The Interlude Between

by JS Stephens
Copyright 1999, revised 2013. All Rights Reserved
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Disclaimer: Okay, the characters are the legal property of Renaissance Pictures, I'm just borrowing them for another romp through my imagination. The tale of the goldfinch is adapted from Manx mythology. No profit gained or sought from the crafting of this tale. No violence, no sex, just some faint subtext. This is set after "The Greater Good" and before "Callisto".

I thought I had lost Xena for good. I mean, I really thought that she was dead, she looked dead, didn't respond, even Salmoneus thought she was dead. It turned out to be just the poisoned dart, thrown by some unknown assailant. Xena managed to come back from the dead and kick warlord butt and make it look like nothing special. I yelled at her that she should never do that to me again and she yelled back that we were in a battle, that we could finish it later.

That night, Xena was still twirling the dart, contemplating her near death as we sat by the fire, waiting for the stew to cook. I was still pretty upset over her death, but she seemed not to notice for a while, just kept staring at that stupid dart. I kept a closer eye on the stew than usual, trying to be nonchalant about wiping my face, acting like the smoke from the campfire was bothering my eyes, hoping that she wouldn't notice, but also hoping that she would notice. Gods, I had nearly lost my best friend today! My thoughts kept jumping around; I was unable to concentrate on anything, even dinner. I nearly scalded the stew, then burned my hand when I reached for the pot. Xena finally laid aside the dart and first grabbed the pot by the wooden handle and set it aside, then took the water skin and poured water over my burned hands. I burst into tears from embarrassment and from the strain of the day, prompting Xena to raise an eyebrow and ask, "Gabrielle, what's bothering you?"

"Everything!" I yelled, "Xena, you act as if you died and came back to life every day, like it was nothing special, then ignore me all night! Gods, woman, I risked MY life trying to take you back home, then this is how you repay me!" I yanked my hands away and tried to stand up so I could storm off.

"Gabrielle, I'm sorry," Xena said quietly as she put a hand on my shoulder, pushing me back down on the blanket. "I've just been trying to figure out which enemy tried to kill me this time." Her expression softened as she reached up to touch my cheek. "Gabrielle, I appreciate what you did, not only for me, but for the greater good of the village. You know I'm not that great with words, but you were terrific and showed a tremendous amount of courage in standing up to those men." A smile crept across her features. "Besides, you kicked major ass today, I'm very proud of you. Friends like you are rare indeed."

I sniffed, trying to hold back more tears. "You mean it?" I asked.

She wrapped her arm around my shoulder, drawing me near. "You know it's a hard road for me, but your presence makes it a little bit easier, Gabrielle." She squeezed, then dropped her arm and reached for our bowls. "Would you like some dinner now? I'm starving, myself." I slowly nodded, wiping my eyes, reaching for my bowl.

I couldn't eat as much as usual, but Xena didn't make any wisecracks like I expected her to do. After we cleaned up the dishes, Xena leaned against Argo's saddle and motioned for me to join her. I scrambled over, nearly knocking her over as I wrapped my arms around her, feeling her warm, strong arms around me. I kept getting the shivers until Xena got up and unrolled the beds, motioning for me to join her. I pulled off my boots while she pulled off hers, then sat on her bedroll while pulling mine over me. She joined me in a moment, scooting down and pulling me with her until we were lying side by side, her arm draped over my stomach. "Gabrielle," she whispered in my ear, "tell me a story."

"A story?" I repeated, confused. Maybe the poison affected her mind.

"Yes, a story, please," she affirmed.

I thought about checking her for fever, since she usually only tolerated my stories, but tonight she asked for one. I thought for a moment, mentally riffling through my stock of tales I'd heard, then finally settled I'd recently heard. "I heard this in the last town we stopped in when I talked to a bard from a land across the sea, from an island near Britannia; this is the tale he told me.

There was once king named Ascon who was poor but wise and well loved by his people. King Ascon had three sons, Bris, Cane and Gil, who were all a great delight to him. As they grew into manhood, King Ascon started pondering who he would name as his successor and whether or not to divide the kingdom, or give it all to one son. At the same time, the three sons started asking their father what he would do when he got old, would he divide the kingdom into three?

"Nay, sons," he said, "I cannot divide the kingdom, for there is only one crown. I will think of a way in the morning, I promise you." So, the three sons went to sleep that night, each wondering what the king's decision would bring.

In the morning, the king worried until the song of a beautiful goldfinch lulled him into peacefulness. When the bird finished its song, King Ascon knew what his decision would be. "Sons," he cried out, "the one who can bring me the goldfinch will win my kingdom. Go now with my blessings and catch the bird for me."

Bris, Cane and Gil set off down the road, following the goldfinch until it flew down a dark hole in the ground. Bris and Cane, the older brothers, immediately started hunting for something to help them lower themselves down the hole while Gil pondered where the hole led. Suddenly, an old man appeared with a long rope, saying, "Good men, do you seek the land of the goldfinch?"

"Aye," replied the three, "our father will give his crown to the son who brings back the goldfinch."

"Then I must lower you down the hole until you enter the land of the goldfinch," the old man replied. "Who will try first?" Bris, the oldest, volunteered to go first, but halfway down the hole, he felt the rope move and shake, swinging him so wildly that he thought he would fall. He called for the old man to pull him back up. Cane, the second brother, tried next, but also grew frightened when the rope started swinging, fearing that he would crash against the wall of the hole. This left the youngest brother, Gil, who closed his eyes on the trip down, trusting that the old man would let him down gently.

When Gil touched bottom, he opened his eyes and saw a wondrous courtyard, filled with beautiful flowers and saw a king waiting for him. "Ah, another suitor for my daughters!" he cried out, "I will give you one of them in marriage if you can find me three days." The king motioned to three tiny goldfinches, all singing beautifully.

"I will take your challenge," Gil replied. The king showed him to a stable, saying that he should pick a horse to ride during the challenges. Gil looked over all of the horses carefully, noting that the best and most beautiful were all crippled in some way, but the plainest mare felt sound, if underfed and uncombed. "I will take the mare," he proclaimed, "if you will give her good feed and a comb for me to comb her coat." The king agreed, and Gil set to cleaning and feeding the poor mare, then slept beside her that night.

"Kind sir," the mare said the next morning, "the king will hide in a different vegetable each day, you must find it and split it open, not paying attention to any distractions." Gil listened closely and followed the mare's advice. The first morning, he had to pass many beautiful maidens who called to him, but he persisted and found the king in an onion, which he cut open, releasing the king. The next two days, he found the king in a potato and a loaf of bread, passing riches and many livestock, but Gil ignored all temptations, finding the king and releasing him. The king relented and let Gil take the three birds, which were really his daughters, who were released from the spell by Gil's kindness and persistence.

When Gill and the three women started up the rope, the first princess, Kikil, went up and Bris claimed her for his wife. The second princess, Ysbal, went up and Cane claimed her for his wife. The brothers decided with beautiful wives, they had a better claim on the throne, so they decided to kill Gil. They did this by throwing a rock down the hole as Gil started to climb up. The third princess, Vorgell, pushed him aside, sparing his life.

The brothers went back to their father's court, showing their wives, claiming they had been the goldfinch that had sung to him. The women had a magic rowan wand, which they used to change themselves back into birds, but King Ascon said sadly, "Nay, these two are not the bird who sang to me so sweetly. Tell me, what happened to your brother, Gil?"

"Oh, a boulder fell on him in the road," they chorused, but even as the words left their lips, Gil and Vorgell walked into the court. Vorgell took the wand, changed her sisters back, then changed herself into a goldfinch and sang soothingly to the king, singing of Gil's great deeds and his kindness. The king listened, then proclaimed, "It is she, the goldfinch who sang to me earlier! Gil, I proclaim you as my successor. As for your brothers, I will banish them forever from the Isle of Man!"

"Father, please, banish them for only seven years," Gil begged, "they should be given another chance."

The king considered, then answered, "In light of your kindness and forgiveness towards your brothers, I crown you and your wife King and Queen. I will banish them for only seven years if they will acknowledge your rightful claim." Bris and Cane fell to their knees and begged forgiveness, accepting their punishment.

As for the old king, Queen Vorgell changed into a goldfinch each afternoon and sang to him, until he passed into the Otherworld. The brothers married her sisters and supported their brother, becoming wise counselors, having seen the error of their ways.

Xena listened quietly, then yawned and mumbled, "I would have said to the king, 'off with their heads!'" I started laughing for the first time that day, imagining Xena swinging her sword wildly, clutched in tiny bird feet. "What?" Xena queried sleepily.

"Oh, nothing," I said, pulling Xena's arm around me more tightly.

"Gabrielle," Xena's voice rumbled against my neck, "you are like Gil, trusting, wise and caring about others, even if you get hurt in the process. Thanks for coming back for me."

I turned around to face Xena. "I had to, Xena, you are my friend and I care for you. You have saved my hide more times than I care to admit, you taught me to do what is best for others."

Xena smiled, then laid on her back, allowing me to snuggle up. She fell asleep promptly, a rare softness settling over her features. I watched the rise and fall of her chest for what seemed like a long time, glad for the security of her arms around me, the surprising softness of her shoulder under my head. I yawned, then raised up and kissed her on the cheek, then laid back down to dreaming of goldfinches, mares, and of a tender warrior princess, who beckoned me with open arms and a flashing smile...

The End

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