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The following story contains adult themes depicting explicit sexual relations between consenting adult women. If you are under the age of 18 or reading this material is illegal where you live, please do not read further. There is also a fair bit of graphic violence so please consider yourself forewarned. The author accepts no legal responsibility for non-compliance with this warning.
The characters of Xena and Gabrielle et al are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. They are used here without intent to profit from or infringe upon said copyrighted material. The story itself and sundry characters within are exclusively copyrighted to the author and may not be reprinted without express written permission.
This story is considered to be a loose sequel to Down To The Darkness and as such, some of the events that took place in that story are alluded to here. Although it is not necessary to read Down To the Darkness, it wouldn't hurt ya.
Nestra was running, running hard. "Running hard towards what used to be." A line from a poem crazily echoed in her mind. Her lungs burned hotly and her legs felt as if they were mired in quicksand. Sweat poured from her forehead and her ebony skin glistened in the moonlight. Her jet-black braids were drenched and smacked against her back as she ran. Her cinnamon colored eyes were wide with terror. No matter how hard she ran, she didn't seem to be gaining any ground on her pursuer. She recognized a familiar laugh that cackled in her ears. But Nestra was baffled, that sound was in front of her. She pulled up suddenly and stopped. It was Callisto, her friend. Just then she turned around and behind her was Xena, the Warrior Princess. The fierce warrior arced her immense sword over Nestra's head and plunged it deep into her heart.
Nestra jumped awake with a start. Damnit to Hades, Xena again. Nestra sighed to herself. She took in a deep breath and re-positioned herself against her lover, Brissea, who slept fitfully at her side. She stared up into the coal black sky where the stars were sprinkled across the gods' heavenly landscape. Very little light illuminated the dense copse of trees that clustered near the stream. Their near fatal encounter with Xena had made Nestra's sleeping patterns erratic at best. It was all the two warrior women could do to get as far away from Xena as possible. Damn that Leica, Nestra cursed her friend who had been so stupid as to challenge the best warrior in the land. Nestra was a brave soul but she was no fool. She had tried to warn Leica just as she had tried to warn Callisto but both her friends were now dead at the hands of the frightening warrior.
For the past half moon, she rarely slept for more than a candlemark at a time. Frequently, she dreamt of Xena's giant sword pointed at her throat, her dazzling blue eyes blurred by bloodthirsty savagery. Eyes that had been void of compassion. Eyes that would have sliced her throat without a second thought if not for the sweet and innocent bard that somehow managed to keep Xena's temper under control. Frankly, she was quite amazed that the strawberry blonde had succeeded in stopping Xena from killing Nestra and Brissea back in the cave. Nevertheless, in her nightmares, Xena's sword gouged her throat every time.
Nestra turned on her side and held her lover more tightly. She knew Morpheus would not visit her for the rest of the night but just holding the woman in her arms was enough to momentarily allay her fears. She buried her face into Brissea's light brown hair, trying to think of anything but Xena. She failed. Her thoughts were heavy as she remembered the first time she had ever laid eyes on the Warrior Princess. It had been four winters past when she and Brissea had been one of Callisto's legions. It was a day she would never forget for as long as she lived.
Nestra was jolted out of her reverie by a sound in the dense woodlands. She urgently shook Brissea awake and leapt to her feet and automatically withdrew her sword from its scabbard. Brissea's eyes shot open and she quickly clambered to her feet, unsheathing her sword as well. A figure emerged from the trees. Her lemon colored hair cascaded around her shoulders, radiating in bright contrast against the dark cloak she wore.
"Good evening, ladies."
"Callisto!" both women gasped in unison.
"Were you going to kill me with those puny little swords?" she laughed. "Well, I have news for you. Not even Xena can kill me now!"
Callisto had been walking steadily for days making progress toward her intended goal. She supposed she could make use of a horse or other means of transportation, including a mere wave of her hand, but she wanted to savor every waking hour. Never before had she noticed the wonder of Gaia's green foliage, or the tender flowers that sprinkled the landscape. The smells that assaulted her seemed brand new, no matter if fair or foul. She absorbed every nuance as if it was the very first day she had ever walked on a dirt trail.
Every so often, the trail was marked by evidence of Xena's passing, accompanied by the little brat, of course. However, Callisto knew that nowhere was safe for the Warrior Princess. She tenaciously pursued Xena and Gabrielle just as fiercely as the Harpies hounded intruders into Hades' domain. Callisto turned her face up to meet the heat of Apollo's journey across the brilliant blue sky. It took her back to the fateful day when the destinies of she and Xena became inextricably intertwined and would be for all eternity. Tartarus or the Elysian Fields no longer made a difference. Callisto would follow Xena to the end of time.
She took a glimpse into her past and for as long as Callisto could remember, retribution against Xena had always been her mission. There had never been a time in Callisto's young life when she did not want the Warrior Princess to pay for the murders of her mother and sister. The fire that annihilated her tiny village was a mere ember in comparison to the searing inferno in her heart that snuffed out any light or compassion she might have known. Xena was to blame for that. The Callisto she knew was created on that black day so many winters ago when Xena's army swept through Cirra. And Callisto would spend the rest of her eternal life making sure the Warrior Princess never forgot it. Eternity was a long time, indeed, she thought.
Callisto smiled to herself as she realized she would have the pleasure of tormenting Xena for as long as her little heart desired. Poor Hephaestus was kind enough to grant her that honor. She reached into her pocket and fingered the necklace he had given her as a means to own her. But she had other plans for that necklace and was certain that it would look so charming around Xena's neck.
She thought of how Xena had supposedly changed her ways since she met the little brat. Callisto laughed derisively at Xena's misguided notion that she would be able to gain entrance into the Elysian Fields by turning her efforts to fighting for the greater good. She went over some of the deeds in her mind, unchaining Death, helping Ares get back his godhood, freeing Prometheus, releasing Cecrops from Poseidon's curse. She rolled her eyes and spat on the ground when she thought of that one. The former warlord was becoming a hopeless romantic in her old age. Must be the little brat's doing, Callisto mused. No matter, she sighed; none of those "good" deeds held a candle to the scars Xena left on Callisto's wicked soul. One lifetime for Xena would never be enough to claim redemption and Callisto was there to collect her debt in full.
Her introduction to the Warrior Princess would forever be a scar that wove a dark strand through the tapestry of her soul. She remembered it as clearly as if it had happened just yesterday. She was in the middle of her twelfth summer and she had been playing outside with Theodorus in the mid-day sun. A high cerulean sky betrayed no omen of what destruction would soon visit the sleepy village. Theodorus was her only playmate. Callisto liked him because he understood her and let her be in charge. Then, without warning, she heard the mighty roar of many horses as they rumbled through the village at breakneck speed. Above the din, she heard the battle cry of a fierce and angry woman. A warrior's cry. The Warrior Princess.
Callisto stood frozen amongst the carnage unable to move, her eyes and soul battered by the destructive acts that swirled around her. Miraculously she remained unscathed. She watched in horror as Xena's army annihilated the villagers she had known since she was a baby. Many of the townsmen were run through with huge metal swords. Arrows darted through the air and found their human targets. Blood gushed out of large gaping holes. Tresephus, the blacksmith, the man who occasionally let Callisto watch him forge tools for the town, was beheaded before her very eyes. She wanted to look away but her body betrayed her and she remained glued to the grimy earth that flowed freely with bloody red rivulets.
And then the flames swept over them, devouring every hut and dwelling in its destructive path. No one would come out, as they were too fearful of Xena's army, too fearful of her wrath. They would rather face the scathing heat than Xena's sword. Callisto heard her mother and sister's screams above all else. Theodorus pleaded with her to run away but she couldn't. She wouldn't. It was a nightmare that was soon to end. She was certain of it. It had to be a dream. She didn't want to believe it was real. No god would be so cruel as to let the vision before her actually happen. She cursed Morpheus for not allowing her to awaken from such a horrific nightmare.
Then Callisto saw her. A powerful woman warlord in warrior garb. She wore black leather, cold armor, a sword, and a round metal weapon. Fear, awe, respect, and admiration commingled with Callisto's deepening hatred. The ruthless warrior was the cause of her demolished home and the anguished cries of her family. Xena trotted up on her horse and surveyed the smoldering ashes. Callisto had but one question for the Warrior Princess.
Xena barely registered a passing glance at the young girl. She began to shout orders at her men to collect the spoils of the village or what was left of it. And without a backward glance, Xena stormed out of the hamlet as suddenly as she came. Callisto never got an answer to her simple question.
Several candlemarks after Xena's army trailed a cloud of dust out of Cirra, Callisto remained crumpled on the ground with her face buried in her arms. Her arms hugged her knees tightly as she rocked herself back and forth. Her eyes were clamped shut but still she saw heads and body parts sliced into oblivion.
When she paused to look up on occasion, she did not see the few survivors that prayed to the gods for mercy. Nor did she hear their moaning wails for help. Neither did she hear Theodorus' pleas to leave. The only sensation that registered was numbness. She prayed to any god that listened to wake her from this nightmare but they only answered her with silence.
As Apollo's chariot made its descent over the horizon, she became vaguely aware that a hand had been shaking her for some time and that a voice was attached to it.
"Callisto!" Theodorus shouted in panicky bellows. She turned to look at him for what seemed like the first time that day. She noted the sheer horror reflected in his eyes and realized his eyes were not only a mirror to his soul but to hers as well.
"Callisto! What are we going to do? Callisto!"
Do? Callisto wondered. She would go get her mother. Yes. Mama would know what to do. She rose to her feet.
"Theodorus, we'll have to ask Mama." She started to walk towards the spot where her dwelling had once been. Theodorus grabbed her by the arm.
"She's dead, Callisto!" he cried in anguish. "Everybody's dead except us!" Callisto ripped her arm away from his grasp and ran toward the place where her hut should have been. She searched the smoking remains for her mother. Two burnt bodies clung together, blackened by the flames. Callisto imagined the scene of their final desperate moments and squeezed her eyes shut to block it out. She didn't succeed.
She slowly turned to face Theodorus as she plainly came to the realization that this day's atrocities had been real. A mask blanketed her features as all emotion drained from her soul. A faraway gleam clouded her eyes and in that moment, Callisto knew her life would be changed forever. She vowed to herself that Xena would live to regret this day for the rest of her entire life.
The rain beat heavily on the roof of the tavern. From the center of the stage, Gabrielle's voice competed with nature's insistent tapping for the attention of her captive audience. Many of the townspeople, including a few children, did not want to venture outside until the storm had subsided. Despite the late night, they remained glued to their chairs. For the proprietor, business was excellent. For the bard, Xena was making a simple pleasure extremely difficult. Even though Gabrielle should have been grateful that she and Xena had a chance to earn some extra dinars, she could care less about their fortuitous circumstances. Her eyes honed in on the warrior's muscular leg as it was propped up on a table for sheer comfort. Xena casually sipped from a mug of port. Gabrielle smiled to herself as she noticed Xena's long leg took up more room than necessary considering the crowded tavern but she knew no patron would dare challenge the warrior's desire for a wide berth.
Gabrielle continued her bard's tale, unconsciously letting her eyes languidly travel along Xena's well-defined curves momentarily resting on the dark apex of her undergarments. Her face flushed and a warm current flowed through her as she thought of Xena's warm center hidden beneath the cloth. She quickly looked away and continued reciting the story she knew from practiced memory. Her eyes darted noticeably around the room as she made a conscious effort to avoid Xena's supple leg.
Nevertheless, her eyes were drawn back to the Warrior Princess. Self-conscious of her minor slip-up, she caught sight of Xena's twinkling blue eyes. She watched as Xena's tongue slowly spread across her upper lip caressing the soft opening. Her lips glistened in the candlelit room. Gabrielle was entranced by the bold demonstration of her many skills. A nervous giggle leaped out of the bard's mouth and she lost her place in the story. She glanced at Xena who feigned innocence at causing the disruption and took another sip of port. Oh Xena, you will pay for this later, Gabrielle promised the warrior silently. She took in a deep breath and finished the story holding on to a steel will not to look in Xena's direction again. Mercifully she concluded the story, inhaled deeply and strode over to Xena's table determined to wipe the smirk off the warrior's face.
Gabrielle approached Xena's table; her eyes were narrow slits as she contemplated various tortures she'd make Xena endure later in their room. Her eyes gleamed at the erotic thoughts that danced in her head and a stabbing pang of longing gathered between her legs. Xena arched her eyebrow in recognition of the sparkle in the bard's eyes. Unexpectantly, a small boy of not more than eight winters ran up to Xena's table barging in on their silent communication. Agitated by the interruption, Gabrielle stood and hovered near the table.
"Xena! You're really her, aren't you!?" he exclaimed. "You really know Hercules?!" the boy was beside himself with excitement.
Xena laughed at the boy and patted his shoulder. "Yes I do," she said matter-of-factly. As the boy chattered on incessantly about the warrior's adventures, Xena caught Gabrielle's steady gaze and slyly grinned at the bard's sigh of frustration. She pointed one finger at Gabrielle and with a tilt of her head, beckoned her to come closer. Not knowing what to expect, the bard acceded to her soundless command. The boy continued to prattle on about Xena's conquests. Xena interrupted him.
"Excuse me, what's your name?" Xena asked determined to find the boy's parents so she could join Gabrielle in their room.
"Landreus," he answered.
"Landreus, are your parents here?"
"Yes, my father's here somewhere. And so's my sister. She loves you too, Xena!" he explained excitedly as his head bobbed and weaved in search of a familiar face. Just then, the boy spotted his father coming towards the table. He waved frantically for them to join him as Xena turned to the boy.
"Hold on just a minute, Landreus, I want to talk to my friend here." The boy nodded agreeably and raced over to his father and sister. He pulled them reluctantly toward the table of the intimidating warrior.
Xena pulled the bard down to her ear level. "Go to our room and wait for me. You know how I'd like to find you," she suggested seductively. She discreetly flicked out her tongue and brushed lightly against a corner of Gabrielle's ear that sent shivers through her. The bard giggled to hide the passion that ran rampantly through her and croaked out a meek "sure" before she started for the room.
"Oh, and Gabrielle." Xena held on to her hand, not letting the bard go just yet. "Don't start without me," she said as she squeezed the bard's hand to emphasize her point. It took a moment for Gabrielle to fully comprehend what the warrior meant and when she did, her face turned a bright red as she hurried to their room.
Landreus, in tow with his sister and father, reached their table and blurted out, "She's really nice, Father, you'll really like her! Aren't you glad we got caught in this storm?" Xena groaned inwardly and quickly thought of a plan to ditch her unwanted companions.
Gabrielle had removed her boots and all her clothes as she patiently waited for Xena to get rid of the happy little family. She lay on her side and thought of the warrior's long lithesome body covering her own and getting lost in the soft velvety skin that melted all reason from her mind. She had toyed with the idea of withholding her favors from Xena as payback for causing her slip-up on stage but she wondered how long she would be able to hold fast to that promise without succumbing to Xena's alluring presence. The longer she waited, the more impractical the idea became. All she could think of was to leap on top of the warrior and ravish her luscious body within seconds of her arrival. It was all Gabrielle could do to keep her hands from wandering to the hot liquid between her legs. Slowly, a wicked idea began to formulate in her mind. A wide grin spread across her face.
Nevertheless, Gabrielle didn't notice the silhouetted figure that lurked just outside the window as it waited for the redheaded bard to be joined by the dark-haired warrior.
Xena hurried through the hall that led to their sleeping room in the back of the tavern. She'd finally been able to disengage herself from the talkative boy and his family. She smiled as she anticipated the lovely woman that awaited her. She reached the door and unlocked it to find the bard's exquisite nude form as beautiful as a flower in the Elysian Fields. Her mouth went dry and she self-consciously swallowed. She shut the door behind her.
"What took you so long?" Gabrielle grinned at her teasingly. Xena stood frozen just inside the door and carefully removed her armor and weaponry. Her eyes clouded over in uninhibited passion as they traveled slowly along Gabrielle's delectable curves. The bard lay on her side propped up against a pillow. One hand rubbed the smoothness of her inner thigh and Xena imagined her cheeks melting into the delicate skin. The bard's legs were slightly open and they revealed the glistening moisture that shone through the wispy hairs. As she waited for Xena to approach the bed, Gabrielle's hand played with her damp red curls.
"You didn't start without me, did you?" Xena answered her question with a question. Her dry throat made her voice crack. She licked her lips and her breathing increased markedly. She definitely didn't want to discuss the babbling little boy. She moved closer to the bed and began to remove a leather greave from her wrist when the bard kneeled up on the bed.
"Here, let me do that, you sit down." Gabrielle motioned for Xena to sit on the edge of the bed, then slid off the bed and stood between Xena's supple thighs. Xena complied with the bard's wishes even though she felt a strong compulsion to ravish her despite being fully clothed in her leatherwear. Xena held her arm out so that the younger woman could unbuckle the leather greave from her wrist. The warrior's hand trembled and only her best efforts kept it still. She couldn't help but notice the leisurely pace Gabrielle was setting and nuzzled the bard's neck to speed things along.
"Wait, Xena, I want to undress you first," Gabrielle insisted and gently pushed back Xena's shoulders to give her some space to maneuver. "Sit back, let me undress you," she said. Her eyes gleamed as she grabbed hold of Xena's other wrist and began to unhook that accoutrement as well. As she unsheathed the greave from the warrior's wrist, Gabrielle licked the palm of Xena's hand and followed a wet trail to just below the leather band at the warrior's bicep. She removed the band and continued her oral assault on Xena's muscular arm. Tiny goosebumps erupted along Xena's skin and a wave of desire settled in her loins.
"I don't know how much more of this sweet torture I can take, Gabrielle," Xena grinned. One hand caressed the bard's buttocks as the warrior pulled Gabrielle closer to her but still the bard resisted.
Gabrielle laughed. "A lot more, Xena. Do you know how long I've been waiting for you?" she purred. She removed the other leather band as she spoke and then licked the inside of Xena's elbow. The warrior gasped at the contact on an especially sensitive place on her body. She was beginning to enjoy this tortuous little game. Gabrielle's hot breath followed Xena's arm until she reached the strap of her leather tunic. Her hands reached up to peel the leather strap down Xena's arms and exposed her breasts to Gabrielle's touch. The bard gently massaged the soft mounds, the nipples hard as pebbles against her palms. Gabrielle's eyes never left contact with Xena's as her crystal blue eyes grew dark with hunger. The bard claimed Xena's lips and slipped her tongue inside. The warrior moaned loudly as their tongues intertwined in an erotic dance of passion. The bard's hands continued to massage Xena's breasts and pinch the erect buds. Finally, Xena could take no more and leaned back on the bed taking the smaller woman with her.
"Oh no, no, Xena. Not yet," Gabrielle teased pulling herself upright and away from Xena's grasp. She stood up and eyed the warrior's prone body, whose legs were draped over the side of the bed. Xena sighed and gave in to the bard's desires. Although she wouldn't admit it aloud, she rather enjoyed Gabrielle's aggressive overtures. It was a switch for them, but, after all, she liked catering to the bard's every whim.
Gabrielle kneeled between Xena's legs and carefully unbuckled her knee bracers. Next, she began unlacing the extensive ties on the warrior's boots. She took her time knowing that the longer she prolonged her little task, the longer Xena would have to wait. She grinned to herself confident that the payback she was meting out to Xena clearly balanced the playful torment she had received on stage. She only hoped that she would be able to hold out as long as she had originally planned. Her hands quivered on the warrior's boot and she was grateful that Xena could not view them from her angle.
The bard removed Xena's boot and carefully positioned the warrior's freed foot between her legs. Her bare toes slid effortlessly against Gabrielle slippery triangle as the bard licked broad circles on Xena's bare thigh. Xena gasped and bolted upright.
"Gabrielle . . . "
"See what happens when you tease me so much?" she asked innocently as her mouth continued to graze random patterns on Xena's thigh. "You shouldn't torture me so on stage."
Xena grinned as she rested back on her elbows. "Is that what this is about?"
"Hmm," Gabrielle answered, but did not remove her lips from Xena's silky skin. Her mouth seemingly had a life of its own as it traveled to the wet spot in the middle of Xena's undergarments. Gabrielle inhaled the intoxicating aroma and it took all of her self-control not to rip off the rest of Xena's outergarments to reach the divine elixir. Instead she let her tongue swipe a taste from the cloth and continued her path down Xena's other thigh and back to the remaining knee bracer.
Xena inhaled a sharp breath and grabbed hold of the bedsheets as she felt Gabrielle's tongue brush against her wet center. Only her years of training in strict discipline kept her from taking control and spurring Gabrielle along. In another way she could not explain, the restraint needed for her not to dominate excited her more than she cared to admit. She laughed at herself because only Gabrielle would ever have the privilege of her unconditional surrender. She could just hear the word around town now --"Xena: Warrior Wuss". A smirk crept onto her face as she lay back on the bed and awaited Gabrielle's next move.
The bard finished unlacing Xena's boot and removed it. Quite frankly, she was surprised that Xena had been patient for this long but she enjoyed the willing surrender of the mighty warrior. She was amazed at how much discipline it took to restrain herself from ravishing Xena and she made a mental note to let her do all work next time. But for the moment she was going to see this thing through for as long as she could.
"All right, Xena, stand up," the bard encouraged and pulled the warrior up from the bed. Gabrielle began to unlace the complicated ties at the back of Xena's tunic. Her hands trembled slightly and she noticed Xena's increasingly rapid breath. Gabrielle swallowed nervously as she held on to her precarious self-restraint. Finally, Xena shrugged out of her tunic and Gabrielle completed the undressing by removing the warrior's undergarments. Without turning around, the magnificent warrior waited for Gabrielle to do with her as she pleased.
The bard wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and stroked her taut stomach. Her breasts crushed against Xena's back as she cupped the warrior's mounds with wandering hands. She murmured into Xena's back, "Go lay on bed. On your stomach."
"Yes, my Queen," Xena answered playfully. She lay on her stomach as Gabrielle drew in another deep breath. The bard's tongue flickered over the base of Xena's spine and dampened the fine hairs that collected in the sensitive area. Xena emitted a low grunt into the pillow. Gabrielle continued a steady trail of kisses along the warrior's spine and brushed aside Xena's long ebony hair as her lips finally came to rest at the back of Xena's neck. She hoisted her body over Xena's and covered the warrior's back with as much of her smaller body as possible. The contact ignited lightening bolts between them as Gabrielle felt herself melting into the warrior's lithe frame. She took a few moments to regain her composure. When she heard Xena moan beneath her, she grinned with satisfaction. She just might be able to last longer than she thought.
Gabrielle's mouth found an enticing spot at the side of Xena's neck that she nibbled on. She sucked on it for several moments as Xena groaned non-stop into the pillow. Her hips ground helplessly into the bed as she found no release from Gabrielle's tortuous lips.
"Xena," she purred.
"I think I like this," Gabrielle said.
"Do you now?" Xena tried to lift up her head to look behind her.
"Oh no, not yet, Xena," Gabrielle grinned. "First, you have to agree to let me do everything to you, you can't take over." She examined the spot on Xena's neck to see if she left any evidence of her passion. She decided, yes indeed, it would look pretty in the morning light.
"Okay, I agree," Xena said exasperated. "Please Gabrielle, I need you," she pleaded, her voice husky with desire.
Gabrielle gave Xena room to roll over and straddled the warrior's waist. She could see that their little role reversal was creating as much excitement for Xena as herself. Her wet center slithered against Xena's abdomen and she knew that soon she would have to quiet her own fire as well as Xena's. She harnessed a Herculean urge to take Xena right then. Instead, she guided her breast to Xena's mouth and the warrior hungrily suckled the erect bud. Xena's hand squeezed the fleshy mound of the bard's other breast. Gabrielle moaned in ecstasy, no longer able to hold back her fading restraint. She pulled her breast away from Xena's lips and covered them with her own. She took possession of the warrior's mouth using her tongue to seek out any remaining resistance. She found none. Xena was hers.
Gabrielle's hand began its exploration down Xena's pliant flesh and the warrior's legs parted to welcome her carnal invasion. The bard broke away from Xena's kiss as her hand discovered the liquid fire between her legs.
"Let me in, Xena!" Gabrielle moaned loudly and plunged two fingers into the hot inferno.
"Yes! Gabrielle!" Xena exclaimed as her back arched up instinctively to meet the bard's thrusts. She wrapped her arms tightly around Gabrielle's waist as she held on against the wave of passion that consumed her. Her delirium built into unfathomable ecstasy when Gabrielle thrust a third finger inside her. Each thrust brought with it the bard's possession of her until she became one with her lover's soul and unreservedly abdicated to the Amazon Queen. It took Xena only a few more strokes before the raging fire washed over her and took her in a tidal wave of sheer bliss.
It took Xena several moments to get her breath back. Gabrielle slowly extricated her fingers and watched the warrior's face as she regained some semblance of lucidity. She showered her lover's face with gentle kisses, her mouth finally coming to rest over Xena's, her fingers intertwined in her thick black hair. The warrior responded with a renewed onslaught of fervor ignited by Gabrielle's kiss. The bard rocked her hips against Xena's thigh as her juices soaked the warrior's skin. She broke away the kiss and murmured softly in Xena's ear.
"Please, Xena, let me come," she moaned in breathless gasps.
"Yes . . . scream for me," Xena panted.
Gabrielle whimpered at Xena's words and reclaimed the warrior's mouth. The rocking against Xena's leg increased steadily and harder. Soon she knew she would go over the edge as she held on to Xena for dear life. The noises that emitted from her throat increased in volume and she knew when she tumbled into the precipice she would be screaming. Suddenly, a surge of heat filled her and extended to every fibber and nerve. And with it came a wail that started in the pit of her stomach and erupted into her throat. She passed the scream on to Xena and the warrior swallowed the wail as if it were her own.
From the window, the mysterious figure watched the entire scene in amazement knowing full well that it would be one of the last times Xena and Gabrielle would have such an intimate rendezvous.
The roar she heard became the sound of many horses. Hooves pounded on the dried out dirt. She looked up to see a huge sword gleaming in the sunlight. The rider swung it menacingly at anything and everything in its path. Other soldiers flanked both sides of the leader's huge war-horse. She heard many screams in the din but above all else she heard the screams of her mother as the fire burned down the only home she'd ever known. She heard the battle cry of the leader of the destructive army and it sounded familiar. It was a woman. A warrior woman. She turned to the sound that rang in her ears and saw the monstrous sword arc toward her. She looked into the fierce blue eyes that glowed with excitement as they anticipated another swift kill. Instantly, she recognized the face. It was her. It was Xena. The Warrior Princess.
"NO!" Xena shouted.
Xena's eyes flew open. She sat up on the bed and took in deep gulps of air to catch her breath. Gabrielle stirred briefly in her sleep but didn't awaken. The night air that came through the window was cool against her hot and sticky skin. Another demonic nightmare, she thought. When would they end? This one seemed more vivid than usual, she thought. But actually it was no different than the countless other nightmares she'd endured over the years. This time, she had been in Cirra and she watched as she, as a warlord, skewered everyone in sight. She was about to murder a small girl, who must have been Callisto, she surmised. When would that woman ever stop haunting her? she wondered.
The warrior sighed and lay back on the bed. She wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's waist, hugging her lover closer to her. She kissed the side of her head and thanked the gods again for bringing such a sweet soul into her life. Is it any wonder she sleeps so soundly? Xena mused. A broad smile spread across her face as she clearly remembered their resplendent lovemaking from the night before. She marveled at the bard's ability to penetrate the many layers she'd created to protect her heart. But Gabrielle sliced through those layers with the ease of a blade through thin air and what the bard gleaned was true. It was as if Xena were transparent and Gabrielle could see clearly through to her soul. She knew no one except Gabrielle would ever have been allowed to possess her like she did last night. Xena gave Gabrielle a soft peck on her shoulder and examined the younger woman's slack features in her untroubled slumber. It would be just fine with Xena if she died right there in her lover's arms, never to awaken again. Moments later, she fell back asleep.
For three summers Callisto and Theodorus roamed the countryside. Almost all of their idle time was spent practicing many ways and means to defeat Xena. Callisto quickly learned from her childhood friend varied techniques in fighting and soon surpassed her mentor. Although they were of the same age, Theodorus had been privileged as a boy to practice self-defense with the town's militia. Of course, those humble farmers had been no match for the Warrior Princess so Callisto promised herself she would be. Every traveler on the road, who even remotely knew any kind of fighting skill, she badgered into teaching her. Most would, just to get the little blonde kid out of their hair. She also kept her wild streak intact so as to deter any man who would dare get further ideas.
Every day Callisto and Theodorus tracked Xena's army going mostly unnoticed as they kept their distance. On occasion they would cross paths with her soldiers in a crowded tavern but never did they come face to face with Xena. Callisto knew if her plan were to work, her identity would have to remain anonymous. Of course that didn't stop her from getting close enough to wonder at the powerful effect Xena left in her wake.
It was just after she had survived her eighteenth winter when Callisto saw a completely different side to the dark warrior. She and Theodorus sat in a hideaway tavern frequented by warriors called the Wicked Wing in Athens. It was dusk and they leisurely ate their evening meal. An attractive woman emerged from the back room with a strong-armed warrior behind her. He pecked her cheek and pressed some dinars into her hand as he waved goodbye and left the tavern directly. Callisto eyed the woman with curiosity, fascinated by the long chestnut curls that hung loosely around her shoulders and framed her cherub face. Her smooth olive skin glowed faintly in the candlelit tavern. Her dress flowed freely about her curvy figure and the deep plunge of her neckline revealed voluptuous breasts. Callisto surmised she was at least ten winters older than she was, but nonetheless, the woman radiated an understated beauty. The woman casually returned to the back room from whence she came.
Shortly thereafter, a band of soldiers noisily entered the half-empty room. Callisto immediately recognized the lavender colors of Xena's army. The sparse crowd didn't recognize the identifying crest until it was too late. The magnificent Warrior Princess entered the tavern. Her men cleared a space for her and guided her to an empty table across the room. She sat, evidently expecting a meal and port to be brought to her. Both were forthcoming. Xena quickly downed the contents of the mug and ordered another.
Callisto upturned her lip in disgust. There was no way in Tartarus she would ever drink that stuff. It would dull her senses and distract her from her reason for living, her mission to destroy the Destroyer of Nations across the room. No, she wanted to keep every nerve fiber intact, every memory intact, every nuance about Xena that would make revenge upon her that much sweeter. Nevertheless, she was mesmerized by the imposing presence before her. Xena held her unwavering attention.
"Xena!" a woman cried out. It was the same unassuming woman who had enthralled Callisto earlier. The woman sprinted to Xena's table and the warrior hugged her tightly. She planted a long wet kiss on the woman's mouth. Callisto watched in fascination as the woman sat comfortably on Xena's lap. The warrior's hands roamed playfully underneath the woman's dress as she nuzzled her neck affectionately. They were obviously very intimate friends, Callisto concluded.
Callisto bit her lip to hold back the rage that threatened to consume her. For reasons she could hardly fathom, a wave of jealousy washed over her as the lovely woman responded under Xena's touch. Part of Callisto wanted to be Xena and explore the woman's luscious curves but another part of her, a much stronger part, wanted to be the woman on which Xena lavished all her attention. She cursed the gods for the little war being waged inside her.
Distractedly, Callisto wondered what it would be like to be seduced by the power that was Xena and her faced flushed at the possibility. She had no idea what it would be like to give herself completely to another woman but she imagined Xena was a woman who threw herself headlong into these passions. She envisioned herself sitting in Xena's lap and then having the warrior succumb to her pleasures just before she slit her throat.
She thought about the mediocre experiences she'd had with Theodorus. She had only joined herself with him twice. Once, just to see what it was like and a second time to make sure she wasn't mistaken about the first. Mostly, she had been bored. Sure, there had been a bit of pain, but after the suffering she'd already endured at the hands of Xena, it was weak by comparison. Theodorus never made her loins tingle or her face flush the way the dark warrior was making her feel in the noisy tavern. Someday, she vowed to herself, she would get her satisfaction.
Xena quickly finished her meal and rose from the table, her old acquaintance in tow. The woman led the warrior to the back room from which she had initially emerged. Callisto's eyes followed the two women. She composed herself and stood to leave.
"Let's go," she instructed Theodorus.
"Callisto! What are you going to do?!" he whispered hotly. He saw the glint in her eye and didn't like it one bit. He knew that Callisto could be extremely erratic and the wild streak in her spurred her on many times. But he didn't want his childhood friend to ruin their plans for Xena. They had been following the notorious warrior for too long.
"Let's go, I said," she answered through gritted teeth and headed for the door. But not before Theodorus saw the reddish tinges in her face and knew Xena was the source of her agitation. He followed meekly behind her.
For three days and three nights, Callisto and Theodorus waited for Xena's army to leave Athens. They kept to themselves, easily remaining anonymous and out of sight. Her soldiers were never the wiser. When they left town, Callisto sauntered over to the Wicked Wing to ask the brown-haired woman a few questions. She pressed some dinars into the barkeep's hand and asked for her favors. The man eyed her suspiciously, and then a smirk crept up the corners of his mouth. He dropped the dinars on the counter.
"Aren't you a tad young to be asking about her, go home to your mother, little girl," he chuckled, then turned his back on Callisto. He'd made a big mistake.
Instantly, Callisto leaped across the counter and onto his back. She jabbed her dagger at his throat and one arm cut off the air to his lungs.
"Now. The last time someone told me I was too young to do something was my mother," she paused for effect. "She's dead now, you know." She let those words sink in on the now terrified barkeep. "Now you go find your beautiful friend and tell her I want to see her." Callisto pressed the tip of the blade harder into his throat and drew a minuscule drop of blood to emphasize her point.
"I.I.I.I.I . . . will," he stammered. "SSSShe's in the bbback rrrroom."
"Good. Now take these dinars to her. I wouldn't want her to think I'm not a good paying customer." Callisto released the barkeep. He rubbed his neck and to his horror, he saw the blood she had drawn on his fingers. Quickly, he picked up the dinars from the counter and raced to the back room. Moments later, he returned. He nodded at Callisto.
"She'll see you now," he announced as he wiped his brow nervously and eyed her warily.
"I knew she wouldn't think I was too young," Callisto snickered. She strolled nonchalantly into the back room to meet the brown-eyed beauty that had touched Xena.
"How can I be of service to you?" the brown-eyed woman asked. She was seated on the bed; a low cut dress emphasized her well-endowed chest. Her long curly hair fell loosely around her shoulders and Callisto instantly wanted to get lost in her wild tresses.
Callisto's voice caught in her throat as she drank in the radiant beauty before her. To her surprise, she was trembling. She had always prided herself on having nerves of steel but her anticipation for the past three days overwhelmed her. This was the woman who had touched Xena. This was the woman who would provide her with still more weapons and knowledge to defeat the Warrior Princess. It took Callisto a few moments to regain her composure but she did so with due haste and found her voice.
"I.I.I.I . . . never . . . you . . . so beautiful," she faltered, stumbling over her words like the childish girl she was expected to be. She bowed her head in feigned innocence pretending to be ashamed of her desires.
"Come here, young lady," the woman beckoned and patted the space on the bed next to her. "Don't be afraid. What's your name?"
"Neenah," Callisto meekly replied as she drew closer to the enticing woman. She sat on the bed and nervously fidgeted with her fingers. She pretended to be reluctant to make eye contact.
"My name's Isiphae," she said as she encircled one arm around Callisto's shoulders. "My friends call me Isi. Now tell me why you're here."
Callisto giggled and her words faltered again, "I . . . you know," she smiled shyly.
"Don't you know any girls your own age that you could . . . " she left the question unfinished as she remembered the barkeep's wild story of how desperate this young girl was to see her. "No, no of course not," she added quickly. "Why else would you be here?"
"Yes, please teach me," Callisto pleaded innocently. She turned her body towards Isiphae and buried her face into the woman's wavy locks and breathed in the scent of her beauty. She wrapped her arm around the woman's waist and moaned deep in her throat. Xena was here, she sighed with glee, Xena smelled this scent, Xena licked this velvety skin, Xena aroused this woman's passions. Although she'd had never made love to a woman before, she instinctively knew what to do. It had helped her immensely when she had vividly imagined it for the past three days as she anxiously awaited Xena's departure to fulfil her dreams.
Callisto searched for Isiphae's mouth anxious to taste the mouth that had only very recently tasted Xena. The woman held her back.
"Wait, no need to rush," she said as she pushed Callisto away from her. "Here, why don't you take these clothes off." She began to undress Callisto as the blonde girl watched her intently. She breathed in the power she felt at knowing her plan was working to perfection.
Shortly thereafter, the two women were naked on the bed, their clothes a heap on the floor and their bodies intertwined in the afterglow of heated passion.
"Hmm?" Callisto answered her mind deep in thought. She had surprised even herself with the intensity of the climax she'd reached by Isi's dexterous fingers. She had not expected to enjoy her little task so much. She had expected their lovemaking to be a little more exciting than her encounters with Theodorus but not by much. After all, her visit to Isiphae was only a small part in her overall mission. Up until now, she had always thought that love was a trick nature played to get people to reproduce. She didn't realize that there could be more than a little pleasure in the physical act itself. She smiled deviously. Eventually, she promised herself, she would find out what this simple pleasure would be like with Xena.
"Neenah?" Isiphae repeated.
"Yes?" Callisto was coaxed out of her reverie.
"When you . . . um . . . let go, did you know you called me Xena?"
Puzzled, Callisto said, "I did?"
"Yes, you did. Do you know Xena?"
"The warrior, some people call her the Warrior Princess," Isi confided.
"Oh, that Xena, actually I don't know her, do you?" Callisto raised herself up on one elbow to watch Isiphae's reaction. She was pleased that Isiphae had taken the bait so easily.
"Yes, she's a friend of mine," Isiphae answered. Is that right? Callisto thought, I didn't think that evil woman had any friends.
"What's she like? I heard she's pretty scary," Callisto enthused breathlessly.
"Well, all I know is she's a brave warrior and she's good to me," Isiphae answered, her face beamed at her recent memories with the warrior. Isi's excitement did not go unnoticed by Callisto. However, she decided it would be a good time to change the subject. If she continued with her plan, there would be plenty of time later to get all the information she needed out of the brown-haired woman, including the curious scar above Isi's right breast. She was sure it was a mark left by Xena.
"I'm sure she is, but let me be the one who's good to you this time." She kissed Isiphae on the lips and closed her full mouth over the older woman's. "Teach me how to please you, Isiphae," she murmured as she anticipated the taste of Isiphae's wet center where she was sure Xena's mouth had been very recently.
Gabrielle awoke to the sound of birds chirping. She automatically reached for Xena but the warrior was missing. She surmised Xena was probably getting them breakfast and her stomach growled in anticipation. She got up to wash her face at the basin and reminisced about their previous night's lovemaking. Goddess, she had been brave. She knew Xena was hardly the most patient person in the known world and she was pleasantly surprised that the stoic warrior had let Gabrielle have her way with her. She was amazed at how aroused Xena's surrender had made her feel but in a way it was the best thing that could have happened to them. It made her feel like the bond between them was on more equal footing.
When Xena retreated into brooding silence after they encountered the Horde, Gabrielle had initially been unable to penetrate the fortress surrounding her heart. But when she finally did, they'd both come out of the ordeal with a richer and fuller understanding of each other's needs and last night was a testament to the deeper trust they shared. It was all Gabrielle could do to keep her heart from bursting with love. She sat and furiously began writing on a scroll.
A quiet knock on the door interrupted the bard's concentration. The door opened slightly and Xena stepped in. She carried a tray of food filled with fruit, cheese, bread, and two mugs of tea.
"I see you're finally awake, sleepy head," she smiled.
"Who could sleep?"
Xena laid the heavy tray on the small table, careful not to flatten any of Gabrielle's scrolls underneath it. She waved her hand in a grand gesture at the food on the tray.
"My Queen, are you ready to eat?" Xena questioned in mock subservience. She curtsied deeply, bowing her head to the Amazon Queen.
"Eat?" she nodded at the tray filled with breakfast goodies. "Oh . . . you mean food?" she laughed. "Are we going to pick up where we left off last night? Are you going to serve me?" She tilted back her head and held her mouth open.
Xena raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle's question.
"Yeah right!" they both laughed in unison and delved into the scrumptious food.
Between mouthfuls, Gabrielle asked, "So where are we off to now?"
"I don't know, no where in particular."
"I've got a great idea, Xena! There's a Summer Solstice Festival in Aulis. It's Apollo's longest journey of the year. I heard they're having a bard's contest. Can we go, huh? Please, please, please?" Gabrielle pleaded exuberantly.
For a moment Xena was caught up in the bard's enthusiasm. Then she groaned inwardly at the thought of another crowded festival. With people, lots of people. By the gods, she wondered, surely there must be somebody in dire straits that needed her to save them. Like, right now, in some quiet little village somewhere, anywhere. Nevertheless, she knew she couldn't deny Gabrielle her wish but it would come with a price, she thought mischievously. A wide grin spread across her face.
"Yesssss, Gabrielle, we can go to Aulis but first, I'd like to have my way with you. Come here, my precious bard." She held out her arms to gather Gabrielle into her loving embrace.
For an entire moon cycle, Callisto managed to enjoy the pleasures of Isiphae's favors. She catered to the woman hand and foot and in exchange for food and shelter, persuaded Isi to allow her to be her personal maidservant. Not that Isi really needed one, but Callisto convinced her that she could never do without and made Isi wonder how she had managed her entire life without the blonde girl's attentions. Callisto stayed out of Isi's way when she serviced her clients but never strayed far from the older woman's side during her free waking hours and comfortably filled the empty place beside her while she slept. Indeed, she had persuaded Isi that all she wanted was a roof over her head and slyly reminded her that the road could be a pretty harsh place for a young girl.
Callisto quickly learned that Isiphae reveled in her role as teacher and used that to wiggle herself into a spot in Isi's heart right next to Xena. To Callisto's never-ending surprise, Isi unleashed a wild fury inside her that needed only to be extinguished. It became a delightful little by-product that Isi happily fulfilled. However, the only thing that really mattered to Callisto was what clues she could divine from Isiphae to peer into Xena's soul. And being with Isi made her feel like she was somehow inside Xena's encampment, somehow inside the inner workings of her mind, and somehow inside Xena's wicked heart.
She queried Isiphae about the scar above her right breast. It was a simple "X". Callisto was certain that Xena had made that scar and not by accident. At first, Isi was evasive about its significance but Callisto was persistent and before long Isi was dreamily reminiscing about her days when she rode with the Warrior Princess. Callisto's heart was once again gripped by the duality of her emotions. She felt an intense hatred and jealously for Xena for having Isi as her lover and as well as a fierce envy that Isi was at Xena's side as part of her army. It took all of her self-control to reign in her emotions so that Isi would not see her true intention. Her intention to wipe Xena off the face of the earth.
Callisto left Isi soon after. She made some lame excuse that she needed to visit her mother but truth be known, she knew Xena would be back in Athens soon. Callisto did not want to encounter the warrior face to face. That could wait for a later time, when Xena would not know who she was or what she was up against. She informed Theodorus that they would be leaving in the morning. He packed their skimpy belongings and waited for her at first light.
"So what do they call this contest again?" Xena asked. She rode atop Argo while Gabrielle walked beside her. They had been walking all day in the bright sun and would soon need to find a campsite. Xena scanned the countryside looking for an appropriate setting.
"A round robin tournament," she answered.
"Robin? Like the bird?"
"Yes, like the bird. I don't know why they call it that, that's just what it's called. Bards compete against each other and one by one are eliminated, depending on how good or bad the story is. The last bard standing is the winner," Gabrielle patiently explained.
"But what's a bird got to do with it?"
"I don't know. Nothing, I suppose, but it's been called that for a long time." The bard was at a loss as to how to explain it further.
"But a bird? Why don't they call it a scroll tournament? Or a word tournament? What's a bird got to do with it?"
"Xena, will you get off the bird, already," Gabrielle said, exasperated. "It's a contest, a tournament, and the best bard in the end, wins."
"Well, why don't they just call it a word tournament?"
"Because . . . " Gabrielle started to stamp her feet in frustration when she realized Xena was toying with her. Sometimes it was hard to tell when Xena was teasing or not, and even now she wasn't sure how far back in the conversation the warrior had been kidding. Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks.
"Xena, you know what? I know just the perfect story to tell that will win this contest for sure. It's about a warrior, high and mighty on her horse who carried a big sword, a lethal chakram and a deadly whip. She was known around the land as the Xena, the Warrior Princess . . . "
"Gab--ri--elle . . . " Xena knew this story was headed in a bad direction.
Gabrielle continued her tale. "Then, one day she met a tiny little bard, so fragile and petite and helpless, who eventually learned how to wield an expert staff, not to mention an expert lascivious tongue."
"Gabrielle!" Xena leaped down from her horse as the fast-talking bard sped up her words to race through to the end of the mock tale. Xena marched toward her in feigned anger.
"And the next thing everybody knew, the high and mighty warrior princess let this tiny little bard have her way with her and miraculously, overnight, she became Xena, the Warrior Wuss!" Gabrielle barked out the last word and hightailed it down the trail at breakneck speed knowing full well that Xena would have no trouble catching her. She was not disappointed.
Before Gabrielle had a chance to whirl around to see how far back Xena was, the warrior swept the smaller woman off the ground and swiftly had her draped over one shoulder. Gabrielle struggled to get down and her fists pounded on Xena's back, but it didn't matter. The warrior was much stronger and she'd taken worse poundings during any number of fights in her life.
"Put me down, Xena!" Gabrielle shouted, only half seriously. She loved it when Xena flexed her muscular arms and showed off her impressive strength.
"Tell me again, Gabrielle, what story were you going to tell everybody in the known world?" Xena asked calmly, a menacing tone colored her words. Argo obediently trotted behind the two women as Xena spotted a perfect place to camp in the green forestry.
"Nothing!" Gabrielle gasped, as she half-heartedly tried to kick her feet to get down but Xena held fast with ease.
"Funny, I remember something about a mighty warrior, or was that a wussy warrior and a tiny little bard. Hmm, tiny little bard with a libid . . . what was that word again? . . . lecher . . . no . . . lasciv . . . ah! that's right, lascivious tongue," she grinned. "Let just see how lascivious it is, shall we?" she said as the warrior strutted off into the woods with her bard flung across her shoulder.
A cloaked figure blended into the woods and soaked in the playful scene between the warrior and her bard. May the gods help us all, she groaned inwardly. Don't those two ever stop? she wondered. Go on, Xena, she whispered into the wind. Have your little fun with the little brat, but it won't be for long. Oh no, not for long, she promised.
Callisto and Theodorus had been walking for days. They had heard tell that Xena's army was headed due north so they traveled in that general direction not quite knowing what they would find. But the life of following Xena had become quite an adventure and Callisto cherished the fact that Xena had no idea she was being followed which she knew would make her revenge that much sweeter. How to catch her unaware was the biggest question. Xena had many guards not to mention an entire army to protect her. Even so, Callisto knew her own amateur skills were no match. After surviving nearly 19 winters, she knew she was still a mere babe in the woods. She was improving every day with her sword but that round metal weapon Xena carried was lethal and held at least one advantage above all else. She knew of no other warrior who possessed one let alone had expert skills with it. Somehow, she knew, she would find someone, anyone who could teach her.
"Callisto!" Theodorus shouted.
The blonde girl was snapped out of her reverie by the approach of a large man on a horse. He strutted with the confident air of a man who had found an easy prey. He dismissed Theodorus and lustfully eyed Callisto.
"Hey, little girl, why don't you leave that boy and come travel with a real man?"
A smirk crossed Callisto's face as she eyed the man on horseback. She squinted into the mid-day sun. "Ha! Let's see, choices, choices, choices. Hmm. You. A huge and ugly lecherous lout, or my friend here, a boy just barely schooled in the ways and wiles of a woman," she taunted as she imperceptibly readied herself to draw her sword.
Theodorus visibly flinched at Callisto's words. He knew they were being used as a weapon to disarm the much bigger and more experienced man but sometimes Callisto's razor sharp tongue was even too much for him, and he had known her all his life. He was hurt by her implication that he had no chance with her.
The large man's face reddened at Callisto's words even though he had no doubt he could easily dispatch of the boy and have his way with the young nubile girl. He had been on the road a long time and he couldn't remember when was the last time he had pleasured himself with such a succulent flower as this sweet thing. She had a foul mouth and a clear lack of respect to be sure, but he knew that after several rounds of pleasure seeking, he could fix that.
He dismounted from his horse abruptly and quickly knocked Theodorus unconscious with the hilt of his sword before he knew what hit him, then started after the blonde girl. Callisto glanced at her fallen comrade and a feral grin lit up her face. She instantly withdrew her sword and enjoyed the quiet assurance the familiar handle gave her.
"So, I see you want to play rough," she grinned and waved her sword menacingly in his direction. The two of them faced off against each other in defensive combat. Callisto had no doubt she could take the bigger man because she knew that she could use his weight against him. She wasn't surprised by the clumsy dismount from his horse and she'd be damned if she would let this idiot force himself on her.
"I'll make a deal with you," she offered. "There's really no need to force me to do anything." She eyed him warily despite the knowledge that she had his undivided attention.
"OK, what's the deal, little girl?" he asked, amused by her pluck.
"Simple, we fight. If I lose, you do what you want with me. However," she paused, "if you lose, you make a hasty retreat out of here unless you want to meet Hades before your time," she threatened.
The man then made a fatal mistake. He threw his head back and roared with laughter.
"You're going to defeat me with that puny sword of yours?!" he thundered. "You?!?!? A little girl?!?!?!" he roared.
Callisto was taken aback by his reaction, but any sliver of fear she'd felt immediately vanished by the ridicule that reverberated in her head. She did not see a scraggly and lone warrior before her, nor did she hear his jeering laughter as his own. All she heard was Xena laughing at her, Xena and her soldiers. Laughing and laughing and laughing. There was only one thing Callisto could do and before the man realized his error, Callisto had driven her sword deep into his beating heart. No longer would Xena's soldier laugh at her ever again.
The man dropped to his knees. He opened his mouth to speak, his eyes wide with astonishment and anger, so aghast was he that such a young girl would have the audacity to murder him in cold blood.
"Little . . . girl?" were the only words that managed to escape his lips before Callisto twisted her sword with a vengeance. Even she herself was stunned by the vehemence with which she'd struck him. It was the first time she'd ever taken a human life and her face glowed with the power that invigorated her. She had often wondered if she would have the courage to actually kill the Warrior Princess and now she knew for certain. She would.
"Tell Hades, it was Callisto who sent you, not Xena!" she spat at the fallen man as she kicked his crumpled body for good measure. But the man didn't hear her; he had already departed for the River Styx.
Behind her, Theodorus groggily got to his feet. He saw the stricken man on the road.
"Callisto! Is he dead?" Theodorus asked in wonderment.
"Yes," Callisto answered calmly. "Let's go." She walked away in a daze from the bloody scene on the road, not bothering to wait for Theodorus to follow. In a way, she was glad that he lagged behind. She had just crossed over the threshold from blood innocence to the realm of the guilty and she knew it was a place from whence she would never return. Despite her best efforts to control herself, her entire body surged with a carnal lust and she knew that soon she would have to make a private trip to the woods so that she could release the hunger that promised to swallow her whole.
"Tell me again how she escaped?" Hades bellowed as he sat in his throne, not believing his ears. Hephaestus, master craftsman and God of Fire, peeked around the imposing God of the Underworld and out the window behind him. At the moment, the flames of Tartarus were a much more pleasant distraction. He wanted to look anywhere except into the furious eyes of his uncle.
"Ssshe . . . " Hephaestus stopped. He was ashamed that he had let Callisto escape his domain. She had easily tricked him and he was even angrier with himself than Hades. But Hades was more powerful than he was and maybe his uncle would have pity on him and get Callisto back. He was tired of being alone and considered a lesser god because he was lame. True, his expert metal work earned him a place on Mount Olympus but he was certain that having an immortal beauty like Callisto at his side would enhance his image.
"Look, Hephaestus, I tried to warn you. She has an evil heart. I've seen it with my own eyes. She was in Tartarus for a time, you know, and that is where she should go back to----"
"NO!" Hephaestus bellowed. "The Fates brought her to my domain when Xena sealed her in the lava. You can't make her go back to Tartarus now, she's a goddess. She should be with me." He didn't tell his uncle that when Callisto had been at his side, she informed him in no uncertain terms that she would much rather spend an eternity suffering the blazing heat of Tartarus than grant even one candlemark to Hephaestus. But what Callisto wanted right now didn't matter, eventually she would grow to love him. He was certain of it. He had to be. If only his uncle would help him. Hades had helped him once before, he could do it again.
Hades clamped down the rising fury inside him when he thought of how Hephaestus could be so gullible when it came to women. Everyone knew how his former love Aphrodite had played him for a fool. However, Callisto was another matter, Hephaestus was no match for the Goddess of Evil. Their original deal was that Hephaestus would make a golden necklace to capture Callisto under his spell and become his mate until the end of time. Before Hades liberated Callisto from the lava, he placed the medallion around her neck, but somehow the blonde woman managed to remove it and escape the lame God of Fire's domain. Hades surmised she had used her quick-silvered tongue.
"She talked you into removing the necklace, didn't she?" Hades queried. He demanded to know the truth before he proceeded.
Hephaestus only bowed his head and nodded, disconsolate that yet another woman had deceived him.
Hades contemplated his decision. He was skeptical that his naive nephew really knew what was good for him. Hades was certain his new request would only bring him heartache. The God of the Underworld heaved a deep sigh. He even felt pity for the lame smith-god who had forged many wondrous tools and weapons for the gods on Mount Olympus. Surely, that in and of itself was worth something.
"Okay, for now I will allow her to remain among mortals, even though she should be burning in the fires of Tartarus."
"Hades, don't, please," Hephaestus begged.
"Don't worry, for now she will be free, but . . . "
"But, what?" Hephaestus queried and waited for the inevitable favor his uncle would demand in return.
"Have you been following Callisto's actions since she escaped?" Hades asked.
"Yes," he replied with resignation. "She's been following Xena again."
"Yes she has, it's quite a remarkable obsession, actually. Callisto is nothing if not tenacious." On some level, Hades even marveled at the evil woman's single-minded determination. He supposed that it was that same single-mindedness that allowed her to break the necklace's spell.
"What about it?"
"She still carries the necklace with her and I have a feeling she will try to capture Xena with it."
"Hades, what are you saying?" Hephaestus was taken aback by the implication. "If the necklace is placed around Xena's neck . . . " his voice trailed off and he broke out into a wide grin when he thought of what a prize Xena would be at his side. Either way, he couldn't lose.
"Exactly, Hephaestus. Xena would be unable to resist just like any other mortal woman. On the other hand, if Xena gets it back around Callisto's neck . . . " he paused, "either way, you will have your wish." Hades didn't bother to mention to Hephaestus that if Xena somehow managed to ensnare Callisto with the necklace, he had no intention of letting the woman escape the Underworld again, goddess or not. An excellent solution began to develop in the back of his mind.
Nestra awoke from a deep slumber in the hour before dawn. Apollo had yet to peek over the horizon. She and her lover, Brissea, had been riding horseback for three straight days in order to catch up with Xena and Gabrielle, barely stopping to eat or relieve themselves in the woods.
After their midnight chat with Callisto, the newly created Goddess of Evil wouldn't let them rest. Somehow their former friend had managed to first escape from the Underworld not once, not twice, but three incomprehensible times. She had to be a real charmer with the gods, Nestra mused. This time, she came back as an immortal goddess after Xena confined her to the fiery lava. Miraculously, Callisto managed to escape that destiny as well. She had returned with more powers than anyone ever dreamed imaginable. She now enjoyed the natural gifts of a goddess and like all goddesses, possessed the gift of knowing a mortal's thoughts. Nestra didn't want to think about that for very long. Sure, she knew Callisto had crossed over to well beyond the threshold of insanity long ago, but what she didn't want Callisto to know was that she was sure Xena would find a way, any way to defeat her. And Nestra was certain she would prevail. The dark warrior knew she would endure a painful death if Callisto knew she was even thinking such a thought but she couldn't help herself. In her mind, it was the unmistakable truth.
Nestra gazed unseeingly at the open sky as hues of purple and blues began to color the vast landscape. It would be another hot day but at least much of their time would be occupied with conspiring against Xena and her little companion. She sighed inwardly, again troubled by her part in the shadow dance Callisto had already begun with Xena.
Despite the nagging doubts Nestra had about Callisto's triumph over Xena, she didn't really feel like she had a choice. Many winters ago, Callisto had actually been her friend, however, over the years, her obsession with Xena had deteriorated into a vector from which Callisto could not escape and Nestra had watched with a growing realization that the blonde warrior would never be free.
When Nestra and Brissea first met Callisto, she intrigued them. The blonde warrior told the horrific tale of how Xena had destroyed her entire village and killed her mother and sister in the ensuing fire. Callisto's hardship struck a deep chord within Nestra as she had lost her own mother when she was just past her 13th winter. Even though her mother had accidentally drowned in a river, Nestra always blamed Artemis for allowing it to happen. Artemis, the protector of the Amazons, was supposed to protect. She remembered how her burgeoning hatred eventually turned into a bitter distrust for any god and a disdain for the many rules and rituals assigned to the gods by the Amazons. She couldn't have left the Nation soon enough at the beginning of her 17th summer. She had been lucky that Brissea followed her even though she had yet to survive her 16th winter. The two of them had been inseparable ever since.
Several moon cycles passed before they met Callisto and her budding legion. She remembered with a laugh how Nestra and Brissea had naively admitted to the blonde warrior that they wanted to join Xena's army. At the time it didn't seem as hilarious.
"THEY WANT TO JOIN UP WITH XENA!" Callisto had roared and doubled over with laughter for several minutes as her men, about twenty of them, joined her in loud guffaws. Nestra had been taken aback by Callisto's apparent disrespect for the infamous warrior.
As an Amazon child, Nestra had looked forward to meeting the legendary Warrior Princess for what seemed like her entire life. Xena had been a brave heroine in the eyes of many Amazons, especially during the war against the Centaurs. She was a bit of rebel, too, Nestra noted. She had always wondered why Xena wasn't an Amazon. In her mind, the legendary warrior had the heart and soul of a true Amazon and yet she remained apart from them.
Then one day, her perspective on Xena changed radically and Nestra would never forget the imprint Xena left on her that momentous day. Shortly after Nestra and Brissea banded with Callisto, the blonde warrior recruited Nestra for an intriguing stealth mission. They were to observe Xena's camp at close range, nothing more. After what she saw, however, Nestra never wanted to accompany Callisto on one of her secret excursions ever again.
They silently hid amongst the trees that overlooked Xena's encampment. Callisto had become an expert at stealing past the scouts and found a discreet locale in the dense foliage to watch the activity undetected. Callisto's intention was to gather information on Xena - her strengths, her weaknesses, what Xena ate at each meal, who her lovers were, when she visited the relief tent, and other little details that would fulfil Callisto's promise to destroy the Warrior Princess. At the time, Nestra was just beginning to discover the full scope of Callisto's deadly fixation and frankly, it scared her. But no matter, she would do what Callisto asked.
They had been waiting immobile in the trees for some time, the only comfort was that they were in the shade and thus sheltered from Apollo's beaming rays. Nestra's muscles began to ache and stiffen up in their cramped position. Suddenly, there was movement in the camp below. Xena strode purposefully out of a huge tent. A young woman ran after her shouting, "Please, Xena, don't! It's not her fault!" The woman was crying, her hair and clothes disheveled as if she had been in a wrestling match and lost. Incongruously, Xena's appearance was pristine. Her flowing black hair cascaded behind her as a breeze gently lifted both her hair and cape away from her muscular frame. In the bright sun, her black leather glowed darkly against her bronze skin, the contrast making the leather seem richer and smoother. The metal swirls of her breastplate reflected off the sun and Nestra's eyes were magnetically drawn to the tiny silver chains that hung from her wrists. The scabbard that protected her sword rested menacingly at her side, its presence an obvious comfort to its owner. She nonchalantly tinkered with a leather greave on her forearm as she confidently sauntered to the middle of the campgrounds. She did not bother to acknowledge the woman's frantic pleas.
Nestra was stunned. Her heart raced inside her chest and a light sweat covered her body. She struggled to control her breathing as the Warrior Princess exuded a majestic power that entranced her beyond anything she had ever dreamed. The calm control of Xena's body belied the murderous rage that shone in her icy blue eyes. They held no emotion save a blazing fury. It was her eyes that made Nestra involuntarily shudder. Inwardly, she laughed at herself for having the naive and preposterous notion that she could have simply walked up to Xena and volunteered to join her army. In that moment, she was certain that if she had been any closer to the raven-haired beauty, she would have simply dropped dead from the power of her gaze. If looks could kill . . . she thought crazily. Mesmerized by the vision before her, she completely forgot about Callisto and their secret objective and focused her entire being on the irresistible Warrior Princess.
Xena stopped. "Cretus!" she shouted. A man came running out of a tent and Nestra simply assumed it was her first in command.
"What is it?" he questioned.
"Where is she?" Xena asked flatly. She stood with her hands on her hips, her voice void of all emotion. The woman from the tent had followed her every step of the way but she no longer pleaded with Xena. Loud sobs wracked her body.
Cretus began to open his mouth to speak, then stopped. He nodded an acknowledgement to Xena then jerked his head to another soldier galvanizing a pair of soldiers into action. They ran to get the woman in question. Cretus stood silently at Xena's side.
Shortly thereafter, a woman was brought before Xena. She hopelessly struggled against the soldiers that held her arms as they forcefully pushed her in Xena's direction. The fear in her wide eyes was absolute and spoke of a foreboding certain death. Her face was as white as a puffy cloud in the high blue sky. No breath entered her lungs, as she seemed frozen in place by Xena's cold piercing eyes. At the sight of the struggling prisoner, the woman beside Xena began shouting and pleading again. Xena didn't flinch and indifferently ignored her.
"Xena! Please! Don't kill her! It was my fault! Please! My fault! My fault!" she babbled. Without concern for her own life, she grabbed hold of Xena's forearm with both hands and tried to hinder the warrior from getting to the restrained woman. This time, Xena stopped and turned. Her eyes met the overwrought woman's as they lidded over in a searing hatred. The woman jerked her hands away and stumbled backwards as if struck by an unseen force. Helplessly, she continued to cry in silence.
Xena slowly turned to the captive woman.
"Just tell me the truth, Maedea. Did you lay down with my Cela?"
Maedea began to open her mouth and speak but no words came out. Her silence answered Xena's question more than words ever could. Her vocal chords were sealed mute by the overwhelming knowledge that she would soon be a passenger on Charon's boat. Xena confirmed her fear.
In the blink of an eye, Xena deftly reached for her sword and in one swift motion plunged her sword to the hilt through Maedea's heart. After a meaningful grunt, she extracted the dripping blade and pivoted around to face her lover. Before the woman had a chance to register Xena's sudden movement, the warrior swung her blade in a backward arc and sliced a clean gash across Cela's abdomen. Instinctively, Cela's hand reached up in a futile attempt to hold on to her intestines but not before Xena had swiped her abdomen a second time in the opposite direction. Cela collapsed lifelessly to the ground, her hand uselessly clutched at her mutilated stomach. Xena took in a deep breath and stomped back toward her tent as her bloody sword led the way.
"Get rid of them!" she yelled over her shoulder.
Nestra cried out. Instantly, Callisto clamped her hand over her mouth but it was too late. Xena and her soldiers heard her and looked up in their direction. Quickly the camp was spurred into action to capture the intruders.
Callisto shouted at her to run and Nestra ran blindly through the trees as she followed Callisto's lead. Amazingly, she was glad to be able to run after witnessing the horrifying murders. She was certain that if she had stayed hidden in the trees a moment longer she would have vomited or fainted to the ground below. Running felt good. Running away from Xena. Running away from certain death. Running away from the Warrior Princess. Gratefully, she saw their horses where they left them as she and Callisto escaped the clutches of Xena's army by what must have been a mere stroke of good fortune.
Callisto and Nestra arrived safely back in camp. When the horses stopped, Nestra rolled off her mare and tumbled to the ground. Brissea raced over to help her as Callisto dismounted.
"What happened?" Brissea asked worriedly. She didn't like the pale complexion on Nestra's face. As if on cue, Nestra vomited without warning. Brissea held her and looked over at Callisto questioningly for an answer.
"What happened, damn you?!" Brissea demanded, an edge of fear crept into her voice.
Callisto laughed. "Xena, the Warrior Princess happened! Your role model. The 'true' Amazon. The one you two wanted to join up with. Well, I suspect after what happened today, you won't be volunteering anytime soon."
"Why . . . why . . . did you take me there?" Nestra spat the words out as she struggled to catch her breath. "You knew that would happen, didn't you!" she accused.
"Why I had no idea!" Callisto giggled. "That was just a fortunate coincidence. She showed her true colors, though, didn't she? Red. Like blood. Her lover had no idea Xena would kill her too!" She threw her head back and howled with laughter. She noticed Brissea and Nestra did not join her. She furrowed her brow and frowned.
"I guess it's true what they say. Amazons really don't have a sense of humor, do they?" She sighed.
Nestra was shaken out of her reverie when Brissea opened her eyes and squinted at the sunlight. She looked around the campsite and immediately remembered where they were.
"Is it time to go yet, Nestra?" she asked.
"Yes it is, sweetie," Nestra answered and gave Brissea an open kiss on the lips. When the kiss ended, Brissea made no attempt to get up from their bedroll. Nestra remained in place as well.
"Nestra, are you as worried as I am?" Brissea frowned. In all their adventures on the road, she had never had such a bad feeling about something. Callisto being a goddess was beyond her mortal comprehension.
"Yes I am, but all we can do is let this thing play itself out. We do what Callisto says and she takes care of Xena. All we can hope for is that it stays between them. We lead Xena to the bait and that's it. I really don't think Callisto will trouble us after that. And besides, we were good friends not too long ago, before Xena killed her and, you know, all this happened."
"I know. Nestra, but when I think about it, it's very scary. I mean Callisto has all this godly power and she wastes it on Xena." Brissea shook her head sadly. "I just don't understand it."
Nestra squeezed her lover more tightly and kissed the top of her forehead. "Don't worry, this will soon be over, one way or another," she assured her. She sighed.
"We better get going, we want to catch up to them by mid-day."
"Wait, Nestra." Brissea stopped her from rising to her feet. "Let's make love before we go," she urged, "in case . . . you know." Brissea didn't finish her sentence as Nestra descended upon her lover with a fervor and desperation neither one had ever experienced.
Xena stretched her long legs and arms upon awaking at first light. She and Gabrielle were both naked and Xena was content to just lie there all day with Gabrielle's soft curves molded into her own. However, she knew that if they wanted to reach the festival on time, they'd have to get going fairly early. She squeezed Gabrielle one last time before she stood up and went to fetch some wood for their morning fire. They would need to break the night's fast before they began their journey.
When Xena returned from the woods, she ignited a small fire and lovingly stared at the sleeping bard. Her heart swelled with an almost painful joy. She couldn't remember a time in her troubled life when she had been so content and ease with herself. There was something about this gentle woman that brought out the best in Xena. It was a part of her she didn't even know existed until the vibrant young woman entered her life. No one would have believed that she was the same woman who had struck fear in the hearts of so many as the Warrior Princess and Destroyer of Nations just three short summers ago. She knew Gabrielle lead her away from that path time and time again and Xena had no idea why the Fates were gracious enough to cross her dark soul with Gabrielle's bright one. All Xena knew was that there was nothing she wouldn't give to follow Gabrielle wherever she led for the rest of her life.
Gabrielle stirred briefly in her sleep, pushing aside the blanket they'd shared when her smooth thigh escaped its hiding place. Xena grinned mischievously and licked her lips. She had an idea of how she would wake the bard up.
She hovered over the sleeping woman and whispered, "Gabrielle." She ran a strong hand along the younger woman's well-muscled thigh, massaging the taut skin until she found the sparse hair between Gabrielle's legs. The bard didn't stir one bit. Xena wondered how far she could go before Gabrielle awakened and she bent down to taste the fine hairs in between the bard's most private part. Xena's tongue made languid circles in Gabrielle's reddish triangle purposely avoiding the nether lips that she knew were already beginning to swell with arousal. Gabrielle moaned softly in her sleep and this tiny acknowledgement, albeit unconscious, spurred Xena to continue her oral assault voraciously.
"Xena . . ." Gabrielle moaned.
Xena wasn't quite sure if Gabrielle was fully awake, but no matter, she wasn't going to deny herself the taste of the young woman's sweet nectar. Her mouth eventually reached the bard's wet center and she lapped up her essence in sheer amazement. If Gabrielle was this aroused in her sleep--Xena didn't finish her thought when the bard's hand entwined her fingers into the warrior's dark hair. Gabrielle pulled her closer and urged her on in a quiet desperation. Xena moaned deep in her throat when she knew that Gabrielle was fully conscious. The bard's hips began to move to Xena steady's rhythm. The warrior buried her tongue inside Gabrielle and relished the golden honey that flooded the hot opening.
"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle panted, her body contorted to the expert ministrations of Xena's tongue.
Xena groaned loudly. She never tired of the wondrous pleasure that indulging Gabrielle gave her. Working feverishly, Xena's tongue traveled deftly to the tiny bud in dire need of attention. She smothered it with her mouth as Gabrielle's hips rose off the ground to meet her.
"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed again. "Let me . . . . . . .ah!" Words escaped her as Xena drove two strong fingers inside with frenzied abandon. Her digits matched the beat set by her skilful tongue. She brought Gabrielle to the brink and then let her topple over the edge in a delightful cascade of undeniable ecstasy.
From her perch on a nearby tree, a blonde warrior observed the two lovers with godlike discretion. She silently mimicked the sounds and utterances that escaped the bard's lips. "Oh Xena!" she mouthed in feigned ecstasy. "Oh Xena!" Oh, give me a break! You little brat, Callisto spat out disdainfully. Despite her wish to deny it, she was equally torn between wanting to be Xena's lover and wanting to plunge her massive sword into her heart. But first things first, she thought. Once again she toyed with Hephaestus' necklace as her face broke out into a feral smile. Dear sweet Xena would suffer exquisitely, she vowed.
"Xena? Do you think you could wake me up like this every morning?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
Xena grunted and smiled in spite of herself.
"Your wish is my command, my little Amazon Queen, but I don't think we'd ever go anywhere if I did."
"Yeah, you're right," Gabrielle laughed.
"Come on, we better get going," Xena urged. Actually, she didn't want to move from the hollow of Gabrielle's neck but they had already wasted precious candlemarks indulging themselves in the open forest. Xena knew that if they wanted to reach Aulis by the Summer Solstice, they would have to pick up their pace. On the other hand, Xena mused, if they dallied here, Gabrielle would be forced to ride Argo behind her for the entire ride. At any rate, they had to get moving. With great reluctance, the warrior planted a final kiss on Gabrielle's lips. She rose to get dressed and began to gather up their belongings. They quickly finished and began their journey in the direction of Aulis riding one behind the other atop Argo.
Less than a candlemark later, Xena spotted two warrior women on horseback that looked vaguely familiar. She brought Argo to a halt and quickly dismounted. Gabrielle followed her lead.
"Gabrielle, get behind me," she warned. The warrior's hand immediately fingered her chakram and she prepared herself to withdraw her sword. As the women drew closer, Xena recognized the strong dark woman with the long braids and her companion, not much smaller but with pale skin and shoulder-length, light-brown hair. They were the warriors she had nearly killed back in the cave near Athens.
"Xena, aren't they the women from Athens?" Gabrielle whispered anxiously behind her.
"Yes . . . just stay close. I don't like this."
The women stopped their horses a fair distance between Xena and themselves, not quite sure if the warrior would hear them out.
"Xena, we have a message for you," Nestra began as she got straight to the point. "It's from Callisto!" she shouted.
Gabrielle quickly shot a glance at Xena. Both she and Xena knew that Callisto had been trapped in the lava pit alongside Velasca. How could anyone escape that? she wondered.
"Is that right?" Xena asked as she withdrew her sword from its scabbard. She wanted to hear more but she did not trust these two women even for the slightest of moments.
"Xena, we mean you no harm, we are willing to throw down our weapons as a show of good faith." Nestra nervously waited for an answer. The Warrior Princess was the best warrior in the land and could have already taken both of them out within a blink of an eye. But she had no choice except to believe that Xena's little companion would somehow exerted a calming influence on the volatile warrior.
"All right then, throw down your swords. Slowly," she added. With obvious relief, they both complied. "Now dismount and ease away from your horses," Xena ordered. "Careful, now. Any sudden movements and you're both dead," she cautioned. Both women dismounted as instructed.
As soon as the horses were well away from the warriors, Xena propelled herself into an acrobatic flip and landed in front of Nestra and in one swift motion rammed her against the nearest tree. Her eyes blazed in undisguised fury as she pressed her forearm hard against Nestra's windpipe. Gabrielle had her staff trained on Brissea to allow Xena's interrogation.
"Now you know and I know that Callisto's dead! So what's your little game? Do you want me to finish the job I started back in the cave?"
"No! I'm not lying! I swear it!" Nestra shouted, suddenly panicking that Xena would really kill them after all. "Ssshe's really alive! We saw her!" Thinking quickly, Nestra remembered added proof. "She said you were going to Aulis! For the Solstice!" Xena shot a glance at the bard and knew full well that only she and Gabrielle knew of such a thing.
"Let's say I do believe you, and Callisto is alive, what does that evil bitch want?" Xena pushed her forearm harder into Nestra's throat for emphasis. Nestra coughed and gasped through her rapidly closing windpipe. Well, if that isn't the frying pan calling the kettle black, Nestra thought with contempt. After seeing the colorful lives of both women, neither of them had a right to speak of evil. Nonetheless, she kept her perceptive thoughts to herself.
"She's got Isiphae!" she choked.
Gabrielle gasped audibly. This encounter was quickly deteriorating from bad to worse. A surge of jealous envy passed through her even though she knew the indisputable truth that Xena was hers and hers alone.
"Where?!" Xena barked.
"Back . . .in . . . Athens," she sputtered. "Xena, let me talk," she pleaded. Xena relented. With her skills, she knew these two women could be easily dispatched of, warriors or not. However, before she released the ebony warrior, Xena groped behind her leather garb and withdrew the woman's concealed dagger. She aimed the blade menacingly close to her throat.
"So start talking," she said.
Nestra took a few moments to breathe. "Callisto's holding Isiphae for ransom until you come to Athens. She says you two have some unfinished business." Gabrielle snorted at that comment.
"How did she come back?" Xena didn't want to tell Nestra the full circumstances of Callisto's demise. She wanted to make sure that her tale had a ring of truth to it.
"I don't know, she only said the gods were kind to her." Nestra was clearly lying, but Xena saw no need to pursue this further. The fact that the gods brought Callisto back was all she needed to know. She may indeed be an immortal goddess.
"So are you saying she's a goddess now?" Xena queried, still not quite believing this fantastic tale, although many people were still in awe of the fact that she herself had come back from the Underworld.
"Yes! She's definitely a goddess but she walks among us. I don't think they'd ever allow her a place on Mount Olympus." Despite the seriousness of the situation, Xena gave Nestra a half-crooked smile. She was absolutely right about that.
"Where is she in Athens? At the Wicked Wing?" Gabrielle's shoulders noticeably flinched at the name of the place where she'd sought out Xena the last time they were in Athens.
"No, she said we should accompany you into the City and when we get there, she'll give us further instructions." Nestra hoped this would be enough to convince Xena to go.
"All right, we're going. Start walking." Xena pushed her forward onto the road. She decided the two warriors would be easier to keep an eye on if they were on foot. Gabrielle and Brissea followed suit.
"What about our horses?" Nestra questioned. "We just can't leave them here."
"You'll stable them in the next village. I'm sure Callisto won't mind. If she's a goddess, like you say, she has all the time in the world." Xena handed Argo's reins to Gabrielle and took hold of the other women's horses. They would leave all three at the next village.
Nestra nodded agreeably and moved down the road. All the while she kept in mind that the most important thing for her and Brissea right now was to stay alive. Their horses were a small price to pay in exchange. She hoped that Xena hadn't detected her small lie, but the warrior hadn't seemed to notice. Later, if Xena resorted to using her pinching fingers on her, Nestra had a back up plan all ready as a confession for "the truth". Callisto had at least taught her that much.
Again she wondered how she and Brissea had been ensnared by the deadly dance Xena and Callisto played with each other. She had no idea what Callisto was up to but as far as she was concerned, she and Brissea were there to deliver a message and fulfil a duty. Nothing more. When that was done, she and her lover would depart as fast and as far away from Xena and Callisto that Hermes' winged feet could take them.
Just before darkness descended on the land, the four women prepared a campsite. The horses had been left at a village along the way as they continued their journey to Athens on foot. Xena took Nestra with her to hunt for small game, as she did not want the two warriors to be left alone with Gabrielle. Of the two women, she decided Nestra was more dangerous. Gabrielle and Brissea remained behind. They tended to the fire and arranged their respective bedrolls.
For a long while, the campsite was filled with an awkward silence, neither woman knew quite what to say. The last time they'd seen each other, Brissea had been an unwilling participant in the kidnapping of Gabrielle by her friend Leica. She avoided Gabrielle's eyes and focused on her immediate tasks. Eventually both women were drawn to the warmth and comfort of the fire. Brissea spoke first.
"So you're really the Queen of the Amazons?"
"How did-----," Gabrielle began but she knew it was no secret, however, she declined to go into further details. "Yes I am," she simply answered.
"We used to be with the Nation," Brissea stated wistfully. For the life of her, she wished she could have been in any other situation than the one she and Nestra were currently mired in.
"You were? What happened?" Gabrielle asked curiously. "Sorry, you don't need to tell me if it's too painful," she quickly added when she saw the look of despair on Brissea's face.
"No, it's not the Amazons," she said. "It's just this." She waved her hand to mean their current predicament. "The Amazons were actually good to me, I have no quarrel with them."
"So why did you leave?"
"Nestra," she answered. "When she left the Amazons, I had to follow her. She didn't want me to go with her, she said I was too young. But I knew what was in my heart; I had to go with her. She needed someone at her side. She needed me." Brissea allowed a small smile to escape her lips as she thought of her deep love for the ebony warrior.
"You and she are . . .um, . . . an item?" Gabrielle asked. She did not really want to pry but she was intrigued nonetheless.
"Yes, we are as one," Brissea confirmed.
Gabrielle grinned and nodded, "I know how that feels," she said, clearly thinking of Xena.
"Gabrielle----," Brissea started then stopped.
"What? What is it?"
"Can I ask you a personal question?" Brissea asked apprehensively.
"Sure," Gabrielle nodded.
"How do you it?"
"How do keep such control over Xena?"
"Control?" the bard asked, confused by the question. "I don't have any control over Xena. She makes up her own mind and believe me, once she does, not even I can't stop her,"
"You stopped her back in that cave," Brissea reminded her, and still trembled at the memory of how close to death she had actually been. Both her and Nestra were as certain as the rising sun that it was the end.
"Look, I'm sorry about that, but Xena really wasn't herself that day. She was just going through a bad time and sometimes she just gets a little crazy when someone threatens to harm me. I'm sorry about what happened to Leica. Really, I liked her. She just caught Xena in a bad moment," Gabrielle said apologetically.
Brissea looked at her incredulously. "You really believe that? That Xena was just going through a bad moment?"
"Yes, she's changed. Really. I know there have been some bad stories about her, but that was a long time ago, she's trying to make up for it now. You should see all the good she's done since then." Gabrielle tried to sound convincing but inside she was desperately trying to rationalize Xena's actions. Sometimes she just couldn't and Leica had been one of those times.
Brissea just shook her head at Gabrielle's naiveté. No wonder Xena liked this little slip of a girl. Xena had her spellbound, and she swallowed it - hook, line and sinker.
"Did you and Nestra know Xena before?" Gabrielle asked even though she was afraid of the answer. Clearly, this woman had at least known about Xena in her warlord days.
"Well, not personally, but we've seen some things," she replied vaguely. She did not really want to tell Gabrielle what Nestra had seen Xena do to an unfaithful lover. It would serve no purpose to hurt the girl maliciously. Brissea didn't elaborate further and the bard didn't press her.
They sat and stared into the fire, each of them lost in thought, when they heard Xena and Nestra return to the campsite.
"What is it?!" Callisto barked without looking up. She and Theodorus were going over maps in her tent. Priameus, her security lieutenant, entered apologetically.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but there's a woman here that insists on seeing you. She's been banned from the camp but the scouts say she hovers on the perimeter all day long. She's been there for a quarter moon now."
"Yes, yes, yes, now why are you telling me this, Priameus? You know how to handle those kinds of things all by yourself, don't you?" she asked sarcastically.
"I know, but she says she has a gift for you," he said and waited for Callisto to let him go on.
"Let me know when you get to the point," Callisto snapped as she intently examined a particularly fascinating area on the map. "Here, this is an excellent locale," she said to Theodorus, pointing out a spot on the parchment.
"Yeah, the river should cut them off nicely. There will be nowhere to run," he smiled, pleased with himself that he was offering Callisto useful information.
"She says it's a chakram," Priameus interrupted again. He watched both Callisto and Theodorus look up at him for the first time, "and that you would want to know."
"Bring her in," Callisto replied indifferently. She didn't want to let on how excited she was at the prospect if what he said was true.
Priameus exited the tent briefly and returned with a curly blonde-headed woman in tow. He half dragged her into the tent ignoring her resistance to being pushed so forcefully. He had no idea how this woman had gained an audience with Callisto despite his best efforts to prevent it.
The woman smoothed out her loose dress and fussed with her long curly locks in an attempt to look more presentable. She straightened herself up and approached Callisto, who leaned back against the front of her desk. The woman bowed her head and said, "Thank you for granting me a few minutes of your time, my Warrior Queen."
Callisto grinned, mildly charmed and intrigued by the subservient respect granted her. "You have something for me?"
"Yes, a chakram."
"Where is it?"
The woman reached behind her and withdrew the round metal object from a sack. She handed it to Callisto. Callisto examined the chakram, noticing the sharp metal edges and the weighty feel of authenticity. She knew it was not Xena's as there was no pattern or design on it, just a beautiful shiny smoothness that reflected back the power she held in her hand. She saw the weapon as her final piece in her mission to defeat Xena. Her heart swelled with the knowledge that the demise of the Warrior Princess was about to begin.
Theodorus shifted nervously behind Callisto. He recognized the woman, Leica, as one of his former lovers and in fact had been the one to ban her from the encampment. The woman had pestered him obsessively about Callisto, when finally he concluded that the erotic gratification simply wasn't worth it. He already knew he had confided too much about Callisto but Leica was skillfully adept at making him talk much more than he'd ever wanted. He only hoped Callisto wouldn't find out all that he'd said.
"How much do you want for it?" Callisto asked, as she knew that everything came with a price.
"There's only one thing I want," Leica said quietly. "Let me help you defeat the Warrior Princess. You've been searching for this weapon for a long time and it should give you the ultimate means to defeat her."
"And how would you know that?" Callisto asked. Only a few people knew of her search for the elusive chakram. She was not one to believe much in oracles, only blabbermouths. She noticed that the woman glanced almost imperceptibly in Theodorus' direction. Callisto turned to face him and he immediately looked away, unable to meet her dark gaze.
"Still unable to control yourself during the heat of passion, Theodorus?" she spat at him.
"Callisto, I.I.I.I . . . didn't . . ." he stopped, as he knew full well there was no way out of his dilemma. Callisto always knew when he was lying.
Breaking the tension in the air, the woman fell to her knees, clutched Callisto's hand, and smothered it with gentle kisses.
"Please, Callisto, let me ride with you. I want to see Xena die as much as you do." Callisto let the woman continue with her feeble pleas, and actually enjoyed her humble overtures. Occasionally, she indulged herself in a fanciful gift befitting a Warrior Queen. The woman had guts if nothing else. She looked up at Callisto adoringly. "I could be of great service to you," Leica offered.
"Is that right?" Callisto turned to Theodorus who, at the moment, looked like he would rather be in any other tent in the known world. "How good is she, Theodorus?" she sneered. "No, no, never mind, don't answer that. I'm sure you were too busy blabbering to notice." Theodorus' face reddened at Callisto's caustic words. If only things were different, he thought, and he had the courage to tell Callisto that her words hurt him more than a biting whip's lash ever could. Instead he stood there stoically and waited for the verbal onslaught to end.
"Leave us," Callisto ordered. Theodorus gratefully headed for the exit.
"Theodorus!" Callisto snapped and waited for him to turn around. "For now, you're still alive, but don't ever take that for granted." She casually dismissed him from the tent and turned her attention to the kneeling woman.
"Get up," Callisto commanded. The woman rose to her feet. She was several inches taller than Callisto and that excited the blonde warrior even more knowing that she held the taller woman's desires in the palm of her hand.
"What's your name?" Callisto asked.
"Leica, tell me more, do you know how to use the chakram?" she asked as she withdrew a dagger from her leathers. Leica visibly shuddered not quite sure what Callisto was about to do with the lethal weapon waved menacingly in front of her.
"Nnnno, bbbut I know a man that does, he could train you," Leica stammered. In spite of her fear, there was something alluring, almost ethereal, about Callisto's sensuous movements. Her heart pounded in her chest and her throat constricted in anticipation.
"I see," Callisto said as she reached out and used the blade to slide Leica's dress first over one shoulder and then the other. Leica gasped at the cold metal against her increasingly warm skin. She had been waiting for this day for many moons and never dreamed that Callisto could be so exquisite. Of course, she would have to keep an eye out for the blade but for the moment, Callisto appeared to be content to play. Callisto's dagger inched the sleeves down to uncover her breasts and Leica suppressed an urge once again to fall to her knees.
"So when can this man be in camp?" Callisto questioned, her voice low and seductive.
"Within a . . ." Leica took a sharp intake of breath as Callisto brushed the cold metal tip against a nipple that instantly stood at attention. Callisto grinned at the reaction she'd caused.
"When can he be here?" Callisto asked again as she turned her attention to Leica's other nipple that ached to be caressed.
"In a day or two," Leica managed to utter. Her entire body was on fire and raged with an intense need for Callisto's touch.
"Good," Callisto said as she pulled away her dagger and returned it to its sheath. "Now you go and find him and bring him back here." She rearranged Leica's dress so that her full breasts were covered up once again. It took a moment for Leica to realize that Callisto was dismissing her. She was at a loss for words, so bewildered was she by Callisto's sudden actions. She was disappointed but swallowed hard to control herself. She wanted so much to please Callisto despite the monstrous lust that the blonde warrior provoked in her.
Callisto turned her back to Leica and began to study the parchment once again.
"Don't come back without him, Leica. In the meantime, I'll hold on to the chakram," she called over her shoulder.
"Yes, my Queen," is all Leica said before leaving the tent.
Nearly six lunar cycles passed before Callisto grew tired of Leica's attentions. It had been a long time for her to be with one lover but Callisto was more accustomed to answering to no one. As far as she was concerned, Leica had served her purpose so she had dispatched the woman to embark on a dangerous mission. Leica, so eager to please Callisto, willingly agreed. Her mission was to infiltrate Xena's army and curry the favors of her 2nd lieutenant, Cretus. Callisto had been rather impressed by Leica's seduction of Theodorus and knew that he was not one to easily blurt out secrets, despite the vicious insults she'd hurled at him. He would not have lasted at her side for long if he were.
Callisto was flattered by Leica's determined efforts to claim her heart and on some level, she succeeded. But Callisto's heart was not available to anyone save the Warrior Princess. It was time for Leica to move on. Callisto was certain that the blonde woman would be the perfect spy. All she needed to do was get all the information necessary and report back to her. If she was discovered and killed in the process, well, such was life. She'd simply get someone else to replace her. There was nothing that could stop Callisto now.
For the past several moons, she had been practicing with her newfound weapon, the chakram. It became her friend that always came back to her. She was an eager student who practiced from sunrise to sunset. In the beginning, she repeatedly cut her hands when catching it but she ignored the pain and concentrated only on becoming an expert with the round metal weapon. The time had come for Xena to meet her Fate and Callisto would deliver her Fate.
"Callisto!" Theodorus shouted excitedly as he entered her tent. "It's Leica! She's back!" Callisto was instantly on her feet.
"So soon?" Callisto asked incredulously. "Only a half moon's time has passed! Where is she?!"
Moments later, Leica entered Callisto's tent, apparently disheveled from a frantic ride on horseback.
"You're not going to believe what happened!" she exclaimed breathlessly.
"What?!" Callisto snapped.
"Darphus took over Xena's army! He's dead now but she stopped him from killing a baby then he talked the rest of her army into overthrowing her and she ran the gauntlet and somehow sur------" Leica chattered excitedly.
"Leica!" Callisto shouted. "Slow down! Are you telling me Xena doesn't have an army anymore?!" she asked, highly skeptical that she could be the benefactor of such good fortune. If it was true, she knew she'd have to move fast before Xena had time to build a new army.
Leica paused to collect herself. She inhaled several deep breaths before answering.
"Yes! Darphus took over her army and made her run the gauntlet. I guess he didn't think she would survive but she did. Then Hercules killed him," she finished.
"Hercules, that do-gooding weakling?"
"Yes, Hercules, the son of Zeus, but here's the kicker," she paused for effect even though she already had Callisto's rapt attention. "Xena helped him," she announced dramatically.
"She helped Hercules? I thought she tried to kill him." Callisto quickly summed up the bizarre turn of events in her mind and evaluated their significance.
"She did, but when Darphus turned against her, she joined up with Hercules to defeat him. But get this," Leica boasted, proud that she was the messenger of such fantastically good news for her Warrior Queen, "she says she wants to do good now." Leica joined Callisto in a hearty laugh.
"Oh no, no, no, Xena," Callisto said to the phantom vision of Xena in her mind. "You don't get off that easily. Oh no, no. All you've done is make my little task a lot easier. Don't worry, you will pay for your crimes just the same," she vowed. "Hercules, indeed," she sneered and shook her head.
Turning to Leica, she asked, "Is Cretus in charge of her army now?"
"No, he's dead too and the rest of them disbanded. The first chance I got, I raced back here to tell you."
"Very good work, Leica," Callisto smiled and planted a full-mouthed kiss on the woman's lips. She hugged her close and murmured, "Now go freshen up. Come back when you're finished, you know how I'd like you." She took full possession of Leica's mouth with a frenzied hunger that surged through her loins. Oh yes, she thought to herself, this will be a night for a grand celebration.
As soon as Leica left, Callisto clasped her hands together with glee. Very soon, my sweet, she said to Xena. Very soon, we will meet and your life will never be the same, she promised. She busied herself with details of her plan to introduce herself to Xena, which included finding out what was the best poison to incapacitate the great Warrior Princess. And soon after that, she had a special little job for Theodorus.
Gabrielle browsed through the crowded market in Athens. She was not really paying much attention to the shopkeepers and their wares but she needed to get out of the tavern the four women had secluded themselves in for the past four days. Nestra told them that Callisto would give further instructions once they got to Athens, but Xena was getting more and more impatient and her nerves were frayed beyond reason. It was all Gabrielle could do to not conk her on the head to settle her down. She decided to go for a walk and the busy marketplace was a comfort to her. The market was more boisterous than usual as people were preparing for the upcoming Summer Solstice. She wistfully thought of how nice it would have been to be in Aulis rather than back in Athens waiting for a message from a deluded immortal goddess. Why the gods of Olympus allowed such aberrations was well beyond the bard's mortal understanding.
Gabrielle scanned the merchants' wares, unconsciously keeping one eye open for a Summer Solstice gift for Xena. It was only fair since the warrior gave her the toy lamb for the Winter Solstice. Quite unexpectantly, she spotted a beautiful golden necklace displayed on a table and she was magnetically drawn to it. It would look gorgeous around Xena's neck, she gushed. She picked up the fine craftwork and examined its intricate details. Its weight was much lighter than it appeared and the round gold medallion was embossed with swirling flames that extended out from an open eye. The pupil of the eye was filled with a glittering azure gemstone. Gabrielle succumbed to the hypnotizing beauty of the magical necklace.
"You like it?" queried the merchant, who immediately recognized a guaranteed sale if he ever saw one. The entranced look in the bard's eyes told him he could practically charge anything he wanted.
"How much?" Gabrielle asked, not taking her eyes off the dazzling jewelry piece.
"Just fifty dinars," the merchant casually stated.
Gabrielle snapped out of her trance and nearly shouted, "Fifty dinars?!?!"
The vendor backed off. "Sorry, I was just seeing if you were paying attention," he joked half-heartedly. "Forty dinars."
The bard smirked and narrowed her eyes, doing her best Xena imitation, "Yeah, right. I'm sure you would have taken 50 dinars, no problem. I'll give you twenty." Gabrielle was determined not to pay a dinar over twenty-five. She fingered the jewelry again and enjoyed the smooth and flawless metal that somehow soothed her inside. Once again her eyes were drawn to the piece and she saw the flames shimmer in the bright afternoon sun. She envisioned Xena's naked and sweating body in the throes of passion while the radiant medallion dangled from her neck.
"Thirty five and not a dinar less. You know, they say that piece was made by the smith-god, Hephaestus, himself," the merchant boasted as he tried to tack on added value to the admirable craftwork.
"Thirty five," Gabrielle said distractedly. She no longer cared about the number of dinars it cost, she only knew she had to give this necklace to Xena, her Warrior Princess.
Xena was growing extremely agitated as she waited impatiently at the inn. They had been in Athens for four long days and still no word from Callisto, her long time nemesis. She had driven Gabrielle to utter frustration and the bard escaped to the marketplace to get away. Nestra and Brissea were upstairs in their room. Xena sipped on a mug of port but she hardly tasted it.
The warrior openly ogled each patron as they passed by her table. She intently examined their faces for quirky nuances that might identify Callisto as an ordinary passer-by. When they first arrived in Athens, she immediately went to the Wicked Wing, as it was the most logical place to go despite Nestra's denials. However, Isiphae was not there and had not been seen for several days. Xena was again worried for her safety. There was no telling what lengths Callisto would go to get her revenge. The warrior had no idea how she would be able to harness Callisto's immortal power once she confronted her, but she decided she would face that danger when it came.
Out of the corner of her eye, Xena caught a glimpse of a blonde woman in a dark cloak scurry past the entrance of the inn. Xena instantly leaped to her feet and raced out the door to follow. She instinctively knew that it was Callisto and followed the cloaked figure to the stables. She tiptoed to the door and peered into the barn. Although she saw no sign of Callisto, her suspicions were confirmed about the two warrior women. Nestra and Brissea were busily readying their horses for departure.
"Going somewhere, ladies?" Xena strolled into the barn. Before the two warriors could look up, Xena launched into a running start, catapulted in to a high arc and landed behind them. She kicked a swift blow to Brissea's stomach as the woman grunted in pain and crashed into a pile of hay behind her. The horses whinnied nervously from the sudden movements in the stable. Before Nestra had a chance to respond, Xena's lightening quick fingers cracked a sharp pinch to the nerves in her neck. The dark woman fell helplessly to her knees and gasped for breath. The veins in her neck erupted into twin rope chords as the flow of blood to her brain was instantly cut off. Xena casually circled the fallen woman in triumph.
"Now, you have 30 seconds to tell me where Callisto is," she said with a feral smile that did not reach her eyes. "Oh, and where's Isiphae?!" she demanded through gritted teeth.
Nestra's light brown eyes were wide with terror. The vice at her throat made it impossible to breathe. She began to see darting spots before her eyes and she feared she would not be able to answer Xena's questions in the span of 30 seconds.
"Isiphae . . . trick!" she gasped as a trickle of blood began to seep from her nose.
"Let me see if I can translate your answer. Isiphae wasn't kidnapped, that was a trick by Callisto to get me to come to Athens."
Nestra nodded vigorously. It was too painful to talk even though she knew her life depended on it.
"So where's Callisto? I saw her come in here," Xena asked with a calm that belied an unrelenting fury that would soon explode to the surface.
"Don't . . . know . . . said . . . you . . . would know!" Nestra's vision started to blur and the panic in her voice was unmistakable.
"Another translation. You don't know but she said I would know when she got here?"
Nestra nodded desperately and pleaded with Xena through her eyes to be released.
Xena finally relented. She didn't want to kill her, as she knew that Callisto had used these poor women as pawns in her deadly game. Nestra dropped her head to the ground and rolled over to suck in much needed oxygen. She coughed repeatedly and when she finally gathered some semblance of control, Xena yanked her up by her leathers and pushed her against a wooden beam. Her eyes were dark with rage.
"Listen to me, and listen good. You are going to tell me everything you know. I don't really want to kill you but I will if I have to. Are we clear?" Xena thumped her hard against her chest with her forearm for emphasis.
"I don't know anything else!" Nestra cried, her thoughts immediately zeroing in on the small lie she had told Xena earlier about who brought Callisto back from the Underworld.
"Which god, Nestra?" Xena heard Brissea rise to her feet behind her and snapped her head in her direction. Her eyes shot her a warning glance that promised another painful kick if she chose to interfere. Brissea stopped in her tracks, worried but grateful that her lover was very much still alive.
Nestra was not surprised by Xena's apparent mind reading ability, a testament to the many skills the warrior was known to possess. Xena's cruel interrogations were legendary and Nestra had always thought that she would be a brave enough warrior to survive one and stick to her deceptive story. But after experiencing it firsthand, there was no way she would want to test her courage like that again. She saw Brissea's concerned grimace over Xena's shoulder and she thought of life with her lover versus Hades and Death. Suddenly, it was clear, there was only the truth. She licked drops of blood from her lips that had trickled from her nose and began talking.
"She said it was Hephaestus-----
"Lame Hephaestus? The God of Fire?"
"Yes, he's the smith-god too. She said he released her from the lava. Then she escaped his domain. She didn't tell us how."
Xena gradually released her hold on Nestra as she saw the final truth in the woman's eyes. Hephaestus? Xena wondered, what does he want?
Gabrielle approached the barn, oblivious to the tense encounter between Xena and the two women. When she returned from the marketplace, she discovered that Xena was gone. She left the prized necklace in their room so that she could surprise Xena when this whole ordeal was over. She was pleased with herself that she had found such a wondrous gift for her beloved warrior. As soon as Callisto was safely back in the Underworld, she vowed, she would shower Xena with gifts more often. Sometimes she worried that she took Xena too much for granted, especially in times like these when she was in imminent danger.
The barkeep at the tavern told her that Xena had hurriedly left in the direction of the stables. Gabrielle surmised that it must have something to do with Callisto. She quietly approached the barn. She hoped to catch them unaware and would assist Xena if need be. Instead, she overheard Xena speaking with Nestra and Brissea. The tension was palatable.
"Why are you two doing this?" Xena asked, apparently annoyed at the two warrior women.
Brissea spoke up. "Believe it or not, Xena, Callisto was our friend!" she spat out irately. She was still shaking and angry from the harsh treatment Xena had given Nestra.
"She has to be stopped," Xena replied evenly. She still shuddered at the idea of Callisto running around loose as an immortal goddess.
"Look, Xena," Nestra interrupted. She didn't want to set the warrior off again. "We have no qualm with you. We know you and Callisto have it out for each other. We just want to get out of your way. We're done here. Whatever is going on between you and Callisto, that's your business."
"It's not just my business!" Xena exclaimed, the anger again rising in her voice. "Doesn't it bother you that she's out there loose somewhere? This Goddess of . . . of . . . Evil!"
"Like you have room to talk," Nestra replied bitterly. "When you get tired of that little girl, are you going to kill her too?" The brown warrior knew she shouldn't be provoking Xena this way, but she couldn't help herself. She was sick of Xena preaching to them about what was right and wrong from her hypocritical high horse.
Xena closed in on the warrior and narrowed her eyes, "What are you saying?" her voice low and ominous.
"Remember Cela and Maedea? I saw how you murdered your lover in cold blood," Nestra stood tall in her warrior garb and arched her broad shoulders. She foolishly refused to back down from the confrontation with Xena that was quickly careening out of control.
Xena darted her eyes back and forth as she scanned for the familiar names in the recesses of her past. She settled on a bright sunny day when her own sword took the life of her unfaithful lover and her deceitful paramour. A stab of pain ripped through her stomach as she steeled herself against the memory. Her lover, Cela, had held a special place in her heart and she bared Xena's mark. When Xena found out about her secret affair, she immediately confronted the other woman. She became possessed by a murderous and jealous rage and quickly lost control of her senses. She clearly remembered her intention to kill Maedea but then her vision went black and the events that followed were hazy and blurred. Her sword seemingly became a life unto itself and in the blink of an eye, both women were dead by Xena's own hand. Sometimes it was hard for her to fathom that she was the same person that had once traveled down that dark and treacherous road.
"Yes, I remember," Xena said sadly as her shoulders visibly sagged. "I killed them both," she admitted remorsefully. "But how did you-----"
"I was in the trees. You chased after us, remember?"
Xena simply nodded.
Nestra almost felt sorry for the warrior whose eyes had glazed over in sorrowful regret. The last thing she expected to see on the infamous warrior's face was sincere remorse.
Gabrielle could no longer listen. She shut out the words that swirled around her like angry stinging bees. She backed away from the stable and briskly walked in the direction of the marketplace. She didn't hear or see anyone in the crowded streets. Tears blurred her eyes as Xena's blatant confession to the murder her lover echoed through her brain. She didn't know how she would ever reconcile this part of Xena's horrific past with her own forgiving soul.
Nestra turned to retrieve the horses that were packed with their meager belongings. "Look Xena, I just think that so-called 'evil' is in the eye of the beholder," she said quietly. "We just want to get out of here, okay? We can't help you." Solemnly, Brissea and Nestra led their horses out of the barn.
Xena followed forlornly, not really seeing the warrior women as they walked away. She only thought of how she would never be able to conquer the monstrous demon she once was. It still remained very much a part of her dark soul.
The Goddess of Evil watched the entire scene from a shadowy corner in the loft. Oh Xena, you're so pathetic, she jeered at the retreating warrior. Do you really think that being sorry for what you did will ever change things? Never, my sweet. Never! I told you that you would know I am here when the time comes, but I have news for you, Xena, by the time you find out, it will be too late.
Callisto giggled as she vanished from the stables, anticipating her godly appearance before the great Warrior Princess.
Callisto sat in the growing darkness of the small room above the tavern. She lovingly caressed the golden necklace as she awaited Xena's arrival from the stables. The little brat had easily succumbed to the bewitching allure of Hephaestus' handiwork and was gracious enough to buy the cherished item for her beloved Warrior Princess. This was all too easy, Callisto rejoiced gleefully. She supposed she could have used her godly powers in a more forceful or open manner but having Xena's precious little bard strike the killing blow to her soul was an opportunity too good to pass up. Her entire body tingled with anticipation for the moment when Xena saw her past and future collide into a whirlwind of fire that would take her down to the Underworld and Hephaestus' domain. So far, everything was working out perfectly. She could hardly believe that her final retribution against Xena was at hand. The many long years of fierce determination had paid off in this single delightful moment of reckoning.
Callisto hadn't anticipated the little brat to go running off after hearing the revealing discussion in the stables. That had been a fortuitous happenstance and it worked perfectly with her new plan. She had expected that Xena's precious little bard would present her with immortal destiny at Hephaestus' side, but instead, the brat ran away. No matter, Callisto would make sure the bard was distracted long enough not to disturb her final encounter with the Warrior Princess. For the life of her, she couldn't understand what Xena saw in the little brat. Oh Xena, save me! Oh Xena, help me! Callisto mimicked. And when the irritating blonde wasn't whining, she was a non-stop chatterbox. It was a wonder Xena didn't kill her just to get the little fool to shut up.
Callisto knew she had missed her chance to kill the brat twice, but her latest scheme promised to be much worse than Death. A mortal death would have been too good for these two. No, what she had vowed to Xena was that she would kill her soul and separating her from the little brat forever would do just that. She wondered how things could have been different. How the Fates' path led Xena down the destructive road to Cirra but allowed the warrior to save the Potedeian girl from slavery. What had she done to anger the gods? she wondered bitterly. She and the little brat were about the same age and yet their lives were on opposite ends of the spectrum. She could have easily been Gabrielle if the fork in the road had not led the Warrior Princess to her door along with death and destruction. But little of that mattered now. The course of her Fate had changed dramatically and so would Xena's.
She heard the faint footsteps of Xena in the hallway and quickly concealed the necklace in the chest of drawers beside the bed. Xena opened the door.
"Xena, what happened?! You look pale. Did you hear from Callisto?"
"No, Gabrielle," Xena sighed. She began dismantling her armor and removed her chakram and sword as well. She avoided meeting the bard's eyes. "But Nestra and Brissea are gone."
"Why? Don't they want to help us?"
"No, they don't, but they told me who brought Callisto back," Xena said wearily. She was tired of fighting her past and the reminder from Nestra and Brissea was enough to make her give herself up to the nearest hanging judge. The warrior sat heavily on the bed. She briefly debated relaying her disturbing conversation with Nestra and Brissea but she was too afraid that Gabrielle would flee the moment she heard the story. For her own selfish reasons, Xena needed to have Gabrielle by her side while she fought Callisto and then she would decide what to do after that. For the moment, though, she remained silent.
"Hephaestus," Xena said quietly.
"The god of fire? But why?"
"I don't know," the warrior frowned.
This is too delicious, Callisto smiled inwardly. She had expected that Xena might detect her deception immediately, in which case she would have gone to her second plan. As it was, though, Xena was so heavy laden by the guilt of murdering her long dead lover; she could not look directly in the bard's eyes. If she had looked closely she may have seen a gleam in Gabrielle's eye that was at odds with the gloomy circumstances. Callisto presented herself in the bard's likeness and easily mimicked her mannerisms to perfection. However, she was careful not to underestimate Xena's perceptive instincts.
Callisto kneeled behind Xena on the bed and became the ever-helpful bard.
"Here, Xena, let me rub your shoulders," she offered. "You've been too tense." Xena let Gabrielle massage her tight muscles. After several moments, Xena could feel the tension gradually dissolve from her body. She surrendered to the bard's strong, pliant fingers, and rode the melodic wave of Gabrielle's sultry voice.
"Yes, Xena, relax. Everything's going to be just fine. You worry too much. Don't fight it, things will work out in the end. I could give you peace, Xena. I'll give you peace if you let me."
Peace, Xena thought. That's all she needed was peace. Despite the diabolical tethers that lashed out from her past, she clung to Gabrielle's words as her only rope of salvation. She reached behind her and pulled the bard into her lap and smothered her mouth with frenzied abandon. She desperately wanted Gabrielle to love her and the bard's soothing voice convinced her that all would be forgiven, if only she had the courage to tell her. She pulled back from their breathless kiss and gazed into the emerald pools of the only woman who truly loved her.
"Gabrielle, I have to tell you something," she said.
"Shhhh, you don't have to say a word," Callisto hushed her. She didn't want Xena to start confessing anything. All she wanted was satisfaction. The fire within her had been simmering for ages it seemed and the liquid flames were nearly raging out of control. Xena would not deny her this time. Callisto leaned forward and buried her face into the warrior's raven mane. Oh, how long she had waited to breathe in Xena's musky scent. She whimpered slightly as she nipped tiny bites along the side of Xena's sensitive neck.
Xena offered no resistance as she tilted her neck to receive Gabrielle's gentle nibbles. She was constantly amazed by the seductive power the younger woman held over her. The horrifying scene in the barn melted away and her craving for Gabrielle overwhelmed her with a compelling need. Her hands sprang to life and she fumbled to untie the laces of Gabrielle's top, desperately anxious to have the bard writhing beneath her touch. The bard's breasts emerged from the confining cloth and Xena pounced on the soft mounds eager to soothe her face against the pliant flesh. Her exploring tongue found an erect nipple and she sucked greedily on the inviting bud.
Callisto moaned loudly, her breath coming to her in short heaving gasps.
"Oh Xena!" she cried, doing her best Gabrielle imitation she'd learned in the several days spent following the warrior and her bard. Xena trailed a wet path to her other breast and she guided the warrior's open mouth to the nipple that ached for equal attention. She held on tightly to Xena's shoulders and arched herself closer to the warrior as she reveled in the hedonistic pleasure. Xena's hand groped for her skirt, yanked it off her hips and tossed it on the floor. Callisto searched for Xena's succulent mouth and her tongue explored the warrior with wicked abandon.
Xena was lost in an almost painful need to take Gabrielle. She inhaled deeply, as she could smell the bard's juices wafting up from her wet center. She quickly found the source of her desire and Xena slid her fingers along the slippery opening. She broke away from the bard's kiss and a deep growl escaped her lips.
"By the gods, Gabrielle, you're so wet tonight," Xena moaned hotly in the bard's ear.
"Yes Xena, I've waited for this for so long," Callisto panted breathlessly.
Xena smiled inwardly at Gabrielle's definition of a long time. It had only been four days. She continued to explore along the bard's outer lips, then slowly inched her way into the steaming opening. Unable to prolong her need much longer, Xena plunged her fingers deep inside, finding no resistance from the eager bard. Gabrielle pressed down hard on the digital penetration and began rocking her hips against Xena's hand. The warrior kept up a steady rhythm and easily slid in a third finger. She sucked on a spot near Gabrielle's collarbone and held the bard tightly as her hips bucked wildly against her insistent thrusts.
"Take me. Take all of me," Xena growled.
"Yes, Xena! Yes!"
Callisto never wanted the moment to end. She had envisioned the erotic scene for nearly her entire life but she had never dreamed it could be this divine. Her trembling body was alive with years of unfulfilled passion as it cascaded over her in unrelenting waves. With godlike control, she withheld her imminent climax for as long as she could. With each thrust of Xena's strong fingers, she savored the vibrating current that swept through every pore and cell. Finally, she could no longer hold back and surrendered to the tidal wave that washed over her.
"Xena!" she screamed as the warrior bit down hard on her shoulder just as Callisto exploded into orgasm.
Spurred on by Gabrielle's display of ecstasy, Xena succumbed to her urgent need for release. She lifted the smaller woman from her lap and laid her down on the bed. Quickly, she unhooked her leather tunic and removed her garments until her nude figure glowed faintly in the muted candlelight. Her blue eyes sparkled with unbridled desire and Gabrielle beckoned to her enticingly. She descended upon her beloved bard with her lithe frame. Her skin melted into the soft curves and she hungrily sought out the bard's delectable lips once again. The fire between her legs ached with a longing as she smeared her juices against the bard's thigh.
"Xena," Callisto whispered. "Let me please you, I want you so much."
"Oh yes, Gabrielle, I need you."
Callisto was delirious with prurient lust. All she thought of was burying her face into Xena's luscious nectar. Her lips lit a fiery trail along the sloping curves of Xena's breasts, as she devoured the fleshy mounds that quivered in her wake. Xena entwined her hand through her hair and urged her down to her wet center but Callisto refused to be rushed as she languidly circled elaborate patterns along Xena's taut abdomen. Her fingers dipped into the warrior's slippery mound and she voraciously licked the delicious juice from her skin. Callisto broke out in a wide grin when she heard Xena moan above her.
"Gabrielle, I can't wait any longer," she pleaded.
Callisto continued her random lingual patterns as she leisurely blazed a path to Xena's dark triangle. She relished in the powerful effect she was having on Xena even though she knew that the warrior thought it was her Gabrielle. No matter, Callisto thought, she would get her revenge soon enough. That thought heightened her furious passions and her mouth found the dark hairs that signaled the entrance to the warrior's secret treasures. Callisto rubbed her cheek against the rough hairs, smearing her skin with the sticky juices that seeped out. She twirled her tongue through the tiny hairs, not quite wanting to imbibe on Xena's tasty treats just yet.
"Gabrielle, let me . . ." Xena pleaded again as her hips gyrated helplessly.
"Beg me, Xena," Callisto teased and paused momentarily from the maddening slow torture. "Beg."
Xena was nearly crawling out of her skin with a maniacal lust. She remembered the bard's little game from before but this time it took much more of her self-restraint. She immersed herself in the complete and utter surrender of Gabrielle's conquest, despite her overwhelming need for release. How much longer she could hold out, she wasn't sure.
"Please, release me, Gabrielle" the warrior panted. "Please," she begged.
Callisto heard the magic words, and burrowed her tongue deep into Xena's overflowing center. She hungrily lapped up the carnal juices and savored the sweet taste of ambrosia on her palate. She delved into the velvety folds and wanted to get lost in the flowing heat of Xena's core. The warrior's thighs clamped tightly against her cheeks and she relaxed into the supple smoothness of the quivering flesh. Her tongue delicately uncovered the tiny bud hidden beneath its hood and the warrior cried out with pleasure.
Xena held tightly on to Callisto's head and the goddess rejoiced in sheer ecstasy. She was at the threshold of her long awaited satisfaction. Three fingers deftly entered Xena and the warrior rose up from the bed to meet her plunging thrusts. Callisto lifted her head to watch Xena intently as the warrior thrashed wildly with untamed fervency. She replaced her thumb on the sensitive nub and continued her overzealous onslaught that carried Xena to the brink of orgasm. Finally, the warrior lifted her back in a high arc and stiffened for several moments before she dropped down to the bed, spent and weak.
Xena took several long moments to catch her breath and invited the bard to rest on her chest. Callisto happily obeyed and the warrior held her tightly as she caressed the soft curves of her back. The goddess breathed in the fragrant remnants of Xena's sweating body and knew she would remember this moment for the rest of her immortal life. She was certain Xena would never forget it either.
"Xena." Callisto said.
"Hmm," Xena replied, not quite wanting to speak just yet.
"I bought a present for you at the marketplace," she purred.
"Yes, for the Summer Solstice," Callisto answered. "It's right here, let me show it to you."
The sun began its descent over the horizon as Gabrielle made her way through the city streets of Athens. She was surprised at how late it was. She only meant to take a walk after witnessing the disturbing scene in the barn, but somewhere along the way she fell asleep near a comfortable tree. It was quite unlike her, but she thought that maybe the shocking events of the day made her unusually tired.
Gabrielle played out the scene in her mind for the umpteenth time. She had so many questions to ask and there were no rational answers. How could Xena murder her lover? she wondered. What made her do it? Was the woman's only crime infidelity? Or was there a larger picture that Nestra didn't know about? And what exactly did Nestra see? Xena admitted to killing two women, were they both her lovers? Marking her lovers was one thing, but killing them too? To Gabrielle, that was beyond justification.
The bard had so many questions bouncing around in her head that she was getting dizzy all over again. And she was scared. For the first time since she'd met Xena, she was afraid of the dark warrior. Would Xena kill her, too, if Gabrielle were to be unfaithful? The bard knew as long as Xena was in her life, she could never love another. But she wondered what would happen if Xena falsely accused her or someone else of infidelity and attacked them before asking questions. On a number of occasions, she had seen the warrior accost any number of men who dared to cast an appreciative eye in the bard's direction. Although she was sometimes annoyed by such volatile behavior, she also felt protected in a special kind of way. But not now. Now, she felt like she was in danger.
Gabrielle was willing to forgive Xena for crimes and atrocities she'd committed during her warlord days. In her mind, somehow she justified those acts as acts of war. She knew war made people do crazy things, things they would later regret. But how could killing her lovers have anything to do with war? She was at a loss as to how Xena could justify these horrific crimes. She wasn't even sure she wanted to tell Xena what she knew. Maybe it was best that she just leave Xena in Athens and go back home. Her heart ached painfully as she struggled to put one foot in front of the other and headed out of the City gates.
Callisto rose from the bed and retrieved the prized necklace from its hiding place. She clasped the jewelry in her hand and nearly squealed out loud in her joy. She turned back to face Xena, and kept one hand hidden behind her.
"First, Xena, you have to sit up and close your eyes," Callisto teased playfully.
"All right," Xena smirked as she sat up, closed her eyes and waited expectantly.
Callisto kneeled beside her on the bed and dangled the necklace around Xena's neck, holding the chain away from her chest. She held her fingers steady and paused before she closed the tiny clasp that would seal Xena's eternal fate. Callisto wanted to wait until the warrior fully comprehended her intention.
"Okay, you can open your eyes, now."
Xena looked down and lifted the item with her hand. She beheld a dazzling medallion, made of a pure smooth gold. The embossed flames shimmered in the candlelight and the azure pupil cast off a twinkling sparkle.
"Do you like it, Xena?"
"It's gorgeous, Gabrielle," Xena said, stunned by its magnificent beauty. "You bought it in the marketplace?"
"Well, actually, Xena, Hephaestus gave it to me, and now I'm giving it to you," Callisto smiled.
"Hephaestus, the smith-god?" Xena asked bewildered. "Heph--?"
The warrior whirled around sharply to face Gabrielle as a wave of recognition crashed down with the weight of colossal boulders. As Callisto promised, it was too late. Instantly, she clipped the necklace into place. Xena's strength and willpower evaporated from her body and her eyes glazed over in a hypnotic trance. The warrior fell back heavily on the bed and her arms were pinned to her side by an unseen force. Try as she might, she couldn't remove the delicate chain that clung to her neck like a massive anchor.
"Xena, my sweet, be a good dear and tell Hephy I said hello," Callisto jeered at the fallen warrior. She threw her head back and howled with laughter. The moment of truth had finally arrived as she celebrated her long awaited triumph over the Great Warrior Princess.
The last thing Xena saw before she disappeared into oblivion was her beloved Gabrielle transform into the wicked Goddess of Evil named Callisto.
A flood of images enveloped Xena as she spiraled down in to a twisting whirlwind of fire. She was helpless to do anything save succumb to the breakneck speed that plunged her into the ocean of fiery lava. Pieces of her life whizzed by haphazardly until they melded and reformed into a massive whole that was her. Finally she settled into a throne at Hephaestus' side and the God of Fire rejoiced at her grand entrance.
The scenery changed and Xena laid in a luxuriant canopied bed fit for a queen. She wore a silky white dress that molded the curves of her body in a perfect fitting. The cursed jewelry of the smith god clung to her neck as a reminder of her imprisonment. Her mind flashed upon sporadic images of what transpired. She saw Callisto's evil grin as she transformed from Gabrielle into unspeakable horror. She also saw the real Gabrielle as she gazed lovingly into her eyes. "Gabrielle, I'll always be here" Xena whispered.
Again Xena tried to move her arms and remove the burdensome necklace, but her arms felt bolted in place and she could not move a single muscle. Her anger boiled over as she railed at herself for being so stupid not to catch Callisto's game in time. She was heavy laden with the knowledge that Hephaestus had the intention of holding her captive for all eternity. She was a prized possession to be sure.
Eternity, she thought. Oh what she wouldn't give to be with Gabrielle until the end of time. A tear escaped the corner of her eye as she yearned to be with her beloved bard and heal the gaping hole in her heart. She remembered the soft tresses of her golden red hair and how the wispy ends sometimes tickled her face when she hovered above her. Her smile could melt away any doubt Xena held before battle and a few simple words could ease the pain of her past. I love you, Gabrielle, she whispered into a vacuum of time. Imperceptibly, the vice that gripped her soul lessened somewhat and she moved a finger for confirmation. Yes! she exclaimed, and moved a second finger. Suddenly, an image of a distraught and forlorn Gabrielle walking on a road away from Athens appeared before her. Her heart agonized at the vision and she thought of nothing but enveloping her lover in her strong arms. Silently she railed against Callisto for separating her from the woman she loved more than life itself. Fury and rage clouded her senses and Xena could think of nothing but the ways and means to end the goddess' reign on immortality. Any glimmer of hope for escape she'd felt just moments before disappeared as quickly as it came. The hatred that filled her soul clamped down on her and held her steadfastly against the prison that was her fate.
"Xena, I can't lose you again!" Gabrielle cried. Those words filled Xena's heart as Gabrielle's face loomed before her with love and acceptance. In that moment, she knew that being with Gabrielle was her eternal fate. To her amazement the invisible binds on her again seemed to lessen and with instant clarity she knew she had found the key to her release.
In the glare of the mid-afternoon sun, Nestra kept up a steady pace on horseback along the road that led away from Athens. After leaving the great city in the late afternoon before, she and Brissea set up camp overnight, well outside the City gates. Since first light, they had been travelling at a steady but leisurely pace. The dark warrior was only too grateful to get away from the troubling events in recent weeks that put her and Brissea smack in the middle of Xena and Callisto's never-ending feud. Frankly, she was quite surprised that they had escaped unharmed although for a moment back there in the barn, she was certain she would have paid the fare for Charon's boat by now. Nestra cast a lingering gaze at her companion of the past four summers. She wasn't one to converse with the gods much, but if she had, she would have thanked each and every one of them for granting her and her lover their lives. She was anxious for things to get back to their regular routine.
Not for the first time since they left Athens, Nestra's recalled the look of genuine remorse on Xena's face when the former warlord admitted to the bloody crimes Nestra witnessed. She was taken aback by Xena's candid disclosure. She had expected a feeble explanation, or justification, or a weak excuse for her actions but instead Xena offered none. What she did was take complete responsibility for her crimes and conveyed a sincere regret. Maybe that little girl was having a transforming effect on her, Nestra mused. In the short time they spent together on their first excursion to Athens, Nestra noticed that whenever the young woman was around, Xena noticeably softened her demeanor. The difference was quite subtle, to be sure, but Nestra noticed and found it curious more than anything else. At the time, she was certain Xena was only using the innocent girl for whatever pleasures that could be had, but now she had her doubts. Maybe Xena really was in the love with the strawberry blonde.
Nestra perked up in the saddle as she spied a lone figure in the distance. It was vaguely familiar and she silently motioned to Brissea. They kept their pace and as they got closer, they recognized the young woman as she strolled along, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings.
"Gabrielle?" Nestra pulled her horse alongside the young woman as Brissea kept back a few paces.
The bard did not respond or break her stride as she studied the scenery before her; however, she did not appear to see anything at all. Nestra quickly looked back at Brissea and shook her head. She dismounted from her horse and Brissea followed suit.
"Gabrielle, where's Xena?" Nestra asked worriedly. Something bad had happened, she knew, she could feel it in her bones.
"I don't know;" Gabrielle replied, her eyes distant and glazed over.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know." Again the bard responded as if in a complete hypnotic trance. She continued to walk as she barely acknowledged that she had encountered the two women, let alone recognized them. Nestra didn't like the sound of any of it but she knew that she had to help the innocent girl. She was certain Gabrielle's lonesome appearance had something to do with Callisto and Xena's confrontation. The girl must have been walking all night long, Nestra surmised. Her clothes were dusty from the road, and sweat matted the bangs of her hair. Her cheeks were grimy, her mouth parched and her eyes were void of their usual gregariousness. She put her arm around the young woman's shoulders.
"Nestra, I don't like this," Brissea cautioned, her voice low and scared. She looked around in all directions for a sign of danger lying in wait.
"Yes I know, but we have to help her."
Brissea quickly agreed.
"Gabrielle," Nestra began, "have you been walking all night?" She stopped the bard in her tracks. Gabrielle twisted away from her and stared up into the bright sunlight. She did not bother to shade her eyes from its brilliance.
"I guess I have," she answered, then started to walk again.
Nestra quickly caught up with her and spun her around.
"Gabrielle, you have to stop." She shook the girl firmly as she tried to jolt her back to reality. "Gabrielle, you have to get some rest. Have you eaten anything?"
"No, I ha--------," the bard started to say and then collapsed to the ground.
Xena managed to raise her hand to her stomach. She used her formidable powers of concentration to focus solely on her love for Gabrielle. She pictured her smiling face, her animated expressions when she unfolded a story, her emerald eyes when they gleamed with passion, how comforting her arms felt when they wrapped around Xena's waist when they rode Argo together.
Every time a wayward glimpse of Callisto or any other dark thought entered her mind, Xena would lose ground and become stationary once again. Come on, Xena, she chided herself, think of Gabrielle. Gabrielle, she whispered to the absent bard, I'll be there soon, my love. Again Xena went through a pattern of images of her sweet Gabrielle. After several long moments and with great effort, one finger reached up and snagged a link on the accursed necklace. The warrior yanked it off and the necklace broke in two, releasing Xena from its captive spell. Xena jerked up from the bed and magically, the white gown disappeared, only to be replaced by her armor and weapons. Xena was on her feet instantly and rushed to the doorway. She cocked an ear to listen for the direction that Hephaestus' workroom would be.
"Very good, Xena. You surprised me, I thought you would go the other way."
Xena whirled around to greet the person who spoke those words and came face to face with Hades, God of the Underworld.
Gabrielle watched intently as she saw herself make love to Xena. It never failed to stir her loins when she saw how she made her beloved warrior writhe in the throes of heated passion. She stayed rooted to the spot beside the bed, transfixed by the scene that played out before her. Then she and Xena were finished and Gabrielle watched herself get up from the bed and retrieve a golden necklace. The necklace from the marketplace, she remembered. The handiwork of a god, Hephaestus. That's odd, Gabrielle thought, she didn't remember giving Xena the necklace. She watched as she placed the necklace around Xena's neck. To Gabrielle's shock, the warrior fell back as if stricken and the bard heard herself say, "Xena, my sweet, be a good dear and tell Hephy I said hello." Xena's body disappeared and Gabrielle watched with horror as she herself transformed into Xena's arch nemesis, Callisto.
"XENA!" Gabrielle shouted and sat upright, visibly shaken from her terrifying nightmare. She quickly scanned her surroundings and tried to place where she was. Xena was no where to be found.
Nestra and Brissea raced to her side. The bard had been sleeping since they found her on the road the day before. From mid-day to mid-day counted twenty-four candlemarks and now it was a good four candlemarks past that.
"Are you all right?" Brissea asked worriedly.
"Where's Xena?!" Gabrielle asked excitedly. Nestra and Brissea exchanged a look.
"We were hoping you could tell us, Gabrielle," Nestra spoke softly and tried her best not to worry the young girl unnecessarily. "Yesterday, we found you walking along the road."
"Yesterday? I've been sleeping all this time?" She threw off the bedroll and scrambled to her feet.
"Yes, Gabrielle, you need to rest. You had been walking all night from Athens, with no food or water." Nestra tried to put a comforting hand on the bard's shoulder to get her to at least sit back down, but Gabrielle brushed her off.
Brissea picked up where Nestra left off, "You were in a daze and we tried to ask you what happened but you didn't know. Do you know where Xena is?"
"Callisto," the bard said contemptuously as her eyes narrowed with grim determination. "Xena's in trouble. We have to go back to Athens," Gabrielle said. She hurriedly began packing things without waiting for the two warriors to help her.
"We only have a few more candlemarks of daylight left," Brissea warned.
"How did I know we were somehow going to end up heading back to Athens?" Nestra asked rhetorically. "Again." She took in sigh of resignation and shook her head. After a moment's hesitation, she and Brissea helped the bard gather up their belongings.
"What did you mean when you said you thought I would go the other way?" Xena asked. She stood before Hades' throne and gazed upon the flames of Tartarus. The God of the Underworld had offered her a seat at the massive table but she opted to remain standing.
"You chose love, Xena. I undoubtedly expected you to use your hatred against Callisto to escape. It worked wonders for her. She even talked her way out of it but she didn't try anything but hatred as her motivation."
Xena remembered her initial struggle and how hatred weakened her but her love for Gabrielle gave her all the strength she needed.
"Yes, I saw that, Xena. But it was not so long ago that it would have been the opposite for you just as it was for Callisto. I'm sure Aphrodite will be proud of you. And Ares? Well, I'm sure he's crawling out of his skin with rage." Hades allowed a small smile to curl the corner of his mouth.
"What do you want me to do?" Xena asked impatiently. She was anxious to be reunited with her beloved bard.
"Callisto belongs in Tartarus, Xena. Everyone knows that, but capturing her will be a problem. She's a goddess now and possesses all our powers. She's been hiding ever since her triumph over you. I want you to lure her out, to be the bait, if you're up for it. If there's anything I've learned about Callisto, it's that she plays a one-note tune with single-minded determination. And you're it. In a way, it's quite fascinating, but she must be stopped. So you lure her in and let me do the rest. I have special plans for the wayward goddess."
"Can you do that, Hades? I thought the gods weren't supposed to interfere." Xena was hopeful of seeing the ultimate demise of her hated rival but she was skeptical of the heavy price she would have to pay for Hades' favor. On the other hand, if she wanted to be with Gabrielle ever again, she would risk everything.
"That's only for mortals, but she's not a mortal anymore. She's a goddess now. What did you call her? Oh yes, the Goddess of Evil. What a moniker. But she's not a true goddess, Xena, only a goddess by accident. I seem to remember a certain warrior princess leading her to the ambrosia, do I not?"
"And your point is?" Xena raised an eyebrow. It wasn't like Hades to prattle on and circle around the heart of the matter.
Hades took in a deep breath and sat back in his throne. He pressed his fingertips together and formed a steeple as he guided his index fingers to his pursed lips.
"I want you to help me, Xena, but hear me out first." Hades stood up to face Xena and looked squarely in the stoic warrior's eyes. "Like I said, I want you to lure Callisto out of hiding and distract her long enough so I can do what I have to do." He paused. "But I must caution you, if she kills you, you will end up back with Hephaestus."
"But I thought-----" Xena began, a puzzled look on her face.
Hades shook his head. "You only escaped the necklace's power but it was because of me that you escaped his domain. I can only give you this opportunity to change your fate, but if you fail, well, you will have to be resigned to the fate Callisto set for you. Of course, if you win, you will be mortal again and a new thread begins."
"Hades, you know I have no choice. I must go back to Gabrielle," Xena said quietly, her heart once again burning from her need to be with the love of her life.
"Go." Hades said simply and waved his arm. Xena vanished from the room.
Hephaestus appeared in the room moments later.
"You let Xena go?!" the God of Fire asked incredulously.
Hades sighed heavily as he grew weary of having to placate his naive nephew.
"Next time, Hephaestus, pick women who don't have such strong wills." And with that, Hades casually dismissed the lame smith-god as he turned around to admire the soothing flames of Tartarus.
Gabrielle rode behind Nestra as they galloped along at a steady pace toward Athens. The three women wanted to gain as much ground as they could before nightfall. They knew they would have to make camp shortly as none of the women wanted to travel in the darkness despite the urgency to rescue Xena.
The bard's stomach churned yet again as she thought of the vicious tricks Callisto must have foisted upon Xena. She was sure her nightmarish vision had actually happened and it was not a part of her unconscious fears. She was constantly bewildered by the capacity Callisto possessed to conjure up such vile and rancorous acts for Xena to endure. Gabrielle was grateful that she herself was incapable of such maliciousness.
"Let's stop here," Gabrielle yelled behind Nestra. The three women dismounted, hastily tethered the horses and set up camp. As the women settled in, the blazing fire became the focal point of the small party as each one was lost deep in her own thoughts. They sat sipping tea made from a few herbs Brissea retrieved from her saddlebag. Gabrielle broke the silence.
"I have to know if it's true what you said about Xena slaying her lover," Gabrielle stated quietly at the fire. There was a quaver in her voice as she wasn't sure she wanted to hear an honest answer. Initially, she had been terrified of Xena and what she was capable of but the more she thought of how much she loved Xena and how much she needed her, the more she would be willing to forgive. However, she refused to do it blindly, she needed to know the truth and she needed to know why.
Nestra glanced quickly in Brissea's direction. Brissea nodded at her lover and confirmed what she knew in her heart was the right thing to do. Nestra knew Gabrielle's statement was directed at her and she concluded that the young woman must have overheard the conversation in the barn. She decided that Gabrielle deserved to know everything and make her decision based on the truth.
"Yes, that's what I saw," Nestra answered, her gaze on the fire.
"There were two women. Were they both her lovers?" Gabrielle asked, this time turning to face Nestra as she searched her light brown eyes for genuine sincerity.
"No," Nestra replied. She relayed the entire story but omitted a few of the more gruesome details. She saw no need to spitefully hurt the girl who she guessed as a bard, had a particularly vivid imagination.
Gabrielle had but one question. "Why?"
"I don't know," Nestra answered quietly.
"How did you find out? Did you overhear us talking in the barn?" Brissea queried.
Gabrielle nodded, too overcome with emotion to speak. Tears brimmed her eyes.
"Gabrielle, listen," Nestra put her arm around the overwrought bard's shoulders. "I never would have thought it possible, but Xena is a changed woman. I don't know what happened that day, but all I know is what I saw the other day in the barn. I saw genuine remorse in her eyes. It was as if she wished she could take back that day and make like it never happened. Let me tell you, I hadn't expected that. All these years, when I thought about confronting her with it, I expected her to justify it somehow, to give herself an excuse, but she didn't. She has truly changed and believe me, I'm shocked."
"Really?" Gabrielle asked. A small smile creased her mouth. It was satisfying for her to hear old combatants of Xena's acknowledge that she had changed from her days as the Warrior Princess. But Nestra wasn't just acknowledging it, the ebony warrior was praising Xena, and that felt extra special to Gabrielle. The burden on her heart began to noticeably lighten.
"Yes, really," she said. "Gabrielle," Nestra added with more force than she intended. A strong hand firmly squeezed the bard's shoulder. "I don't know how you did it, but you've changed Xena, you really have. I see the way her demeanor alters when she's around you. It's subtle, but it's there. Don't let this one thing ruin the love you share with her. You two are as one as we are," Nestra gently patted Brissea's thigh and felt her lover close her hand over her own. "Trust me, that kind of love doesn't happen very often. But Gabrielle, you don't want this thing to come between the two of you, talk to her," Nestra finished.
"I will," Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you."
"Gabrielle," Xena said as she emerged from the dark forest. All three women leaped to their feet.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed and raced across the campsite and into the warrior's loving embrace. "Are you all right?" she exclaimed breathlessly as she prodded Xena's body in search of injuries.
"Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn't," a familiar voice taunted. "I already dealt with you one time, Xena. Why don't you just be a good little girl and stay dead, hmm?"
All four women peered into the dark night as Callisto; the Goddess of Evil shimmered into view.
At the distinctive sound of Callisto's voice, Xena and the two warriors simultaneously withdrew their swords. Gabrielle readied her staff. The evil goddess twirled her blade as she prepared for battle.
"Don't tell me you're going to spoil it by bringing your friends into it, Xena?" Callisto scoffed.
"No, I'm selfish that way, I'd thought I'd keep your demise all to myself," Xena deadpanned as she closed the distance between her and Callisto while at the same time, created a larger gap between the goddess and Gabrielle. Without further direction, Nestra and Brissea knew to let the two enemies fight it out. Gabrielle silently watched in excruciating horror as the indomitable Callisto returned to torment Xena yet again.
Glancing at Nestra and Brissea, Callisto sneered, "I see you two finally got your foolish wish to follow the Warrior Princess. So follow her to her death!" And on the last word, Callisto lunged at Xena.
Xena easily defended herself against Callisto's thrust. She whirled around and laterally swiped at the blonde warrior, who easily blocked her. Stroke for stroke and parry for parry, the two evenly skilled warriors forged a blazing heat that was matched only by the fury in their eyes. The cool night air resonated with the echoes of their deadly metallic dance. Xena was the first to show signs of tiring, however, and Callisto, as an immortal goddess, barely worked up a sweat.
"What did Velasca say, hmm?" Callisto jeered in between strikes. "You can't keep this up forever, Xena. I can."
"It won't take forever," Xena repeated the same prediction she gave Velasca, however, the dark warrior knew she was tiring and would soon have to make her move. After a few more swipes and thrusts, whirls and twirls, she knocked Callisto down to one knee and used the momentary lapse to her advantage. She climbed the bark of a nearby tree and somersaulted in a high arc, landing behind her hated rival.
As soon as Callisto spun around, Xena was upon her and clutched at her leathered armor. She shoved her hard against the broadside of a tree and pressed a strong forearm across her windpipe. Their faces were so close; Xena could feel the blonde warrior's breath against her cheek. She wasn't quite sure what she would do with Callisto, as she knew mortal death was not an option. Unfortunately, in that moment of hesitation, Callisto wedged an opening that only an immortal goddess could slink through.
"That's right, Xena. You can't kill me, so what will you do with me, hmm?" Callisto's whispered words were meant only for Xena. The dark warrior found herself drawn against her will to the pouting full lips of her nemesis. The blonde goddess' beguiling chestnut eyes made all of Xena's surroundings fade away and she saw nothing save Callisto, who beckoned her and enticed her to join her forever in the Elysian Fields or Tartarus, wherever she wished.
"You can't resist me, my beautiful warrior princess, can you?"
"No," Xena sighed breathlessly.
Xena released her steely vice across Callisto's chest and her lips parted to accept the goddess' invitation to Paradise. Helplessly, Xena began to drown in a melting pool of fire. She dropped her sword and grasped Callisto's shoulders tightly as she pulled the smaller warrior closer to her. The blonde goddess dropped her sword as well and she deftly removed Xena's protective breastplate. It landed on the ground with a thud.
Gabrielle's eyes hardened when she saw Callisto seize her fearless warrior in an erotic kiss. And with the removal of Xena's armor, Gabrielle was unwillingly led to thoughts she didn't want to imagine. Was there no end to the sickening depravity that Callisto would foist upon the two lovers? she wondered.
"Callisto! Get your perverted hands off of her!" Gabrielle shouted. The blonde warrior withdrew from Xena with a flamboyant smack of her lips.
"I'd say she likes my 'perverted' hands just fine," Callisto grinned as she traced a delicate line along Xena's jaw with one alabaster finger. Xena confirmed Callisto's words as her face tilted up to meet the goddess' caress.
"Can your touch compete with a goddess', hmm?" she taunted Gabrielle. Callisto cast a quick glance at the bard, then resumed her searing kiss with Xena. Without thinking, the bard took a step in their direction.
Inexplicably, Xena spun Callisto around so that her back was against the tree and, as a result, the blonde warrior was exposed to open space. Xena kept her strong muscular arms wrapped around the evil goddess and held her firm, her open mouth never breaking contact.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk, Callisto, you are oh so predictable."
A figure appeared behind Callisto and before he spoke, the blonde goddess knew the end had finally arrived. In a panic she tried to pull away from Xena but the warrior held her in a lip-locked kiss of death.
Hades clipped Hephaestus' golden medallion around the wayward goddess' neck and her shrieks reverberated in the still night air. Her godlike form twisted and shrunk into a minuscule funnel that was sucked into the eye of the necklace. Then the God of the Underworld tossed the necklace into the air and caught it in a tight fist.
"Well, I guess that's that," Hades announced triumphantly and inhaled a deep sigh of relief. "Thank you, Xena," he said as he extended a hand to Xena, who had fallen to one knee. Gabrielle raced to her side to help her to her feet.
"You took long enough! That was too close for comfort," Xena admitted with a shake of her head. Despite her victory over Callisto, she was still weak and shaken by the goddess' nearly fatal wicked spell.
"What do you mean? I was waiting for you to turn her around," Hades replied in mock indignation.
"Well, I was a little . . . um . . . pre-occupied at the time," she retorted. Xena wiped away the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand and held Gabrielle's waist with the other. "Is that it then? Is she gone for good?" Xena asked. She wanted Hades to confirm what she already knew to be true.
"As long as I rule the Underworld, she is. Don't worry, I have a special place for her. Trust me, Tartarus won't be good enough." And with a deep bow, he thanked Xena once again and disappeared into the darkness.
As soon as Hades vanished, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and clung to her as the warrior circled the smaller woman's waist. Neither woman said anything for several long moments as they held each other in a tight embrace. Xena spoke first.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry, I had to---------," Xena began.
"It's okay, Xena, she's gone, that's all that matters," she said softly as she reached up to reclaim her warrior's lips that only moments before had nearly been doomed to Callisto's fate. Xena fervently returned the kiss as the realization of how close she came to losing Gabrielle forever sunk in.
"We'll see you in the morning," Nestra said quietly as she and Brissea began to gather up their sleeping gear. They would camp several meters away to allow the two women a private reunion.
Xena reluctantly withdrew from Gabrielle. "Um . . . yeah . . . first light," she said distractedly, not taking her piercing gaze away from the bard's glimmering eyes. Neither woman spoke, as they stood transfixed by each other's love.
The warrior slowly leaned into Gabrielle and tenderly brushed her lips with her own. Xena allowed her mouth to convey what simple words could not. They had been through so much recently that she had almost forgotten what it felt like to be home in Gabrielle's embrace. Welcome home, Xena, her entire being seemed to announce. Xena lifted the smaller woman and carried her over to the bedroll and gently rested her on the ground. She lay beside Gabrielle and enveloped her in her arms, not wanting to let go or do anything else.
"Just hold me, Gabrielle," she whispered. And Gabrielle did. For most of the night, they stayed that way until roaming hands rediscovered their amorous pathways. Neither woman slept very much all night.
Hades watched over the warrior woman and her bard until they retreated to their bedroll. Slowly, and with a contented smile on his usually grim face, he turned his attention back to his domain and his cherished Helmet of Invisibility. He lifted the helmet and scrutinized a new jewel recently added to the design originally forged by Hephaestus. There was an unmistakable familiarity to the spherical shape embedded in the metal helmet. Hades grinned at the embossed flames that surrounded an almond shaped eye that glared back at him with furious contempt. Be well, Callisto, he said to the brown eye that glowed brightly, I was right, Tartarus is too good for you. The God of the Underworld gently placed the helmet back on his table and turned to face the flames of Tartarus that never failed to bring him peace.
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