"Please Cecrops. Don't make this any worse than it has to be."
"No." Her voice was hard and firm. "I don't need this and I'm not gonna put up with it anymore." She blew out a breath. "I respect the fact that you're lonely. Hell, I understand it in a way no one else on earth possibly could."
"Exactly, so...." She went on as though he had not spoken.
"But you don't seem to respect the fact that I cannot, will not be more than your friend. EVER. Now, I am telling you to leave before we can't even be friends."
The sadness in her tone undercut the anger he felt radiating from her and he was filled with remorse. He had pushed and pushed until he pushed her away and suddenly he realized he was on the verge of losing something he had come to value greatly.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I had hoped.... Anyway, I want you to know that if you ever need me, need a friend, all you need to do is send word to me. I will come without question or hesitation. And I will never... well, I hope one day to be worthy of your respect again. Forgive an old man his foolishness."
She nodded, but said nothing, trying to contain the rage she felt. Then she watched as he walked out of her life and her shoulders sagged as her soul mourned the loss of a friend.
"Are you sure this is a good idea Little One? He's known to be somewhat of a ruthless warlord tyrant."
Gabrielle smirked at Cecrops' sedate description of the man whose encampment they were rapidly approaching. He sometimes had a serious misplaced gift for understating the obvious.
"I'm aware of his reputation, Cecrops. That's why we are here now."
"Why do I get the feeling there is more to this story than I am conscious of?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Probably because there is. Do you remember when we parted company?" She waited for him to search his memories and nod before continuing. He had returned to her side at her behest now and he had better control of his feelings and a far more profound respect for hers.
"Well, I stumbled into a camp like this and met a man who called himself Genghis Khan. We had the opportunity to talk at length."
Cecrops tilted his head. "All right. So why are we here now?"
"Because he made promises to me and I intend to see that he keeps them."
Nearly black eyes opened wide in shock. "He made promises to you??"
Gabrielle cuffed him on the back of the head and he looked at her in startlement. "Not those kinds of promises, Cecrops. You should know better than that."
"I do, Little One and I apologize for how that sounded. But I know how the culture here works."
"True. I did have to prove myself a warrior before he would talk to the bard."
"And what did he promise the bard?"
"Huh?" Cecrops had the distinct feeling he was missing valuable pieces to the puzzle he'd been handed. He knew that Khan was known as a vicious marauder, killing all who opposed him and eradicating whole towns of people that sided against him. "Gabrielle, you can't take someone like that and make them a kinder, gentler ruler with only your words."
Gabrielle merely returned his look, knowing the truth from her own personal experience. Cecrops had the grace to blush, amazing considering the depth of his skin tone, but apparent to Gabrielle nonetheless.
"I didn't ask him to stop being a warlord, Cecrops. That's not something one human being can determine for another. I just ask him to think about how he could improve his rule and offered him some suggestions."
"Did he listen?"
"I dunno. That's why we're here."
"That's why *you're* here. Why did you invite me along?"
"I thought that if he didn't listen to me, perhaps he might listen to you."
"Because I am a man?"
Cecrops shrugged. "All right. I don't mind being a back-up plan, especially since it allowed me the chance to finally apologize to you for being a pig."
Gabrielle blushed and Cecrops wondered what was behind it. She nodded. "Please don't use that phrase."
"All right," he responded, the confusion plain in his voice, but Gabrielle did nothing to enlighten him. "Anyway, I'm glad to be back."
Gabrielle patted his arm. "I'm glad you are too. I missed having a friend to talk to." She didn't mention that the goddesses had both come around for a short while once he left. She didn't figure he needed to know how close he'd come to an extended painful existence. Gabrielle hoped he'd learned his lesson by being sent away, because they had promised all sorts of untold misfortune if he behaved that way towards the bard again.
Gabrielle found it charming to the point of flattering and not a little embarrassing. This one thing she was glad Xena was not around to witness. She would have found a way to make Cecrops a dead man and would have teased Gabrielle mercilessly about her two godly protectors. Though in fairness, Xena had gradually been coming to terms with the fact that Gabrielle was a more than competent adult, capable of taking care of herself handily. She had always just tended to forget that little fact when it looked like someone was making a move on her bard.
Gabrielle chuckled silently, then it became a sad smile. Never thought I'd miss that possessive streak.
Cecrops didn't know exactly what incident put the melancholy in Gabrielle's expression, but he was fully cognizant of WHO was behind it. So he waited patiently for Gabrielle to return to the present, having learned the hard way not to push when she grew pensive like this.
Gabrielle shook herself from her reverie. "C'mon," she said at last. "Let's not keep him waiting."
It took a bit of doing to begin with, but by the time they had reached the third set of guards, Gabrielle was being welcomed like an old friend. They waited patiently in front of the large command tent while their presence was announced, then they were being presented to the Universal ruler, Genghis Khan.
Khan rose as Gabrielle approached and Cecrops hung back just slightly, taking in the events unfolding as if he were simply an interested bystander. Cecrops stood straight, following Gabrielle's lead and waited for Khan to walk forward to greet them. Cecrops was startled by the relative small size of the man who stood before him and he met the Chinese ruler's appraising gaze evenly. Only when he saw Gabrielle bow did Cecrops observe the courtesy. Khan regarded him a moment longer before turning and bowing to Gabrielle with a flourish.
"Ah, my bardic warrior friend. Is good to see you again and so well. Introduce me to your glowering shadow and then we will talk, yes? And perhaps you favor me with a bit of sparring?"
"Khan, this is Ce...."
"My name is Semelo and Gabrielle has shared much about you. It is an honor to meet you." Cecrops bowed then extended his hand in greeting.
Khan looked more than slightly bewildered at this sudden change of attitude on the part of the tall, dark Greek. Gabrielle felt the confusion wash over her features, but managed a completely stoic look by the time Khan turned to face her.
"You were right about many things, Gabrielle," Khan commented as he seated her and motioned for refreshments to be served. "And the changes you advised me to make have helped my kingdom thrive."
"May I ask what you advised?" Cecrops rumbled lowly.
Khan held up a hand. "Allow me, my friend." He turned to face Cecrops squarely. "Gabrielle came in and after, ahem, much convincing on her part, persuaded me to see the value of reading. She taught many of my army the rudimentary skills enabling them to do so. I also have a message exchange system that lets me keep in touch with all areas of my kingdom regularly and not just at tribute time. Makes my rule immensely easier and surprisingly less bloody."
Gabrielle sat quietly eating her snack watching the interplay between the two men and silently chuckling at their posturing. She was more than a little stunned by the fact that Khan had indeed taken many of her suggestions to heart and implemented them into his rule.
Some things she couldn't change and the fact that he was a brutal warlord was one of them. But she could help make things better and that she had done. She blinked and came back to the present with a start when she realized both men were looking at her curiously.
"I'm sorry," she apologized as she hastily swallowed her mouthful. "My mind had wandered back to my first visit. Did I miss something?"
"Yes," Khan responded with a smile. "I was giving Semelo your views on our discussion on religion and he was asking you for confirmation."
"Ah," Gabrielle responded with a small blush. Ce... um, Semelo and I have never really talked about religion aside from ancient Greek mythology. It's never really come up for discussion."
Khan cast a curious eye between them, then shrugged his mental shoulders in an act of dismissal. What they did or did not talk about was really none of his concern, though it did tickle his curiosity.
"Well then," he said without missing a beat. "I told Semelo here that you were the one who taught me respect for all religions. Ruling the world is not a holy war; it is simply my destiny. Making it into something it is not only causes it to become messy."
Gabrielle gave an embarrassed chuckle. "Well, now... I didn't say all that. I merely said that respecting everyone's right to worship in their way wasn't a bad idea."
"And you were correct," Khan affirmed. "It has saved countless lives."
"One wonders, though, how history will remember Genghis Khan," Cecrops spoke softly. "Will they remember the reforms? The advancements he made? Or will they only remember the killing and fighting? His ferocity and heartlessness in battle?"
"That depends on who does the writing," Gabrielle said and both men turned to look at her directly before she continued.
"History belongs to the victor. Their storytellers and historians are the ones who decide what details are written and which ones are those best forgotten."
"Sounds like you speak from experience, Gabrielle," Khan commented as he refreshed his tea and hers.
"More than you know, Genghis. More than you know." She added honey to her tea and took a sip before continuing. "And it's amazing how some of the things that get left out can come back and bite you in the ass."
"It's happened to you?" Cecrops asked, intrigued. There were still so many things he didn't know about Gabrielle or her life with Xena.
Gabrielle gave a rueful chuckle, her encounter with the nomad tribes of the desert far enough behind her to offer her a broader perspective of what had happened, though it didn't change the sadness she felt at Korah's death.
"Oh yes. Stories condition people to expect one thing. If they get something different, well, the results are not always happy ones."
"Well, then I shall endeavor to make sure that people get what they expect," Khan said. "Now, do you feel up to sparring, or would you like to rest a bit and start fresh tomorrow?"
Gabrielle rose and removed her outer jacket, leaving her in a silk sleeveless tunic and trousers. Wordlessly, she began stretching out and Khan took that as his cue to start his own warm-up routine. This went on for several minutes and Cecrops made himself comfortable as he watched in fascination.
Nothing was said, but by unspoken consent the two came together with blades drawn, engaging in moves that resembled a dance more than it did a fight. The lamplight wavered before the two changed from blades to staffs... Gabrielle wielded a full length staff while Khan used two shorter sticks joined by a thick chain.
Both opponents were sweating profusely and Khan was winded, but their attacks did not slow and occasionally, one would wince in pain as a hit landed. Khan was more marked than Gabrielle and as they switched to hand-to-hand combat, Cecrops wondered at the older man's stamina.
Then he saw the change come over Gabrielle's face and understood in that minute that she had been being polite to their host. It was a flurry of motion and even though his eyes never left the two competitors, Cecrops was never exactly sure what happened. All he knew was that one minute Khan and Gabrielle were facing off and the next minute, Gabrielle was kneeling on Khan's chest, hands at shoulder level ready to administer the pinch.
Sweat rolled down her temple and dropped from her chin onto Khan's chest and the man did not move. He signaled his surrender of her victory and waited for her to return to herself and slide from his body before he relaxed and dropped his head to the ground.
Gabrielle rose and took a towel from the young woman who offered them and patted her face and arms dry. That was the only sound in the room aside from the heavy breathing coming from Khan who remained on the floor where Gabrielle had left him.
Cecrops eyes were wide. It suddenly occurred to him exactly how merciful Gabrielle had been to him. Given what he had just witnessed, she could have easily done serious damage to even his immortal body and he was fairly certain that wasn't something he wanted to live through. Cecrops got up and stood over Khan, extending his hand and offering him help up.
Khan noted the twinkle in the dark eyes regarding him and accepted the hand with a muffled chuckle.
"I have yet to come close to defeating her. I do not know who her teacher was, but he must have been incredible," the Chinese leader mumbled almost under his breath. Cecrops opened his mouth to answer when he was cut off by Gabrielle's voice.
"Actually, she was the greatest warrior Greece ever produced. The stuff legends are made of," Gabrielle said before turning her back and walking out into the evening air.
Khan exchanged a glance with Cecrops.
"Semelo, did I say something wrong?"
"No, Khan. I think the exercise triggered some old memories. I'm sure the words did."
Khan wiped the sweat from himself with the towel the girl had provided him with, then made a move to follow Gabrielle. "Perhaps I should...." A hand on his arm halted both his words and steps and he looked up to see the ebony head give a negative shake.
"Let her be."
Khan pulled away from Cecrops' grip with a bit of a snatch. "I think I know...."
When Cecrops resumed his grip on Khan's arm, he did so with formidable strength and the smaller man found he could not break Cecrops' hold. "I think you don't. Leave her alone."
Khan looked up at Cecrops with all the venom he could muster. "Release me, before I have you executed."
Cecrops merely tightened his grip and pulled Khan closer to him until he towered over the Chinese man. He leaned over until their foreheads were nearly touching. "Let me make myself perfectly clear to you, little man. You may be the ruler of all you survey, but you are not my master and I will not be commanded like a dog. Better men than you have tried to kill me and yet here I stand."
Khan stood stunned. No one had ever spoken to him with such disregard for his title and position of leadership since the coup attempt early in his career. With a hand motion he signaled the few honor guard who'd stepped forward and stopped at his first motion. Now they returned to their corners to carefully watch the drama before them play out.
"Now, I'm going to say this to you one more time." Cecrops whisper was fierce but effective. "Leave. Gabrielle. Alone."
Khan searched Cecrop eyes for a very long moment before discovering the truth. "You love her."
"I care for her deeply. She is my oldest and dearest friend."
"There is more to it than that, Semelo. I have seen the look before."
Cecrops released Khan's arm. "I care for her deeply. That is enough."
Suddenly understanding far more than was being said with words, Khan clapped Cecrops on the shoulder. "Come, my friend. I believe we understand one another now. Let us have some wine and then we'll see if we can find a bath and some lovely companionship for supper."
Cecrops smiled and accepted the proffered cup. Then he followed Khan in search of a bath.
Gabrielle was already being attended to by the time the men made it to the bathing area as they could tell by the screen that had been set up to allow her some privacy. The two men continued their conversation in normal tones to let her know they had arrived.
She smiled at their consideration and continued to bathe herself, sliding beneath the water to rinse the soap from her hair. She had dismissed the attendant, so she rose and let the water drip for a long moment before stepping from the tub and grabbing the towel to dry herself with. Then Gabrielle combed out her hair as she listened to the nonsensical argument coming from the other side of the screen.
She laughed silently as she recognized the argument, then her ears picked a more intriguing conversation.
"I am telling you, Khan... not only is it a bear, but the earth really is round."
"Semelo, even if I accept your argument that what is so obviously a dipper is a bear, which I don't," he added with a grin. Cecrops nodded his understanding. "That is still not a good basis for your round world theory."
"Ah, but I have been around it."
Complete silence greeted his words as though he had stunned his listener. Finally the tableau was broken by the rustle of fabric on the other side of the screen. Khan blinked and drew a deep breath.
"Very interesting," he said at last. "How did you manage it?"
"Have you heard of an explorer from the Norselands known as Leif Erikson?"
"No. Where are these Norselands you speak of, Semelo?"
"Beyond your western borders and far to the north." Cecrops waited for Khan to process the information and nod, motioning for him to continue. Cecrops took a deep breath.
"A few years ago, I was traveling in that area, when I came across a tribe that seemed to be preparing for a very long journey. I fell in with them, hunting, fishing," he gestured with his hands. "You know." Genghis Khan nodded again. "Anyway, we got to talking about different sea experiences we'd had and in the course of the discussion, they invited me to join their quest."
"New lands to conquer," Cecrops answered dryly. "But my curiosity was great, so I joined them. And we found another land... many days journey to the west."
"What was it like?" Gabrielle strained to hear because it was the question she'd wanted to ask.
"Beautiful... wild and untamed. The native peoples there live off the land and take only what the need." Cecrops' gaze went inward, thinking back to his relatively brief time in that place. "I could have settled there very easily."
"So why didn't you?" Khan asked reasonably.
"Curiosity," Cecrops answered frankly. "I wanted to see where the road led... what was over the next hill."
The two men had finished bathing and stepped from the water to dry of briskly. "And what did you find?" the Chinese leader asked as they started dressing.
"Many things, but mostly I found that the road led in a circle."
"I do not understand. When you reach the eastern border of my land, you hit water and everyone knows that the world drops off out of sight there."
"But it doesn't, Khan. That's what I'm telling you. I walked many days journey across this new land. I saw mountains, plains, a desert... animals and plants I have seen nowhere else and when I reached the end of the land, I was met by sand and ocean. That ocean brought me back to this land."
"Is that possible, Semelo?" Khan asked, intrigued but skeptical.
"Not only is it possible, it's the truth. It is a very long journey, but if you go far enough to the east, it is really there."
"How very intriguing," Khan said after a moment's thought. Then he slapped Cecrops on the back. "Come, we can continue this discussion at dinner, but I am hungry and we do not want to keep Gabrielle or my wives waiting."
"Wives?" Cecrops repeated under his breath as they left the bathing room. Who needed more than one for the gods' sake?
Gabrielle stood from the bench where she'd seated herself to listen to Cecrops' story. Suddenly, she felt she knew exactly where she would find Xena.
"Intriguing indeed," she muttered before turning to make her way to dinner.
"So, Gabrielle, what plans do you have when you leave here?"
Gabrielle chewed and swallowed, glad she'd mastered the art of chopsticks hundreds of years before. The Chinese rarely offered her a knife or spoon and though she had managed to craft a utensil that allowed her to pick up food on several tines, she felt conspicuous bringing it out in front of others.
Now she paused, chopsticks empty and looked at Khan who regarded her with an expectant air. Then she realized that everyone at the table was waiting for her answer and blushed. She was trying not to call attention to herself, remembering both Ch'uang's and Cecrops' words to her on that very subject about discretion.
Not that she'd ever deliberately drawn attention to herself, but the fact was there were stories out there about her. And if she wasn't careful, someone who took the time to listen and put the facts together would eventually come up with the truth. Even as unbelievable and improbable as it seemed, it was more risk than she was willing to accept. Gabrielle knew that was all too true and had since done her best to downplay her public activity, allowing and encouraging others to assume authority for her efforts. Having Ares discover her at this stage would be a bad thing, so it was easy for her to step into the shadows.
"I honestly don't know. Maybe I will go visit some old friends off the coast," thinking of the Amazons. "I haven't really thought about it yet, but I haven't seen them in a while." She smiled. "Actually, I think I will. Thanks for the idea." She resumed eating.
"Well," Khan answered. "I'm glad I could help. Can you share a little more about them? Semelo was telling me the most interesting story of a land off the coast. Perhaps you have been there?"
"Um, I don't think so." Gabrielle turned her attention to Cecrops. "Where is this land?"
"A long journey to the east, past the land of the rising sun."
The flinch was barely perceptible in her eyes, but Cecrops saw it and immediately regretted his words. Gabrielle gave a small smile and shook her head.
"I have never been there, though one day...." She left the thought unfinished. "My friends are to the south."
"Tell us about them, please Gabrielle," Khan's head wife spoke. "You and Semelo are so well traveled. I remember the stories you shared with us the last time you were here."
"Yes, please, Gabrielle. Unless you are hiding a long lost lover in there somewhere that you need to keep hidden," Khan said with a bit of a tease, not expecting the response he got.
A flash of pain before a tremulous smile and Gabrielle looked at him fully with slightly twinkling eyes. "Khan, if I had a long lost lover, there'd be no need to keep them hidden, now would there? They would be lost. Why go to all the trouble of hiding them?"
Khan chortled, amused by the unexpectedly wry humor in her voice. "You make your point well, my bardic friend. So tell us about the people to the south."
"Not much to tell, honestly. Just a place I stumbled across accidentally before my trip to China. Beautiful country and friendly people. I stayed for a bit and we traded stories and such. Then I came here." Nothing like leaving out a few details, huh, Bard?
"Well, that sounds... interesting," Khan commented, wondering what she was skirting around. The subject was obviously making her uncomfortable. He shrugged his mental shoulders. Gabrielle had been nothing but helpful and honest. She was entitled to a bit of privacy.
The next few weeks passed pleasantly. Genghis Khan was between campaigns and he and Gabrielle spent a bit of time sparring, though the conversation never returned to her teacher. Cecrops was content to watch and learn, though he was introduced to a young woman who had caught his fancy and he spent a bit of time with her as well.
As Gabrielle was packing up her things to leave, Cecrops finally found some time to speak with her privately. He dropped onto her bed and relaxed back, watching as she continued to sort through her belongings as she put them into her backpack.
"You're really going to leave, then?"
Gabrielle nodded. "It's for the best. I can't really stay in one place extensively. And I really do want to go see the Amazons. It's been too long."
Cecrops nodded his understanding.
"You gonna stay here?" Gabrielle asked, knowing the answer, but feeling that Cecrops needed to say it aloud.
"Yes, for now at any rate. Zhao is... well, I like her company. I'd like to enjoy that feeling again, just for a little while."
Gabrielle nodded, understanding the feeling all too well, even if she didn't agree with what she perceived as selfishness on his part. "Is that why you took a different name?"
He rose and went to the doorway, standing silently and watching life continue to pass around him uninhibited. "Yes," he said finally. "I am tired of being associated with immortality and people seem to enjoy that tale... at least enough to remember my name. Am I wrong to want to be like everyone else? To share in life like they do?"
Gabrielle finished her packing and set her bag to the side, taking a seat on the bed and looking sadly at the stiff back facing her.
"Wrong to want it? No, not really. I can understand that desire. Wrong to try it, though... to perpetuate the myth that you are just like everyone else?" She shrugged and though Cecrops couldn't see the gesture, he felt it just the same. "I dunno. I don't think I can decide that for you. You're the one that has to live with whatever consequences come along."
"What would you do?"
"Cecrops, we are two completely different people with two completely different goals." She rose and walked to stand beside him. "But whatever you decide, I'm glad we had a chance to spend some time together again. Even with our ups and downs, it's been nice to be with a friend who really does understand our, um... unique circumstances."
Cecrops turned then and lifted Gabrielle into his arms for a bone crushing hug.
"I'm gonna miss you, Little One."
Gabrielle returned the embrace fully. "I'm gonna miss you, too, my friend. Take care of yourself, okay?"
Cecrops smiled. "I will and you do the same."
"You know it. Maybe we'll run into each other again," Gabrielle said, hefting her pack.
"Count on it."
Gabrielle moved back from the window and resumed her place on the bed. She assumed a meditative pose and relaxed, reaching across time and space for her heart's desire.
How long she remained focused in one position she couldn't have said, but the sudden warmth that flooded her system had her in motion before her eyes were even opened. She stood at the window watching the comet move, relishing the connection she felt in the depths of her soul.
The warmth that suddenly pervaded Xena's soul was unmistakable and for the first time Xena felt an aching poignancy in the gentle familiarity of Gabrielle's soul reaching out to touch her own.
Xena didn't know how much time had passed. The interior of the hut was blue with smoky haze and the water skin had been refilled several times that she was conscious of. Now, however, her entire focus was on Gabrielle and the tentative bond she could feel between them once again. So lost was she in the emotions flowing through her that she never realized when she fell into a meditative trance.
Several items became clear to her mind, the last of them being a scroll. When the images stopped, Xena fell into a deep sleep. She slept all of one night and into the middle of the following day. When she woke up, it was to the accompaniment of Gabrielle's heart beating in her chest and the feeling brought a smile to her face.
Xena rose on shaky legs and walked slowly to the portal of the hut, snapping her eyes closed as she moved aside the door and was immediately blinded by the bright sunshine. She stood still until she could blink her eyes open, then continued to blink furiously as she made her way to Keto's and Hotassa's fire. No one made a move to help her, but all watched in reverent silence until she reached her destination.
She stood wrapped in her buffalo robe, thankful for its warmth as a cold wind blew across the plain. Xena waited until Keto motioned for her to take a seat, then did so with alacrity. It was shaping up to be a long, cold winter and after days in the sweat hut, it was bone-chilling. She was happy to sit and let the warmth of the fire seep through her robe and soak into her body.
"So," Keto intoned solemnly.
Silence fell again until Hotassa served them a meal of hot soup and a bit of hot tea. Then they ate in contemplative peace until Xena set aside her unfinished portion for her animal companions and leaned back to sip her tea while Keto ate the remainder of his meal. Only when he too sat back and pulled his pipe from his coat was the silence broken.
"I saw, Keto, but I do not understand the meaning of my vision."
"There are six items. Things that are... familiar... to me, but not how I remember them. In each part of the vision, I see myself holding them, touching them, but I don't know to what purpose." She drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly.
"The first thing I saw was a staff... well crafted and balanced. Reminded me a little of Gab... well, it was very familiar. Then there was an Amazon war mask... looked like the mask of the Queen." Xena cleared her throat slightly. "There was a bone fishhook, the Dagger of Helios and my chakram. The last thing I saw was a scroll. A very old scroll in a cave with markings."
"I know not Hee-lee-oes or shock-rum."
Xena extended her arm and drew pictures of the two items in question. She figured that was easier than trying to explain what they were with words.
Keto's eyes had widened perceptibly with each item she named off and bulged when her drawings were completed. He offered up a brief prayer for his son, knowing Xena was likely to kill Kya when Keto instructed her on the meaning of her vision.
"Legend says that qualities of great warrior are alive in totems. Each totem is different trait warrior needed for greatness." Keto cleared his throat and took a deep breath. He rarely had to do this much talking over the course of an entire day.
"Scroll is for knowledge. It tells of each totem and where to find. Other five represent strength, stealth, skill, cunning and balance."
"What about courage?" Xena asked, thinking that was a key component to being a warrior.
"Whole ritual test of courage."
They sat quietly for a time while Xena thought about this test. Finally she broke the silence. "So how do I find these things and what will they get me?"
Keto remained silent so long Xena thought he was refusing to answer her question. But she stilled herself to patience and waited.
"Scroll is first key. Must go to cave and find scroll. Will tell how to find other totems. What happens after that," Keto shrugged. "Up to you."
Xena nodded. "I'll start out at first light. Do you know where this cave is, or will I need to find it on my own?"
"I can tell you of cave. Need to find scroll alone."
Xena nodded again. It reminded her of the old days and she felt a burst of enthusiasm flow through her veins at the prospect not only a new adventure, but the possibility of it bringing her closer to Gabrielle.
Keto waited, knowing he had not answered all of her questions. He winced internally, knowing that some of them could be much more painful than others.
Xena brought her vision back from whatever distant point it had been focused on and looked back to Keto. "Has anyone ever succeeded in this quest?"
"Not as expected, no."
Xena turned a piercing gaze on the shaman and crooked an eyebrow. "You wanna explain that, Keto?"
The shaman hesitated, then drew a deep breath. "Kya," Keto hesitated again when Xena growled. "Kya tried. Something not right."
Keto waited. Xena waited longer. Keto bowed to the inevitable as gracefully as he could.
"During time of my father's father, traveler came to our tribe from east. He had staff that interested namêeme. Hercules was willing to trade walking stick for bearskin coat and after vision quest, namêeme agreed."
Xena put a hand out to stop the flow of words. "Who??"
"My namêeme? He was...."
"No. The traveler... you said his name was Hercules?"
"Yes. You know?"
Xena took a deep breath, knowing her reaction was unwarranted as far as Keto was concerned for someone who was a part of the past that neither of them had ever met. "His name... reminded me of someone I once knew." Not mentioning the fact the Hercules she was acquainted with was an immortal and very likely one in the same with the Hercules that had passed through the tribe two generations before.
Keto nodded, seeing the truth of that statement clearly in her eyes. He cleared his throat. "Staff became part of shaman lore... said to channel warrior strength. Never lost battle with it."
Xena said nothing, motioning for him to continue.
"Moons after Hercules, we got knife in bet with strange man...." Keto trailed off thoughtfully.
Keto motioned to his face. "Funny hair. Not like usual white man."
Xena nodded. She'd noted that most white men had full facial hair, or in the case of a very few... none at all. She wondered what this man did to appear 'strange'. She brought her attention back to Keto as he resumed speaking.
"Odd knife... not much use... unusual with crooked blade. Is why namêeme kept. For many years, objects kept as part of shaman's holdings. Considered good for tribe."
Keto took a deep breath and lifted his mug, grimacing when the lukewarm tea hit his tongue. Hotassa noticed from her place near the doorway and moved to offer them both a bit more hot tea. Keto accepted; Xena didn't. And when his cup was refilled, he cleared his throat and continued talking.
"When neho'eehe went through rite of passage, he found scroll and knowing of staff and knife, started search for other totems. For many years he hunted, shirking duties as shaman to find ultimate warrior." Keto's tone was bitter with remembrance. "I became shaman when my father's father went to his fathers. My father failed in hunt and at his death, my heke put things away."
Another sigh from the shaman and Xena could feel the frustration rolling of Keto in waves. "When Kya came of age," he continued in a flat voice, "he found the scroll. And the four other totems my neho'eehe found."
"Wait," Xena finally interrupted. "He found all but one totem?"
"Yes," Keto confirmed with a vigorous nod of his head. "All but one you called shock-rum."
Xena's eyes widened with the knowledge. She knew if she had to find the original chakram her search had just become infinitely more difficult. The last time she'd seen her chakram, Gabrielle had been wearing it. Her eyes closed in remembered pain and she focused her concentration on the warmth she still felt in her soul. Keto noted her distress and waited for her to return from whatever unpleasantness she was reliving.
"So what happened?" she asked calmly when she opened her eyes.
"Kya searched for many moons, finally deciding he found last totem. Right shape, but...." He shrugged. "Was not where scroll said."
"So the scroll tells where to look as well as what to look for?"
"Gives clues," Keto answered.
"So what happened?" Xena pressed, seeing Keto cringe at the asking.
"Scroll gives ritual for gaining power of ultimate warrior. Kya followed ritual, but failed."
"Failed... how?" Xena asked slowly with sudden understanding.
Keto swallowed, knowing she needed the truth. "Ritual brought you to this place."
"Excuse me?" she said low and dangerously. "Keto, I'm not from anywhere remotely near here, in any way, shape or form." Never denying the part of being the ultimate warrior.
"I know. We are at loss to say how and why."
Xena swallowed and breathed, content for the moment to simply focus on the basics. Anything beyond that and people would start dying. Her rage was overwhelming and it had been a long time since she'd had to exercise such self-control over it.
"Will the scroll give me directions, a ritual, for returning me home?"
"What has been done can be undone," Keto said cryptically. "But first must retrieve totems."
Xena nodded. "I'll do that. Tell me of the cave. The sooner I get started, the sooner I can get home."
Keto explained to Xena where the cave of rituals was, drawing a crude map in the dirt with his finger to give her a rough picture of the path she needed to follow.
"There are pictures on walls. They tell story of people; also give directions to scroll. Will take two or three days travel to reach cave. After that...." Keto shrugged again. "Up to you. We think totems return to origins."
Xena shook her head. This just gets more and more complicated, she thought with a scowl. "All right," she said as she looked around the compound, noting for the first time that the sun was beginning to set. "I'll start out at first light."
"Keto, I appreciate the home and family the people have given me here. The welcome I've had means more to me than you can know. But if I can get home, to my ti... to my family... to Gabrielle, then I will do whatever it takes as fast as I can to get back there."
The fierceness in her response and the fire in her eyes compelled him to ask. "You have regrets then?"
"Yes," she replied without hesitation and he wondered what caused the tears that sat in her eyes while she refused to let them fall.
"Then go with haste and my blessing. I will meet you at rise of sun."
He held up a hand. "Is my duty."
She nodded her acceptance. "In the morning, then." And she rose from her place at his fire and walked to her own, accompanied by both panther and fox.
Keto watched until she entered her dwelling, then turned his own attention to the fire, thinking.
The sun had not yet begun to color the sky when Xena stepped from her tepee. On either side of her walked her animal companions. Keto smiled at the picture they made. Somehow, their presence reassured him that she would be successful in her quest, not that he could explain his reasoning behind the thought. It was simply a gut instinct he had learned long ago to respect.
Without warning, Kya rushed to his side as Xena drew closer. It was easy to see his agitation and even easier to guess the meaning behind it.
"Neho'e! She cannot. This my quest!"
Kya was surprised at his father's harsh tone and sank to his knees beside the fire watching the warrior's approach. He shivered when her blue eyes passed over him, certain that the flame of the fire before him could not warm the depth of his soul that had iced over at her cold look.
Keto stood, knowing well why Xena wore a look of disdain now and not blaming her. Kya had started out wrong with her and nothing the young shaman had done since bringing Xena to them had alleviated the impression of ineptitude she had of him. His proprietary manner had only served to make the situation worse and her humiliation of him had been the final straw in making them bitter enemies.
Well, it made Kya bitter. Xena had simply dismissed the young shaman as an idiot. At the moment however, her fury at his part in her present situation made her a threat to him and even the animals at her side easily picked up on her anger. Both looked at Kya with fangs slightly bared and growled. It was that that made Kya realize he was completely out of his league with her - in all aspects of life. And for some reason, that made him want to stake a claim even harder.
"Neho'e!" he began to protest again, but was cut off with a single word.
"Silence!" Keto roared and Xena bit her lip to prevent the smirk that wanted to form. "This no longer your quest, if ever was. You leave Zee-nah alone. Her search now."
"NO! I let you be fool long enough. Over now!"
Kya looked at his father defiantly for a long moment before turning his eyes away and stomping off.
"He's gonna try again, you know," Xena commented softly as Keto lit his pipe.
"Heehe'e," the shaman nodded. "Yes, but you will fix. I have seen."
Xena's brow creased at the pronouncement and she wondered what was in store for her. Then she put it out of her mind as Keto began chanting around her, waving his pipe in a ritual cleansing motion. Finally it was over and he kissed her forehead as though she were a beloved daughter and pressed a map and a small sack of food into her hands.
"Go with blessing."
Xena nodded solemnly. "Thank you, Keto." Then she picked up her staff and she and the animals walked with purpose towards the hills that looked closer than they really were.
The day had been well-spent walking though it did seem to Xena that the caves retreated before her advance. They didn't seem to be any nearer their goal than when they had left before daylight that morning. Worse, Kya was following them closely enough to keep both her and the animals on edge. She wondered if he was just naturally stupid, or if hers was a special case for him. The panther growled again, low in its throat.
"I know, Etor," Xena said softly as the cat circled her legs. "He can't think to sneak up on us out here. There's nowhere to hide... for him or for us. C'mon, we need to find a place to make camp."
Eventually, just before dark, Xena reached the small stream that Keto had told her would guide her to the mouth of the cave she was searching for. She was tempted to press forward but recognized the fact that the panther at least needed rest among them, even if she and the fox did not. So she settled next to the trickle of water that flowed sluggishly in the late fall weather, wondering if the winter snows and spring rains would swell it to become a raging flood.
She smiled, her musings reminding her so easily of Gabrielle and the numerous talks they would have on a myriad of subjects in the evenings as they settled into camp. One thing Gabrielle had never been was boring and Xena never quite knew what to expect the conversation to be about.
Xena went about her tasks almost by rote and in short order, a well-laid camp had been set. She moved to the stream, pleased to note the numerous fish available in its shallow water. She stepped in and waded to the middle, not surprised that the water didn't even reach mid-thigh here or that is was bone chillingly cold. She forced that fact from her awareness and concentrated instead on the life flowing in the water around her. Almost immediately she held two good sized fish in her hands and was making her way back to the shore when it happened.
Kya had been furious that what had been his quest... his birthright... had not only been taken away from him, but blessed by his father for another. The fact that it was the woman warrior who thwarted his plans at every turn simply made it unbearable. Even though she had never done a thing to lord it over him, Xena's evident disdain of him had made Kya a laughingstock among his tribesmen. Now it was time to fix it.
He ran screaming from the tall grasses, knife raised, hoping to catch her off guard. What he caught was a fox on his wrist, a cat at his neck and one very pissed of human being that snapped the bone of the leg that kicked out at her.
Kya's screaming went from war-cry to pain in a matter of seconds. He dropped the knife under the fox's bite and fell to the ground in one swift motion. The panther jumped on his chest and pushed Kya into a completely prostrate position, hovering dangerously close to the young shaman's neck with an open mouth.
"I could've handled it alone, but thanks, guys."
Kya began to shake, a combination of pain and nerves. He'd never expected this end. He was destined for great things. Xena just shook her head.
"Ya know, Kya," she began conversationally, motioning the two animals away. They took up sentinel positions at Kya's head to assure he remained a non-threat while Xena treated him.
"I never took you for stupid until now. Young, brash, naïve, but not stupid. Apparently," she continued as she put the pressure points on his leg, watching him watch her warily as he started to relax from the pain, "I was mistaken. You are stupid."
He lunged for her and immediately she released the nerve blocks she'd set for him. Kya shrieked in pain and fell back to the ground whimpering, clutching at his leg. Xena gave him a no nonsense look.
"Ready to behave now?"
He nodded furiously and she reset the blocks on his leg. She set his leg carefully, straightening the bone until it snapped back into place. She looked regretfully at the staff she carried. It was the only wood for miles and she really had no choice.
"Let me explain something to you, Kya," she said calmly as she broke the thick stick in half with her bare hands. Kya's eyes grew wide and he suddenly realized just how foolhardy he had been. "This is my quest... my hunt. I will do whatever is necessary to survive it and overcome any challenges that are put in front of me."
She placed the sticks on either side of the break and took the supply of bandages from her kit and bound the leg tightly.
"However," she continued conversationally. "If you get in my way again, I will break both your legs and I won't stop to fix them. Ya got me?"
The words were said at a near whisper, but Kya's head nodded rapidly at the truth that burned like fire in her eyes. He had no doubt she'd do just exactly like she said.
"Good. I've got to release the block but it won't hurt as much now that the bone is in place." Xena undid the pinch and Kya flinched then relaxed as the pain leveled off. He looked at her with a mixture of awe and unease. Xena just rolled her eyes and blew out a breath. "We'll have to figure out how to get you home later. You may have to wait here a day or two until I get back from the caves."
Kya's eyes grew big. "You would leave me?"
"In a heartbeat," came the short answer. It put a kibosh on any further conversation between them.
Xena retrieved the two fish she had already caught and stepped back into the cold water to catch one more. Kya watched in silence, amazed at her reflexes. Then in darkness, she lit the chip fire she'd laid when she set up camp and started preparing the fish for dinner.
Xena wasn't surprised at the approach of a small party an hour or so later. She suspected Keto knew precisely what would happen and had let events play out to their logical conclusion before stepping in. The look in his eyes as he drew near her and Kya and his lack of surprise at his son's condition only served to further confirm that idea in her mind.
Keto waited until she invited him to her fire with a nod, then he and his small band joined Xena.
"I don't have anything...." she started, having just cleaned up the remains of their dinner.
"No need," the shaman said with his hand upraised. "We have," pulling trail rations from his pocket. The men with him did the same and all sat silently eating while cast covert glances in Kya's direction. Keto had not explained anything to them; merely commanded them to join him on a hunt. They wondered what had happened and why it seemed like Kya was the prey.
"May we share fire tonight, Zee-nah? Will make new start tomorrow."
Xena nodded. She hadn't expected them to return to the compound in the dark, but she was glad Keto had done her the courtesy of asking. It would reinforce her position within the tribe and perhaps solve any linger doubts. If it prevented any more scenes like the one she'd had with Kya, she'd be happy.
Soon, quiet settled around the camp as everyone settled down to sleep. The morrow would bring new challenges.
Reassured by Keto words the previous evening and satisfied that Kya would indeed be taken care of by his people, Xena left before dawn. She couldn't explain her anxiousness, though she knew it was due to her desire to reunite with Gabrielle... whether it was here in the future or together in their past. She considered part of it to be the unknown she was going into. As far as her logical mind went, it had been a very long time since she'd adventured alone and she wasn't anticipating doing it this time. Especially not knowing anything going into it and expecting it to take several years of travel and hunting to accomplish the first part of her task.
Etor and Melo disappeared around midday. Xena wasn't too concerned; they were mates and they'd had very little time alone just to be mates in a while. She turned to daydreaming, remembering the times she and Gabrielle had snuck off from the Amazons on their rare visits. Even if it was just to sit by the water and watch the sun sparkle off the surface, everyday they'd made sure to take a little time for themselves. It was something they found imperative.
Knowing how closely the two animals had come to losing one another recently made the need even more understandable. Every time she or Gabrielle had died, or come close, they had always taken a day or two to confirm the reality of their lives and love together. And considering how close Melo had come to losing Etor to Kya's rage the previous evening....
Xena shivered in memory. She didn't think the panther knew how close it had come to death, but the fox did. She had seen the near despair in the green eyes late into the night and was fairly certain she knew what the outcome of their time alone together would be.
Near dusk, the two returned to her, both looking drained but at peace. She looked at them carefully, then set a bowl of broth between them to share, not surprised to find the bowl empty and them asleep wrapped around one another scant minutes later.
"I sure hope you guys know what you're doing," Xena mumbled to herself as she settled into her own blankets for the night. "But gods know I'll be glad to have you both around for the rest of my life."
And Xena went to sleep feeling just a little bit better, knowing that they would have each other for eternity as well.
Just after daybreak on the third morning, Xena crossed the threshold of the cave and almost immediately was plunged into darkness. She found her flint and striker and lit a torch, glad Keto had told her where to find them just inside. She stood for a moment orienting herself, impressed with the number of pictographs on the walls and amazed by the story they told.
As she read the pictures, she realized that they told they story of the people and hidden in that story was the story of the scroll. It took some time and a bit of deciphering, but finally Xena was satisfied with her translation and moved through the cavern with swift, sure steps.
It took almost half an hour of climbing and maneuvering before she reached the place the wall story sent her and with a bit of searching, Xena found the scroll's hiding place.
Reverently she slid it from the hole, its texture and feel bringing back some bittersweet memories. She tucked the scroll carefully in her bag and slowly made her way back to the main cave. Once she stepped outside, she was amazed to see how late it had grown. Although it had seemed like mere minutes, in actuality hours had passed and it was well into late afternoon.
Conscientiously Xena extinguished the torch and left it for the next traveler, then quickly made her way to the campsite she'd left only that morning.
Xena sat and carefully unrolled the aged parchment knowing it would be a necessary companion on her journey. She noted with faint surprise that the writing was unfamiliar. She had honestly expected to see Gabrielle's firm, familiar script filling the page. The cadence and the wording, however, were as well-known to her as the reflection she faced in the streams and rivers of the area. Gabrielle may not have written it, but her style and form had definitely influenced whoever did put pen to paper.
Slowly Xena read through the items, noting the description as well as the clues that had been put in place to help find them. Well, they appear to be the genuine articles, noting that it was the Dagger of Helios as well as her chakram that were described so accurately on the page. Wonder who figured all this out?
Then she shrugged and began making plans to find the staff... which if she understood the riddle correctly, meant she would soon be running into an old friend.
Xena made her way back to the encampment, hoping to get a little information before traveling to the northeast. It looked as though she wouldn't be spending the winter with the Nation after all. She was much too anxious to begin her pursuit.
She was a little surprised at the respect she was accorded when she returned from the cave. Xena learned from Hotassa that her sparing of Kya and subsequent treatment of one who could have been treated as an enemy was highly regarded.
"I couldn't do less for him, Hotassa. He's still young and has lots to learn."
Hotassa nodded. "Yes. Thank you for giving him chance."
Xena gave her a crooked smile. "I had too. People have given me chances."
Hotassa nodded, not knowing that the people Xena referred to were not only the Cheyenne, but Gabrielle, Hercules and countless others she had known in her lifetime. Hotassa was helping Xena pack for her trip into the far north and Xena was reminded of something.
The older woman looked at her in question, but continued her packing.
"Do you know someone named Ari?"
Xena saw the hesitation, though she could hardly have missed it when Hotassa stopped what she was doing and looked directly into her eyes.
"Yes," she said succinctly. She took a deep breath. "Daughter. Left with trader many moons ago. Why?"
Xena shrugged, not realizing the trouble she'd stumbled on by asking the question. "She is the one who took me in. Taught me the white man's language."
"She is well?"
"Yes and happy," Xena added, thinking to ease the strain so apparent on Hotassa's face. "You don't get to see her?"
Hotassa shook her head. "No. Keto say she choose white. She need live as white."
"Yes, but is his way. He good father. Broke heart when she left."
Xena shook her head and hoisted her pack. "I'll never understand people," she muttered, not surprised when Hotassa agreed with her pronouncement.
Hotassa gathered a sack from beside her fire and pressed it into Xena's hands. "Some food to start journey. Last few days."
"Thank you, Hotassa. I'll be back to visit as soon as I can."
Hotassa cradled Xena's face in her hands and pulled her down to kiss her forehead. "Travel well," she whispered, then patted Xena's shoulder before releasing her. Each of the people of the tribe came forward and offered her a small token and a blessing and for a moment, Xena was overwhelmed with gratitude. She'd never expected a send-off, much less one like this. Finally, only Keto was left.
"Good journey," he said before kissing her forehead like Hotassa had.
She looked into his eyes and saw success there and smiled at him. "I'll return," she said solemly. "Be well until I do."
Keto nodded, then faced her towards the northeast and watched until she became a mere speck on the horizon.
Her first night out, her gaze returned to the heavens, looking for the star that seemed to be shooting across the sky in slow motion. Xena gazed on it, almost able to hear Gabrielle's conversation about it - questioning, commenting, tickling Xena's otherwise stoic sensibilities with her insights and thoughts.
"I miss you, Gabrielle, but I'm gonna find my way back to you. Somehow, I think this star may lead me to the home that is you for me."
With that thought, she closed her eyes and slept.