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ROPE TRICK

By M. Parnell
xedi1@hotmail.com


Part 2

A small world away, in Rustica, Gabrielle protested as yet another cut of succulent roast lamb was set before her. Twickenham looked on delighted, and his family, mother father, and two sisters sat around the large table, beaming at the honored guest, the bard, the friend of Xena, Warrior Princess. The initial welcome had been great. Twickenham had been genuinely glad to see her, and the two had spent the afternoon sharing memories and swapping tales. Twickenham had a wealth of stories about their mutual friends at the Athens City Academy for the Performing Bards. He eagerly pressed Gabrielle for tales of her travels with Xena, but she had put him off. She put her reluctance to talk about her down to residual anger, but now she couldnít detect any anger. What she felt was a sorrow that Xena wasnít here to share the meal. Why had she insisted she not come? She pictured Xena sitting in the inn in Amphipolis, smiling with pride at the feast her mother had prepared on their last visit. Lamb is Xenaís favorite, Gabrielle recalled, and they had it so seldom. The last time was in a small farmhouse near Delphi. In appreciation for a favor they had been given a nightís food and lodging in the barn. It was a nice gesture, but the wife was a worse cook than Xena, and Gabrielle had been sick behind the barn all night. Xena, she was convinced, could live on old boots. "It wasnít that bad," had been her only comment. This meal would have made her very happy.

"Something wrong?" Twickenham asked. "You just looked sad."

"I was just wishing Xena was here," Gabrielle answered truthfully. "Your mother is a great cook."

In fact, they hadnít slept that night. In the morning when Callisto drove a boot into her side to wake her, they both knew it was unnecessary. Dawn had streaked the sky before Callisto had stopped her chatter. So much talk, and nothing resolved, Xena reflected. Gabrielle and Joxer, Hercules and Solan, all stirred together in a cauldron of hatred, and their binding-broth was Xena. It had been impossible to shut her mind to Callisto, impossible to think for more than a moment about anything before she carried the conversation on to the next topic. Cold, hunger, exhaustion and mind-numbing noise were her companions as she struggled along behind Callisto. The blonde warrior was moving quickly now, although it seemed clear she had no destination in mind. Her impatience with Xena grew as the sun climbed in the sky.

Callisto stood with one hand resting on black leather, the other clutching the end of the rope, tugging slightly as Xena made her way slowly up a steep incline. "Oaf!" Callisto called out, as a variation on "clumsy," "dolt," "lummox," "buffoon," and a few others Xena had forgotten. It was a game to Callisto, one Xena could win only by ignoring the jibes.

"Iíve long suspected a few lessons in humility would do you good, dear. I wish now that Iíd arranged for the fair Gabrielle to join us. Wouldnít she love to see you now!" She held Xenaís chin and turned her face side to side. "You look a mess. We could both use a bath, but that unfocused stare gives you a totally different look. Scary," she declared. She hung Xenaís sword out of her reach and sat on the ground. "Iíve seen that look before, nothing there behind the eyes," she paused reflectively. "Canít see in, no one really looking out. I see it in my face, sometimes. I saw it on your face in Cirra." Xena felt her cheeks flush. "Donít be embarrassed," Callisto chided smoothly. "Thereís no one here on this whole wide mountain to hear us. And WE both know what you are, donít we? Donít we!" she repeated, voice strident. This could be bad Xena thought, just as the noose tightened and she fell to her knees. "Come here and tell me, Xena. Tell me what you are." She jerked the rope again and Xena was compelled to inch forward on her knees. "Tell the whole world," she gestured to the vista spread out before them, and tugged on the rope once more. Xena hastened to move as the rope moved, to prevent Callistoís strangling her in this frenzy. "Crawl on over, dear," she laughed and heaved on the rope, taking a step backward to obtain more leverage. In an instant the earth gave way beneath her and she was falling through space. At the end of the rope, Xena felt the rope grow taut and instinctively braced herself, pressing to the ground to avoid being drawn over the edge with Callisto. Abruptly, the rope went slack. For what seemed an eternity she listened to the shriek that came back over the cliff and reverberated through the mountains. At last it ended in a soft thud.

"Callisto?" Xena heard only her echo. She crept as near to the edge as she dared and turned her head to listen. Silence. She thought she heard a breath-no-a gasp. "Callisto," she called again, "answer me!" There was another gasp. Pain. Callisto was alive, and evidently injured. She couldnít have fallen too far. Xena had heard the sound of her impact, and the noises she made now were clearly audible. Thirty feet, she estimated. It might as well be a mile. Even if Callisto were conscious, and able to secure the rope around her, the rope wasnít long enough.

She crept back to the edge of the trail and felt with her feet for a sharp-edged rock. She sat before it and began to saw through the leather ties which bound her hands. She severed three ties before the bonds began to loosen. Callisto had been very cautious. At last she was able to snap the remaining cords with a sudden wrench of her arms. Pain stabbed at her fingers as long absent sensation flooded into them. She took a moment to absorb the agonizing tingling, then pulled clumsily at the noose which encircled her neck, and finally removed the hobble. With each movement she felt the horror of the past days drop away. She took a long shuddering breath, and at last was free to press the heels of her hands against her eyes and hold her aching head still for a moment. Gods that felt good! She looked around. The landscape still whirled. To her left rose a curtain of darks, brown and green. To her right all was light. There lay the sky beyond the cliff. Thirty feet down lay Callisto. She crept over to the cliff on all fours, dragging the bag behind her, the rope that had lately been her leash held in one hand. She called again to her blonde enemy: "Callisto. Answer me. Please!" From below came a sound of movement, rocks being displaced. Then a groan. "How badly are you injured?"

"Xena?" The voice was shaky. "Are you there?"

"Where else would I be?" the warrior answered sardonically. "Tell me how you are."

"I hurt my leg. I think my arm is broken." Her voice was an indication to Xena of how much pain she was in. Then again, Callisto was a fine actress--- She pushed the thought away. She had seen enough suffering to know when it was real.

"Lie still. Tell me where you are."

"Iím on a ledge." She paused to consider the essentials. "About twenty-five feet down." Xena hoped Callistoís observation was closer to the truth than her own guess of thirty feet.

"Is the ledge large? Is there room for two?"

"Miss me already? How sweet---" Callistoís attempt at humor ended flatly, as a new gasp escaped her.

"Save your breath for the essentials, Callisto. Can you see any handholds?" There was a long pause as Callisto struggled to examine the rock face.

"There are handholds. Might be enough. But near the top the rock juts out at a sharp angle, away from the cliff."

"Is there another route to take?"

"No."

"Then weíll have to make do," Xena said with resignation. "The rope wonít be long enough to drop to you. Iíll have to come down."

"You are serious." Callisto said too quietly to be heard.

"Iíll be a few minutes. I have some preparations to make."

"Your hands are rather thoroughly bound. Youíll need---"

"Thatís all taken care of," Xena assured her before backing away from the cliff.

She returned to the cliff a short time later with her bag, containing the blanket torn in strips, the water skin, and several short straight sticks, in case a splint was an immediate requirement. Her breast dagger was in its usual place. The rope was tied around the tree nearest to the cliff edge. She lowered it over the side, and called down to Callisto again. "How far does it reach?"

"Only a third of the way. Xena, this will never work."

Shouldnít have cut the rope to make a hobble, Xena admonished her silently, but called down heartening words: "Weíve both done harder things. Have some faith." That was odd, she realized. Why should Callisto have faith in me? I let her die in a quicksand pit, and maneuvered her into a cauldron of lava. She might think Iím coming down to finish the job.

"Iím coming down now, Callisto. When Iím in view, let me know whatís in my path. All right?"

"Sure." Her voice was weaker.

Have to keep her conscious, Xena realized. As she descended, she kept up a steady stream of questions, designed to concentrate Callistoís mind and prevent her from drifting off. If Xena was the strength of the mission, Callisto was its eyes. Xena didnít want to be stuck on a cliff side with no idea what lay around her. Just as worrying was the fact that the dizziness had destroyed her sense of balance. She lowered herself by the rope until she felt that she was past the overhang. Callisto said it protruded at a sharp angle. "How far am I from the rock face?" she yelled to Callisto.

A long pause. "About six feet."

Great. "Anything to catch onto?"

"Protruding rocks. I donít know how secure they are. One or two scrubby bushes. About two feet to your left looks like your best shot."

OUR best shot, Xena thought grimly. Six feet ahead, and two feet to the left. It was all indistinguishable to Xena. Hope sheís right. She let go of the rope and took a leap of faith at the rock face. She slammed into it, fingers clutching frantically to grab anything. For long moments she skiddered down the side of the cliff, then her feet found precious chinks in the rock, and her right hand grabbed one of Callistoís bushes. She swung the other hand over to find its own hold, and she rested for a moment, content to be past the overhang.

" So far, so good," she called down.

"Show-off," was Callistoís only comment.

"If I drop this bag, will it land on the ledge?"

"Yes."

"Will it land on you?"

"I donít think so."

"Then itís coming down. Donít worry. I took the rocks out." She released the knot which held the bag to her and heard its soft landing a moment later. "That might help." As she prepared to continue her descent a new wave of dizziness swept over her. She pressed against the face of the mountain, waiting for it to pass, or lessen in intensity.

"Are you all right?" Callistoís concern was evident. Amazing what self interest will do. "Just fine. A bit dizzy. Itís passing. Why donít you figure out my next move? Right or left?"

Foot by foot, precious inch by inch, Callisto guided Xena to the most promising holds on the unforgiving cliffside. At no place could she rest against the rock, she was always clinging to a surface that seemed ready to pitch her to the ground. Muscles screaming, she concentrated on hearing Callistoís words and obeying as best she could.

Finally Callisto gave her some welcome news. "Youíre less than ten feet up Xena. The ground below you is clear." Xena breathed a thank you, and let go. She landed on her feet, and quickly sank to her knees, leaning against the rock at last, dragging in massive gulps of air. At last she sat back and turned her face in the direction of Callistoís breathing. She grinned crookedly. "Halfway there."

The ledge was small, but she had room enough to maneuver around the injured Callisto. She felt her neck first, and found a steady, strong pulse. "Youíll live." There was blood all over, it seemed. "Where is the blood coming from?" she inquired.

"My head, I think."

Xena probed her scalp and found a long but shallow cut. "These things bleed a lot, but it doesnít feel too bad. can you see all right?"

"Fine."

"Your skin is clammy. Shock. Canít do much to warm you up yet. Which arm is broken?"

"Sword arm," Callisto answered ruefully.

Xena groped for the arm and probed it tenderly. She shook her head, turning nearly-sightless eyes toward Callisto. "The bone is badly displaced. It needs to be set, but I canít do it here. Iím afraid youíll pass out. We need you to get us back up there."

"I can stand pain as well as you," Callisto said confidently.

"This isnít a competition. When Iím hauling you up that cliff the slightest jar will cause major pain. I donít want you to pass out then." Her voice didnít invite argument.

"So?"

"So, Iím going to deaden the pain for a while." Without waiting for a reply she located the proper areas on Callistoís neck and shoulder and struck with deft fingers.

Callisto breathed a sigh of relief. "Very clever. What now?"

"Which leg did you hurt?"

"Same side"

Xena felt the badly swollen area around her ankle. "Fracture. Best to leave the boot on for now. You wonít be walking for a while." Again, she probed for the nerves she needed to deaden, and did her work. The effect on Callisto was immediate.

"One nice thing about being a god," she reminisced. "No pain."

"Yeah, well, I wouldnít know," Xena said as she assembled the tools for her next job. "The ties that bind." She held the strips of blanket before her. "This gets tricky." She got on all fours next to Callisto, and instructed her to position herself on top.

"Sounds indecent," Callisto snickered.

"Glad you havenít lost your sense of humor. Can we save some energy for the task at hand? Climb on."

When Callisto was in place, Xena reached behind her to pass a long strip of blanket around them both. It was a cumbersome process. Callisto was little use. She repeated the process until Callisto was bound to her at strategic points as far as Xena could reach.

"Comfy?" she asked at length, as she tried each knot for strength.

"I must have hit your head harder than I thought," she said in reply.

"Why?" Xena asked exasperated. "What did you think I was going to do?"

"No idea. I was waiting to see the genius at work. Frankly, Iím disappointed."

"Letís hear your plan," Xena challenged. "None? Okay," she growled, "then we do this my way."

With an effort she got to her feet, hands pulling her up against the cliff until she was upright. The dizziness returned, and again she held on breathing deeply until it passed.

"Just two things, Callisto. Guide me to the best handholds, and always lean into the cliff, never away from it. The least imbalance that way and over we go. Our target is the rope dangling just beneath the overhang. Any questions?"

"Just one, Xena. Why?"

"Same reason you let go of the rope. Now letís go."

 

Just a few feet up Xena realized the challenge would be everything she had anticipated and more. "Youíre heavier than you look, Callisto," she grunted between movements.

"Iíll take that as a compliment," she said, voice a little fuzzy.

"Stay with me, Callisto," Xena warned her. Callisto leaned heavily into the warrior, as instructed. It was difficult for her to see what loomed above them. "I know this isnít easy," Xena encouraged, "not much longer."

A few feet from the overhang Xena took hold of a bush and pulled. The bush, roots and all, came out of its niche in the rock wall, and they began a rapid descent. Both women leaned instinctively toward the wall, and Xenaís fingerís scraped against the wall as they flew down. She finally caught hold, but they were now almost back where they had begun.

"Rotten luck," she commented, in dry understatement. "You still with me?" she said over her shoulder to Callisto. Xena felt the blonde head nod weakly against her shoulder.

"I thought that bush would hold," she explained.

Xena shrugged. If she allowed herself to think about it, she would have admitted that seconds ago, so close to the overhang and its waiting rope, she felt her strength was at its end. Now with the rope much further away, she quieted the aching muscles that screamed for relief and closed her mind to all but the task before her. "Where?" she asked for what seemed the hundredth time.

"Above, to your right, a crevice in the rock. Past that, on your left..." So they inched back up, and at last the rope dangled above them. Just out of reach.

"Itís no good, Xena," Callisto said with mild reproach. "The rope is out of your reach. If we climb any higher weíll be so far under the overhang it will be behind us."

Xena paused, and breathed while she considered. By herself, if she could see, she could leap...Stop it!, she scolded herself. Youíre not by yourself and you canít see. Deal with the possibilities. "How far out of reach?"

"Three feet, I guess."

The exhausted warrior ran her tongue over dry lips, and said, very quietly. "Callisto, I have a plan. Donít tell me itís impossible until youíve heard it through."

In seconds Xena laid the plan out. Callisto listened impassively, then began to shake her head side to side. Xenaís dark head was still but the enormity of her will might have persuaded the mountain to move just then. "It can work," she ended. "We can make it work. Do you know any two people on earth better equipped for it?"

"Gods, Xena. You sound as if youíre looking forward to it."

Xena smiled wryly. "Not quite, but weíre agreed?"

"Agreed."

Xena let go of the rock she held to remove her breast dagger and cut the ties that held Callistoís left arm to Xenaís body. Letting Callisto take the knife from her, she grabbed onto the rock again. The blonde warrior began slowly to cut the remaining ties, being careful to create no additional stress on Xena, who hung patiently from the cliff. At last Callisto whispered that she was free. She tucked the knife between Xenaís breasts and moved experimentally. Her right arm and leg were useless, worse, a hindrance. The left side, she knew would have to do all the work. "Ready," she said at last into Xenaís ear.

"Right," Xena said, remarkable confidence in her voice. "Just keep that yell going. Itíll be my only reference point. Now, go ahead." She braced herself for the new strain of Callisto climbing up her body, left arm pushing off her shoulder, left leg twining around her thigh. The foot came to her hip, and Callistoís knee rested briefly on her shoulder. Callistoís right side was dragged along, but merely brushed against Xena.

For a brief moment Callisto pulled herself up so that her foot touched Xenaís shoulder, then, with an ear piercing shriek she launched herself upward and lunged at the rope, caught it with one hand, and Xena was free of the burden. In that instant there came a second cry, so hard on the first it might have been itís conclusion, and Xena seemed to fly off the wall to grab her own piece of the rope just above Callisto. With her left hand she clung to the rope, with the right arm she reached down and encircled the dangling Callisto under the shoulders, and held her close.

"Around my neck," she managed.

Callisto threw her good arm around the dark warrior, and shuddered with dread at what might have been. Xena caught the movement. "Not out of the woods yet. Just hold on." She let go of Callisto and began a torturous hand over hand climb up the rope. No handholds to worry about, she told herself for encouragement, no problems to solve for the moment, just hold on and focus. Near the top it became difficult, when the rope was so tight against the ledge her hands could not find a hold. Then she said "Callisto, weíre here. Climb over me to the top." With one arm Callisto managed that, and collapsed on the ground, while Xena half dove over the top, and collapsed herself, next to the barely conscious woman.

It was then that Xenaís reaction set in. She lay on her back, sucking in great swallows of air, and a shiver went along her body. Her shoulder muscles burned, and the tips of her fingers left a sticky spot where they brushed against her body. She lifted one to her mouth and tasted blood. She rolled onto her knees and made her way to Callisto. She nudged her, but Callisto only mumbled incoherently. At least she waited until it was over, Xena conceded with grudging admiration. It had been no mean feat to leap for that rope with one side of her body disabled. She began the business of collecting bits of gear and weapons from the area. It was a tonic to put her greaves, bracers and breastplates on once more. Odd that the longer she spent on the cliff, the less frequent were the moments of dizziness. On firm ground again, the first wave hit her. Not too bad. She steadied herself against a tree until it passed. She attached the miscellaneous gear to her body and stooped to pick Callisto up from the ground. She seemed lighter now, small really, cradled in Xenaís strong arms. Careful to avoid the cliff she moved into the shelter of the trees.

Two hours later Xena sat for the first time, with nothing to do for the moment. It was not yet dark but a small, steady fire was spreading itís warmth around the small campsite. Callisto was asleep a few feet away, her bones set, bruises cleaned, wrapped in Xenaís long dark cloak. Xena stretched her long legs out and waited for supper to be ready. The small game she had hunted was skewered on sticks and positioned so near the fire that they would cook, but far enough away that they neither they, nor the sticks that held them would burn. Of course, it would take longer that way, but after all this time a few more minutes made little difference. She held her hand up to test her vision. It appeared as an indistinct form blocking the firelight. It would clear in time, she was sure, but the wait was agonizing, like everything else in this little misadventure.

Xena turned to Callisto as she sighed in her sleep. Two days before she would have laughed at the suggestion that she would now be sharing a campsite with Callisto, tending her wounds, watching over her sleep, while Gabrielle was miles away.

An strangled cry came from the injured woman. Xena was beside her in seconds; she reached a hand to her neck to feel her pulse, but the head rocked wildly from side to side,

and her body stiffened as if held in a vise. Xena froze; there was something familiar about this. "Mother! Mama," broke from the contorted lips. Tears began to fall from the eyes which were shut ever more tightly. Silently, Xena eased her arm under her left side, and positioned her ever so gently on her lap. Xena couldnít see Callistoís soft brown eyes open, and focus on her for a moment. "Shhh, itís all right, no oneís going to hurt you," the dark warrior breathed, stroking the blonde curls, rocking her slowly until the nightmare that was Cirra had passed.

An eternity later Callisto was quiet again, and Xena settled her on the ground once more. Her mouth was dry and her heart pounded in her ears as she found her way to her seat by the fire once more. She had created that nightmare, she knew, and the countless others that had preceded and would surely follow it. Xena knew about nightmares; they were her nightly companions, and although she hated burdening Gabrielle, many evenings she had been comforted by the bardís presence alone, even if she slept, or pretended to sleep through the episodes. More than once she had awakened to find her patient companion cradling her, chasing away her shadows. She looked in the direction of the steady breathing that came from across the campsite. Callisto would awaken every night alone, to face what? The renewed memory of her mother and sister trapped in their burning home? Xenaís nightmares were not about the death of Lyceus, or of her treatment at the hands of Caesar. She woke running from the horrors she had committed; Callisto woke from the agonies of a young girl watching her life be destroyed. Iím the monster in my own nightmares, and the monster in hers as well. She shivered; it was not from cold. She had set this little dance in motion years before. It would be played out now to the last step, whatever, whenever, that might be. She didnít blame Callisto for hating her, for making her a target. She just wished the others would be left alone, Gabrielle, Solan, her mother. Too late for Perdicus...What had Callisto said about Perdicus? The smell of crisping meat came to her nostrils, and she scrambled to save the lot from burning. She held one tiny skewered portion before her, and weighed Callistoís words. Had she reacted too slowly? Could she have saved Gabrielleís newlywed husband? The entire scene had seemed to be played out in agonizingly slow detail, as many battle scenes were. But how could she have acted differently? She held her head in her hands. Callisto had come to destroy her life. Sowing self-doubt was a master touch. She began to chew the meat; her hunger was past, and it was barely edible, but it was energy, and there was still much to be done. She hoped Callisto could be persuaded to swallow some, even if it was not up to Gabrielleís standards...She stopped chewing, stopped breathing for a moment. She looked around, half expecting that somewhere, in the blur that was her world, Gabrielle was ready to join her at the fire. She could almost smell the fragrant herbs she used in her hair rinse. Was it worth it Xena, she asked herself? Canít you ever get it right? If youíre not careful, you will end up alone.

Twickenham handed the small parcel to Gabrielle, and held her hand for a long moment, trying to read her eyes. "Iím s-s-sorry youíre in such a hurry to g-go, I w-o-o-ould have liked a longer visit," he said sincerely.

"Me too, Twickenham. Next time, Iím, weíre back this way. I think I feel guilty enjoying such comforts when Xenaís on the road by herself." It was half of the truth. She could have added that she couldnít really rest until she had set things right with the absent warrior. "Remember, if she comes to Rustica---"

"I k-k-know, G-G-G-abrielle, f-feed her, and give her a b-b-ed until you return."

ĎThanks," she smiled. She left him at the fork in the road, and followed the path that wound around the mountains to Krul.

"Now I see why you keep the brat around," Callisto said between mouthfuls. "You wouldnít last long eating your own cooking."

"I got by," Xena shrugged. Despite the complaint, Callisto had eaten well. She was finishing the last of the meat now. Xena couldnít gauge her color, but her voice was strong, and apart from the broken bones she seemed to have suffered no ill effects from the fall.

It was almost dark. The wind had grown in force, and the air had a touch of frost in it. Callisto sat propped against the trunk of a tree, the cloak wrapped closely around her. "You must be cold, Xena," she observed. "You wonít even have a blanket tonight."

"The fireís warm." Xena would have welcomed a blanket, but she had been worse off; she had been worse off the night before, with a blanket. "I have nothing for heating water," she continued, " or I would have made an herbal infusion. As it is, you can swallow this powder and wash it down with water. It will have the same effect." She held up a small pouch.

"And what is that effect?" Callisto asked doubtfully.

"It will help you sleep."

"I donít need help sleeping," she replied defiantly.

"Fine. It will also help the pain," Xena said patiently.

"I donít think so," she moved her blonde head slightly in negation.

"Suit yourself." She watched with fascination as Xena was crushed a bunch of small pungent leaves between two rocks. A strip of the torn blanket was spread open before her. She spread the paste on the cloth with her fingers, folded it over, sprinkled it with water, and lay it on a small rock near the fire.

"Is that smelly thing supposed to be for me?" Callisto inquired with turned up nose.

"No, thatís for me," Xena replied. "These leaves are from the right bush."

Callisto ignored the jibe. "Where did you learn so much about healing? Nikleo?"

Name dropping again, Xena observed. "Yeah, some from Nikleo. I learned a lot before I left Amphipolis."

"Oooh! How sweet. So if Cortese hadnít attacked your village, you would have been a healer maybe, instead of a murderer."

"Happy to hear youíre feeling better," Xena said between clenched teeth. "We need to get an early start tomorrow."

"We? You donít have to worry about me, Xena. Youíve done the honorable thing. This time. Didnít leave me to die on the ledge. Glad I donít have that overdeveloped sense of guilt," she boasted.

"Maybe Iím not doing this for you alone Callisto. This might be for me. You said I wouldnít leave this mountain alive without you, and I sure donít feel like sitting in the cold waiting for my vision to be restored. So weíre leaving together."

"I suppose Iíll be hopping?" she asked sarcastically.

"With your right arm broken you couldnít even handle a crutch to help you walk. Iíll carry you."

"Youíre legs and Iím the eyes again, huh? Together we almost make a whole person." She fell silent.

"Are you all right?" Xena cocked her head to hear.

Callistoís voice was strained when she answered: "I think Iíll try some of your magic powder, dear. Iíve had about all I can stomach of you this trip."

"Sure," she brought the pouch and waterskin over to Callisto. Xena took a generous pinch between two fingers. "Open up," she ordered. Callisto moved her mouth to take the powder from Xenaís fingers. She ended with a painful bite. She laughed, as Xena shook her finger, still bruised from the dayís climb.

"Oh, Xena, I couldnít resist. Now youíre gonna be grumpy, I suppose." Xena thrust the waterskin at her. "Doesnít matter. Youíll be asleep soon enough." And youíll have no nightmares tonight. She crossed to the poultice she had heating by the fire, laid it across her eyes and lay back, head cushioned on a pillow of leafy twigs. Almost over, she told herself, almost over. One last push down the mountain, and then what? Let Callisto hobble off by herself? That was a problem for another day. She pushed it aside, yawned, and considered what Gabrielle might be doing before sleep stole over her.

Callisto woke to the aroma of savory herbs and roasting meat. Xena sat on her haunches beside the fire, back to Callisto, poking at small green bundles with a long stick. Before she moved, Xena acknowledged her.

"Good morning. If youíre not hungry now, you can eat on the trail."

"Give a girl a chance to wake up," Callisto complained. "Are you always this eager to please, Xena, or is it my patient-status that brings out the nurturer in you?"

"I get hungry, Callisto." She turned to face her. "How do you feel?"

Callisto shrugged non-committally, recalled that Xena couldnít see the gesture and replied,

"About the same. I think your powder gave me a headache."

"Sorry," Xena apologized, although she knew Callisto lied.

"I think this splintís tied too tightly," she moved her arm slightly. "Iíll check it before we go," Xena promised. She held up a piece of meat wrapped in a broad savory leaf. "Hungry? These might be better than last nightís. I wrapped them in---"

"Burnet leaves? Sorry you went to the trouble. My mother cooked with those all the time. I think I liked it then; canít think why it makes me sick now."

Working with gravity was easier than fighting it. The same was true of Callisto. Her function was much the same as it had been on the cliff; there she had directed Xena to the best hand and footholds. Now she steered her around hazards on the path. She rode on Xenaís back, one arm around her shoulder, legs around her waist. Xena was sure footed; the poultice had minimally helped her vision, Xena thought cautiously. They were making very good time.

"Xena?" Callisto began plaintively, "I know you probably donít care after the way Iíve been, but..." Callistoís voice trailed off.

"What?" Xena halted and asked the question over her shoulder.

"We havenít stopped in hours. All day really, and the constant movement---"

"Iím sorry," Xena said sincerely. If it were Gabrielle she would have stopped long before now to give her a rest. "Weíll stop now. I have some more of the power if you need it."

"But then Iíd have to stop and sleep, and I know youíre in a big hurry," she demurred. "Missing the bard, huh?"

Xena ignored the question. "We can spare a few hours."

"Youíre too good to me Xena," Callisto purred. "In the end it wonít mean much, Iíll still have to play my part in our little drama, but Iíll treasure the memories of our excursion."

Xena released her hold on Callistoís legs and the slender blonde slid off, leaning on Xenaís arm to be lowered to a rock-seat. Xena stretched her long body, working out the stiffness she felt from the hours on the trail.

"I do have but one question, Xena."

"Whatís that?" Xena asked warily, all to used to Callistoís games.

"You see, Iím always in a quandary: before I kill you, should I kill Gabrielle, or just cause her to hate you?"

"If she hated me, would you leave her alone?" Xena didnít know why she asked the question.

Callisto pursed her lips, in apparent thought. "No," she answered at last. "Sheís given aid and comfort to my enemy too long for that. In most ways, I hate her most of all. Being your friend was a choice for her. Solan canít help it, no choice. He doesnít even know heís youíre son. But heís tainted with your blood. As for your mother," she wagged her head in disgust, "she---"

"Is there a point here, Callisto?" Xena jaw was clenched, as always when she tried to suppress anger, and she turned away from Callisto.

"Watch your temper, Xena. You know how you can get," Callisto warned. "And yes, there is a point. You see, Iím tired of being the only one in a quandary, so Iíll put you in one: Cyrene, Solan, Gabrielle. Save one."

Xenaís left eyebrow raised, unbelieving. "What?"

"Save one. Choose: mother who suckled you? Son you suckled, ever so briefly? Gabrielle, who serves gods-only-know-what purpose in your life."

Xena stood stock still, making no reply.

"Donít be thick, Xena. Itís not that hard a concept to grasp. Who should I spare? Say the name. And donít take all day. I might change my mind," she ended impatiently.

"You have a genius, Callisto," Xena acknowledged, hiding the salt-fury that swept through her.

"Yeah," the blonde smiled proudly." Iíve been working on that all morning. I only wish Iíd thought of asking Gabrielle the same question: spare you, or what was his---"

Xena was beside her in two seconds. The general blur that was Callisto stopped speaking for a moment, but didnít shrink from the barely contained rage that confronted her.

"Did I push too hard?" Callisto asked softly, the two warriors inches apart. "I know you wonít hurt me Xena, not now, not when Iím injured, not when you just risked your life to save me. Just as you endured so much because you knew I wasnít going to kill you - this time. Now relax and think. Choose wisely; I wonít ask again."

They had descended the eastern side of the mountain. The sunset was hidden from them, but it painted the sky a harsh orange as the day ended. Xena made their final camp, built a fire, killed a pair of quail, and retied the splints on Callistoís fractured limbs. Few words were uttered. The unspoken truce was drawing to an end. At intervals Xena emitted a low two-note whistle, hoping her big war-horse would appear. She figured to find Argo and head for Rustica, hoping Gabrielle was still waiting there. As she settled to sleep Argo was still missing.

Callisto was still awake, wrapped once again in Xenaís cloak. "Xena? When you tell the brat-bard of Potadeia about our adventure, donít leave anything out. I want her little stories to capture the true me. Nighty, night dear. Sweet dreams."

Later that night Xena heard movement around the camp. She lay still, pretending to sleep. On one foot, Callisto was noisy, but she managed to collect her sword and leave the circle of fire with amazing speed. Before she left she paused over Xenaís prone form and the dark warrior felt her warm cloak settle around her shoulders. In the morning Callisto was gone.

Gabrielle found Argo walking along the road only a few miles from the fork to Rustica. She had a strong sense that Argo had actually found her. She was still saddled, yet some of her gear was gone, as if Xena had chosen to go somewhere, certainly not Krul, on foot. No sign of trouble here yet, Gabrielle, she assured herself, just Argo fending for herself as she often does. They traveled the broad lush pastures that extended as far as the foothills until night fell. Argo seemed anxious to continue, but Gabrielle recalled one of Xenaís basic rules: avoid traveling when you canít see where youíre going. Or words to that effect. She rubbed the grateful mare down, and spoke of her to Xena while she worked. "Weíll find her in the morning, girl." Argo nickered softly. "I miss her, too."

Gabrielle heard the whistle from far off. She realized that Argo had been hearing it at intervals for some time; that would account for her skittish behavior. She felt skittish herself now, and familiar relief washed through her. Xena was all right, and not far away. Summoning her courage she mounted Argo and asked, nicely, for Argo to find Xena, with not too much haste. Showing admirable restraint, the tall mare moved at an easy canter down the road.

Xena first appeared as a speck a hundred yards off. She was moving slowly through a meadow, perpendicular to the road. She was wearing her cloak; that was odd, the day was not particularly cool. Argo plunged into the thick grass as Gabrielle called an exuberant greeting to her friend. "Xena!"

Xena cocked her head and waved an arm in response. Gabrielle was certain that her gait quickened, yet she seemed to be walking uncertainly. When they got nearer she saw that while Xena looked in her general direction, she did not look at her. She wasnít seeing her. She jumped from Argoís back and ran to the warrior. "Xena? Are you all right?" The bruise on her forehead and the eyes half shut against the light gave her the answer, but Xena spoke for herself. "Iím fine, Gabrielle, howís Argo?" She moved past the bard to examine the recently lamed leg. "Is she walking all right?" she asked with concern.

"Sheís fine Xena, why do you ask?"

"Last time I saw her she was lame." She stroked the mare, and accepted a lipping in return.

Gabrielle looked at the disheveled woman. Her body told the tale of an arduous journey, her neck bore the marks of the noose and her eyes were clearly not seeing much of anything.

"Last time I saw you, Xena, you sure didnít look like..."

"I know," she stopped her with a shrug. "I must look pretty bad, but Iím fine. Really. A little problem with my eyes. Itíll clear up in a day or two." She put a hand out to Gabrielleís face. "Letís see how you are," she said as her fingers brushed over the bardís countenance. She drew her hand back, fingers wet with Gabrielleís tears. "Do I look that bad?" she asked with mock alarm.

The fair woman shook her head, "No, you look great to me. Iím just happy to have you back." She sat, and pulled Xena to the ground with her. The grass was the softest thing Xena had sat on in days.

She breathed and lay back, shielding her eyes from the sun with one arm. Gabrielle watched, propped on one arm beside her. There was a weariness in Xena that troubled Gabrielle.

"Xena?" she began hesitantly, "can I ask what happened to you?"

"Callisto happened," she answered simply. "I ran into her shortly after we parted."

"Sheís out of the lava pit?" The color drained from Gabrielleís face as she spoke.

"Thatís the bad news. The good news is that sheís no longer a god, no longer an immortal."

"How...?"

"I have no idea," she shook her head marginally as she spoke. "When we met she was a god." Xena laid out in brief the trap Callisto had snared her in.

"Xena, maybe sheís lying now, maybe she is still a god---"

"No, Gabrielle. Sheís only too human," Xena said slowly. She described the fall and Callistoís injuries.

"You saved her?" There was no surprise in Gabrielleís voice.

"I watched her die once, Gabrielle. I couldnít leave her on the ledge."

"No, Xena, of course you couldnít," Gabrielle spoke sincerely, inspecting the fingertips raw from the ordeal on the cliff. "Was she awful? I mean, when she held you prisoner? It must have been a nightmare."

Funny she chose that word. "Iíve had worse nightmares," she said after a moment. "Iíve caused worse nightmares, " she observed bleakly. "By Callistoís standards she was almost pleasant."

Gabrielle looked at her uncertainly, as if this was some joke. "Thatís an odd choice of words."

"Thatís a very big Ďalmostí." She began to rub her eyes. Gabrielle moved her hands away and made a closer inspection. "Youíre sure your eyes will be okay? They donít look very good."

"A cold compress would help things along." She sat up and began to reach for her bag.

"Iíll take care of it Xena," Gabrielle volunteered.

"How was your visit?" Xena asked while Gabrielle worked.

"Fine." She poured not quite cold water on a strip of blanket. "I kept wishing you were there. His mother roasted lamb."

"Thatís what they do in sheep country," Xena confirmed. She was suddenly aware of being hungry. "Callisto isnít into food, so we were on short rations. You wouldnít have anything to eat?" Xena asked hopefully.

"I finished the last of my food for breakfast. Iím sorry," Gabrielle apologized. "Lie down."

Xena obeyed and Gabrielle placed the wet cloth across her eyes. "I wish Iíd been there," she said fervently.

"No you donít, Gabrielle." She grabbed Gabrielleís arm. "Donít you EVER wish to be near her," she said almost savagely. "Callisto is as dangerous as ever, god or no god. And yet..." her voice softened, and she searched for the right words. Something had happened on that mountain.

"What?" Gabrielle prompted gently.

"I donít know." How to tell Gabrielle that Callisto shared her memories, what she knew of Solan, suspected about the death of Perdicus...? And the terrible choice she had offered Xena. She forced a wry smile to her lips. "You know how Callisto loves to hear herself talk, it will take me a while to sort it out."

"This story sounds like one for the scrolls Xena. I want every detail."

"Donít worry. I wonít leave anything out," she said, knowing it was a lie.

The End



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