You came, I was alone
I should have known
You were temptation
You smiled, luring me on
My heart was gone
And you were temptation
“Temptation” Written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, 1933
sung by Bing Crosby in the movie “Going Hollywood”
One fat, round drop of water began its slow descent from the thatched roof to the scarred table below. As if in slow motion, the drop depressed itself against the wood, forming a crater, then rising in a myriad of shards that glistened in the firelight. The microscopic drops lifted themselves from the confines of adherence and rose in a graceful arc only to land again, drawn in by gravity a moment later.
Gabrielle glared balefully at the dripping roof, then at the drops of water, which lay scattered across her arm, hand and the blank vellum scroll in front of her. Sniffing hard, she tried to fight back the sneeze that rocked her body a moment later. Swiping ineffectually at her nose, she grimaced as yet another drop of cold water fell from the roof, this time hitting the one-inch of her neck not protected by her coat. Gabrielle groaned in misery.
She knew Xena had been right to leave her here, to rest and recover from this late winter cold, but she couldn’t help an unreasonable annoyance at the warrior from manifesting. Why did she have to stay here, like a child? She thought they were long past this kind of thing. Gabrielle wiped her eyes, and blew her nose again.
It had been even more miserable than this when the woman had come, looking for Xena. Cold, bitter cold, and windy. The inn had been poor protection against the draft, but it was better than being outside. Xena and Gabrielle had huddled close to the fire, drinking warmed wine and laughing about how they were not as young, or resilient, as they used to be.
When the door had opened, everyone’s first reaction had been irritation. Couldn’t this person see that they wanted to be warm? And what were they doing out on such a cold night anyway? But the door had slammed shut and a heavily muffled figure had stepped in, and proceeded directly towards them. Gabrielle had slid one hand onto Xena’s wrist, feeling the warrior tensing just slightly. Her other hand had run casually down to her own boot and freed the sai from its sheath.
The woman’s story had been touching, poignant, and there was no doubt that they would go. The woman had looked shocked, relieved and thankful. They had made plans to leave the next morning.
The next had morning started off badly. Gabrielle had woken with a stuffed head, a slight cough and rheumy eyes. Xena had taken one look at her and forbidden her to ride to Moira’s village. Gabrielle hadn’t even put up a decent argument. Instead, she had pulled the blankets over herself, and huddling miserably had tried to go back to sleep.
Xena had ridden off with Moira, promising to return within the week.
That was two days ago. Now the weather was no longer quite as cold, but the warm air brought with it the rain, and Gabrielle was no better than before. The cold lingered, and she was afraid it might enter her lungs. To take her mind from her predicament, Gabrielle had pulled her scrolls and writing implements from the saddlebag, and attempted to recount some of their recent adventures.
But the scroll remained blank. Gabrielle looked down at her hand that held the quill firmly over the vellum, but no words came. Her spirits, downcast and sodden, now plummeted towards something that looked very like depression. She closed her eyes and sighed.
“There was a time,” she commented to herself, “when I could barely keep the words from spilling out onto the scroll.” Apparently becoming a fighter dulled that skill, or maybe it was just the cold in her head, or the weather. She let the quill drop onto the table.
Stretching, she turned towards the fire and let its heat sooth her reddened and swollen face. She was brooding and she knew it. In her youth the life of a wandering bard had seemed glamorous beyond compare. Then the intensity that was Xena had changed her life completely. Now she wondered if she would ever tell a story again. Being a hero and being a bard just didn’t really go together, did they? Bards were supposed to follow heroes and sing about them, not fight at their side.
The gust of wet wind that accompanied the door’s opening sent Gabrielle into a fit, half sneezing, half shivering. She never even looked up at the new guest. The regulars all did however, and one perceptive soul blew a long low whistle that pricked up every male’s ears in the place.
After wiping her eyes and nose, Gabrielle followed the gaze of every person in the tavern. The newcomer stood in the middle of the room, her clothing aflame in the light of the fire and lamps. Her dark eyes were visible above the scarlet wrap around her neck. Gabrielle watched, as the petite figure divested herself of her hat and its covering scarf. Long dark hair flowed richly down her back in an endless stream, until it nearly reached the ground. The woman shook her river of hair, which rippled, then settled into its banks. Not a word was uttered in the inn.
The stranger walked up to the bar, pulling off layers of woven silk as she moved. Her voice was soft and sweet, and the innkeeper was glad to have something hot to offer her to eat. She thanked him, but asked for hot water only, in a richly accented voice. She turned and her eyes swept the room. Not one face was spared, not one rude remark or gesture uttered. This woman was clearly special.
When the dark eyes reached Gabrielle’s face they paused. A moment of…what? Recognition, maybe, passed between them. Another sneeze interrupted the moment. A second sneeze followed. Gabrielle forgot the woman, her body racked with sneezing.
When the woman spoke again, it was from directly behind the miserable bard. Gabrielle jumped, knocking her knee against the table. She yelped, and nearly kicked the woman in recoil from the pain. The woman hopped back, so delicately and gracefully that not one drop spilled from the two cups she held.
Smiling down at the quietly swearing bard, the woman held out one cup and gestured for Gabrielle to take it. Gabrielle apologized and reached to take the full cup from the woman’s hands.
“I hope you do not think me rude, but I can see you are unwell. I think this might clear your head.” The rich voice was soothing, Gabrielle found herself unaccountably wanting to hear more of it. She gestured to the bench and moved over to make room for the woman.
Gabrielle smiled sincerely. “I can’t imagine being opposed to that.” She sipped the tea, glanced at her benefactor then asked quietly. “You’re from India?”
The woman’s one eyebrow rose in a gesture remarkably similar to Xena’s. “You know India?”
“I…I spent some time there recently.” Gabrielle smiled. I’m becoming a master of the understatement, she thought to herself. “My friend and I were there.”
“Yes, yes, I can see that you were.” The woman’s eyes were dark and deep and Gabrielle felt herself drawn to them. “You have been touched by the Gods.”
The smile fled from Gabrielle’s face. “How can…can you see…?”
The woman reached out to touch Gabrielle’s hand. “I am sorry.” She spoke sincerely, her smile warm and friendly. “I didn’t mean to open any old wounds. I can see their mark on you…and the mark of the Mendhi.” Her fingers began to trace a path on Gabrielle’s hand. Though the actual Mendhi was long gone, Gabrielle could see that the woman’s movements correctly formed the symbols. She felt her hand become warm, then a glow arose from the palm. The patterns, now months gone, were there, shining as they had done when she and Xena had first applied them.
Gabrielle felt her mouth open and she shut it quickly. Looking around, she saw no one else had noticed the phenomenon.
The woman shook her head. “They cannot see it. Only you and I.”
Gabrielle found her voice at last. “Who are you?”
The woman laughed a little and looked embarrassed. “Oh! I’m am very sorry! I am being terribly rude. My name is Mara.”
Gabrielle smiled uncertainly. “I’m Gabrielle.”
They drank their tea in companionable silence.
” A storyteller?” Gabrielle asked in surprise. “You’re a bard?”
Mara raised her eyebrow again in that familiar gesture. “You find that strange, a woman alone, who tells stories in taverns?”
Gabrielle laughed. She was feeling much better and the heaviness in her heart seemed to be lifting, as well. “No, not at all! I…was…a bard once.”
“Was?” Mara left the question hanging. Gabrielle blushed and turned away. She clenched her fist, feeling the muscles of her arm contract. A good feeling, knowing that she was competent to handle whatever the harsh world could throw at her.
“I see.” Mara’s voice was carefully uninflected. “You travel with a powerful woman.”
Gabrielle met Mara’s gaze. “Xena is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Even if you have had to lose your dream?”
Gabrielle paused. “If I lose it, then it was only a dream.” She spoke carefully. “If it is real, then I can never lose it.” She smiled at the stranger, whose eyes never wavered from her own.
Gabrielle felt herself being drawn into those eyes…it was an oddly familiar sensation, but she couldn’t place it. Shaking herself slightly, she looked away.
“Would you like to hear a story?” Mara asked at last.
“Very much.” Gabrielle settled herself in the corner, and closed her eyes to listen to the rich, soft voice that began to weave a tapestry of words.
Mara began a tale, a long tale, one of the greatest epics that her country had ever known. She told of the origin of the five Panduva brothers, their father, and mother, and uncles, of the war that would shake the foundations of the earth. She told of wise Yudishtara, brave Arjuna, strong Bhima, and the heavenly twins Nakula and Sahadeva.
Time passed in a time and place not of this world. Gabrielle was surrounded by images, emotions, words. This was what storytelling was supposed to be. When Mara’s voice faded away, Gabrielle opened her eyes. Tears moistened the corners of her eyes and she stared at Mara with undisguised wonder.
“That was amazing! Where did you learn to tell a story like that?” she shook her head, unwilling to be released from the spell Mara had woven.
The woman smiled a shy smile. “I have been blessed.”
Gabrielle looked around, noting that they now sat alone in the room.
Mara followed her gaze. “It is very late. They have all gone to their homes, or their beds. And now so should you. You are still not entirely well.” A slim, dark hand was laid on Gabrielle’s. Gabrielle could feel Mara’s warmth and she squeezed the hand with her own.
“Thank you.” She paused. “You will share a room with me, won’t you? It’s late, and you haven’t even had time to make arrangements…”
The two women rose, and hand in hand, they left the main room.
Gabrielle slept deeply that night dreaming of Princes and armies, and Gods that were so different from those she knew. Throughout the dream, she could hear a voice singing to her softly, singing of travel, of tales of wonder, of the joys of creating, of India.
When she awoke, Gabrielle was alone. A momentary pang of concern shot through her…had something happened to Mara? But as she rolled over, she could feel the warmth of the blankets, and knew the other woman had just left. Gabrielle rolled over and brought one blanket up to her face. A slight scent of incense wafted from the cloth. She breathed it in, surprised by her actions.
She dressed, and noted with pleasure that she no longer felt as if a herd of cattle lived in her head. She breathed through her nose, well, at least the one nostril and laughed a little, catching herself in a slight cough. Okay, not 100% yet, but better.
Mara entered the room, already dressed, with her hair wrapped in a towel. She smiled at Gabrielle, and proceeded to dry the incredible mass of hair. Gabrielle felt herself inextricably drawn to the woman.
“Let me help.” Gabrielle pressed Mara down upon a stool. She took a brush and slowly, carefully, began to brush Mara’s hair, until it began to shine with a soft glow. Gabrielle found herself letting it run through her fingers, as her hand followed the brush. She could see Mara’s eyes were closed, her breathing even and slow. Gabrielle reached for a lock that had escaped her grasp, and now lay across Mara’s cheek. Her fingertips brushed the dark cheek and Mara’s lips parted with a soft sigh. Gabrielle blushed, but said nothing.
Some time later, Mara’s hair was dry, and lay in a single thick braid along her back. The two women entered the inn’s main room, ordered breakfast and set themselves at the table they had occupied the night before.
After they ate, Mara took Gabrielle’s hand and asked, “Would you like to hear more of the story?”
Gabrielle could not contain her obvious pleasure at the offer. The next few hours passed swiftly, as she heard of the wife of the Panduva, beautiful Draupadi, of her cleverness and nobility. And as she listened to Mara’s voice, Gabrielle found herself again feeling a sensation that was so familiar, yet…with a start she realized what she had been sensing. Listening to Mara speak, watching this consummate artist, had affected her with the same sensation that she had felt the first time she had watched Xena fight. Excitement, envy, attraction…and yes, desire. Gabrielle’s eyes fixed on Mara’s, and the woman met them. Her voice did not stop as she spoke of the Kauravas, and their envy of all that the Panduva owned, of the dice game, and the exiles of the Panduva.
Mara’s voice filled Gabrielle with a longing to revisit India, to travel the land with this woman, to tell her own tales of brave heroes and whimsical Gods. Her life with Xena seemed remote now, almost like a dream. Reality was this woman’s voice and the stories she wove, wove exclusively for her.
The rain had stopped, the night air was warm. Mara and Gabrielle sat outside the inn, watching the stars, comparing stories of the constellations they knew by different names.
Silence fell, but they reveled in it, knowing that what they had to say to each other could wait. They let the silence grow and fill them.
At last Mara broke the silence. “Why have you stopped telling stories?”
Gabrielle raised a hand in a gesture that bespoke ambiguity. “I’m not sure. I tell Xena stories, of course, but she’s always enjoyed action more. It’s like they’ve dried up…like a well in a drought.”
The silence fell again, now like a curtain that lay between them. Gabrielle felt a strong desire to part the curtain, to join Mara in her quest. Xena had left, and may never come back. When would the rumor of her death or capture come to Gabrielle? Why should she be forced to wait? There was an entire world that had never heard her stories. Gabrielle was filled with an urge to tell tales, to reclaim her original dream. She looked down at the weapons in her boots with distaste. When had she become just another warrior, in a world filled with them?
Mara’s voice was quiet, but she took up her tale once again, telling of the great Battle between the Kaurava and the Panduva, of the deeds of the nobles and the Gods. But she stopped, just at the cusp of the battle. The she told of Arjuna’s crisis, and the lesson that Krishna taught him on the battlefield, as he faced his fate.
Mara paused. “Arjuna accepted who he was, because he needed to be just exactly that person to fulfill his dharma.” She took Gabrielle’s hand in her own.
“Maybe I just don’t know which of my selves to accept.” Gabrielle turned to Mara. The sat like that, watching each other in the dim light, as the stars wheeled above them.
“Which do you want to be?”
Gabrielle sighed. How easy it would be to try once again, to put the sai aside…to take up the scroll.
That night Gabrielle dreamed of the stars, and the Gods and heroes and animals in them, who all cried out for her to tell them who they were.
The next morning found Gabrielle awake long before Mara. She dressed in the dark, pulling herself reluctantly away from the beautiful woman. Mara had begun to fill Gabrielle’s thoughts. Her words, her voice, even her face and hands had taken over in her mind.
Gabrielle sat glumly at their table. Mara would leave today…the weather was fine, there was no reason for her not to go. And Xena would return soon. She knew she should stay here and wait for Xena, but the temptation to go with Mara was a siren song that filled her like a delicious poison.
A soft song, sultry and warm filled the spaces in the inn. A beautiful voice humming, then singing words in a language she did not know. The words shaped themselves into suggestions, enticing her to follow it. Gabrielle rose and left the inn, following the sound inexorably. Gabrielle slowed her pace – something was terribly, terribly wrong.
At the stable, she found Mara packing her saddlebags and singing the melody. Wordless again, it still drew Gabrielle towards her. Mara turned and smiled at her. Gabrielle was filled with warmth as if the sun itself had dawned.
“Today we leave.” Mara spoke. It was not a question. Gabrielle felt herself nod, but her brows drew together in consternation. Why was she acting like this? Wasn’t she supposed to wait for…wait for…someone…
Mara’s hand brushed Gabrielle’s cheek, then forehead. “You are well again. I’m glad.”
Gabrielle felt her heart soar. Mara’s gladness seemed to be the only important thing there was in the world.
“Go pack your things, and we can leave this morning.” Gabrielle nodded again, and turned. They would be going, they would travel together, and she would tell tales, and be a bard, once again!
Her steps lightened, then sped up, then lengthened, until she flew. Gabrielle ran to her room, determined to pack as quickly as possible. She knew there was something she was forgetting, but she was sure it would come to her in a moment. Clothes were folded, her writing supplies collected, all stowed safely in her bags.
She picked up a few odds and ends, then at last ran her eyes over the room. In the corner one scroll lay on the floor. It looked as if it had been opened, then thrown away in disgust. She walked over to it, dusted it off, and rolled it neatly. As she was about to pack it, she picked it up once again, then opened it.
She began to read a story about a young girl, who had dreamed of being a bard. And whose village had been attacked. A great warrior woman came into her life and completely changed it…
“Xena!” Gabrielle gasped the name. She turned to find Mara standing in the doorway. Her face was placid, but her eyes burned.
“Xena is not coming back.” Mara said.
“I have to wait here…” Gabrielle voice was thick, she seemed to be losing her powers to concentrate.
“She will not let you tell stories. Isn’t that what you really want?” Mara’s rich voice filled Gabrielle’s mind, casting a net over her.
“I want…” she stumbled over the words, her mind racing to find a way to fight back. “I want…I want to…tell you…a story.” Gabrielle gasped, forcing the air through her mouth to shape the words.
The pressure on her mind eased. “A story?” Mara looked at her, intrigued at the prospect.
She caught Gabrielle’s eyes, then smiled. No wolfish grin, this smile was genuine, pleasant and happy. It filled Gabrielle with joy. “Alright. Tell me a story.” Gabrielle fought off the anguish of displeasing this lovely woman.
Gabrielle thought a moment, then she remembered a story that she had been told while she was in India. In a single lucid moment, she recognized just whom she was talking to. And at last, she knew what terrible danger she was in.
“There was once a Prince. He lived in a world sheltered from the misery and sorrow of life. One day, he traveled out into the city, and was unfortunate enough to see and old man, and a sick man and a dead man. He had never known of these things and they affected him profoundly. He realized that his life was a sham, and so he left his life to find the truth of the world.” Gabrielle paused. Mara’s eyes were narrowed slightly, but she had not moved.
“The Prince joined the holy men who fasted, in order to become enlightened, but he found no enlightenment among them. He left them and began to work as a humble laborer, ferrying people across a river. He married and fathered children for the second time in his life, and still, he was no closer to understanding.
One day, this man sat under a tree and in a flash, he understood. In that moment he was enlightened. And in that moment, the God of Temptation assailed him, testing his resolve with offers of power, and fine women, and joy, and many other illusory things. But the man remained resolved and firm, until the God of Temptation challenged the man.
“Who do you think you are?” He asked. “By what right do you sit there on the earth in that place?”
And the man, not even answering, simply touched the earth, whereupon the Earth herself rose up and spoke. “I give this man the right to sit there.” She said.
And the God of Temptation ranted and railed, because he had lost. The man remained enlightened.”
Gabrielle paused again, looked Mara in the eyes. Her voice was stronger now and her mind, at last, was completely unclouded.
“The name of the man was Gautama, and he is known, in your land as the Buddha.” Gabrielle could see Mara flinch as she spoke the name. “And the name of the defeated God of Temptation was…is…Kama-Mara.”
Mara’s eyes widened, then narrowed.
“I am not enlightened, but I recognize you now. And I know enough to reject you!” Gabrielle shouted. She pulled her sai out of her boot sheaths and turning them over, prepared to throw them. But Mara, her mouth drawn back in a grimace, was already fading out.
“Then you have chosen Gabrielle. Enjoy your dharma, as Xena enjoys her fate.” With a last, rich laugh, Mara faded away, as if she had never existed.
Exhausted Gabrielle dropped to the ground.
Hoofbeats made Gabrielle look up from her scroll. She stretched her cramped hand and noticed that the light had changed. She had been sitting there writing for several hours. She took a long drink from her cup, stretched again and smiled as the door opened. Xena walked in, scanned the room and smiled broadly as she caught the bard’s eye.
“Writing?” Xena gestured to the scroll.
Gabrielle shrugged. “I have a few story ideas I wanted to work on.”
“That’s great!” the warrior smiled happily down at her companion. “Will you tell me? You know I love your stories.”
Gabrielle grinned up at Xena. “Sure.” She scooted over and placed the cup in front of the warrior. “Have a drink. You must be exhausted.”
It was Xena’s turn to shrug. “I took it easy on the way back. How about you? Your cold seems to be gone.” She reached out to place a hand on Gabrielle’s cheek. Gabrielle leaned into the hand slightly, then brushed it away.
“Good. So…,” Xena paused, looking at the cup in front of her, “anything interesting happen while I was gone?”
Gabrielle laughed. “Not much…although I was tempted to leave.”
Xena laughed. “Yeah, I’m sorry I took so long.” Her eyes darkened a bit, but the smile never left her face. “It was, well, I’ll tell you later. Let’s just say Moira was not who she said she was.”
Gabrielle lifted an eyebrow, but Xena didn’t rise to the bait. The warrior gestured at the scrolls once again. “So, what are these story ideas?”
Gabrielle smiled. “Well, I was thinking, what if I had waited here, and some god decided to…” the bard continued, watching the looks on Xena’s face as she recounted her last few days.
This was going to make a great story.
Notes: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to MCA/Universal who are benevolent and generous in allowing them to use them. Mara, and the heroes of the Mahabharata, and the Buddha belong to the people of India and whoever else believe in them. I have certainly done them a disservice by making them fictitious characters and I hope no one will think less of me for doing so. The version of the Buddha’s life I have chosen is roughly based on Herman Hesse’s Siddartha and is not meant to be comprehensive or correct. Again, I mean no offense to anyone. If you have not read this novel, or any of the Mahabharata, I highly recommend you do so. Xena can’t hold a candle to these exceptional stories.
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