by Hank Wyckoff and Eileen Quinn
Axer had said that the battle would begin by nightfall, and the sun was just beginning to set on the ridge. Xena looked back towards camp. Gabrielle had just made a fire, and was preparing to roast a rabbit that she had caught earlier that day.
It seemed strange now to think of her as that helpless village girl. She was maturing into a fine young woman. "Who knows, perhaps she'll become a fine warrior as well," Xena thought. But this was not the battle to test what she had learned.
From what Axer told her of this other warlord, he was practically undefeatable. But aside from Ares, Xena had never met such a formidable warrior. Certainly Axer himself provided a good contest, as did Hercules. But the Celt said that this man was different somehow. He said he couldn't explain it, but Xena knew he was holding something back.
If it was true what he said about never having met the man in battle then perhaps these were just wild rumors. Perhaps he would fall as easily as her other enemies.
Axer said that he wanted to be the one to go against the warlord. But Xena had a few ideas of her own. Axer wasn't the only one holding back. Xena pulled her sword from her back and gazed at the blade. She envisioned the warlord's blood dripping from the edges. Silently she prayed to Artemis - for a good hunt, and then to Athena to give her wisdom during the battle -for the mind was often the sharpest weapon.
Gabrielle laughed lightly at something Axer had said and Xena turned. There was still a hint of girlishness in Gabrielle's voice. Xena hoped that it would remain there for quite a while. She had been robbed of her own girlhood. Maybe that was why she had allowed Gabrielle to tag along. Perhaps she thought that she could protect the young woman from the things that she had experienced.
"No," Xena said quietly, "I didn't choose you. You chose me." She knew that she needed Gabrielle as much as the younger woman needed her - perhaps more so. Watching Gabrielle grow and mature somehow made up for all those lost years. Xena smiled.
"I know," her friend called. "Stay here and guard the camp."
Xena suppressed a giggle of her own. "Argo might be afraid without you.
You know how she hates being left alone." Argo turned indignantly towards her mistress.
"Are you ready," she directed the question towards Axer.
Axer pulled himself from the doe-eyed young woman. He drew his sword and held it before his face, touching it to his forehead, and whispered a prayer in his own language. Gabrielle watched admiringly. He was so purposeful, yet also respectful. He may not have been quite the warrior Xena was, but there was something about him. Gabrielle could not put her finger on it, but... Oh, the rabbit was ready. Good. Gabrielle was getting rather hungry.
A thin line of smoke rose above the village. A hearth perhaps? Xena sucked in her breath, as she and Axer pressed on a little faster.
They reached the village just as the last rays of the sun disappeared below the horizon. The sunset was a deep red. So like the other village on the way to Delphi... But all was calm.
"Are you certain it will be tonight?" Xena whispered.
"Wait," Axer said, and then turned his head towards the clearing. "He's here already. He's waiting."
"Then by all means let's head in!"
Xena headed towards the town center, but Axer held her back. "No, that's what he wants. If we go in first the villagers will assume that we instigated it. We have to wait."
Axer gazed up at the full moon. It was not quite dark, but clouds were beginning to form, blocking out the stars. As the clouds crossed the moon, the village grew darker. Suddenly a light came out of the East as the invading army charged.
"Now!" Axer yelled.
Xena and Axer joined in the battle, swords crashing against swords, fire lighting up the horizon, the villager's screams... it was exactly as Xena had remembered, but this time she was on the right side. This time she was trying to prevent the destruction of innocent lives. This time she was not fighting for herself, or her father, or her brother, or even Ares. This time she was fighting for justice.
The taste of blood rose up in Xena's mouth. She could always taste blood in the midst of battle. When she was the invader she often thought of it as the blood of Cortis, or the blood of her enemies. Now she knew better. It was the blood of the innocent, and it was crying out for justice. This is what filled her limbs, empowered her, made her capable of incredible feats, thought only possible by divine intervention.
Xena spun round and high in the air, one leg extended and the other curled in, her foot slamming into the faces of those around her. In one swoop a whole circle of men fell at her feet. Xena smiled as she gazed down at the sight.
But there was no time to revel in that small victory. Another wave of attackers was already upon her. Her arms outstretched, she caught the first two attackers by their hands, twisted their wrists, and threw them to the ground. It did not take a great deal of effort, but neither man was prepared for such a defense.
One of the men was so terrified by Xena's seemingly great strength in jostling him that he swore Artemis herself had engaged him in the fight. When he was able to return to his feet he ran far away from the village, and vowed to sacrifice a ram to the goddess to appease her.
Xena, however, had no knowledge of the man's vow. All that she heard emerge from his lips was a fearful cry, which faded quickly as he exited the village.
Another string of attackers came upon her. This time it was a group of brothers. Certain that any of them could overpower the woman, they made the mistake of coming at her one by one.
Xena ducked a sluggish blow from the first brother, and allowed the force of the man's own body trip him up. As though he boot-laces were tied he stumbled and fell down a nearby well.
Then came the second brother, his sword stretched high above his head. A well-placed kick to the chest brought him down, and with him his twin, for the force of the kick knocked him backwards, forcing him to ream his own flesh and blood.
Finally came the forth and oldest brother. Maliace was not nearly as foolish as his younger siblings. First, he permitted Xena to tire. Taking out his brothers must certainly have drawn her strength, he reasoned. Second, he did not come at her head-on. She was too adept at handling a full scale charge. //Probably a result of her sex,// he deduced. //She is not a natural aggressor. Her movements have thus far been defensive.//
Maliace bided his time. He stayed at least four paces away from Xena as he watched her battle a few stray soldiers. Then, when she had turned her back, he raced towards her, his dagger aimed for the back of her neck. He was just about to thrust it into that tender white skin, when Xena reached back and grabbed her sword.
She drew it so quickly that he did not even see the blade. The cut had been accidental, but it halved his head just the same. Xena glanced back over her shoulder during a free moment and noticed the two halves of Maliace's face glaring back at her. She was never so sloppy. Xena scolded herself for the error. She never relied on dumb luck to carry her through. And she should have heard the attacker's approach.//I've been hanging out with Axer too long,// Xena reasoned. //I believe he's been a very bad influence.//
Another attacker lunged at Xena, but the Warrior Princess merely smirked as he slipped on Maliace's remains.
"Watch your step," Xena chided.
Xena made a quick survey of the battle. Things were going well. She and Axer were holding their own, she figured, for the invaders were laying scattered about the village. The mercenaries were also making a dent, a group of young brothers in particular. Xena checked round for Axer, but he was no where to be found. She whispered a silent prayer for the stranger.
She hoped that he hadn't tripped up like her latest adversary.
Axer needed that prayer for her was set upon by a group of villagers who had mistaken him for the enemy. He pleaded with them to let him go, but they would not relent. They chased after him with rocks and staffs, pelting him and beating him from all sides.
Axer couldn't believe it would end like this. How unfair! To be beaten down by a pack of raving mortals, and beheaded in his sleep. But this other - he was not that dishonorable - or was he? Axer tried to hold on to his senses, when out of nowhere came a flash of swords. The villagers were chased back into the woods, far from the battle, far from their burning homes.
Axer immediately turned his sword towards the men. Even though they had saved his life, they were nonetheless, part of the invading army.
"Stop!" one of the men held out his hand. Axer was dumbfounded. Was this a surrender? Aside from Xena, Axer had never battled a mortal before, but he knew how they felt about surrender. He would have to honor the man's request. He put his sword to his side.
"What? Are you quitting?" the man asked, astounded.
"Aren't you surrendering?" Axer asked innocently.
"Surrender? We're on the same side?"
"Who are you?"
"I'm Melios," the man responded. But quick as the words left his mouth a sword swiped off his head.
"You were Melios," the invader laughed. Instinctively Axer swung at the attacker and sliced off his head in return. There was no anger, no sense of revenge in the action. It was merely the quickest way to eliminate him.
Axer said a quick prayer for Melios and headed back into battle.
And then he got a sense of *him*. Axer turned towards the other immortal, and...
"Xena!" he shouted. "No!" But one of the villagers - the one-eyed woman - sucker punched him, and he fell to the ground unconscious.
Xena had never seen anything like it. Once or twice her blows connected.
She had swiped the man's arm and poked him in the rib, but the blows had no effect. They slowed him a little, certainly, but he continued to fight nevertheless.
She had the distinct feeling that he was trying to wear her down. He snickered once or twice when his thrusts made contact with her skin.
The rest of the battle had dissipated. With Axer cold-cocked and she engaged in battle with the invading general the invaders were beginning to take their hold. All but three of the mercenaries (the three brothers Xena noticed earlier) were dead, and those that remained could do little but hold off the invaders. It was a valiant effort, though each was certain he would die in the effort.
"Some mercenaries," Anaximander spat, "are we being paid to die?" He knocked out one with the hilt of his swords, and was attacked by two more.
Eurocles returned, "We should be paid extra for this." He spun round, and kicked an attacker into the well. "Ah! Now there goes the water supply.
Damn it, I hate when I spoil the water!"
"Wait," chimed Petracles, "I just realized..."
"You've brought water?"
"Oh. Well what then?"
"We're not being paid at all!" he gasped, and struck down another with the back of his fist. "We were supposed to kill Xena and that stranger over there." He looked at the unconscious man by the fire. "Well," Eurocles added, striking down three men with one swoop of his sword, "when we're done here, we can always go over and cut out his heart."
"That would hardly be sportsman-like," Petracles protested. "Besides we are to cut off his head."
"That too would be very ungentlemanly," Eurocles noted. In truth he felt slighted. Never in his life had he been unsportsmanlike. How dare his brother say such a thing.
"We'll wake him first," Petracles offered a compromise, "then we'll kill him. Agreed?"
"Agreed!" the other two resounded.
"Oh good," someone shouted, "we won't have to wake him before we kill him!"
Axer shook his head. //What's happened?// He looked around for Xena, but could see her nowhere. Then, he got a sense of the other immortal. Quickly he spun towards the source of the feeling and... "Xena!" he shouted. A strange sense of deja vu overcame him, and he looked around for the one-eyed woman. He saw her. She had been run through with a sword, and her corpse lay staring at him.
"By the gods!" he yelled.
He did not turn back, but headed straight towards the immortal. He had not even thought about his sword. "Run Xena! Run!" he called to the Warrior Princess.
"I never run," she returned, spitting some of her own blood from her mouth.
The immortal knocked her back with a quick fist to the nose.
Axer thought //Her beautiful face. I hope he hasn't broken her nose.// And then he realized how strange it was for him to worry over. The man had already beaten and sliced Xena in ways that he had never dreamed possible, and now he was worried about her nose?
Axer reached the immortal just as he raised his sword. He was about to bring it down on the woman's head.
"I've waited for this moment." The Egyptian spat. "I had a hard time keeping her alive till now. But I wanted you to see me do this..."
The sword sliced through the air faster than Axer could see. Without a thought he ducked into its path. The sword grazed his arm, as Axer kicked up a leg into the other immortal's gut. He only stepped back once, and quickly regained his balance.
"It is useless to waste your emotions on them," the elder spoke. "They only die..."
Axer ran full strength at the immortal and pushed him back from the unconscious Xena. It was strange. All this time he was so intent on beating this man, and now his only thoughts were on the preservation of Xena's life.
"That sort of devotion," the immortal quipped, "will make you lose your head." And with that he took another swipe at Axer.
"Hey," Eurocles pointed out, "look at the Celt!"
Petracles and Anaximander turned their heads. It wasn't easy to fight that way, but by now there were few invaders left.
"He's got balls!" Anaximander noted.
"That Egyptian's no novice," Petracles added. "The Celt doesn't even have a sword."
Anaximander gazed down at the sword in his hand. His own father had forged it. It was all that he had left of the man. He bestowed it to his only son on his deathbed. Anaximander vowed that he would only use it in defense.
How disappointed his father would have been. In the past few years he had used it as means of survival. He had used it for money, to buy food and clothing, and the gold earring he wore so proudly, and the fine leather boots.
"Sorry, Dad," Anaximander said sadly, extending his right arm to knock off another invader. "I guess this wasn't what you had in mind. Let me make it up to you."
His brothers eyed him strangely. Anaximander was talking to himself. This was not a good sign.
Anaximander strolled casually towards the Celt. A few of the invaders tried to get into his path, but he knocked them out with little effort. He had a purpose now, a mission. His father's sword would be used justly, as his father had intended.
"Here," he said to the fallen Celt. "Try this."
Axer gazed up at Anaximander. This was the same man who had called for his blood moments ago. Was this a trick? Axer was not certain. But he knew one thing. He would never be able to sever the Egyptian's head with his bare hands. He took the sword.
"That will do you no good!" the Egyptian cursed. Anaximander laughed. His father was more than a blacksmith. He was the husband of a sorcerer woman.
That sword was more than a means of defense. It was a powerful weapon, blessed by the gods themselves. Anaximander saw the look of determination in the Celts face and knew that he had done right.
Axer lifted the sword high above his head, and in a voice like thunder cried: "There can be only one!" The sword, it seemed, did the rest. It fell smoothly across the Egyptian's neck, slicing so clean that for a moment it appeared as if it had not sliced through at all. The Egyptian had time to express shock. But nothing else. His lifeless body fell forward, and his head sort of thudded at Axer's feet.
Anaximander was about to congratulate the Celt, when Axer held him back.
His face said it all. He was not to be approached. The young swordsman backed off, and into the barely conscious Xena. The two stood watching as the dark night grew darker still. The moon was entirely obliterated by the clouds. A strong wind came out of the west, and whipped around the dying embers that were once Niklos.
"I've seen this before," the wounded warrior woman whispered. "It's not a pretty sight."
Anaximander stood spellbound. Never had he seen anything like it. The lightning seemed to split the sky in two as it came crashing to the ground.
But it was not the ground that absorbed the lightning. It was the Celt.
"Such magic!" Anaximander said to Xena.
"You ain't seen nothing yet," she smiled, shaking her head.
Axer sat alone by the fire back at the encampment. No one dared approach him. The quickening had exhausted him. Xena had many questions for the immortal, but she knew they could wait. He needed to regain his strength.
But then, so did she.
"How does that arm feel?" Anaximander asked. His voice was warm, reassuring. Xena wondered what magic he knew to make her feel so well, when she knew she would feel like Hades warmed over.
"My mother knew some medicine," he explained.
"I know some of the arts of healing as well," Xena argued. "But I know nothing of your kind of magic. My arm feels fine, like it hasn't even been hurt. I know its worse than it seems, but I feel nothing."
"That's as it should be," Anaximander explained. "It's that cream I rubbed on it. It dulls the pain. You'll feel it in the morning, but by then it will have a chance to heal a bit."
"You haven't answered my question."
Anaximander bit his lip. The woman obviously knew about medicine, but this he could not explain. How could he tell her that he knew of medicines that mere mortals had not yet discovered. His people knew many such things.
People always thought it was magic or sorcery, but that was not it at all. If only she knew. But he could not tell her.
"My mother was a sorceress of sorts," he lied. "My brothers Euracles and Petracles have never learned her ways. But she taught me. I was always an eager student."
Xena noted the boy's age. He could not be more than 14. His brothers were perhaps each a year older. But they all fought like seasoned warriors. She wondered what horrors must have befallen their village for them to learn the warrior's ways so young. Perhaps it was best that this one become a healer. Xena would not want to have to face any of these boys in battle.
Anaximander's brothers gathered around Axer at the fire. He did not look to them, but they stood staring nonetheless. They waited for him to speak.
"What is your clan?" he asked, never once moving his head, but keeping his sword in view.
"Clan?" Euracles asked.
"Your family... who are they?"
"Our mother was a sorceress," Petracles volunteered. "Our father a blacksmith. But our village was destroyed when we were quite young. We never knew our family very well."
Axer smiled. Was this a lie, or did they really not know.
"Who taught you to fight?" he asked, anticipating another lie.
"Melios," Euracles answered readily. "He took us in. He might have been a mercenary, but he was a good man. He didn't want to see us slaughtered like our parents."
Axer asked how the boys parents died. They were beheaded in their sleep the boys answered. He still wasn't sure whether or not to believe them. Could it be possible that they really did not know? He didn't think it likely.
"You have red hair," Axer observed, looking at Petracles. "As do your brothers. I have never seen a Greek with red hair."
"Our father had red hair," Euracles responded. "He was Greek."
"Was he?" Axer turned and smiled. The boys looked to one another. They apparently did not understand the point he was trying to make. In fact, Axer knew what the boys did not. Their father was not Greek at all, but a barbarian. Maybe Phoenician?
"What was your father's name?" Axer asked.
"Anibaal," they answered in unison.
"Anibaal?!" he drew his sword. "Do you not mean Hannibal?" His voice thundered in their ears as the boys cringed. Anaximander looked towards his brothers. He did not so much as move, but he placed his hand on his father's sword.
"We saved your life," Euracles said.
"What do you want from us?" Petracles asked.
"I want you to leave this land," Axer spat. "Go back to Phoenicia for all I care, but keep away from me and from Thrace."
They did not know. Axer looked stunned. He lowered his sword. "There is a man there," he began. "He is an enemy of your father. He would destroy you both."
"Why?" Euracles asked.
Axer explained. The brothers did not know whether or not to believe him, but his story explained much. They had never suffered long from their battle wounds it was true. Each had received blows that would have killed mere mortals, yet they had always survived. They had thought it luck, and had become boastful of their skills. Melios made use of that. The brothers fought proudly by his side, often going in before Melios himself.
"He used us," Euracles spat.
"Perhaps he did not know," Axer said gently. He felt the need to defend the man who has saved his life. "It's possible he thought you highly skilled.
It is only fitting he made use of your 'talents' in that area."
Still Petracles hung his head. He had truly thought himself a skilled warrior. Axer reassured him. He had seen the boys' swordsmanship. They could each make great use of that. Why, they could teach it if they saw fit!
"Teach fighting?" Euracles asked.
"Teach self-defense," Axer answered.
"That would have made our father proud," Anaximander joined the conversation. He had not heard the previous discussion. "It would suit you both," he added. "Perhaps you could travel the countryside, teach the villagers how to defend themselves." He gazed at his father's sword. Yes, that was indeed what the old man had wanted. But he could not quite reconcile himself to that life.
"What about you?" Axer added. "Wouldn't you join your brothers - the three of you fighting as one... All for one, one for-"
"No!" Anaximander quickly added. "That is not my fate."
"Is there nothing we can say to persuade you?" Euracles asked. It was clear what he had decided. Petracles stood by his brother's side. They would make good teachers. But not him. There was much he had to learn. And he was certain that the Celt could teach him.
The two brothers were well on their way. Anaximander and Axer had stayed behind to see to the women. Xena's wounds were healing well. Anaximander finally felt safe leaving his patient in the hands of Gabrielle and the horse.
"Argo is not very friendly," Anaximander observed.
Gabrielle stroked the horse. "You just have to get to know her." Argo turned her head. She still did not like immortals. Even though this one had tended her mistress she could not trust him. She stepped back when he tried to caress her nose.
"She just doesn't like me," Anaximander protested.
Gabrielle smiled. At least it wasn't just her.
"So where are you going to go?" the young woman asked the boy.
"I'll follow Axer," he said sternly.
Gabrielle nodded approvingly. That was what she would do if she was in Anaximander's place.
"So," Xena began approaching Axer. "Where do you go from here?"
"Thrace? I've been there once or twice. Stay away from Abdera, city of idiots."
"Do you have as many enemies there as you did in Niklos?"
"A few," Xena mused. Axer looked back at her. Was she flirting with him? He couldn't believe it. But then, that was how women behaved around immortals. Once they saw the lightning it was all over - they had to have a piece of it, and they would do anything to get it.
Axer gazed at Gabrielle and sighed. Then turned his face once more to Xena.
"Choices, choices..." he said absently.
"Pardon me?" Xena asked.
Ah yes, those blue eyes. //Well why not! I'll have them both!// And with that he pulled Xena to his side and kissed her square on the lips.
Xena wasted no time in twisting the immortal's hand behind his back. "Do I have to kill you again?" she said through clenched teeth. How could he have been so wrong?
"No!" he smiled falsely. Even wounded, this woman was formidable. Axer took a step back and took one last admiring glance. Too bad she wouldn't be around in another hundred years. It would take him at least that long to break through that harsh demeanor.
He sauntered over to the girl.
"Do I get a kiss good-bye?" he said, oblivious to Anaximander's presence.
"Uh..." Gabrielle's eyes widened. "How about a handshake?" And with that she extended a soft, white hand. Axer took her fingers in his hand and raised them to his lips. Gabrielle had a sick feeling of deja vu, and shut her eyes closed tight. //Please don't let him suck my fingers again. Please!// But he did not. He gingerly kissed her hand, and dropped it.
"Thank you," Gabrielle praised the gods.
"You're welcome," Axer answered suavely.
Anaximander only smiled.
"So where so we go now?" the boy asked.
"We?" Axer almost choked.
Anaximander slapped him squarely on the back. "That lighting trick of yours," the boy asked, pulling him close so the others could not hear. "I've only seen that once before. The night my father died, to be exact." Axer gulped. "Where were you say... 70 years ago?"
"I was at Syracuse!" Axer spat, dragging the boy along. "Come on, we have much to discuss before we reach Thrace."
Anaximander smiled. Revenge could be so sweet, he thought.
"Oh Axer," Xena added before he got out of earshot. "I hope I never cross swords with you again."
"Me neither," Axer called back. "That shriek of yours nearly made my ears bleed!" And with that he disappeared into the woods, Anaximander close to his side.
"Xena," Gabrielle helped her friend to her feet, "who was that man? I mean, was he from the gods, was he a sorcerer, or what?"
"I don't know Gabrielle," Xena returned thoughtfully, "and I pray to the gods that we never live long enough to find out!"
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