PART ONE: The Rift
The sweat rolled into her eyes, stinging and burning. She tried to shake her head, but the chains around her neck prevented any real movement. She settled for rapidly blinking her eyes until the stinging lessened somewhat. Her arms were pulled up above her head and tied to either side of the vertical rack to which she was bound. Her feet barely touched the ground and her legs screamed with the pain of keeping herself from strangling to death. She could free herself if she could only gain some leverage, but that wasn't about to happen anytime soon. Not unless she got very, very lucky.
"How could you have been such a damned moron?" She cursed under her breath at the predicament she had gotten herself into. How could she have been so damned careless?? Now her stupidity would not only cost her life, but the lives of others. It already had cost the lives of others.
Poteidaia. She would never forget that place as long as she lived. The word brought so many images of screaming, dying people. She had gotten word of an impending raid on the village. so she gathered her men to thwart the attempt. They quietly stalked through the forest until they came upon a clearing near a small river. She saw that the raiders had the villagers massed against the bank of the river and were separating them into two groups. From those groups of men and women, they would cull the aged and the weak. The rest they would sell into slavery.
She signaled her men with small hand gestures, and they began to circle around the clearing. Once they were all in place, they waited until the raiders gathered together in one bunch. They were quite confident, and that was evident by their relaxed posture. On a count of three, she and her men burst into the clearing, swords flashing. They cut their way through the raiders until none but the leader was standing. She held her sword to his neck and sneered.
"You're with Draco."
"I was with Draco, but he met an unfortunate end." He sneered. "Now I'm with..."
She whirled around to see none other than her greatest enemy. Her eyes widened with shock as she realized that she had been led into a carefully orchestrated trap.
"Surprised to see me?" The tall, broad-shouldered woman laughed as one eyebrow rose, accenting the question. She sat astride her golden mare and looked down upon the group of huddled villagers...and their would-be rescuers.
Her mind whirled and she spun around, looking for a way out. By the Gods, when she found the bastard who betrayed her, she would send him straight to Tartarus...minus his head.
The woman seemed to know what she was thinking. "You're so predictable. I knew you would come to the aid of the...helpless villagers..." One side of her mouth lifted in a half-smile as she looked at the soldiers behind her. "Take them!"
The soldiers brutally crushed her small fighting force, leaving her standing. They then rushed forward to attack the villagers. Suddenly, a young woman with strawberry blonde hair and green eyes thrust herself in front of a group of women.
"Take me! Leave the others!"
She cursed to herself and turned to protect the young woman from 'her' wrath. "Sssst! Quiet!" She made a chopping motion with her hand.
"Oh it's much too late for that."
The woman on the horse dismounted and strode toward the young girl. She drew her sword and held it to the girl's midsection. "Pray to whatever Gods you worship. Unless, of course, you wish to worship me."
The girl straightened her shoulders and looked the tall woman in the eye. "We're a peaceful village. Why are you doing this?"
Those were the last words that girl was able to utter. The tall, black-clad woman ran her though without so much as a second glance. The light faded from green eyes as the girl crumpled to the ground, blood gushing from the horrible wound in her gut.
"I'm doing it because I can." The woman replied. She raked her eyes over the frightened villagers. "Let them go." She ordered her men. "Except for that one."
Two soldiers gripped either arm as a third beat her senseless. As she lay there in her own blood and vomit, she heard the wailing of the villagers, mourning the death of the girl. At that moment, she realized two things. Someone she trusted had betrayed her. And she would make whatever sacrifice necessary to destroy The Conqueror.
She couldn't bear to think of all the innocent people who would suffer horribly as a result of her mistake. She strained against the chains wrapping themselves around her neck and wrists. She screamed in anger and frustration, not noticing the flesh around her wrists and throat being shredded by the cold metal. The physical pain she felt paled in comparison to the pain her soul would carry if she couldn't find a way out of this place.
"Ohhhhh, now, now, now." A syrupy sweet voice came from the shadows outside the cell. "You'll tire yourself out, and we can't have that, can we? Especially since I'm not finished with you yet."
The prisoner spat and snarled at the voice. She lunged toward the cell door, choking as the chain around her neck tightened unmercifully. Her ragged breathing echoed in the darkness and her eyes raged at the evil presence outside the cell.
The cell door opened with the screeching sound of metal on metal. A tall, dark figure clad in black leathers strode into the room. She would have been beautiful if cruelty and hatred hadn't marred her face. Her eyes narrowed as she took in the sight of the chained woman before her. "They call you the Deliverer. A misnomer if you ask me." One corner of her mouth quirked up in a sly smile as her fist connected with the prisoner's face with incredible force. The prisoner's head snapped back, striking the wooden rack with a sickening thud. Blood exploded from her crushed nose, spilling down her filthy tunic and running into her throat.
"Athena?" She prayed. "Give me the strength to endure this?this and her obnoxious arrogance!" She opened her eyes and tried to focus on her torturer. "They call you the Soulless One. A perfectly accurate name, but I just prefer to use Bitch. It's simple and to the point. Soulless One is a bit too pretentious, don't you think?" She coughed and spat a mouthful of blood onto her tormentor. "Yes...if you ask me, Bitch suits you perfectly."
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Now look what you've done. You've gotten blood on a perfectly good set of leathers. She sighed as she grabbed a handful of the prisoner's hair. "You. Need to. Learn. Some. Manners!". She emphasized each word by jerking the prisoner's head toward her, knowing full well that the chain was cutting off the air to her lungs. "And you'll soon find out just how much of a bitch I can be." As the prisoner lost consciousness, the tall woman released her and stalked out of the cell.
Gasping and choking, the prisoner felt consciousness slowly return. Her crushed nose ached with a vengeance, but at least the flow of blood had nearly stopped. Less painful was the knot she received on the back of her head when it connected with the rack. A wry smile formed on her battered face as she thought. "Ugh?thank the gods I've got such a thick skull." She closed her eyes and tried to rest.
"I'm telling you, Mek, this is a bad idea." A male voice whispered from outside the cell. "You know she'll kill us if she finds out. She made it clear that this prisoner was extremely dangerous and to leave her be!"
A deep, gravelly voice responded. "Well, she won't find out then, will she? Unless you tell her, of course. Besides, just how tough can the bitch be? She doesn't even have anyone guarding her! She's aaaaall alone in this part of the dungeon. She'd probably welcome our ... company."
With that, two burly guards entered the cell. "See, Claudius? The cell isn't even locked!" The larger of the two turned to his shorter companion and snickered. "Come on. Help me get 'er down. We can't have fun if she's trussed up like a Solstice pheasant, now can we?"
The prisoner eyed the two guards and realized that they would be her only way out. She decided to play along. "Come on boys, get me down and I'll show you just how ... grateful ... I can be."
Mek smiled, showing a mouth full of rotted teeth. "Ohhhhhh yeah! Gimme a hand, Claudius!" As he approached the prisoner, he removed his belt and helm. The man reached up and released the lock that held the chain around her neck.
"Gods, that feels good!" She exclaimed. She slowly turned her head left to right, trying to get the kinks out. "Don't forget my hands, boys. You'll really love what I can do with my hands.", she said with a half smile.
As Mek began to unshackle the prisoner's wrists, Claudius removed his sweat- stained tunic. "Might as well join in the fun." He thought as he tossed his dirty clothing into a nearby corner. "No telling when the next time I'll get this for free!". As soon as Claudius finished his thought, he heard Mek scream. He whirled around to see his friend on the floor in front of the enraged woman. She dealt Mek a viscous kick to the head, rendering him unconscious, and turned to face the trembling Claudius. He backed away, hands outstretched.
"Please... I didn't mean nothin'. I...I wouldn't 've hurt ya. Honest!"
The prisoner's eyes narrowed as she advanced. "Pig. You were going to rape me, and you don't think that would have been hurting me?" She asked in an icy, calm voice. "Tell you what. I'll let you live if you cooperate with me." She raised her hand; two fingers extended close to the right side of his neck. She grabbed a fistful of greasy hair in her other hand and bent his head toward his left shoulder.
"Anything!" He gasped. "Just please don't kill me!"
"Where is she?"
"Where is who?" The trembling man asked.
She drew her hand back as if to strike, when Claudius cried out. "I...I don't know where she is! Probably...probably up in her chambers with that witch woman!"
She frowned as she absorbed this new information. "Witch woman? What in Tartarus are you talking about? "
"I don't know her name! I only know that she used to be an Amazon, but they exiled her because of her dark ways! They say she feeds on the blood of babes and that she is the true power behind..." His words were choked off as the prisoner jabbed her fingers into the nerve bundles on either side of his neck. She released her hold on his hair and let him drop to the floor like a stone.
"I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You've got about 30 seconds, so use it wisely. Now...where can I find them?"
Claudius lay immobile on the floor and choked out his answer. "Up the spiral staircase to the right of the main hall."
The prisoner repeated the jabs to Claudius' neck, releasing him. She dragged the gasping man over to his unconscious friend and tied them together with the chains that were used to bind her. She removed Mek's sword from its scabbard and struck Claudius with the flat of the blade. Once she was certain that both men were unconscious, she exited the cell.
She slowly moved down the dank hallway and to the stairs leading up into the main courtyard. She deeply regretted having been relieved of her boots, as she squished through the filthy muck that coated the floor. As she reached the door, she peered through the small, barred window. She saw only two guards - one on the battlement and the other patrolling the courtyard. She very carefully opened the door. "I can't believe this door isn't locked!" she thought. "And what's with only having two guards? Something strange is going on and I intend to find out what it is. After I kill the bitch first, of course." She took one last look at the dungeon that had been her home for the past two days and bid good riddance.
She kept a close watch on the guards as she eased her way into the courtyard. The entrance to the Keep was directly in front of her, the stable door was to her left, and the gate leading out to the wilderness was on the right. The guard in the courtyard was nearly in front of the stable door. When he reached the opening, she sprinted across the hard ground and tackled him full-force. The momentum carried them both inside the stables and into a large pile of hay. She snapped his neck before he had a chance to scream. She took the dead man's sword and inched toward the door. Hidden in the shadows, she watched as the second guard walked the battlements. She waited until she knew that he was directly above the stables. She stepped into the courtyard, and tensed. Her powerful legs propelled her up onto the battlements. She landed silently behind the second guard and quickly took his head off.
"Well, that's that." She murmured to herself. She did a lazy flip, which carried her toward the center of the courtyard. Despite her weakened and battered condition, she moved surprisingly well. "Not bad for being hung by my neck for 2 days." She thought with a smile.
It took several minutes, but she was finally able to find a way inside the Keep. Luckily, there was a root cellar that provided egress. As she carefully maneuvered through the cellar and into the kitchen, she realized she hadn't eaten in quite a while. She grabbed a chunk of bread and stuffed it into her mouth. "I hate to eat and run, but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do!" She thought with a smirk. The torchlight in the narrow hallway cast long shadows on the stone floor as she quietly made her way to the center of the Keep. The main hall took her by surprise and she nearly walked right out into the open. The physical and mental exhaustion was taking its toll on her. "Come on!" She chided herself. "Focus!"
She shook her head and peered around the doorjamb and observed the main hall. The spiral staircase was directly in front of her. She raced across the hall and jumped up the first few steps. The stairway was narrow and unlit. She had to focus all of her senses on what, or who, could be waiting just around the corner. She waited for several heartbeats. Nothing. She took a deep breath, readied her sword, and started up the stairs.
Once she reached the top, she again stopped to focus her senses. She could hear muted voices coming from the room at the end of the hall. She couldn't assume that it was the warlord. She could assume, however, that it was someone who certainly needed killing. "After I question them first, of course." She smiled to herself.
She held her sword in front of her, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. She squinted her eyes, trying to see better in the darkness, when the acrid smell of burning herbs assaulted her nostrils. "Poor nose." She thought. "First you get smashed, and now you have to put up with this stench." She crept down the hallway until she was just outside the door of what she assumed were the warlord's chambers. "Now, why is it that all mystics feel the need to burn herbs? I just don't get it. I've got to ask Damara about that sometime."
"What is it?" A familiar voice sounded from the other side.
"It's her! " The prisoner's heart felt as though it would beat right out of her chest.
A second, harsher voice responded. "The best way to explain is to say that there is a rift between similar worlds. For some reason the natural barrier between theirs and ours has been weakened. I have exploited that weakness to create a window. From the window, I create the door. The door will allow you, or I, or anyone to cross over and back again. I thought that perhaps you would find it an...interesting challenge. "
"That must be the witch woman the guard was talking about." She leaned closer to the door to better hear the conversation taking place on the other side.
"Brilliant! I see now why you recommended the garrison move to the outer reaches of the Keep. It wouldn't do for anyone, especially General Aeneas to know about this. How did you find it?"
"I have my ways, my Queen. Let me show you what else I've found. I'm certain you'll be pleased."
After several minutes, a deep, throaty laugh echoed through the hallway. "Ohhhh yes. I am very pleased. You were right, Alti. This alliance between us has been most...gratifying." Another pause. "There! Create the door just outside that village! I must cross over to see how easily I can fit into their simple little lives. After that, I'll determine how best to conquer this new world...this...otherworld."
"Perhaps you should wait, my Queen. Why not observe for a few days, and then go through with your army? You could easily conquer them with no danger to yourself. You're not even prepared! You've got no provisions, no clothing, no..." The voice was cut off in mid-sentence.
The woman outside the chambers heard a gurgling sound. She assumed one of the two women was being choked. She didn't need to guess which it was.
"Because it wouldn't be nearly as much fun, that's why! " A cry of pain and a crash sounded through the door. "And if you value your rotten carcass, you had better remember who's in charge of this little twosome."
"Very well." Alti gasped. "I'll open the door for you if you wish. How long?"
"Oh, I think seven days should be sufficient. By the way, if you have any intention of leaving me in that otherworld, just remember that Ares still owes me a favor or two. I will find a way back. Reopen the doorway in seven days."
"Rift? Otherworld? What in Tartarus is she talking about? Regardless, it sounds as though she plans to slaughter more innocent people and I can't allow that! " The prisoner crashed through the door, sword at the ready.
The two women inside whirled around, startled by the sudden intrusion. "Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in. Fortunately for you, I've got business to attend to." The tall woman was standing in the center of the room, next to what appeared to be a tear in the very fabric of reality. The tear was rippling and writhing, showing a barely discernable picture of a clearing just outside a moderately sized village. One eyebrow rose as she gave the prisoner a half smile. "Too bad I can't kill you the way I'd like, but I just don't have the time." She sighed. "Oh well...I can't win them all." With that, she pulled a dagger from her belt and threw it at the battered, barefoot woman standing in the doorway. She then turned, and jumped through the rift.
She was staring so hard at the rift that she barely had time to avoid the dagger thrown directly at her throat. She managed to avoid the killing blow, but the dagger grazed the side of her neck, drawing blood. She jumped up and forward with a somersault and a twist, landing directly behind Alti. She grabbed the woman by the hair and held the sword to her neck. "Well, I guess I'll just have to follow her, now won't I?" She pressed the cold steel hard against the witch woman's pale skin.
"Open the door." She whispered. "Open the door, or I'll slit your throat where you stand."
Alti trembled; knowing the woman behind her would follow through on the threat. She was trapped. If she didn't open the rift, she would die. If she did open the rift, there was a good chance she would die anyway, once the Queen discovered the prisoner had followed. She decided to take that risk. Slowly, the rift grew in size until it was large enough for someone to step through.
The prisoner watched the forming doorway with fascination. The village where the warlord crossed over slowly appeared. "By the gods! Who would have thought such a thing was possible?" She shook her head and pushed Alti roughly to the floor.
She launched herself headfirst into the rift, but didn't see the scene shift until it was too late. She entered the rift and was consumed by the icy blackness of...nothing.
PART TWO: Just Another Day at the Lake
"Xena?" The blonde bard looked up at her friend.
"Well. This is supposed to be a vacation, right?"
"Well, if this is supposed to be a vacation, why are we rushing to get to Amphipolis? We're three days out, and well... it's not going anywhere, and well..."
Xena, astride Argo, looked down at the bard with an amused smile. "There's a lake just to the south of here. Why don't we head that way?"
Gabrielle's eyes widened with surprise. "Really?" She rested her hand on her friend's thigh. "Oh, I can't wait to get some of that bass!" She frowned a bit. "Unless...well...unless you're just doing this for me. I mean, we don't have to go to the lake. We can just head straight for...I mean, I know you haven't seen your mother in a while..."
"Gabrielle!" Xena grinned. "It's OK. You're right. I've been pushing too hard. We could use a little break and I can't think of a better place than the lake." She held her arm and motioned for Gabrielle to grab hold. "Come on. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get some bass."
Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled up behind the dark-haired warrior. She wrapped her arms around the slim, muscled waist and locked her hands together. Besides lying next to Xena on their bedrolls, this was her favorite place to be. "Of course, I could never let Xena know that. She'd probably run screaming for the hills. Well, maybe not screaming...and maybe not running...but she'd definitely head for the hills." She smiled and laughed to herself.
Xena looked over her shoulder at the bard. "What's so funny?"
"Oh, I'm just enjoying the ride." Gabrielle responded with a happy sigh.
"Gabrielle." She heard her name being called from a distance. "Gabrielle!" This time the voice was louder. She started and nearly fell backwards off Argo when she felt a strong arm reach around and pull her forward.
"Whoa! Not so fast!"
"Xena! Wha...did I fall asleep?! What time is it?" She blinked several times, trying to figure out where exactly she was. It took a moment or two before she realized that she was still sitting behind Xena.
"Yeah, you fell asleep. And we have about an hour before nightfall." Xena jumped to the ground and reached up to help Gabrielle dismount. "Hope you didn't drool on me." She tied Argo to a stubby tree about twenty feet from the shore of the lake. "Come on. Let's get some fish. I catch, you cook."
"I don't drool!" Gabrielle retorted. She staggered a few steps, trying to get the feeling back into her legs. "Yikes! I've got to do more stretching exercises!" She grumbled to herself. "Hey! Why do you always get to catch and I always get to cook?" She ran after Xena, who was heading toward the shore.
Xena stripped off her boots, armor, and leathers and waded to her knees in the lake. She raised her eyebrows at her disgruntled friend. "Because if you did the catching, we'd starve. And if I did the cooking, we'd die of food poisoning."
The dark-haired warrior turned her head, as if to listen for the elusive bass. "Quiet. You'll scare the fish."
Gabrielle looked miffed. "Scare the fish? Scare the fish??" She grumbled under her breath. "Humph. Fine. Ok, Xena Warrior Fisherwoman. You catch the fish, and I'll cook the fish...again..." She pushed her way through some tall reeds, toward a stand of trees in search of firewood.
As the bard worked her way toward the trees, she heard a low moaning. She stopped and focused on where the sound was coming from. She followed the sounds into the small wooded area until she found...."Uh oh. " She breathed, eyes growing wide. "Xena!" Gabrielle yelled as she slowly backed away, wishing she had brought her staff with her. "XENA!" She turned and ran right into a boulder...or what she thought was a boulder, until she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Gabrielle stood speechless for a moment as she stared at her friend. Xena stood barefoot and soaking wet; sword at the ready. What impressed the bard was the fact that the wet, linen shift that Xena wore hugged her body like a second skin. She had seen the warrior like this before...even completely naked?but for some reason, this time, the bard's breath caught in her throat. "Uh oh?this is bad?this is also completely insane!"
"What is it, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle swallowed hard and pointed to a clump of weeds near a large oak. "Over there. But it's more like who it is rather than what it is." She grabbed Xena's hand and gave it a squeeze. "Be careful."
Xena squeezed back and carefully inched her way toward the place the bard had pointed to. As she drew closer, she could hear the sound of someone in pain. She carefully parted the weeds with her sword and looked down to see..."Callisto!" She snarled. Xena leapt forward and pressed her sword against the throat of her most hated enemy. She was surprised to find that Callisto made no move to retaliate. She knelt down to inspect the woman and found that she was in no condition to retaliate against anyone, or anything.
Xena lowered her sword and motioned to the bard. "It's alright, Gabrielle. She's unconscious. She won't hurt anyone."
Gabrielle cautiously stepped forward and got her first real look at the woman in the weeds. Her long, blond hair was filthy; her nose was pushed over to one side of her face, which was covered with dried blood. Her torn tunic was also covered with dried blood and a smattering of vomit. Her skin was mottled with dark bruises and she had a gash on the right side of her neck.
She brought her hand to her mouth in horror. "By the Gods, Xena. What happened to her?" She dropped to her knees next to the warrior. "Who or what could have done this to her?"
Xena shook her head. "I don't know. But I plan on taking advantage of it." She stood and pulled the unconscious woman up and across one broad shoulder. She jerked her head, motioning for Gabrielle to follow. She carried Callisto to where she left Argo tied, and dropped her to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The warrior rolled the battered woman onto her stomach, tied her hands behind her back, and rolled her back over.
"Xena. She's unconscious. Do you really need to tie her up like that?"
Xena turned to look at the bard. "I don't plan on taking any chances with her...or with you." she replied quietly. She stood and put a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Are you going to be alright?"
The bard reached up and squeezed the warrior's hand. She looked up and her green eyes locked onto electric blue. "I'll be fine." As she stood there, she realized how hard it was for her to stop staring and she blushed. She gave the warrior a final squeeze and took a step back. "We should see to Callisto. She's been pretty badly hurt." She paused and glanced at the injured woman. "Please, Xena."
Xena shook her head and marveled at her friend. Callisto had murdered Perdicas right in front of their eyes, and yet Gabrielle could put that aside to help her. Xena would just as soon leave Callisto to die under the oak, but she knew the bard wouldn't want it. She knew Gabrielle, and she knew that her friend would want Callisto brought to justice...the right way. So, she had picked her up and brought her to their camp. She would do what she could to tend to the injuries, only because Gabrielle had asked. Xena raised her eyebrows. "Alright. But if she so much as breathes the wrong way, she's dead."
Gabrielle knew by the look in Xena's eyes that she would, indeed, kill Callisto without hesitation. She accepted this and nodded. "Thanks. I'll get your pack and then go for some wood."
The warrior knelt down and roughly untied Callisto's hands. She didn't feel completely comfortable leaving the woman unbound, but there were some herbs in her pack that would keep her sleeping. It was just as well, because that nose would definitely have to be put back in its proper position. She laughed to herself as she fantasized about punching it back into place. "Boy what I wouldn't give to just pound her. But it wouldn't be nearly as much fun with her lying there like a lump." She smiled the half-smile that was her trademark and dug through her pack for the necessary herbs and salves.
Gabrielle got the fire going and brought some water from one of the skins in their packs. She also gathered some clean rags to help clean the dirt and grime from the unconscious woman. She kneeled next to Xena and looked up at her friend. "How bad is it?" She asked.
Xena shrugged. "The cut on her neck is superficial, but it's a little infected. She's got some broken ribs, but it doesn't look like anything vital was punctured. She's covered with some pretty nasty bruises. Not only is her nose broken, but it looks like some of the facial bones are fractured as well. That's going to take a while to heal. " She glanced at the bard. "I'll need you to hold her head steady while I set the bones."
Gabrielle scooted around and situated herself near Callisto's head. She placed her hands on either side of the woman's face and held her head firmly to keep it from moving. "Ok. I'm ready."
Xena took a deep breath and snapped the unconscious woman's nose back into place. Blood gushed out of her nostrils and down her cheeks. "Gabrielle, I need some clean cloths to try and stop this bleeding." The warrior looked sharply at her friend as she gently turned Callisto's head to the side.
"Here!" She thrust a soft cloth at Xena, who began to pack Callisto's nostrils.
Callisto moaned and began to feebly brush Xena's hands away from her face. "Stop...hurts..."
Gabrielle gently pushed Callisto's hands down to her sides and held them firmly. "Shhh..." The bard tried to calm the injured woman. "It's OK...it'll be OK." She released the woman's hands, wet one of the cloths and began to bathe the woman's face, wiping the blood away as best she could.
Xena raised her eyebrows and looked up at her friend. "I hope you realize that we're using up all of our supplies on her." She placed a thick pad on Callisto's face, which covered the bridge of her nose. She then placed a piece of leather across the pad. Another, smaller pad was placed over that, and then the entire thing was secured with several layers of a plaster-like paste. The odd looking cast was held in place by strips of leather, which ran across the upper portion of Callisto's cheekbones and tied at the back of her head. The warrior took care not to interfere with her breathing.
As uncaring as Xena appeared, Gabrielle noticed that the warrior watched over Callisto to be sure that she wouldn't choke on her own blood.
"I know." Gabrielle replied. She placed a gentle hand on the warrior's shoulder. "It's OK. We're only three days out from Amphipolis. We can get more supplies there. Xena...we're doing the right thing."
"If you say so." The warrior reached to grab a cup full of the sleeping brew she mixed earlier. She gently raised Callisto's head and poured the pungent liquid into her mouth. The unconscious woman choked and coughed but managed to swallow some of the yellowish fluid.
"Look. You may as well get some sleep. She's not going anywhere." Xena stood and paced the campsite. "And I'm too wired to do anything but stand guard."
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. She knew better than to argue with Xena when she was in one of her moods. She straightened out her bedroll alongside Xena's. She looked across the campfire and smiled at the sight of her friend watching over their most hated enemy. She knew that Xena had a dark side, and that there were times when it was barely controlled. Regardless, she realized that there was a part of the warrior that was good, and kind, and forgiving. Just watching her care for Callisto was proof enough, even though Xena would never admit it to herself.
She awoke in more pain than she had ever felt in her entire life. "I am obviously not dead. If I were dead, the pain wouldn't make me feel the urge to kill myself right now... Oh, my face...!" She began to panic. "If I even have a face!" She tried to touch the source of her pain, but found that her hands were bound to her sides.
Xena started at the sounds of Callisto attempting to move. She stalked over to her adversary and straddled the prone body. "Don't even try to get up. I'll cut you down in a heartbeat."
Callisto pried open her incredibly swollen, sore eyes which widened somewhat when she recognized her captor. "Pig! Of course you would bind me like this! Any threat, however small, to your supposed precious personage...! And what do you mean 'cut me down?' I'm already down, in case you hadn't noticed!" She attempted to rise and gasped as pain from her fractured ribs lanced through her chest.
The warrior smiled cruelly as she saw Callisto flailing on the ground. "You do realize that if you weren't already so smashed up, I'd do the honors myself?"
Callisto looked at Xena as if she'd turned into a Cyclops. "What in Tartarus are you talking about, you lunatic?? You're the one who 'smashed' me up to begin with!" She tried to rise again, but the pain of her injuries was too intense, as she slumped back to the ground. "Oh, by the Gods. I...I feel...strange... " She glared at Xena as the reason dawned on her. "I'm not only smashed up, but I'm drugged. Oh, it figures!"
"Yep. Nothing that a little arrowroot can't fix, though." Xena leaned down until her nose was touching the battered, swollen proboscis on Callisto's face. She smiled, showing all her teeth. "I don't care how smashed up you are. I'm gonna tie you up and drug you until I'm certain that you're no threat."
The pain was overwhelming as Callisto sunk back into unconsciousness. "You are one...rotten...Hydra-loving..." That was as far as the insult went before her eyes closed once again.
"Huh?? Wha...??" Gabrielle sat up with a start and reached for her staff. She jumped up, ready for a fight. "I'm up!! I'm up!!" She whipped her staff back and forth, waiting for the unseen enemy to attack. "I'll bust her up! I'll crush her skull! I'll...!"
"Whoa!!" Xena reached out with one hand and snatched the staff from the sleepwalking bard. With the other, she grabbed Gabrielle as she raced toward the outskirts of the campsite. "Wake up, Gabrielle. Waaaaaake up." She gently shook her friend into the waking world.
The bard looked at Xena, confusion written all over her face. "Wha...?"
Xena smiled and gently guided her friend back to their bedrolls. "It's alright Gabrielle. Go back to sleep." The warrior laughed quietly to herself as the bard grumbled incoherently and fell right back to sleep. The warrior placed the staff next to her friend, in case she again felt the need to jump to the defense of their camp.
Gabrielle felt a gentle hand shaking her shoulder. "Come on Gabrielle. Time to rise and shine."
The bard opened one eye and found herself looking up at the warrior princess. "Ugh. It can't be morning yet, can it?" She tried to roll over, but was unceremoniously lifted to her feet.
Gabrielle glared at her friend, but decided to let it go. She stumbled over to their packs, mumbling "By the Gods! I haven't been this hungry in my entire life! And you really should find a better way to get me up in the morning!" She stopped rifling through the pack and turned to look at Xena. "You know, I had the strangest dream last night. There was a three-headed Callisto, and she was wearing this sort of...well...fruit basket on her middle head, and she was doing this...kind of...dancing thing. I grabbed my staff and whacked one of the heads and the other two started saying the most horrible things to me. I mean...a three-headed Callisto? Not like a one-headed Callisto is bad enough!" She paused in the middle of relating her dream and stared hard at the warrior. "I'm sure that dream was directly related to the fact that I didn't have anything to eat last night. The fruit basket thing..."
Xena raised one eyebrow and smirked at her friend. "Hey. You were the one who found Callisto and wanted to patch her up, not me."
Gabrielle stuffed some dried meat into her mouth and chewed with rabid abandon. "Speaking of Callisto, how is she?"
"Oh, she's fine. Woke up once. Fell back to sleep." Xena shrugged.
"You didn't...help her back to sleep, by any chance, did you Xena?" The bard crossed the campsite and stood over the still sleeping woman. "You tied her up again?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I can't be angry with her. I know it's just her way of protecting me." She looked down at Callisto's face and inhaled sharply as she saw the dark purple bruise covering her eyes and stretching halfway up her forehead. The rest of the bruise was covered by the bandage, which helped hold the battered nose in place. Her nose wrinkled as she got a whiff of the filthy tunic covering Callisto.
"I...think we need to get her cleaned up a little." She turned to look at Xena. "I've got a clean shift in that pack next to the bedrolls. "
Xena raised one eyebrow and stared at Gabrielle.
The bard walked over to her friend and placed her hands on the warrior's shoulders. "Ok. Look at it this way. We can either leave her in that disgusting tunic and smell her for the next three days. Ooooor, we can get rid of it, clean her up, and spare our noses the horror."
Xena smirked. "Well, since you put it that way..."
"Thanks, Xena. Don't worry, I'll do all the work."
The warrior's eyebrow rose even higher into her hairline. "Oh, I know you'll be doing all the work. I'll be watching Callisto."
Gabrielle snorted. "Oh, as if she's in any condition to do anything, Xena. She can't even roll over!" She shook her head and grabbed her shift from the pack. She also took a small, albeit sharp, cooking knife and made her way to where Callisto lay.
"Okay. These have got to go." Gabrielle talked softly to herself as she untied the leather straps that bound Callisto's hands. "Now this has got to go..." She continued to mumble to herself. She took the cooking knife and cut the tunic from the slim body and threw it into the fire. "Ewww!"
As Xena watched her friend tend to Callisto, she heated some water in a small pan over the fire. "Unbelievable." She thought to herself. "Absolutely unbelievable." What Xena found unbelievable was the fact that Gabrielle could treat Callisto as if she were actually human.
"Here. " Xena set the pan of heated water next to the bard. "I put some herbs in here. Thought they might cut down on the...smell."
Gabrielle reached out and gave her friend's hand a gentle squeeze. "Thanks." She leaned over and kissed the warrior on the cheek. "You're not so bad, you know."
Xena blushed as she realized how that gentle kiss affected her. She mumbled a hasty thanks, and sat down on their bedrolls. She pulled the small sharpening stone from her bag and went to work on her sword.
As the bard began to bathe Callisto, she marveled at the number of bruises on the pale skin. "It's a wonder she survived at all." A few minutes later, she was ready to put the clean shift onto the unconscious woman. As Gabrielle gently raised Callisto's head to pull the shift over her head, she heard a muffled exclamation.
Gabrielle quickly pulled the shift from Callisto's head. "What? What did you say?" She glanced at Xena, who was already at her side.
"I said, and I quote, 'My face is smashed. My head hurts. I'm naked. And now I'm being suffocated." Repeated the obviously irritated woman. She stared hard at Xena. "I know who you are. I'm surprised I'm still alive."
Xena raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement.
Callisto then looked at Gabrielle, and remembered. She didn't know what her situation was, so she refrained from revealing anything regarding the young bard. "You, I don't know, but you seem familiar somehow. Anyway, you seem nice enough. Why are you with her?"
The bard looked at Xena in confusion. "What is she talking about?"
"Dunno." Xena shrugged. "Last night she was rambling on about how I was the one who 'smashed her up'. The head injury could be making her delusional."
Callisto's eyes flashed in anger. "You're the one who's delusional, you rotten bitch!" She tried to sit up and gasped as the pain once again lanced through her head and chest. She slumped back down to the ground as the bandages on her face soaked up tears of pain. "Is this some kind of sick joke you like to play with people? Why didn't you just kill me when you had the chance?"
Gabrielle pulled Xena aside and whispered. "Xena. Something's not right with this. I mean, Callisto killed Perdicas, and she has no idea who I am? It just doesn't make any sense." The bard placed her hands on the warrior's broad shoulders. "Besides...something just doesn't feel right about her. She doesn't seem like the same person."
Xena's eyes darkened. "Now, hold on Gabrielle. This is Callisto we're talking about. She hasn't changed. She hasn't repented. She has no remorse for her crimes. She's the same sick, twisted person she always was."
"She wasn't always that way, Xena." Gabrielle quietly reminded her friend. "And..." She tentatively reached out and took Xena's hand. "...you changed..."
Xena grit her teeth, took a deep breath, and gave her friend a wry half smile. "Maybe not, Gabrielle. But she is what she is. And I am what I am...because of you." She leaned over and kissed the top of the bard's head. "Come on. The sooner we get her to Amphipolis, the sooner we can let the regional magistrate take her off our hands."
PART THREE: Getting To Know You?
"Not bad." Xena stood back and watched as the bard finished construction of a crude litter.
"I've got many skills, too, you know." Gabrielle retorted. "Besides, you didn't think I was going to let you literally drag her to Amphipolis, did you? And, you could have at least helped me put this thing together. "
Xena scowled and doubled checked the packs draped across Argo. "My way was better." She looked up at the sun and sighed. It was going to be a hot, dry day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and no wind to speak of. She was in a foul mood and she was absolutely certain it would only get worse. She glanced at Callisto, who was still lying on the ground, with her hands bound. Xena sighed again and walked to the sleeping woman. She reached down and roughly grabbed the bound wrists and pulled Callisto across her shoulder. She carried the unconscious woman to the litter and dropped her unceremoniously onto the blankets, which covered the rough wood.
"Let's go." The warrior took Argo's reigns and walked toward the dry, dusty road without so much as a backward glance at Gabrielle.
The bard looked hurt as she picked up her staff and turned to follow. She caught up to Xena and placed a hand on the warrior's arm. "Are you mad at me?" She asked.
"Then what's the matter?"
Xena jerked her head in Callisto's direction. "Her."
Gabrielle sighed and fell silent. More than anyone in the world, she understood Xena's anger. She had witnessed the death of her husband at Callisto's hands. She recalled the overwhelming blackness that covered her heart and how she wanted nothing more than to gut the woman who had caused such pain. She recalled how she tried to goad Xena into showing her how to handle a sword and how Xena had refused. She recalled that for a time, their roles had been reversed. The bard was the one who was consumed with vengeance, and the warrior was the one who tried to make her see that violence wasn't the answer. She refused to see just how deeply her need for revenge had affected the Warrior Princess...until that night in the glade. The rage wouldn't allow her to sleep so she decided to prowl the night. She had thought to use that time daydreaming about the exact moment Callisto would die at her hands. As she was thinking, she heard a low murmur just in front of her. She quietly pressed forward until she saw Xena, kneeling, and praying to the Gods. The bard's breath caught in her throat as she realized the source of the warrior's distress was her, Gabrielle's, own soul. At that moment, she realized just how much she had surrendered to the dark side she thought could never exist within her. Her eyes filled with tears as she listened to the warrior's heartbroken plea to the Gods to save not only Gabrielle, but by extension, herself. She made the decision then, that she would not kill Callisto. The Gods would judge her, and it was not her place to do so.
The bard wondered if Xena knew just how important she was; how much she was needed; how much she was...loved. She tried to tell Xena on so many occasions, but she never felt that the warrior truly believed it. Gabrielle had never felt such a fierce love for anything or anyone and couldn't imagine her life without the Warrior Princess. She decided long ago that she would spend the rest of her days convincing Xena that she was worthy of that love.
The bard wiped the sweat from her brow and wished for at least the slightest hint of a breeze. "Xena."
The warrior continued to walk, oblivious to the bard. She fumed silently at the situation forced upon her now. She knew that Gabrielle felt they were "doing the right thing" by caring for Callisto, and bringing her to Amphipolis to be tried. The logical part of her psyche, however, was having difficulty reconciling that with her growing need to just kill her and be done with it. It was times such as these when she was forced to wrestle with that dark part of her soul, which she kept such a tenuous control over. It was times such as these when she needed Gabrielle; needed her goodness and light. She knew it wasn't easy for the bard to put aside the anguish and she often wondered how much pain Gabrielle could absorb before she collapsed under it's weight. Not only did her friend look for what was good and right in all people, she looked for what was good and right in her. There was a time when Xena felt she was beyond redemption, but Gabrielle's love and patience was slowly helping her to see that perhaps she wasn't headed for Tartarus after all.
Although Xena's conscious mind refused to admit it, buried deep inside her was the knowledge that Gabrielle truly was the light, and love, of her life. Even still, she didn't want to entertain the possibility that her love for the bard went beyond their one-of-a-kind friendship. She couldn't allow herself to see it, because she was afraid. Everything she loved had either died or left her. She couldn't bear to open herself to that kind of hurt again, especially after Thessaly.
"Xena." Gabrielle called out in a louder voice. She caught up to the warrior and placed a hand on her forearm. Xena turned to look at her friend.
"What is it, Gabrielle?"
"It's midday and we need to stop. Callisto needs water." The bard replied and sighed, again wiping the sweat from her brow. "Gods. This heat is unbearable!"
Xena squinted her eyes against the bright sun and turned to lead Argo from the dusty road. "You're right. There's a small creek that runs along this path from the lake. There should be a little shade there as well." She gave her friend a wry half-smile. "Besides, I'm sure you must be starving by now."
Gabrielle grinned up at her tall friend. "Well, now that you mention it..."
Callisto fought her way back into the waking world. "Gods, my face hurts! I should just stay unconscious..." She tried to sit up, but found herself still tied down. "Son of a Bacchae!" She mumbled under her breath. She opened her swollen eyes and tried to figure out where she was.
The battered woman was able to lift her head a little to get a better view. She was lying on a rough litter next to a small creek. She looked straight up and was grateful that they had the decency to park her under a leafy elm. At least it kept most of the sun off of her pale skin. She was securely tied to the contraption and knowing Xena, she figured it would be a waste of time to try and free herself. Not that she could get very far in her state. She couldn't see Xena or the blonde bard anywhere in sight.
"Oh, you're awake!" Gabrielle leaned over to make eye contact with Callisto. "Are you hungry? Here, I've got some water." She knelt down and began to untie the leather strips.
"What are you doing?" Xena growled from her vantagepoint near the fire.
Gabrielle turned her head to reply. "Xena, she's no threat in this condition. The least we could do is untie her so she can eat."
Xena stalked to the litter and glared down at Callisto. "You're lucky Gabrielle has such a kind heart, Callisto. If you even think about trying anything..."
Callisto snorted. "I've heard your threats before, Xena, so save your breath." She looked at the bard. "So. Gabrielle, is it? Maybe you can help me understand some things. We all know just how much Xena looooves to talk. "
Gabrielle shot a confused look at the warrior, who shrugged her shoulders. Xena turned on her heel and walked back toward the fire. She sat facing the two women and began to sharpen her sword, never taking her eyes off of Callisto.
The bard finished untying the bruised woman and helped her to sit up. She slid around behind Callisto and gently supported the woman in a reclining position. She held the waterskin to the slim woman's lips and watched quietly as the water was drained in record time.
"Thanks." Callisto gasped, wiping the back of one hand across her mouth. "Gods. I had no idea I was so thirsty." She tried to turn her head to look at the bard, but her battered body wouldn't allow it. "Tell me, Gabrielle. Why do you stay with her?"
Gabrielle looked down at the woman and her heart ached for her. As compassionate as she felt about Callisto and her injuries, the bard had to remember that this was a cold-blooded murderer. "You answer some questions first." She countered.
"Fair enough." Callisto responded, laughing softly.
"What's so funny?"
"Ohhhh, I was just thinking about how fast things change. In the space of two days, I was free and leading an army of rebels; then I was captured by Xena and thrown into a stinking dungeon; then I was getting my face beaten in, which by the way did not make my day; then I was throwing myself into some kind of...I don't know what. And now...now Xena once again captures me. The only thing missing is the dungeon and her fist in my face."
As Callisto was relaying the events of her past two days, the look on Gabrielle's face changed from impassivity to horror to disbelief. "Oh yeah. She's gone...no doubt about it."
"Uh, that...that's certainly an interesting story." Gabrielle gently patted Callisto on one shoulder. "Here. Have some fish. "
Callisto took one whiff of the cooked trout and nearly vomited. "No...no. I think I'll pass, thanks." She closed her eyes and willed her stomach to stop churning.
Gabrielle looked sympathetic. "I'm sorry. I know fish is probably the last thing you want to eat right now. I'll make some broth when we break for camp tonight. " She extricated herself from behind the nauseated woman and gently laid her back onto the blankets. "Hold on. I'll at least get you some more fresh water." She picked up the empty skin and headed back toward the creek.
Xena reached for Gabrielle's hand as the bard passed her by. "What was that all about?" She asked.
The bard shrugged. "I have no idea. I think you're right. Her head injury must be making her delusional." She gave Xena's hand a gentle squeeze. "I'm going to get her some more water." She paused for a moment. "Xena...?"
"Can we...? Do you mind...?" Gabrielle sighed in frustration. "I'd like to leave her untied."
"There! It's out!" She said to herself as she watched Xena's reaction to her request. "Please Xena. She's in no condition to try anything, believe me. She's in enough pain as it is, and the thought of tying her up...well...it really bothers me."
Xena's eyebrow rose as she gave her friend the trademark half-smile. "I guess it can't hurt." She took Gabrielle's face in her hands and kissed the bard on her forehead. "You know the condition, though."
The bard grinned up at her friend and hugged her tight. "I know, I know!" In a rough imitation of Xena's most menacing voice, she cited, "If she so much as thinks about...!" She laughed as Xena suddenly squeezed her around the middle.
Xena leveled her best 'look' on the bard and raised an eyebrow. "Just remember what I said, Gabrielle."
The bard laughed again. "You know that look doesn't work on me anymore." She smiled and looked into Xena's sky-blue eyes, seeing unconditional love reflected back at her. Her heart skipped a beat and she cleared her throat as a flush began creeping up her neck. "Well, I guess I'd better see to our 'guest'."
Gabrielle released herself from Xena's hold and dipped the waterskin into the ice-cold creek. She took a little extra time to cup some water in her hands and splash her face. "Wow. I wonder what just happened there? Could she...? Do you think maybe..?" She sighed as she pushed the incredible thought from her head. "I'm crazy to even think it." The bard carried the skin over to Callisto, who appeared to be sleeping again.
She carefully placed the skin next to a limp hand when she was startled by a quiet voice. "Hey." Callisto opened one eye and looked at the young bard. "I thought we were going to answer some questions for each other?"
Gabrielle smiled and gently patted the injured woman's shoulder. "Maybe later. When we camp for the night. Right now you need your rest, OK?"
Callisto sighed and returned the smile. "Thanks. Gabrielle? Just one question?"
"Why are you being so kind to me?"
Callisto closed her eyes and fell back into sleep before the bard could answer. Gabrielle asked herself that same question. Why was she being so kind to the person who murdered her husband? Part of it, she knew, was just in her nature to care for people. The other, more bothersome, part was the niggling feeling that something was very, very different about Callisto. She realized that Callisto could be playing some elaborate mind-game. She knew better than anyone how the woman excelled at mental torture. Even so, there was something about her that just didn't fit.
They had resumed their trek toward Amphipolis and had been on the road for at least three hours. Xena found it odd that in those three hours, Gabrielle had hardly spoken a word. She was used to her friend commenting on every flower, tree, or cloud formation she ran across. She laughed to herself as she thought of how annoying all that chatter was when the bard first came into her life. Now that the bard was silent, she realized how much she missed the idle commentary. She also realized that there was something bothering Gabrielle and she suspected Callisto was at the heart of it.
"Alright Gabrielle, talk to me."
The bard took a deep breath. "It won't matter what I say, Xena. You wouldn't believe me anyway."
Xena stopped in the middle of the road and took her friend by the arm. She locked eyes with the bard and placed a gentle hand on one cheek. "Listen Gabrielle. I may not agree with you, but I'm always interested in your opinions."
Gabrielle turned her head and looked up at the warrior. "Really?" She shyly asked.
"Really." Xena responded with a gentle smile at her friend and resumed walking.
"Ok!" Gabrielle caught up to the warrior with a little skip, which earned her a smile and a raised eyebrow. "This is what I've been thinking. There's just too much about this whole thing to make me believe that Callisto is delusional. I thought that at first, but now I'm not so sure. Ok, first of all, I think we both have to agree that she is completely different from the Callisto we both know and...well...can't stand. I mean, she's actually nice. And it doesn't seem like that fake niceness she uses when she's in one of her manic moods. And another thing! She said that she led an Army of 'rebels'. And she said it in a way that made me believe that she was fighting for something besides dismembered bodies and burned-out villages. She...and I know this is going to sound completely insane...she just doesn't seem like 'our' Callisto."
Xena listened to her friend and the one thing she could agree on was the fact that Callisto did seem different somehow. That could still be a by-product of her head injury. She had seen those kinds of injuries cause a complete personality change. The rest sounded too far-fetched to be believable.
"Well?" Gabrielle asked, half holding her breath. "What are you thinking?"
When Xena didn't respond, she stopped and held one hand up, palm facing outward. "Nevermind. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I'm as insane as Callisto. No. No, you don't have to say it!"
Xena chuckled and grabbed Gabrielle's outstretched hand. "I have to admit that your...impressions are somewhat...shall we say...'out there'." She pulled the bard close and encircled her shoulders with one long arm. "I will agree, however, that Callisto does seem different. And as for the rest, let's just say I'll reserve judgement on that."
Gabrielle laughed a little and gave her friend a little squeeze. "Well, I'm glad you listened anyway. " She brightened a little and her eyes widened. "Ok, now this is the plan."
Xena looked down at the enthused bard. "You have a plan?"
Gabrielle nodded with a smile. "What kind of partner would I be if you were the one who came up with all the plans?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I am the one who comes up with all the plans." She responded with a wry smile.
Gabrielle crinkled her eyebrows. "Ok. Maybe you do come up with all the plans. But...but those are battle kind of plans. You've never come up with a people kind of plan before...and that's where I come in!" She smiled brightly.
"Ok, I'm listening."
"Well..." The bard took a deep breath. "It's obvious that she hates your guts." She winced and smiled apologetically at the warrior. "Sorry. Anyway she hates your guts, but for some reason, she likes me. I think I can use that to our advantage. You know...bond with her...pump her for information...that kind of thing. If she's really 'our' Callisto, we'll know, and we'll be able to let justice take its course. If she isn't 'our' Callisto...although I'm not quite sure how that could be...we might be able to do some good here."
Xena smiled. "Yeah. I like it. I stay away from her, she stays away from me, and you get to do what you like...which is...TALK!" Xena grinned at her somewhat annoyed friend.
"That's what bards do, you know. Talk. We wouldn't be bards if we..." Realization dawned on the bard and she gave her friend a playful backslap on the gut. "Stop teasing me!"
The three women were situated around the fire; Xena on one side, Callisto and Gabrielle on the other. A pot of broth was simmering over the flames and the aroma was beginning to assail the nostrils of everyone present.
"I get it. They plan to torture me to death in one of two ways. Either they kill me with the horrible stench of that mess over the fire. Or, they kill me by having that bard talk me to oblivion." The injured woman grumbled as she tried to make herself more comfortable. "Gabrielle. I hate to tell you this, but if I hear one more story about how wonderful and good Xena is, I'm afraid I'll have to vomit in your lap."
"I know I can get a little carried away. Sorry." Gabrielle patted Callisto's arm walked to the pot of broth. "Let me just get you something to eat. I'm sure you'll feel better." The bard grabbed a wooden bowl and scooped some herb broth into it. She carefully carried it to the injured woman and handed it over. "Here. I think you're strong enough to feed yourself."
Callisto accepted the bowl, but immediately placed it on the ground next to her. "Thanks, but I'm not hungry." She tried to close her eyes, but the bard seemed determined to thwart her efforts.
"Nope. You're not getting away with it this time. You need to eat in order to heal. Besides, if you don't at least try, I'll have to tell you another story."
The injured woman groaned and reached for the bowl. "I guess the broth would be the lesser of two evils." After she had consumed at least half, she gave the bard an imploring look. "Ok. I tried. It's half gone. Good enough?"
Gabrielle smiled and took to bowl. "Good enough." She walked to Xena and handed her the half-empty bowl. "By the way, since I'll be working on my plan, you'll have to...um...clean up."
Xena's eyebrows rose to heights never before seen by the bard. "Uh...of course I'll pay you back...uh... somehow... someway..." Gabrielle laughed nervously and looked over her shoulder at the annoyed warrior. "I'm sure you'll think of something!"
Callisto stifled a laugh at the thought of the "Great Xena" cleaning up dirty dishes. She looked up at the approaching bard. "I have no idea what kind of hold you have over her. I've seen her gut people for less than that."
Gabrielle sank down in the dirt next to the blonde woman. "Well, that may have been the 'old' Xena, but it's not the Xena I know."
"So you keep saying." Callisto raised herself up on one elbow. "Do you think perhaps you can get this annoying bandage off my face? It's reaaaally beginning to get on my nerves."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at Xena who nodded her approval. As she began to unwrap the thick bandage, she marveled at how quickly the woman had healed in the space of a day. The purple bruise had begun to shrink and now only covered her eyes and the bridge of her nose, much like a mask. The rest of her skin was various shades of green and yellow. The bard also noted that the swelling had also gone down. She shook her head in amazement. The only person she had ever seen heal this fast was Xena.
Once the bandage had been removed, Gabrielle leaned forward, concentrating her gaze on the other woman. "So, Callisto. Tell me about this 'army of rebels' you were talking about earlier."
Callisto snorted. "Oh yeah. I'm just going to spill my guts to you, so you can turn around and spill your guts to Xena, who then tracks down my people and spills their guts...literally."
"Ooookay. Time for another approach." The bard realized that the simplest approach would be the best. "Well, how about telling me about your childhood. You know...brothers, sisters, where you grew up...that kind of thing." Gabrielle was well aware of what happened to Callisto when she was younger, but thought starting with something they were both familiar with would be the way to go.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Nope. I'd really like to know more about you." Gabrielle truly believed that the woman lying in front of her didn't know who the bard was. That would make it much easier for her to get to the bottom of what was really going on.
Callisto took a deep breath. "I can't believe she didn't tell you the minute you found me under that oak. But hey, I guess it won't hurt to humor you." The injured woman's face turned into an emotionless mask as she began to relate her story. "I grew up in a small village called Cirra with my mother and sister. It was an ordinary farming village, like any other. We were happy. We were healthy. We looked forward to long and fruitful lives, content with what the Gods had chosen to bless us with. All that ended the day that Xena and her army rode through."
Gabrielle had heard this story from Callisto before, but hearing it again still didn't make it any easier to absorb. She knew that Xena had done some horrible things in her past. She also knew that the consequences of those actions would follow the warrior for the rest of her days. This injured, angry woman in front of her was a perfect example of that. The bard glanced over her shoulder at her friend, who appeared to be completely absorbed in brushing Argo. She knew, however, that Xena was listening.
"Xena and her army tore through our village, slaughtering everything in their path. My sister and mother tried to take refuge in our hut, but they were burned alive for their trouble. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why I was still alive, why I was one of the few survivors. It took years, but I finally came up with the answer. I was left because it was my responsibility to bring Xena to justice. It was my Gods-given destiny to make sure that she suffered for what she had done; not only to me, but to everyone who had the misfortune to cross her path." Callisto's face twisted with rage as tears spilled from her brown eyes and ran down her pale cheeks. "And I swear on the ashes of my family that I won't rest until she's in Tartarus where she belongs!"
Gabrielle stood and backed away as Callisto, in her rage, stood and began to advance. "I don't care how many stupid stories you tell about her, Gabrielle! She's still the murdering bitch she always was, and I can't believe you don't see it. You must be completely insane!"
With a yell, Xena launched herself across the camp and held her sword to Callisto's throat. "I think it's time I tied you back up, dontcha think?"
The exhausted woman collapsed into the dirt as her rage-fueled strength left her. She put her hands behind her back and Gabrielle tied them together with a thin leather strap. The bard helped her to the extra bedroll as Xena crossed back to the other side of the fire. Callisto looked up, tears still streaming down her face. "Well, how did you like my story, little bard?"
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle whispered. The bard stood and walked back to Xena and their bedrolls. She sat cross-legged, with her elbows on her knees, staring into the fire.
"It never gets any easier for you to hear that, does it?" Xena placed a hand on her friend's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
The bard turned to the warrior, with anguish in her eyes. "Xena, something's different about the way she told it this time."
Xena pulled Gabrielle into a tight embrace, wishing she could take away the pain. She gently stroked the silken strawberry-blond hair and kissed the top of the bard's head. "What do you mean, 'different'?" The warrior asked.
"This time, she wept..."
CONTINUED IN PART FOUR