Change Of Heart - Part Two
A tentative plan was laid out once Xena stopped squeaking and Gabrielle stopped
hitting her over the head, but before the three set out on the ten day journey to Bou
Saada, the bard and warrior left the Denantu to return to the city to spend another day
shopping for the extra supplies they would need. When they were finished, Gabrielle had
enough dried food to last a fortnight, a map, another new outfit more suitable for
crossing the desert to wear over the one she had, a crossbow with bolts and a sturdy
dapple gray gelding to carry the supplies, and Omrond.
Omrond sat a hundred meters out from the edge of the grove with her cloak pulled around her, facing the dark northern horizon.
Gabrielle sighed. "She looks so lonely out there."
In the opposite position from they where the night before, Xena was lying close behind Gabrielle with her arm draped across the bard's waist. Lifting her head, she propped it in her hand and focused to find the Denantu in the darkness. "She is the soul of loneliness." She said quietly.
As a lump formed in her throat, the bard found Xena's hand and pulled it upward to tuck under her chin. "I wish we didn't have to leave her here."
"I hope we've got something to take with us." The warrior sighed.
Gabrielle frowned as she looked up at her partner. "What are you talking about? We'll have the sword."
Xena had a doubtful expression when her eyes met the bard's. "If it's still there."
Rolling more onto her back, the bard didn't like the look she was seeing. "Do you think someone found it already?"
"I don't think so." Chewing the inside of her bottom lip, she glanced at Omrond. "If it's where she said it is, it'd be safe, but that's part of the problem." Releasing a sigh, she brought her eyes back to the bard. "It's in a crevasse and every year that crack in the ground probably fills up with water during the rainy season, which is how it probably got buried in the first place."
Gabrielle still didn't understand. "Why is that a problem?"
"Metal rusts when it gets wet, Gabrielle." She said candidly. "And after a thousand years?" Xena shook her head. "Unless its made out of solid gold or I'm wrong and I hope I am, there might not be anything left of it for us to dig up."
Closing her eyes as her heart fell, the bard covered her face with her hands. "Gods, no."
The warrior continued to shake her head as she looked out at Omrond. Sitting alone in the dark, facing a home she couldn't return to, she'd spent a thousand years searching for someone to return her father's sword to her people, only to have it returned to the earth before she could find them.
Xena and Gabrielle were grateful Omrond wasn't much for small talk when they set out from the grove before dawn. Heading south, Xena rode behind Gabrielle on Argo with the gelding and Omrond in tow a short distance behind them. The bard kept up a moderate pace, making good time to the first watering hole before the heat began to take its toll on the horses, then she slowed to a walk till the sun was directly overhead and the warrior called a halt. Dismounting at that time, the trio walked to give the horses a rest and the girls did everything they could not to have to talk to Omrond, which didn't take much effort. After spending a thousands years alone, with very few people to talk to, the Denantu kept to herself for the most part and only spoke to point out landmarks to keep them on course. The rest of the time she trailed silently behind the pair, her eyes cast downward as if lost in her own thoughts.
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder the fifth time the bard glanced over it at Omrond. "Eyes on the road, Gabrielle." She whispered.
Gabrielle sighed and rolled her head in a circular motion, cracking her neck. "You're not even hot, are you?"
"Nope." The warrior smiled smugly.
"Gods." Sighing and groaning, the bard rubbed the back of her sweaty, gritty neck. "What I wouldn't give for a nice cold bath?"
Taking a quick sniff, Xena wrinkled her nose.
"Don't you even." Gabrielle warned before her snotty partner could get whatever she was going to say out of her mouth.
"Just over that hill," Omrond pointed, "there is a suitable place for Gabrielle to rest."
The warrior turned her head to see where Omrond was pointing and nodded. "That's a good idea. We can water the horses while we're there."
Rolling her head in Xena's direction, the bard stared at her. "We can water the horses? What we? Have you got a mouse stuffed down there," she asked and jabbed her finger in the space between Xena's breasts, "because I don't see a we here."
Xena removed the finger from her cleavage with a snap of her wrist and a low growl. "Omrond and I can water the horses. It'll be good practice for when we dump you over the nearest cliff."
"Yea, yea." Gabrielle waved off the threat. "When you find one, I'll be over there in the shade."
She made a face at the back of Gabrielle's head before turning around to speak to Omrond and saw the Denantu smiling. "And what are you smiling at?" She asked with raised eyebrows.
Trying to hide her smile and failing miserably, Omrond bowed her head. "Forgive me, Xena. I am afraid I find the manner you and Gabrielle speak to each other amusing. I have not heard such candor in many centuries."
"Candor. Ha!" Gabrielle piped in from up ahead. "You haven't seen anything if somebody doesn't show me where the shade is."
"What is this? The dead leading the blind?" Xena sighed and stomped her way up to her friend to point at the hill Omrond had indicated. "Just over that hill. That one."
"Xena, get your hand out of my face."
"What hand? This hand? OW! Leggo my finger!"
Patooie. "Blah. Needs salt."
"Why I otta . . ."
A smile fixed on her lips, Omrond shook her head and stayed back out of harms way as she followed the tormenting pair over the hill. It was going to be a very interesting journey, indeed.
The rest of the day went very much the same way. Xena and Gabrielle picked on each other sporadically, to Omrond's amusement and, when she was caught smiling or chuckling, her embarrassment. Thus, when they reached the location where they were to camp for the night, she was relieved to be able to slip away from the couple to hide her smiles, but her seclusion did not last. There was more information to be related, details to be discussed and suggestions posed.
"Can we make it?" Gabrielle asked both brunettes.
Xena sighed and looked at Omrond. "Can you find your way in the dark?"
"Yes." Omrond nodded. "The way will not be easy, but I have walked the route to Bou Saada by sun and moon, and there are advantages to journeying under the cover of darkness in these regions."
The bard turned to the warrior. "I can sleep in the saddle. What about them?" She asked, nodding at the horses.
"Omrond, I need your help with this one." The warrior said as she stood.
The Denantu rose at the request and merged with the warrior.
Shaking off the weirdness of the sensation, Xena walked over to Argo. "Hey, girl. How ya holding up?" She soothed as she rubbed the mare's neck. Moving down the body, she took her time checking for signs of fatigue and swelling in the legs, and picked up each hoof in turn to check for tenderness, then she did the same for the gelding. Coming back around, Xena gently rubbed each head, looking into their eyes. "They're tired," she smiled, "but they're in good shape. We'll give them till midnight to rest and then we'll go."
Perhaps it would be best if Gabrielle did the same? Omrond asked as quietly as possible, so as not to startle her host.
It didn't work, but Xena's surprise at hearing the voice in her mind was tempered with the feeling of how hard Omrond was trying to be unobtrusive. The effort made her smile. That's a good idea. Gabrielle gets pretty cranky when she doesn't get her beauty sleep. There was a sense of confusion after she made the remark and the warrior chuckled. That was a joke.
I'm done, Omrond.
The warrior turned around when she felt Omrond literally bow out and she winked at the Denantu. "Ya know, Gabrielle. It might be a good idea if you got some shut eye, too." She said as she patted Omrond's shoulder on her way back to where the bard was sitting. "Omrond here thinks you could use more beauty sleep."
Omrond's brown eyes went wide as she spun around, shaking her head. "Those were not my words."
A smirk on her face, Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest. "Don't worry, Omrond. I know a con job when I hear one." Aiming the latter at Xena as she sat down beside her with a self-satisfied grin. "You're not funny."
Xena stretched out her long legs and leaned back on her arms. "You just don't know a good joke when you hear one."
"No, but I know a good joke when I seeee one." Opening her eyes wider, she smiled at her partner.
"Cute, Gabrielle. Keep your day job."
Riding from before dusk to after sunrise, the decision to travel at night proved more advantageous than planned. Along with avoiding the stray bands of thieves that prowled the night looking for campfires to find their victims, the trio used the same darkness to go undetected around the large camps of Berbers moving through the area and in the process they made better time than they expected. By riding when the air was chilly, they didn't have to rest the horses until the heat started to rise after the sun did and then they would make camp to wait out the hottest part of the day with the two ghosts keeping watch for trouble while Gabrielle slept under a makeshift tent, and the horses dosed.
It was during this time, when everyone else was asleep, that Xena held what she called training sessions and as she explained to Omrond, she needed to get comfortable with having someone else in her body if she was going to be able to fight her way out of Bou Saada. But as it turned out, the training sessions worked both ways. As Xena worked out with a sword she'd carved out of a dead branch, Omrond taught the warrior some of the tricks of the trade of being a ghost.
"Okay. I'm down as far as I can go." Xena held out her hands to the side. "Now what?"
"To attain the lower level of solidity and visibility," Omrond explained quietly, "you must focus on becoming less than you are."
"Less than I am?" The warrior asked with a tilt of her head.
"Yes." She nodded. "It is the opposite of what you learned before. Then you were able to apply what you knew to reteach your body its limitations, so your hand would not pass through the tree. Now you must reverse that knowledge to expand your limitations in the opposite direction by becoming less than you are now."
Xena thought she understood the principle and nodded in comprehension. "It's mind over matter again, but this time I'm the matter."
"Precisely." Omrond smiled. "Focus your mind on becoming less."
"Focus my mind on becoming less." She said softly with another nod and closed her eyes. Bringing both her hands up in front of her slowly, she stationed one above the other and began to focus her concentration, as when she did her nightly exercises. Less. She began to repeat in her mind. Less. Less. Less.
The Denantu watched closely and waited silently as the warrior made the attempt, and when it seemed the effort would be unsuccessful, she began to whisper. "Think of the moment when you knew you would cease to be. The moment when you would become less than you are. When you would become less than the wind."
Xena thought back to the moment she knew she was going to die. The Samurai warlord stood in front of her and their eyes met as his sword came at her in slow motion. Staring into his cold gaze, she saw the reflection of her bloodied, arrow ridden body, stooped over with the effort of slaughtering his soldiers and she knew it was over as his blade touched the side of her neck. I love you, Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle." Xena whispered as she snapped out of her concentration and took off at a run for the camp.
Omrond didn't follow. Staying on the small rise overlooking the camp, she watched from a distance as a distressed Gabrielle appeared from the tent the moment Xena reached it and she saw the warrior take the bard in her arms after a short exchange of words. Sighing at the sight, her sigh did not come from relief at Gabrielle's well being, but from a heavy sadness she felt because she knew what had caused the the bard to call out in distress. Gabrielle had dreamt what Xena had envisioned. She had seen what the warrior had seen the moment she ceased to be and Omrond had seen it too.
Sighing once more, the Denantu turned away and sat down. The vision of Xena's death was not a peaceful one and it pained her to have seen the memory the first time she merged with the warrior. Although she had not been trying to probe the warrior's mind, the depth of emotion which accompanied the memory ran like a strong current beneath Xena's calm surface and Omrond had been caught in that current the moment their energies combined.
Until then she had not known what the circumstances were that caused Xena to cease to be. She knew of the warrior before then from hearing of her exploits for good and evil retold as she traveled in her search, but the tale of Xena's final demise had not yet traveled the four winds to her ears and when she had discovered the warrior as a ghost in the marketplace, Omrond had grieved the world's loss of such a life Xena's had become. The warrior had been a force for good and an example of what triumphs the human soul could accomplish, which the Denantu knew more than most, the world desperately needed. There were too few who took up the cause to battle those who chose the easier, darker path. The path Xena had traveled herself and found salvation from. The path which had claimed Omrond as well and stripped her soul of compassion to leave her alone with her sin, trapped in this land.
Omrond glanced over her shoulder and watched the pair as they entered the tent. Too many sad days yet to pass such as this for such a love as theirs. She thought with a heavy heart because one of the other things she had discovered when she and Xena merged was that Xena and Gabrielle were soul mates. The depth of emotion which drove the current beneath the calm was Xena's love for Gabrielle. It was her sole motivation of existing as a ghostly apparition and the bard was her only consolation in waters that churned with frustration and helplessness. The choice had been a mutual one and the right one to make, and it was not regretted by either, but in making that choice their lives had become separated by the thin shroud of death. They walked the world together, but on different planes and for a pair so vital in each other's existence, whose souls were bound by such a great love, even a veil so thin as death had become as an endless sea. Such was the price they paid for the freeing of souls not their own and yet they remained side by side in their love for each other, in their sadness for the distance and in their patience for the time when the veil would be lifted. Too many sad days indeed. Omrond thought as she looked to the distant horizon once more. "This is not as it should be, my Goddess. To exist so close to life and yet so far from it is the punishment for vengeance, not redemption from it."
Two days later, the fifth sunrise of the journey found the trio two days' ride from Bou Saada. By traveling at night, they had reduced the ten day trip to seven and upon finding themselves so far ahead of schedule, they reached a general consensus that it would be a good idea for all parties concerned if they took a full day to rest and make preparations before they reached their final destination. But camping so close to Bou Saada, they agreed was not a good idea. So, riding a half a day more due west, they came to the secluded oasis Omrond had said they could camp in safety. It was a small patch of paradise hidden amid high jutting boulders Xena would have preferred to confirm the security of the place for herself, but that opportunity was snatched from her grasp by a naked bard diving into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.
"Yes! A bath!" Gabrielle shouted when her head broke the surface. "Woohoo!"
Hands on hips, Xena looked away from her splashing partner to smile a weary smile at Omrond. "Woohoo."
"So I heard." Omrond chuckled softly. "Shall we unload the horses, or will you be joining Gabrielle?"
"Xena, hurry up. The water's great!"
The warrior arched an eyebrow. "Will I sink or swim?" She asked quietly.
The Denantu smiled. "You will not drown."
"That's comforting." Xena rolled her eyes, then returned them to the bard. "Well, I suppose there's only one way to find out."
"I'm coming! I am coming!" The warrior shouted as she unhooked her breastplate, then whispered. "I might sink like a rock . . . but I'm coming."
Omrond watched from the bank as Xena dove into the pool without making a splash and she followed the warrior's form as it glided under the clear water toward Gabrielle, then she laughed out loud when the bard went under without her consent and a loud squeal, and Xena popped up with a watery grin. "Woohoo." The Denantu smiled.
"Hey, Gabrielle. Are you all squeaky clean for your bat friends?" Xena chuckled as she unloaded the gelding.
"Shut up." Gabrielle snapped. Drying her hair with a towel, she looked around the oasis and paused to frown when she didn't see the Denantu. "Xena, where's Omrond?"
Holding a bag full of dried dates in one hand and a water skin in the other, the warrior stared at her partner. "How many guesses do I get?" She asked dryly.
The bard's brow knitted, then she closed her eyes. "Ohhh." Rolling her eyes as she opened them, she tossed the towel over her shoulder. "Need some help?"
Dropping her load in the pile she had beside the gelding, Xena put her hands on her hips. Omrond, what chances would we take with a fire?
As long as you can keep the smoke to a minimum, I do not believe it would pose any danger of being discovered.
"Yea, you can finish up here and we'll go look for firewood." Patting the gelding's back.
"I can get the firewood." Gabrielle offered.
"Nooooo," Xena shook her head with a smile, "you can stay here where it's safe and let the dead people go look for firewood."
Her expression changed to a blank stare for a moment, then the bard sighed. "Fine, Xena. I'll set up camp. You go look for firewood."
The warrior's smile softened as she walked to the bard. "Thank you, Gabrielle." She said, placing a kiss a furrowed forehead.
Huffing out this sigh, Gabrielle held up the chakram. "Here."
Xena backed up to look at it. "What's that for?" She said with an I'm already dead' look of confusion.
"It'll make me feel better." Was spoken with sincerity as the bard put the weapon on the warrior's hip.
She looked down and moved her arm out of the way as the chakram was placed on its hook. "Maybe I can scare up some fresh meat while I'm at it." The warrior mused as she raised her gaze.
"Whatever you kill," the bard put her finger on Xena's chest and gave it a shove, "you cook."
Xena looked around as she turned around. "Didn't somebody say something about firewood?"
"That's what I thought." Gabrielle smirked and chuckled when the warrior hurried her escape along. "Some things never change."
Outside the enclosure of the oasis, Xena put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the barren landscape. "Where's the best place to find firewood?"
On the ground. Omrond replied.
"Yep." The warrior bobbed her head when she felt the Denantu's mirth. "Everybody's a comedian."
My apologies, Xena. Behind you in the distance, there are the remains of a wooded area. It would be your best option for finding suitable firewood.
Turning around, Xena started forward. "A wooded area? When were there trees here?"
Many centuries ago this region was a river basin. The spring which feeds the oasis used to be one of many that became a river further to the north.
"What happened?" She asked as she walked around the boulders.
The ground shook and the springs ceased to flow. The oasis is all that remains of the original water system and once the river dried up, the vegetation soon followed.
"Earthquake." The warrior nodded to herself. "Is that what happened to the temple?"
Yes. When the ground shook a fissure opened up beneath the temple. The structure collapsed upon itself as it sank. There was not much left above ground and in time the winds covered the ruins with earth.
"Hmmmm. Who was the temple built to?" Thinking as she walked.
I cannot be certain. I did not have a full comprehension of the language at the time.
"So, what happened to the people, the worshipers?" Xena asked, then paused in mid-step over a large rock. "Wait a minute. The ground shakes and your temple gets swallowed, then your water dries up. Yep, I'd move." Nodding in self agreement, she completed the step.
Omrond chuckled. They did.
"Omrond?" The warrior asked after several minutes of silence.
"You said you didn't understand the language then." She said with a scratch to her cheek.
That is correct. The only language I spoke when I came to this land was my own. In time, I learned many others from listening.
"And how many do you speak now?" Going over another rock.
Fluently? The Denantu asked.
"Good enough to get by without needing a translator." The warrior clarified.
Omrond had to think about it. My first estimate would be approximately two hundred.
Xena stopped. "Two hundred?"
Understand, Xena. Some of the languages no longer have a people to speak them and some are merely variation in dialect, but the people who speak them consider them to be different languages.
That makes sense. She thought and had another thought as she started moving again. "You know, Omrond. Gabrielle is a pretty good bard."
I have heard the stories she has composed. The Denantu agreed. She writes very well.
"Uh huh. You know she hasn't written anything in a long time." Xena said quietly.
I am sorry to hear this.
"So am I." The warrior quieted further. "I think she thinks, since I'm dead, she doesn't have anything to write about anymore."
Omrond sighed. You are her inspiration in many things.
"But nobody wants to hear a story about a dead warrior." Xena summed up her existence. "She needs new material. Something she can sink her teeth into."
I am not sure I understand.
"You've got stories, Omrond." Coming out of her doldrums.
Stories? The Denantu was still confused.
"Sure. Listen." Xena smiled. "You've got your story and the one about the earthquake, and you've got to have hundreds more for as long as you've been around."
I see. Omrond understood. You wish me to tell what I have seen to Gabrielle.
"Exactly." The warrior nodded. "The only thing a bard likes better than telling a story is listening to one."
Hmmmm. I am not sure I would make a good teller of stories. I have not been instructed in the art of oration.
"Oration, smoration." She shook her head. "Look, once you get a good campfire going, that's half the battle. Trust me on this one, Omrond. I know what I'm talking about. I live with a bard."
Then I will trust your judgment on this, however I do not believe you are giving Gabrielle the credit she deserves, Xena.
Xena stopped again. "What do you mean?"
I cannot see Gabrielle ever finding your story unworthy of writing, Xena. Perhaps she ceased penning your story for others because she simply chose a more suitable place to inscribe it.
"And where's that?"
In her heart.
The warrior let out a long sigh and closed her eyes. Shaking her head slowly, she sighed again before opening her eyes to the wood strewn landscape. "Sometimes you can't see the forest for the desert." She whispered. "Who am I being too hard on?"
Omrond stepped out of the warrior to stand face to face with her and spoke with the voice of compassion. "In the time since we have met, you have asked me many questions and I have answered to the best of my knowledge. I have shown you undiscovered dimensions to your existence and you have learned to reteach your body its limitations, and there is much more I could show you, but as you increase your capabilities, your worth does not change, Xena. As you already know and have told others, a person's worth should not be judged on what they can and cannot do, but should be balanced with who they are on the inside. It is the soul which should be judged and death has not changed your soul, it has merely changed your existence.
"This hardness you speak of is your unjust judgment of your own worth. You deem yourself worth less because you cannot do what you once did, yet you are not to the one who matters most to you. Gabrielle. In your change in existence you have not diminished in her eyes or in her heart, because she has never judged your worth by your capabilities and if your roles were reversed, would you judge her worth as you do your own now?"
Xena lowered her eyes. "No."
"No." Omrond agreed. "Because a change in existence would not change how much you love her and the same holds true for Gabrielle. Your existence has changed, but her love has not and that should be the scale by which you judge your worth, Xena." Bending down, the Denantu picked up the chakram which had fallen when their energies diverged. Holding it in front of her, she separated the two halves and flung her arms outward, sending the halves sailing in opposite directions. Then she smiled when the pieces returned to reunite and were caught by the warrior.
The warrior stood in stunned silence staring at the chakram and the hand that had caught it. Her hand.
"Do not judge your worth by what you can hold in your hand, Xena." Omrond whispered. "Judge it by what you hold in your heart."
Refocusing her vision on the Denantu, Xena lowered the weapon. As she stared into dark eyes that held a certain sparkle she hadn't noticed before, a smile crossed her lips as Omrond's words echoed in her mind. "How did you know?"
"Gabrielle." She bowed her head.
"Gabrielle." Rolling her head back, the warrior stared at the sky. "Even when I'm dead, she never gives up."
Omrond nodded. "I believe she feels you are worth the effort."
Lifting the chakram again, Xena lowered her head to stare at it. "Judge your worth by what you hold in your heart, not by what you hold in your hand." Rephrasing Omrond's words, she chuckled softly, then sighed. "It sounds like something Gabrielle would say."
"I know she misses being able to do the things she used to do. So do I, sometimes," the Denantu quoted the bard, "but I don't know how to make her see that this was never who she was to me. I didn't love her because she carried a chakram. I love her because she's still my best friend. She's still Xena."
Xena walked into the oasis carrying an armload of firewood and the chakram. "Hey."
Gabrielle turned and smiled. "It took you long enough. I was getting ready to send Argo out after you two."
The warrior shook her head. "Omrond isn't here, Gabrielle. It's just me."
The smile faded from the bard's expression as it changed to one of confusion. "Just you?" She pointed to the load of firewood as Xena put it down. "Then how can. . . ?"
"It doesn't matter." Retaining the chakram in her grasp, Xena stood up and moved around the wood. "This doesn't matter either." Speaking quietly, she held up the chakram. "I thought it did. I thought it meant everything to me." Turning it over, she tossed it aside to take the bard's hand. "I was wrong."
Watching the chakram fall to the ground, Gabrielle looked back at the warrior and saw tears forming in her eyes. "Xena . . ."
Placing two fingers on Gabrielle's lips, Xena shook her head. "You've said enough. It's my turn." Slipping her hand to the bard's cheek, she smiled. "I used to think I knew everything. I'd seen it all and done it all, and nobody could teach me anything. Then this stubborn, fast talking kid showed up one day and you know what she did?"
"What?" She smiled.
"She believed in me. Me, of all people. Can you believe it?" The warrior asked surprised.
Gabrielle nodded. "I can believe it."
"And then do you know what this pesky little chatter box, I couldn't shake with a stick had the audacity to do next?" Even more surprised
The bard sighed and rolled her eyes. "What did she do?"
The warrior's expression grew warm again. "She became the best thing that ever happened to me. She taught me to believe in myself. She taught me there was more to life than kicking butt. She taught me what friendship really meant. She tried to teach me how to stop and smell the flowers. She taught me how to see the world through the eyes of someone who could find the good in everything, even me and she taught me how to love. She taught me the most important thing in my life . . . is you." With tears trickling down her cheeks, Xena smiled. "You're my life, Gabrielle. You're the only thing that matters to me and . . . and I know I've made it hard on you."
"Xena, no. I . . ." Gabrielle started and shook her head, then was halted by the two fingers on her lips again.
"Hear me out." She said softly and removed her fingers when the bard nodded. "I know it isn't easy for you and I haven't been making it any easier, and I'm sorry. I've been so caught up in the things wanted to do and couldn't, I forgot the things I wanted to do and still could."
The bard sniffed back her tears. "Like what?"
"Like this." Xena smiled and used her thumb to wipe a tear that got away. "And this." Wrapping her arm around the bard's shoulder, she pulled her close. "And this." Placing a kiss on Gabrielle's head. "And remembering nothing else matters as long as I've got you."
Gabrielle enclosed Xena's waist with her arms and rested her head beneath the warrior's chin. "Then nothing else matters, because you're never getting rid of me."
"We'll be together . . ."
" . . . always."
After Omrond's chakram demonstration the day before, Xena knew there was more to the soft spoken Denantu than met the eye, or than she was letting on and it was with more than mild curiosity that the warrior took it upon herself to find out what was hidden beneath the dark green cloak, and after the demonstration, why Omrond needed help getting her father's sword? If it was still there.
So, under the slightly leaky canopy of truth of needing to sharpen her fighting skills before she took on the Denartra, Xena queried Omrond as to the dimensions and general construction of her father's sword so the she could carve a close likeness out of wood for the purpose of sparring with Gabrielle. This was all done without Gabrielle knowing about the covert ploy or that her day of rest and relaxation was going to be terminated, but her ignorance didn't last long as to the latter and Xena's ploy moved along according to plan when her partner flatly refused to budge from the shady retreat she had staked out, quill, ink and scroll in hand. Feigning frustration, the warrior moved on to phase three and politely asked the ever ready to serve in whatever capacity she could Omrond if she would stand in for the sitting bard. Omrond, of course, agreed with a bow of the head and surprise, surprise, Xena just happened to have another wooden sword handy. This one, however, looked remarkably like one buried in a shallow grave in Nippon and was explained away as what Xena had done the night before while Gabrielle slept, which was the only place the canopy of truth didn't leak like a sieve, but that was neither here nor there because the Denantu bought the whole story without question, as expected.
Now, as it turned out, Xena was right. There was more to meet the eye to Omrond, but when the cloak came off with some friendly coaxing and a billowing swirl of forest green, the warrior had mixed feelings over her choice of sparring partners.
Still looking very much the humble soft spoken soul of compassion, Xena had forgotten the part about the Denantu being a race of forest dwellers because for all intensive purposes, Omrond was built like a hunter. Lithe for speed and agility, the warrior had no problem imagining Omrond running through the forest for hours chasing down a deer and then carrying the weighty carcass back on her lean muscular shoulders which were exposed when a heavy overshirt came off shortly after the cloak. Seeing Omronds' light dark gray sleeveless undershirt, pants and boots, Xena would have sworn Omrond grew an inch or two when she stood up straight without all the heavy clothing to weigh her down.
"Forgive me, Xena, if I do not prove worthy for your purpose." Omrond apologized quietly as she picked up the wooden sword. "I am not well versed in weapons combat."
Xena accepted the apology with a nod. "That's okay. Just stay relaxed and try to keep up." She said encouragingly and began to move to her left to circle, spinning her sword in her hand as she sized up her opponent.
"I will do my best." The Denantu nodded. Holding her sword low in a loose grip, she imitated the warrior by moving to the left as well.
Gabrielle caught the cloak removal out of the corner of her eye and by the time Omrond was ready, with wooden sword in hand, the bard had put the blank scroll aside to watch as they circled each other. "This is going to be good." She whispered to herself.
Calm and relaxed herself, the warrior watched the way Omrond moved and let her pace out a complete circle before she charged the Denantu, swinging her sword in a short chop aimed at the head.
Rather than ducking the blade, Omrond caught Xena's wrist in her hand and held it in place, and then stood there moving her head from side to side as the warrior tried to punch it with her fist.
"Or not." The bard commented with slumped shoulders when it became obvious Omrond wasn't going to strike back.
After six missed punches, Xena let her free arm fall to her side with a sigh. "Omrond, what are you doing?"
"Defending myself against your attack." She said with an innocent straight face.
"Defending yourself." Her head bobbed. "Okay, let's try this again." Trying to step back, she sighed. "You can let go of my arm now."
"Of course." Omrond nodded and did as she was told.
Rolling her eyes, Xena stepped back three paces. "Okay, you come at me this time and I'll defend myself."
"How do you wish to be attacked?" She asked politely.
The warrior dropped her head and rolled her hand around in the air. "Just whatever works for you will be fine with me and keep it coming until I tell you to stop. How's that?" Lifting her head as she asked.
"As you wish." Omrond bowed her head.
As you wish. Xena rolled her eyes again and when she refocused on Omrond, there was a boot coming at her head. Ducking and rolling, she came up swinging.
"This is more like it." Gabrielle smiled and got comfortable. "Get her, Xena!"
The warrior would have liked to toss a very vulgar gesture the bard's way, but unfortunately she didn't have the time as the keep it coming' portion of her instructions was carried out to the hilt. Matched inch for inch, pound for pound and move for move, the longer length of her sword was Xena's only advantage in the fight of her death as Omrond redefined fast, agile and be careful what you wish for in the warrior's dictionary. "Omrond, call me crazy," dodging a slice to the stomach, "but if you can fight like this, why do you need help getting your father's sword?"
"As an unredeemed soul under the sin of vengeance, I cannot possess my father's sword." She said as she tried to cut off the warrior's sword arm.
"Unre . . . wait a minute." Holding up her hand, Xena stepped back. "Stop."
Omrond lowered her sword.
Gabrielle got up to join them. "What is it, Xena?"
"Hang on, Gabrielle." The warrior said as she continued to stare at the Denantu. "What does being unredeemed have to do with holding the sword?" She asked, raising the rough hewn version of the weapon in question.
"I cannot possess my father's sword because it is enchanted." The Denantu sighed. "Only someone with a good soul can posses it."
Although the enchantment was good news, because it might mean the sword hadn't turned into a pile of rust, the good soul aspect didn't sit too well with the former Destroyer of Nations. "This just keeps getting better and better." Xena groaned and slid her hand down her face. "Alright, let's have it. How and why is the sword enchanted? And don't leave out any details this time. I want to know everything there is to know about your father's sword."
"My father's sword has been with my people since we came into being and when the conflict began that would separate us into two tribes, the sword became the focal point of contention in the struggle for power because it is the symbol of Dena's blessing on my people. In this, each side called out to the Giver of Life to bestow her strength and wisdom for their purpose, but upon hearing the requests, Dena became disheartened. In her goodness and mercy, she had given the forest to all her people and she could not find it within herself to grant only one blessing. But rather than grant both and have the conflict continue, she denied both and bestowed upon the sword the strength and wisdom requested. In essence, the sword became the judge of who could possess it and in holding with the love Dena has for her people and the forest, only someone with that same goodness in their soul can take possession of it."
"That's a good story, but there's one small hitch." The warrior narrowed her eyes. "If only somebody with goodness in their soul can posses it, how did you take the sword in the first place? You were supposed to be out for revenge and the last time I checked . . .," she paused to smile sweetly, "the only thing revenge was good for was to getcha a one way ticket on Charon's slow boat to Tartarus."
Omrond bowed her head as she handed Gabrielle her sword. Then, turning silently, she walked to where her other clothes were and, picking up her gloves, brought them back to show the warrior. "I was hunting with my eldest son when the Denartra attacked. When I heard the battle I returned as quickly as I could, but I returned too late to be of any use. The Denartra had been beaten and were fleeing. My father lingered in my arms until he ceased to be. When I took possession of his sword, these were soaked with his blood. When I ceased to be, the blood was no more."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. "The sword thought Omrond was her father."
"And now it knows the difference." Xena nodded, then she tilted her head to the side when something else clicked in the back of her mind. Staring at the Denantu for a moment, she went over the explanation again. "You said you were hunting with your eldest son when the Denartra attacked. Omrond, you never mentioned you had a family."
The bard turned to the Denantu and watched as Omrond seemed to sink within herself. "The Denartra . . . they didn't?"
"My children survived. Their father did not. It is not important. They have all ceased to be." With a distant look in her eye, Omrond turned and walked away.
The better and better went from bad to worse, and the warrior wanted to cut out her own tongue for the look of pure anguish seen in Omrond's eyes. Tossing her hand in the air with a sigh, she brought it down slowly to hold out in the Denantu's direction, then it fell to her side as she closed her eyes. "I thought she was trying to hide something. She never saw them again and I thought she was trying to hide something."
"You didn't know. I didn't know." Emitting a sigh as deep as her regret, Gabrielle placed a gentle hand on the warrior's sagging shoulder. "I'll go make sure she's alright."
Opening her eyes, Xena took Gabrielle's hand as it slid from her. "Gabrielle, I am so sorry."
"I know." Offering a sad smile. "I'll tell her."
As the bard moved away from her, the warrior held onto her hand until she had to let go, then she waited until Gabrielle was out of sight before she walked over to the pool and sat down at the water's edge. Still holding the wooden sword in her hand, she held it up in front of her. "You better be there."
Omrond didn't go far. Gabrielle found her sitting just outside the entrance to the oasis, staring off into the distance with a subdued expression. Approaching quietly, the bard sat down beside the Denantu and stared at the horizon shimmering in the heat, as she tried to find the words to explain. Then she turned to gaze at Omrond when her thoughts were interrupted and the Denantu began to speak.
"When I first ceased to be, I did not know what had occurred." Omrond began, her voice as distant as her gaze. "My heart was full of vengeance, my anger blinded me to what had happened. I continued as I had and did not understand why I did no harm, why they could not hear me, why I could not destroy them." Her voice trailed off as she paused for a moment, then she shook her head slowly as she continued. "They were in chaos. They were running to hide, to the battles still engaged. I ran too, to try to give aide, but I could not help my people and then . . . somewhere amid the shouts, I heard a baby crying. It was very soft at first, then it grew louder. I did not think there would be children to be in danger from us. I tried to find it to keep it from harm. There were children, but they were not the voice I heard and I continued to search for the child. I could not find the child . . . then I heard it call out for its mother."
Gabrielle closed her eyes as Omrond's voice became a whisper.
"It was my daughter's voice. She was calling out for me. I still did not understand. There was too much chaos. I thought my people had sent a party after us, to aid in our cause . . . I thought she was there . . . I became frantic to find her, to protect her . . . to hold her . . . to dry her tears." Growing quiet again, her own tears pooled in dark eyes. "Then I heard my son console her. He was saying everything would be alright. There was no need to cry . . . I would be home soon. I would be home soon."
Omrond's and Gabrielle's tears fell together, and neither paid them heed as the Denantu continued after a long moment. "It was then I knew what had happened. Why the Denartra did not confront me. I was no more to them. I had ceased to be and I . . . I turned . . . to look at the destruction I had caused and I realized what I had become. In my vengeance I had become the enemy I sought to destroy. As they had stolen the lives of the people I loved, so I had stolen the lives of the people who had followed me. I was a thief and a murderer. I had robbed their children . . . their parents . . . their husbands, their wives . . . their families of the people they cherished. They would call out for the lives I had stolen and there would be no answer. They were not going home."
Omrond's voice became so soft, Gabrielle didn't know if she was still speaking aloud or if she was hearing her in her mind.
"I do not know how long I stood there . . . watching the lives of people I despised while I listened to the voices of the ones I loved . . . of my children . . . my brother . . . my people. They did not know where we had gone or when we were coming back, but they were hopeful of our return. They raised our names to Dena for protection in our journey . . . in our just cause. They did not know. They had heard my cry for justice and did not know my vengeance was shielded by my father's goodness as I took up the sword. They did not know my betrayal had robbed them of their most precious possessions. They did not know their waiting and prayers were in vain . . . they never knew what had become of us." Omrond released a heavy sigh. "In time I left Bou Saada and wandered in my despair, listening to the voices calling to me . . . I went to the sea . . . to try to go home, to see the faces I had betrayed, but the sea would not let me pass. Then, I wandered here," glancing over her shoulder, she looked at the formation of boulders, "where the voices lingered for many years. . . then . . . one by one . . . they began to fade . . . until they had all ceased to be." Returning her eyes to the bleak horizon, her voice became stronger. "I thought, perhaps, when my search found someone to return my father's sword, that I would ask the bearer to tell my story to my people, so they would know the truth and could learn from my betrayal, but now . . . now I believe it is better for all if I remain . . . forgotten."
Xena dropped her chakram, the crossbow and bolts and the wooden replica of the sword they were after into the large sack she had made out of Omrond's cloak. Lifting the sack by the strap, she held it up as Omrond slid her arm and head through.
A possible change of plan at hand, it would serve several purposes. If it worked. It had been a simple enough idea when Gabrielle had come up with it after she finished talking with Omrond, but then things got complicated.
The original plan was for Xena and Omrond to enter Bou Saada separated, so they wouldn't be seen, then merge when they were in the crevasse to dig out the sword and then they would stay merged to fight their way out, and so on. With Gabrielle's idea, however, they would enter and exit Bou Saada separated and unseen, because the sword would be hidden in the sack, which would hopefully keep it from looking like it was floating in the air when it was carried out. As an interesting side note Xena discovered, by remaining separated, she and Omrond would not drain their energy level . . . so guess who wouldn't have to hide close by in a buried temple full of bats? Then it became more complicated when Omrond told them there were ghosts of dead Denartra and some of their victims roaming around Bou Saada, which would mean to enter and exit unseen, she and Xena would have to reduce themselves to their lowest visibility level possible. That made getting in no problem, but they weren't sure if the sack would hide the sword in the first place and were more worried that being down so low would counteract the hiding process . . . if it worked to begin with.
This is where they stood, testing Gabrielle's idea as the bard stood by chewing her thumbnail.
"Is that comfortable?" Xena asked Omrond.
Omrond settled the sack against her side and nodded. "Yes."
The warrior crossed her fingers as she turned to her partner. "Well?"
She could still the both of them, but she couldn't see the weapons inside the sack. "So far, so good." The bard smiled hopefully.
"Okay, Omrond. You know what to do and say when, so we'll know when you're all the way down." As the other set of eyes needed for the test, Xena stepped back beside Gabrielle to watch the sack as the Denantu nodded, closed her eyes and began to fade out of sight. Come on. This has got to work. This has just got to work. No! Come on! Staring at the weapons as the hung in the air, the warrior lowered her head, closing her eyes. "Damn."
Gabrielle patted the warrior's arm. "Xena." She whispered, when the weapons began to fade and patted harder. "Xena."
"What?" Xena opened her eyes, looking at the bard, then her face was turned by a well placed hand to her cheek and she stared in surprised, glad amazement when the weapons completely disappeared from view.
Turning to the bard again, she winked when their eyes met and they shared a knowing smile. "Good thinking, Gabrielle."
"I have my moments."
"Yes, you certainly do."
Despite not having to do so and her distinct aversion to bats, Gabrielle chose to hide in the temple anyway, because she would be closer to Bou Saada and the only thing she liked less than bats was waiting for the days it would take Xena and Omrond to make the round trip.
A warrior and a hunter, dead or alive, invisible or not, old habits were alive and well as Xena and Omrond approached Bou Saada under the cover of darkness. Steering clear of the Denartra as best as possible, they crept through the shadows, going around buildings instead of through them, until they made their way to the middle of the large village where the hill containing the sword was.
Crouching in the shadow of a building, Xena peeked around the corner, then jerked her head back and held out her arm to hold Omrond against the wall as two men walked past them. Watching them pass, she waited until the coast was clear, then relaxed to survey the hill. Lit up in places by firelight, it was fairly tall and as she looked closer, Xena discovered it was riddled with narrow slits. There had to be thirty crevasses from what she could see and who knew how many she couldn't see. This is like a needle in a haystack. Rolling her eyes, she turned to the Denantu and ventured a whisper. "Which one is it?"
Pointing to a spot midway up the rise, Omrond spoke softly. "Do you see the group of bushes with the single taller one behind?"
When she found the bushes, the warrior nodded. "Okay."
"Just to the right of those bushes is the crevasse where my father's sword lies."
Spotting the crevasse as well, Xena stared at in in disbelief. "You're kidding me. That crack isn't big enough for a rabbit to fall into. Gabrielle couldn't even fall in that and she's good at falling in holes."
The Denantu smiled weakly. "It is bigger than it looks?"
"It better be." She grumbled. Or else you're gonna have to cut me in half to get me in there. "Alright." Sighing, Xena studied the hill. "I'll go first, then you follow when I give you the signal."
"I will wait." Omrond nodded and took a tighter hold on the sack, so the weapons and supplies would not make a noise when she ran.
Just as they didn't need to creep around, they didn't need the chakram and crossbow either, but it was funny how that didn't make any difference to a certain blonde woman who wouldn't take no for an answer.
The warrior checked around the corner again and waited until the coast was clear, then she scurried across the open ground to a set of bushes at the base of the hill. Waiting again, she gave the signal to Omrond and watched as the Denantu sprinted toward her.
Moving from cover to cover, they worked their way up the rise to the bushes close to the crevasse, where they stopped for Xena to eye the opening. As Omrond had said, it was wider than it looked from below, but it was still narrow and the warrior thought that maybe she shouldn't have had that third helping of fish stew before she went out to face the 20,000 Samurai. "Okay. On three we make a break for it and jump in. Understand?"
"I understand." The Denantu nodded, then smiled. "What should I do should you become wedged?"
Xena rolled her tongue around on the inside of her cheek as she turned to glare at Omrond. "Pray I stay that way so I can't get to the bottom to beat you to a pulp." She said in a flat serious tone.
"I will do as you suggest." She chuckled softly.
Making a grumbled comment about Gabrielle being a bad influence, the warrior scooted to the edge of the bush. "Ready?"
Scooting up beside the warrior, Omrond nodded. "Yes."
"Ooone . . . twoooo . . . three." Xena took two running steps, vaulted into the air to do a forward somersault, then spread her arms as she entered the opening feet first.
Falling silently beside Xena, the Denantu dropped into a crouch when her feet touched bottom. In total darkness, she listened before she moved. "Xena?"
"You can stop praying. I made it." The warrior said sarcastically. Looking up, she stood slowly, feeling for the walls. As she expected, the rain that had washed into the crevasse to bury the sword had carved out a cavern at the bottom. "Omrond, bring the sack over here."
Omrond stood and followed the sound of Xena's voice to where she stood. "I am here."
"Stay right there." Staring upward again, Xena walked forward until she could see the stars through the opening. "Yea, that should do it." Nodding to herself. "Get the kit out and put the lamp by the wall. This overhang should keep them from seeing the light up top."
Doing as she was told, Omrond used a flint kit to light the small oil lamp they had brought.
The warrior stayed where she was as the lamp was lit and then looked around the cavern when it became illuminated in a dim glow. Making a full circle, she came back to the section of wall where her shadow would have been. Lifting her hand, she wiggled her fingers. "Funny." She whispered. "I never noticed that before."
"If you return to your normal level, you will cast a visible shadow." The Denantu informed her quietly.
Glancing over her shoulder for a moment, Xena focused her energy to what it usually was and moved her gaze back to the wall. There, barely discernible in the poor lighting, was her shadow. The warrior allowed herself a moment to make a few shadow puppets with her hand, then she turned around to put both hands on her hips. "Let's get to it. We're burning the midnight oil."
"Yes, we are." Omrond smiled.
Working by the lamplight, on their hands and knees, Xena and Omrond used the sharp points on the two halves of the chakram to break up the hard dirt, then Omrond used her hands to scoop it away and remove the other things the rain had washed in. Branches, rocks of varying sizes and other things which couldn't be readily identified were dug up and pushed to the back of the cavern. As the hole grew deeper and wider, and the hours passed, the lamp was extinguished to save the oil for when they thought they had found the sword. Working by feel alone in the darkness, the digging continued until the chakram rang out with a metal to metal clink.
Xena took a lighter grip on the weapon and tapped the spot she had been digging. This time it wasn't a clink that echoed off the cavern walls, but a soft reverberating ring. "Omrond, get the lamp." She said in a hush and put the chakram on her belt to move the sand away with her hands.
The hole was deeper than Omrond was tall, but she cleared the rim in one jump and crawled to the spot where she had left the lamp. Striking the flint with shaking hands, she brought the lamp back to the hole and climbed down carefully.
As the light was brought closer, the warrior's eyes caught the glint of gold and she began working harder to uncover what was right below the surface.
Silent and still, the Denantu held the lamp close to the ground as her father's sword was slowly revealed.
When she would think back on that moment in later days, Xena would wonder why she hadn't been surprised the sword wasn't rusted or tarnished. Finding the sword in absolutely pristine condition as though the eleven hundred years had been a day, seemed right somehow. As if by being perfect, it could make up for all the time Omrond had waited to see it again.
Rocking back on her knees, the warrior brushed off the hilt and grip to finish it off, and as she did, her hand stopped on it's own when her fingers brushed the still wrapped around the handle. "That's you, isn't it?" She whispered.
"Yes. I remember holding the sword as I fell." The Denantu finally smiled. "But do not worry, Xena. You may remove the sword from my grasp. I will not feel a thing, I promise."
Xena looked up at Omrond and shook her head. "We really do need to have a chat about your sense of humor."
Omrond bowed her head. "As you wish."
Chuckling under her breath, the warrior gently pried Omrond's skeletal fingers away from the grip. "Here goes nothing." Rubbing her hands together, she flexed the fingers of her right hand before she wrapped them around the sword. She had to tug a little to get the ground to give it up completely, but it did and she brought it up to hold in front of her, turning it one way then the other as the inlaid gold etching glistened among the polished steel blade. "I can see why your ancestors were fighting over it. It's beautiful."
"Such as the love of Dena, so the beauty of the sword." Talking more to herself than the warrior, the Denantu stood.
Sighing to herself, Xena rose to her feet and lowered the sword. "Time to get outta here." She said with a smile.
"Yes." She agreed. "If you will hold the lamp, I will get the sack."
The warrior held out her hand and took the lamp. Letting her eyes wander upward to the climb still ahead of them, she cocked her head to the side, then blew out the flame when she heard voices. "Omrond don't move."
Her hand on the sack, the Denantu froze. "What is it?" She whispered.
"There's somebody up there." She whispered back. "Very quietly, take everything out of the sack and throw it here. We've got to get the sword out of sight."
By now, the only thing left in the sack was the crossbow and bolts, and Omrond took them out slowly, one by one. "I am throwing now." Tossing the sack in Xena's direction.
"Got it. Now stay there and don't make any noise." Placing the sword in the sack, the warrior crouched down.
Underneath the overhang, the Denantu couldn't see what was going on above, or anything at all, but she was not willing to move a single muscle that would cause her father's sword to fall into the hands of the Denartra. Waiting silently, the moments passed as slowly as the eleven hundred years she had searched.
"Omrond?" Xena whispered.
"I am here." She replied quietly.
"Listen close. I think they're gone, but I don't want to take any chances of lighting the lamp again, so I need you to find the gear as quietly as you can and hand it to me. I'll put it in the sack and then we're gonna have to climb out of here in the dark." The warrior explained.
"I understand. I will search." Moving her hands slowly, she began to quietly sweep the ground. It took some time, but Omrond found each item and crawled to the hole, feeling her way to the edge, then she would lightly pat the sand to let the warrior know she had something for her. Taking inventory as she searched, when she thought she was bringing the last item over, she whispered to Xena. "I believe that is all."
"I think you're right. Now comes the fun part." Rolling her eyes in the dark, Xena picked up the sack. "Here, take it and take it up gently, and whatever you do, don't set it down. There are lot of things to give us away in there."
"I understand." She felt around in the air for the strap. Finding Xena's hand instead, the warrior guided her hand to the strap and she wrapped both hands around it. "I have it."
"Coming up." Her hands on the edge of the hole, the warrior hoisted herself up in one move. "Omrond?"
"I am here. I will rise now." Still kneeling over the edge of the hole holding the sack, Omrond ever so slowly raised her knee to bring her foot around and put it flat on the ground. Shifting her weight, she did the same with the other leg, then slowly stood.
Xena found the Denantu's shoulder with her hand as she came up. "Easy. When you get up swing the sack my way and I'll take it so you can get in the strap."
It was almost as slow going as looking for their gear in the dark, but eventually and silently, the sack was put into place.
"Piece of cake." The warrior let out a sigh. "I think our best bet is to follow the wall to the far end, where we piled the sand. That's where the cavern gets narrow enough where we should be able to use the sides to walk our way up. I'll lead the way to the end, then you'll go up first, just in case my sewing skills aren't what they used to be."
"I have faith in your skills, but I will trust your wisdom."
Xena couldn't see it, but she knew Omrond was smiling. "Alright, let's go. Watch out for the hole."
"I believe that advice is eleven centuries too late, but I thank you for the gesture."
"I knew it. As soon as we're outta here, we're having that chat."
"How's it look?" Xena asked from her position below as Omrond stuck her head over the lip of the opening.
"There are still many people about, but I see no one close to our vicinity." Omrond replied, then ducked back down. Hanging by her fingertips, her feet dangled just above Xena's head. "I believe we can exit without being heard."
The warrior sighed and nodded. "Just be careful with the sack and head straight for those bushes. I'll come up as soon as you're clear."
Nodding, the Denantu pulled herself up to be eye level with the ground again and took another look around, before she began to ease her body upward.
Head tilted back, Xena watched and held her breath. Her part would be easy. A couple of well placed jumps and she'd be out, but any wrong or sudden move on Omrond's part, to make the sack slide off her back and hit the side of the opening, and the weapons in the sack would sound like bells going off before they could be hushed. "You can do it. Easy. Easy."
When her arms were fully extended, Omrond cautiously shifted her weight forward, spreading her legs into a split to raise them up and out of the opening. As they cleared, she brought her legs back together slowly, her body becoming parallel with the ground, then gently lowered herself to it, laying across the narrow gap. Once she was down, the sack was laying the length of her back and she raised her arms to begin to pull herself across the ground, in short easy stokes toward the bushes.
The warrior smiled and shook her head as the Denantu's feet slowly moved across the opening. "Almost there." Shifting her weight quickly to one leg, she pushed off the wall with her foot, jumping up to grab the edge of the opening. Dangling as Omrond had done, she lowered her visibility to it's lowest level before pulling herself up and out of the crevasse. One vaulting back flip later and she was keeping watch on the Denartra as Omrond completed the distance on her stomach. "Stay down. I've got an idea." Placing her hand on the Denantu's shoulder, she held her down. "Can you take off your belt without jiggling the sack?"
Face down on the ground, Omrond spoke into the dirt. "I believe so."
"Good. Take it off, but be . . . what am I saying?" She rolled her eyes. "Telling you to be careful is like telling water to be wet. No, nonono. Don't laugh. Don't laugh. You'll knock the sack off." The warrior hissed low.
"Are we going to have the chat you spoke of now?" The Denantu asked the ground.
Xena would have hit her, if it wouldn't have knocked the sack off and instead she gave her forehead a furious rub. "Just take your belt off, please." She snapped.
Holding in her chuckle, Omrond carefully reached under her stomach to undo the buckle of her belt. "I have the clasp undone, but I do not believe I can remove it from the loops without dislodging the sack."
"Okay, let it go and lie still." Still slightly testy, the warrior moved to the other side of Omrond to pull the side without the buckle, then moved back again and gently slid the leather strap from between Omrond and the sack. "Can you get it the rest of the way?"
Reaching under herself again, the Denantu took hold of the buckle and slowly pulled the belt out the other side. "I believe so."
She counted to ten before snatching the belt out of Omrond's hand. "Everybody's a smart ass." Whispering her gripe, she carefully threaded the belt back under the sack near the bottom and pulled the slack through. Just as carefully as before, she wrapped the belt around the sack, forming a bulge where most of the problem items were and tugged it tight, until they had no room to jiggle around inside. "That'll do it." She nodded and tied off the belt into a knot, then she tested the arrangement by giving the bulge a gentle shake. "No noise. Perfect. You can get up now."
Although she was given no warning, Omrond rose slowly anyway and eased into a sitting position. "What about the sword?" She asked as she glanced over her shoulder.
"It might slap you in the back of the head when you run, but that's just an extra bonus for me." Flashing a winning smile.
Free to chuckle, Omrond did so. "Then shall we? I believe there is an anxious bard hoping we will return before the bats do."
"Sounds like a good idea." Xena nodded. "We'll move out the same way we came in."
"I will wait for your signal." Getting to her knees, the Denantu shifted to a crouching position. "I am ready."
Checking on the Denartra, the warrior waited for a group of men to move away from the base of the hill before she took off in a crouching sprint for the next set of bushes. Looking over her shoulder, she signaled Omrond, who ducked her head as she ran. Sending her baby blues for a spin, Xena peered through the bushes and then moved ahead when Omrond joined her.
And so on it was supposed to go until they reached the building, but when Xena reached the last set of bushes before their destination, she signaled Omrond as she watched the Denartra and didn't like what she saw. As Omrond ran, three men around a campfire stood up to point in their direction. "Dammit. It's not making any noise." Sighing, she looked at Omrond as she slid in behind her. "Turn around."
Without question, Omrond spun on the balls of her feet. "What is it, Xena?"
Xena looked over the sack. "I think they saw you, but . . . there isn't anything sticking out." Unhappy with the situation, she checked on the location of the three men and growled. "They can see you, or something . . . I don't know what. They're heading this way. We're gonna have to make a run for it." Scanning the immediate layout, she wanted to be out of sight of the main village as quickly as possible. "There, between those two building. Run as fast as you can. I'll be right behind you. Go!"
The Denantu didn't even take time to nod before she bolted for the two buildings Xena had pointed to.
Keeping up with Omrond was impossible, but Xena was more interested in the men than the Denantu and she cursed when they followed Omrond's progress, then began shouting. It's gotta be that damned sword. Gods! I should have never tied that sack up. I'll never get my chakram out.
As she reached the building, Omrond skidded to a halt and spun around. "Where to?"
"What are they saying?" She shouted as she closed the distance.
Listening to the shouting, the Denantu's eyes grew wide. "They can see the sword. I do not understand."
"Neither do I, but that's was what I was afraid of." Grabbing Omrond's arm as she passed, Xena spun her around and kept going. "Come on. You know this place better than I do. What's the quickest way out of here?"
"It is longer, but if we cut through the center, we may be able to reach the corrals before they can ascertain our destination." Running beside the warrior.
"Get lost in the horses. Good idea. After you." As she said the words, the warrior had to make a sharp right when Omrond cut down an alley. "Damn she's fast." Putting more effort into keeping up, Xena followed the Denantu out into the open and made it half way across when an explosion at the other end of the village brought her to an abrupt halt and sent the Denartra running for cover. "Get down. Over there."
Being pushed from behind, Omrond dove toward the well in the center of the village. "Bou Saada is under siege."
One step behind and sliding in beside her, Xena saw the next one coming as a firebomb made a glowing arc through the night sky to land close to where the first one had exploded. "No it's not." She ground out. "I don't know how you got in here, but I'm gonna . . ." Jumping to her feet, she picked the Denantu up by the sack. "Keep heading for the horses."
Hurling five more firebombs in quick succession, Gabrielle jumped on Argo, digging her heels into the mare's side. "One stampede rescue coming right up." She smiled as she lit the last bomb and threw it at the back of the corral she had conveniently left open. Joining the back of the herd as they tore down the corral, she reined Argo to the right to pick up Xena and Omrond on the fly. "Xena! Xena!"
Literally plastered up against the wall as rush of horse flesh started charging by, the warrior heard her name and found Gabrielle in the whirlwind of dust. "Oohhhh, this is gonna be close. Omrond, jump on the gelding when it comes by!" She shouted over the din of thundering hooves.
For the first time in her long existence, Omrond cursed her forest home for it's total lack of horses. "Should they not be moving slower!"
Xena head snapped in Omrond's direction and for the first time since they'd met, she saw fear on the Denantu's face. A quick glance at the stars for divine intervention and she turned to find the bard again. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Pick up Omrond! Omrond hold up your right arm and when Gabrielle grabs it, swing up behind her!"
"Should they not be moving slower!" She asked as she held up her right arm.
"You'll be fine! Just keep your eye on Gabrielle!" The warrior nodded for the Denantu, patting her on the shoulder. "Remember, swing up behind her! Don't drag her out of the saddle! Swing up! Up!" Pointing at the night sky.
"Up!" Omrond nodded.
"Close enough." She shook her head and moved away from Omrond to keep her eye on the gelding. "Here she comes!"
Gabrielle leaned down, holding her arm out and grabbed Omrond as she passed, then leaned far to the other side to pull as the Denantu swung up behind her. "Gotcha!"
Xena started running and grabbed a hunk of the gelding's mane as she took two short bounces to get the momentum to swing herself up into the saddle. "Go!" Hanging onto the pommel, she ducked down over the gelding's neck.
Once Xena was up, the bard heeled Argo into a full gallop, steering her into the stampeding herd as they ran out of Bou Saada into the night.
Omrond held onto Gabrielle with her eyes closed.
Bou Saada was a distant glow on the horizon when Gabrielle reined Argo to a halt. "Do you think they'll come after us?" She asked turning the mare to look back.
"I doubt it. It'll take them a couple of days to round the horses up." Letting out a sigh, Xena turned to the bard. "That was a pretty stupid thing you did back there. Gabrielle, you could have gotten caught and then where would you have been, huh?"
"Waiting for you to come rescue me." She chuckled, then sobered somewhat when the warrior didn't laugh. "Look, Xena. I knew what I was doing and it worked. We've got the sword."
The warrior's brow knitted. "How do you know we've got the sword?"
"I can see it." Looking over her shoulder. "You can't hide the truth."
"The truth? What are you talking about?" Xena shook her head.
"It's the reason I came." Gabrielle sighed. "When I was in the temple, I thought about what Omrond told us about the sword. About it being empowered with the ability to judge the soul of who held it and it reminded me of the time you had Autolocus pose as Centares so you two could steal back the chest for your friends."
"Yea. And?" The warrior prompted. "What about it?"
"The inscription on the chest said not to turn away from the truth and then it hit me. You can't hide from the truth, even in death and the sword can see the truth beyond death, so you can't hide the sword from the truth with death." The bard shrugged. "It made sense at the time."
Closing her eyes, Xena bowed her head. "I'm sure it did and I suppose I should be glad it did." Tilting her head to the side, she looked at her partner. "Your aim is off. You nearly took us out with the last one."
Glaring for a moment, Gabrielle nodded at her passenger. "And speaking of us. What happened to Omrond?"
"There are no horses in the forest." Omrond spoke up.
Xena laid her head back with a loud groan. "Now, she tells us."
The bard laughed and patted the Denantu's leg. "That's okay, Omrond. The hard part's over now. It's clear sailing from here on in." She said and looked at the warrior. "Isn't that right, Xena."
Bringing her head forward, Xena nodded at Gabrielle. "It sure is."
They continued to ride at night as they traveled north, taking the shortest route to the coast, though none of the three women seemed in much of a hurry to get there. The sword of her father was now safely on its way home and it hadn't taken much coaxing to get Omrond to go with them. And with a little begging from Gabrielle, the time began to pass quickly as the Denantu proved to be a bard at heart by filling their waking hours with the stories of a land she had walked for eleven centuries. When they would stop for Gabrielle to sleep, sometimes Xena would join her partner in slumber, but more often than not, the warrior stayed up with Omrond to keep watch, to talk about their own stories and to learn more about what she didn't know about being a ghost. It was during these hours, when the heat of the day drove the living underground or scurrying into the shade, that Xena began to recognize the true treasure the Denantu people had lost. It was not the sword. It was Omrond.
In her usual soft spoken way, the often ill-timed dry sense of humor couldn't disguise the depth of understanding and compassion that embodied the gift Dena had given her people. For a brief moment in the history of the world, Omrond had become a taker, a thief of life, but as far as Xena could tell, that was the only time in her life Omrond hadn't been the soul of compassion. She had lived, she had loved and she had done so with the expanse of her soul, and when she had strayed, the duration of her anguish and despair over that one mistake reflected the compassion she possessed. Humble, gracious and always willing to give whatever was hers to give without hesitation, whether it was the wisdom she had gained over the centuries or simply her ears to listen as you spoke, Omrond personified everything Xena wasn't, and when they had first met, the warrior had seen the Denantu as her worst nightmare. She had seen a soul, a ghost like herself, who'd spent over a thousand years in a lonely existence of lost, helpless wandering, but as the weeks passed as they continued northward, Xena's perception changed. Although her life had ended, she had not and she wasn't helpless, but as Omrond had said so well, it wasn't what she could hold in her hands that defined her worth. It was what she held in her heart and as far as Xena was concerned, the soul of compassion was worth her weight in gold.
Finding a ship in Icosium wasn't hard. They were everywhere. Finding a ship sailing north wasn't hard. They were everywhere. Finding a ship sailing to Gaul was harder. They weren't everywhere and finding a captain who was willing to give up precious cargo space for a blonde and two horses was even harder, especially when the blonde preferred private berthing for herself, so she wouldn't get thrown overboard for talking to her imaginary friend. Carrying her sias in her boots, her imaginary friend's chakram on her hip and the really big sword with the ability to judge the soul of the one who possessed it sheathed on her tattooed back made Gabrielle's job slightly easier, due to the intimidation factor, but not easy enough for the imaginary friend who thought putting the pinch on someone was an acceptable way to shortcut the search process. Fortunately for Gabrielle, Omrond hadn't left them yet and the Denantu did her best to entertain' the warrior by literally keeping Xena off the bard's back while she haggled for a fare that would leave her with more than two dinars to rub together if and when she ever got to Gaul.
"Xena, I do not understand." Omrond sighed. "You will not need two horses when you reach Gaul, so why does Gabrielle not sell the gelding now to gain the money the captain requests?"
"Because we can get more money for him in Gaul than it's going to cost to take him with us, IF WE CAN EVER GET OUT OF HERE!" Shouting the last bit, Xena received a casual green-eyed glare from over Gabrielle's shoulder. Throwing her hands in the air, she folded them across her chest when they came down and leaned her shoulder against a stack of crates. "Look at her. You'd think he was asking her to cut off her right arm."
The Denantu nodded. "She does not seem satisfied with his request. Perhaps she should continue the search elsewhere?"
"No." The warrior shook her head. "She's got that look in her eye. She'll crack this one if it kills her."
"Kills her?" Omrond suddenly looked worried. "Is Gabrielle in danger?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "She's not. Him on the other hand?" Pushing off the crates, she unfolded her arms and held up a hand. "Wait here a second. It looks like we might have a winner." She said when the bard and captain clasped forearms.
Her smile was a little smug as she walked back to the ghostly pair. "We sail in a few hours."
"That was quick." The warrior said with a glance past the bard to the captain. "What did you do? Put the pinch on him when I wasn't looking?"
"You're not the only one with skills, Warrior Princess. I've got a few of my own." Gabrielle informed her with a little more smugness in her smile.
"Oh, yea. I forgot." Xena replied snidely. "The gift of Gab. He probably caved out of boredom. OW." She yelped when the bard pinched her butt. "That was a joke." Protesting as she rubbed her behind. "Doesn't anybody get my jokes anymore?"
"Yes. You're dead funny, Xena." Seething with sarcasm, she took the warrior by the arm. "Now, come on. We're going to have to hurry to get the horses loaded."
"That's attached, ya know and I'd like it to stay that way."
"Then stop bitching and move."
Whether out of habit or merely because she had nothing else to do, Omrond followed with a somewhat sad smile because she would soon no longer have the pleasure of their company.
Argo and the gelding were loaded on board with relative ease, but without much time to spare and as the final preparations for sailing were made, Omrond stood at the bottom of the gang plank, hands clasped behind her back as Xena and Gabrielle came down. "The captain appears anxious to depart. You should not tarry."
"He can keep his shirt on." Xena commented as she stepped onto the dock.
"You have a long journey ahead." The Denantu smiled. "You should be on your way."
"Omrond, you can stop trying to get rid of us." Gabrielle said with a meaningful glance in the warrior's direction. "We can't leave until Xena tells you what she has to say."
"Yes, Xena?" She smiled at the warrior as she began to fidget.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath to let it out slowly as she collected her thought. Opening her eyes, she looked at Omrond. "I've been trying to come up with a way to tell you this ever since we left Bou Saada because I knew you wouldn't understand, so hear me out."
Omrond gave her full attention to Xena. "I am listening."
Taking another breath, the warrior looked at Gabrielle, who smiled and nodded. Nodding slowly to herself, her eyes returned to the Denantu. "Omrond, I've been in your boots. I've done things in my past I can never make up for and if you want to compare sins?" She smiled and shrugged. "It's like I told somebody else, once. I'd bury ya, but as long as you've been around, there's something I've learned that you haven't."
"What is that?" She asked softly.
"When enough is enough." Shaking her head, Xena moved closer to the bard. "It took me a long time to learn this and I had a lot of help, but what I'm trying to say is that it's time you stop beating yourself up for what you did. I know you can never forgive yourself," she said quickly when Omrond raised her hand to interrupt, "I understand that. Believe me, I understand that. Deep down there will always, always be a part of me that won't let me be able to ever completely forgive myself for what I've done, but I came to realize punishing myself wasn't doing anybody any good." Pausing, the warrior glanced at the bard as her voice dropped down to a whisper. "All I was doing was hurting the ones I love when that was the last thing I ever wanted to do. I thought by pushing them away I could keep them safe from who I was and what I'd done . . . I thought they'd be better off without me." Staring into Gabrielle's eyes, she smiled sadly as the bard's fingers laced with hers. "I couldn't see what they saw in me . . . I didn't deserve their faith . . . I didn't deserve their love . . . I didn't deserve their forgiveness. How could I let them forgive me when I couldn't forgive myself? Then it hit me." Lifting her gaze, she took another moment, then continued. "I didn't want to be forgiven, but then somebody showed me I didn't have to be forgiven to make a difference. I didn't need somebody to dab water on my forehead and say okay, you're forgiven. Now you're good. Now go out there do good deeds.' I was already out there. I'd already changed . . . in here . . . without needing somebody else's blessing." Placing her palm over her heart, she smiled at Omrond. "And so have you. Don't you see, Omrond? I'm not the same person I was when I was a warlord burning villages and neither are you. I didn't always walk the straight and narrow, and sometimes I had to get hit in the back of the head with a pitchfork to make me see things clearly, but I did it. I walked away from my past. I'll always carry a part of it with me, to remind me, but I moved on with my life." Xena raised the hand that held Gabrielle's and placed a kiss on the back of the bard's hand. "I found my way home."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at her partner, then turned her eyes to the Denantu. "Omrond, you're not the same person you were when you came here. You stopped being the soul of vengeance over a thousand years ago." Raising her free hand, she brushed the back of her fingers on Omrond's sleeve. "It's time to go home."
Omrond sighed perhaps the heaviest sigh she had ever released and shook her head. "I cannot. My people . . . my home are not mine to reclaim."
"Prepare to cast off!" The captain yelled over the railing.
"Dammit." Xena growled over her shoulder at him.
The bard released the warrior's hand. "I'll stall him." She said and gave another nod in Omrond's direction.
The warrior returned the nod, then turned to the Denantu. "Omrond, we're running out of time so I'm gonna make this quick. You can punish yourself till the end of time if you want, but someday you're gonna realize it was all for nothing because you can't change the past. All you can do is learn from it, do the best you can and move on." As the man came to lift the gang plank, Xena stomped on it with her foot, jerking it out of his hands. "You're not staying here, Omrond. You've paid your dues. It's time to go."
"Xena, my soul . . . "
"Your soul is bound to the dust your body has become." Another stomp. "Yea, yea. I know all about it. That's why when we were digging up your father's sword, I dug up your skeleton while you were crawling around in the dark looking for the gear. I put it in the sack, then switched it on the way here. It's on board, Omrond."
"My betrayal. I cannot."
"Raise the gang plank!"
Stomp. "Listen. You don't have to go with us to the forest. Maybe someday you'll go home like I did, but you can't unless you come with us." Backing up, she stomped on the gang plank, shoved the guy out of the way and stepped up on it, holding out her hand to the Denantu. "All it takes is the first step in the right direction."
Omrond looked at Xena's hand. She needed more time. There was no time to think.
Xena smiled and wiggled her fingers. "I promise it won't hurt."
With her own words as encouragement, the Denantu looked up at the smile and slowly lifted her hand to put it in the warrior's. "I will trust your judgment on this."
"Yes." Gabrielle pumped her fist.
"Raise the gang plank!"
As the man picked himself off the ground to hesitantly wrap his fingers around the wooden plank, Xena and Omrond stepped onto the deck of the ship. The mooring lines were pulled in, the gang plank was finally raised and as the ship began to pull away from the dock, Omrond turned to look at the land she had walked for eleven hundred years. "The blood of my people have stained your sands. I will not forget the lessons you have taught me."
Change Of Heart - Part Three
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