by Nene Adams ©1998 - All rights reserved
The storyteller speaks:
Once, in days past, there dwelled in the land a fearsome warlord named Xena.
She was pitiless and cruel, taking great pleasure in bringing suffering upon those who defied her will; so much so that while Xena called herself The Warrior Princess, others muttered darker names still. The Destroyer of Nations, spake some in careful whispers. Or more simply... The Beast.
The warlord Xena delighted in bloodshed, and rarely sheathed her mighty sword. Thousands died as her army cut a swathe through the land, and the conquered groaned beneath her heel.
Untroubled by conscience was she, having slaughtered the finer feelings within herself even as she led her army to shed blood. Then came a strangeness that haunted the warlord. At night, as she tried to sleep, visions plagued her - visions of a woman she had never met, and never knew...
Xena. Wake up.''
That voice was familiar. Xena sat up with a gasp, covered with sweat although the night was cool. Rubbing her eyes with one hand, she saw it again.
A young woman stood in a corner of her tent. Or rather, she had materialized there, since Xena could clearly see the tent poles and lines behind her. It was the seventh night running that this ghost, or whatever it was, had shown up.
The first time, Xena had grabbed her sword and tried to run it through. She'd never forget that moment.
Had my sword buried in its guts, she thought. And damned if it didn't just give me this look, like my momma used to give me when I snuck ale and she caught me at it. Hurt, disappointed and mad as Hades all at the same time.
Her hair had practically stood on end.
After being kept up all night by this ghost, Xena had been ready the second night. She'd steadily drank port, ale, anything she could get her hands on, and had finally passed out around the twelfth candlemark. She'd figured if she was unconscious, the ghost could wail and haunt her tent all it wanted; she'd be snug in Morpheus' arms for the night.
It hadn't worked. That thing had touched her, its fingertips cool as marble and just as lifeless. That touch had not only woken her up, it had made her stone cold sober. Xena hadn't tried that particular trick since.
In the ensuing days, she'd tried everything she could think of, even having some of her men scout the surrounding area and drag in a whimpering, shivering priest of some local cult to perform an exorcism. That hadn't worked, either. The ghost had shown up, all right. About the only contribution the priest had made was to piss his tunic and faint, more terrified of the spirit than Xena's threats.
Finally, at her wit's end, Xena had disguised herself that morning. Leaving her army's camp behind, she'd gone into a neighboring village - one which had acquiesed to her demands and had been spared - in order to find an old woman she'd heard about. A woman who spoke with shadows on her tongue... an oracle.
The storyteller speaks:
And so it was that Xena went to a humble village to seek out the old woman known as the Widow. The Widow, who was so ancient it was said she had lived the span of two normal lifetimes, welcomed the warlord into her hut.
''Why camest thou here?,'' spake the Widow.
''Thou knowest,'' spake Xena, thrusting back the hood of her cloak. ''Thou knowest me, old woman, and what I am.''
''Aye. Thou art The Beast,'' spake the Widow, and as the words left her lips, an eldrich wind, cold as grave breath, fluttered through the room. ''I have seen thy works, warlord, and despaired.''
''Good,'' spake Xena. ''Thou fearest me, which is only right.''
''Nay, I fearest neither mortal nor god,'' the Widow spake. ''For though I have no sight in this world, e'en so have I been gifted with sight into the next. It is my gift, aye, and my curse as well.'' And the eyes of the Widow were white and blind, yet it seemed to Xena the old woman saw into her very soul.
''Tell me,'' spake Xena, ''what hast thou seen of this spirit that haunts my sleeping hours?''
The Widow trembled. ''It is indeed a spirit that haunts thee, Beast. A fell and dangerous vision of a time yet to come. For this woman-child dwelleth not in the now, but in some future place of yet-to-be, and her coming bodes ill for the warlord thou art.''
''How can this be? She hath not offered me hurt, nor threat, nor any other violence, of the flesh or of the soul.''
''Then why art thou so troubled? Art thou not the mightiest warrior in the land? Tell me, what doth this spirit do that harrows up thy soul and makes thee cry out in the night like a child?''
Xena drew her sword. ''How dost thou know this?,'' she asked. ''Art thou a spy?'' For her nightly fear was of great shame to her warrior's heart.
''Nay, Beast. My vision be not limited to this place, nor yet this time. Tell me what hath she done.''
''Why, nothing, save only to stand and stare at me. The few words she hath spoken were... of no consquence.''
''No consequence?'' The Widow smiled. ''Thou liest, Beast. Each and every word that hath passed from that spirit hath stricken thee as if they were knives. She speaketh of love, and compassion, and honor... all these things thou hast put aside in thy ungodly quest.''
''My cause is just!,'' Xena shouted, ''I am protecting my home!''
''Again, thou liest,'' spake the Widow. ''In the beginning didst thou indeed embark upon a noble cause. But in time, hath not the cause changed? Hath not thine intentions changed? Hath not war and cruelty become thy life? Dost thou not revel in thine every action? Hast thou not become that which in the beginning thou hated?''
Xena began to speak... but could not. The old woman's words were the truth, taken from her secret mind as if she were but a scroll easily read. At last, Xena spake, ''Thou speakest the truth. As does the spirit. But war is my life now, and death is my destiny.''
''Speakest thou of destiny to ME?'' The Widow pointed a withered finger at the warlord. ''Hear my words now, Xena of Amphipolus! Heed the spirit; listen to it, and abide by what thou hast learned. For surely thou wilt come to a crossroads in thy life; if thou takest the wrong turning, within a few turnings of the seasons shalt THOU be dead. The right choice, and the yet-to-be shall become the reality-of-now, and all others paths will close. This is my rede; heed it if thou be not a fool. Go now, Beast, and trouble me no more.''
Deeply troubled, Xena departed from the village and returned to her camp... dreading in her bones the moment when the time candle should mark midnight.
The warlord sat up and stared at the spirit. A young woman, with red-gold hair and lustrous green eyes, holding a staff in one hand and a scroll in the other. Xena knew she'd never met such a woman before. If she had, she'd have taken her as a slave, used her and discarded her as she had done so many others.
''What do you want?'' Xena finally asked.
''You,'' was the whispered reply.
Xena bit her lip, then said angrily, ''That's not an answer! Why are you here? Why are you doing this to me? TELL ME!''
''Oh, Xena...'' The young woman's eyes filled with tears. ''Can't you see that what you're doing is wrong? That your life is a meaningless series of one battle after another? That the things you're involved in aren't right? All the death, the people you've hurt...''
''What, that? I'm not so different from any other warlord, you know. A little torture, a few burned villages, some rape... " She snorted and waved her hand in dismissal. "Why don't you go and haunt someone else?''
A single tear coursed down the young woman's face. ''Because I love you.''
Xena laughed cruelly. ''Love me? Little girl, you don't even know me!''
The young woman's hair began to rise, lashed by an unseen wind. ''I do know you, Xena! I know you better than you know yourself! Do you want to die?''
''Death happens to everyone,'' Xena shrugged. ''Even me, someday.''
''That day may come sooner than you think.'' She pointed the staff at the seated warlord. ''Stop what you're doing, Xena. Turn away from evil. If not for me, then do it for yourself! There will come a day when you must make a choice, for good or ill, a choice that will determine your life to come. Choose the right path or...'' She began to fade.
''Or? Or what?'' Xena leaned forward, straining to hear.
''Or forsake redemption,'' the reply came, spoken so softly it seemed like nothing more than a tiny whisper of wind. ''And forsake me...''
Redemption? Xena lay back on her cushions and turned the thought over and over in her mind.
The storyteller speaks:
For a little time after this, it seemed as if Xena had forgotten her ghostly visitor and the oracle's words. She led her army to further bloodstained victories, and more conquests. It seemed as if she were willing to set the world on fire to fulfill her ambitions and her thirst for death.
But at night, when all were sleeping, the girl's words would come back, again and again, haunting Xena as her spirit-form had once done. Redemption...
It came to pass that one of Xena's schemes went awry. Planning the death of Hercules, she was suddenly stricken by the memory of that young woman. Replaying her life within her mind, her conscience rose from the grave where she had buried it, and would not let her rest. Ultimately, Xena realized when fighting the demi-god that her crossroads had come. This single, perfect moment, crystallized in time, was her only chance to choose her fate.
In the end, the choice was simple.
And it was discovered that there was beauty in the Beast after all.
So it came to pass that one day, Xena - no longer warlord but determined to make amends for her past deeds - was riding through the village of Potidea, when she happened upon a young woman with red-gold hair and green eyes - a young woman who wanted to be a bard. A woman named Gabrielle.
And Xena knew she had chosen wisely and well
''Xena?'' The bard edged closer to her warrior companion and tossed another stick in the fire. ''I've always wanted to ask you...''
Xena smiled. ''Ask me what, Gabrielle?''
''Well... Why'd you do it? Why'd you stop being a warlord? Was it only Hercules or were there other factors involved? I'm curious. You've never talked about it much...''
Xena shook her head and put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. ''Actually, that's an interesting story...''
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