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Xena, Junior, Meets Callisto
DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Univ ersal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fict ion is intended. It's just for fun.
This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permis sion of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statemen t.
VIOLENCE: There is reference made to spousal and child abuse and its v iolent aftermath. There also are several occurrences of Xena-type violenc e and some hurt/comfort scenes. There is no intentional sub-text, just tw o strong women who are exceedingly close and caring friends.
Author's note: This story directly follows my previous story, "Dahak's Entrance Delayed," which should be read first in order to fully under stand references in this story.
My profound thanks to Surtees1 for her unerring ability to pinpoint we aknesses in a story and make useful suggestions for correcting them. I am grateful, my friend.
Please feel free to comment on why you did or didn't like the story. S uggestions are also welcome, as long as they don't leave bruises.
And, finally, thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to sen d me your comments on my other stories; I value your encouragement.
A huge party was planned in the Amazon village to celebrate the re scue of Queen Gabrielle from the evil Dahak. Xena and Gabrielle had retur ned to the Amazon village to await the celebration.
Xena woke up before the dawn, saddled Argo, and made her way out of th e Amazon village to the cool quietude of the forest to practice her drill s. The best way to stay sharp enough to outdo her enemies was to keep all her reflexes in tiptop condition. Lately, a change had been made to her usual routine. The young Amazon, Elisa, had asked Xena to teach her the d rills she used to develop her warrior skills.
Elisa was as tall as Xena, but thin and wiry. She had Xena's black hai r and bronzed skin, but her large eyes were the pale gray color of a stor my sky and seemed to go lighter or darker depending on her mood. She wore her hair pulled straight back into a single large plait that hung to the middle of her back. The girl's flat cheekbones and tip-tilted eyes gave her face an exotic, haunting beauty that she was totally unaware of.
Elisa had been astonished by the physical prowess of the Warrior Princ ess and had beseeched her to act as her teacher. For the past five predaw n mornings, Xena had been showing the young Amazon some of the basic dril ls and exercises she would need to become proficient in, before attemptin g anything further.
Gabrielle was a little jealous of the time that Xena was spending with Elisa, and Xena was aware of it. The warrior had reasoned that Gabrielle slept during that time anyway and assured her that their friendship was not in jeopardy. "Remember, Gabrielle," she had said, "the messenger from the One Creator told me your destiny was to be my pathfinder and mine wa s to love and protect you. I promise to do that, always."
That should have appeased the bard, and, on the surface, it did, but e motions have their own rationale and cannot always be persuaded to act as they should. Jealousy lurked.
This predawn morning, just as for the past few days, Xena and Elis a met at the stable as they were preparing their horses for the ride out. "Hi, Leese," the Warrior Princess acknowledged the youngster, then walke d to Argo. The golden palomino bumped her head into Xena several times in greeting. The warrior, grinning, wrapped her arms around Argo's neck in a quick hug, then rubbed the mare's forehead before saddling and bridling her.
"Hi, Xena," responded Elisa, still thrilled to be anywhere near the mo st awesome warrior she had ever seen. Elisa went to prepare her stallion, Viktor, also a palomino. She, too, gave her horse a hug, then got him re ady to ride. Once mounted, she followed the Warrior Princess to the clear ing she picked to practice her drills.
The warrior and her pupil reached their destination, dismounted, loose ned their saddles and dropped the reins to the ground, knowing the horses would stand there until needed. They walked away from each other, taking 5 paces apiece, then turned and faced one another. Even in the darkness of the predawn, they could see each other well enough for Elisa to follow Xena's movements. After several warm-up drills, the two women spent the next hour mirroring each other, doing exercise after exercise with many r epetitions of each one. Each exercise started at a slow pace then increas ed in speed until each was going as fast as she could. Elisa still had fa r to go to catch up to Xena, but, after only five days, improvement was a pparent.
By this time, dawn had broken and the early morning sun lit the surrou nding landscape. Light flowed through the openings between the trees and filled the clearing.
"OK, Leese," Xena said. "We've run through all the usual basic drills that I do. Now, let's have some one-on-one swordplay. Try, as hard as you can, to hit me."
Elisa had some expertise with a sword; she had been practicing with on e for five of her seventeen years and had even fought well in a few battl es. But if she had any idea that she could come close, yet, to the Warrio r Princess, she soon found out she was wrong. Her first three attacks on Xena left her without a sword. The warrior nonchalantly flipped her blade right out of her hand.
For five long minutes, Elisa tried to lay a sword somewhere, anywhere on Xena's body. Every time she caught her breath, fearing that she might wound the Warrior Princess, her sword struck air. In these instances, Xen a's sword would touch her lightly in a vulnerable spot to illustrate how the Amazon was leaving vital parts of her own body unprotected.
"Take a ten-minute break, Leese, then it's my turn," the warrior grinn ed wickedly. The two women stopped for a rest and Xena shared some water and biscuits with the young girl.
"I'm better at throwing knives, Xena," the girl offered.
The Warrior Princess arched an eyebrow at the girl, jumped up, went ov er to Argo's saddlebag and pulled out a large square of dirty parchment. Then she found a marking stone and drew a large target on the parchment. She walked to a tree about 20 feet away and turned her head to Elisa. "Is this too far?"
"No," Elisa grinned," take it twice again that far."
Xena raised both eyebrows and shrugged, but she moved the target sixty feet away and stuck it to a tree with her breast dagger. Then she went b ack to the saddlebags, picked out four throwing knives and brought them o ver to Elisa. "Try these, they are really well balanced," the warrior sug gested.
The young Amazon hefted each one, nodding her head in agreement. "Thes e do feel good, Xena, but I prefer my own, thanks." Elisa reached down to a scabbard attached to her boot and pulled out a knife. She turned to fa ce the target and let the knife fly. Bullseye. As Xena was about to look back from the target to the girl, another knife flew toward the target an d struck immediately next to the first one. Two more knives quickly follo wed, embedding their points next to the others so that all four knives we re implanted in a tight square, dead in the center of the bullseye.
Xena didn't say a word. She jogged to the target and removed the four knives then shifted the target to a tree thirty feet further away. She tr otted back to Elisa and handed her the knives. "Put these back where they were, then do that again," the Warrior Princess prompted.
She watched Elisa resheathe the knives, one on the outside of each boo t and the other two in scabbards on her back, concealed by her clothing. Unlike most Amazons, Elisa wore a loose tunic that completely covered her back. "What's in the other boot scabbard on the inside of your leg?" Xen a asked.
"A hunting knife," the Amazon answered, glancing down.
"Go," shouted Xena unexpectedly.
Elisa leapt into action. Like a fast-moving automaton, the young Amazo n placed the four knives dead center once more. Xena again jogged out and back, getting the knives but not moving the target. As Elisa resheathed the knives, Xena asked, "Can you do that without looking?"
Elisa looked intrigued. "I've never tried... yet."
Xena grinned at the young Amazon's eager answer. She put her hands on the girl's shoulders and moved her to a different spot in the clearing. " Look at the target," she directed. "Now, close your eyes and try it."
The four knives flew one by one in a slightly slower sequence than bef ore, but all landed in the middle of the bullseye.
"Very good!" Xena praised Elisa, who blushed. "Now," the Warrior Princ ess grinned wickedly again, "let's try using just your hearing." She went to the saddlebag and fished out a scarf. "I'll be directly in front of y ou, so when you hear me moving, DON'T throw my way. I'll move the target, tell you when I'm ready, then throw a rock at it. When you hear the rock hit, let just one knife go. OK?"
"Sure, I'll give it a try," Elisa grinned. Xena tied the scarf around the girl's eyes.
Four times Xena moved the target, then hit it dead center with a rock. On the Amazon's first and second tries, the knife struck just below the middle, but was still in the bullseye. On the third and fourth tries, Eli sa was right on target again.
Xena took the knives back to the young Amazon then returned to the tar get. She moved the target up, down, over and back, and still the girl hit it perfectly. "OK, Leese, take off the scarf," Xena hollered to her. Ninety feet away and blindfolded! The girl is a marvel!
Xena pulled out the knives, brought the target back and stuck it b ack in the saddlebag. "Leese, that's just amazing! I've never seen anyone any better than you are. Where did you learn to throw like that?" the wa rrior was uncharacteristically enthusiastic.
The Amazon almost burst with pride. "My mother and father had a knife- throwing act. They used to travel all over the countryside putting on sho ws. I learned to throw almost before I learned to walk," she explained. " When I was six, I was good enough be part of the act." The girl's face wa s shining. Xena had never seen her with a happier look on her face.
"Do your parents still travel like that?" Xena asked. Uh, oh, wrong question, warrior.
The light in Elisa's eyes was suddenly shuttered and, on her face, a door closed. "No, my father died when I was ten years old."
There's something more she's not ready to tell me. I recognize that face, almost like looking into a mirror. Sounds like bard territory to m e.
Xena patted the girl on the shoulder. "Sorry. But he left you a wo nderful legacy."
Elisa's face brightened a little with that remark. "Ready for the swor d, now?" Xena smiled and arched an eyebrow.
For another hour the two worked with the sword, with Xena as the attac ker and Elisa on defense. Every time Xena got past her defenses, they wou ld stop and Xena would teach the Amazon the proper moves. By the time the hour was up, Elisa had become an accomplished defender. Very fast lea rner, Xena thought to herself. And strong! She's barely tired from all this.
"Leese, feel my sword," Xena directed and tossed her sword to the Amazon.
"Whew! It's heavy," Elisa said in surprise.
"Yeah, I'm going to leave an order with the smithy to make you one jus t like it. If you're going to fight enemy soldiers, you have to have a he avier sword. A lightweight one is no match for the heavier one," the Warr ior Princess explained. "Now, we better get back. Even MY stomach is read y for food."
The celebration for Gabrielle's return had been a week in the planning . Each morning, before dawn, Xena had been doing her regular drills and w orking with Elisa. Each afternoon was spent practicing with Gabrielle and some of the braver Amazons with the wooden staff. The relative inactivit y was making the warrior restless. She was ready to move on.
Xena had demurred when asked to sit at the special table set up for th e Queen. This celebration was in honor of Gabrielle, and the warrior didn 't want to run the risk of stealing any of her limelight. Besides, the da rk-haired woman's favorite spot in most crowded rooms was at a table in t he far corner nearest the door, with her back to the wall and her feet pr opped on the table's crossbeam.
She was sitting there now, her cobalt-blue eyes and beautiful face see ming to be at rest. In reality, she was her usual alert self, her eyes un obtrusively scanning the crowd. The festivities had been going on for awh ile and were now in high gear. Xena was pleased to see Gabrielle getting the attention and appreciation she deserved.
Ephiny, the Queen's regent, approached the Warrior Princess' table wit h Eponin and Solari in tow. Xena invited "the big three," as she was begi nning to think of them, to join her. These three women were trustworthy, dependable and fierce warriors. But what meant the most in Xena's eyes wa s that they truly loved their Queen and would sacrifice their lives for h er, if need be.
"Why aren't you sitting with the Queen, Xena," the dark-complexioned S olari queried. "If not for you, she wouldn't even be here."
"This is her day, Solari, these are her people. I'm just a guest, here ," the warrior explained.
"Why don't you become an Amazon, Xena?" Eponin pitched in. "You sure h ave an Amazon's heart. I, for one, would welcome you as one of us." Three sets of eyes were fixed expectantly on the Warrior Princess, waiting for her answer.
Xena put her elbow on the table and leaned her head down, long fingers covering the grin that was trying to spread across her face. Her magnifi cent blue eyes twinkled as she released her mouth long enough to say, "We eelllll, no offense intended, but I don't really hate men, ya know?"
Three sets of eyes showed varying degrees of disappointment. Ephiny to ok a deep breath to say something when Solari broke the sudden silence, " Eph was telling us that the fight you two had in the Queen's hut was just for show."
"Yeah," the warrior answered. "I had told Eph that Hope was masqueradi ng as Gabrielle and informing Ares of our every move. We staged the fight so he would believe that Gabrielle and I were through with each other an d the Amazons were almost ready to kill me. We had to make him believe th at I was ready to switch sides."
"Well, that was a pretty darn realistic hold you had on Eph's throat," Eponin shook her head. "To tell the truth, Solari and I WERE ready to ki ll you," she added bluntly.
Xena's eyebrow flew up and she shrugged, "I would have just swung Ephi ny around to block your thrusts," she said matter-of-factly. Ephiny shive red at the cold truth of that statement and the other two Amazons glanced at each other in astonishment.
"But I knew Hope wouldn't let that happen," Xena assured them. "That's why she jumped between us. She wanted me to join Ares so I could be perv erted to Dahak's side. He wanted me as HIS warrior. Come to think of it, EVERYONE seems to want me," she grinned wickedly and waved her eyebrows, breaking the tension.
Ephiny elbowed her in the ribs. "Don't go getting swell-headed on us, Princess," she laughed. "And next time you want an argument staged, remin d me to send someone else," she rubbed the front of her neck and made a f ace. "I'm still sore."
"Well, I actually got a little angry, thinking of Hope trying to prete nd she was Gabrielle while Gabrielle was still at Dahak's mercy. I was tr ying to use that anger to make the fight more believable and I started to get carried away," Xena apologized.
"Yeah, well Eph was the one who almost got carried away, feet first," Eponin quipped and all joined in the laughter. The three Amazons arose to continue making the rounds of their friends and Xena got up, too.
"Ephiny, will you let Gabrielle know that I'll be outside for awhile? Probably near the stables or taking a ride on Argo," the imposing warrior requested.
"Sure, Xena, no problem," answered the regent. She recognized that the Warrior Princess was getting restless. A restless Xena was not a soothin g thought.
Before she left the hall, Xena caught the eye of the young Amazon, Eli sa. A silent message passed between them and Elisa nodded slightly.
Xena walked outside and took several deep breaths of the fresh air. Sh e loved the outdoors. When she entered a building, it was as though she h ad donned a heavy cloak that weighed her down and she couldn't wait to ge t outside and remove it. She loved the feel of the sun, the rain, the air against her body and, unless the temperatures were extreme, she was rare ly uncomfortable. A swim in icy water, that left others shivering, invigo rated her. Hot, humid weather, that prostrated most people, she just shru gged off.
Xena stood there for a few moments, thinking of the question Eponin ha d asked, and grinning wryly. Why wouldn't I become an Amazon? Well, th ere's more to it than just the one reason I gave the big three. For 10 ye ars, I was a warlord. And not just any warlord, I was the warlord who con quered half of Greece. Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. And I was proud of it. Proud to be the one in charge of an army that struck f ear into the hearts of so many. Proud to be Ares' Chosen.
But then I changed. I saw that the life I was leading was wrong. With Hercules' help, I was able to change to the right path and with Gabrielle 's help I've been able to stay on that path.
Well, you might change a tiger's territory, but you can't change her s tripes. I fight for good now, but I'm still in charge of the fight. I ans wer, ultimately, to no one but myself. If I do right, it's my praise; if I do wrong, it's my blame. I'm still the warlord who wants to conquer hal f of Greece, only, now, I want to conquer the evil half. I could never co mmit myself to any group or organization as a member. I'm just too damned independent. I'm still Xena, Warrior Princess, one of a kind. And that's the way I like it.
Xena pulled herself to her full height and squared her shoulders. Had anyone been watching, they would have seen a warlord stride across th e square from the common hall to the stables.
As the Warrior Princess entered the stables, Argo tossed her head and whinnied in welcome. "Hi, girl," Xena gave her warhorse her usual greetin g. She wrapped her arms around the golden palomino's neck and hugged her. "Ready to go for a ride?" she asked. Recognizing the tones, the mare's h ead bobbed up and down. Xena chuckled, "You're restless, too, huh?" She s addled and bridled the animal. Mounting, she backed Argo out of her stall and headed out of the stable.
The dark-haired woman picked a trail that led into open lands. When sh e reached them, she trotted the mare for awhile to warm her up, then urge d Argo into a pounding gallop. With the wind streaming in her face and ra ven hair flying behind her, the Warrior Princess was exhilarated by the f lowing movement of the warhorse's powerful muscles.
She would slow Argo to a trot to allow her to rest, then be off again, flying with the urgency of a tempest. Eventually, she made a wide sweep and returned to the starting point. Then she quieted Argo and allowed her to walk for awhile to cool her down. Xena herself quieted down and was s oothed by the rhythmic rocking of the golden mare's motions. When her res tlessness had subsided, she returned to the stable, brushed Argo down and gave her some extra straw and water.
Xena walked back into the common hall to see that the celebration was winding down. Gabrielle sat at the Queen's table talking with Ephiny. Epo nin and Solari were sitting at the next table, both holding their heads. The warrior grinned. A little too much ale, maybe.
At the third table over, Elisa sat with a few friends. Her eyes ha d met Xena's as soon as the warrior entered. As the imposing woman passed Elisa she briefly squeezed the young Amazon's shoulder. At that moment, Gabrielle looked up and saw Xena. A wariness flitted across her eyes but her face creased with a smile as her friend approached.
"My Queen," Xena smiled and bowed. "Are you ready to call it a night?"
"I think so, Xena," the golden-haired woman sighed. "It has been a glo rious celebration. While you were gone, the Amazons put on a show. They d id several dances and even a little skit. You missed it."
"Well, it was for you and you saw it. That's what counts," Xena said.< /P>
The bard arose, hugged Ephiny and thanked her for the party, "It was p erfect, Ephiny, thank you for all your trouble."
"We were thrilled to do it, Gabrielle, and thrilled to have you back." She turned her curly blonde head toward the Warrior Princess, and gazed into her breathtaking blue eyes. "And thank YOU, Xena, once again, for sa ving her for us."
"You and the other Amazons helped make it possible, Eph. I won't forge t that." Xena and Ephiny clasped arms in the warrior handshake, and Xena and Gabrielle left.
The two women had agreed that they would stay for one day beyond t he party and leave the morning of the following day. That morning had arr ived, and they were ready to move out. They had said their goodbyes the n ight before, and went directly to the stable so Xena could pick up Argo. Argo was still saddled and bridled from Xena's predawn drill time, so it was just a matter of re-tightening the saddle cinch and leading her from her stall.
Xena came riding out of the stable and Elisa was right behind her on V iktor, a bedroll in evidence behind her saddle. "Elisa is going to ride w ith us for a while, Gabrielle. I have some advanced drills I've decided t o teach her," Xena explained.
Gabrielle was a little bent out of shape to learn that Elisa would be accompanying them for the next several days. Seeing this, Xena dismounted and walked beside her friend as they left the Amazon village. "Elisa wan ts to learn some of my fighting skills. She's fast and strong and eager. I think she could be a great warrior. She has just a few more advanced dr ills to learn; once she knows them, it's just a matter of intensive pract ice to get good at them. I thought she could come with us until I finish teaching them to her."
"All right," the bard agreed reluctantly. "Just so long as it's only f or a few days."
"Besides," Xena grinned and elbowed Gabrielle in the side, "I don't th ink she's heard any of your stories, yet. You'll have a captive audience. " Gabrielle made a face at her. Xena laughed and swung back up onto Argo.
The three women, two mounted and one walking, moved along the trail. L unchtime passed uneventfully. In the late afternoon, Elisa dismounted and walked along beside the bard, holding Viktor's reins. Gabrielle knew the young Amazon would not have the temerity to speak first to her Queen. Ou t of pique that the girl had been foisted on her as a companion, she did not speak to Elisa for awhile. Finally, realizing she was being childish, she looked up at the tall girl and asked, "Did you want something, Elisa ?"
"My Queen, Xena tells me you know some great stories. Would you mind t elling me one?"
Gabrielle heard the voice of temptation, I know she wants to hear a bout Xena. Maybe I'll tell her about Hercules, instead... And how come I have to travel with two trees? I'm going to have a permanent crick in my neck! But the bard relented and started the story of Cecrops and the haunted ship. She was well into her third tale when Xena hissed, "Quiet!" She dismounted and melted away from them.
Gabrielle and Elisa left the horses behind and crept forward as quickl y and quietly as they could. Soon, they heard the sounds of a battle and dashed toward it. Xena was holding her own with about fifteen attackers. Another five, bearing nets, were almost upon her. Elisa and Gabrielle tri ed to reach the Warrior Princess, but were cut off and separated by anoth er group.
Gabrielle, surrounded by a ring of attackers, could see Xena being ens nared by nets and beaten to the ground. "Elisa," the bard yelled desperat ely, "Help Xena."
Instead, the tall young Amazon back-flipped into the air and landed ne xt to her Queen. As Gabrielle fought off several attackers with her staff , Elisa stood at her back and fought furiously with her sword. Ducking un der a blade swung at her neck, she sliced her weapon into the foe's now u nprotected side, felling him. Continuing the swing, she parried a downwar d blow from a second enemy then raised up, twisted her sword and disarmed the attacker. She swung her body around, pivoting on one foot and laid h er boot, hard, against the man's head. He went down like a sawed off tree trunk. A third attacker launched his body at her, sword out-thrust to sp ear her. The nimble Amazon swiftly sidestepped and the foe impaled himsel f on her weapon as he flew past. Yanking her sword from his body, Elisa g lanced quickly toward her Queen.
Gabrielle had been busy, too. Holding her staff horizontally, head hig h, she thrust it forward and caught two of the foe in their throats, knoc king them off their feet. Then she swatted each of them in the head to ma ke sure they stayed down. Two more men were running straight at her back. She heard a lusty "EeeeeeYaaaahhhh," and Elisa cartwheeled over between them and the bard. She jumped about three feet in the air and kicked out at the two onrushers, stomping her boots into their stomachs. Both men do ubled over and she rabbit-punched them with her fists in the back of the neck as she landed. Looking around, she saw that the others had gone.
Gabrielle and Elisa searched for Xena but she was nowhere to be found. The attackers apparently had beaten her into submission and borne her of f. The young Amazon had turned deathly pale and kept muttering over and o ver, "They beat her. They beat her. I'll make them pay for this."
"Why didn't you help her?" Gabrielle fumed at Elisa. "I could have man aged. Xena was the one who was in the worst situation."
The girl looked down at Gabrielle in almost dazed puzzlement for a mom ent, then her eyes cleared, and she pulled herself taller. "You are my Qu een. It is my duty to protect you first."
"Yes, I'm your Queen, and I ordered you to help Xena," the bard stated more vehemently.
"Xena told me that, if she isn't able to, I must always stay by your s ide in a fight, and never leave you," Elisa stated matter-of-factly.
The Queen took a deep breath to yell again at Elisa, then realized she was fighting a useless battle. "Yeah, she would," muttered Gabrielle. P>
The bard changed focus. "Elisa, ride back to the village and get some help. I'll start following their trail. We've got to find where they've t aken Xena." And why.
Elisa reached into the scabbard on the inside edge of her boot and handed Gabrielle a hunting knife. "Hit an occasional tree with this, my Queen, it will make it easier to follow you when it gets dark. Gwynna's g ot a really sharp eye for tracking, I'll try to bring her, too," Elisa sa id as she left.
Xena's unconsciousness ebbed and she woke to a throbbing head and aching body. Eyes still shut, she considered her environment. She was enc losed in something that had her lying on her side with her knees pulled u p, which prevented her from stretching out. Listening closely, she could hear nearby men's voices talking and laughing. She heard one say, "She's coming tomorrow and bringing the payoff." But they said nothing further o f any use.
Slowly, she opened her eyes. She discovered she was in a heavy net bag suspended from a tree limb, about ten feet up in the air. On examination of her battered body she found no bones were broken. And she was naked.< /P>
Ten years as a warlord had stifled any modesty that might have caused her to be embarrassed by her nudity. What caused more frustration was the lack of anything that might be useful in freeing herself from the impris oning net. Even a piece of leather could have been used to create frictio n by sawing away at one of the thick fibers. She tried biting, but that w as ineffectual. So, lacking any other means of attack, the Warrior Prince ss sat up on her folded legs, crossed her arms, leaned back against the w ebbing and went to sleep, allowing her body a chance to heal.
Gabrielle had unsaddled Argo and left her to fend for herself near a s tream. The bard had been following the trail for hours and finally came u pon the enemy camp. She crept a little closer to the fire-lit scene befor e her. From her vantage point, she could just about make out Xena's dark head leaned back against the inside of a heavy net bag. Seeing her friend was in no immediate danger from her abductors was an immense relief. It also meant she could wait for the Amazon reinforcements before attempting to rescue Xena. What kind of physical condition the warrior was in remai ned to be seen.
Elisa arrived at the Amazon village and immediately reported to Ephiny , the Queen's regent. Word was sent out to some of the most accomplished warriors to meet, ready for several days' travel, at the head of the east ern trail.
With Ephiny's permission, Elisa went to get the tall, blonde-haired Gw ynna.
"Why should I worry about what happens to Xena?" Gwynna protested. "Sh e kicked the Hades out of me and never said one word of apology. I was br uised for weeks!"
"Look, Gwynna, if we're going to be pals, you've got to stop whining a bout Xena. She's the most fantastic warrior I've ever seen. And you know she's teaching me some of her tricks," the raven-haired Amazon responded impatiently. "Besides, Xena was only semi-conscious when she kicked you a nd it was your own fault. I would have done the same thing. And so would you."
"Maybe," Gwynna admitted grudgingly. "I still don't trust her."
"Yeah, well, she probably doesn't have a very high opinion of you, eit her. I mean you only tried to kill her," Elisa retorted sarcastically and gave her friend a push. "C'mon, let's get going."
"I was trying to save the Queen," Gwynna argued as she followed Elisa towards the outbound trail.
"Xena knows that, which is probably the only reason you're still alive !" rejoined the dark-haired Amazon.
The two young women met up with the rest of the rescue party that incl uded Ephiny, Eponin, Solari and ten other Amazons. The number was purpose ly kept small to allow for speed. If they were vastly outnumbered, more h elp would be sent for. Elisa had reported about 50 attackers, with the th ree women having put about 15 of them out of commission, dead or injured.
When Ephiny heard that Xena had been beaten into submission, she asked Claris for a healer. Claris sent one of her assistants, Rhea, to accompa ny them.
As regent, Ephiny took charge. "Elisa, you and Gwynna go on ahead and mark the trail. We'll follow as quickly as we can. When you've found the Queen, or Xena's captors, one of you come back for us."
Knowing she could move faster in the dark on foot, Elisa had left Vikt or in the village stable. She and Gwynna took off running and the balance of the group moved out.
Even in the dim light of dusk, Gwynna's acute eyesight was able to qui ckly follow Gabrielle's trail. The bard had marked trees as Elisa suggest ed and the two scouts hurried along. When at last they came in sight of G abrielle, she was hiding in the brush, gazing at the abductors' camp.
Gabrielle didn't hear a thing. Elisa slipped to the ground beside her and patted the earth to cause a vibration. The bard turned and met wide, gray eyes. Elisa moved her lips next to Gabrielle's ear and whispered, "M y Queen, the regent's coming with 12 others, perhaps an hour behind us. W hat can you report?
Gabrielle, pleased to see Elisa sooner than she had expected, pointed to the net enclosing Xena. "I can't tell how she is, but no one has bothe red her since I've been here," she whispered back. "The men are just layi ng around, talking or sleeping. I've counted about 30 healthy ones and 5 or 6 who are injured."
"I'll send Gwynna back for the others," Elisa murmured. She dropped ba ck to Gwynna, passed on the information, and sent her off. She then retur ned to Gabrielle's side.
"My Queen, I would like to work my way nearer to Xena. I am pretty goo d at knife throwing and when the others get here, I can sever the rope th at's holding her up. If she's able to fight, we can use the help."
Gabrielle pondered Elisa's words. "But if she's injured, Elisa, it may be better for her if we leave her in the net until we subdue her abducto rs. If she's no threat to them, perhaps they'll ignore her," Gabrielle su ggested.
The wiry Amazon nodded at the truth of these words. "I'll try to find out if she's injured, before I act."
"OK. We'll give you a double owl hoot when the Amazons are in place an d the attack will start," the bard said. "Then use your own judgment."
Elisa stole silently away. She moved in a wide circle and crept as nea r to Xena's position as she could. The young Amazon was still about 50 fe et away, where the trees ended and the clearing began. There were three g uards seated at the bottom of the tree the warrior was suspended from, bu t they were paying her no attention.
The young Amazon saw Xena's head lift and move slowly from side to sid e as though zeroing in on something. She knows someone's here, rea lized Elisa. How does she do that? Maybe I can learn that, too!
Looking around the campsite, Elisa saw Xena's leathers, boots, arm or, sword and chakram piled carelessly under the tree adjacent to the one the net hung from. Those were the only two trees in the clearing and too far away for Elisa to reach them unseen. She hunkered down to await the others.
Gwynna made great time reuniting with the Amazon contingent and leadin g them quickly to the enemy camp. Ephiny knelt beside Gabrielle and the b ard pointed out the placement of the enemy troops. She explained Elisa's position and said the girl was waiting for a double owl hoot signal.
The regent studied the situation, then motioned for Eponin and Solari to join her. "Pony, you take three archers and circle to the other side o f the largest group over there," she pointed them out for Eponin. "Solari , you take three more and get them in a crossfire. Gabrielle and I will t ake the others and wait to see if the three guards move from beneath the tree when the battle starts. If they do, we'll move between them and Xena , and attack them from behind. If not, we'll make a frontal assault on th em and then get Xena out of there."
Ephiny looked to make sure both Eponin and Solari understood. They bot h nodded. "When you get in place, give me a single owl hoot. Then wait ti ll I give the signal to attack. It will be a double owl hoot."
Xena, with her remarkable senses, did indeed realize that someone was out there. About 50 feet away, in fact. Elisa, she smiled to herse lf. When the movement stopped and did not continue, the Warrior Princess surmised, correctly, that the young Amazon was waiting for reinforcements .
Xena leaned her head back against the net again, but now every sense w as extremely alert. She actually heard the Amazons arrive on the far side of the camp, and soon deploy to areas on either side of the main body of the enemy. She reached up, grabbed the net above her and had just enough room to hoist herself partly erect. She managed to uncross her legs and crouch them, bent at the knees, in preparation for hitting the ground. Ha ving learned of Elisa's proficiency with her knives, the warrior fully ex pected her to take out the three guards and slice through the rope by whi ch the net was suspended above the ground.
Elisa, her eyes never having left Xena, saw the dark-haired woman pull herself into a crouching position. Well, she's not injured too badly to move, the Amazon was happy to see. And she must have heard some thing, so I better be ready. Elisa unsheathed a knife and held it poi sed to throw.
"Hoo-hoo," came a single owl hoot from the far left. Another owl hoot sounded from the right. Almost immediately, a double owl hoot sounded fro m Gabrielle's position. "Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo."
Elisa waited to see how the assault was going to develop. At the far e nd of the clearing, she could see several men falling with arrows through their bodies. Pandemonium ensued. The three men guarding Xena drew their swords and two of them dashed off to help the ones being attacked.
As Gabrielle and Ephiny led their small force in behind the two runnin g guards, Elisa threw her dagger with unerring precision. The net holding Xena crashed to the ground and fell open. The remaining guard turned and had just a quick glimpse of a naked Warrior Princess before a heel hit h im under the chin and smashed his head into the tree. Xena dashed to the next tree, pulled on her boots and literally flung on her leathers and ar mor. Hooking her chakram with one hand and drawing her sword with the oth er, she raced to join the assault on the main body of men.
Elisa, coming right behind her, whooped with glee. "I never saw anyone get dressed so fast in my life," she hollered to the warrior, "and on th e run!"
"Practice, Leese," Xena laughed back, "lots of practice!"
Nearing the grouped enemy forces, the Warrior Princess let out a yell, "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," and vaulted into the air. She flipped overtop Gabrielle, Ephiny and their fighting group, and landed, with a terror-inducing smil e, in the midst of the enemy. Swinging her sword in a circle with one mig hty swipe, she took down four of the foe. Reversing her swing, the formid able warrior eliminated three more. When the next group of enemy troops h esitated, Xena's lip curled up and she taunted, "What's the matter, boys, don't want to play anymore?"
Glancing for a split second to her left, the warrior saw that Elisa ha d moved to Gabrielle's side and the two of them were working as a team. G abrielle would divert foes with her staff, while Elisa would finish them off with kicks, punches or sword thrusts. Ephiny and her group were at wo rk on the far side of the Queen, accounting for a number of foes with the ir expert swordsmanship. Additional men on the perimeter were falling fro m well-placed arrows shot by the Amazons still in the trees.
Satisfied that Gabrielle was protected, Xena returned her attention to the men in front of her. She made a small jump toward them, at the same time kicking a powerful leg straight up under one's chin, knocking him in to two others. Back on her feet, she leapt over a swipe made at her legs, raised her sword aloft and, as she came down, chopped it onto the expose d shoulder of the unlucky man who had missed her.
Sensing an enemy behind her, Xena twirled her sword so it pointed behi nd her and thrust it into the midsection of the surprised, but now dying, enemy. Emboldened by the warrior's shift of attention, another man rushe d her from the front. Xena sidestepped his onslaught and incapacitated hi m with a fierce forearm to the bridge of his nose.
As the dark-haired warrior pulled her weapon from the body it had impa led, the Amazons rushed out of the trees and the remaining enemy turned t ail and ran.
The Warrior Princess whirled around as Gabrielle reached her side. The two women threw their arms around each other in a big hug. "Thanks for t he rescue, my bard," Xena said. By this time, everyone had congregated ar ound the warrior. "Thanks to all of you," she said.
Eponin snorted, "You could have saved some for me, Princess."
Xena wiped the back of her forearm across her face and grinned, "Maybe you'll move your tail a little faster next time, Pony."
Solari snickered. Eponin stuck her hands on her hips, "What? I got her e faster than you did, Solly, so stop snickering."
"Yeah," Solari laughed, "but I had to climb down from the top of the t ree I was in and I could see you, framed against a fire, already on the g round. Face it, Pony, you just can't run." Solari ducked as the weapons m aster faked a punch at her, and the assembled group all grinned.
"Well, Xena, I'm glad to see you don't need any attention from Rhea," Ephiny remarked.
"No, just some bruises, Eph, nothing to worry about. But thanks for br inging her," the Warrior Princess responded.
"Xena," Gabrielle asked, "why do you think they wanted you?"
"I'm not sure, Gabrielle. I heard them say that a woman was coming in the morning with their payoff. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect..." t he warrior hesitated.
"Callisto!" the Queen declared.
"But didn't you say you killed her with the hind's blood dagger, Xena? " Ephiny queried.
"I did, Ephiny. But I can't think of anyone else who would want me cap tured," the Warrior Princess remarked, puzzled. "Dead, maybe, yes. But ca ptured? And they knew to use nets and take everything off of me so I had nothing to use to try to escape. It just SMELLS like Callisto."
Xena looked around at everyone. "We still have a few hours until daybr eak. What do you say we take a rest until then? We can clean up, later."
Ephiny posted lookouts and the group split into smaller bunches. They all selected their own spots at various campfires and settled down for th e night.
As Elisa passed the Warrior Princess, Xena reached out and squeezed he r shoulder. "Thanks, Leese," she remarked.
The young Amazon's face lit up. "Anytime, Xena," she offered. She star ted to walk on, then turned her head back. "Drills this morning?" she ask ed.
Xena smiled broadly, "No, I think I'll pass, today. Give this body a c hance to recuperate."
Elisa blushed. She knew the warrior had taken a pretty bad beating but when you saw Xena fight so ferociously, it was easy to forget that she w as hurt. The girl walked over to Ephiny, bent down and said something. Ep hiny said a few words back to her, then nodded, and Elisa disappeared int o the trees. Xena noticed that she left.
The Warrior Princess foraged for food in the packs left near the campf ire she and Gabrielle sat at. She found some dried beef and a few biscuit s and handed them to the bard. Gabrielle wolfed them down before she real ized Xena hadn't saved any for herself. "That's OK," the warrior assured her when she tried to apologize, "I'm not hungry, just tired."
The Warrior Princess stretched out on the ground, closed her eyes, sai d, "Goodnight, Gabrielle," and was immediately asleep.
"Goodnight, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. She knew the warrior was cover ed with bruises that would be gone in another day or two. Her healing abi lities were that powerful. But they still have to hurt when they happe n, the bard commiserated, and she never complains. Gabrielle c losed her eyes in sleep with thoughts of Xena warming her heart.
About two hours later, Xena came awake with a pounding in her head. Hoofbeats, she realized. Then, Argo. THAT'S where Leese went. Goo d kid. With a smile on her face, the Warrior Princess fell back to sl eep.
Shortly before dawn, Xena awoke as usual. Wouldn't hurt to catch so me rabbits for breakfast, she thought, they all deserve some rewar d for helping me. She got up and slowly stretched, still sore from th e bruising she had taken, and moved toward the trees. As she melted into their cover, Elisa joined her. Xena turned her head and smiled at the gir l and Elisa smiled back. "Rabbits. You catch three, and I'll catch three, deal?" the warrior offered.
"Deal," Elisa grinned. "Race?" And she took off running, as silent as the air. Xena chuckled and ran in a different direction. About fifteen mi nutes passed and the Warrior Princess returned carrying three rabbits. P>
She started to skin and gut them. She had just finished the first one when Elisa showed up pretending to pout. "One of these days, I intend to beat you, Xena," she threatened as she started to skin and gut her catch.
"In your dreams, Leese," the warrior chuckled. "At least not till I'm old and decrepit!"
Xena changed the subject. "I want to thank you for getting Argo for me . Where did you put her?"
The young Amazon looked startled. "That was supposed to be a surprise. I even have her nose covered so she wouldn't smell you and whinny. Who t old you?"
"Argo told me," Xena confessed. "I heard you bring her in this morning . I recognized her hoofbeats."
"You were supposed to be sleeping!" the gray-eyed girl charged. Xena c ocked an eyebrow at her and Elisa grinned. "OK, I should have known bette r. I'm not going to slip anything past you. Argo's tethered to a tree dir ectly across the field from your campfire."
"I appreciate that, Leese, a lot." Xena finished with her rabbits and started on one of Elisa's. "I was curious about something, Leese."
"What's that, Xena?"
"When I was stuck up in that net and there were three guards below me, why didn't you just take them out with your knives? As good as you are, it would have been easy for you."
The Amazon blushed, then paled and became obviously ill at ease. "I do n't want to kill anyone with my knives. If I had to, in order to save you r life, maybe I could have, I don't know. But I figured we could rescue y ou without it."
"It's OK to kill people with your sword, but not with your knives?" Xe na was puzzled. What's going on here, anyway? What scares her about he r knives?
"Uh, yeah... sorta... I can't explain. I just don't want to kill a nyone with my knives, OK?" Elisa was getting agitated.
Xena smiled at the girl, "OK! I'm just glad you cut me down. Witho ut having to kill anybody with your knives."
The two women were finished gutting the rabbits. Xena stood up. "Let's get these washed off and go find a cook."
After breakfast, the Amazons gathered their gear and prepared to move out. Ephiny, Eponin and Solari gathered to say goodbye to their Queen and the Warrior Princess. "Hey, Xena," Ephiny teased, "you're always telling us to look out for our Queen, but this time she looked out for you."
"But I had a lot of help," Gabrielle was quick to point out.
"I'm grateful to all of you," Xena acknowledged.
"I'm glad we were able to do you a favor," Ephiny declared. Eponin and Solari were nodding their agreement. The Warrior Princess grasped their forearms, Gabrielle hugged Ephiny goodbye and waved to the others, and th ey led their people out of the camp.
While the leave-taking had been going on, Elisa saddled and bridled Ar go and brought her over to Xena's campsite. After saying goodbye to the A mazons, the warrior hurried over to Argo and enclosed the mare's golden n eck in her bronzed arms. The warhorse whinnied and nuzzled her mistress u ntil Xena let go of her neck and, laughing, kissed the side of Argo's fac e. Then she swung aboard the palomino and the other two women moved out a head of her.
They had been on the trail for most of the day when Xena called a halt near a stream. "Let's camp here for the night," she decided, indicat ing the small clearing they had reached.
Suddenly, she felt that telltale creepy feeling she always got when Ar es was near. Dismounting, she handed Argo's reins to the bard. "Gabrielle , you and Elisa go ahead and set up the camp." She glanced at Elisa, who nodded. "I think someone wants to see me. My skin is crawling."
"Ares," the bard guessed. "We'll be here, Xena." The two young women s tarted unloading bedrolls and saddlebags from Argo's back.
The warrior walked off the trail and deeper into the woods. "C'mon Are s, show yourself. I know you're here," she called.
Sure enough, the God of War appeared in a dazzle of light.
"Xena, my Princess, you always can tell when I'm near! Don't you think that's because we have some connection with each other? Because we care for each other?" the darkly handsome man suggested.
"Get real, Ares. You didn't come here to talk about our 'connection.' What do you really want?" Xena demanded.
"Well, since you saved my... uh... skin... in that Dahak fiasco, I owe you one. So I thought I'd give you fair warning. You ended Callisto's go dhood, but... the gods decided you both deserved punishment. You, for off ing a god... and Callisto, for helping Hope. So, they decided to kill two birds with one stone," Ares smiled wickedly.
"What are you saying, Ares? Spit it out," Xena sneered impatiently.
"Callisto has been sent back... as a mortal," Ares found this very amu sing. He clapped his hands together in glee. "Your archenemy has returned ! Now the two of you can play your war games all over again, and I'll tak e a front row seat."
"Callisto is BACK?" Xena's eyes narrowed ominously. "She WAS behind th at abduction!" But why me instead of Gabrielle?
"Well, Ares, it's rewarding to get some useful information from yo u for a change, instead of your usual taunts," the dark-haired woman rema rked with a hint of grudging gratitude.
The God of War stepped to within a hair's breadth of the Warrior Princ ess. "I have ways to be even more rewarding, Xena," he purred.
The warrior stepped back and snorted, "I'll just bet you have. Don't y ou ever give up?"
Ares' face lit with his brilliantly devilish smile, and he waved his e yebrows, "Like you, Princess, I am... relentless!" He disappeared in a da zzle.
Callisto! Xena's mind raced. But what was she up to? Why abd uct me instead of Gabrielle? She's always wanted to hurt me through Gabri elle before.
The Warrior Princess mulled possibilities over in her mind as she retu rned to the campsite. Instead of going to the two women, she sat down cro ss-legged against a tree and sat there for a few minutes, thinking. Gabri elle, recognizing that something must have upset her friend, went over an d sat down next to her. Elisa stayed near the fire they were building unt il Xena looked up and motioned her over, too.
"I just talked with Ares," the warrior began, "and he told me..." Xena
's cobalt-blue eyes looked straight into Gabrielle's mist-green ones, "Ca
llisto is alive." A sharp pain grabbed the bard's face, and Xena reached
for her hand. "The gods sent her back as a mortal. Apparently they can do
that because she was a mortal before she became a god, and I only killed
the god part of her. So... to punish ME for killing a god, and HER for h
elping Hope... they've sent her back."
Elisa noticed that the Warrior Princess' eyes had darkened and seemed to be very sad. Xena sighed, "I guess this means she WAS the one behind my a bduction."
"You mean that horror is going to start all over again?" Gabrielle emi tted a low cry.
"NO! I won't LET it start again," Xena spoke with determination. "I'm not going to sit around and let her dictate our reactions. I'm going afte r her."
"And then what, Xena? Kill her?" the bard demanded almost angrily. "Th e one time in the past when you let her die in the quicksand, your guilt almost ruined you. I think you felt differently about killing her as a go d, but now she's a mortal, again. What makes you think you can do it? Or that you even want to?"
The dark-haired warrior looked troubled. She's right. I know Callis to needs killing, but I can't do it. I'll always feel partly responsible for what she is. "I don't know yet... maybe have her put in prison fo r her crimes."
"But that didn't work the last time, either. She's too dangerous," Gab rielle was getting more upset with every passing minute.
"I'll figure out what to do when the time comes," Xena asserted irrita bly. "First things first. I need to find her and I'm going to do that now . Elisa, I'd like you to stay with Gabrielle in case Callisto makes an at tempt to hurt her. Would you do that?"
Elisa nodded, "Whatever you want, Xena. I'll stick to my Queen like a burr."
"Xena, I am coming with you. Where you go, I go, remember?" the bard a rgued.
"Gabrielle, this is one time we're going to have to set that aside. I have no idea where Callisto is or what trouble she may be stirring up," t he Warrior Princess reasoned. "I may have to cover a lot of ground and I need to do it as quickly as possible. Other people's lives may be at stak e, too, you know. By myself, I'll have a better chance of finding her in a hurry, and you'll be safer here with Elisa."
"Being safer has never been an option with me, Xena, and you know it," the golden-haired woman heatedly contended. "You also know I can take ca re of myself. I don't need a baby-sitter who's practically still a baby h erself," Gabrielle glowered. Elisa's eyes dropped to the ground.
"Look, Gabrielle, you're exceptionally good with your staff, but by yo urself you're no match for Callisto. She gives ME a good battle. I know I can beat her one-on-one, but it's not easy. I'm stronger than she is but she's fast enough to be a difficult target. I'm afraid she'd crush you," the warrior said curtly, her patience thinning.
Xena continued, "And I want to avoid that, so when I ask Elisa to stay with you, don't get upset. The two of you, together, stand a better chan ce than you do alone. And Elisa's presence gives me more freedom to searc h for Callisto with less worry about her sneaking up on you. So, get used to it," the warrior ordered in a steely voice.
"Xena, your imperious mode is showing," the bard grumbled.
"I only get imperious when you get unreasonable," the dark-haired woma n retorted in frustration.
"Don't you think that might just be a matter of opinion? Wait... wait. .." the bard put her hands up to stop Xena's reply, "I can see that this arrangement will make you feel better, so I'll go along with it. For now. I'm not saying I like it, but I'll go along with it," Gabrielle surrende red.
Xena gave the golden-haired woman a heartfelt hug. "Thank you," she si ghed gratefully, relieved the constant battle had been temporarily won. " I have to get going. You two stay right here."
The bard leaned back and gazed into her beloved friend's glorious blue eyes. She looked at her earnestly and said the words reserved for Xena's departure into life-threatening situations. "Promise me you will take ve ry good care of the person I love most in the world."
And Xena returned her sincere reply, "I promise. Always." The two hugg ed again and Xena stepped over to Elisa and clasped her arm in the warrio r handshake, then gave the surprised Amazon a quick hug. "Keep her here," she murmured in the young woman's ear. The Warrior Princess mounted Argo and left at a gallop to search for her archenemy.
Xena had passed through three villages the day before, asking afte r Callisto, to no avail. Early the next morning, she was pounding down th e trail, in a dark and furious thunderstorm, on her way to the next villa ge. The sky was charcoal gray, lit by one lightning strike after another. Thunder rumbled and roared almost continuously and rain pelted down in s tinging drops, soaking everything within reach.
Xena pulled Argo to a sudden stop on a rocky promontory. A bolt of lig htning had dispelled the gloom of the storm and revealed the blonde warlo rd standing between two tall trees in an otherwise clear area, her arms c rossed and water streaming down her face and body.
"Xeeeena," she crowed. "How nice to see you again! You've become the o ne bright spot in my whole miserable existence. I live to torment you... I'm drawn to you like a moth to the flame."
The Warrior Princess dismounted, drew her sword, and walked to within reach of her tormentor. "Draw your sword, Callisto, the moth is about to get burned."
"Hahahaha," the half-mad woman mocked, "just like you burned my family ?"
Lightning crackled in the sky and thunder roared, making a fitting bac kdrop for the storm raging between the two women.
The warrior's head lowered, her eyes narrowed, and her mouth turned do wn in loathing. "Draw... your... sword."
"Oh, very well, if you insist," the blonde woman pulled her sword swif tly from its sheathe and swiped at the dark-haired woman before her. Xena easily parried the blow. She jumped over a swing at her legs and ducked one at her head. Blocking a thrust at her stomach brought the two women f ace-to-face, their sword hilts locked.
Callisto's wild brown eyes stared into Xena's determined blue ones. "M y, my, Xeeena, this defensive mode of yours is just scaring me to death. By the way, have you killed any other gods, lately?" Callisto scoffed. P>
Xena pushed with her sword arm and knocked Callisto away from her face . The dark-haired woman propelled herself forward, ran up the blonde warl ord's body, flipped in the air and kicked her under the chin.
Callisto hit the hard, rocky ground in a puddle of water. She slid a f ew feet along the surface then did a back-roll and bounced up. "Good, Pri ncess, very good," she cheered, then charged at Xena, full speed. At the last second, she threw her hands to the ground, started a somersault and caught the Warrior Princess in the chest with both boots.
Xena was staggered, but she didn't go down. Callisto had used the powe r of the thrust to backflip and come to rest on her feet, facing her oppo nent. "Bravo, Xeeeena, bravo!" she jeered. "That usually takes a fighter right out of the action. But not our Warrior Princess, oh, no. I mean, sh e hasn't killed anybody yet, so how could the fight be over?"
"You talk too much," Xena growled, and thrust her sword at the warlord . Callisto neatly parried. For a good three minutes, the two fighters tra ded swings, swipes, thrusts, blocks and parries in a grisly ballet, steel clanging on steel in a counterpart of the storm raging around them.
Callisto, worn down by the frontal confrontation with the heavier, str onger warrior, stepped back, her chest heaving. Xena, too, welcomed the r espite. "What's the matter, Xeeeena," the blonde woman taunted when she h ad caught her breath, "are you letting puny old me hold you off? Can't ki ll me when I'm not stuck in quicksand? Or," she snarled, "when I'm expect ing it? That hind's blood knife in the belly was underhanded even for you , Princess!"
Pulling her lips back in a feral smile, Xena attacked. First, she surp rised Callisto by punching her in the face with her sword hand, reinforce d by the hilt. Then she pirouetted around and slammed her foot sideways t o the blonde warlord's head, stunning her. The warrior head-butted the wa rlord, stunning her further. Xena then raised her weapon to slice through Callisto's body... and hesitated. This is too easy, she thought. She WANTS me to kill her.
At that moment, lightning struck one of the trees the two combatan ts were standing between, and it fell. It toppled directly toward Callist o, who seemed unaware of it. At the last moment, Xena dove and slammed he r shoulder into the blonde warlord, knocking her away from danger. The Wa rrior Princess landed on her back, with no time to get out of the way of the falling tree. It delivered a hard blow to her head as it crashed to t he earth across her body.
Callisto wobbled to her feet, sheathed her sword and stumbled over to the tree. Sitting down cross-legged on the rocky ground next to the appar ently unconscious warrior, the blonde warlord pushed Xena's wet hair away from her lovely face and stroked her fingers down the Warrior Princess' rain-covered cheek. She sat there for a long minute, collecting her sense s and appraising Xena's immobile features.
Eventually, Callisto broke the silence with her half-mad singsong voic e, "Oh, Xeeena, I soooo wanted you to kill me. After all, you made me wha t I am, no matter how you rationalize it. And I know you carry a lot of g uilt from that... But if I could force you to kill me, you would have ete rnity to feel guilty about eradicating my WHOLE FAMILY. Just the thought of that almost makes me FEEL something," Callisto threw back her head and laughed maniacally.
She cocked her head at the silent warrior and continued in a rational instant, "Of course, that's precisely why you won't kill me. But I won't kill you, either... I want you to SUFFER because of your guilt."
She continued to think that through. "You killed me as a god, because you were out of your mind with grief over Gabrielle's death and I taunted you into it. And, I suppose, you considered me partly to blame for that. I could almost thank you for that short time of oblivion. Almost," she s neered.
"When those ridiculously jealous gods sent me back, I decided to captu re you, hang you in that net, and parade you through the villages you des troyed as a warlord. I would have encouraged them to throw dung at you, s pit on you and curse you. I wanted to humiliate the mighty Warrior Prince ss and make you an object of ridicule." Just the thought twisted Callisto 's beautiful face into an evil smile.
"I didn't really want to have to bother killing your little brat, Gabr ielle. She's nothing to me. But, the plan to humiliate you has fallen thr ough and, rethinking it, you're just too dangerous to have constantly... hanging around," Callisto laughed at her own pun. "So, maybe Gabrielle ha s to go, after all..."
Xena's magnificent blue eyes flew open and she fixed Callisto with a t hreatening look.
"Ah, ha," the blonde woman chortled and clapped her hands, "I knew you were playing possum, Xena. I know you as well as anyone else does, remem ber?"
The warrior curled her lip in distaste. "Xeeeena," Callisto jeered, "y ou're the only one I know who can curl both sides of your lip at the same time! Another of your many skills?"
"I'll show you a few of my skills when I get out of here," the warrior 's ominous tone promised.
"Hahahaha," Callisto trilled. "You'll never get out of there, without help. You're lying on solid rock. Just relax and picture me tying little golden girl to a tree and... GUTTING her. And, too bad, her wonderful War rior Princess protector isn't anywhere around. She's... ah... stuck somew here! That should make a pleasant bedtime story."
The blonde warlord stood up, a suddenly serious look on her face, "I'l l be back, Xena, AFTER I've taken care of your dear friend. I might even let you out of there, but... only if you promise to kill me. And I think you'll be ready to by then," Callisto leaned her head sideways, put her h and to her mouth and pretended to be lost in thought. "Maybe I'll bring h er head back with me... to keep you company!"
Laughing maniacally again, Callisto jumped on her horse, grabbed Argo' s reins and tore off the promontory into the forest, pulling the golden w arhorse behind her. Xena waited a few minutes then whistled. Nothing happ ened. She whistled again. Still nothing. What did she do with Argo? The warrior wondered.
Xena took stock of her situation. The large branches of the tree were supporting some of its weight, preventing her from being crushed, but she was solidly pinned by the trunk lying almost directly across her middle. Her right and left sides were free from her head to her waist, except th at her left arm was flung up parallel to her head, caught under a large b ranch, and possibly broken. She couldn't move the fingers on that hand. S he could move her legs and wiggle her feet, so her back and lower limbs s eemed all right. She could reach her chakram and her whip. And, finally, the storm had ended.
The Warrior Princess closed her eyes. If that maniac touches even o ne hair of Gabrielle's head, I WILL kill her. What's a little more guilt compared to Gabrielle's life? I should have killed her while I had the ch ance!
No sooner did these thoughts pass through her mind than Xena saw G abrielle's face from the past, as they sat at a campfire. She heard the g olden-haired woman's voice again, as clear as a bell: "Promise me that if something happens to me you will not become a monster!" And her own voic e answering, "I promise."
Oh, my bard, I DID promise, and I'll keep that promise. A tear trickled down the warrior's cheek as she realized she might be forced to live up to that. She couldn't cold-bloodedly kill Callisto, no matter wha t horrible things the warlord did to Gabrielle, no matter how strongly sh e wanted to kill her.
Xena knew her situation was virtually hopeless. Thoughts of her bard, which usually were comforting, now had an aura of horror. Callisto was pe rfectly capable of carrying out her threats. And Elisa was there, too. Co uld she and Gabrielle, together, keep Callisto at bay? The blonde warlord had more experience with fighting than most of the Amazons combined. I made a mistake, leaving them. I was too sure of my ability to protect t hem. Now, I've got two to worry about. Increase your circle of friends an d you increase your possibilities of getting hurt through them. And, wors e, them getting hurt because of you.
Xena lay there for at least two hours. No amount of turning or twi sting would budge the tree. A prayer formed in her mind and rose into the ether. Oh, One Creator, I'm not asking for a miracle, just, please, p rotect Gabrielle and Elisa until I can find a way to get out of here and back to them! And a little help with THAT would be appreciated, too.
Lying right against the stone ground, Xena felt, sooner than heard, ho ofbeats. Her spirits lifted as she recognized them. Two minutes later, Ar go appeared, dragging a six-inch wide tree from her reins. "Good girl," X ena laughed and rubbed her mare's nose as the warhorse nuzzled her face. "How foolish of Callisto to think that a tree would stop you from coming to me. Though it did take a little while before you could uproot it, eh? And, now... have I got a job for you," the warrior smiled gratefully, as she one-handedly untied the warhorse's reins from the tree.
First, Xena worked her chakram loose from between her body and the tre e trunk. Then she pried the whip out from under her body. Using one hand and her teeth, she fastened the small end of the whip to the chakram. She picked up the butt end of the whip and tied it securely around the large branch that was resting on her left arm. An advantage to having long arms, she smiled. She flung the chakram up in the air and it settled firmly around Argo's saddle horn.
"OK, girl," the warrior directed the golden palomino, "start pulling." Xena gritted her teeth as, first, the large branch came across her broke n arm, then the tree trunk rolled across her hips. She got up gingerly, h er head and body aching. Supporting her left arm with her right, she exam ined the break. The bone hadn't come through the skin, but it needed to b e set. She lowered her arm down against her side.
The Warrior Princess recovered her dropped sword and cut two straight pieces of tree limb to use for a splint. Then she pulled a short piece of rope from a saddlebag and tied it, shoulder high, to a standing tree. Sh e tied the other end to her left wrist and pulled against it with the ful l weight of her body. When she heard, and felt, the bone click into place , she untied the rope from her wrist, and from the tree. She used the rop e to secure the two pieces of wood to her arm.
Once the splint was in place, Xena untied the whip from the tree and t he chakram. She connected both weapons back to her body. Mounting Argo, s he galloped quickly down the trail toward where she last had seen Gabriel le and Elisa. "C'mon, girl," she urged her golden warhorse, "we have a ba rd to rescue." And an Amazon!
After Xena rode away looking for Callisto, Gabrielle turned to Eli sa and saw her again casting her eyes down at the ground. That was a n asty thing to say about being a baby. The girl just wants to help me. No, the bard corrected herself, she wants to help Xena. But it works the same for me.
"Elisa," Gabrielle asked the girl, "I'll start setting up the camp . Would you please gather some firewood? And do you think you could catch a rabbit for us? I'm really hungry."
The young Amazon perked right up. "Yes, my Queen, I guess it's still s afe to leave you for a moment." Elisa ran into the forest, thinking. T he Queen gets a little cranky sometimes with the Warrior Princess. I woul dn't have the nerve. Xena could break her in two with one hand! But I kno w she never would. It's obvious the Queen is the most important person in her life.
And the Queen seems to have some kind of control over the warrior. I r emember hearing the regent tell Eponin and Solari that if there was any t rouble with the Warrior Princess to run get the Queen, she's the only one who can handle her. And I saw that was true when Xena's leg was infected and she was out of her head. The Queen was the only one who could get ne ar her.
But she's always been nice to me. Teaching me her drills is really uns elfish. My skills have improved already. And I'm the first one she's taug ht them to!
The dark-haired Amazon quickly collected some fallen twigs and branche s and even a few small logs, just the right size for building a fire. She returned with them to the camp and saw that Gabrielle had dragged a larg e log into the middle of the clearing.
"Elisa, would you make the fire near the log? That way I'll have a pla ce to sit while I cook. I put the iron and flint there on top of the log when you're ready for it."
After digging a small pit near the log, the girl placed the twigs in i t, broke the branches into usable lengths and placed them in the pit, als o. She scooped up some dry leaves from the ground and stuffed them under the twigs. She picked up the iron and flint, knelt down and struck them t ogether until the sparks caused the leaves to start smoldering. She blew softly on the leaves until the twigs started to burn then made sure the f ire was spreading to the branches. Once the branches were engulfed, she l aid two of the small logs across the top of the pit. They would eventuall y catch fire also but would take a longer time to be consumed, extending the life of the fire, even overnight. Right now, Gabrielle could use them to rest her frying pan on, keeping it away from the base of the fire. P>
Elisa looked around and saw that Gabrielle had set aside the bedrolls and saddlebags and was setting out the utensils and makings that she woul d use for the meal.
She turned to Gabrielle and said, "I'll be back soon, hopefully with a rabbit." She loped off into the trees.
Elisa had a smile on her face as she returned about fifteen minutes la ter with the skinned and gutted rabbit and handed it to her Queen.
"Thanks, Elisa," Gabrielle smiled back. "I apologize for the remark I made about your being a baby. I didn't really mean it. I was upset that X ena was leaving me behind." Gabrielle began to prepare their meal.
"I understand, my Queen, but Xena really worries about you," the Amazo n offered.
"I know she does," the bard sighed. "But I really worry about her, too , and it's easier on me when I'm with her and can see that she's all righ t. When she's gone, a thousand possibilities pop up in my imagination. El isa," the Queen continued, "while we're away from the Amazon village, ple ase just call me Gabrielle. I feel more comfortable with it."
"Very well, my... Gabrielle," the dark-haired girl grinned. "And I can understand how you feel about Xena. I know you two are best friends. I w orry about my friend, Gwynna, when I'm not around her. And she doesn't ge t into near the trouble your warrior does!"
So much for jealousy, Gabrielle. The girl does just want to improve her skills and that darned imagination of yours had her pushing herself between you and Xena.
"Yeah, Xena does have a knack for finding trouble," Gabrielle agre ed. "But sometimes I'm the one who gets into trouble and Xena comes to th e rescue." And I just take for granted that she will always be there. What if someday she isn't? I don't want to even think about that, Gab rielle shuddered.
The bard turned her attention to the browning meat, sprinkling it with some of the herbs she had collected earlier and turning it until it was perfectly done.
"Dinner's ready, let's eat."
The two young women spent the rest of the evening with Gabrielle telli ng stories, mostly about Xena's adventures. "Did Xena teach you her conve rsation skills, too?" the bard teased her new friend. When Elisa looked c onfused, Gabrielle laughed, "Neither one of you is much of a talker."
Elisa smiled at Gabrielle's joke. "I never have talked much. Don't fee l a need to," the dark-haired Amazon shrugged.
Gabrielle grinned again, "That sure sounds like a Xena answer."
"I'm really happy to be compared to Xena. She's the best warrior I've ever seen and I'm going to work real hard to be just as good as she is," Elisa admitted. Suddenly, Elisa's whole appearance changed. Her brows cam e down and her face darkened. "Those men never should have beaten her the way they did. There was no call for that. I wish I could have beaten the m," she snarled.
"Well, we did get to beat a few of them and so did Xena. I think they got paid back," the Queen asserted, surprised at Elisa's vehemence. "Let' s turn in. Maybe we'll hear something from Xena tomorrow."
"STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT!"
Gabrielle came awake with a jolt. She automatically grabbed her staff and jumped up into a defensive position before she realized the scream wa s emanating from Elisa's mouth. The Queen looked in the direction of Elis a's bedroll. The fire threw just enough light for her to see the young Am azon kneeling, with a knife in her hand, striking over and over again at the ground. Each time her knife hit the dirt, she screamed "STOP IT!" at the top of her lungs.
What made this whole strange scene even eerier was the fact that Elisa had her eyes closed and, apparently, was still asleep. Oh no, another one with nightmares, frowned the concerned bard.
Gabrielle, afraid to approach the girl while she was so viciously atta cking someone, even if it was only imaginary, called the Amazon's name ov er and over as loudly as she could, "ELISA, ELISA, WAKE UP! Finally, she gave up, as it had no effect. The girl's own screaming was drowning out t he bard's voice.
At last, Elisa stopped screaming, stopped stabbing, and bent to the gr ound with wrenching sobs shaking her body. Gabrielle approached her cauti ously, reached down and gently removed the knife from the girl's now limp hand, laying it on the ground away from them both.
Standing away from the young Amazon, the bard leaned forward and pushe d against her shoulder, calling again, "Elisa!"
Elisa suddenly came wide awake. Seemingly all in one motion, she jumpe d up, pulled another knife from behind her shoulder and crouched in a def ensive posture. Seeing Gabrielle just standing there, looking at her oddl y, confused the girl. "What's wrong? What is it?" she demanded, sweeping the area with her eyes, but seeing no threat.
"That's what I want to know," Gabrielle answered gently. "Relax, Elisa , we're not being attacked. You had some kind of nightmare and I was tryi ng to waken you out of it. C'mon, sit with me over here by the fire. Ther e's still a little tea in the pot. We'll have some, together."
The bard reached slowly for the Amazon's elbow. The girl reflexively j erked her arm away but Gabrielle remained there, hand out, waiting for a response. Embarrassed, Elisa relented and let her Queen take her by the e lbow and lead her to a seat on the log near the fire.
Gabrielle grabbed a piece of cloth, picked up the teapot from the edge of the embers and filled two mugs that had been left out for morning. Sh e took a stick and stirred the embers, laying some more wood on the fire for light. She handed one mug to the girl and sat next to her on the log.
The two young women sat in silence sipping their tea until they were d one and the mugs were set aside. Elisa had calmed somewhat but Gabrielle could tell she was still edgy.
"Do you want to talk about it?" the bard asked gently. Elisa rested he r arms on her knees, clasped her hands together and looked down at her fi ngers, which started to fidget. Gabrielle reached down into her pouch tha t was leaning against the log and pulled out a short length of rope that she handed to the girl. Elisa almost unconsciously accepted the rope and started to tie and untie the ends of it.
The silence dragged on but Gabrielle had become an expert at waiting f or stoic people to express themselves. The bard's sympathetic nature led her to want to hug the girl, who obviously was hurting, but early experie nce with the Warrior Princess had taught her that unexpectedly touching s omeone might get her knocked off the log. So, she waited. What can thi s girl, at her young age, have done that has injured her so deeply?
The night was pitch black. The only light came from the fire whose occasional flicker reflected off the faces of the two. Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Sometimes, when we have demons locked inside of us, it help s to talk about them, let them out. Xena does that once in a while. She h as nightmares, too. She hasn't been able to forgive herself for some of t he things she's done in her past."
"Neither can I," came an agonized whisper.
"Tell me about it, Elisa. Having someone else share your pain can help make the burden lighter," Gabrielle prompted.
Several minutes of silence passed.
At last, the girl took a deep breath, her fingers flying even faster w ith the rope, tying and untying, sometimes just twisting it.
"I killed my stepfather."
Gabrielle had to bite her tongue to keep from gasping. Without thinkin g, she reached out her hand and placed it supportively on Elisa's arm. Th e youngster flinched and her whole body jerked, but then she subsided.
More minutes passed, then, "Have you ever seen a cat-o'-nine-tails, my Queen?"
"Yes," Gabrielle whispered, shivering. She recalled hearing about one while on Cecrops' ship. It was a whip made of nine knotted rawhide strand s, joined at the handle, which left cruel marks on the victim's back, res embling deep cat scratches.
"My stepfather was a heavy drinker. At first, he just used to wreck ou r house, breaking furniture and throwing things at me and my mother. Late r, he started beating us, slapping us around, an occasional punch, nothin g we couldn't handle. My mother wouldn't leave because she had vowed to s tay with him." Once the young Amazon started talking, it was as though so meone had opened a floodgate.
"Then I got older and bigger. I could have run away, but I wouldn't le ave my mother at his mercy. I tried to protect my mother, stepping in bet ween them when he was abusing her. A few times I punched him in his nose, but that just made him worse. He started getting even more violent, punc hing and kicking us. He got to the point where he was getting drunk one o r two times every week and beating us each time."
Tears had started overflowing Elisa's beautiful eyes and dripping down her face. "Then one day, about two years ago, he came home, half-drunk, with a cat-o'-nine tails. He laid it on the table and told us, if we didn 't learn to do as he said, he would use it on us. And I got it first." P>
Elisa turned her head and looked at Gabrielle then looked back at her agitated hands. Her eyes had turned very dark and her face, jaw set, held a stormy, haunted look. Gabrielle's heart ached for her.
"I had gone out of the house to a small clearing nearby and was practi cing my knife-throwing. He came out, now completely drunk, and in a rage over some imagined wrong I had done. He had the 'cat' in his hand. I put my knife into its scabbard on my boot, and turned to face him. Before I c ould even say a word, he punched me and knocked me down, stunning me. The n he started to whip me with the 'cat.' He hit me once across my chest an d I had just enough sense left to turn onto my stomach."
Gabrielle's hand came up and covered her mouth to keep from crying out . Now tears were streaming down the bard's face.
"I don't know how many times he hit me; I passed out. When I came to, I was lying in a pool of blood. I somehow managed to get up and stagger i nto the house." Elisa's voice turned into a grating rasp and her body sta rted shaking, "That monster was beating my mother. With the 'cat.' I was so insane with rage that my mind went totally blank."
Gabrielle, already horrified at this tale of unbelievable torment, hel d her breath, knowing the outcome.
"When I came to my senses, he was lying on the floor, dead. I was knee ling beside him with my knife, dripping blood, in my hand. His body was c overed with stab wounds. I must have hit him fifty times." Elisa let go o f the twisted rope and dropped her head into her hands. "I had killed him ." Sobs wracked her body.
Throwing caution to the winds, Gabrielle put both arms around the youn g Amazon and pulled her close. She had no need to worry. Elisa, starved f or affection, collapsed into the bard's soothing embrace. "Shhhh," Gabrie lle whispered through her own tears while patting the girl on the back, " It's all right. It wasn't your fault. You didn't know what you were doing ."
The compassionate bard held the emotionally exhausted girl in her arms until, at last, she felt her relax into sleep. She gently lowered Elisa to the ground and covered her with a blanket. Well, my young friend, y ou want to be just like Xena, and in one of the worst ways, you already a re. Neither one of you knows how to forgive yourself.
When Gabrielle woke, she could smell rabbit cooking. She got up and El isa, looking a little uneasy, handed her a mug of tea. "Thank you, Leese, " she smiled broadly, unconsciously adopting Xena's nickname for the girl . "I hope you're feeling better, this morning."
Elisa let out a held breath. "Thank YOU, my Queen... I mean... Gabriel le. I do feel better. I was afraid you wouldn't like me any more after la st night."
The bard reached up and grabbed the girl's shoulder, shaking it a litt le. "Don't worry about that. You were driven to what you did, Leese, by y our stepfather's brutality. Anyone else might have done the same thing. Y ou shouldn't let yourself feel guilty about it. You're fine with me. I ho pe you consider me your friend," Gabrielle assured her and was rewarded w ith a shy smile that rivaled the morning's sunshine.
The two young women shared the meal of rabbit then cleaned up. They sp ent the morning, companionably, searching through the nearby forest to fi nd roots, plants and berries suitable to use for food. They also collecte d some of the herbs Xena used for medicinal purposes. Gabrielle pointed t hem each out to Elisa and explained their uses. The girl was a quick lear ner and had an eagle eye. Soon, she was spotting the items they were coll ecting even faster than Gabrielle saw them. Now I see why Xena took su ch an interest in her, the bard thought. She is quick in her actio ns and in her thoughts. Good combination for a warrior.
In the afternoon, Elisa cut and shaved a staff of the same length as G abrielle's and they practiced staff movements. She's really good at th is, too, I only have a slight edge. And her hits sting!
"Gabrielle, you are terrific with the staff!" Elisa remarked admir ingly. "My hands are stinging!"
Hmmmm. I wonder if I sting Xena's hands and she just never mentions it? "I had to learn to get really good with the staff," Gabrielle ex plained. "I always work out with Xena. And if you're going to work out wi th Xena, you better get good!" the bard laughed. "I don't use a sword but I had to learn to defend myself. We always seemed to be running into tro uble."
"Did somebody say 'trouble?'" Gabrielle's blood turned to ice as she r ecognized Callisto's voice. Elisa picked up on the bard's reactions right away and drew her sword. She stepped in front of her Queen.
"Well, well, well, what have we here... a junior Xena?" the blonde war lord taunted. "Xena, senior, is stuck somewhere right now, squashed under a tree, so I guess you'll have to do. What charm do you have, Gabrielle, that draws these protective warriors to you?"
Callisto drew her sword and advanced, confidently, on Elisa. She tried several forward thrusts but could not penetrate the Amazon's defenses. S tepping back, she threw herself into a flip over Elisa's head, swiping at her as she passed. Elisa had learned from Xena to watch for this action. She squatted out of reach of Callisto's sword, and, while down, thrust h er leg out in a horizontal sweep and upended Callisto just as she landed next to Gabrielle. The tall Amazon jumped up and unceremoniously pulled h er Queen behind her.
Callisto rolled back up into a standing position and bared her teeth. "So, Xena, junior, has a few moves, too! This should be interesting." The warlord attacked with even more vigor, thrusting, swinging, down thrusti ng, keeping the less experienced Elisa on the defensive. The young Amazon knew she was being beaten back but she kept leading Callisto further awa y from Gabrielle hoping to give the bard time to get away.
But Gabrielle was no deserter. She stood ready with her staff to repel an attack from Callisto if the warlord turned toward her. The Queen watc hed in horror as Elisa slipped, crashing to her back. Even as she was fal ling, Callisto brought her blade down toward the girl's body in a fatal b low, but the wiry and quick Amazon managed to turn as she hit the ground and lift her sword. Callisto's sword glanced off of Elisa's and caught th e Amazon, hitting across and down on the top of her forehead. She stayed down, blood pouring from the flapped skin.
Intent on killing Gabrielle now that the Amazon had been disposed of, Callisto swerved around and ran, sword raised above her head, directly at the bard. Gabrielle waited until the last second then quickly crouched. She thrust her staff forward with both hands, horizontal to the ground. T he blonde warlord's shins crashed against the staff and she flew over the bard's head. Callisto's agility enabled her to flip over and land on her feet. She swung around again toward Gabrielle, wearing her evil grin, "N ice try, my sweet."
This time she advanced on Gabrielle more slowly and methodically. She made several forward thrusts which Gabrielle, turning Callisto in a circl e, parried; then the warlord smashed her sword hilt into the bard's face. "Let me show you what I just learned from Xena before she went down," Ca llisto sneered. "Oh, yes, dear bard, your precious Warrior Princess will be no help to you ever again."
No, never, she could never beat Xena, Gabrielle's heart felt as though it would burst.
Seeing the look of incredulity on the bard's face, Callisto again let loose with her half-mad laugh. "Hahahaha, you know I NEVER lie, Gabrielle ."
She never has lied to me or Xena that I know of. Xena! Don't let it be true. Xena!
Callisto, tired of playing with Gabrielle, remarked, "And now back to the lessons from Xena." She faked a thrust, then smashed Gabrielle in the face again with her sword hilt. Next, in perfect mimicry of the Warrior Princess, she pirouetted around and slammed her foot alongside the bard's head, stunning her. Callisto head-butted Gabrielle, stunning her further . She then raised her weapon to slice through Gabrielle's body... and hes itated... as she heard a cry.
"EeeeeeeeYaaaaaaaaaahhh!" came from behind the blonde warlord and she jump-turned. Just as she got her body all the way around, a dagger embedd ed itself in her stomach and knocked her to the ground. She had caught a glimpse of her attacker and an incredulous look pasted itself on her asto nished face.
A still-stunned Gabrielle, shaking her head to clear it, murmured, "Th at wasn't Xena's battlecry," and for a moment she was confused. Her visio n quickly returning, she saw Elisa thirty feet away on all fours, her hea d down and her body sinking to the ground.
The bard cast a quick look at Callisto, who was conscious but not movi ng. Flat on her back, she had both hands wrapped around the dagger and an oddly tranquil look on her face. Kicking the warlord's sword out of her reach, Gabrielle ran to Elisa and turned her onto her back. The young Ama zon was unconscious and her face and tunic were covered with blood stream ing from her wound. A flap of skin from her forehead hung down over her e yes.
Gabrielle pulled the Amazon's belt off, pushed the flap of skin back w here it belonged and cinched the belt tightly around her head, holding th e wound closed. She managed to stop the flow of blood.
The bard's whole face lit up as she said aloud, "Now THAT'S Xena's bat tlecry!" I KNEW Callisto couldn't beat her! Gabrielle ran toward t he sound.
The Warrior Princess came riding into the clearing, sword in hand. See ing nothing threatening the bard, she sheathed her sword and dismounted. She ran to meet Gabrielle and swept her off her feet in a huge one-armed hug. "You're all right, you're all right, you're all right," the warrior shouted joyously as she swung the bard around.
"Xena, stop!" Gabrielle finally got breath enough to say. "Elisa's bee n hit with a sword, and Callisto has a knife in her stomach."
When the bard's words finally registered, Xena quickly put her down an d turned where Gabrielle pointed. She ran to Elisa and, squatting down, s he examined the girl's forehead and felt for her pulse. "She's lost a lot of blood, Gabrielle, but her pulse is still pretty strong. She's a tough kid. She'll be all right, barring infection. We need to get that cut sew ed up." Gabrielle noticed that her friend was getting up slowly and in al l the excitement of her arrival had not seen that the warrior's arm was s plinted.
"Xena, are you all right?" she asked with concern.
"Yeah," the warrior smiled down at her, "just some minor damage is all . A tree fell on me. I'll tell you about it later. Let me take a look at Callisto. Did Elisa throw that knife at her?"
"Yes, Xena, she saved my life. She really did," the bard marveled as i t began to sink in. "She fought Callisto and did really well, but she sli pped and that's when Callisto slashed her forehead. She went down and I g uess Callisto thought she was finished because then she came after me. I fought her off for awhile, but you were right, I'm no match for her. Call isto had her sword raised, ready to kill me. But Elisa distracted her wit h some kind of yell and threw the dagger from where she is now. When Call isto turned around, the dagger hit her and knocked her down."
Xena had arrived alongside Callisto, who smiled weakly up at her. Xena crouched down next to the warlord and looked at the position of the dagg er. "Well, Callisto, it looks like you'll finally get your wish to die," she remarked coolly. "But you sure are taking your time about it."
"Well, you know me, Xena, always doing things the hard way," the warlo rd joked in a tired voice.
"Callisto, you still can choose good before you pass over; it may not be too late," Xena urged her.
"Xeeena, still trying to convert me even at this late date?" the blond e woman rolled her head back and forth, laughing weakly. "Lost cause, War rior Princess... lost cause. Ever since you burned my family at Cirra." P>
Xena pursed her lips and bent her head. The woman's on her deathbed and she can still hurt me.
Callisto's evil smile played around her mouth as she relished the fact that her final verbal dagger had wounded her archenemy.
She reached for Xena's long-fingered bronzed hand and squeezed it tigh tly. "I have only one regret, Princess," she murmured.
Xena returned the squeeze on her hand. "What's that, Callisto?" she as ked in a hushed voice.
"That it was Xena, junior, who finally got to kill me and not Xena, se nior," Callisto jeered in her sing-song voice. "I've always half expected that one of us would eventually kill the other one. I've had this beauti ful hate-filled relationship going with you for such a long time... ever since you killed my family at Cirra," the blonde warlord sneered then gri maced with pain.
"I tried time after time to make you hurt as badly as I did. I wanted you to suffer the way I've suffered. Then I helped to kill your son and I thought I would feel something besides the searing hate, but I didn't... . I just felt... empty."
Xena's face was turned to stone but an occasional tremor moved across her lips. Her eyes had deepened to a midnight blue and, although trained on Callisto, they seemed to be looking inward to her own soul.
"But you know what I always found the strangest thing of all, Xena?" t he dying warlord queried. "Even though we both had plenty of chances, I w as never able to kill you and you were never able to kill me, not as a mo rtal, anyway," Callisto conceded. "You even felt guilty when you LET me d ie in the quicksand. Why do you think that was, Xena?" the blonde woman r eleased her other hand's hold on the dagger and reached up to cup it arou nd the side of the warrior's face. "Do you think... do you think we... ma ybe... CARED for each other?" Xena's cheek twitched as Callisto's hand tr ailed down it and slipped off to the ground. The blonde warlord mustered enough final energy to give Xena a smirk and a wink then she died.
Xena sat for a long time holding Callisto's hand, her head bowed.
Gabrielle was tending to Elisa's wound, wiping off her face and puttin g a blanket around the girl to keep her warm. When she finished, she look ed over at the Warrior Princess, whose whole attitude seemed depressed. S he walked over, crouched down beside her and put an arm around her droopi ng shoulders.
With her other arm she reached down and pried Xena's fingers from Call isto's cold hand and kept Xena's hand in her own warm one. "Let her go, X ena," she said softly.
"Why, Gabrielle? Why couldn't she turn away from her evil side, like I did?" the warrior agonized. "She ruined her whole life being bitter abou t something she couldn't change. Why couldn't she see that?"
"Because she didn't have your heart, Xena," Gabrielle answered.
The warrior turned that over in her mind for a moment. "No, Gabrielle, " her husky voice finally responded, "it's because she didn't have YOUR h eart, like I do."
Xena pulled herself together and went over to check on Elisa. The young Amazon was still unconscious, but her color was already improving. "We'll have to sew her wound and get that belt off her head," Xena told t he bard. Gabrielle ran to Argo and grabbed the saddlebag that held the ne edle and thread and other healer's necessities. She brought it back to Xe na.
"Thread that for me, Gabrielle, will ya? It's a little tough with one hand." The bard removed the needle from its parchment holder and threaded it. Xena used her very fine stitches to close the wound. Then Gabrielle bound it with a cloth from her usual supply in the saddlebag.
When the bard was finished, Xena reached down and, despite her splinte d arm, picked Elisa up. You'd never know she had a broken arm if it wa sn't splinted. How can she just ignore pain? That's something I'll never understand, the bard marveled.
The warrior carried the young Amazon to the campfire and gently laid h er down beside it on the bedroll that Gabrielle had prepared. Elisa stirr ed as Xena was lowering her and opened her eyes. "Xena!" Although her hea d was pounding, her voice registered welcome relief.
"Hi there, hero," the warrior smiled.
"What do you mean, hero?" the Amazon looked puzzled.
Gabrielle came running over when she realized Elisa had awakened. "Lee se," she exclaimed, "you saved my life. You killed Callisto!"
The girl at first looked disturbed, then relieved, realizing she had, indeed, saved Gabrielle's life. "Then the knife hit her?" she questioned. "I couldn't see. My head was bleeding into my eyes and there seemed to b e something else in the way. I threw it by listening for her. Like you ju st taught me, Xena... Use all your senses."
"You learned your lesson well," the Warrior Princess praised. "And tha t something else was a flap of skin. It was flopping down from your foreh ead right in front of your eyes. I just sewed it back up where it belongs . It's amazing you were even able to THROW your knife, let alone hit anyt hing."
Xena squeezed the girl's shoulder gratefully. "And you protected your Queen, which will probably earn you an Amazon celebration."
"A celebration? For me?" Elisa seemed disconcerted. She started to rai se up, but the pain in her head wouldn't let her so she quickly lay back down. Only a flicker of her eyelids showed that she was in pain.
Xena opened the water bag Gabrielle had placed near Elisa's bedroll ea rlier, and handed it to the girl. "Drink all of this, you lost enough blo od for two people," Xena grinned. She's fast and she's smart and she's tough, too. "I'll be right back." The Warrior Princess walked over t o the bard who had moved away and signaled to Xena to follow her.
"She's a really brave person, Xena," Gabrielle remarked.
"Oh, you like her OK, now that she saved your life, huh?" Xena teased.
Gabrielle made a face at her friend. "We had a long talk last night an d I found out a lot of her history. I'll tell you about it later, just... she had a bad time a couple of years ago. She's carrying a lot of guilt about it, just like a certain Warrior Princess I know. But also like that certain Warrior Princess, she has a good heart and is worth caring about . I think we've become friends."
Xena wrapped her good arm about the bard's shoulders and, pulling her close, kissed the top of her head. "And that certain Warrior Princess say s Elisa couldn't pick a better friend than a certain bard."
Xena returned to the girl. "Now, since you're awake, let's get you cle aned up," the warrior declared. She removed the blanket, picked the Amazo n up and carried her over to the stream. She sat Elisa down and joined he r on the ground. "Gabrielle," Xena called, "c'mon over here and get the r est of this blood off Leese's face, will ya? I'll wash out her tunic." Th e Warrior Princess reached to lift Elisa's tunic over her back. "NO!" the girl shouted weakly, "leave me alone!" She wriggled around and tried to escape from Xena's hold on her, but, even with Xena's broken arm, the you ng Amazon was too weak to put up much resistance.
"Relax, Leese," Xena laughed. "We're all women here. No need to get up set." Xena lifted the tunic over the protesting girl's shoulders. As she did, her eyes fell on Elisa's back. It was covered with hideous scars.
"By the gods, Leese," she muttered as she heard Gabrielle's indrawn br eath hiss. The Warrior Princess' face turned ugly and her voice venomous, "Who did this to you?"
Elisa started to cry silently and hung her head in embarrassment. Xena pulled her close and rocked her gently. Gabrielle handed the warrior a c lean shift and Xena put it on the girl then continued to rock her back an d forth.
"Her stepfather beat her with a cat-o'-nine-tails," Gabrielle explaine d softly.
"He better be dead or he'll wish he was," Xena growled in a guttural v oice.
"He IS dead, Xena." The bard laid a hand on the warrior's arm for a mo ment to get her attention. She looked into the tempest brewing in her par tner's eyes. "He IS dead, for two years now," she repeated and gestured w ith her head to Elisa.
"Well, that's a lucky thing for him. I'd have cut him into pieces and fed him to the dogs," the warrior spit the words out as though they were dirty. But Gabrielle's touch did help to calm her.
Xena stopped rocking Elisa and moved back to look into her face. "Are you OK now, Leese?" she asked tenderly.
Red-rimmed smoke-gray eyes looked back at the Warrior Princess from be neath a cloth bandage. "He was beating my mother with the 'cat' and I kil led him," she said. "With one of my knives, one of the knives my own dad gave me. My dad would think I'm horrible, he would never love someone as evil as I am." Elisa's whole body started to shake.
"Leese, listen to me," Xena commanded sternly in her compelling voice. The girl was startled enough to stop shaking. Her eyes were glued to the Warrior Princess whose brilliant blue eyes bored into her. "You... are.. . NOT... evil! Your stepfather was the evil one. He was the one beating a nd scarring two women, body and soul. If you hadn't stopped him, he would have killed both you and your mother by now." Xena paused a moment to le t that idea sink in.
"You were protecting your mother. She was in danger of being killed, a nd you knew you had to do something. You were what? 14? 15? You did the o nly thing you could do; you protected your mother with a knife given to y ou by your father. If your father hadn't given you that knife, your mothe r would be dead today. Don't you think your father would want you to save her? And yourself?
"You executed a beast in the middle of a crime against you and your mo ther. You had a right, maybe even a duty, to do it. You are NOT evil. Do you understand that?"
"Thank you, Xena," the young Amazon whispered haltingly. "It... helps. .. a lot... to have you... believe in me."
Gabrielle put a hand out and touched Elisa's arm. "We both believe in you, Leese," she assured the shaken girl. "And you WILL have a celebratio n for saving my life!" the bard promised with a big smile.
"Thank you, my Queen...Gabrielle," a small answering smile tried to fo rm on Elisa's trembling lips.
The warrior noticed that Elisa's eyes were starting to close. "Go ahea d, Leese, get some sleep. We'll take another look at that head in the mor ning," Xena promised and hugged Elisa close again. The young Amazon drift ed to sleep, the small smile beginning to spread on her face.
Xena stood up, cradling Elisa in her arms, and walked slowly back to t he bedroll. Carefully, she put the girl down on the bottom blanket and co vered her with the top one. Reaching down, she gave the young Amazon's ch eek a soft pat.
Then Xena went over and removed Elisa's knife from Callisto's body and walked back and handed it to Gabrielle to clean. She went back to Callis to, picked up her body and walked into the trees and down along the strea m. She walked until she found a small clearing. Glancing up at the sky, s he moved to a spot that would be exposed to the morning sun and laid the warlord's body flat out upon the ground.
The warrior gathered stones and piled them on top of Callisto's body u ntil she had built a structure approximately three feet high, four feet w ide and seven feet long. Then Xena knelt beside the pile of rocks, turned her body and, cradling her head with her good arm, rested it against the cold stones.
Visions of the evil but beautiful warlord passed across the screen of Xena's mind. Her sacking and pillaging of villages in Xena's name; Gabrie lle hanging from a rope in the street of ladders while Xena and Callisto fought; her killing of Perdicus; her attempt to burn Gabrielle while Xena was strapped, helpless, in a chair, her sinking into the quicksand, begg ing Xena to save her; her inadvertent saving of the Amazons when her gree d for ambrosia led her to defeat Velaska. These and other scenes tumbled through the Warrior Princess' mind and played havoc with her emotions. P>
How is it possible to feel affection for someone like Callisto? She was a monster. But she was right. In some strange way we did care for ea ch other. I find myself grieving for her and I don't even know why. Do I really feel responsible for who and what she turned out to be? Because of Cirra? Maybe. Maybe I am responsible. Maybe I am partly to blame. I wish it had never happened. I wish she could have had a chance to grow up lik e a normal young girl.
I know Gabrielle says she made her own choices, but if it hadn't been for me those choices might have been very different. I'm sorry, Callisto, so terribly, terribly sorry that you didn't have a better chance. So ter ribly, terribly sorry you never changed. I always hoped you would.
At last, Xena rose to her feet, took a deep breath and sang the bu rial chant for her lost enemy.
She was gone a long while before she finally returned to the campsite.
"I put her body in a tiny clearing near the water and covered it with rocks. She had no family so there's no need to report its place to anyone ," the warrior said to Gabrielle, her face a stone mask. But I'll neve r forget where it is.
Xena and the bard munched on some dried biscuits and drank some of the tea that had been brewing since noon in the campfire. Xena was even quie ter than her usual self and Gabrielle, respecting her mood, kept quiet al so. Elisa continued her exhausted sleep in her bedroll.
At day's end, they settled onto their bedrolls and lay there waiting f or sleep to arrive.
"Why do you think I feel so bad about Callisto?" Xena asked, breaking the silence of the night.
Gabrielle's answer wafted over to her, "Maybe I'm finally getting to y ou. Maybe you're getting a soft heart."
There was a minute of silence, then, "Soft head would be more like it, " scoffed the warrior.
"Now you're sounding more like yourself, Xena," Gabrielle chuckled. P>
"Would you sing something tonight?" Gabrielle loved to hear Xena sing, but persuading her to was often difficult. But Gabrielle knew, too, that sometimes when Xena was upset, singing made her feel better.
For awhile there was no answer and the bard thought perhaps the warrio
r had fallen asleep. Then Xena's pure, rich voice lifted softly into the
evening air and blended with it.
I see her golden hair, her glowing face,
Her mist-green eyes alit with tale to tell.
She turns her head and aims a smile at me,
And I feel blest to have my Gabrielle.
My heart has doubled since she came to me;
Her destiny's to turn me from my wrath.
One-half my doubled heart belongs to her;
She's given hers to me to light my path.
Though trouble sometimes comes between our souls,
Her heart beside mine never stops its beat.
I've strayed and so has she, if truth be told,
But without hers my heart is not complete.
Her heart's become a vital part of me,
Its beating helps me draw my ev'ry breath;
If she should ever tear her heart from mine,
There's naught would stop mine bleeding but my death.
"Xena, that was so beautiful," the bard had a hard time getting words past the lump in her throat. "You just now made that up, didn't you?" Ga brielle asked, a soft smile creasing her face.
"Umm hmm," Xena acknowledged sleepily.
The bard just lay there for a moment gazing lovingly at her best frien d's profile. Your heart is part of mine, too. Finally, she nodded her head and said deliberately, "You have many skills."
"Hey, that's my line," the dark-haired warrior chuckled as her eyes cl osed. "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
"Goodnight, Xena." I love you.
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