Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and other known characters that appear in this story belong to Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal Studios, blah blah blah. A few Zen elements was borrowed from various comic book, i.e. The Question (1986-89) © DC Comics written by Dennis O'Neil, drawn by Denys Cowan and Rick Magyar The story is mine; and Philolaos, K'Tai, and Zaar are my creations.
Warnings: Rated R for graphic violence, emotional trauma, domestic violence, some language, and "Sex! They're having sex!" If this sort of thing is like, illegal where you live, or if the domestic violence, or its impact disturbs you, then stop and turn back. If you’re under 18, what the heck are you doin’ here? Shoo! Go away! If it is legal and you are of legal age, and this sort of stuff bothers you, then you have one of two choices: one, take some time to re-evaluate your sexuality, or two: Get out!
Spoiler Alert: This story takes place not too long after LOCKED UP AND TIED DOWN and before the fateful encounter with Schizo-Barbie-uh, I mean Najara in CRUSADER. A scene from the (very long) flashback was lifted from the episode THE HAUNTING OF AMPHIPOLIS, with a few things I added. Also, I slipped in some fore shadowing of FIN. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it.
Notes: If the name Zaar seems familiar to you, it should. It is the nameof my favorite Peter Gabriel song, off the Passion: Music from the Last Temptation of Christ (yeah, I know: 3-15, 3-15). I'd been mulling over Xena's many skills and how it's close to impossible to pin down exactly what fighting style we're dealing with. I've reviewed my meager collection of Xena tapes over and over again, and I've managed to pick out savate, Wu Shu, Aikido (no, wait. Time warp thing. Right.), Capoeira(okay, now we're REALLY pushing it.), Krav Maga (Waitaminit, it hadn't even been invented yet), and on and on. Then, I got to the sword thing. Seems that the TPTB never really broached that subject. So naturally, I jumped on it (the subject, not the sword.) Somebody had to have taught her to wield it, and it certainly wasn't her soldier dad (another ax to grind. Pun intended). And then it occurred to me that Xena has absolutely no trouble mastering whatever fighting skills she picked up everywhere she goes (hey, look at Wolverine. It took him a lifetime to master what HE knows). So, one of two thing have to be the conclusion. One: she's a furkin' genius, or two: she started at a very early age. I lean towards two, and maybe one, too. So came the burning question. Who was her first mentor? Who taught her to use the sword? Better yet, who would be around when she was that young to teach her? That's when I came up with Zaar (hey, I love that CD, okay? a lot.) I've already touched upon him in my previous story Ummm...err...ah.... and I was mulling over this story while writing that and I guess it sort of slipped in.
Historical Notes: The events in the latter part of this story is drawn from historical fact with a few details embellished for artistic purposes. The Roman civil war actually did spill over into Egypt's waters in 47 B.C., resulting in the burning of half of the Library of Alexandria. As I was writing this story, I was amazed in just how neatly both accounts fit into the Xenaverse, if one is willing to allow the passage of a few years within the fourth season. However, my description of the interior of the Library may be inaccurate, for obvious reasons. I barely skimmed over the web sites about this place and I had a hell of a time finding words to describe it. I'm assuming that the various scholars and scribes lived there as well.
Updated Notes: This tale is dedicated to the to the thousands of people who lost their lives during the cowardly attack on our nation and their families. I myself am from New York, and was afraid that something had happened to my family there. My sister worked in that area, and when she called next day to tell me that she was all right, I was relieved. I offer my deepest condolences to the victims and their families and hope that whoever is responsible is caught and dealt with swiftly and severely. I completed this story mere hours before this horrible event occurred and am more than shaken by the eerie coincidence.
Please feel free to drop me a line at the e-mail address above. If you’re nice I’ll answer ya, but if ya flame me, feel the wrath of my adamantium claws. Anyway, now that we’ve lost the prudes, the kids and the confused, onward shall we go...
All I've undergone
I will keep on
Underneath it all
We feel so small
the heavens fall
but still we crawl.
all i've undergone
I will keep on
the way out is through
This is the song of the forest.
The leaves rustle, dancing in tune with the whispering wind.
This is the song of the trees, standing tall.
The grass bends silently, paying homage to their tall, proud cousins.
This is the song of wood. Its whistle cuts the air as it wonders how it could have been so rooted to the ground once...
"Pay attention. You're daydreaming again."
"Was not, I was just-whoa!"
"You're signaling your movements again. Remember. Eye contact."
"Yeah yeah yeah, let's get it going."
Two combatants circled each other slowly with staffs in hand. The shorter one was bathed in sweat, her strawberry blonde hair clinging in wet tendrils to her forehead. The taller, raven-haired one, looked as fresh as ever, as if she hadn't been working out for close to a candle mark. Her ice-blue eyes bore deeply into that of emerald green, widening just a bit before the wood started flying again. They feinted, parried and thrust, wood colliding with wood with increasing speed and intensity. Booted feet stepped, and danced. Muscles bunched and relaxed. Brows knitted. Splinters floated in the air as their movements became a blur. Forgetting that she was drenched in sweat and tiring rapidly, the petite blond fell into the rhythm that sang in her blood, the thrill of combat. Still, she kept eye contact as she had been taught. The tall warrior twirled her staff in one hand and swung it in a wide arc towards her opponent. Undaunted, the blonde twisted away from the oncoming assault and came back around, aiming her staff towards long legs. The tall dark woman barely jumped out of the way in time. The swing was too wide, too forceful, and the blonde stumbled forward, carried by her momentum. Strong arms enveloped her before she could hit the ground.
"Whoa. I've got ya. You're getting good. I almost got swept by that last attack."
There was some heavy pants gasping for air before there was an answer. "Yeah. Didn't see that coming, did ya?" Green eyes peered up at blue ones. "Look who I have as a teacher." She smiled. "Now what's it going to be then, O mighty Warrior Princess?"
"Hmmm. I'll have to think about that, my bard." The Warrior Princess in question held her young companion closer, the warm body against hers adding to the building heat. "Now, Gabrielle, we can't exactly stay like this all day. We have to keep moving, ya know."
"Oh yeah? Maybe I'd like to stay like this, forever. Don't think I'm gonna let you get hauled off to prison again. I didn't like being deprived of you." Gabrielle planted a light kiss on her warrior's lips, then pulled back. When Xena's eyes darkened and the hands around her waist tightened, she leaned in for a longer kiss. She shuddered when the kiss was returned and a questing tongue entered her mouth. It was a while before she reluctantly un-tangled herself. "Every time you kiss me, it's like the first time. So...mind-blowing."
"I try. Aren't you hungry? You must be after such a hard work-out." She leaned forward for another kiss, brief, but passionate. They broke apart, their heads reeling.
"You read my mind, Xena. That wouldn't be one of 'your many skills', now would it?" With a teasing backwards glance, she picked up her staff and headed back to their camp.
After staring at the retreating back with a half-smirk on her face, Xena ambled silently after her and caught up, her hand lightly smacking a pert bottom. "Just might be." And grinned when the bard jumped at her sudden presence.
"Yeah, love ya too."
They headed back to the camp. The sun shone brightly in the sky. Xena looked up and squinted. Approaching mid-day, she guessed. Gabrielle had already packed their belongings, and was now leaning against her staff, munching on an apple. "So where are we going today?" she asked through mouthfuls
"I dunno," answered the warrior, stretching her neck. "Maybe west." She went over to a waiting Argo and mounted. "Let's go." She clicked her tongue, urging Argo forward.
"Hmmm. West. Sounds good to me." Tossing aside the core, Gabrielle walked alongside. "Ya know, if we keep going, we might hit Iberia. I hear there's this giant rock just a few miles off their coast, all by itself in the sea, and did you know Hercules was over there a while back? Iolaus said that he erected two pillars there marking it the edge of the world. Or is it NOT really the edge of the world? Is it really flat, or is there something beyond that great ocean? Can you imagine? Yeah, Iolaus said that there was a big battle over there, but he wasn't there, just heard about it. D'ya think that maybe since that big rock is practically an island it's got different kinds of animals there? I wonder if there are people living there now? Speaking of high-up places, it's been a while since we've been to Rhodes. Did you know that it took at least fifty years to build the Colossus? Man, I'll bet Apollo's kinda pissed that it's a statue of Helios and not him. Ya know, ever since he took over the chariot and all, maybe he wants an even bigger statue dedicated to him. Well, he's got the prophecy thing after all-hey! Reminds me of a story-I sing a tale of the Sun God, Apollo, that is, cast down unto earth to labor, as Zeus decreed. To serve King Admetos, who was always in need. The king knew not the true nature of this strange young fellow, who herded his numerous sheep and cattle with the cleverest of skills. Then came a time the King attended the games of King Pelias for the mighty horse races. He won all the contests, but lost his heart. The thief of that heart was the only daughter of King Pelias. And the name of that fair maiden was-what's wrong?" Gabrielle looked up to find her friend had slowed Argo's pace, narrowing her eyes.
"We're being followed," Looking straight ahead, the warrior spoke just low enough for her companion to hear. "Keep walking. And talking."
Gabrielle tightened her grip on her staff as she resumed the lengthy tale of Apollo and Admetos. Resisting the urge to turn and look behind her, green eyes darted left and right, not seeing anything. Whoever it is must be good. Concentrate. Every sound has a story...
"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" Without warning, Xena launched herself off Argo and executed a back flip. "Sheeee-ya!" In mid-air, she twisted around and landed, facing the would-be stalker.
Gabrielle turned to look, holding Argo's reins. Her eyes grew wide as she saw Xena toe-to-toe with a hooded figure in a cloak.
With a menacing snarl, the warrior princess swung at her opponent, who ducked, then caught the swinging arm. Undaunted, Xena brought up her knee and slammed it into a soft belly. With a woooulff! the hooded figure doubled over. Xena then drove her elbow onto the back. Instead of sprawling on the ground, however, the opponent hand-sprung away from any more blows and was standing once more. Out of the hidden folds of the cloak came a sword. Xena's sword was already drawn at this point, and a spectacular clash of metal ensued.
Gabrielle watched with a touch of awe. Whoever it is, he's good and... She looked more closely. That's weird. The way he's swinging that sword. It's almost like...the way Xena does...could it be? Nah, too short to be Toris, and Callisto's dead. I think...
Blades sang in the air before colliding once more. A raven eyebrow quirked. Every move Xena had made was almost was perfectly countered by the cloaked figure. Lemme try something. She stepped back and twirled her sword, bringing it up then sideways and about. Much to her annoyance, the exact same move was imitated. Okay, enough of this shit. When the opponent lunged towards her, she pirouretted to the side and drop-kicked the outstretched hand, sending the sword flying. She then slammed the hilt of her sword into a face, swiveled, and drove the heel of her free hand into a chest. Once more, the cloaked figure was on the ground, face up this time.
"All right," Xena growled, planting a foot on the stomach. "Let's see who you are." With her blade, she flung off the hood, revealing the face of a young Egyptian woman. Xena pressed the tip of the sword under the woman's chin. Her voice dropped to a velvety purr. "There's only one person besides me who can wield a sword like that, and he's dead. Who taught you?"
The woman's voice was soft and lyrical. Her eyes ran over the blade held at her throat. "You must be Xena."
Caught at a disadvantage, Xena blinked. How in Tartaros?... "You didn't answer my question. "Who. Taught. You?"
"Phliolaos. He sent me to find you. He told me to look for a woman warrior who wields the sword that once belonged to Zaar."
Upon hearing the familiar name, Xena stepped back and extended a hand to the fallen woman, who took it and let herself be pulled upright. "Thank you."
"Yeah," Xena replied curtly. "Ya could've said somethin' ya know. I don't exactly like to be sneaked up on." She had a good look at her now. Curly dark brown cascaded over a round brown face. Her eyes were a dusky brown with a hint of chestnut. She was beautiful, all right. And...there was something familiar about her.
"Say something?" The woman cast her a curious look. "Like I'm gonna walk up to a warrior and say 'Hi, I'm looking for someone with a distinctive-looking sword, may I have a look at yours?' Yah. Right."
Of course. She talks like Phil. "So you go around picking fights with women warriors just so you can have a look? Man, you're so lucky Callisto's dead."
"She is? For good? I thought she was a god, now."
"Ever hear of hind's blood?"
"Xena!" Gabrielle's voice cut the air, edged with excitement. "Come look at this!" She had picked up the fallen sword and was regarding it with wonder.
Xena quirked a smile at the newcomer. "I guess you can have your sword back, eh? Hey Gabrielle! Show me what's so grand about that blade, willya?"
The bard rushed over with the sword held reverently in her hands. "Look Xena, it looks a lot like yours. But it's like, a few hands smaller The hilt's got the same kind of grip, but the stones are a different color. Where did you get this, uh...?" She cast a puzzling look at the woman.
"Yeah," Xena cut in. "What's your name, anyway?"
"My name is K'Tai." The woman smiled as she accepted her blade. It disappeared under the cloak once more. "Thank you. It was a gift from my teacher. Pleased to meet you. And you are...?"
"I'm Gabrielle," chimed in the bard, warming to a new friend already. "Nice to meet you, even if you were trying to sneak up on us. Nice fighting, by the way. Did you have the same teacher Xena did?"
"Well, sort of." answered K'Tai. "More like her teacher taught mine."
"Yeah, that makes sense. Um, Xena? You mentioned something about wielding a sword a certain way. Well, I noticed it, too, well not exactly noticed, but you get the idea, I mean, K'Tai wields hers like you do-well almost. Tell me, how did you know?"
"Every warrior has a distinctive fighting style, Gabrielle," said Xena. "They're like scents, no two are alike." She cast a glare at K'Tai, who merely smiled and shrugged. The warrior grumbled unhappily at not being able to intimidate this interloper. "Still, ya should've said something." She sheathed her sword and went off to the side, cracking the bones in her hands. Loudly.
K'Tai looked on with a puzzled frown. "Is she always like this?" she asked Gabrielle.
The bard chuckled. "You'll have to excuse my friend. She can be...a little, well, you found that out already, didya?"
"It's okay, I should've known." K'Tai grinned sheepishly. "Uncle Plilolaos did mention she had a temper, but I had no idea. He told me a lot about Xena. Good things." Loud enough for the warrior to hear. "Yeah, I'm talking to you. Wanna come over and at least find out why I'm here?"
"Yeah, yeah, okay. So Phil sent for me, huh?" Xena fumed, cracking her bones even more loudly.
"That he did. Wanna quit that, by the way? We all know how tough you are." When the noise finally stopped, she continued. "Uncle speaks very highly of you. He's been following your adventures, and once he gets started on that, he can't seem to shut up."
The warrior's eyebrow quirked. "Yeah? Well, the last time he saw me, I was a warlord tearing through Greece like a regular Tartarus on wheels. I'm surprised he would even speak to me after all the things I'd done. So how is Phil? He still at the Alexandrian Library?"
"The Library of Alexandria? THE Library of Alexandria?!?" Gabrielle fairly shrieked with excitement. "Is that where we're going? Oh, I would LOVE to meet him! All those scrolls...are you a scribe, K'Tai?" An affirmative nod encouraged her barrage of words even more. "I'm a bard, myself. I LOVE writing stories about the things I've seen. Mostly it's about Xena and her many adventures. Of course, I'm there, too but mostly in the background you see, so are you REALLY a scribe at the Library?"
"That I am." said K'Tai with a smile. "In fact, I'm in charge of the copying rooms. We could always use bards to copy scrolls. Hmmm, wait. Gabrielle, isn't it? I think one of your scrolls made it to our Library. It was called...let's see..."Warrior...Princess" Of course! It was about a a princess by the name of Diana who bears an uncanny resemblance to Xena, and there was this plot to assassinate her. I've just finished Homer's account of the Trojan War. If you would like to come there, I'd like to see your version."
"You hear that, Xena? I'm FAMOUS! Wow. So what new scrolls have you come across? Any action stories? Romance? Mysteries? I can't wait it get my hands on them, oh it's a bard's dream come true. Can we go, Xena? Pleeeeeeaaase?"
Xena winced at the voice, increasingly rising in volume and pitch. "Yes, Gabrielle," she sighed. "We're going. But enough chit-chat. K'tai, would you please get around to why Phil sent for me? Is there some trouble he needs help with?"
K'Tai's eyes saddened. "You could say that. He asked for you to fulfill a promise you'd made to him and Zaar. You see...he's dying..."
The moon was nearly high in the sky, casting its cold light on the gentle waves of the sea. The ship didn't really pitch about on the way to Egypt, so Gabrielle was spared from having to jab that pressure point on her wrist so much. She walked about the nearly empty deck slowly gripping her staff. The sea breeze wasn't too bad, just the smell of salt that hung in the air like some invisible mist. Out in the water, a group of dolphins leapt in the air chattering happily before descending underneath once more. She began to hum an old tune that was sung to her by her mother when she was a child. Her eyes scanned the ship until they rested on the tall warrior speaking quietly to the dark, shorter woman. I like K'Tai. She's sweet, yet doesn't take any guff from anybody. I'll bet that annoys Xena a lot. She was pleased to see they were both smiling.
"...And Uncle used his influence as a scholar to get me a position at the Library," K'Tai said, brushing a stray lock of curly brown hair from her face. "I've met Zaar a couple of times myself. He'd visit a few times a year, stay a while, teach me a few things, then leave. But it was so obvious that he and Uncle loved each other. I never could understand why they weren't together all the time."
Xena closed her eyes in thought. "I remember when I was growing up in Amphipolis, Phil would come to town to visit Zaar. He'd stay at his house, but would come over to my mother's tavern with him and he used to tell me some strange stories..."
"Of Moros the Destroyer?"
"Yeah! I loved those tales. No one else knew those particular stories, though. The whole town thought old Phil was as crazy as Zaar was, maybe crazier. Zaar had his own house, but he would hang around the tavern, helping Mother with this and that. I'd only recently found out that he'd helped Mother through...something. I miss him."
"So do I." K'Tai leaned against the railing, gazing out into the night. Off in the distance, the constant torch of the Pharos of Alexandria gleamed, a tiny light now, but soon to be larger as the ship approached. "I'm not much of a warrior. In fact, I've never killed anyone. And I don't really want to. I prefer to stay all day at the library and read all the scrolls I can get my hands on. But Uncle Phil insisted I learn the way of the sword. Did you always want to be a warrior, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Yeah, for as long as I can remember. My father was a soldier who went on this campaign and that. He was mostly a scout, though, and I think he may have been an a assassin. I don't like talking about him much, though."
"Oh. Okay. Sorry. I don't know who my father is, and I barely remember my mother as it is. All I have left of her is this-" She drew out a necklace with an irregular piece of leather adorned with tiny studs made of Damascus Steel. She handed it to Xena, who turned it over with calloused hands. "I don't even know why I made it into a necklace. All I know is, it was in her hand when she was found. She was murdered. I was only two when Uncle took me in."
Xena examined the piece carefully. "It's of Greek design, that's for sure, but I'm not real familiar with the pattern. If there was more of it, I might be able to identify it," she lied. Truth was, she did recognize it. It belonged to an old army before her time, but she wasn't about to send someone off on a murderous rampage of revenge. She handed the necklace back to K'Tai, who put it back around her neck. "Sorry about your mother."
"That's okay." K'Tai replied. "Whoever killed her must be long dead by now. Uncle Phil's never quite gotten over what happened to Zaar. He stayed at Amphipolis for quite a spell before coming back with Zaar's remains. To this day, he's still carrying that thing around. It's kinda creepy. But...wishes are wishes."
"I'll keep my word."
"Yeah, I guess. He'll be happy to see you, that's for sure."
In spite of herself, Xena found herself liking this quiet young woman. There was a gentleness about her she found endearing. Usually, the people she met on the road regarded her with suspicion, or fear. From the moment they'd met, K'Tai was neither afraid, nor suspicious of her. At first the lack of fear annoyed her immensely. But then again, Phil must have told her everything about me, good and bad, and what to expect. "May I ask you something?"
"It's just that, you remind me of someone I knew a long time ago. Tell me, does the name M'Lila mean anything to you?"
K'Tai turned to her then, eyebrow raised. "Hmm. I don't know. M'Lila's a common name in Egypt. You could ask Uncle, if you like. Perhaps he knows what became of her."
"Oh. Sorry to hear that." She quietly noted the far-away look on the warrior's eyes. What was that all about? Her eyes fell on the petite figure twirling her staff on the deck. "I think your friend would like to spend some time with you now."
Xena followed her gaze. "Oh yeah? What makes you say that?"
"She been staring at you all night, or haven't you noticed?"
"Sure I have. I just wanted to make her wait."
Oh-kaaay. "Well, in that case it's bedtime for me. We should reach the shore by sundown tomorrow. In the meantime, you two try not to blow the ship out of the water, eh? It's Phil's favorite." And before Xena could open her mouth to retort, K'Tai grinned and sauntered off. She approached Gabrielle and paused just long enough to whisper in her ear, then slid out of view.
A bemused scowl crossed the warrior's features as her bard came over with that damned wicked grin on her face. "So what did she say to you?" she demanded of the little imp.
"Oh, nothing," smiled Gabrielle. "So are you going to tell me about this Zaar person, or do I beat it out of you?" She wiggled her staff.
"With that little stick? You ain't got a chance."
"Hmm, then I may need to try a different approach." She leaned up and pressed a kiss on a jutting jaw.
"You'll have to do better than that, I barely felt it."
"Really? How about this?" With that, Gabrielle snaked one hand through raven locks and brought Xena's head down for a searing kiss. Her mouth opened and her tongue plunged into warm depths of sweetness, searching. She pulled back just long enough to suck on the bottom lip. "So," she murmured. "Tell me."
"Uhh..." The warrior's knees were buckling under the carnal assault.
"Is that a yes? You'll tell me what I need to know?"
"Uh-uh. More." She grasped the bard's waist, pulling her close. She captured the pouting lips with her own, hungrily exploring the source of so many tales, songs, and endearments. She pulled back, leaving Gabrielle breathless. "How about telling me what K'Tai told you?"
"After you tell me about Zaar-" She let out a tiny yelp when a wandering hand found its way up her skirt. She felt long nimble fingers slide under her breeches and trembled when they fanned against her wetness. "Hey, no fair." she moaned. "Lower."
"You were saying?" Xena rumbled as she stroked the soft flesh. "Hmmm. Slippery." Her tongue darted out and flicked at Gabrielle's lips. The salty taste of soft skin made her head spin. With her other hand she glided her fingers across a heaving chest before slipping them down the green tank top. When she felt her victim strain against the sweet sensations, she pulled back. "Uh-uh. You tell me."
"Mmmm. Ahhh. I'll tell you what you want to know, just-" She reached for a long tapered hand that glistened in the moonlight with forbidden juices.
Which was snatched back. "Not so fast, little bard." Xena brought her hand to her mouth and sucked, the taste of Gabrielle assaulting her senses. "So sweet," she sighed. She slid her hand once more under skirt and breeches and back on the now quivering flesh. Her fingers teased the opening, pressing briefly, then withdrawing. "Now, where were we?"
Gabrielle's eyes rolled to the back of her head. "What...she said...to... me..." She panted.
Already heavy breathing became labored gasps. "She said that there's a cabin-Oh, Gods! below the deck...for...us...unless...you want...an audience."
Xena froze. Audience? And looked up to find the few sailors left on the deck that were regarding the couple with appreciative glances. Hef on crutches. She looked down and there was Gabrielle with that damned oh-I'm so-innocent-NOT! look on her face. The little shit. "Don'tcha got anything better to do?!?" she barked at the sailors, who quickly went back to their duties. "Come on!" She grabbed the bard's hand and practically dragged her below deck, ignoring the rapidly fading cheers and applause behind them.
The cabin was tiny, but cozy. The scent of salt hung in the air, mixing with that of passion. Xena had finally calmed down when the door closed, melting into Gabrielle's arms. They shared a long, fiery kiss, clinging to each other for dear life. Warrior hands cupped a tiny, firm bottom. Smaller, softer hands traced the planes of chiseled features. Hungry lips closed on a tender throat. A smooth, muscled thigh slid upwards, brushing against leather.
I want you. Now.
Take me. Please.
Together, they descended onto the bed, each at the mercy of the other's hands and mouth. Growling in need. Mewling in pleasure.
Touch me here.
Kiss me there.
Hands flew, tearing away leather and cloth. Two bodies merged, again and again, a single soul singing in ecstasy. Their lovemaking drifted from gentle caressing to animal passion. They pressed against each other, straining for more. Hands and mouths dove into hot pulsing cores. The tempo reached a blinding frenzy. It took twin keening cries of release for the beast to descend into its lair once more.
Oh, that was so...
I think the earth moved.
Um, that was the ship.
Here. Jab. Better?
They were tangled in each other's arms, bathed in sweat. Xena's eyes drifted down to the small hand draped over her stomach then up to the dreamy green eyes. She reached up and lightly stoked the red-gold hair. "So beautiful," she murmured. "I love you so much."
Gabrielle leaned into the caress. "If you don't want to talk about Zaar, it's okay. I know how much you hate to dredge up the past..."
"No, Gabrielle, I don't mind." She sighed, remembering. "Zaar was my first teacher in the arts of war. He'd been a soldier a long time ago, but you'd never know it by looking at him. He was such a gentle soul. The whole town thought he was just a crazy old man, always talking to himself and wandering around. But he understood me, a misfit who wasn't like other girls..."
Tried to save myself
but my self keeps slipping away
into the void
Father was leaving again. The heavy tramp of his boots rumbled the floor boards. He was so big. A giant sword hung from his belt and slapped against his leg. He always liked to wear his sword. It made him feel ten feet tall, adding a kick to his swagger. He had this look on his face that said "go ahead, fuck with me", which he had spent years perfecting. He tramped about the room, gathering his belongings, getting ready for yet another shit assignment.
And the bad part was, he wasn't even drunk this time.
His wife looked on with apprehension. And a six-year-old Xena watched from upstairs, peering through the rafters.
"Atrius," called Cyrene. "Don't you want to say good-bye to the children?"
"What for?" Atrius rumbled. "They ain't goin' anywhere, are they? Why should I even bother?" He grunted in disgust. "That damned commander of mine is too soft. Seems all he wants to do is take one fucking temple from the Romans to one-up Ptomely. Al the trouble I went to ta scout the area, all this land we could have and he wants ta storm one fucking temple?!? They're on the land, we oughta shove them off. Damn Romans. Kill 'em all, I say!"
"But anything can happen, Atrius. What if you're captured and-"
"Nothing is gonna happen to me, woman. Nothing!" He reached out and grasped his wife's chin in a painful grip. "I should be a commander now, instead of a fucking grunt. But, no, I had to marry young and now I'm stuck with brats to feed. Ya got yer father's tavern, what the fuck do you need me for? At least you gave me two sons to carry on if something did happen to me."
Atrius let go and turned away angrily. "A girl who runs wild in the woods. And you let her! What would my comrades say if they knew? Girl like that should stay at home. 'Strange one', indeed. I can't believe you named her that."
"It's not like you had any choice in the matter, you weren't even there when she was born-"
A slap rung in the air. Cyrene cowered, tears streaming down her reddening face. Atrius raised a finger, towering over her. "You should have left her to die! But no, you had to-" he paused when he felt a flurry on the back of his legs. He looked down to find his young daughter beating his legs with tiny fists. A enraged scowl crossed his rugged features as he advanced her, annoyed that the girl would not back down. "Oh, so you think you can beat your old man, eh? You wanna be a soldier? Well, it ain't gonna happen!" His huge hand swung out, sending the child sprawling.
"Atrius, no!" Cyrene rushed in front of him, catching his upraised hand. "Please. Stop it. She was only trying to protect me."
"Woman, get your hands off of me!" Atrius tore away from his wife's grasp. "Besides, she just ran off."
Cyrene turned to find that Xena had indeed gone. She looked out the open door just in time to see the young girl disappearing into the woods. "Look what you've done!" She screamed at him. "You've frightened her!"
Atrius shrugged. "Let her go. And I ain't gonna look for her, either. Let the fucking wolves raise her up for all I care. Stupid kid won't listen to me anyway. If she comes back, she comes back. If she don't, oh well..."He slung his bag over his shoulder. "I'm gone. I'll be back in a few days. C'Mere." He grabbed Cyrene and pressed her roughly to the wall, hungrily claiming her lips with his own in a bruising kiss. When he pulled back, she was breathing hard, fighting back tears. He leaned in just enough to whisper, "Later."As soon as his footsteps were out of earshot, Cyrene slid down the wall and wept.
She was lost, of that she was certain. She'd always loved the forest with its mighty trees and fields of grass. She felt more at home here than she did at her house, that was for sure. Father was hardly ever there, and when he was, he was so mean to Mama. She loved Mama so much, but it seemed like she wasn't there, too. Every time she ran to her for something, she'd get a hug and kiss, but there was never time to do anything but to help her at the tavern she ran, which was to cook, clean, and serve the various towns-people that came every night. She was always too busy for anything else but that. "We have to make do, Xena," she'd always say. "Father's away and we have to make ends meet." The tavern was too noisy, had too many people, all she wanted was a quiet time alone with Mama, and maybe Toris and baby Lyceus, too. Only when they were tucked in each night was Mama all theirs. Then came sleep, and Mama had to go back to the loud people. Then one day, she wandered to the forest. Its soft, wild sounds called to her. Every day when Mama was too busy, she was there.
She'd never been in this part of the forest before. Maybe she was too far from home. She'd run after Father hit her. Why had he done that? She just wanted him to stop hurting Mama. I will be a soldier, Father. You'll see. When I grow up I will be a big, strong soldier and make you stop hurting Mama.
A sharp cry made her jump. She whirled around, looking to see what had made that sound. The sky was rapidly darkening, and it wouldn't be long until night was in full force. The cry came again, much closer this time, and she dashed towards a thick cluster of trees.
The branches clawed at her as she sped by. Her arms flew to her face to avoid getting her eyes scratched out. Her heart was pounding, fear creeping into her soul. She cried out when a branch scraped across her arm. Warm drops of blood streamed from the wound, and flecked back into her face as she still ran. She spat out the coppery taste and kept going. She burst through the thicket and came to a clearing. Was she still being chased? She didn't know. Again, she looked around, ignoring the throbbing of her hurt arm. What was that? A house? Maybe they can tell me where I am. She went towards the house when the sharp cry rang out again. It's still chasing me! If I can't run from it, I'll kill it. She picked up a nearby branch and stole silently towards the sound. It was coming from the house, no, outside of it. She could make out a figure standing, its back to her. Got you now! With a cry from her own, she rushed the figure, branch raised high.
At the last minute, the figure spun around and the branch flew from her hand. She stopped short, stunned, then looked up. It was a man, screaming like that. How did he do that? Her eyes widened when she recognized him. He was old. He was not quite tall, but not short, either, with a shock of black hair with streaks of silver through it and a wrinkled, weather-worn face, a deep half-moon scar at his temple. He was dressed in a coarsely-woven tunic and brown trousers, the garb of a peasant. His hands were large and stubby-looking. The beard that covered his face was thick and slate grey. And he had warm indigo eyes which sparkled.
"You...you're the crazy man." she said.
He smiled as he looked down on her, as if he was expecting her. "That I am, child. Are you lost? Have you run away?"
Xena began to back away. She'd heard about this man. He was crazy, living in the middle of the forest with the animals. When he did come to town, he would wander around, talking to invisible people in a strange language. "I'm not running," she lied. "I was hunting a wild animal and got here." She glanced around looking for her stick. "I've seen you. You talk to people who aren't there. Who were you talking to?"Why is he looking at me like that?
"You're hurt," he said. He knelt down before the child and took her arm gently in his gnarled hands. "Tell me why you ran away from home."
She stared at him, unable to move. How had he known that? "I...I..." she stammered.
"And you're hungry, too. Come inside. I'll tend to your wound and you can have some stew. Then, I'll take you home." He rose and closed his hand over a tiny one.
Wordlessly, the girl let herself be led to the house. It looked a lot bigger inside than it did on the outside. The large hand holding hers was strong, but gentle. His words and demeanor were kind. Father was never like that, he was always yelling and hitting things. She looked around and saw a massive collection of weapons hung on the wall. This man was a soldier? He certainly didn't look like it, he was just an old man that talked to himself. He was so different than Father. Why is the crazy man being so nice to me? She sat and watched in silence as the old man gently washed the nasty cut on her arm and put some funny-smelling stuff on it. Her nose wrinkled from the rough, woodsy scent, but her arm did feel better. "Thank you," she whispered. "I'm sorry I tried to hit you and called you crazy."
"It's all right, child. Maybe I am a little crazy, but there's a reason for it. There's a reason for everything." He smiled as he wrapped a small bandage around the small arm. "My name is Zaar."
Her eyes widened in wonder. "But...you're Greek. Why do you have an Egyptian name?"
He shrugged. "Perhaps the same reason you are called Xena. 'Strange one', is it not?"
"How do you know my name?"
"I know lots of things. And your mother's name is Cyrene and your father's name is Atrius and..." His face fell when he saw the look of rage mix with fear clouding the child's face. "What's wrong, child?"
Her lip began to tremble. "Father...he's the reason I left. He was yelling at Mama and he hurt her, and I tried to.." Tears spilled from her eyes as a sob wracked her tiny frame.
Zaar gathered the trembling child in his arms. "Oh, child. You cannot fault him for what he is. And what about your poor mother? She must be worried sick by now." He rocked her, whispering soothing words. "It's all right. Let it all out. Come now. Eat something. You must be hungry." He led her by the hand to a table, then placed a steaming plate of food in front of her.
She ate with gusto, remembering now how hungry she was. From time to time, she glanced up at Zaar, her eyes wistful.
They talked for a while as the heavens above grew dark. She discovered that Zaar was once a soldier in a mighty king's army. He was a fearsome fighter who struck fear in his enemies with his war-cry as well as his prowess. He had lived in Egypt, too, where he was given the name Zaar. When asked what his real name was, he merely shook his head and smiled. He also had a friend who was a scholar at the Library of Alexandria. "Such a wonderful scholar," he said. "Philolaos can read and write just about any language he lays his eyes on. In fact, he has this giant stone on the wall with all the known languages together so anyone could translate what it said. From time to time, he would chisel a new language into the stone."
When supper was over, it was time to go home. His hand closed over hers. And suddenly it felt like she was leaving home than going.
Amidst the buzz of activity at the tavern, Cyrene went from table to table with the well-worn innkeeper's smile. She brought out plate after plate of cooked delights and poured ale, port, cider, whatever her customers desired. Inside, she was terrified. Xena still hadn't returned from the woods, and it was well past the time for her return. Her brother Stavros, the town's blacksmith, had long ago gone on the search with a small party, but they hadn't returned either. Tall, silent Stavros had immediately set off after his niece when he came over earlier to find his sister crying. "First I find Xena, then I find that bastard husband of yours and kill him." He'd said when she told him what had happened. She'd managed to talk him out of the last part. She'd deal with Atrius when the time came. With a grumbled agreement, Stavros had gone off, cursing his brother-in-law. Damn you, Atrius! Her husband had left for his mission without even a thought as to where his own daughter might be. Still, she smiled as she poured yet another mug of wine for the finely dressed traveler at the bar, a shortish man with curly blond hair and laughing grey eyes who kept talking, and talking, and talking...
"Cyrene!" A voice yelled from the door. It was Kentares, known for his loud voice in spite of a short stature.
Oh, now what? "Yes, Kentares?"
"The crazy man's out here, he says he's got something that belongs to you."
Pushing down the surge of fear that coiled from her belly, Cyrene wove her way through the crowd towards the door. When she opened it, there was the crazy man, holding a bundle covered in a blanket in his hands. What did he want? "Yes?"
Wordlessly, he handed her the bundle and drew back a flap, revealing a sleeping Xena, safe and sound. Tears blinding her eyes, Cyrene clutched her daughter to her, thanking the gods for her safe return.
"She had a nasty-looking cut on her arm, but I took care of it," said the man as he stroked the tiny head. "Actually, she was more scared than hurt."
The girl's eyes fluttered open. "Mama?" She yawned, wrapping her arms around her mother's neck.
"Thank you," Cyrene sobbed. "Thank you. Please. Come inside." She went back in the tavern with the drowsy child still in her arms. She was greeted with a chorus of cheers. A few of them began to chant, "Stavros! Stavros! Stavros!" The noise immediately died away when the man behind Cyrene emerged dressed in peasant garb.
"Hey!" someone yelled. "It's the crazy man. What are you doing here? Go talk to your invisible friends elsewhere."
"Yeah!" Someone else. "We don't want your kind around here!"
"Hey, who's that standing behind you? Tell him to come out where we can see him! Or is he even there?"
"That's enough!" Cyrene's voice cut through the chatter. "This man saved my daughter's life. For that, I owe him a debt of gratitude, as should you. Elaina!" She called to a nearby barmaid. "Bring this man some supper and something to drink!" Smiling a nod of thanks to the man, she turned and carried her daughter up the stairs to her room. The crowd grew silent once more as they stared at the funny-looking man garbed in peasant gear. They watched as he went over to the talkative traveler at the bar, who grew silent as he approached...
Cyrene tucked her child in bed, singing softly to her. She looked at the bandage on her arm in wonder. The crazy man did this? She stroked the raven hair. Again, the blue eyes opened and regarded her mother. "Mama..."
"Shhh. You're safe now."
"I'm sorry I ran away."
"It's all right, you're back and that's all that matters."
"Zaar helped me. He's my friend."
So that's what his name is. "I know. But sweetheart, he talks to people that aren't there. He may be sick."
"I don't care. Did you know he was a soldier? He was so nice to me. I was lost, and he found me and he sings songs, and maybe I want to be a soldier like he is."
"Later, little one. Rest, now." She kissed her child's forehead, and went to return to work. She was just out the door when-
"Mama. Why does Father hate me?"
Cyrene stiffened as she realized every word of her earlier argument with Atrius had been heard. She began to cry again. "Oh, little one." She turned back to the blue eyes gazing up into her own. She couldn't answer the child. Fresh tears streamed down her face as she turned once more to the noise downstairs.
She found the man at the bar talking to the chatterbox. The rest of the customers had stopped heckling him, but a few kept glancing his way, as if he was going to start talking to empty air again. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "I want to thank you again for bringing back my daughter. I apologize for my customers."
"It's all right, ma'am." Indigo eyes twinkled. "It was no trouble at all."
"Thank you so much. Zaar, isn't it?"
His face lit up. "Yes, it is. This is my friend Phliolaos." The chatty friend grinned broadly at the hostess. "He just came in from Alexandria."
She smiled as she shook the traveler's hand. At least the man had one friend in the world, even if he was a traveler that talked a lot. She felt more relieved than ever before. Now Xena had a new friend in the woods if she ever got lost again. Her eyes went to the door. Stavros should be back any time now, empty-handed. As if in answer to her thoughts, the tall lumbering man entered the tavern, his shoulders slumped.
Stavros scanned the place until he found his sister and the look of sadness on his face gave way to bemusement as she approached with a smiling teary face. "She found her way back." He said with relief.
"No, this man found her and brought her back." Cyrene gestured to the man sitting at the bar.
"The crazy guy?"
"Don't call him that, his name is Zaar."
"Zaar? THE Zaar?"
"What, you've heard of him?"
"Only that he was one of the greatest warriors ever to fight in Alexander the Great's army. But that was so long ago, he should be dead, now. His son, grandson, great-grandson maybe?"
"Oh, who knows? I don't care what he is, he brought Xena back."
"Hmmmph! All right. When's Atrius coming back?"
"Oh, Stavros, don't start again..."
There they were again in the town square, practicing sword play. In a peaceful village such as Amphipolis, no one would expect to see such a display. But the spectre of war was present as rumors of rising warlords ravaging innocent villages was upon everyone's lips. Men and boys alike were swinging their swords in formation under the direction of a teacher garbed in full uniform and armor. He was a retired veteran of the mighty Athenian Army by the name of Dekros, hired by a nervous town to train her sons.It didn't hurt to be prepared, after all. Young Xena watched from the sidelines watching the drills. They didn't want girls, only boys and men. She clenched her fists into tiny balls as she remembered marching up to Dekros and asking to be part of the class. He'd laughed at her. War is for men, he'd said and told her to go home and learn instead to become a good wife.
But I want to be a soldier. Father had gone away for good, Mama had said. He was never coming back. At least he wouldn't hurt her anymore. I will grow up to be a soldier and find Father so I can show him I can be just like him.
She sensed the presence beside her and she smiled as she recognized a friend. "Hi, Zaar." He was around the tavern a lot since Father left.
"Hello, Xena. What's this?" he asked, indicating the formation of metal flashing through the air.
"War drills. They say that there are bad men doing horrible things in other villages and they want to be ready for them."
He regarded the display of war games, stroking his beard. "So, are you watching, or would you like to be a part of it?"
Xena's face fell. "I already tried. They said they didn't want girls. The teacher laughed at me."
"Is that so? I think I'll have a chat with him." He strode towards Dekros. "Hey, there."
The teacher spun to glare at the intruder as the men stopped what they were doing in mid-swing. "What are you doing here? Go on and talk to empty air like you usually do."
"Well, I just wanted to know what kind of class is this, because my friend wants to join, too." He tilted his head towards Xena.
"You can't be serious! I should have known that wild child would associate with the likes of you!"
"Hmmm. I just can't understand why a girl can't join your class. Looks to me she might be your best student."
"Over my dead body. Women aren't fit for battle!"
"Hmm. I know of a few Amazons that might object to that. But no matter. Looks like your teaching could use some improvement."
"Is that so? You think you can do better, crazy man?"
"I didn't say that, but if you insist..."
"That does it!" The Dekros brandished his sword. "Pamolneus! Your sword! Watch as I cut this lunatic into ribbons!"
A young man tossed his blade over to Zaar, where it landed by his feet. Zaar began to grin broadly and glanced back at Xena to wink as he casually tapped his foot on the ground and the sword flew into his hand. Looking back at the astonished look on Dekros' face, he twirled the sword up and down, around his head before bringing it down in a gentle swing and touched the tip of the blade on the teacher's nose. "Now. Shall we dance?"
Growling, Dekros lurched forward, hoping to drive his blade into a belly, but connected with empty air instead. Zaar simply rolled away from the attack and smacked the flat of his blade against a backside getting a yelp in surprise. Again Dekros began an offensive and this time Zaar parried the onslaught of blows with ease, grinning broadly. The teacher swung long and hard, not able to get past this man's defense. He tried an overhead swing. Blocked. He brought the sword around and under, meaning to gut him. Blocked. He was getting tired, now. That crazy old fool looked as relaxed as ever, as if this was some damned game. Finally, he unleashed a flurry of blows, his best combination ever. If only he could get a good slash in.
With a flick of his wrist, Zaar sent the other man's sword flying. The crowd that had gathered to watch the battle suddenly dispersed with loud cries as the sword went pummeling to the ground. Its blade plunged halfway into the earth, quivering. Zaar against placed the tip of the sword on his opponent's nose. Suddenly weaponless, Dekros raised his hands in surrender. "All right," he croaked. "You want me to teach the brat, I'll do it. In fact, why don't you take over the class? You've obviously better than me." He cringed at the thought of having to face his students after being so soundly beaten.
A crinkly grin spread on Zaar's face. "Hmm, I don't think so. You're good. I think you should keep teaching your class. Me, I've got other things to do. Thanks for the workout, though." Leaving the man still standing, he turned back and went towards Xena. Several of the men in the class was busy trying to pull the teacher's sword out of the ground with little luck. Zaar paused, looking at the blade in his hands. "Oh, this isn't mine." And casually flung it behind him. Again, the crowd shrieked in terror as yet another blade came hurtling towards the earth. The unlucky man still trying to pull out the other sword looked around, wondering when everyone went, when he looked up, his eyes wide. He let out a yelp when he jumped out of the way as the falling blade dove into the ground next to the previous one.
Xena looked in new wonder at her approaching friend. "Wow. You sure showed him, did you Zaar?"
"Well, why not?" he answered, taking her hand. "Still want to join?" They started back to Cyrene's tavern.
"I don't know. That teacher doesn't seem so great now. But I still want to be a soldier."
"Soldier...soldier. That sounds so stiff. Now, warrior. There's a noble word, if there was one."
"What's the difference?"
"Soldiers fight because they're told to. Warriors fight because they want to."
"Then I want to be a warrior, then."
"I thought you wanted to be in that class."
"Not now, not after you beat that teacher. Zaar?"
"Would you teach me to swing a sword like you do?'
"Child...I thought you'd never ask..."
I thought I was gonna learn to wield a sword. No, for the past full cycle of seasons, he had her doing anything but. Like standing still in the forest listening. What for, she'd asked. A warrior must learn to be aware of his surroundings at all times, he'd said.. The only thing I wanna be aware of is the feel of a weapon in my hands. There, a bird. What kind? Where was it? How close was it? Grudgingly, she took the lessons to heart. He'd teach her with weapons when she was ready, he'd said. Great. Like I'm gonna use all this other stuff someday. She'd often find herself sitting cross-legged in the forest, concentrating. Sure enough, there was always an animal to listen for. A bird. Thrush. In the trees. A body-length. Every sound has a story, he'd said. You can tell by sound who was approaching, how tall, if they were carrying weapons, things like that. Look without seeing and listen without hearing, or was it the other way around? She was good at that, he'd said. Also, a warrior must learn to be silent, blend into his surrounding to better get the drop on an enemy. At least she got to climb trees, she'd always liked that. The running through the forest practically all day wasn't too bad, either, except when Zaar would insist she carry a sack of stones on her back. Oh, that was the worst! He'd taught lots of other weird stuff too. Like making patterns on a piece of hanging canvas with a stick with a burnt end. What was the point in that? Sure, they looked pretty and swirly, but how was that gonna help her wield a sword? And the herbs. She'd gone cross-eyed learning all the strange plants he'd showed her. Which ones were used for medicine, and which ones were poison, and on, and on.
Today just might be the final straw. One year, I have yet to pick up a sword, and now he has me doing this?!? She was perched with one foot on a tree stump with the other bent upwards. If that wasn't bad enough, she had a long branch resting across outstretched hands. Balance, he'd said. Keep only one foot on the stump. Then he'd left to look for something. Xena was fuming when he hadn't returned for nearly a candle mark. Her leg was getting tired. Keep one foot on the stump. Keep the branch on your arms. With a sigh, she shifted to the other foot. That wasn't much better. Hef on crutches, where was he? The branch was getting heavy. I can do this. She stretched her raised leg. She began to roll the branch, flipping it up, then catching it again. She moved her arms in that swirly pattern bringing one end of the stick up, then down and around. She hopped from one foot to another as she played with the gnarled wood. Hey, I could get used to this. After all, he didn't say anything about standing still. Still, she was reaching the boiling point. That's it. I'm gonna quit, what's the point of all this useless stuff? She froze when a prickling in the back of her skull alerted her to a presence. About time. She turned, and there he was, with that ever-present grin on his face. Was the guy ever mad?
"Well done." he said, smiling as he held a fish in each hand. She opened her mouth to tell him that it was nice and all, but maybe she should quit trying to learn all this when he said, "Now, you're ready."
Xena brought the other foot down and dropped the branch. "Ready?" She sputtered. "For what?"
"You do still want to learn how to wield a sword, do you not?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"All right, then. As soon as we have lunch, we'll begin."
She hopped off the stump in bewilderment and followed him to his house. "Uh, Zaar?"
"Where'd you get the fish from?"
"From the lake."
"But where is your fishing pole?"
"I don't have one."
"But how'd you get the fish?"
"That's another lesson..."
Where was he? Xena made her way silently through the woods becoming one with her surroundings, looking for her friend. When he was gone, she would go to his house to take care of it. Even when Zaar wasn't there, she could still sense his presence as if he were actually there. Lately, she'd been practicing with Lyceus, who'd loved every minute of it. Aside from Zaar, he was the only one who understood her. He wanted to be just like his tall, strong sister who could fight like a man.
Zaar was supposed to have come back from Egypt yesterday. She had meant to go down to the docks to see him come in, but she had had other things to do. Things like cooking, which she hated. When Zaar didn't show up as usual at the tavern, she got worried. Oh, her mother had rolled her eyes when she'd left. Why is it that every time I try to get you to do something useful, you run away? She'd said.
I'm not running away, I need to find Zaar. I'll be back with him.
Just don't get into any more fights, please? Poor Metrius may never be the same since you beat him so soundly.
And what was so bad about that? He was picking on Lyceus.
Sometimes you go too far protecting him. Lyceus looks up to you. Do you want him to see his sister brutally beat someone to a pulp? It's not good for him.
And why not?
Because you're starting to act just like...and the words stopped at that, but they both knew what the rest of the sentence was. She had stared at her mother long and hard before heading out the door.
Father was still nowhere to be found, but his memory still lingered like some stench wafting up from long-buried trash. Father hit and yelled to get his way. I'll never be like him. Still, Cyrene's words had troubled her more than she cared to admit. She was quick to anger at times, especially when her loved ones were threatened. Zaar understood. He talked often about controlling one's emotions, anger being the hardest to master. Anger can blind you, he'd said. Yes it can give you the strength to carry out a task, but to succumb to it was damnation. I don't think I'll be able to get that lesson, but I can try.
She finally reached the clearing and spotted him, his back to her. His name died on her lips when she realized he was talking to someone.
Or, no one, to be more accurate.
She did not understand a word that came out of his mouth. He walked around in circles, waving his hands to emphasize a point. He seemed lost, almost dazed. His eyes were glazed over as if he were in some trance. She approached him carefully, standing in front of him. Their was no recognition in his eyes. She waved her hands to no avail. Still he kept babbling as if he were actually carrying on a conversation with anyone but the girl in front of him.
"Zaar?" She addressed him, studying his face for a response.
When there was none, "ZAAR!" And clapped a hand on his shoulder.
He blinked slowly and focused on the face before him. "Was I gone?" he asked sadly.
"Yeah. Come back with me to Mother's?"
"Yes, of course." He still looked lost.
They began to thread their way through the forest, Xena's hand on his arm to steady him. "Who do you talk to when you're 'gone'?"
"People I know and loved. Once there was this terrible battle I fought long ago. My brother was killed. And my three sisters were captured. Then...I lost myself."
"Why haven't you avenged your brother? Or gone to rescue your sisters?"
"They are out of my reach now. Sometimes I like to think they are still with me and I can talk to them. I can't help it, it's like I'm there with them. I'm just an old soldier that's well past his time."
"I'll do it for you."
"What? Kill my brother's murderer? Defeat my sisters' captor? You do not know what you promise. I cannot ask you to seek revenge for my sake. To do so is to let the fire of blood lust consume you."
"I just want you to stop hurting."
"And take away what I am? The warrior chooses battles wisely. I chose mine. You must accept this. The time will come when I will face my brother's murderer, and you will not be there."
Xena tightened her grip on Zaar's arm,. It hurt her to see him in pain. How could he stand by and let all these terrible things happen to him when he was such a gentle soul? She wanted so much to comfort him, to tell him that what he would find peace. He was so much part of her life..."Zaar, I have something to ask you, and it doesn't involve any killing."
"You've been around for a long time now, I can't imagine life without you. You...you're like a father to me, would you...would you marry Mother so you can be? For real?"
The request surprised Zaar, and he couldn't help but let out a chuckle. "Oh, you think of the most outlandish things, Xena. If you wish, I will be a father to you, although I thought I was doing that already. But I already have a mate."
Why didn't she figure this out? "Philolaos."
A surprised look came on her face. Of course. It made sense, now. Every time Phil was in town, he'd spent time with Zaar and the lessons would go into hiatus. But if they were in love, then..."Why aren't you together, then?"
"Long story, child. He has his duties in Alexandria, and I have mine here."
"And what are your duties?"
"To pass on what I know."
"Why not? You did volunteer to be my champion, you know."
Xena blinked in confusion. Okay, he's really talking crazy, now...
CLANG! Whoosh! Whup! Whup!CLANG!
It was a strange sight to see if there ever was one. Zaar and Xena circled each other with swords in hand. Naturally, the girl's sword was smaller, but was no less effective. "Why do I have to look in the eyes, Zaar? Shouldn't I be watching where the sword is?" She swung in a wide arc towards his shoulder. Zaar's sword met hers, blocking the blow.
"Because," he said as he swung to the side and away. "You can read what your opponent's next move will be."
"How?" She hacked at the outstretched blade with both hands and yelped in surprise as she felt a gentle smack at the back of her head. "Hey!" Her arms went down and she glared at her teacher, rubbing her head.
Zaar smiled kindly at the girl. "I could've had a dagger in the other hand. The sword is but merely an extension of yourself. You do not merely use your arms and hands, but your legs as well. Remember what I taught you about balance. Since the sword is added weight, you must compensate. As for the eyes, you must get a sense of what your opponent is made of. They say that eyes are the window to the soul. I'm inclined to believe that is true. You must also use your ears, your sense of smell., touch. Sometimes it is necessary to allow yourself to get hit just to determine how strong your opponent is, but then again, perhaps not. The point is, you must win the fight even before you strike." He got a rather confused look from Xena who was taking it all in. "I know it's hard for you to understand this right now, but know this. Everything I have taught you so far has a purpose. I'll show you. Again. Horse stance." He instructed.
Feet wide apart.
"Not an elephant. Horse."
Feet not so wide apart.
"That's better. Now." He held his sword in both hands in front of him and extended his arms. Xena mimicked the move. "Eye contact." Sky blue eyes locked with indigo one. "Don't think. Move. Don't go over the steps, or how to counter. Trust for the moment to provide. Flow. You must invoke the essence of the warrior fully and with joy."
A moment of eternity passed before movement began. Twin glints of metal shone in the sunlight as they swirled in the air before colliding with one another again and again in a flurry. Xena's feet began to move of their own accord, stepping this way and that, shifting her balance. She was all but forgot about where the other sword was and focused on reading her opponent's next move. It was easy, she realized. Everybody and everything had an energy around them that couldn't be seen, but felt. The shifting vibrations of such energies gave the warrior a sense beyond instinct. She understood now why Zaar made her sit alone in the forest. It was to learn to read that energy and be in tune with it. To see without looking. To hear without listening. To be. An opening presented itself to her and she took it, stepping hard on an outstretched sword thrust towards her, pinning it to the ground. She brought up the blade and stopped it a mere hair-breadth from Zaar's throat. "I win." She grinned.
"Well done." Zaar smiled proudly. "Just one problem though.,"
"What's that? Oh." When she noticed his hand at her own throat. She stepped back sheepishly as they both lowered their swords.
"Don't get cocky," he chided. "Remember that every move has a counter to it no matter how complex or fancy it is. Of course that's all moot if you can get your move in fast enough, but then again it's not."
"Uh-huh."I still don't get it.
"Maybe we should work on your speed. Can you catch?"
"And so, Moros the Destroyer went forth to free his sisters from the clutches of Zeus. He had until sundown to release them, or they would forever be at The King of the God's mercy. He flew across the heavens, hoping against hope that he would beat Helios' chariot. It was then that he heard the cry. In his mind's eye, he saw his beloved Eros had been taken to a dark place where his love could not shine. He too would succumb forever if he wasn't reached by sundown. Torn between two awful choices, Moros knew not what to do. There was no way he could save one and be back in time to save the others. And then, a voice from the mist whispered to him in soft tones...Go forth in passion and meet thy doom....and Moros knew he had to rescue his beloved, for there can be no life without the power of love. Whispering a tearful apology to his sisters, he went forth to find Eros. He came upon a mighty mountain. He could hear the cries of Eros from deep within the rock. He drew his sword and began his approach when a flash of light flared before him. It was Ares, God of War. 'You'll have to go through me if you want your precious Eros', he sneered. Moros realized that it was a trap. Grimly, he challenged Ares to a duel. And oh, how they fought. Sparks flew with each clash of their swords as the sun inched ever so lower towards the horizon. Born with the sole purpose of waging war, Ares soon had Moros disarmed and the the ground, his sword against his throat. 'I win.' he declared. 'Prepare to join your beloved. Look! Sundown is nearly upon us. You have failed both Eros and your sisters.' He raised his sword and prepared to strike the death blow. But Moros, God of Doom, had yet to be defeated. At that moment, the spirit of his brother Thanatos, who had been slain by Ares' hand, came to him and bestowed upon him his power. His strength doubled, Moros grasped the plunging blade and tossed it away from the astonished Ares' grasp. He then raised his hand and the God of War was tossed high up in the air. He stood and his sword flew into his hands once more. Just as the sun was about to kiss Mother Earth, Moros the Destroyer burst into the mountain and freed Eros. He emerged with his beloved in his arms. Still, his heart was heavy, for his sisters were now forever bound to Zeus. Then, after interfering with with sister's Loom, he and Eros became doomed to spend a thousand years as mortals, but that's another story."
Thirteen-year-old Xena and listened with awe, perched at the bar. A mug of cider stood forgotten. Back in town, old Phil was at it again, spinning his tales to an audience of one. Cyrene was wiping the counter. She didn't understand half of what the man was saying, but she didn't mind. His presence was comforting. He'd taken to Xena, as well as Toris and Lyceus. The few times he came to visit, Philolaos would tell stories to the three children, keeping them out of their mother's hair. He smiled at Xena's unspoken request for the rest of the story."Some other time, dear. For now, I need to I talk to your Ma, all right? When did Zaar say he'd be back, Cyrene?"
The innkeeper shrugged. "Probably by sundown. Are you staying long?"
"Yes. A few days, it looks like."
"Well, good. Xena, where are you going?"
The girl was moving towards the door when her mother called. "To find Zaar, Mother. Maybe he's lost."
Cyrene wrinkled her brow. "All right, but be back before sundown. And don't you be late."
"Yes, Mother." She bounded out the door.
Cyrene looked after her with a worried frown. "That child's getting more bold by the moment. I wonder, when she grows up..."
"She'll be a fine woman," Philolaos smiled. "Don't you worry."
"That's just it. I can't help but."
Xena came upon the town square greeted with a curious sight. There was a small crowd of children huddling around something. When she came closer, she could hear shouts, and they were throwing things. Pushing her way through the huddle, she saw Zaar in the middle being pelted by small stones.
"Crazy old man!" One large boy, obviously the leader shouted. "Papa says you're sick in the head and aren't fit to live!"
"Yeah!" Another one. "Why don't you fight back? Feeble old man, can't even stand up straight."
A stone hit Zaar in the forehead, above the eye. He crumpled to the ground, clutching his head.
"Say goodbye, old man!" The large boy picked up a rather large stone and hefted it.
"Leave him alone!"
The boy turned around to where the crowd had parted and there was a wild-looking girl with black hair and blue eyes. "What do you want, Xena? This is no concern of yours."
"Is too!" Xena spat back, her fist clenching tightly. "That's my friend you're hurting."
"Oh, he's your friend, huh?" The boy dropped the rock to the ground and began to advance her with a sneer. "Not too surprised, since you're just as crazy as he is. You talk to yourself, too? You see things that aren't there? Everyone knows you like to play deep in the forest. Maybe that's why your father ran off and left you, because you're a fucking freak-!"His words were cut off when a devastating punch crashed on his jaw. His hands flew to his face as he staggered back. When he looked at his hands, they were covered in blood. "You...you bitch!" He sputtered. He swung at her.
Xena ducked the oncoming blow, twisting to the side and drove her elbow into his ribs. The boy yelped in pain. She followed with a fist to the side to his head.
The crowd of children had dropped their stones and now watched the fight. The boy was swinging blow after blow, some of which were blocked. His fist caught the side of her face. The heel of her hand slammed into his chest. Roaring, he charged Xena, catching her around the waist and pushing forward. Caught in his grip, Xena rained blow after blow on his back. Finally, they crashed into the wall of a nearby shop. Pinned, Xena brought her fists together and soundly boxed his ears. Screaming, he dropped her. She finished with an uppercut to his chin. A stream of blood sprayed into the air as his head jerked back and he pitched forward. He lay there, whimpering for his mother before crawling towards his friends.
Breathing heavily, Xena advanced and glared at the remaining children. "Who's next?" She growled. Not wanting to wind up like their friend, the children scattered, no doubt to tell their mothers and fathers about what that wild child had done now.
Satisfied the danger was over, Xena went over to the fallen Zaar. She knelt down and smoothed the black hair streaked with grey. She winced at the angry bruise forming at his temple to join his half-moon scar. "Are you okay? Did they hurt you badly?"
He groaned and sat up, rubbing his sore head. "Your mother's not going to be too happy about this."
She blinked. "But...they were hurting you. I couldn't let that happen.""I've endured worse, child. Besides, was it really necessary for you to land the first blow? You let that boy get to you with words. Don't you remember what I taught you about anger? You cannot let it rule you, or you are lost. You get careless."
She hung her head. That crack the boy made about her father had really struck a nerve. And she had let her rage blind her, allowing the boy to take advantage and almost beat her. As gentle as Zaar's reproach was, her face flushed at the thought at disappointing him. "I'm sorry, Zaar."
He put an arm around her shoulder as she helped him up. "Don't be sorry, child. Just learn from your error and improve from it. Sometimes the hardest battle is to not fight at all."
Dekros had quit his training class long ago, thinking that maybe the boys had learned enough. All of those rumors about approaching warlords had faded to the background, and the wool-making industry was now in full force, making Amphipolis one of the richest town in Thrace. Lulled into a false sense of security, Amphipolis was hit hard when Cortese came. There was screams and blood everywhere. Cortese's men strode around like they owned the village. And there were flames licking at shops and huts, filling the air with black smoke.
Hidden in the cellar of Cyrene's Tavern, her three children held a meeting.
"We're gonna fight back," Xena paced back and forth, her tall body rippling with power in spite of the simple dress. When the men had come rushing into the tavern, she had wanted so badly to pick up a sword and fight, but she couldn't. One of them had grabbed her mother and held a knife to her throat. Within minutes, they had commandeered the bar, wanting ale and wine. Toris had managed to drag both Xena and Lyceus downstairs and out of the way. The soldiers didn't know about the secret passageway yet, and with luck, it would stay that way. The soldiers were at the tavern now, getting drunk and roaring with laughter. The tramp of their heavy boots could be heard upstairs, creaking the floorboards.
"Are you out of your mind, sis?" Toris said angrily. "You saw how armed they are. We wouldn't stand a chance."
"It sounds a whole lot better than your idea, run to the hills!" she retorted, fixing him with a blue gaze. "Besides, I've already talked to the men, they are ready and willing to fight. Metrius has already agreed to rally the farmers and shepherds. And Anytos is gathering people as we speak. We will meet in the forest and we will form an army, which I will command. Are you sure you want to run, Brother?"
"At least we would live! Maybe if Father were here, he'd be able to help..."
"BUT HE'S NOT FUCKING HERE, IS HE?!? He left us, Toris! Even if we were to find him and asked for help, do you think he'd give a damn?!?"
Lyceus sat listening to his brother and sister argue. He loved them both, but one of them was wrong. Sure, they would be safe if they reached the hills, but then what?
Toris wasn't budging. "All right, Xena, suppose you did fight. We barely have enough weapons as it is and they've taken Uncle Stavros prisoner so we can't make any more. How are you going to arm everybody?"
"I know where we can find weapons. And someone who can help."
"You're shitting me, right? You don't mean old Zaar? The man can barely stand, much less fight."
"I just need to borrow his weapons."
"And he'd let you? Look, I love the guy as much as you do, but what you're suggesting is a lost cause. There's no way you're gonna be able to stand up to Cortese."
"We'll see about that. Lyceus?"
"Yeah?" He looked hopefully at his sister, thinking maybe this was it, she would ask him to fight alongside her.
"What do you want to do? Fight that bastard, drive him out of our home? Or run to the hills and be safe? Your choice." She looked at him with those baby blues that won over anyone who gazed upon them.
"Oh, no. FUCK that!" Toris cut in. "You are NOT gonna drag our little brother into this crazy scheme of yours, you'll get him killed!"
"It's HIS choice, Toris!" she whirled on him, raven hair fanning about. "I can fight, he can fight, we have to at least try! And, if you do run, you'll be leaving Mother behind to entertain those fucking pigs! Who knows what they'll do to her when they're tired of her?" She turned to her younger bother once more. "Lyceus? It's up to you. We can do this. You've seen the maps. You know how we can defend ourselves. What do you say?"
He'd follow his sister anywhere. "Yes." He stood. "I'll fight with you, Xena. I'm sorry, Toris. I can't run."
"Fine." Toris spat, clenching his fists. "You two go on. Get yourselves killed. I'm gonna try and get some of us outta here."
"You do what you have to do, Toris." Xena replied. "Come on, Lyceus. Let's go find Zaar."
The wind howled in the night, as the moon cast a ghostly glow through the thick trees. As they reached the house in the clearing, Zaar was there, waiting for them out front. "Come inside." Cortese's men never made it to the dark forest, but Zaar knew they were in town. Xena and Lyceus stepped inside and helped Zaar gather the massive collection of weapons that once adorned the walls into the table. The walls of the house seemed naked without the swords, axes and daggers, andthere were light spots where each of them once hung.
Lyceus was immediately drawn to the glint of metal on the table and picked up a sword, holding it upright and marveling at its craftsmanship. He twirled it about, testing its weight. "Zaar...it's beautiful." he smiled. "I can't wait to run it through those bastards."
Xena grinned wryly and began to bind the weapons together with thick leather thongs. "I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate this. It would be an honor if you would fight with us."
Zaar's shoulders seemed to slump. "You do not know what you ask, child. The hour of reckoning is upon you. Today is the day you set upon a path from which there is no return. I told you once that you must invoke the essence of the warrior fully and with joy. I only pray that the darkness does not consume you."
She bowed her head, understanding. He didn't want to see her kill. But strangely enough, she was itching to. She had come close when pounding bullies with her fists. Wondered what it would be like to wrap her hands around a throat and squeeze, feeling the life drain out of a body. But she couldn't help it. She had seen Cortese's men brutally slaughter neighbors and people she had known for years. Now the desire to avenge them rushed through her blood like a fiery river. "Zaar..."
He silenced her with a hand on her shoulder. "I know. My time is past. But I will do this. I heard that the tavern is being held by the raiders. I will protect it, and look after your mother."
Her eyes filling with tears, she gathered him in an embrace. She was taller than him now, and he felt small and weak in his arms. "Thank you."
"Xena?" Lyceus asked softly. "Are we ready?"
She released the man and wiped her eyes. "Yes. Metrius, Anytos and the rest of them should be at the edge of the forest by now." She strapped on a sword at her waist, as did Zaar and Lyceus. Together, they exited the house and into the night.
The makeshift army descended on Cortese's camp, taking the raiders by surprise. A fearsome battle ensued and continued on into the day. The sky in the breaking day was overcast, the sky a dark blue and the trees and buildings shone brightly in sharp contrast from an invisible sun. Xena's army engaged the enemy in full force. Xena had earlier experienced her first kill, running her sword through a raider. Her blade had sank deeply into his chest, the surprised grunt filling her ears. As she'd planted her boot into him to draw out the blade, she felt a thrill as she'd never known. She'd felt the power she wielded in that single act, and she found that she'd liked it. She had then remembered the scream she'd heard Zaar emit so long ago, when they had first met. Amidst the fury of battle surrounding her, she'd stepped on the body and tilted her head back. A mighty scream had torn from her own throat, that of triumph. The voice gave her power. "Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" She whirled and slashed her sword through the throat of an oncoming opponent. Her black hair whipping in the wind, a feral smile grew on her face as she began to cut and slash at the enemy with gusto. Lyceus was at her side, matching his sister stroke for stroke. Their movements became synchronized in the deadly dance of destruction. Occasionally they looked to one another to exchange a smile. They were beating them. They were going to take their village back.
She looked back at him to yell some instructions and her eyes grew wide. There was a look of shock on his face. He stared numbly at the arrow sticking out of his chest before slumping to the ground.
"LYCEUS!!!" The battle forgotten, she dropped to her knees, holding her brother. "Lyceus. Lyceus, talk to me. Do go, okay?"
His eyes fluttered. "I...I'm sorry, Xena."
"Dammit, Lyceus, don't you leave me. Not after everything we've been through together. Please." Her eyes grew blurry as she covered the wound to staunch the flow of his lifeblood in vain.
A fountain of crimson was erupting from his mouth, which wasn't good. Her senses prickling, Xena looked up and spotted the archer a hundred paces away, who was in the process of re-stringing his bow. With a roar, Xena picked up a nearby axe and flung it at the archer with all her strength. The axe buried itself into his chest, and he slid wordlessly to the ground. Grimly, she carried Lyceus to the side. Then, all bets were off. Emitting her battle cry once more, she launched herself onto a fresh onslaught of Cortese's men. She grabbed another sword and began to swung them both with increasing fury. She was hot, dirty, and covered in blood from head to toe, and her cape had been torn in two own long ago, but it no longer mattered. Her makeshift army saw, and were inspired. With a roar, they fought harder than ever before, the taste of impending victory on their lips.
Finally, as the sun began to set, they succeeded in driving the last of the raiders from the village. Amphipolis was once again theirs. With a mighty cry, they cheered and rallied about their leader. "Xena! Xena! Xena!" They raised their swords in triumph.
The cries rang hollow in Xena's ears. She went over to her fallen brother and gently picked him up.
Somehow, he was still alive. "We won, Xena Didn't we?" A weak smile crossed his lips.
She looked down again, once again weeping silently. "Shh, don't try to talk. Yes, Lyceus. We did. Let's go home."
"Toris...he left, didn't he?"
"He did what he had to do."
"I forgive him."
Picking up his limp form, she made her way through the piles of bodies on the ground from both sides, the stench of death and pooling blood filling her senses with every step.
Lyceus quietly died in her arms as she crossed the threshold of the tavern. The common room was empty, save for the few bodies of the raiders strewn on the floor. Zaar was true to his word. She laid her brother on an empty table. His eyes were clouded over now, staring sightlessly upwards. She found a tablecloth bunched on the floor. She flung it out and fanned it over the body, watching it settle on his torso. Grimly, she pulled out the arrow and closed his eyes. She picked up his sword and paced about the table, reality sinking in at last. Finally, she placed his sword on his chest along the length of the body. "Lyceus …" she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
She was unaware of the movement behind her until she heard the startled gasp of her mother. She spotted Zaar in the doorway from which Cyrene had emerged. Their eyes met briefly before she turned away. She'd disappointed him, she knew it. She'd given in to the darkness. After everything, she couldn't look him in the eye. Mutely, she stood back as Cyrene rushed to her son's body not wanting to believe what she was seeing. First Toris had abandoned her, now this. "Lyceus!" She cried. "No..." With trembling hands, she stroked his head as tears rolled down her face. "What have you done?" She demanded of her daughter.
Xena hung her head. "Mother...I did all I could."
"Oh, yes." Cyrene retorted. "You did all you could. You raised the army. You talked him into fighting. These..." She reached to touch his bloody chest and couldn't. Overcome with grief, she advanced her daughter. "These may as well be wounds from your sword!" She lashed out, slapping Xena across the face. "He was the only thing I had left, and you took him from me!"
Xena stared at her in disbelief. Her look of sorrow on her face was replaced by something cold and hard.
Cyrene could see the shadow of Atrius on her daughter's features. It was the same look he'd always had right before he'd hit her for no reason. No more. "Get out."
Without a word, Xena turned on her heel and walked out of the tavern. Once she was gone, Cyrene collapsed over Lyceus' body and wept. She could hear the raised yells and cheers as her daughter stepped outside, chanting her name over and over. The cries rang hollow in Cyrene's ears all throughout the night.
Gentle Zaar helped her prepare the body for burial in the morning. The family mausoleum was about to get a new addition. Solemnly, they placed the bound corpse on top the wagon and were ready to depart.
The day was brighter than it was yesterday. Xena's army gathered around her as she perched on her horse. A hush fell over the crowd as she began to speak.
"People of Amphipolis, hear me now! We celebrate today a great victory! Cortese and his men tried to run us into the ground, but we fought back! We sent them running, but is that enough? No! They came upon our town, killing our men, raping our women, and burning our homes! For that they will PAY! I say we hunt them down and kill them like the dogs they are! Who's with me?!?"
The men raised their swords, rakes and pitchforks and roared their approval.
"Let us now embark and find those bastards!" She raised her sword high in the air. "Let's KILL THEM ALL!!!"
The crowd erupted into cheers. Xena wheeled her horse around and rode through the town with her name upon everyone's lips. "Xena! Xena! Xena!" When she glanced over at the tavern, she saw Cyrene outside beside the wagon which would carry her brother's body to his final resting place. Her face fell momentarily went she saw the look of horror on her mother's features. When her mother turned away, it was too much to bear and her face hardened. Only Zaar looked Xena, his eyes full of sorrow. Them he too turned away to help Cyrene bury her youngest child. With a mighty cry, Xena urged her army forward.
She did come back to Amphipolis a few years later. So much had happened since then. Caesar. Borias. Chin. Lao Ma. Alti. The birth of Solan. Now she was the true terror of Greece as the Destroyer of Nations, cutting a swath of destruction throughout the countryside. No doubt word had gone back to Cyrene about her terrible deeds. Xena wasn't here to see her, though, she couldn't bear to see the look of disgust that was bound to be on her mother's face. Her first army had been lost to Caesar, who had crucified them all on the beach. With that loss, the whole town would turn against her now. She had a new army now, stronger and fiercer than ever before.
The thrill of battle and the power over life and death drove her now, drowning her deep in the sea of blood lust. It sustained her, gave her life meaning. But afterwards, she felt empty inside. She needed comfort, needed to hear Zaar's gentle words. The student needed her teacher's guidance.
The forest was the same as always as she slid through the night, a cloak covering her chiseled features. Knowing the woods like the back of her hand, she'd climbed to the tops of the trees, leaping from branch to branch. Even in the dark, she knew where to step. Her years of sitting in the forest had tempered her. She had become one with her surroundings. When she reached the edge of the clearing, she dropped silently to the ground. Zaar's house was there as always. there was a light from within, indicating that someone was home. Her senses crackled to life as she approached. Zaar might not recognize her. She opened the door and crept inside, memories rushing back to her. The hearth burned brightly, and a kettle hung above it, simmering with stew. The wooden floors creaked beneath her feet. There were weapons on the wall once more, although the collection seemed to have thinned. After that fateful day of re-taking Amphipolis, Xena had sent them back once she'd procured new weapons for her army. She heard a noise behind her and whirled, sword unsheathed in a flash. It wasn't Zaar, but she recognized him nonetheless.
She flung back her hood and lowered the sword form his throat. "Philolaos, it's me. Xena."
The man before her was a shadow of his former self. His blond curls were replaced by a shock of startlingly white hair. His face was gaunt and weary. His hazel eyes lacked the sparkle they once had. "Xena! Where have you been?" With a cry, he wrapped his arms around the warrior in a tight embrace.
Xena stiffened before returning the hug. She stroked the white hair. "Phil, what's happened to you?" he began to tremble in her arms and she realized he was weeping. "Phil...where's Zaar?"
Wordlessly, he slid from her arms and pulled back a flap on his robes. Tied to his waist was a black urn the size of a child's head. "Here is Zaar," he said simply.
A bolt of pain tore through Xena's soul as she stared at the pot. No. No. It can't be! She dropped her sword, backing away. Not Zaar. Her world began to shift out of focus as she half-listened to Phil's tale of Zaar's final days...How when Phil came to town last year and spent time at the house. How a voice outside the door had called Zaar out, issuing a challenge. How Zaar had told Phil it was time and to stay in the house. How Phil hadn't understood why and was told where to find the scroll with instructions. How Zaar had went to meet the man. How Phil had heard words exchanged become loud and angry. How he'd then heard a furious clash of metal and deafening silence afterwards. "When he didn't come back for the longest time, I finally went looking for him. And I found him lying there. His head...had been cut off and lying off to the side. There was blood everywhere. The bastard just left him there for the animals to feast upon."
"Who?" Xena quavered. "Who was it?"
"To this day, I don't know. I tried to track him down, but the trail was cold. I looked everywhere in the village, asking questions. But no one had seen any strangers pass by. And they were none too sorry to hear that Zaar was dead. Your mother, bless her heart, had the decency to arrange a funeral pyre for him, and she sang for him. I'm sorry you missed it. It was just your mother and I, I'm afraid. The scroll he left.." He held out a rolled piece of parchment that was tattered and worn from constant reading. Xena took the scroll and began to read, eyes brimming with hot tears as she read it. "It said for me to stay and wait for you. And give you this." Phil went over to the hearth and loosened a few bricks. He reached into the hole in the wall and extracted a neat bundle. It was long, wrapped in a silken cloth with hieroglyphics along the hem. Phil then went over to Xena and placed it in her trembling hands.
Slowly, she unwrapped it. She gasped when the contents were revealed. It was Zaar's sword. The thick leather scabbard had three discs along the length with thin, but strong straps to carry either by the waist or on the back. She drew the blade, metal scraping against leather. The sword was exquisite. The grip had a long leather strip finely wrapped around it. The knob shone bright in the firelight. The cross-guard curved in sharp angles like a hawk's wings and had raised ridges forming an X, which surrounded circular stone which looked like quartz on each side. There were smaller such stones on either tip of the cross-guard. She wrapped her hand around the grip and twirled it experimentally. It fit perfectly. The blade was worn, but sharp nonetheless. She held the metal in her hand and didn't cry out as it nicked her thumb. She was moved deeply. "He left this for me?" she whispered as she remembered the last time she had seen Zaar. "Here I was, starting a lifetime of war, and I never got the chance to say good-bye." She then noticed the scroll in the silk wrapping. She glanced at Phil, who nodded, before taking it and unrolling it to read.
My dearest Xena,
If you are reading this, then I am dead. I told you that when the time came, I would face my brother's murderer and that you would not be there. I ask you not to avenge me, for what is done cannot be undone. When you left, your heart was filled with fury. Do not think that you have failed me, however. You are destined for greatness and you will one day find the light before you become truly damned. This sword which I have wielded in my day is now yours. Wield it, and remember everything that I have taught you. Once upon a time there was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he could not determine whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was a man. It was both.
There are no failures,
Xena stared at the note, the ink becoming marred with drops of tears falling upon it. Silently, she rolled up the scroll and placed it under her robes. After strapping her new sword at her waist, she wiped her tears and straightened. "Thank you, Phil. I'm afraid I will have to leave, now. My men will get nervous if I'm away for too long. If you like, I can give you passage back to Alexandria. However, I cannot accompany you to the harbor. I may have a price on my head around here, and I can't put you at risk if you're with me. I'll go ahead and leave instructions with a ship."
Phil nodded. "I understand. Yes, I would like that very much. And, I have a request."
"When my time comes, I wish for Zaar's ashes be placed on my body so we can burn together. And...I would like for you to sing at the pyre. For both of us."
"You have my word..."
all the pieces don't fit
thought i really didn't give a shit
i never wanted to be like you
but for all i aspire
i am really a liar
and i'm running out of things i can do
i'd like to stay
but every day
everything pushes me further away
if you could show
help me to know
how it's supposed to be
where did it go?
where is everybody?
Gabrielle lay in Xena's arms, their legs entwined. She propped herself with one elbow as she trailed a finger along exquisite lips. "For the longest time, I'd wondered where you'd gotten that sword from. What a wonderful gift." Her hand traveled down to Xena's chest and began to draw feathery, lazy circles. "He meant that much to you?"
"Yes." The warrior snuggled closer to her bard. "You would have liked him, Gabrielle. he was a warrior with the soul of a poet. For a long time, I've felt guilty for not being there when he need me the most. I feel like I've failed him, leaving him like that."
"There was nothing you could have done, Xena. He knew his time was coming and he met his fate head-on. You said yourself that every one of us has their own path to follow and that no one else can walk it for you. And his lessons are alive in you. 'Invoke the essence of the warrior fully and with joy'. This is what you do every day. That is his legacy. Don't feel guilty. At least this time, you will be able to say good-bye. Then you can go on with your life."
Xena pulled her closer and kissed her love's lips. "You have a gift of putting things in perspective. It's one of the many things I love about you." She reached down to lift one of Gabrielle's legs and wrapped it around her own waist. "Why don't I show you?" she husked before leaning down to claim parted lips.
Mid-afternoon found K'Tai on the deck leaning against a barrel reading a scroll. She looked up to contemplate the sailors carry out their tasks and squinted from the bright sun. A few more hours and they would reach the shore. The Pharos of Alexandria loomed large as the ship approached.
She'd watched Xena perform her sword drills earlier, and found herself having flashbacks of her own lessons. She hadn't particularly cared for those lessons, but Phil had insisted. At least they were useful at times. The dancing steps she'd learned helped her move about the library with grace, leaping over rails, or climbing a ladder. And cataloging was a breeze. She could sort through a pile of scrolls the size of a camel and have each one in their proper place in record time. When Phil had first gotten sick, she had taken over his duties, a few at first. Now, she had all but succeeded to his title. At each passing day, he grew worse and worse. He was wasting away before her very eyes. She thought he had gone completely mad when he'd requested her to look for and bring back a woman warrior who wielded a certain blade. But, she complied. He was very specific about his funeral arrangements. If it wasn't so sad, it would almost be romantic. She went back to reading her scroll. She paused when a shadow fell upon it. She turned and was instantly blinded by the sun, barely making out the silhouette in front of it. "Oh hi, Gabrielle."
"Hi, K'Tai." The bard plopped down next to her. "Whatcha reading?"
"Oh, just one of my favorites. It's a tale about how Osiris became the God of the Underworld. Here, have a look."
Gabrielle stared at the papyrus as she tried to make sense of the little pictures of animals and other funny-looking things. "Hey, I can't read that."
K'Tai grinned. "Just messing with your mind. If you want, I'll find a copy in Greek for you when we get to the Library."
"All right, thanks. I can't wait to get lost in that Library."
"Yeah, you'll love it. It's got all kinds of books from all over the world on every subject you can think of."
"Sure. There's an entire section devoted to it. Some patrons have been known to spend days there. I've even seen Cleopatra there a couple of times."
"Oh yeah? I've met her once. Quite a lady. And of course Xena knows her from way back."
"You're kidding. I'm afraid to ask how, though. Xena sure does get around, does she?"
"That she does. Ever seen her at the Library?"
"Yeah once, when she was running around with her army. Phil was away at the time, off to a scholars conference at Athens. I didn't really get a chance to talk to her, just her lieutenant. Needless to say, she went straight to the sex section."
"Surprise, surprise. Every see anybody else, there? Famous, I mean?"
"Now that you mention it, there was this one guy. What an asshole. Walked around the place like he owned it. For some reason, he decided that I was to be his personal guide to the Library. And he went on and on about all the wars he's been in and how he was gonna take over the world, and-"
"Let me guess. Caesar."
"Uh-huh. Damn Romans. Bad enough they have a hold over Egypt, but do they have to tramp all over it? They're saying that if Cleopatra dies, that's the end of the Pharaohs. Caesar's already been at the royal court-"
"And he might decide to come back, too."
Both Gabrielle and K'Tai looked up to find Xena towering over them. "Just how long have you been standing there?" The bard demanded of the warrior as she rose on wobbly legs, leaning on her staff for support.
"Long enough. You still seasick?"
"Not as bad as before. I feel just-" Gabrielle's grin faded and she dashed to the railing to empty the contents of her stomach for the third time today. Xena rushed to her side, gently rubbing her back. When she was done, Gabrielle straightened. "Bleaah! So much for dinner." She smiled weakly at her companion's worried expression.
K'Tai had scrambled up and was coming over. "Hey, why didn't you tell me you get seasick? I've got some herbs to help you with that. Here." From her robes, she produced a tiny drawstring. She drew some dried leaves. "Chew on these."
Gabrielle gratefully munched on the medicine. "Hey! Cannabis! Thanks! I didn't know it was used for that." With a little effort, she got them down.
"Yeah, it cuts the nausea. You should be feeling all right in a moment." She patted Gabrielle's shoulder.
Xena leaned on the railing. "Thanks, K'Tai. Now I'll have to deal with a stoned, chatty bard." That comment earned her a weak slap on her belly.
They spent the rest of their journey laughing and joking, helping Xena not to dwell too long on the solemn task ahead of her. The conversation drifted to Caesar and the latest news on the civil war and speculations arose briefly, then faded away. When they finally reached the shore, the harbor was bustling with life in spite of the waning light of the ending day. The three of them solemnly wove their way through the crowd to the edge of the city, with K'tai in the lead. Noting the local customs, Gabrielle took Xena's hand, eliciting a surprised look form the warrior. They gazed at each other for a lingering moment, their eyes conveying the unspoken. You don't have to face this alone, Xena. I am with you. Moved beyond words, Xena decided not to mention the Roman ship that landed not too long after they did.
The Library of Alexandria sat atop a grass-covered plateau, one long wall facing the sea. The sky was ablaze with red, blue, and purple hues along with random streaks of orange. A soft breeze whirled past the three travelers as they walked up the trail to the building. The went past the golden doors into a tranquil, giant lobby full of richly colored mosaics covering the walls and the floors. Gabrielle's wide eyes roamed all over the room, taking in the sights of historical figures gracing the walls, the most prominent of which was Alexander the Great. He was portrayed as a dashing young beardless man with flowing short hair, his spear poised to strike. And facing the entrance was a giant statue of a seated King Alexander nestled in a nook high up in the wall over the entrance to the rest of the Library. He was dressed in Pharaoh garb with his arms crossed, a crook in one hand and a whip in the other. A soft shaft of light cascaded over the seal of Alexander from a giant skylight. They walked through the spacious scroll rooms, their steps echoing to the ceiling. There were a few patrons sitting at tables, or sprawled on lounges. A few of them waved at K'Tai, who waved back. There was an ordinary-looking door located in a corner, partially obscured by two giant shelves, which led to the the residential section of the Library where some of the scholars and scribes lived. There was a common area filled with tables, chairs, and couches. A fireplace dominated the room, with a roaring fire. They entered a carpeted corridor with tapestries covering the walls. At the end was a door bigger than the rest.
"Uncle!" K'Tai called out. "We're back! They're here!"
Philolaos emerged from the room smiling weakly. "Xena! you made it!. After all this time, you-" He suddenly doubled over in a violent fit a of coughing.
K'Tai was at his side in an instant, wrapping her arms around him to steady him. "Uncle, you really shouldn't be out of bed," she chided.
Phil gently patted her cheek. "It's all right, child. It was worth it to see her again." He reached with open arms to the warrior, who went forward and embraced him.
Xena barely stifled a gasp at how small the man actually was. In spite of being rather short, Phil had been a robust man, sometimes even fat, who loved his food and ale. Now the man in her arms was all but skin and bones, his hair a bright silver. Xena held him carefully lest a harder grip would crush his brittle bones into powder. She glanced over his shoulder to K'Tai, seeing the sorrow reflected in deep pools of brown. She released him and turned to a wide-eyed bard. "Phil, this is Gabrielle. She's a bard. I think that some of her works may have found their way here."
Phil smiled and took the bard's free hand. "A pleasure to meet you, dear. I have read some of your scrolls. What a talent."
Gabrielle blushed furiously. "Ahh, well, yes, of course, I mean, thank you. It's an honor to meet you." She studied the small man before her, noting the gentle glow in his eyes. I can't shake the feeling that I've seen this man before. But where?
Dinner was was served in the common room. Several of the servants whisked about placing plate after plate on the large table. On one end, Xena sat with Phil, who kept Zaar's remains on his lap all times. On the other end, K'Tai and Gabrielle looked over a pile of scrolls. As always, the warrior enjoyed watching her bard. The young woman's face literally shone with the joy of life. Here, she was in her element, among the works of the world's greatest authors. A stray lock of golden hair fluttered across her forehead as she and K'Tai howled in laughter at what appeared to be Caesar's comments on his military campaigns. Phrases like, "Just like he talks!" and "Pompous ass! No wait! That's Pompey!" bit through the air. Xena frowned slightly, not too thrilled at hearing Caesar's name. The memory of that Roman ship at the harbor crept from the back of her mind. There was something bad about to happen, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Gabrielle looked up then, catching her eye. The smile on her face faded when she saw the look she knew so well on her friend's face. Xena smiled to reassure her, then watched on with amusement as the bard snatched up another scroll by a different author and began to pour over it. K'Tai gave her a weird look before getting into the new scroll also. Xena felt eyes on her once more and there was Phil regarding her thoughtfully. She ate another bite of her Batat, not knowing what to say. Phil seemed eerily calm. He barely touched his own food and instead watched Xena eat. "You've changed, you know," he offered quietly. "Very different from the hellion who ran wild in the woods."
She stopped eating and smiled shyly at him. "Yeah, I was quite a handful, wasn't I? I'm surprised Mother's hair didn't go gray sooner. Tell me. Have you been to Amphipolis since...?" She left the question hang.
"No," he said. "I couldn't bring myself to go back there after Zaar died. Too many painful memories. Have you reconciled with you mother?"
"Yeah, finally. Sorry about leaving you there last time. I couldn't risk anyone form town seeing me and having it go back to Mother."
She lowered her head. "I keep remembering the look on her face as I rallied the people to go after Cortese. I'd lost myself, then."
"But you found you way again." Phil placed his bony hand over hers. "And, that young lady had something to do with it, didn't she?"
"Yes. Gabrielle is the love of my life, my reason for living. I wouldn't know what I'd do without her."
"I understand," he answered caressing the urn on his lap with one finger. "When Zaar died, I wanted nothing more than to join him. My life was empty without him at my side. It was only after I returned home that I found my purpose. I had a child waiting for me here. It was only right that I pass on what I know."
"How did she come to live with you?"
"She was given to me by a priestess of the Temple of Isis. The Romans had taken over the temple and she feared for the child's safety. A Greek army had scouted the area two years earlier and one of the soldiers had recruited her as a spy. The Greeks intended to use any information provided by the priestess to hopefully drive the Romans from the area. A few days later, word came back to me that the Greeks and Romans had fought at the temple with heavy casualties on both sides. The Greeks retreated back to their homeland. I went to the temple to see if the priestess survived. She had not. In her hand was a scrap of leather, which K'Tai wears now." He paused as he gazed at the young scribe opening yet another scroll. "My knowledge and legacy will live on in her. My final gift to her will be the scrolls her mother wrote in her final days, which K'Tai has never seen."
A sudden realization dawned on Xena as the implication of his words sank in. "Her mother was a temple prostitute, wasn't she?" For the duty was hereditary. If K'tai's true origins were discovered by the wrong persons, she could be forced to serve at the temple.
"I'm afraid so."
"She has a right to know, so she can make her own decisions as to what she wants to do when you're gone."
"I intend to tell her."
"I truly hope so. Secrets can hurt if they're kept too long."
"I know. I only pray that-" Phil burst into another fit of coughing which shook the table.
"That's it." K'Tai got up from the other end of the table and went to Phil's side once more. "You have to get back to bed, Uncle." She helped him up with one hand on his arm.
Xena had gotten up also and took the other arm. "I'll help." Together, they led the still coughing Phil to his room with Gabrielle on their heels.
He lay on his bed, gasping for air, still holding on to the urn. Xena put her medical knowledge to use, listening to his heart and lungs, and gently probing pressure points, then helped him drink some medicine. "You don't have much time Phil," she said quietly. "I think that whatever needs to be said, now's the time. Gabrielle?" She left the room with her bard, feeling K'Tai's questioning eyes on her back.
Xena and Gabrielle entered their room, which faced the sea. Gabrielle immediately went to the window to enjoy the view. "It's beautiful," she murmured as she heard Xena take off her sword and chakram. The waters were calm in the soft moonlight. She could see boats and ships drifting through the waves The muted sounds of people at the harbor and the city reach her. The noise was suddenly cut by the familiar sound of whetstone against metal. Without looking, she knew that Xena was sharpening her sword. That thing's so old. The sword's a part of her. An extension. The only thing she has left of her teacher... Gabrielle marveled at this new facet of Xena. She's always had her dark side, and this man tried to help her with it. Maybe didn't get it that time, but some lessons take a lifetime to learn. She folded her arms over the widow sill and watched the scene out side as the rhythmic scraping continued. When it stopped, she asked, "What do you think it was that Phil had to say to K'Tai? Might he have some more last requests?"
"Maybe." Came the answer behind her.
"You know, I can't shake the feeling that I've met Phil before."
"Oh, not again."
"Seriously! I keep remembering when I was at the hospice. There was this presence there. And a voice, speaking to me. And it sounded just like Phil."
Sure it wasn't Ares? Xena came up behind Gabrielle and wrapped her arms around her waist. "Maybe it was, love. After all, Phil did get around in his day." She nuzzled the younger woman's neck, taking in the soft scent.
"Mmmm." Gabrielle sighed. "Maybe I was imagining things." She tilted her head to allow more of the hot mouth on her neck and closed her eyes. Calloused hands slid up her belly to cup her breasts. She reached behind her to thread her hands through ebony locks and turned her head to meet Xena's mouth with hers. She moaned as their tongues met, wrestling with each other. She turned completely around in Xena's arms and deepened the kiss. After what seemed like an eternity, the kiss was abruptly broken and Xena's body stiffened, warrior mode sliding into place.
"Oh, whaaaat?' Gabrielle groaned in protest at the sudden coolness on her face.
"Fire." Xena answered.
Smirk. "Oh yeah, that's what it felt like until a second ago. C'Mere." She tilted her head back up.
"No." Xena took Gabrielle's shoulders and gently turned her around to face the window. "Fire."
And out in the black sea, there were several ships facing each other exchanging volleys of fireballs, lighting up the night. Faint booming sounds could be heard as well as the crashing of oars against the waves. The bard's eyes widened at the carnage. She didn't see that coming. Xena went around her and peered out the window surveying the battle. "Roman ships. Caesar...and Pompey. Dammit, will this civil war ever end?!?" She broke away from the window and snatched up her weapons.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called. "What are you doing?"
She stopped and turned to her bard. If she was going to keep that vision of their deaths from happening for real, then she had to stop Caesar, here and now. "What does it look like I'm doing? Caesar's chased Pompey all the way here. If I can take care of him once and for all, I can stop this war."And save you.
Take care of him. Gabrielle knew well what Xena meant. Would this obsession ever end? "But why?" She pleaded, reaching for her love's hands. "We have nothing to do with this. What are you going to do, jump all the way out onto Caesar's ship and kill him? Is that it? Why can't you just let them fight it out themselves?"
Xena found herself held by a gaze of green, her resolve slowly slipping. "Gabrielle," she said gently. "Caesar is relentless. If he has to burn all of Egypt to get to Pompey, he'll do it. And even if he does find him, who's to say he'll stop there?"
"But you made a promise, Xena. You have to see to Phil's wishes."
"He doesn't have much time left, you said so yourself. You just can't leave him and K'Tai alone in this. Please?"
Sometimes the hardest battle is to not fight at all. Xena closed her eyes as her teacher's words came back to haunt her. She brought up Gabrielle's hand entwined in hers and placed a gentle kiss on the soft knuckles. "All right. I'll stay." Her sword and chakram were placed on the chair once more. She gathered Gabrielle in a fierce embrace and whispered "I'm sorry" into the golden hair.
Their lips met once more, to finish what they'd previously started. Gabrielle's hands wandered up to Xena's broad shoulders and fingered the straps of her leathers before sliding them down. She eased her mouth from the feverish lips down to a corded neck, tasting the rapid pulse. Her delicate fingers curled into the tops of the leathers and began to drag them down until they pooled on the floor. Her tongue swept across the smooth flesh of Xena's chest, just above the swells of firm breasts. Cupping the tantalizing flesh, she dragged her tongue between the mounds then around underneath. She felt hands wrap around her head and tighten. When she flicked her tongue on a nipple, teasing it, then slowly drawing it in, the soft moans above her became throaty growls.
Xena's hands flew to Gabrielle's green top and tugged at the laces. Within moment's the bard's breasts came tumbling out. With rough hands, she kneaded the smooth mounds and arched towards the hungry mouth on her aching breast. She pinched and rolled the nipples hard, eliciting a moan from her bard. She ducked her head and captured Gabrielle's lips with her own. her hands trailed down from the breasts, fingers tracing rippling abs before settling on the brown skirt. Once that item of clothing was cast away, she rubbed damp golden curls before parting the folds the fondling the wetness beneath. Gabrielle bucked against her hand while still cupping and sucking her breast. One leg slithered around her waist. Unable to take anymore, Xena scooped up the bard and carried her over to the bed. One by one, she tugged off their boots and sent them flying into a corner. She lowered herself over a raised thigh and began riding it. The slow throbbing burn in her sex ignited into a raging inferno.
The battle continued out in the sea, the booms of of the firefight grew louder.
Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand and pressed it to her own sex. Her back arched as she felt long fingers enter her. Their breaths mingled as their mouths crashed together for a heated kiss. Her hips rocked feverishly with each demanding thrust. At rough thumb came down on her clit and she bucked ever more wildly. Her hands went up the warrior's broad back and dug in her nails, dragging down, leaving marks.
Outside at sea raged on. The waters were lit up as bright as day as several of the ship caught on fire. The booms of the fireballs mingled with that of the agonized screams of dying soldiers. Loud voices shouted commands over the din. One unfortunate ship, in flames and dead in the water, drifted over to the rocky shore and smashed against it. Splashes could be heard as surviving soldiers abandoned ship. The fire crept towards the barrels of oil used for the fireballs. The moment the flames licked at the fuel, the ship exploded into a million pieces, sending burning fragments everywhere.
Xena ground herself into Gabrielle's thigh even as she thrust into the bard with increasing frenzy. A low moan escaped her lips and her head flung back as the trembling in her body became a violent shudder. With a throaty cry, she came, releasing a flood of ecstasy on her lover's thigh.
Feeling the hot flow on her leg, Gabrielle's inner walls clenched against Xena's fingers. She surged halfway off the bed and howled as wave after wave of pleasure coursed through her entire being. She slumped back, breathing hard and felt the familiar weight of her lover settle on top of her.
"Gods, Xena," she whispered. "I love you." She cradled the dark-haired head against her chest and plated a kiss on a damp forehead. She groaned aloud when Xena suddenly tensed and rolled off her. "Oh, NOW what?" She sat up abruptly, clearly annoyed.
"Fire," Xena mumbled as she threw her clothes back on and snatched up her weapons. "We gotta get outta here. Come on, I don't have time to argue with you."
Gabrielle flopped back down on the bed. "Xena, I thought we discussed this. You are NOT gonna run out there after-" She sat back up, sniffing the air. "Hey, I smell smoke. Is something burning? Is-" with a resounding THWAP! her clothes hit her full in the face.
"No SHIT, Gabrielle!" Xena roared. "Come on, let's GO!!!"
In record time, Gabrielle dressed, grabbed her staff, and followed Xena out the door. The corridor was full of smoke. People were streaming out of their rooms in a panic. They pushed into one another trying to get to the exit. They burst into the common room. Someone found a passageway with a metal door leading out the building and they all rushed to it. Xena barked at them and brandished her sword, getting their attention. "One at a time, people, in an orderly fashion!" Once she got them to listen, she led them out the passageway one by one. Leaving Gabrielle to take over, she went back to the corridor to see if anyone was left. Sure enough, she spotted the retreating form of K'Tai going towards Philolaos' room. With long strides, she caught up with the scribe and grabbed her arm.
K'Tai twisted around trying to wrench her arm free. "Let me GO! I have to get Uncle out of there!" she screamed.
"You have to get out of here! The place is burning down! There's too much smoke here, you wouldn't last a minute!"
"I don't care! I have to save him!" K'Tai unexpectedly slammed her free hand into Xena's jaw.
The warrior's head snapped back from the force of the blow, but she kept her grip on the scribe's arm. "I don't have time for this. Sorry, K'Tai." With blinding speed she brought her fist down on the woman's face, punching her lights out. When the unconscious scribe crumpled in her arms, she whispered, "I'll come back for him. I promise." She slung K'Tai's limp form over her shoulder and dashed back to the common room.
The last of the occupants were entering the passageway. Xena handed the still unconscious K'tai to Gabrielle. "You go, now. Carry her with you. I'm going back to get Phil."
"But Xena-" Gabrielle began to protest.
"NOW, Gabrielle!!! I'll come back, I promise."
Seizing Xena's head with one hand, Gabrielle drew them together for a brief, fierce kiss. "I love you." she whispered. Her hand slid along Xena's jaw as she began to move into the passageway. She disappeared into the tunnel with K'Tai in her arms and the door clanged shut behind them.
Xena went back to the corridor, which was now filled with smoke so thick, nothing was visible. She dropped down to her stomach, crawling under the black blanket, inching her way as quickly as she could to Phil's room. When she reached the door, she felt it with a tentative hand and snatched it away. Too hot. Taking a deep breath, she stood and raised one foot. It snapped out with resounding force and the door burst from it's hinges. She felt hot air rush towards her and hurriedly backed away. Too late, a backdraft surged from the room and sent her flying backwards into the black smoke in the corridor. Willing her body to relax, she slammed against the wall and slid down. She forced her eyes open and squinted against the brightness. Phil's room was a wall of fire, and had been for a while. Nothing that was in there could have survived. With a heavy heart, she got up and returned to the common room. She dashed to the passageway and tugged at the door handle.
She kicked at it, even hacked it with her sword, but to no avail. The door had melted shut. Cursing herself, she ran through the common room and into the giant scroll room. Dry parchment only added to the hungry flames. Burning scroll tumbled from the high shelves and
fell about her. She had to get out of there. She dodged more flaming ribbons descending on her. The fragments from the exploding ship had showered all over the Library, setting several different places ablaze. She dashed into the copying room and nearly went headlong into an inferno, barely avoiding another backdraft. She turned back and went another way, and managed to find a hallway not yet touched by flames. Somehow, she made her way to the lobby. The skylight was now a gaping, burning hole where a fireball had punched through earlier. The seal of Alexander was melting from the burning debris of the collapsed statue of Alexander on top of it, blocking the entrance. Xena crouched low, then sprang into the air just as a smoldering timber crashed into where she once stood. In mid-air, Xena twisted and tumbled over the flames and landed on the other side, bursting through the front door.
She found the crowd of the evacuated people milling about on the front lawn. Gabrielle spotted her and rushed forward, stopping short at the sad look on Xena's face. They reached for each other and hugged fiercely.
There was nothing that could be done for the Library. Water was out of the question since the blaze was oil-based. All one could do was let the fire continue until it burned itself out. The people huddled on the lawn murmuring to themselves and watched as half of Alexander the Great's gift to Egypt went up in smoke, lighting up the sky.
The firelight danced on Gabrielle's guilt-ridden face. This is all my fault. If I hadn't insisted that Xena stay with me- "Xena, I'm sorry."
"For what?" The warrior inquired.
"If I hadn't stopped you from..."
"Gabrielle, there was no way you could have known this would happen. If I had gone, I'd probably still be there, possibly dead, or captured. Don't be sorry. It wasn't your fault." She reached up and stroked her love's cheek with one finger. "Come on. I've got a pissed-off scribe to tend to now."
"What do you mean, pissed off?"
"I sorta knocked her out."
"I know, I know."
Arm in arm, they went over to K'Tai, who was now sitting up and rubbing her jaw. "Whatcha do that for?" she groggily asked Xena. "Where's Uncle?"
Eyes downcast, the warrior slowly shook her head.
Tears formed in the scribe's eyes and a choked sob escaped her lips. "I...I was angry with him," K'Tai wailed. "He..told me about my mother, what she was and what happened to her. 'How could you not tell me all this time?' I asked him. 'After years of wondering, I find out she was a temple whore!' I couldn't take it anymore and I stormed out of his room. Now...I can't even tell him I'm sorry." She covered her face with her hands and rocked back and forth, sobbing. Gabrielle knelt down and embraced her, whispering soothing words.
"It was too late for him," Xena offered helplessly. "Looks like his room was the first to get hit. If you hadn't..." She stopped short and stood there, clenching and unclenching her fists. She honestly didn't know what to say to K'Tai. I've failed him, and Zaar. Now I can't fulfill my promise to them. Xena turned away, running her hand through her dark tresses. She stared at the flames, going over a thousand scenarios where things could have been different.
The memory of discovering Zaar's fate came unbidden to her, feeling all too real. She could smell the old wood of Zaar's house, see the sad look on Phil's face, feel the weight of the sword in her hands, hear Zaar's soft voice as she read the note...
"There are no failures..."
Her eyes snapped open, realization cascading over him like a length of silk. Phil had gotten what he wanted after all. Except for one thing.
"When my time comes, I wish for Zaar's ashes be placed on my body so we can burn together. And...I would like for you to sing at the pyre. For both of us."
"You have my word," Xena whispered. She stepped towards the fire standing ramrod straight and began to sing the funeral dirge. Her voice lifted to the black sky. The flames plumed higher and seemed to dance in time to the song.
The murmuring among the crowd stopped, and Gabrielle and K'Tai looked up at the sound of the haunting voice. Some of the people even stood at attention. They each paid solemn homage to the man that had perished in the flames.
When the song ended, closed her eyes, letting the tears fall. Good-bye Zaar. Good-bye Philolaos. May the gods walk with thee always. A gentle breeze caressed her face, whispering secrets to her. She understood now. Her promise was kept.
There are no failures...
The fire mysteriously died out before dawn, although no one knew why. Nor cared. It was now time to rebuild. Xena and Gabrielle stayed for a few days to help. The warrior was hard at work hammering together the heavy wooden structures that would replace the burnt structures. She managed with no small effort not to let her persistent vision of crosses distract her.
Most of the scrolls were lost, but the scribes, having copied most of them, remembered what were in them. Gabrielle helped with the copying, noting with some disappointment that her own scrolls were destroyed in the fire. K'Tai was now officially in charge of the Library, having been left the position as dictated in Philolaos' will. She read out a list of scrolls to be re-written, Assigned each task, then tore into the work itself. No more mention was made about her mother. It was too painful to deal with right now, she said.
After a week, the warrior and her bard entered the burnt remains of Philolaos' room to take a break from their hard work. Dodging showers of dust, they walked through the ruined chamber. The bed was a giant heap of ashes and the floors creaked dangerously from the footfall imposed on it.
"Xena, why do you think things happened the way they did?" Gabrielle asked, thumping her staff against the ashen ground, raising clouds of dust in her wake.
"I don't know, Gabrielle. Sometimes circumstances happen to fit into a bigger picture." Xena moved a timber hung halfway across the ceiling out of the way, letting the bard pass.
"But it wasn't fair, what happened to Phil. And K'Tai."
"Life never is. The trick is taking the cards you're dealt and winning anyway." Xena sat heavily on a blackened bench against a wall, exhausted from the hard work she had recently done.
"If you say so," Gabrielle said, then moved to join Xena on the bench.
Their combined weight was enough to make the bench collapse. Just in time, Xena leapt up and grabbed Gabrielle before she could fall. "Whoa!" gasped the bard. That was close! Who'd thought that-hey! What's this?" She knelt down at the fallen bench, and discovered it was hollow, with something inside. She reached in and found- "Xena! Look! There's scrolls in here!" She scanned the contents. "Okay, the dialects a little old, but I can read it-" Her mouth gaped open. "It's a war journal! From Alexander's time! Come look at this."
Xena knelt beside her and took the ancient scroll. Sure enough, it was an account written by a soldier, recounting the days Alexander the Great fought against the Persians. After a few moments, she frowned. "Something's not right," she muttered. She peered at the scroll for a long time. Then she took her sword from her back, unsheathed her blade and shook her scabbard upside-down. A tiny scroll fell out. She unrolled the tiny parchment, then compared it with that of the older scroll.
Gabrielle looked over Xena's shoulder and her eyes grew wide. "The handwriting. On both of them. They're identical! But that's not possible! Alexander ruled over two hundred years ago, if Zaar wrote both those scrolls, that would make him-"
"Very, very old." Finished Xena. She laid both parchments on the ground, and stood. "I need to get out of here for a while."
"Xena, are you all right?"
"I will be. I just need to-" She rubbed her temples briefly. "I won't be long. I need some time alone, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle looked up at the now wavering warrior, and it was all she could do to keep from leaping up and hugging her. "I'll be here."
Nodding, Xena wandered out of the room.
After looking over the scrolls once more, Gabrielle tenderly rolled up the tiny note and slipped it back into Xena's scabbard. She began to sift through the shattered bench once more and her hand closed on another scroll. Curious, she unrolled it. This one was more recent, accounting events that took place at a temple of Isis. Surprisingly, it was written in Greek. The name K'Tai jumped out at her. Her heart skipping, she read on. This must be her mother's scrolls. When she came across a passage, she gasped and snapped the scroll shut. Oh my gods. Shecarefully placed the scroll back into the hollow bench, tucking in deep. She knew she had to keep the secret she'd discovered, even from Xena. It could change everything.
This is the song of of life.
The quick walk upon the earth, sometimes contemplating the dead.
This is the song of the heroes, cut from the cloth of legend.
The bards sing of their deeds, etching them forever in memory.
This is the song of eternity.