by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
"Ah," the attendant began, gazing appreciatively at the Celt and his fine dress, "not since the Kings of Tara have we had such a distinguished guest. We have waited many ages for your arrival. You are most welcome. Enter."
Xena gritted her teeth as the attendant welcomed the warlord. No matter how much respect he had for religious places, she still did not trust him.
Axer bowed before the man on the steps, for he thought it only seemed proper. In truth he had no idea how to behave in front of the Oracle. He didn't realize that the man before him was merely a guard.
"All-seeing Oracle -" he started. He could not finish his sentence. The warrior woman snickered in his ear. Had she no respect?
"I am not the Oracle," the attendant explained. "And Xena, please - be nice."
Xena was jarred. She was usually the one doing the scolding. But what was more - how could the guard have known of her coming?
"I'm sure you both have many questions," the attendant continued, leading them into the temple. "I assure you, all will be answered. But first - the introductions. Xena this is Axer," he pointed. "Axer... Xena. Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" He smiled.
Noticing the look of apprehension on Xena's face he added, "Don't worry, daughter, all will be revealed... when the time is right."
The attendant then turned his back on the warriors, something he might not have done were he a younger man. But he knew that neither would take advantage of him in that position. After tending the Oracle for all these years little jolted him. He had come to understand and know in a way that only one so familiar with the Oracle would understand.
"I understand this Oracle is all-seeing and all-knowing," Axer tried to pry some information from the elderly attendant. "I would like to see this wizard."
"Nobody gets in to see the wizard!" the attendant snapped. The he laughed to himself. "Sorry, just a little joke the Oracle and I have. You will understand it though, Axer... in a few thousand years." He paused, then added, "that is to say, if you live that long."
The attendant laughed heartily, as Xena whispered to Axer, "This guy has a strange sense of humor."
Axer smiled crookedly. In a way, it made him feel better because he knew that his secret was safe among those who counted. Xena had no idea what he truly was, even though she had her suspicions that he wasn't quite normal.
The attendant asked Axer to sit down while Xena was led away to the Oracle. Someone sat down next to him. He was about the same height as Axer, and had a very pudgy appearance and a neatly-trimmed white beard. He was also very talkative, which didn't really annoy Axer as much as it did make him wonder if this man was touched by some god of loquaciousness.
"You know," the man was saying, "I *really* think that you should check out the land near Elysius! It's *rich* in soil, and has *lots* of water!"
Axer snorted, "Rich soil and water! You must think I'm a farmer!"
"Why, yes! You have a certain earthiness about you!" the man talked even more rapidly now, almost as if he were trying to correct a mistake.
"Farming is for women!" he scowled. "I am a warrior, and have nothing to do with gathering vegetables! It's this land that must make men effeminate! The hot climate and the easy reach of food and water must be that which softens them!"
That shut the talkative one up, because it finally dawned on him that this was not only a barbarian, but also a powerful one. The fact that he was young didn't matter quite so much as it once did. But a few moments later, that realization faded, and he tried selling him something else...
Xena faced the Oracle. "This is my question: where and when can I meet this warlord in battle at the soonest?"
The Oracle breathed in the mists and spoke:
THE WARLORD YOU SEEK IS AN IMMORTAL. NOTHING MAY KILL HIM, THOUGH HE MAY SEEM TO DIE. NEITHER ARROWS, NOR CLUBS, NOR AXES, NOR FIRE WILL STOP HIM FOR MORE THAN THE TIME IT TAKES TO HEAL. HIS NAME IS KELREID, OF A LAND FAR TO THE NORTH, WHERE THE WOLVES ROAM WITHOUT FEAR. HIS FATHER CAST HIM OUT FOR COMING BACK TO THE LAND OF MEN AFTER DYING FAIRLY IN BATTLE, AND HIS MOTHER SPIT IN HIS FACE, ACCUSING HIM OF BEING A DEMON SWAPPED FOR HER OWN SON.
The Oracle was silent now.
"You didn't answer my question!" howled Xena, fighting herself to keep from slaying the Oracle.
The attendant put his hand on her shoulders, "The Oracle has spoken."
"But my question has not been answered! No answer -- no sacrifice!"
The attendant grew angry at this, "It is not for you to say whether the answer has been given or not, for you have not the aftersight to see the wisdom given to you! If you are not given a direct answer, it is because you are not meant to know! The Oracle has spoken!"
He then leaned forward and quickly whispered, "Follow the Celt. Defend the village. You are no longer a warlord, Xena. This will help make amends."
Xena turned to him, a puzzled look on her face. The attendant was no Oracle, but the information he provided seemed far more useful. She wanted to ask him more, but as soon as she opened her mouth to speak the attendant's countenance turned stone-like. He led her away.
Griping, Xena was sent to where Axer sat, visible anger on his face. Xena sighed, some of her anger leaving her, as she knew that she could have suffered a worse fate -- the one she was about to experience.
"Hello..." she started nonchalantly. Axer was silent.
Yes... she knew exactly what Axer went through, but would his upcoming interview with the Oracle be more fruitful than hers? Time would tell.
Axer sank to his knees before the Oracle, now that he knew who was who.
"Humility?" whispered the Oracle in a human voice. It was a young woman.
"Great Mother!" Axer whispered in turn.
"You remember..." her smile was radiant. "It has been a great time since you last saw me -- sight that you remember in your waking mind. You have come to ask me a question?"
"Yes, Mother. What is the nature of the immortal I seek? He is a butcher, and I must know what drives him. Perhaps he is merely ill or troubled.
Perhaps he does not need to die."
The Oracle's face grew troubled, and she no longer spoke as a human:
THERE WILL BE GREAT DESTRUCTION - AN ENTIRE VILLAGE AT THE MERCY OF A RUTHLESS KILLER...
"What about the immortal?" Axer whispered. His voice had barely been audible. Still the all- knowing Oracle answered.
YOU SHALL MEET THIS IMMORTAL AT THE VILLAGE OF NIKLOS THREE DAYS FROM NOW, AT THE SHARP DIVISION BETWEEN DAY AND NIGHT. THERE, YOU WILL HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO KILL HIM.
TIME IS LIKE A TREE, AND BRANCHES SHAPE THE TREE. KEEP IN MIND THAT YOU COULD CHOOSE TO CLIMB EITHER BRANCH.
The otherworldliness was gone, and the young woman gazed at Axer with tears rolling down her face. "Go. I cannot bear for you to see me like this."
He stood with indecision. "Mother --"
A tear fell down Axer's cheek as he spoke in a hoarse voice, "Mother! I'm sorry! I didn't know!"
"It was my wish. If you remember the rest, you must remember that."
Axer turned away, waiting a moment to put himself back together. Another moment erased any sign that he had any inner fragility.
If he looked back at the Oracle, which he didn't, he would have seen that the Oracle no longer looked like his mother.
He was too gripped by his own memories and regrets to look back. Too prideful.
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