by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
They reached Niklos by nightfall. Xena was not unknown in this area. It was close to her own childhood home. In would have only been a matter of time Niklos would have fallen to her army. Luckily for Niklos, Xena encountered Hercules before her army could cut a path to the village.
Nonetheless, the villagers were not exactly thrilled to see her. Word of her approach had spread fear throughout Niklos once before. And her return to the region was certainly not cause for celebration.
"It seems you have many enemies," Axer slyly observed.
Xena remained silent. There was no way the village elders would listen to her. In their minds she was still a warlord. If she were to warn them of an impending attack they would assume it was a trick. They would think that she had reunited her men, and planned the attack herself.
"I shall speak then," Axer volunteered.
He tried to explain the situation. But his words fell on deaf ears. No one believed that Axer had spoken to the Oracle. Why would the Oracle provide assistance to a foreigner, they reasoned. And they doubted that a butcher such a Xena would have been welcomed at Delphi.
"Leave us be," an old woman crawled out of her hut, and raised her fist at the Warrior Princess. "Haven't you done enough damage?" The woman looked up into Xena's face. One of her eyes was missing. Xena wondered if the wound had come from one of her own men.
"If we don't unite," Xena said cautiously, "your village will be destroyed."
"Are you threatening this woman?" one of the elders spoke, stepping in front of the crone.
"I don't make threats," Xena hissed.
"Xena's right!" Gabrielle added. "I know it is hard for you to believe her.
So believe me. Xena saved my village. She wants to make up for her past deeds."
The townsfolk groaned. How could Xena make up for her past? Once a warlord always a warlord, they said. She hadn't changed. The only thing that had changed were her tactics. Now she wanted to lull them into a false sense of security, make them think she was there to help. Then when their defenses were down she would strike.
"Not here," the village chieftain proclaimed. "The people of Niklos are not so easily beguiled. Leave us now, or we shall invoke the wrath of the gods!"
Axer sneered. What could Greek gods to an immortal, he thought.
"Come on," Xena tugged at his sleeve. "It's obvious that we're not wanted."
"But they'll be destroyed," he pleaded.
"Then that will be their misfortune."
Axer could not believe his ears. Still, he followed. Perhaps the Oracle had been wrong. He hoped for Niklos' sake that she was unreliable at best. But then, if she was not to be believed his entire journey could be for naught.
"So where do we go now?" Axer asked listlessly.
"To the hills outside of town. Niklos may not want our help. But I will not see this village destroyed. We can hole up in the woods. We'll probably have a better vantage point there anyway."
Axer and Gabrielle followed as Xena led the way out of town.
Axer and Xena were sharpening stakes, which they planned to liberally spike into the ground on the western slope. At first, both of them were silent, with only the sound of shaved wood breaking the silence. It wasn't until Xena became agitated with the silence that she spoke.
"*Where* did you get this idea?" she demanded, finishing the sharpening of a spike and slamming it down on the ground.
"Keep up the pace," he reminded her, finishing a spike and gathering another piece of wood. She nodded and grabbed another piece herself. "...I don't really know. It was just an idea. I get a lot of ideas -- mostly at the last moment. I don't get them through dreams, as many do. I just start talking, and it all comes out."
Xena stared at him, "So you're saying that you didn't even think about it first -- you just started talking and it all came out."
He nodded. "That's it." He tilted his head. "You don't look happy."
"I'm just praying that the Gods are giving you those ideas."
They went back to shaving the sticks.
A tall, white-headed man looked sternly at one of the bandits. "Where did you get this?" he demanded of one of the bandits.
The bandit looked at his leader in fear, and didn't even try to lie. "I grabbed it from one of the villagers that I killed in the last village."
The leader looked at the glaive. "I know this man. Consider yourself lucky that he didn't see your face. If he had, you would have been dead by now."
"I-- I don't --"
"Know what I mean?" he smiled. "I suppose you don't. I have a feeling that he will meet us soon, and when you do -- watch. You may learn something."
"Who is he?"
"He's a much-feared warrior from the homeland of the Celts. Axer, his name is, though I believe he was once called something else. And no, he is not from Anatolia. He is from the far northwest." His gaze became distant, "As a young man of no more than eighteen years, he met my master on the field of battle, and killed him, and was killed as well. My master remained dead, while Axer rose. He slew the Druid in a dark sacrifice, and came forth so powerful that I could not face him." He looked down. "I know his blade. And I know him. Time has passed, enough that I can slay him. I know I will."
He looked towards the horizon. "Keep the blade, but keep in mind that you must earn the blade of a master who is older than your grandfather. We make a forced march to the next village, where he awaits us."
"Older than my grandfather?" he laughed. "He was but a fresh-bearded boy!"
His leader's gaze made his laugh cease. "He is older than your grandfather, though he may look young. He is touched by the Gods, which is why he keeps his youthful vigor. Are you sure you wish to earn the right to use and own his blade?"
The bandit gulped, looking down at the glaive. "I'd kill an army single-handedly to own the rights to this blade."
"Then send out my order, and keep it."
They hastened their pace, and kept it. They had to.
The sky was just beginning to rise on the horizon, as Axer rose from the dirty ground. He brushed off his cloak, and stretched. The dirt was not nearly as comfortable as the stables had been two nights before, but he made do.
Axer gazed off towards the edge of the woods. Xena was crouched down low, speaking to a bush. These Greeks certainly had strange prayer rituals.
Just then a young boy poked his head out of the bush.
"Stay down," Xena warned. "And make sure you give that message directly to Melios."
"I will!" the boy yelped.
"Yes," a hand touched Xena's shoulder and she nearly jumped out of her skin. "Shh indeed! Who was that boy?"
Axer looked bleary-eyed.
"My aren't you a sight in the morning," Xena said sardonically, rising from the brush. "He's a messenger of Melios, one of my... acquaintances."
"Do tell," Axer snipped. "And what sort of message have you sent to him."
"Melios leads a group of mercenaries, killers for hire. It seems the villagers have hired them to kill us." Axer's eyed widened. "Don't worry," Xena continued. "Melios owes me one. And he knows that his sword couldn't stand a chance against mine. He's a cold-blooded murderer, but he isn't stupid. He sent word to me last night."
Melios wasn't very honorable, Axer observed. If he took the villagers money for a deed that he could not possibly accomplish then he was more than a murderer, he was also a thief.
"That's really where he thrives," Xena smiled. "Actually I think he's only killed three men, and two of them I know deserved it."
"What are you guys talking about?" Gabrielle asked, lifting her head from her blanket.
"Gabrielle," Xena began, "I don't think we have nearly enough water to last us through the day. Can you take Argo back to that lake, and fill up a few jugs for us. And let Argo drink for a while, so looks kind of thirsty."
Gabrielle yawned. Xena expected there to be bloodshed. That's why she didn't want her around. If this were to be an ordinary fight Xena would have let her stay to practice with her staff. Gabrielle looked to Xena and sighed. Of course she would go for water.
"Come on, Argo," Gabrielle stated, sighing again. She took the horses' reins and headed back down the path. "Maybe we'll find some more berries. You're hungry aren't you? Me too."
With Gabrielle gone Xena and Axer began to plan their strategy.
"Tell me more about this prophecy. What else did the Oracle say?" Xena demanded.
But Axer refused to reveal anything more.
"I have to know what we're up against."
"It had nothing to do with you, woman." Axer set his jaw. He didn't even like the idea of Xena joining the battle. What if she made an attempt to challenge the other immortal? She wouldn't stand a chance against him.
"I hate to do this," Xena said slyly. She made a chop towards his neck.
"I've just cut the flow of blood to your brain. You have thirty seconds to..."
Xena could not believe the man's nerve. Then her eyes widened as she realized he was not gasping. In fact, gave no indication whatsoever of feeling pain. She eyed him suspiciously.
"Ah," he started, then fell backwards, striking his head against a rock.
Xena had never allowed herself to go this far. What was she thinking? He was supposed to be her ally. "Axer! Axer!" she cried. She tried to restore the flow of blood, but it was too late. He was already dead.
"Gods," Xena gasped. "What have I done?" A single tear rolled down Xena's cheek as she gazed into the dead man's face. Never had she felt such remorse. But it was not merely that she had slain an innocent man. Xena had felt something for him, though she could not quite explain it. She was drawn to him in some way, as though they were opposite sides of the same coin. There had been a bond there.
Gabrielle had been correct. Xena did fear him, but in a way that was totally alien to her. She could not have called it love. But there was an attachment. And now that she realized it, it was too late.
Xena covered the dead man's face with her cloak. She was about to whisper a prayer, when she looked down at the cloth. It was moving above his mouth.
"Gods," Xena yelped. "He's breathing." Xena pulled the cloak from his face, and put her face to his mouth. She could feel his breath on her cheek. She jumped back away from the corpse. This was impossible. She had seen him die.
But then again, nothing seemed impossible where Axer was concerned.
//Well, I might as well make use of the time.// Xena reached into Axer's pockets and felt around. There had to be something here, some sort of clue as to who he was and why he was here.
She found an amulet of some sort. There was writing on it, but it did not appear familiar. She reached around once more. Something jabbed her finger, and Xena pulled back. Carefully she reached into the pocket and pulled out a bird's claw.
"Sorcery," Xena spat. She had suspected as much.
Slowly Axer came around, as Xena stuffed his possessions back into his pocket. He rubbed his head as he rose from the ground.
"What did you do to me?" he demanded.
"I killed you. Or so I thought. It seems that you don't die so easily. Now are you going to tell me what's going on, or am I going to have to keep killing you."
Xena's face was serious, but inside she was nervous as all Hades. If she was uncertain as to how she felt about Axer before she was even more apprehensive now. But she did not permit those emotions to show on her face. She her herself calm, and coolly stared into his face.
Axer looked up once more into the woman's eyes. Never had he seen eyes so blue. "You're beautiful," he whispered.
"You're delirious," Xena joked. But Axer's eyes were serious indeed. And he had all his senses about him. He leaned forward as if to kiss her, but she knocked him back.
Xena had thought the tactic a trick. She pressed him further for information.
"Fine," Axer spat, turning away indignantly. "If you want to know the truth I'll tell you."
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