by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
They had traveled four days without so much as a sight of the man. Xena was becoming anxious.
There was a village a few miles down the road. Xena headed for it - hoping to pick up a few snippets about the man she saw engulfed in lightning a few days earlier. He had to have headed this way. There were no other trails out of the wood.
As they drew closer to the village Argo became increasingly skittish.
"Argo, clam down. I told you that I would get you some water. Be patient."
But even Xena's calming voice could not quiet her nerves. Argo knew what they were approaching. The immortals were near. Argo hated immortals.
Gabrielle sniffed the air as they continued along the path. "I smell sausage," she remarked. "Smoked sausage, I think." She sniffed again. "Definitely smoked sausage. Maybe someone's having a picnic?"
"I don't think we were invited," Xena spat as she caught sight of a man running wildly through the woods. She stopped dead in front of him and caught him by the arm as he tried to run past.
"Destroyed! Destroyed!" he cried out. His eyes were wild like a madman's, and his body quivered as he struggled to free himself from the warrior woman's grip.
"Calm down!" she ordered, but the man was petrified. His eyes glazed over as he spoke. Gabrielle stepped back a pace as the lunatic writhed in Xena's clutch. "Tell me what happened," Xena said calmly. She knew this look. She had seen it once before - in Callistro's village when her men...
"What has been destroyed?" Xena asked. She was clearly impatient, but tried to maintain her composure. She stared deeply into the man's crazed eyes, and he began to breath normally once more. Gabrielle watched in awe as her friend literally seemed to intimidate the man into submission.
"Our village!" he yelped, sounding now at least half-sane. "Fires of Hades!"
"Fire?" Gabrielle asked, confused by this man's incoherency. That wasn't
sausage she smelled after all. "This is not good."
But before Gabrielle could comment further Xena hopped on Argo and rode off in the direction of the ever-rising black smoke. They heard Xena's battle cry as Argo galloped through the woods.
Gabrielle glanced at the madman. He now seemed merely befuddled. There was nothing she could do to help him, Gabrielle reasoned. And so she attempted to follow Xena's path through the woods. It would take her at least three times as long to reach the village, as she was on foot.
"One of these days," Gabrielle remarked aloud, "I'm going to have to get a horse."
When Xena arrived in the village she found nothing but devastation. The invaders had fled, leaving little but ashes and wailing children. In the midst of all this destruction was one man - the man she had witnessed being consumed by lightning. God or no, he would pay for the crimes he committed against these innocents.
"Warlord!" Xena cried, madly dashing towards the man, her sword extended high over her head.
All Axer saw though were the woman's gleaming white teeth. //Pretty clean teeth!// he thought. Instinctively he reached for his sword, but it wasn't there. "Damn!" he cried.
He hated the thought of fleeing from such a young mortal -- he could easily have been five times her age -- but he knew that her sword would sever his head just as easily as if she were his equal. Quickly he jumped to his feet and raced towards the village wall.
Xena gained momentum and sprung off her heels, flipping twice through the air before she landed square in front of the villain.
"Going somewhere?" she said smartly. She pointed the sword at his neck.
Axer's eyes were full of panic. He couldn't believe she had taken the advantage. Never in all his travels had he seen such a woman. She may not have been an immortal, but she certainly was formidable.
"Is this the way they behave in your village?" the woman began, pressing the blade against his neck. Axer noted that he was unarmed. Certainly she would not harm an unarmed man?
The woman merely smirked. Axer stepped back a pace.
"Ransack an entire community," she continued, slicing the mighty sword through the air once for effect. He noted how she held the hilt. She was an experienced swordsman he noticed.
"Burn their homes to the ground..." another dramatic slice. Axer began to feel queasy. It was not from fear, he reassured himself, but from the blow he received earlier. It might have killed a mere mortal.
"Slaughter their men..." slice again.
"Rape their women..." slice, slice.
Each time the blade came closer to his neck. He could feel the air as it passed his head. Axer would have spoken, would have defended himself, would have done something. But the crack to the head he received hours earlier was taking its toll. He was more than a little dizzy. His head throbbed so that he could barely think in his own language, much less speak someone else's.
And besides, when he came to he had no idea that he would be faced with such a beautiful woman who's breasts were perhaps just as deadly as her sword.
"I...I..." he began, but the words could not leave his throat.
"Zeus himself may bless you," the woman added fearlessly, "but no one - god or man - can save you now." And with that she raised the sword.
Without a thought, Axer ducked the blade. The response was purely automatic. He reflexes were sharp, even if his mind was still a little foggy. And before he knew it his feet had kicked in, and raced him to the opposite end of the village. He had never been one to flee from a fight, but this woman was more than he could comprehend. And besides, that round disk that she pulled from her belt looked rather sharp.
Gabrielle couldn't believe here eyes. Xena was reaching for her chakram.
Her first impulse was to yell "Duck!" But the words got caught in her throat. She could not betray her friend, even though she was certain that Xena would regret her actions. She couldn't possibly mean to kill this man.
He was unarmed, by the gods!
"Xena!" she inadvertently snapped. But Xena was not listening.
The interruption was enough to alert the young immortal, however. He stretched his neck and glared at the Warrior Princess. Axer saw the disk in Xena's hand, and it took him but a moment to realize the woman's intent. She intended to sever his head with that round killing thing. He watched as
she drew back her arm, but before the disk left her fingers Axer was off like a flash.
"Gabrielle," Xena scolded her. "What do you think you're doing?"
Gabrielle raised her head from the bushes. She stuck herself right out on to the path. The fleeing immortal could not divert his course. He tripped over the blond in the bush, nearly landing on top of her. As he hurried to his feet for just one moment their eyes met.
"So young," one of them thought.
"So beautiful," thought the other.
The glance lasted but a second. Yet for Gabrielle and Axer it seemed an eternity. At that moment Gabrielle knew that she had glanced into the young man's soul. And to her surprise Xena's judgment was incorrect. This was not a vile man, a warlord, a killer, an evil god in disguise. This was a kindred soul. This man was something more, something she could not explain.
This man was... he was... he was gone.
"Where did he go?" Gabrielle found herself asking the air, for Xena too had fled the scene. Gabrielle heard the unmistakable battle cry ring hollow in her ears. In a few moments it would all be over. Xena would apprehend the man, engage him in a swift, sound battle, and in seconds his life would be over. She was so certain that this was how it would transpire, and for a moment she mourned the young man's death.
For this reason it gave her an even greater jolt to see Xena stomp back towards Argo, her ever- faithful horse, who had waited at the side of the path. Argo acknowledged her owner as she snatched the reins and tugged the horse along. It was so unlike her mistress to pout. Something was definitely wrong. For just as certain that Gabrielle was that Xena had flipped, Argo was just as certain that she had not. She knew that her mistress would never return to her warlord ways. Now, with the way she yanked on the reins, not so certain. Could the blond one have been right?
"Argo!" Xena snapped. But the horse would not move. She would never obey one with such a blood-lust. And for what - some stupid immortal whom she could never hope to kill in the first place? Humans were very stupid animals at times, but usually not Xena. This was not like her. Something was definitely very wrong.
Xena blanched as she watched Argo's next move. The horse backed away, pulling her reins from Xena's hands, and headed straight towards Gabrielle. She would actually have Gabrielle lead her rather than her own mistress.
The horse looked back, and for a moment Xena thought she heard Argo speak.
She could have sworn that Argo had chastised her. "Warlord," the horse spat. There was nothing worse she could have said to her owner. Xena looked twice at Argo and the horse nodded. Xena felt Argo's scorn. Had it really come to this - she wondered? Yes, she supposed it had.
"What was I thinking?" Xena said aloud. "I nearly killed that man."
"If it makes you feel any better - I don't think you'd have done it," Gabrielle reassured her.
Xena turned away, not certain whether or not to believe her. Something strange had come over her as she witnessed that lightning storm. She thought perhaps that she had imagined it - that the lightning had not gone straight through him - into him. Yet she could not deny her eyes. That man in the village, the one who cowered when she raised her chakram was indeed the same man who had received the lightning.
So why was she so intent on killing him? And like a revelation the answer came. Ares. He had to be behind this.
"Ares?" Gabrielle asked. "Are you certain? I hoped that we wouldn't see him for some time."
"One way or another he's behind this," Xena said, mostly to reassure herself. She couldn't bear to think that her dark side would reemerge otherwise. "He's not going to get away with it," she added. "Not again."
Gabrielle turned to her, and handed her Argo's reins. The horse would go with her now. Xena was back to her old self.
"This doesn't change anything, Gabrielle." Xena was resolute. "We still have to find him. I'm not so certain he didn't have something to do with the attack on the village."
"Maybe you're wrong about him," Gabrielle added cautiously. "It wouldn't be the first time." Xena shot Gabrielle a look as if to say "leave it alone."
But Gabrielle proceeded to press the issue. "I saw something in him Xena, something in his eyes. He's no warlord."
"And since when are you the expert on warlords?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Argo turned her head to Gabrielle. This she wanted to hear.
"I may not be an expert on warlords," the younger woman continued without missing a beat, "but there's -"
"Something different about him," they said together. Gabrielle was hurt. She had never known Xena to mock her.
"I think perhaps you ought to start thinking with your head and not your heart, Gabrielle." Xena turned to her friend. "Listen, a beautiful face does not necessarily reflect a beautiful soul. I would have thought you'd learned that by now."
"Give me some credit!" Gabrielle snapped. "You never trust me."
"It's not a matter of trust..."
They had finally reached a stream. Argo was so thankful for a drink of water that she shut the women's conversation from her mind. It seemed as though they forgot about her when they argued. Didn't anyone ever stop to think "maybe the horse needs a drink?" No, of course not. No one ever considered the horse. Argo bent down to take a sip, and found herself being jerked along. She made a noise to let Xena know that she was thirsty, but Xena was not listening. She was too busy apologizing to her human friend.
"You're right Gabrielle, it was insensitive. You are perfectly capable of protecting yourself. And I do trust you. It's just that this man-"
"Why do you hate him?" Gabrielle demanded.
"He's a warlord," Xena said, gritting her teeth, and twisting her lip in that way that only Xena could.
Gabrielle had tried to imitate that look once, when she was facing a centaur who's cheese she had stolen. (It didn't seem to belong to anyone - it was just sitting there on a stump in the middle of the woods. Who knew centaurs ate cheese?) The centaur raised his front hooves to her, and Gabrielle sneered. The look made the centaur laugh so hard that he lost his balance, and Gabrielle slipped away with the cheese. It was not her proudest moment, but what was a girl to do when she was hungry and faced with such a tempting block of cheese.
Gabrielle turned her gaze once more to her mentor. Xena's countenance was one of cold determination, and Gabrielle knew that somehow this had become personal. But why? They had faced warlords before, and Xena was always victorious over them. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps this time Xena was not so certain that she could best the man.
"You're afraid of him," Gabrielle let her thoughts slip out across her tongue. Immediately she wished she could take it back. But the damage was done. Xena shot her the most vile look. It was like a lance through Gabrielle's heart.
Xena said nothing, but snapped her head back into position. Gabrielle knew then that it would be a silent journey. Xena was so mad that she wouldn't even talk to her. Why had she said it? What was she stupid? Everyone knew that Xena was afraid of nothing. There had to be something more to it...didn't there?
Xena continued along the path - brooding. Perhaps Gabrielle was correct after all. Sometimes a slight bit of wisdom did cross that fluffy blond mind. Still, she shouldn't have said it. If it was fear that was causing her to be so apprehensive then she did not want to know it. She couldn't understand it. How had he escaped her to easily? No man possessed such speed. No man except for Hermes perhaps. But Xena knew Hermes. And that vile man was definitely no Hermes.
Xena stopped in her tracks. There was something different in the air - she could feel it. He had been here. But how did she know? What was this sense of him that she possessed?
"He's doubled back," Xena said quickly. She turned on her heels and bolted back towards the village. Argo huffed a little at the interruption. She knew there was another stream not 50 yards away. Oh well... whatever Xena wants...
Gabrielle snuck another glance at Xena as she struggled to keep pace. This
time she had the good sense not to say what she was thinking. This was quite difficult for Gabrielle, for she had a habit of always speaking her mind. But now there was a different look in Xena's eyes. She was out for blood. Some part of her, something that she kept tucked deep inside had resurfaced. Gabrielle had never seen her friend this way, not even when Ares had duped her into becoming his warlord again. Then she could be reached at least. But not now. Xena was too far gone, and Gabrielle did not like it.
When they returned to the village they learned that Axer had indeed returned. To Xena's surprise the villagers welcomed him. Was this out of fear, she wondered. Why else would they permit a killer to remain in their midst.
"Perhaps he's not a killer," Gabrielle offered.
"Then why did he run?"
"You drew your sword against him," the younger woman reasoned.
Xena decided to set up camp outside the village to observe the stranger.
She still had a bad feeling about him. Were it not for Gabrielle's insistence she would have confronted the man, stared him down, and drawn him into the ring again. But Xena was trying ever so hard to learn to trust Gabrielle. It was true, she was no longer the defenseless girl - the tag-along. Still, she did not possess the instincts of a warrior.
For Gabrielle's part she had no idea what led her to plead the man's case. Perhaps she somehow thought that Xena needed to distance herself from this man. Warrior, sorcerer, god - it did not matter. He could spell trouble for Xena. She needed to observe him - but from a distance. That was Gabrielle's suggestion. Little did Xena know but this time it was she -Gabrielle - who was the protector.
Gabrielle watched Axer from afar, working at the forge. It was the second day that he had worked there. For the first day, he had processed some ore in the smelter, and today, he was beginning to work the iron. She knew something about metalwork, and knew that the only way he could have progressed this far was if he was a master at smithing. He had to be one. The other thing that helped was that he worked all through the night.
Xena had stubbornly watched him all night from the cover of the forest, refusing to sleep if Axer refused to. Eventually, she spent half her time dozing, which was why she eventually had Gabrielle watch him. After a short hour of rest, she returned.
"He's still working at the forge," whispered Gabrielle to Xena, not moving her eyes from him. "The villagers have left him alone." She did look at Xena then, and her look was unmistakable. It was a plead to leave him alone.
That was the one look that Xena didn't like. "They're leaving him alone because they fear him."
"You didn't see the old woman give him a pan of fresh bread and beg him to eat," countered Gabrielle. "I even heard her from here -- you'd even think that she was his own mother, from the way she wailed that he was too thin."
Xena snorted. "That man may be young, but he has the frame of a seasoned warrior. Farmers are too fat anyway!"
This time, an old man came forward and offered him a skin of wine. Axer smiled and paused in his work. He took a few squeezes and went back to work, hammering on the blade.
Gabrielle kept quiet, but Xena could still feel the very waves of protest coming from her student.
Xena noticed something odd, and she nudged Gabrielle. "What is he doing now?" she hissed.
After a few moments, the younger one made a sound of astonishment, "It's absolutely incredible, but it makes sense!"
"What does?!" Xena was ready to strangle her.
"He's hammered the iron into rods, and now he's weaving them together like a rope, and hammering them into a single blade. And those -- those are amendments! He's making something that's much stronger than iron! I've heard of this!"
Xena whistled. Iron was rare enough, coming from the land of the Kushites.
Iron could cleave through armor and shatter weapons. Something stronger than iron had to be metal of the gods. "He must be a god, or a disciple of one! Who else could make such metal?"
"Perhaps he is just a wise man?"
"A wise man of his age? You should know better, Gabrielle!"
Time passed, and by midday, he had finished the pounding and grinding, and now had a battle-ready sword. Only... it wasn't a sword like either one of them had seen. It was a leaf-shaped blade about the length of an arm, with a spear haft the length of an arm. It was like a spear turned into a sword, with part of the shaft chopped off.
"What land do you think he comes from?" asked Gabrielle. "I've never seen a blade like that before."
"It's a blade of the gods, and that's all I need to know."
From then until the middle of the night, the Celt sat in the open ground,
staring at the sky. Four smoky fires rested around him at the four directions, and he chanted in an alien language.
"More sorcery!" swore Xena. "Will there always be magic?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "It doesn't look like sorcery to me. It looks like prayer."
Xena just couldn't be pleased, it seemed.
His only actions other than sitting and chanting were to keep the fires smoking. When midnight came, the smoky fires burst to life. After a moment, all but the southern fire burned out.
The Celt went in that direction with a purpose. Very soon, an exhausted Xena and Gabrielle followed him.
What totally amazed Xena was that while both of them rode horses, the Celt went on foot, and he could still outdistance them and not appear to be tired. He sprinted, running at a deadline through the midst of the forest -- over the deadfall, into the thickets, through the rivers, up the cliffs, and down more. It was inevitable that they would lose him.
"Gods!" she swore.
"I'm surprised we followed him this far." Gabrielle sneezed.
"Silence! He'll hear us!"
"But I thought we lost him!"
Xena glared at Gabrielle.
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