'em. Yaddah yaddah. Lesbian content. Yaddah yaddah. Deal with it or surf elsewhere. Yaddah yaddah. Happy Halloween! Yaddah yaddah. Ume. Yaddah yaddah. Beta freak. Yaddah yaddah. Eternally grateful. Yaddah yaddah. E-mail me. Yaddah yaddah. Story time!
Return of the Headless Warrior
by Crème Brûlée
A chill wind blew, across the fields, through the trees, casting dark shadows and whistling shrill cries as of the screams of tormented souls. In other words, the season was changing; it was darker earlier in the day; and the villagers were grumbling about the prospect of many months of labor in the cold winter air.
Several figures took refuge from the harsh elements in the common room of an inn. They sat huddled before a speaker, a storyteller, gathering what warmth and security they could from one another. The room was lit by candles, which were placed around the circle that the listeners formed. A small fire crackled in the fireplace behind where the storyteller sat, shadows twitched and flickered on the walls of the chamber. The occasional pop from a log caused the group to jump. This was no warm tale of love or petulant gods they were hearing, but the harrowing and gruesome tale of a warrior's curse.
A hand shot up, straight into the air. Every person in the group jumped. A few screamed.
"What is it Jonah?" the storyteller asked.
"Xena, I gotta pee!"
Xena rolled her eyes at the small boy. Several of the other children seated before her giggled. But the warrior was pleased to note that they remained wide-eyed and huddled into a tight mass, unmoving.
"Go on then," she dared him, but he didn't move.
"I really gotta pee!" he whined.
"Tovok," Xena nodded at an older boy. "Take Jonah to the privy."
She was again pleased to note the pale complexion on the older boy's face as he rose and took Jonah's hand. Once standing, neither moved.
"What is it?" Xena asked.
"You're not gonna tell the ending while we're gone are you?" Tovok asked.
"Of course not, just hurry up and don't let any Bacchae get you. I don't know why, but they seem to favor that privy."
Both boys scurried from the room.
Another hand shot up from the group.
"What is it Kara?" Xena asked.
"Is this story about you and Gabrielle?"
"No, I told you before, it's about a couple of other women warriors."
Another hand shot up from the huddled circle.
"There's other women warriors?"
"Sure, ever heard of Amazons?"
"I'm going to marry an Amazon when I grow up." Tirasus, one of the smaller boys sighed.
"Good luck." Xena murmured under her breath.
"You can't marry Amazons stupid," Sarah, a girl seated behind him, taunted. "They're women who hate men."
"Nuh-uh," Tirasus protested.
"My dad says that Amazons make bad wives because they only do stuff by consensus and they never look after the home because they're too busy hunting." Sarah said.
"Or partying," Xena murmured, then said, "Your father seems to know a lot about Amazons."
"Maybe it's because my Aunt Margos joined the Amazons when she was younger. Or maybe it's because of the picture scrolls he buys from the back room of Xerxes' market stall. I saw one once..."
"Alrighty then," Xena interrupted. "I think this is when the adult steps in and gracefully changes the subject."
"I'm gonna marry an Amazon when I grow up, you'll see." Tirasus looked downright defensive on the point. His little features were screwed into a scowl.
Xena sighed relief at the site of Tovok and Jonah scurrying back into the room. They were panting; half with the efforts of their exertions, half from fright. They nearly trampled their companions in their haste to rejoin the group.
"Everybody ready for the rest of the story?" Xena pumped her eyebrows and delighted in the eager fear-struck faces before her. "Where was I?"
"You and Gabrielle had gone to Japa and the evil warlord had cut off your head!" Prith squeaked, her eyes nearly popping from her own head.
Xena sighed, "I told you, it's two other women warriors."
A hand shot up from the group.
"Yes, Jacob." Xena asked, slightly deflated.
"Why was Gabrielle spinning an umbrella on the boat, when you told her about your other friend?"
Xena stared at the small child, wondering why this insignificant detail had mattered to him. She knew better than to question the rationale of an eight-year-old. "It's a literary device, background texture - now zip it, I'm going to finish the story."
Another hand shot up from the group. The fingers of Xena's hand that lay next to her chakram twitched. "Yes, Prith?"
"Wasn't Gabrielle mad at you for not telling her about your other friend? I mean, Gabrielle is your best friend in the whole wide world, wasn't she mad?" Inquisitive eyes awaited a response.
"Okay, I'm only going to say this one more time. These are two women warriors who traveled to Japa. They are not Gabrielle and me. We've never even met them, you do NOT know them, nor are you ever likely to. Got it?"
The heads of the group nodded as one.
"Okay. Our heroine had just fallen in a great battle and been beheaded by the evil..."
"Xena?" Tovok interrupted.
Xena took a breath, trying to maintain her calm. "What?!"
"Why would a warrior ride into battle wearing metal underwear?" the boy asked.
"Who told you she was wearing metal underwear?" Xena was perplexed.
"Well, the way you described her armor..." Tovok mimicked the hand movements Xena had made in describing the warrior's final battle dress. "It doesn't sound like armor that would be good for a fight like that."
"The warrior was employing a psychological combat tactic. Besides, she looked damn good in it." Xena sounded a little defensive. "Any other questions?"
The group shook their heads in unison.
"Alrighty then. Let's see, ah... heroine gets brutally slain and beheaded - faithful companion kicks ass all over the place - blood, gore, guts... companion gets head back... let's warrior go to the land of the dead... is left to an empty, colorless existence... Oh right! Many years pass..." Xena bit her tongue to repress the curse that nearly slipped past her lips upon seeing another hand shoot up from the huddled mass of bodies. "What - is - it - Sarah?"
"Why is it that in tales, many years are always passing before stuff happens?"
"Because the people telling the story keep getting interrupted! That's why. The next person who interrupts me is going to have to walk home alone. Got it?"
The heads bobbed in unison and the children moved closer together.
"Okay, so - many years pass. A wretched king comes to power and starts plaguing the land of Japa. He's a real baddy - kidnaps village children and feeds 'em to his pet dragon - that kind of thing. A powerful and crafty witch decides that the only way to save the people from this evil is to resurrect the legendary warrior." Xena saw movement in the group and glared at Prith who quickly put her hand back in her lap. "The witch found an ancient incantation and all the necessary ingredients for her ceremony. Over three long days and nights she toiled in the darkness of a dense forest. On the last night, in the darkest hour, when the world of the living and dead are but a breath away from one another (some witches call this the witching hour, others, the twilight zone), the long dead warrior stepped from the shadows into the world of the living. There was only one problem; right at her neck, right here," Xena indicated the middle of her neck. "There was lots of blood, gore and... blood, but there was no head!"
The children gasped.
"That's what the witch said." Xena concurred. "Right before she noticed that the warrior was carrying her own head in her hand! And there was blood and gore and... blood coming out of that too!"
The children gasped again.
"Yeah, that's what the witch said again. Because it would have been really hard for that warrior to fight the evil king's army with one hand while holding her head in the other. So the witch went back to her spell books and came up with a quick fix. She found an enchanted strip of cloth which she soaked in a potion of newt's skin and bat spit, dying it deep purple. She chanted over the cloth for a full candlemark before it was ready. She had the warrior place her severed head atop her neck and hold it there. The witch carefully wrapped the enchanted purple cloth around the warrior's neck. The smell of burning flesh filled the air and an acrid smoke stung the witch's eyes.
The warrior screamed and clutched at her neck to tear the cloth away, but it was no use, she couldn't remove it. Eventually it stopped burning quite so bad and settled down to an interminable itching (the witch said that was a good sign because it meant the skin was healing). The witch also said that when the itching was gone, the warrior could take the enchanted bandage off. In any case, the warrior rode off to fight the evil king, his army and his pet dragon.
Once the warrior had decimated the evil king's army and declawed his pet dragon, she went after the king. It just so happened, as it sometimes does in such tales, that this evil king was a descendant of the evil guy who'd chopped the warrior's head off. And another thing that sometimes happens in tales is that history repeats itself (because nobody learned from it the first time around). So during the fight between the warrior and the king, it wasn't a total surprise when the king, with a mighty stroke of his blade, beheaded the warrior again."
The children gasped.
Xena nodded. "Which is exactly what the king said when he saw the warrior bend over and pick her head up off the ground. She placed it carefully out of the way, before starting up the fight again. The king used every dirty trick he could think of, he even tried kicking dirt in the warrior's eyes. He realized, too late, that he should have aimed the dirt at the severed head nearby, not the headless body that faced him in battle. That was his last mistake as our heroine took that opportunity to thrust her sword into the evil king's heart.
The darkness and shadows that had plagued the land lifted, and the people didn't suffer anymore. But on dark nights, when there's no moon, some people claim to have spotted a headless warrior riding across the countryside in search of evil doers. Or at least that's what they tell their children when they're misbehaving."
A tense silence followed Xena's final words. Not a muscle moved in the group of children. The fire crackled, the candles flickered, the warrior gloated.
Someone giggled, someone shoved someone else and the small mass of bodies dissolved in the release of their pent-up fear. Except for one girl, Prith, who sat rigid with fear staring wide-eyed and pointing. It took the children a moment to notice her, but they did and then they noticed what she was pointing at. Xena. The warrior smiled back amiably. "Good story, eh?"
A couple of children began to back away.
"What's up? Tovak, Prith? Story's over, why the theatrics?"
"Why do you have a purple cloth tied around your neck?" he asked like he didn't want to know the answer.
"It's kind of chilly tonight, I didn't want to catch a cold."
"But if you're cold," Tovak tried to keep his voice steady. "Why aren't you wearing a cloak or something more than your battle dress?"
Xena shrugged. "If I keep my neck warm, the rest of me tends to stay warm."
"Xena?" Tirasus asked in a barely audible whisper.
"Are you the headless warrior?"
"Do I look like the kind of woman who goes off without her head? Oh come on! You guys know me better than that."
"Take off the bandages then." Sarah challenged, near hysterical.
"Fine, all right." Xena said, sounding hurt. "I will."
All eyes were glued to Xena's hands as she lifted them to the cloth at her neck. She paused; an eerie silence crept into the room. In the blink of an eye, she ripped the cloth away. All of the children screamed at the site of a horrid gash in the warrior's throat. Xena stood and the festering ooze that had been concealed by the cloth began to dribble down her neck.
The children were jolted into action. Clutching and grabbing at one another, they scrambled as best they could to get away from the disfigured horror before them. Screams reverberated off the walls of the room, bodies tripped, fell and scurried in all directions. In the space of a minute, every child had gotten out before the cursed warrior could get them.
Xena stood in the quiet room, fingering her disfigured neck.
"I suppose you're feeling proud of yourself?"
Xena turned to see Gabrielle, standing in the open doorway off to the side of the room. "You nearly managed to cut the village population by 10 this evening. You almost scared those kids to death! And now they're tearing around the village in the dark, half out of their wits."
Xena chuckled. "I told their parents to wait for them outside. They'll be fine."
Gabrielle walked over to her partner. "Xena? Is that your mother's elderberry jam on your neck? Tell me it's not! That was her last jar, she's going to kill you!"
Xena swiped her finger through the gruesome mess and licked it. "It was the only one that had the right consistency. I was after an authentic look. Want some?"
"No, I'm not going to be your accomplice. After your temper, your mother's is the last I want to have to face. You were telling them the headless warrior story, I take it?"
They sat before the fire. Xena smiled. "Yes."
"I don't know what gets into you this time of year. But I'm warning you, if you keep telling these tales, people will start believing that they're true."
"Come on Gabrielle, they're just spooky bedtime stories for kids. No one believes them." Xena wiped the jam from her neck with a damp cloth she'd stashed nearby.
"Oh sure, that's why people keep asking me why I travel with you after you threw me off of a cliff once and tried to kill me another time with your chakram after I'd attempted to kill your immaculately conceived daughter? And of course, don't let me forget my personal favorite, how you can stand me after I let my demon spawn child kill your son?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I suppose I should be grateful that you only do this about once a year. It's probably a healthy outlet for your darker impulses, but I'm telling you, stories are like diseases - they spread."
"It's not like they're written down, people will forget them." Xena finished wiping her neck and put an arm around Gabrielle. When she noticed the bard wasn't cuddling up to her she looked down to see Gabrielle staring back, disbelieving.
"Ever heard of the oral tradition?" Gabrielle asked.
"Is that an Amazon rite of passage? Now that would explain why they made you their queen." Xena teased.
"They'd bypass me and appoint you Empress if I gave them half the chance. You know darn well that most of the stories we have were passed down from the ancients by storytellers. It's only recently that anyone started writing them down." Gabrielle gave Xena a good shove.
"Besides, one of us always dies in your stories. It's creepy." Gabrielle shuddered.
"It's realistic." Xena said.
"We're warriors, we'll die - probably sooner than later. Life isn't all sweetness and sunshine."
"Living with you is a constant reminder of that fact, I don't need gruesome stories to reinforce it." Gabrielle snuggled into Xena's embrace.
Xena feigned a pout, then shrugged. "So how would you tell the story of our last days? Would we live out our dotage as crotchety old warriors? We're going to die somehow, death in a just and glorious battle is every warrior's dream come true."
"The hero has to live to fight another day. Every bard knows that."
"Well, I guess we know who the bard in the family is. I've noticed, in stories, that heroes don't age and yet you and I seem to."
"If there is a glorious battle, we go out together." Gabrielle was adamant.
"I'll remember that the next time I get an urge to tell a story."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I can just imagine..."
Xena paused, "I'm thinking crosses. I've not done a good crucifixion story yet."
"Most people would think that having actually been crucified yourself would have cured you of the urge."
"It's not so bad once the nails are in." Xena gave Gabrielle a squeeze.
"You're a perversion."
"Which is why you enjoy my company so much."
"True," Gabrielle conceded.
They sat in a companionable silence for several minutes, enjoying the warmth from the fire, the closeness, the quiet.
Xena asked, "Have you ever wondered if you're in a dream? When you know that you're awake?"
"You mean like having a hallucination? You think you're seeing wild stuff, but you've actually eaten spiked nutbread?"
"Something like that. I was just thinking about our stories and how people either remember them or they don't - how they mix up stories I've made up with scrolls you've written about actual events. How what's real can sometimes be forgotten and what never happened can become reality... sort of. It's like how memory works only on a larger scale. And I thought, how do we know what we remember is true at all and not something that happened in a dream? Maybe it's not even our dream, but somebody else's and we just exist in it. Maybe our whole existence is somebody else's stray thought, a momentary entertainment, and we'll cease to exist when they become distracted. Have you ever thought of that?"
"No, and I wish you hadn't either. Your philosophizing is as twisted and creepy as your story telling."
"Guess you'll just have to stay snuggled up here in my arms to feel safe." Xena grinned.
"Why would I do that when you're the one who's creeping me out?" Gabrielle asked.
"How about you tell a story then?"
"Okay... um... I've got one - the day we first met."
"Ooh," Xena wriggled until she was settled in. "I like the ones where the village women throw themselves at me!"
"I did NOT throw myself at you. Though you could hardly have blamed me if I had - you were wearing next to nothing when I first set eyes on you."
"'Take me with you, Xena!'... 'Teach me everything you know.'" Xena shrugged. "You wanted me."
"Be that as it may..." Gabrielle rearranged her tunic, knowing a losing battle when she was in it. "Do you want to hear this story or not?"
"Certainly." Xena accepted her victory graciously.
"Then you'll have to stop talking."
"True enough." Xena leaned back, closed her eyes and listened as the bard began to tell her absolute favorite story.