DISCLAIMER/NOTES: See Part One.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Heart of a Warlord
By Patricia L. Givens
Chapter 9: Myths and Legends
Draxen's arm slid out across his bed, reaching for someone who wasn't there. He pulled himself out of sleep with a sigh. This always happened for a few days after he had seen Derry Unfortunately, that never made it any easier.
Stretching, he pulled on his breeches and boots before stepping out into the moonlight. The night was incredibly clear, the sky a million points of brilliant light. He fancied that his wife might be looking up at the same stars too, and wondered, not for the first time, what kept him out here. What held him to this life that seemed to just grow darker every day. It hadn't been like this in the beginning.
Shaking his head, he turned towards the fire, surprised to see a familiar figure still sitting beside it.
Draxen walked up quietly, not wanting to wake her, should she be asleep. "Zo?" He whispered. "You awake?" He waited for a moment before turning back towards his tent.
"Are you sure?" He tried to find her eyes, to see what mood she held in them, but her face was lost in shadows.
"I'm sure. Sit please."
Draxen lowered himself onto the makeshift bench across the fire from her. He watched the flames silently, remembering how many times they had done this in the past, the two of them, just sitting and talking until the sun rose up around them. "It's different now, isn't it?"
Zo turned her face to look at him and he could see the faint tracks of tears where they had dried on her cheeks. He was almost as surprised by that as he was by the coldness he found in her eyes. "Yes. Yes it is."
"Why, Zo?" He slid closer to her. "Why does it have to be? You are a magnificent warrior. I could make you a Queen That's what we were going to do remember?"
"I remember." Her voice was very soft. "I remember everything." She dropped her gaze back to the fire. "Have you ever lost anything, Draxen?"
"What do you mean?" He shrugged. "What? Like a dagger, or something?"
"No," She laughed, knowing it was what he wanted. "And don't play the fool, Drax. It doesn't suit you."
"All right.then, yes, if you must know. I understand what you're talking about."
"Do you?" Hard hazel eyes caught and held his own. "Do you know what it's like to hold everything you've searched for you're entire life in the palm of your hand and then lose like that." She snapped her fingers. "Not once, not twice, but three times?"
Draxen swallowed. "I lose my wife every time we leave." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Not exactly the same thing but-"
"Close enough." Zo whispered. "Now, imagine that she isn't there, the next time you go home." She watched his face harden. "How would you feel about the person that took her away?"
"About the same as you. But a lot of what I did about it would depend on whether or not she went willingly." He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "I know you, Zo. Probably better than anyone. And this this all consuming rage, this madness This isn't you."
She was silent for a moment, her face turned away. When she looked at him again, the fire cast an eerie glow across her cheeks and danced wildly in her eyes. "It is now."
The warrior cracked one eye open to find her lover watching her. She sighed. The look on Gabrielle's face meant that sleep would be lost for a while, if not for the rest of the night. "It's late." She growled. "You should be asleep."
"I know." Gabrielle pulled the sheets up around her shoulders. "But I think we need to talk."
The serious tone in her voice caught Xena by surprise. "All right." She pulled her self up to lean against the headboard. "About what?"
"I need you to tell me about the Laths."
"The Laths?" The warrior raised on eyebrow. "you woke me up in the middle of the night to tell you a story?"
"It's important. Please "
Xena studied her for a moment before nodding. "As long as you tell me why."
"Afterwards." Gabrielle swallowed.
The warrior thought about arguing for a moment, then let it pass. She poured herself a glass of port and sipped it slowly, trying to wake up her vocal cords as her eyes read the worry on her lovers face. After a long sigh, she began. "There are five Laths in existence, the first four being the Elemental Laths, which were created by the power of the Gods." Xena glanced up to make sure Gabrielle was paying attention. "Centuries ago, Zeus left Mount Olympus in search of the greatest alchemists ever born to man. After years of searching, he chose the four best suited to his needs. Those four were Tirycles, Nomaphalous, Bestus, and Rydonys. To them he offered what their hearts desired most power. The deal was simple. All four would be given near limitless power, second only to that of the Gods, and one hundred years in which to use it. In return, Zeus commissioned the making of four amulets, and the right to any component he might need for their construction."
"The alchemists agreed quickly, taking their power and his designs out into the world. They were not good Lords, they were not fair men, but then, Zeus didn't care about such things. The Gods rarely do. They spent their hundred years , each trying to conquer the others, all of them pillaging the lands they ruled. And through it all they continued to search for everything Zeus required, finding all the components that he needed to make what he desired. All of them but one."
"On the last day of the hundredth year, Zeus came to them, one at a time. He found each of the four as he expected them to be, old and dying, so frail they couldn't even stand. And powerful enough to challenge even him, if they had had the strength to do so."
"But Zeus was not a fool. He had given them limitless power, and a hundred years to reap it's rewards, but he hadn't given them youth. With every passing year, their minds became stronger as their bodies became weaker. When the he finally returned to call in his debt, they were too weak to speak or try to stop him. It was only then that they were told what they were helping to create. The Elemental Laths."
"Each Lath would control one part of nature and could be used to shape it as the Gods wished. For that, Zeus took their souls. In a cauldron made of lightening, he mixed each one with sand, breaking in the bone of the earth to help hold it together, then he crushed it between his palms until each part joined with the others to form a perfect stone. From Tirycles, he created the Blue Lath, to control the tears of the heavens. From Nomaphalous came the Brown Lath, to control the earth and it's movement. From Bestus he made the Red Lath, to hold the heat of fire. And from Rydonys came the White Lath, to control the blowing winds. They did not fight him, they didn't even try. For that, Zeus rewarded them. He took away their consciousness, and made each one just a stone."
"How cruel." Gabrielle whispered.
"Not so cruel A stone can't tell the passage of time."
"Xena, what's the 'bone of the earth'?"
"Silver." The warrior stretched. "or copper, or gold. Any one or all three, as long as the metal is pure."
The bard nodded. "Go on."
"When the four alchemists were dead and the amulets complete, Zeus returned to Mount Olympus. He placed the Laths in the Hall Of Winds, for all his children to use and there they stayed for centuries, until Hera, caught up in a fit of jealous rage, scattered them across the earth. Both the Gods and men alike have searched for them ever since."
"And the fifth?" Gabrielle asked.
"The fifth?" She pulled the bard back to lay against her. "The fifth was the final and most powerful Lath. It was made less than two hundred years ago, and not by any God."
"By The Great Alchemist. Perhaps the greatest alchemist that has ever lived."
"You sound like you were impressed by him." Gabrielle drew her knees up and rested her chin on top of them. "I didn't think you particularly approved of people who tampered with nature."
"I don't." Xena downed the rest of her port. "But what I've heard of this alchemist, makes me wish I'd known her."
"Her?" The bard's eyebrows went up and she leaned forward. "A woman "
"Yes." The warrior frowned slightly at the lines that creased her lovers forehead. "She lived in a small village called Laned " She stopped for a moment, her eyebrows knitting together For a moment Shrugging, she continued. "It wasn't too far from here, as I remember. Anyway, she wasn't well liked, being far too powerful for the likes of a small hunting village. The elders tried everything they could to make her go, but she refused, being held there by a force more powerful than herself "
Xena started, amazed to find herself getting so caught up in a child's tale. She flushed slightly. "Love."
"Ahh." Gabrielle grinned shyly. "Love of whom?"
"A healer. An incredible healer. Some say that she was the other half of the alchemists soul."
"Something tells me that this story does not have a happy ending."
"No. No it doesn't." Xena slid one arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer. "The healer was a simple farmer's daughter. Her parents didn't care for the alchemist any more than the elders did. When they found out about the love between them, they offered their daughters hand to the prince of a nearby kingdom. An offer that would have been laughed at, if not for her extraordinary abilities. The prince agreed, offering protection and prosperity for all of Laned."
"And when the healer refused to marry him?"
Xena didn't answer.
"She didn't refuse, did she?" Gabrielle felt a lump in her throat.
"No. She did what was best for her people. She promised her heart to her lover when they reached the Elysian Fields, but gave her hand to the man her parents had chosen."
"What happened to the alchemist?"
"She lost her faith." The warrior sighed, her heart heavy. How close had she come to doing the same? "She couldn't stand to wait a lifetime, but she couldn't bear to leave her lover unattended either. So she went about practicing heresy. She gathered all the information that she could from the writings of Nomaphalous, gleaning the rest from legends and myths, until she had the things she needed.. On her lover's wedding night, she called down the power of the Gods, using Athena's grace to change her cauldron to the stuff of lightning, and taking from Hephestus the strength to grind the stone. The last thing she added was the soul from within her chest. She pulled it out and laid it carefully on top. Then she watched with dying eyes as her Lath began to form and when it was done, it was a stone like no other, possessing a beauty to rival even those Zeus had created. At it's core was the charm of truth and love, and the desire to return it to the person for whom it was intended."
"So, the stone went to the healer?"
Xena shook her head. "No, she never saw it. Zeus made sure of that."
"What did he do?" Gabrielle breathed.
"He learned what was happening when she called down the power of the Gods. When she was dead, and all that remained was the stone, he went to her and gathered it up. He tried to remove it's charms, but he couldn't undo what the other Gods had done. So, instead, he cursed it, and the two of them. To the alchemist, he gave everlasting consciousness. He gave her thought, and feeling, so that she would know the horror of being trapped within her prison."
"And the healer?"
"To the healer he gave a brutal form of immortality, so that she would know eternity without the other half of her soul. But he didn't give her eternal life...instead, he gave her the lives of her children."
"What?" Gabrielle felt her heart go cold.
"Her soul would take the bodies of her children. Casting them down to Hades, before they took their first breath."
"That's That's " The look of horror on the bard's face said what her words could not.
"Then Zeus forbade them to ever be together. The stone and the healer could never touch, the two souls could never meet." Xena snorted. "Their names could not even be said together in the same breath, or they would both be destroyed and separated forever."
"So, when the charm on the Lath caused someone to try and reunite them "
"They, themselves, would have to fight to stop it."
"Goddess," Gabrielle's voice was very small. "To be forced to fight against the one thing you want more than life How awful."
"Yes." Xena nodded sadly. "It is."
"And there's nothing that can be done? Nothing that can change it?"
"There is always a way out of a curse, Gabrielle. But in two hundred years, they haven't been able to find it."
"Xena, what were their names?"
"The healers name was Kylein " The warrior bolted upright.
"What?" Gabrielle looked at her in concern. "What is it?"
"I met her ." Xena whispered. "I met the healer." She ran her finger across the smooth skin of her leg.
"Denal.." She grinned. "Laned Hades, it's right there!" Her eyes widened. "That means The Stone is nearby. Gabrielle-"
"The Stone Of Emony?" The bard looked up at her.
"Yes! I How did you know the Alchemist's name?"
"Xena, why haven't you seen this?" She pulled the blankets away and held the amulet up in her palm.
"I have. It's very pretty. What's the point here?"
Gabrielle looked down at the stone in her palm, it was glowing bright pink and cast a rainbow of colors across her lover's face. "What do you see?"
The warrior leaned closer. "A particularly attractive piece of rock. I was going to ask where you got it, but it didn't seem terribly important."
"Because you were focused on me instead " She whispered. "And she focused my attention on you. She was protecting herself "
"No!" Emony's voice sounded in her mind " Not just protecting myself. Protecting your destiny, so that you don't end up like like "
"Like you " Tears pooled up in Gabrielle's eyes, rolling down her cheeks before she could stop them.
"Gabrielle?" Xena grabbed her shoulders. "Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
"Xena, look at the stone." She whispered. "Please see it for what it truly is."
The warrior gave her a concerned look, but turned her attention to the stone in the bard's palm. For a moment, there was nothing, just a dark, attractive stone that she didn't really want to look at. In fact, the harder she stared, the more her eyes wanted to look away. "It's charmed." She reached out and touched it with the tip of her finger, pulling it back quickly as a searing pain burnt through her skin.
"What in Tartarus was that? I ..." Xena's voice trailed off as the stone began to glow, sending multi-colored rays all around them. "Gabrielle?!" She reached out quickly, trying to catch the bard's shoulders in her hands, but they closed on empty air.
Xena felt panic wrap around her heart as she slid out of their bed. For a moment, she could see faint trails of color, almost as though the stone's light had been embedded in the walls.
Then there was only darkness.
Draxen saddled his horse quietly, his heart heavy. He had never thought himself capable of what he was about to do, but he didn't have any other choice. Pulling himself up into the saddle, he rode out of camp.
Zo watched her second ride away. The darkness in her screamed for his head, raged through her body, tried everything it could to get her to follow him.
To get her to kill him.
Unconsciously, she reached for her sword, strapping it on while the anger burned in her chest. But she had only gone two paces when she stopped. Unbuckling the weapon, she looked at it through the eyes of a stranger.
"You boy!" She called out to one of the new recruits, one that looked vaguely familiar. He ran to her side quickly. "Do you fear me?"
The young man looked at her for a moment, then bobbed his head. "Yes, sir."
"Good." She ran one finger across his smooth, hairless cheek. "You are my second."
"Draxen has seen fit to desert us, boy. Would you turn down the position?"
"No, sir." His voice quavered slightly. "But, if he has deserted, shouldn't we change course or something?" His heart shriveled in his chest when she turned her cold, hazel eyes on him.
"Nothing changes. If he betrays me, he dies. Now get the men ready, we march in one hour."
"Yes, sir!" He strode away quickly, barking orders to her startled men.
"Listen to him, he holds Draxen's place." She screamed at them. She watched as her warriors scrambled to comply. "Don't let me down, Boy."
"I won't." He swore. "By Ares, I won't."
Zo nodded. "Remember that. Your life depends on it."
He swallowed, trying to remember how to breathe as he watched her walk away.
"Gabrielle!" The warrior reached out, sweeping her arm through the darkness. "Where are you?"
"Just stand still. It'll find us in a minute. Trust me, I've done this before."
"What will find us? Oh " She blinked as a bright light began to glow around Gabrielle. For a moment, it was blinding. When it faded, they were both at the base of a mountain. There were three sets of stairs climbing up away from them, the middle one crumbled, but the other two still intact. "I guess we climb." She shrugged.
"NO!" Gabrielle gabbed her by the arm. "Those aren't for you."
"How do you Oh, wait, I forgot.." She smiled sarcastically. "You've done this before. What is going on, Gabrielle?"
"I don't know where to start." She sighed.
"Try the beginning." Xena reached out and gently lifted the stone from her chest. "Like where you got this."
"From me "
They both turned, Gabrielle smiling and Xena scowling.
"You were in the bar." The warrior accused.
"Yes." Emony walked towards them. "In a sense."
"I think you owe us an explanation." Xena growled.
"Owe you?" The alchemist grinned. "I see. For showing you your hearts, for bringing you together, for saving destiny, I owe you?"
"All right," Xena crossed her arms. "Thank you very much. NOW explain."
"And what would you have me explain?"
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Does she always answer a question with a question?"
"You get used to it." The bard nodded.
Emony reached out, stopping her fingers just shy of Gabrielle's cheek. "No, she is right. It is the time for answers." She sighed. "Ask what you will, warrior, but know that Gabrielle will tell you all that has transpired later. For now, my time is limited. Make your questions count."
"Why did you help us?" Gabrielle looked into her honey green eyes.
"For many reasons." She smiled gently. "Because destiny is served by doing so, because each of you holds half of the same soul," She looked away. "Because you remind me of her And you both remind me of us."
"I remind you of who?"
"Kylein." Xena answered for the Alchemist. "You look like Kylein, Gabrielle. And more than that. You both have the same gentle spirit, the same heart. I noticed it right away. She's Kyla now, isn't she?"
"Yes." Emony nodded.
"How did you set that up? How did she know?"
"There has always been a link between us. We cannot speak, but we can share images, more so when we have to fight against being rejoined. Another gift from Zeus. We are at our closest, when we must fight to be apart."
"Then all that talk about Zo becoming a powerful warlord was-"
"Absolutely true." Emony finished for her. "Everything I have shown you is true. Everything I have told you, is true. The center of the stone is truth." She sighed. "More often than not, I have turned away from the truth in a persons soul. This stone and I have traveled far in the hands of the undeserving, but we always end up here. Kylein is my destiny. As Gabrielle is yours, and you are hers."
"So you did this to right the path of fate?" Xena looked at her skeptically.
"Take away a person's destiny, and what do you have left?" A single tear slipped down her cheek. "Your lives will touch the hearts of so many." She turned to Gabrielle. "You are a farm girl who learned to be a warrior, of words and with your staff. You have faced death and loss, and still refused to let it eat away your soul. And you." She turned to Xena. "You have taken the evil in your heart and turned it out. You would give your life to atone for your actions, you would give anything to change the things that you have done. There is no more darkness in your soul, Xena. Only shadows of what used to be. You deserve each other, and that is the greatest compliment I can give you both."
Silence stretched between them as Xena studied the Alchemist's face. Finally, she nodded. "Then I do owe you thanks."
"No," The dark planes of Emony's face softened. "Thank you. You let me into your dreams, into your hearts. You let me share the love in your souls. That's something I haven't had for a long, long time."
Gabrielle thought her heart would break at the sadness of the her words. "Is there nothing we can do for you?" She reached out and touched Emony's hand without thinking. That simple contact sent a thousand images coursing through her mind as waves of emotion crashed into her pounding heart. When the alchemist finally pulled away, she stepped back, dazed. "How long has it been?" She gasped. "Since someone touched you?"
"An eternity." Emony closed her eyes. " You cannot help me, Gabrielle."
"Goodbye, Gabrielle. I will think of you both. I beg you, think of me."
"Wait!" The bard tried to reach her as she faded away, but Xena grabbed her and held her close.
You cannot help me, Gabrielle .
The bard opened her eyes, Emony's words repeating in her mind. She turned to wake Xena and found the warrior watching her intently.
"Are you going to tell me what's been going on?" She raised one eyebrow.
"No. Not right now." She wrapped her fingers around the Lath, now cold and dark. "Right now, I need your help."
"To do what?"
"To help Emony."
"And what about Zo?" Xena said gently. "Have you forgotten that we need to be somewhere tomorrow morning?"
"Xena, do you trust me?"
"With my life."
"Then let me sleep a little longer." She saw the doubt in her lover's eyes and smiled. "I think Emony gave me something when I touched her. I think she gave me the means to help her. But this has only ever worked when I'm asleep."
The warrior sighed. "All right. But if I find out this is just a trick to get me to let you sleep late "
Gabrielle laughed and kissed her gently. "I I think I need to be alone."
Xena nodded. "I'll go look for my own answers." She slid out of bed and into her armor. "About where we can find Zo."
"Who will you ask?"
A slow grin spread across her Xena's face. "Oh, I have an idea " She gave her lover one last kiss and turned to go.
"Did you ever search for the Laths?"
The warrior hesitated, strapping on her sword before answering. "A long time ago. When I thought I could use them to rule. Why?"
Gabrielle smiled casually. "Just wondering."
Xena looked as though she didn't quite believe her, but smiled anyway. "I'll be back. Keep the door barred."
The bard nodded, leaving their bed to do as she was told. When the room was secure, she took a long drink of Xena's port, grimacing at the taste. "How do you drink this stuff?" After a dipper of water to wash it down, she slid back between the sheets.
"All right, Emony. You said to think of you, and I am. I know you can't help me with this, just please, don't get in the way."
Closing her eyes, she drifted off to sleep.
Chapter 10: The Way Of Dreams
Xena glanced up at the sky as she rode, her eyes counting the stars and the shadows as she figured the time in her head. She had a little over an hour before the first light of dawn crept over the mountains. It would have to be enough.
Squeezing Argo gently with her knees, she mumbled a soft apology and a solemn promise involving oats and a certain brush Gabrielle carried in her bag. She'd have Hades to pay for using that brush, but right now, the risk was worth it.
Xena smiled when the mare nickered and quickened her pace. "Thanks, girl." She rubbed the horse's ears. "as fast as you can..."
Half an hour later, Xena pulled up short in front of the warrior's compound, her eyes narrowing as she took in the shattered gate that had once stood ten feet high. It looked as though it had been hit by a giant, it's hinges twisted and hanging off to the side. Drawing her sword, she slid off of Argo and stepped inside, her ears catching a sound that definitely had no place there.
No, more than silence. It was a dead sound, the same quiet you found in graveyards and gutted villages. Even the air was still.
Xena moved silently, her steps making no sound as she crept from one building to the next. What she found puzzled her.
There was no blood, no destruction, in fact, no sign of any kind of altercation at all. And yet there were no people. Each building was empty, it's furnishings left neatly arranged as though the occupant might return at any time. Somehow, Xena didn't think they would.
Satisfied that she was alone, the warrior turned towards the Raven's Claw. Her eyes widened as it came into view.
The Inn was gone...destroyed. And destroyed was a gentle term.
There wasn't one single board or brick left standing, just a pile of rubble that reached nearly to her shoulders. She made one pass through what was left, collecting bits of rope as she went. Each rope had a leather gather at one end that closed around an iron hoop. The other end was ragged, as though it had been snapped.
The pulled it apart, Xena thought to herself. The Inn, as it had been, was a large, two story building, built to withstand almost anything. The sheer magnitude of what Zo had done was staggering. And the number of men and horses she would have needed to do it was inconceivable.
"An army..." She shook her head. So that's where everyone went.
Lifting her face into a cool, passing breeze, Xena froze.. There was something... She breathed the air in deeply. It smelled....like copper... ?
Cursing softly, she turned her attention to the ground. It didn't take long to find what she was looking for.
A thin trail of blood...leading from the wreckage into the trees behind it. At first just a few drops, then a steadier stream, until she knew she was hunting a dead man. Still, she had to hope..
The trail ended abruptly at the base of a huge tree, the ground beside it stained an impossible shade of red. Her eyes panned from tree to tree until a drop of fluid landed on her shoulder. Looking up, she swallowed.
Hanging from the tree was a bloodied mass, barely recognizable as a man. With a flip of her wrist, Xena sent her chakram spinning up into the branches. It found it's mark, slicing through the rope around the victims ankles before gliding back to her hand. She caught the body as gently as she could, letting the corpse's own weight drag it to the dirt, where it landed face down.
She didn't need to roll him over to know who it was.
She told me you'd be coming. And that she'd kill me if I helped you find her.
"I guess you were right." Xena grunted in frustration. "So much for my answers." She glanced at the Innkeeper coldly, trying hard to feel sorry for the man and failing miserably. Her eyes narrowed when she noticed that the body was leaning at an odd angle, as though there were something large sticking out of his chest.
With one foot, she caught the innkeepers body under it's arm and flipped him onto his back. Protruding from his chest was a ten inch dagger, it's hilt made up like the head and neck of twin bronze dragons. "Zo." The warrior growled, grabbing the weapon and yanking it free. With it came a piece of parchment so soaked in blood that she hadn't seen it at first. It was carefully folded, almost as though the writer had known it would be getting wet and wanted the message to remain clear.
Xena opened it slowly, her own blood turning to ice as she read the four words written there.
See you in Potedeia...
Gabrielle's eyes flew open, her hands fluttering up over her heart. She felt the seductive fingers of a dream receding, felt it slip out of her mind, even as she tried to hold onto it. What was it? She couldn't even be sure it was a dream, more than a nightmare. She had an overwhelming sense of being surrounded, mixed in with the heartache of an unbearable loss. What was this?
Standing up, she felt her head connect solidly with a hard, cold ceiling. "What the..." Rubbing her eyes, she swung her head from side to side, her glance catching on the thin, web-like glow of the multi-faceted walls.
"Faceted?" Reaching out a hand, the bard slid her fingers across the smooth, glasslike stone, her skin registering cold spots as well as warm. When she realized that there was no exit, panic settled in her chest. She was trapped inside the stone...
Gabrielle tried to focus on finding a way out, but the ache in her heart was growing at an alarming rate. The ache of loss...
"Emony." She whispered. "Is this what it's like? Is this all that you've had? For 200 years?"
There was no answer.
"This is cruel." Gabrielle felt tears course down her cheeks. "How could Zeus do this? How did you survive?" She didn't expect the Alchemist to answer. It was her job to find the answers now. Closing her eyes, she gave herself over to emotions raging inside her. When she opened them again, the stone was gone, as was the loss, replaced instead by a seedy tavern. Gabrielle wondered briefly who she was in this vision, but a brilliant smile from across the bar was all the answer she needed.
"Gabrielle!" Xena moved towards her, her smile growing with each step.
"Xena!" The bard took one step and stopped abruptly, a fierce sense of fear and panic settling firmly in her chest. And the closer Xena got, the more panicked she became. "Stop!" She held her hand out, placing it between them. "Don't...."
"Gabrielle? Are you all right?" Xena reached out a hand to touch her cheek.
"DON'T TOUCH ME!"
The warrior pulled her hand back quickly, her cheeks flushing red as she turned away.
"Wait..." Gabrielle called out weakly. "That's not...I mean.... I didn't mean...."
"Right..." The warrior walked away, glancing back once before stalking out of the bar.
"I get it..." The bard watched her go, her hands curling into fists. "To be forced to fight against the one thing you want more than life..."
Gabrielle shook her head. No more of this. There were no answers in these memories, only pain. And she didn't think she could take any more of it.
No, there was only one place where she could find her answers, only one memory that could possibly help her. "Now." She clenched the stone in the palm of her hand. "Show me..."
There was no light this time, just the vague feeling that everything around her had shifted followed by a bone numbing coldness. Shaking violently, she fought to open her eyes.
"Still so stubborn..." A deep, rich voice filled the space around her. "Lie still, let it end."
Gabrielle struggled harder, finally managing to open her eyes enough to see the room around her.
Aged and weathered, Zeus stood before her, holding the stone that carried her soul. He noticed her struggles and smiled in her direction. "If the truth be told, I thought you gone from this world. All except your soul. I supposed I shouldn't be surprised. You had no respect for your place when you were yet living, why should it be different now?" He laughed. "Perhaps this is better. This way you can hear what your heresy has wrought."
Looking into the stone, he marveled at her creation. It was flawless. Even the four he created held fractures within. But not this one, not the Stone of Emony. "I cannot undo what you have stolen from the Gods. This stone is, and shall remain, a Lath... But it will never reach Kylein. It will never know her palm, just as she will never know her children." He set the crystal as he spoke, sliding it into a silver brace attached to a simple chain. "For her, eternity without family, or love. For you, an eternity to think on what you have done, an eternity alone, with the knowledge of what you have caused."
Gabrielle watched as Zeus held the Lath up by it's chain. "An eternity to find the light hidden within the darkness. An eternity to find the enemy who is to be your only friend."
"There it is." She smiled. Letting her eyes close, Gabrielle tried to will herself away, but she didn't have the strength. "No..." She whispered.
With a strange, sick feeling, Gabrielle felt herself begin to die.
Xena kept her eyes on the road ahead, trying to concentrate on the path before her. At the breakneck speed she was running Argo, any stone or rut could make her stumble... and cost her mare a leg.
She tried not to think beyond her surroundings, but it was so hard not to let her mind drift back to Gabrielle. It was so hard not to wonder what she was doing, and if she was ok....
She didn't see him until it was too late, only a black shape swinging down from the branches overhead. His lower legs connected solidly, brushing her off of Argo's back and onto the hard, cold ground.
Xena was on her feet in an instant, her sword drawn and pointed towards her attacker. "I remember you..." She hissed. "Where is she?"
Draxen stepped out of the shadows and held his hands up. The moon had long since vanished, but the predawn light was enough for Xena to see that his hands were empty. She lowered her sword slightly, drawing a small circle in the air with it's tip.
With a nod, Draxen turned slowly in a circle, raising his vest to show her that he carried no weapons at all. "I did not come here to fight you, Xena."
"Well, that was a pretty stupid way to say hello." She lowered her blade completely, but did not put it away. "What do you want?"
"So talk. I don't have much time. Make it quick."
"Zo's going to Potedeia." He ran one hand over the stubble on his cheeks. "She intends to flush you out of hiding. She knows you couldn't let innocent people die, let alone the family of your..." He stopped short when Xena raised her eyebrows dangerously. "Friend."
"She's more than a friend," She nodded at him and, deciding he was no threat, returned her sword to it's scabbard. "But what does that mean to you?"
He shrugged and turned his face away. "I don't know. A week ago, I would have said that it meant nothing. But that's not true anymore."
For a moment, she thought he wouldn't answer, then he turned and met her eyes. "Because it's real." He said quietly. "And that's very hard to find.... and even harder to lose. Zo thought she had it, and to be honest, so did I."
"You're both wrong." Xena whistled for Argo and began a quick check of the mare's tack.
"I know that, Xena." He walked around so he could see her face. "I think she knows it too, but she doesn't want to accept it."
"Right." Xena snorted. "Look, this is all very entertaining, but I have an army to stop-"
"I can help you."
She turned around slowly, mistrust evident on her face. "Why would you do that?"
"Because the woman leading this army is not the Zo I know. When Gabrielle left, she took more than Zo's heart. She took her hope."
"Hope?" Xena repeated, sarcasm dripping from her voice. "Well, that seems fair...she was more than willing to take the hope of those four girls I rescued from her slavers. And what about the innkeepers hope? Won't do him any good any more...unless it's in the shape of a bucket." She started to climb into the saddle and felt a strong hand on her arm. "Let go of me, Draxen. Trust me, it's in your best interest."
He pulled his arm back but did not move away. "And it's in your best interest to hear me out."
Xena looked into his eyes and saw honesty...and something else. "All right. You have five minutes."
Draxen nodded and took a deep breath. "The slaving was not her idea."
"Okay, whose idea was it?"
"You're a second, you don't have the authority..."
"Yes, I did. That is what you don't seem to understand. Zo was not a warlord. Oh, sure, the villagers called her that, and so did her men. But she was a general more than anything. She and I built this army up together. We started less than three years ago, hand picked every man, and one or the other of us personally trained each one. When we were done, we had over seventy men, and nearly as many horses." He smiled sadly. "And that's not counting the mules."
"Uh huh." Xena glanced up at the sky. "Is there a point here?"
"Yes!" Draxen finally snapped at her. "The point is, Zo built this army like no other. The men followed her because they wanted to, they trusted her, believed in her. And never once did she let them down. We never pillaged any villages, never killed any innocents. Yes, we were hired mercenaries, yes she sent us into war, many times, but always on the right side. And always with compassion for her men... and herself."
She studied him silently for a few moments. "That isn't how she tells it."
"Not to you."
Xena thought about that, then nodded. "Go On."
Draxen swallowed. "You took away her life," He held up a hand at her protest. "I know it wasn't your fault, call it bad timing, but when you killed the man she had been sent for, that's exactly what you did. May I?" He pointed to her waterskin.
Xena nodded, watching as he took a long drink. She smiled when he wiped it clean before handing it back.
"Thank you." He looked up at her. "You took her heart too, you know, when you left the first time." He sighed. "Then you took Gabrielle..."
"I didn't 'take her'." She said quietly. "Gabrielle made her choice."
"I know. But all Zo sees is you, taking something from her again."
"That's no excuse.."
"Xena," Draxen stepped closer. "If Gabrielle had chosen Zo, would you still be using that argument? Or would you do anything that you could....not to believe it?"
Xena thought about that for several long moments, then sighed. "All right. So what am I supposed to do about it?"
"Just don't hurt her." He pleaded. "She has a good heart, and someday she might even believe that again."
"Don't hurt her..." Xena shook her head. "I seem to be hearing that a lot. Why did you start slaving?"
"To get her what she wanted... a way out. She didn't want to be a General anymore. She wanted to find somewhere to call a home, and someone to share it with. Slaving brought in a lot of money. Enough to buy her a way out." He lowered his eyes. "It isn't something that I'm proud if... "
"What about the Innkeeper?" Xena's hand wandered to the hilt of her sword. "Was that you too?"
"No. She's got herself a new second now, one that's eager to prove his worth, and his loyalty. He ordered the man killed."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I was there, Xena. No one saw me, but I saw them. Zo did destroy the Raven's Claw, and she did take the men for her army. But she had already headed out when her man sent out the assassins."
Xena sighed. This just got better and better.
"There's something else."
"The men she leads now do not have her sense of honor, they do not share the ideals that she and I used to have. They sense a rabid leader and a lot of quick money. With them at her back, she'll never stop. She won't have to."
Xena frowned. "You're right." She stared into his eyes. "So how can you help me stop them, and her?"
"First your word...that you won't hurt her."
"You have it. I will not hurt her... unless it's the only way to stop her from hurting someone else."
Draxen didn't look happy about the added condition, but he finally agreed. "All right. This is how I can help: I know where they are. And I know where they're going." He laughed bitterly. "Hades, I chose the routes they're taking to get there. I can tell you where to cut them off, Xena. If you leave within the next two hours, you can catch up to them long before they reach Potedeia."
Xena didn't waste time. Every sense she had was telling her to trust this man, and that was enough for her. Grabbing a map out of Argo's pack, she unrolled it onto the ground and knelt beside it. "Show me."
"There." Draxen pointed. "That's where they are." He glanced up at the rising sun. "They'll be moving by now. But you can catch them here." He slid his finger down, bringing it to rest next to a small meandering line.
"The Kirys River." She nodded. "That's smart. Fresh water, fresh fish... and it leads straight to Potedeia." Jumping up, she tucked the map into her belt and took Draxen by the shoulders. "All right, now listen to me. I need you to go ahead to the village. Whatever it takes, you need to get there first. Mobilize the people, get them out of town... just in case."
"No." He shook his head emphatically. "I'm going to be there when you catch up to her."
"She'll kill you."
"Maybe," He shrugged.
"You don't care? Gabrielle said you have a wife. What about her?"
Draxen turned slowly, his eyes very clear in the new morning sun. "I have loved two women in my life. To one I gave my heart, to the other... my loyalty. I would gladly die for either of them."
Xena straightened and slowly extended her arm. "I hope some day to call you friend, Draxen."
The warrior gripped her arm tightly, meeting her eyes one last time. "I hope that day is tomorrow."
She watched him as he headed back into the trees. A few moments later, she heard the creak of leather and the sound of a horse running at a full gallop.
Satisfied that he had been alone, Xena finished checking Argo's saddle and grabbed on to the horn, using it to pull herself up. Just as she swung her leg over the mare's back, she felt a wave of nausea hit her, followed by a darkness that threatened the edge of her vision. Somewhere in her mind she saw Gabrielle laying very still... too still.
The word echoed through her mind like a thunderclap. It was Emony's voice, but it sounded hollow.... almost...empty.
Panic laced itself around her heart as she grabbed up the reins. "Yah!"
Argo knew that tone of voice. She took off running, settling into her fastest gait as Xena leaned forward in the saddle.
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