Tyger, Tyger.
(A Prelude to "Only One")

Part One

by Joseph Connell jconnel1@hotmail.com



Disclaimer and Introductory Comments: Xena is the property of MCA/Universal Pictures, while "a certain theory of immortality" herein belongs to Davis/Panzer Productions. The big stuff (the Second World War, agents of the National Socialist Party of Germany of 1923-1945, unnamed aboriginal tribes of the Amazon rainforest) all belong to historical fact, though individuals I name are purely my own construct. All are used here without permission and with no intent of material gain. Don't anybody bother suing; I'm way too deep in debt from university to bother with. There will be incidence of violence, maybe a few expletives, and references to same-sex love (nothing actually acted or shown though, for reasons that will become obvious later). If any of this is disturbing or illegal where you live, may I suggest the library down the street? "War and Peace" is a much more interesting read.

This is a prelude of sorts to the groundbreaking "Only One" by Redhawk, and tries to address certain inconsistencies between her story and events in the show, particularly "The Xena Scolls."(see Author's Notes at the end) For the uninitiated, here's a ten-second recap: Xena is an immortal in the vein of Duncun MacLeod and the rest of the "Highlander" crew, thanks to having tasted the ambrosia. Consequently, the gods have long ago stopped involving themselves in her life. She's survived to the present day, though Gabrielle's death (from old age) of nearly two thousand years ago still haunts her. A rough timeline of her life to the present day is posted on Katrina's site. Check it out; the warrior's led an interesting life.

Comments, criticism, and dutiful worship is welcome. Flames and the like will be consigned to virtual oblivion.



1940.

The medicine woman emerged from her not-sleep after three days. She didn't speak of the dreams she had suffered through in all that time, and not even the gentle humor and rich cooking of old-mother Nalli (easily the oldest member of the tribe, save for the medicine woman herself) could pry it from her. A first, which made the tribe's elders nervous.

She had been with the tribe for countless seasons, longer than even the oldest storyteller could recount clearly. Her skin, while dark in tone, was far lighter than any other in the tribe. Her hair was as dark as theirs, grown long and rich, and her eyes were the same brilliant blue as those who had come before her, marking her position among them as clearly as any sign from the gods. The skills she brought to them were many and precious, from tool-making to foraging to hunting to the mending of every wound describable. Some believed her a god-made-flesh, remembering the stories of how she had once rescued a child from a rogue crocodile, falling dead from her wounds in the process, only to awaken alive and healed not a day later. They wisely kept such thoughts to themselves, unwilling to risk her wrath at such presumption.

For her part, the medicine woman finally emerged from her hut she promptly collected digging tools and her apprentice Mor'a, then set off towards the highlands. The tribe lived deep within the rainforest, a good half-day's journey to the banks of the great Amazon river and almost two day's (by canoe, no less) from nearest trading post. Because of this isolation, the tribe had long-ago come to depend upon its intimate knowledge of the land and jungle for its very survival. For the strongest among them to fall so suddenly, then all but flee them, sent ripples of subdued panic throughout the community. What would become of them, if she never returned?

Grandmother Nalli, however, stepped in and calmed all fears. She reminded them with story after story exactly who delivered the tribe's children for the past four full generations, and who it was who taught the hunters and guided the foragers. Who taught the other healers, and who made the children laugh with fantastic stories?

And who, Nalli also reminded them, always warned them that she would one day be called away, to the wider world?

******

It was nearly dark when they returned. The chore actually took longer than expected, whether because their prize had been buried deeper than she remembered or because the occasional mudslides had added additional layers of soil and slit atop the original mound. She'd assured Mor'a time and again there was no question they were digging in the correct place. Both were sweating hard, the hold deep enough to where only the medicine woman's head was visible while Mor'a disappeared entirely, when their bamboo shovels finally hit something other than soft soil and loose rock. From there on they used their hands, and soon uncovered the length of a slim, rectangular crate. The wood surface had long ago lost its polish, and there were signs of wear and decay pitting the grains. Yet the hard wood had weathered the years marvelously.

Wrestling the crate out of the hole proved less difficult than uncovering it had. Not easy, mind, but hardly a stressful challenge. Mor'a was very confused by her teacher's wide grin at the jingling sound (she was sure it was not caused by bone or wooden beads like those of the village women) that emanated from within the crate as they moved it. She found herself even more confused by the teacher's simply picking up the long box and carrying it across her shoulder as they made their way back down to the village.

It wasn't her carrying the crate as such that put Mor'a off. She and the rest of the village had long ago become used to such casual displays of strength. Rather, it was the relaxed manner with which her teacher strode down the sharp inclines and little-tread path. This contrasted sharply with the feverish desperation with which the medicine woman had summoned her and had lent such effort as they'd dug. Normally Mor'a would have questioned such actions, asking for and teasing out a clear reason for these things. It was this perchant to seek answers, more than simply her talents with herbs and humor, that led to her apprenticeship. Hand-in-hand with this, however, was the wisdom of knowing when to speak up and when to simply follow. A second look at her teacher's gait, seeing the raw tension bubbling beneath the relaxed manner and easy stride, told Mor'a now was a time for the latter.

The village made no move to approach them upon their return. So complete was their trust in her, a trust built upon seasons upon seasons of good advice on everything from crop rotation to how long the children should be allowed to swim in nearby ponds, that they did not question her abrupt departure or equally abrupt return.

Mor'a herself, though she would not openly ask the obvious quesiton, was determined to follow and observe her teacher until satisfied by either explanation or sight. The medicine woman herself had paid her student little mind, to the point of utterly ignoring her while carefully clearing on of the long tables where she ground and mixed her remedies, then set the crate atop it. She'd only begun undoing the complicated-looking latches on it when young Tohn came running in, voice high-pitched and desperate. Mor'a quickly shushed him and managed to pry his message out between the tears and hiccups. It seemed he and his younger brother had, in defiance of stern warnings, taken to playing around a somewhat treacherous stretch of forest, known for its sudden dips and hidden pits. His brother had fallen into one of these pits, fortunately a shallow enough one that Tohn managed to drag him out and help him back to their family. The boy had since been complaining of pains in his stomach and legs, and their mother had sent him to summon the medicine woman that she might work her usual magic.

One glance at her teacher's hunched shoulder told Mor'a this would be her duty alone. Somewhat reluctantly she gathered her pouch and filled it with every remedy she could envision needing. She was half-out the door when the medicine woman's distracted voice rang out behind them. "Don't forget the Yula salve." A quick glance into her pouch showed Mor'a she had forgotten the most versitile of their many, many medicines.

The apprentice fetched the appropriate jar, mindful of her teacher's unseen grin, and set off after the boy.

******

In her dreams she had first heard distant voices, her own among them. They spoke in English, so there was no difficulty in understanding them, though the accents were all strange and unfamiliar. Her's, Joxer's, and...

There were gunshots, though too few and too rapid to be musket-fire. Wild screams of abandon coming from...from...

Demands for a name, more curses, more strange words and voices. At the center of it all...

Gabrielle?

She experienced it all through a distance, hearing yet not seeing. Awareness was equally distant, only the faintest traces of sensations. This was as it should be, as she merely dreamed she heard Gabrielle's voice. There could be no other explanation. She chose to indulge the fantasy as long as allowed, and so did not fight the strangeness of her senses. They spoke of ethereal feeling, the sensation of swimming in thick, warm mire. She saw nothing save the darkness then.

Again and again that impossible voice reached for her. "Still wanna stick around?" it taunted. "Stay outta my way!" it ordered. It called to her, and she let herself float towards it. Closer she drifted, light soon warming her sight. Soon she was no longer drifting, but could feel herself pulled upwards...faster...faster...

A charge of power stuck her like Zeus' lighting bolts, robbing her momentarily of all thought.

She awoke to cool, dusty air, knowing at once she was no longer in the jungles of her home. A sword had found itself to her hand, as had the chakrum. Still more proof she merely dreamt what came next. Unfamiliar, impractical clothes chaffed her skin, while some ridiculous thing of glass and metal was perched on her nose. She was quick to take in the surroundings: a chamber, hewn from native rock, its walls covered with stonework and carvings so ornate and extravagant they could only be the work of the gods themselves. Sand and dust tickled her nose, while a too-familiar voice rang in her ears. "Release me," the god demanded.

"Think again, Ares," was her reply.

The momentary shock on his face alone made it worth the headache standing so quickly caused her. That he even felt the knee she applied to so-called manhood, never mind was actually doubled over by it, was added spice to her feast. A pity, she thought as she fled, unwilling to risk a confrontation too soon, the real Ares had never been as easy to deal with.

Not that seeing Gabrielle was all that easy itself. True, it was only...only a dream...a construct of her own imagination. The clothes that hid her strong, sleek form, the attitude of self-pity hidden by arrogance, were too alien to her bard to be real. Probably brought on by a light fever or too much time foraging for the proper roots...

Why then did Gabrielle think so little of herself? "I'm just the descendent of a useless sidekick." she called herself, and it was all Xena could do not to run her sword through the apparition for such blasphemy. Remembering this to be a dream, and careful not to think about how often she had to remind herself of this, Xena spoke soothing words to the vision, almost desperate to reassure her...it...her...

The dream became vague after that. Joxer with a strange accent, Hephaestus' name bandied about, the chakrum slicing the air, sledgehammer fists pounding into her...

The chakrum flew a final time, breaking in two, as she had been broken so long ago...

She awoke in her simple hut, alone. The air was wet and thick with humidity, a sharp contrast to the atmosphere of her dream which her eyes damp with tears that had yet to be shed. Bruises covered her body from the phantom blows, though it was the ones left within that left her weak and shaking. Bruises left by uncaring fate when it had chosen to tear her soul in half.

Unbidden by any conscious decision, her legs carried her from the bed and out the door, joints protesting such sudden use after days of neglect. She barely recognized the voice that called out "Mor'a!"

Madness. It was sheer madness to have dreamed such things, never mind to have let them affect her so. Wild imaginings were no reason drag one's apprentice so deeply into a treacherous jungle with only a pair of bamboo shovels in hand. To do so was irresponsible, to say the least. Never mind arrogant and just a tad silly. Not in a good way, either.

Such points went unheeded, however, as she and her apprentice moved the earth at their feet. It took most of the daylight to reach the prize, though only the ache of her arms and the sweat mopping her brow told her anything of the time or effort spent. All focus was addressed to finding what she had buried so long ago.

She barely remembered dragging it out, or carrying it back to the village. She heard little Tohn yammering about chest pains. Or was it his legs? Then hearing Mor'a fumbling about with their remedies. Had she offered some advice? With all her energies centered on keeping her hands from shaking too hard as she undid the latches, the thundering of her heart in her ears, she was deaf to everything else.

It sickened her heart to ope the case once more, knowing there was no more choice to be had for it. She would have traded all the wealth of the world for a taste of Lethe's waters right then. She had fled here, to this sacred land within the deep jungle, exhausted beyond measure at the accumulated failures and betrayals of her hopes. Escape is what she had sought, finding it here, where her memories and the demands of the Immortal Game quickly receded into the far distance.

Now? Now there was nothing that could stop her reaching into the case. Not even herself, had she truly wished to.

The purse of gold coins was the first thing to come to hand. The leather was dry and brittle to the touch, though she was thankful at seeing its contents were only slightly tarnished. She could only hope gold was still a coveted enough commodity to get her passage north. Otherwise she was going to be on foot for a long, long time.

It was the second and last object resting within the case that brought her full attention to the present. With gentle, almost reverent fingers she lifted the long cloth-wrapped bundle out and held it, simply looking at it for a short time. Those same fingers began to undo the dry wrappings, the oil that had once soaked the fibers having dried away long ago, almost of their own accord. The hands worked mechanically, her eyes distant and heart uncertain if she wanted to hold it close...or throw its length into the deepest pit she could find.

Too soon, the cloth fell away, and the blade of a bastard-grip long sword glinted dangerously in the gathering twilight. Though unornate, the sharp edges and solid lines of the weapon bespoke the deadly purpose it had been (and would be) put to, time and again.

Gripping the pommel with one hand, she settled into an instinctive fighting stance. Mid-guard, ready to either take the offense of resist on defense against some imagined foe. The blade balanced easily in her strong hand, and a familiar thrill ran chill through her blood. Until that moment she had not known how desperately she'd longed to hear the song of steel-against-steel once more. Indeed, she could almost hear it now, the clash of phantom blades and strength ringing in her ears, drawing a grim smile from her lips.

A single tear gathering and running from the corner of her eye was the only sign of the pain eating her. The pain of accepting what is inevitable, having to remember all that had been forgotten and did not want to be relived.

Xena of Amphipolus, Immortal, stood in the dying light of day, the life she had lived for so long dying with it, the night heralding her return to the world she had left behind and could not escape any longer. Nor would she try.

It was, after all, who she was. It was what she was.

******

For the remainder of the evening, the village watched as the lights burned low within the medicine woman's hut. The small sounds of jars and furniture being moved drifted out occasionally. But more frequent was the sound of rock scrapping metal, and the woosh of a sword's blade cutting the air.

Morning would find the hut empty of its occupant. And with her, any sign that she ever was.



to be continued.



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