by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
"So," Gabrielle began ingratiating herself with the stranger, "Xena says that you're a Celt from the island of silver, and that you've travelled throughout the world. That must be so exciting."
Axer smiled his crooked smile at the young girl. Clearly this was one Greek who appreciated his Celtic charms. Perhaps permitting them to tag along was not such a bad idea after all. But then the leather-clad woman was rather insistent. (Axer could never say no to a woman in an iron bra).
"Yes," he boasted. "It is rather exciting I suppose."
Xena rolled her eyes.
"And dangerous!" he added with a wink in his eye. "You wouldn't believe the adventures I've had."
"Xena's had many adventures too," Gabrielle added quickly. Axer chuckled a little under his breath. The woman had obviously convinced the pretty maiden that she was a warrior of sorts. Certainly she could handle herself with a sword, as could many a farmer's daughter if properly trained. But what could this woman truly know of war or battle?
"She thought you were a warlord," Gabrielle confided, oblivious to the man's snickering and rude gestures towards her mentor. "I told her she was wrong, but do you think she'll listen?" She directed the statement more at Xena than Axer. Xena smiled slyly, but did not turn. She tugged a little harder on Argo's reins. "Come on, girl," she whispered to the horse. There would be no talking to Gabrielle now. She was too impressed by the Celt's journeys to listen to anything else.
"So tell me about the lands you've seen," Gabrielle prodded. "You must meet lots of interesting people, and hear lots of interesting stories."
"Yes," he said, flirting, "but I find the present company most exceptional."
Gabrielle would have blushed if she had seen the glint in his eye when he studied her form. But her attention was drawn away by something on the horizon.
"Berry bushes!" Gabrielle shouted with glee. "Good. I was really starting to get hungry."
"So was I," Axer added, taking Gabrielle by the hand and drawing her fingers to his lips.
Gabrielle withdrew her hand. She had the strangest feeling that this man was not talking about berries or fruits... well, not the same sort that she was referring to anyway.
They made their way to the next village by nightfall. Xena and Gabrielle were taken in by the local tavern owner, an old friend of Salmoneos. Axer found a space to sleep outside of the stables.
"Any friend of Sal's is a friend of mine!" the hairy man wheezed, and patted Xena on the back. His breath smelled of strong drink, and Gabrielle turned her nose from the man. Xena eyed him suspiciously, as he seemed to take note of her measurements.
"Sal?" Xena asked, shaking her head. She then held up her hand. "Never mind! I don't think I want to know."
"Salmoneos doesn't have many friends," Gabrielle whispered. "Especially none so enthusiastic." The women watched as the man passed out a free round of drinks to a group of already inebriated centaurs. One of the half-horsemen leered at Gabrielle.
"Friend of yours?" Xena kidded.
Gabrielle shook her head, and moved closer to Xena's side. The older woman pat her friend on the shoulder to reassure her. This place was nothing Xena hadn't seen before. She knew how to handle herself well enough to care for the both of them.
Xena gazed towards one of the back rooms, and narrowed her eyes. Now there was something she hadn't seen before. She silently cursed the salesman who had referred her to the place. Xena averted Gabrielle's gaze as she caught sight of three young women draped over one very happy young centaur. But Gabrielle managed to see it anyway. Her eyes widened, as Xena tugged her along.
"Did you see..." the words caught in Gabrielle's throat.
"Well," Xena laughed, "I see the cat's finally got your tongue."
Gabrielle gazed back over her shoulder, still disbelieving what she had seen. Her mouth hung open, as Xena led her to their room.
"Don't worry," Xena reassured her through gritted teeth, still recalling Salmoneos' glowing recommendation. "We'll sleep with one eye open."
That night Gabrielle did indeed sleep with one eye open. The slightest sound jarred her from her sleep. Her friend fared a little better. But Xena's dreams were perhaps even more troubling. Hades came to her in her dreams, and asked yet another favor.
"I can't understand it," Hades began, his deep-set eyes showing the slightest notes of irritation. It was not that Hades was entirely emotionless. He merely looked tired all the time, as though he had just awakened from his eternal rest, and only had the energy to complain that he needed five more minutes of rest before rising.
Even in her dreams Xena could not hide her disdain for the god. Why did he have to turn to her - a mortal - to settle matters in the underworld. Xena was beginning to tire of his persistent favor-asking. If she was a little more certain as to her own fate she have been tempted to tell him to "go to blazes." As it was, however, she did not feel as though she had atoned for her sins.
As Hades spoke Xena yawned. She could not repress it. Hades often had that effect on people.
"Just as soon as I grasp him," Hades continued whining, "he slips away. I've never seen anything like it. Ever since he entered this land he has boggled my mind. I need your help once more Xena."
"I saw the blows he took," Xena agreed. Perhaps the god was right after all. Perhaps there was more to Axer than even they could explain. "No mortal man could withstand what he took. And then the lightning... I was certain Zeus himself sent the thunderbolts down upon his head. It had no effect whatsoever."
Hades nodded. Zeus had nothing to do with the thunder or the lightning, he informed her. Strange powers were at work here, something alien even to the gods.
"If the gods can't fathom this man, then what do you expect me to do?" Xena asked.
"Just watch him," Hades instructed. "See if you can identify the source of this power." Xena raised an eyebrow to this. It sounded as if the gods themselves envied Axer's power. Maybe this would be of interest after all.
Hades turned to leave. Xena held him back. Hades looked at her, surprised at her audacity. But then, this was only a dream. And besides, he knew what she wanted to ask. And so without her ever having to ask he answered. He owed her that much.
"I will give your regards to Marcus," he said softly. And with that he vanished.
Gabrielle, Xena, and Axer moved on to the next village. This was the village that the Oracle had warned them would be attacked. It had to be. Xena had an uneasy feeling in her bones, and she had learned long ago to trust her instincts. Something just wasn't right, they were approaching danger.
Xena eyed Axer. She did not want to see a repeat of what she saw before they reached Delphi - that was why she was here. But she still could not figure out Axer. Whatever his purpose was he refused to share it. Xena was cautious of him, and still watched his every move, particularly where Gabrielle was concerned..
For his part, Axer kept in the back of his mind the information the Oracle had given him. She had warned him that he would meet the other immortal after three nightfalls. Only one day had fully passed, and Axer could feel already the tension in his bones. In two more nights he would come face to face with the most powerful immortal he had ever encountered.
He tried to hide his nervousness from the women. He knew that they need his strength. Women were like that. Sometimes they needed protection.
//But why is it that they make a game of refusing it... in this land as well as my own? I know that in their deepest of hearts, they appreciate it, and dream of it... But what am I doing wrong? Why is it that when I protect them... and do more... it's like I'm suddenly a monster? I hope it can work out differently this time...//
Painful memories hit him. Faces that he hadn't forgotten, even though their names were long gone. Laughter. He remembered that. But everything else was forgotten except for the feeling of failure. That there was something about him that was not normal... that was even retarded.
When he gazed at Gabrielle, those feelings were shoved into the background, where they remained. But other feelings surfaced. Hope... and love perhaps? He smiled almost dreamily. Anyone else looking at him would say that he was happy, considering that most of the time, he had a sullen look. She returned the smile innocently, with the same unfettered happiness.
//Perhaps the God of Love has blessed me. An innocent woman, full of life and joy, untouched by the evil that men do. I can't pass this by. Capture life while you can.//
Axer was so caught up in his own feelings that he stumbled over a branch. Gabrielle giggled. For someone so well-travelled he never watched where he was going. Axer blushed deep red, but it went unnoticed... but Xena saw it and subtly rolled her eyes.
"Been away from the forest for too long?" Xena asked, looking at Axer a little intently. She knew he had enough of the sharpened tongue to appreciate indirect speech. He flushed a little more, but this time in irritation.
//So you still hate me? Fine! I'm like a reflecting pond, and can return hate for hate!// His expression, however, wasn't noticeably hateful -- just more sullen.
Xena narrowed her eyes, as she watched him walk through the undergrowth without stumbling. He knew what she really said, and was either angered or hurt by it. //He seems human enough... but guarded.// She shook her head, as if trying to clear something from her mind -- or perhaps gather something from the depths.
//Well, at least he's not a god... and not a student of Ares. Ares always picks violent butchers.// She remembered what she saw of Axer. A skilled fighter, yes. A young-looking one, but he showed the temperament of an old killer -- not a murderer. She knew full well what the eyes of a remorseless killer looked like, and she'd seen it in him. He may be gentle, even in his soul, but she knew that he's take a life without hesitation or remorse.
...But he wouldn't take the lives of the innocent. Only those who were worthy to be slain by the sword, by the warrior's code of honor. //To think he was willing to risk his life by stopping the fight on holy ground...//
No murderer would take that chance, or even think about it.
Xena knew she had too much to think about, and had too little time.
Then suddenly it hit her. His sword... yes that might well hold a key to this mystery. There was something different about the sword, and it was not the fact that he had melded metals together to forge it. Axer took a certain pride in his sword, as though it were a loved one. He cherished it like a lover... but not as much as he seemed to cherish Gabrielle.
//Damned fool! I don't care whether he's young or old inside, he's a fool!// She cursed Gabrielle as well for her naiveté, but cursed Axer even more for his behavior. He expressed devotion that only comes from experience -- devotion that comes from the realization that life is too short to waste time on playing games. Xena had no doubt about it, Axer was hunting, and committed himself to hunting Gabrielle. When he learned that Gabrielle wasn't mature, or serious in the way he wanted her to be... Xena really struggled with the question of whether she should leave it be or to interfere. She decided to wait. Who knew... perhaps it might work out.
"Thinking again?" asked someone next to her.
Startled, Xena turned her head, and saw a young woman riding a blissfully-oblivious centaur. Xena did a double take because, first, she didn't sense anyone approaching them, and second, because this young woman was breathtakingly beautiful and naked as the day she was born. No wonder the centaur was oblivious to everything about him. He had a habit of avoiding obstacles as well.
Axer and Gabrielle, she noticed, were still oblivious to this newcomer's presence. They were too involved with themselves. Xena rolled her eyes again.
"You're right." She smiled. "I could have used magic, but I think they're ignoring my presence well enough on their own."
"What are you, spirit or goddess?"
The woman giggled innocently, "Why is that so important to you? I'm not mortal, and that's all you need to know! If it means anything to you, my name is Spes."
//An odd name.// Xena shrugged. "You've come for a reason?"
She nodded. "I just wanted to talk to you about a very important person.
To ask you some questions about... him!" She pointed to Axer, who was blushing. Gabrielle was blushing too, but probably for a different reason.
"What about him?"
"How do you feel about him?"
This sounded too much like the question of a matchmaker. "I don't know. I'm trying to decide whether he's a murderer, or just a seasoned killer."
"But how do you *feel* about him?"
Xena didn't know what to say.
Spes smiled, "Just think about how you feel, and not what you know, and your decision will be much easier. And I don't mean superficial feelings. I mean, what do you *know* from deep down?"
Before Xena could respond, the centaur went around the other side of a tree... and didn't emerge from the other side.
Xena shook her head. Had she really seen it at all, she wondered.
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