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WAR OF THE AESIR
Shine on dear friend ...
Why then the darkening of the light
It was only when the sun descended behind the mountains and the violet melting lavender upon the snow covered tops, that the three travellers reached the forest. It was pitch when, having followed a trail pierced by Xenaís keen eyes, they came upon a humble rest-stop. Smoke from a warm hearth filled the outside air with promises of comfort and the inviting aromas of a sumptuous meal.
Both dark and red haired women were clothed in wool leggings and jerkins. Hooded cloaks protected them from the brisk wind while fur boots protected them from the hard, cold ground. Gabrielleís clothes were a faded, light blue and her cloak a solid grey smoke that roughly matched the colour of her shirt which was laced loosely at the collar under her jerkin. Xena, her sword strapped to her back, restrained her cloak of dried sand from one shoulder, wore the colour of charcoal. The clothes were loose enough to fit over her armour and still conceal it - once most of the brass fittings were removed. The laced shirt beneath the jerkin was a green as deep and dark as a forest at dusk. Each had grey gloves in their belts should the cold prove too biting. Gabrielle carried the pack of travel goods and necessities in a leather backpack slung over her shoulder; her scroll pouch ever present at her hip, strap across the alternate shoulder. With her free hand, she used her staff as a sturdy walking stick ... while doing her best to ignore the third member of the group.
The third party in question, Callisto, had no extra clothing. Nor did she carry anything, being unwilling as well as bound. She had, however, remained unusually silent for the last part of their trek across the Norse plains. This was due largely to the brown leather neck collar and leash that Xena had braided, fastened on (not easily) and with which she now led Callisto. At first, the blonde warriorís struggles had only led to her being half-choked and pulled off balance to fall upon the ground. And then, once refusing to get up, being dragged with little effort thanks to Xenaís unusual, yet legendary, strength, across the cold ground and sharp rocks that had led to a sullen silence that smouldered mutely.
"Well, well, a place for you two to eat and rest." she said with an attitude both bland and bored. Mercurial as ever, Callisto quickly switched to wicked amusement, "Since I require neither, why donít you just give me the stone and Iíll go on ahead and deliver it for you?"
"Ha. Ha." Xena was underwhelmed.
"Aww," now Callisto was all false sympathy. Itís falseness intentionally overt. "Xena doesnít want to play anymore? Maybe Iíll have more fun with your little friend here." Gabrielle glanced back at her, wary and uneasy. "But she probably still has that small, pesky allergy to taking a life, donít you Sweetie?"
"I canít believe," replied the disgruntled bard, "that you look down on me because I wonít take a life - even yours."
"Oh, believe it Gabrielle," true anger twisted her face and changed her tone utterly with its seriousness. "You claim to love Perdicus, but how do you repay his murder - his murderer? You surrendered when you had the chance to kill me. Instead leaving the person closest to you in the world, to murder me in cold blood as she watched me sink into the quicksand. And it was Xenaís guilt over that murder that gave me the opportunity to take over her body and leave her trapped in mine while I was still in Hadesí Tartarous; trapped there all alone with my hatred for her. And how many did I kill when I was her, hmm? All of which never would have happened if you had done what any decent person would have done. After all," her words hounded the bard relentlessly, sinking their fangs into the heel of Gabrielleís heart, "look at everything I did to avenge the deaths of my family! Even with my soul destroyed by the loss of everyone whom I loved, I could have let someone take care of me and walk around sad and pathetic yet unstained with blood like you. And then who would there be to avenge the deaths of my family? Every drop of blood I shed, whether mine or anotherís, was to set myself on the road to avenge those I loved. Unlike you, I loved my family enough to do right by them instead of what society deems is best for me. Iím not trying to selfishly save any reputation, my sanity or the tattered remnants of my soul, at the cost of my duty and devotion to those I loved who were brutally taken from me. How can you claim to ever have liked the man when this is all you have to show for it? I ran him through with my sword while he was unarmed and you could only watch helplessly as his blood and guts spilled upon the ground and this is all you can do?! Still letting your friends stain their hands doing you dirty work! Perdicus is still unavenged and here I am." She bared clenched teeth, "Little girl, you disgust me!!"
With a yell of upset fury Gabrielle lashed out. The first swing started from where she stood, her back in front of Callisto, caught the other woman square on the side of her jaw. The force of it sent Callisto spinning off the ground only to land on her side upon it. Xena, still holding the leash, was pulled toward them but regained her balance before falling. She quickly grabbed her friend and held her back.
"Gabrielle." The second time sharper when she didnít get a response, "Gabrielle! This is what she wants! She wants to see you all twisted up inside with hate like she is. DONíT LET HER WIN."
Her friendís breath was laboured with the effort it took to regain her control. The wet eyes of blue looked away form the other women as she ceased her struggles and Xena released her.
"Fine." The words were clipped. "Just keep her away from me." She resumed her walk toward the rest-stop, oblivious as to whether the others followed of not.
Xena raised Callisto by her armourís black shoulder straps and shoved her roughly against the trunk of a tree. Her face was a breath away from her opponentís.
"Either leave Gabrielle alone", she shook the other woman to emphasize her words, "or youíll find out what itís like to try and talk with a dagger stuck in your throat."
"A little possessive of your toy arenít you?" Callisto laughed. "I so love these intimate chats we get to share", her eyes flashed triumphantly, "When you act like your real self."
"Come on", Xenaís tone was a tad impatient as she tugged Callisto along behind her by the leash. Xena noticed that Gabrielle was at the shelter, but was waiting for her to arrive before going in.
However, Callisto wasnít going to allow Xena to dismiss her so easily.
" How ironic", she spoke with acid sweetness, "that you have to drag me around with you wherever you go. Just like the past that you can never escape, Iíll always be right behind you." She smiled, "By the way, for someone whoís supposed to be a hero, brimming over with compassion and good will, I noticed you never gave me a cloak or any other warm garments to wear." She pursed her lips in mock thoughtfulness, "Is that part of the hero handbook - let your captives freeze? What would Hercules say?"
Xena rolled her eyes, " Youíre immortal, remember. You donít have to eat, sleep, and , you donít feel the cold." She glanced back over her shoulder at Callisto and said thoughtfully "But you will need a cloak though, to make you look less suspicious. I donít suppose that if I remove the leash youíll promise to behave in there?"
"Oh, Iíll be as silent as the grave", Callisto answered ever so readily.
"Good," Xena spoke slowly, "or else Iíll put you in one. Several ones for all the parts I hack you into. Iíll see to it that you spend your immortality in pieces. Have I made myself clear?"
"Crystal." Callisto snarled and gave an unpleasant sneer in reply.
Xena pulled the leash taut as they walked towards Gabrielle.
The three entered and were immediately warmed by the heat. The place was so small it could hold no more than twenty people. Nevertheless, a number of the simple, solid tables and chairs were occupied by men from the village. The Norse style was unlike anything the trio were familiar with. All of the men had long, straight beards rather than the clean shaven complexions popular in Greece. Their hair was long and thickly braided. Their clothing was made from coarse linen, leather and furs and their chest were covered by odd metal plates or chain-mail. A small round wooden shield bordered in dark fur and bearing a design that appeared to be a lightning bolt and a war hammer was mounted on the wall. Below that and above the hearth, was a double-headed battle axe, scored by years of use. Xena, and Callisto especially, were admiring it when a broad, apron-clad woman carrying a rag-mop came to stand before them, blonde hair braided and darkened by sweat and grease. Her smile was friendly but her blue eyes were cautious - and there was a short sword strapped to her waist.
"Welcome strangers." Gabrielle noticed that, although she understood the woman perfectly with the ear she wore the clip on, the other side heard a guttural language which she wouldnít have been able to comprehend . "What can I bring for you here?"
"Food and a room for the night." Xena smoothly held out some silver, a rich offering for such a humble establishment, in her hand. "Will this do?"
The woman deftly took the coins and bit two of them. Satisfied, she slipped them into an unseen pocket beneath her apron. Apparently, their monetary standards werenít so dissimilar. She showed them to a corner table away from the other patrons and took their order immediately.
"Ale for me please." Callisto piped up, "My friends seem to have rudely forgotten me."
Their hostess shook her head uncomprehendingly. "Whatíd your friend want?"
"Ale" Xena replied, giving Callisto a withering look as the Norse woman walked off. Perhaps she regretted removing the leash.
"After all weíve been through," Callisto drawled, "the least you could do is buy me a drink."
"Why?", Gabrielle, who sat across from Xena spoke with controlled anger, "Since you donít need to drink, maybe you want us to throw it in your face - for old times sake."
That gained her a repressed look of surprise from both of the other women.
"Well now," Callistoís uncanny light stare gleamed, "that would be the most you could do, little girl. But, I must admit, it does amuse me to watch you grow some fangs in that mouth of yours."
"Keep it up Callisto", the deepening of her voice warned Xena just how enraged Gabrielle was, "and weíll see how amused youíll be."
"Thatís enough." Xenaís look told Gabrielle that her warning was meant for both her and Callisto.
"But we were only getting started." Callisto pouted facetiously. Then, in the blink of an eye, her tone changed, "And donít think I didnít notice how you two could understand and be understood by that Viking even though you and your playmate here spoke Greek the entire time. Bet itís those fancy ear ornaments youíre both wearing." she smiled malevolently, "They really are quite fetching on you. I donít suppose that I get any?"
"I donít", Xena smiled back thinly, "suppose you do."
"How petty." Callistoís eyes flashed and the curve of her lips widened, "I like that on you even better than the jewellery. Of course, Iím not surprised, you never did seem t like share your toys.", she gave a meaningful sideways glance at Gabrielle.
Before the bard could react to that insinuation, Xena leaned over, and with lightning speed, pinched certain nerves along Callistoís neck.
Callisto tried unsuccessfully to open her mouth, nor would any noise issue from her throat. She turned a baleful stare towards Xena, reflecting her desire to fight with the warrior woman.
Xena leaned her mouth towards Callistoís ear and whispered meaningfully, "Try anything else, and Iíll paralyse you completely. Itís all up to you. I donít care which you choose."
"Too bad you hadnít done that back at the caves." Gabrielle said after a moment.
Xena gazed thoughtfully at her friend before shrugging off her misgivings. "I didnít think pressure points would work on an immortal."
Gabrielle was about to say something else but was interrupted by the arrival of drinks and bread with cheese.
Before the Norse woman could return to the kitchen, Xena called to her, "Excuse me, maybe you could give us directions to a place we have to go to."
"Could be. Where are you headed?"
The room, filled with the noise of male voices, raucous laughter and steins clashing enthusiastically together, suddenly fell silent. One might say as silent as the grave.
"This house serves Thor," the womanís thick voice bit against the thicker silence, "like any decent clan would. Some bandits came by - foreigners - a few months back and defiled Helístemple. Been nothing but grief for us since. Now," her hand rested meaningfully on her short sword, "since you have the look of warriors and not thieves, I wonít assume that you had anything to do with that, however, Iíll not be helping anyone who serves Hel."
"We are strangers here" Xena explained, remaining calm in the face of the veiled threat, "and although we need to get there, we serve no gods - not Hel nor any others.
In the background, someone was heard to mutter "godless heathens" and a general rumbling began. One look from the hostelís owner, whose hand had never left her sword, kept her patrons in check.
"Since you donít, I guess I have no quarrel with you" the yet went unsaid, though clearly heard. "I wonít be helping you get to that den of evil though. Itíd be like spitting on my husbandís funeral pyre. Youíll get the food and the room that you paid for. Just make sure youíre gone in the morning."
"Of course," Xena replied, "thank-you."
The woman sauntered off and the din returned to itís previous level, though covert glances were thrown their way. All in vain, since Xena was aware of every one and acted oblivious to them.
"They certainly seem to take their gods a lot more ... personally than we do." Gabrielle observed.
"Perhaps" ventured a male voice approaching their table "itís because we Norse consider the relationship between gods and mortals to be closer than you folks do."
They looked up to see a large Viking standing near them. He had removed his horned helmet and thick lengths of unbraided dark brown hair, streaked with grey, hung over his massive shoulders. One lock hung stubbornly in front of one eye. The eye that they could see was a clear winter blue, lively and intelligent with a hint of mischief. They could see that his face, though partially hidden by a robust beard and moustache, was strong and friendly. His garb differed little from his fellows in the tavern except for a dark blue travel cloak which hung from the broad shoulders. One calloused hand was hooked in his wide belt while the other held a very long, thin walking stick.
"Weíd be curious to hear more about that." Xena answered amicably enough, waving for the man to take a seat. "My friend here especially," she nodded towards Gabrielle, "would like to learn more about the people and the gods here, sheís a very good storyteller and is always anxious to add to her repertoire.
"Oh, yes please!" Gabrielle didnít have to feign her enthusiasm as the curiosity Xena spoke of was definitely a part of her character, but she knew Xena was hoping this man had the information they needed.
"A storyteller eh?" his eyes sparkled as he took the proffered seat. "Iím sometimes one myself. The nameís Gagnrad."
"Xena", introducing herself, "sheís Gabrielle and this," she nodded towards the blonde sitting beside her, "is Callisto. Here" she passed Callistoís stein of ale to him, "have a drink."
Curiously enough, Callisto didnít glare at the warrior princess or the newcomer, but merely regarded him thoughtfully. It went unnoticed by her companions.
"So, you were saying about the Norse gods and mortals .... ?" Gabrielle prompted him.
"That we are closely linked, the gods and mortals" he drank deeply from the stein and smiled, "the Norns - 3 women - decide the fate of gods and mortals alike. Both are subject to fate, both die. And, at Ragnarok - the end of the world that will give birth to a new one - the Aesir and Humankind will fight side by side against Loki and his evil children", he looked around the table, "of which Hel is one. Sheís his daughter."
"Hmph" Xena considered his words " these Norns sound like the three Fates, the Aesir, like the Olympians. What can you tell us about Hel?"
His grin, though eager with pleasure, was fierce. "If you donít mind a story ..."
"Weíd be insulted if you didnít!" Gabrielle took out some blank parchment and charcoal. "Do you mind if I write it down?"
He gave a resounding laugh, "As you will child. Itís always a pleasure to come across someone willing to learn." His one visible eye sparkled, "Desire to learn is the first step towards wisdom."
Gagnrad cleared his throat and began.
The Story of the Birth of Hel
Odin the Flame-eyed, Odin the Wanderer, Odin the Thunderer, Odin, Allfather of the Aesir, maker of the world and god has many names, yet they are all one. Odin had a foster brother named Loki, known also as the Sly-one, the Trickster, the Betrayer. Loki was the son of two giants - the sworn enemies of the Aesir. However, he had befriended the gods and had shared many an adventure with them. Yet his aid, when given, only done so out of guile; for in all the Nine Worlds held together by the Life Tree, Yggdrassil, there was no creature more evil than Loki.
Often he would travel to Jotunheim, the land of the giants, and there spend time with the giantess, Angrboda. In time, she gave birth to three heinous monsters. The first was the wolf Fenrir, a cruel and canny beast that could swallow men whole or break chains in his massive jaws. The second was the serpent Jormungand, whoís length is inconceivable to any mortal. The last was Hel, born half-dead and half-alive for one side of her body was hale while the other was rotted and decaying.
The news of these monstrous children greatly disturbed the Aesir. So they went to the Well of Urd where the three Norns; Urd, Skuld and Verdandi waited, and there, had their worst fears confirmed.
"Pay heed" warned the Norns "for they will fight beside their father, who is more evil than all three when the end comes. At Ragnarok one of them will kill the Allfather himself."
Grim news, yet the Aesir, especially Odin, were not so easily daunted. Death came to all, sooner or later - what counted was the glory that outlived it. And so, despite the dangers or, in spite of them, the Aesir decided to capture the children of Loki and the giantess.
How Fenrir was bound is another story. Jormungand was hurled by Odin himself into the waters surrounding Midgard, the world of Men, and now encircles the whole world, biting his own tail. Thus he is known as the Midgard Serpent.
As for Hel, Odin did not hesitate. With one hand, he threw her out of Asgard, the realm of the gods, and into the grim and gloom shrouded darkness of Niflheim. Odin then decreed that she would oversee those in the land of the Dead. Thus, suffering, illness and death became her domain. Her hall was called Eljudnir. Her plate was called Hunger and her knife, Famine. Her bed was known as Sick Bed and its hangings, Glimmering Misfortune. There she had two servants, Ganglati and Ganglot, who moved so slowly and heavily that any motion could barely be seen. And so like near statues they were, eternally there, eternally useless. That became Helís home. The world where all the dead who are not brought to Valhalla, the Hall of Heroes, by the Valkyrie, must go. There she remains, in eternal blighted darkness. Waiting, waiting until Ragnarok. Until the day when she will join her brothers and father at the culling of the gods.
Gabrielle barely repressed her shudder as she put down her charcoal. "Thatís so ... horrible."
"Doesnít sound like the gods here are any less cruel than our own" Xena observed.
"Horrible? Cruel?" Gagnardís astonishment at this reaction seemed to surprise even himself.
"Oh, donít get us wrong." Gabrielle quickly put in. "Your storytelling was amazing, really. Itís just that I canít help but wander, ... I mean, Odin acted rather harshly, donít you think?"
"Odin" the man explained slowly, as if to a child, "traded one of his own eyes in order to gain the wisdom of the Nine Worlds. The children of Loki are evil. He acted as the Allfather should."
"But donít you see" Gabrielle leaned forward, hands moving to accentuate her words, "he didnít even wait to see if they were evil or not, he just went ahead and did what he wanted. To consider the children evil just because their father is, well, thatís not fair. Did Odin even try to talk to any of them, get to know them? Maybe he put them away just because he didnít like the way they looked; especially Hel. I mean, can you imagine how she must have felt, being born looking like that? The Allfather of the Olympians, Zeus, allowed his wife, Hera, to cast her son, Hapheastus, out of Olympus, the realm of our gods, because she couldnít stand his appearance. Odinís reaction doesnít sound all that different. Did he never stop to think that treating them that way, may be thatís what turned them against him and the Aesir? I sure wouldnít like someone who did that to me."
"Humph" Xena considered. "Self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Exactly!" Gabrielle nodded emphatically.
Gagnrad stared at them, stunned. "Heathens." He finally spat out. "I already told you that the fates of men and gods were sealed. One cannot change what is preordained." his visible eye flashed and he set his jaw.
"All that counts now is that they are evil. Hel is evil. Whether she was before or not is irrelevant now. Sheís full of bitterness and guile. The stone removed from her temple was something she planned to use against the Aesir somehow." The friendly storyteller was gone and all that remained before them was the warrior. "If your pilgrimage to there has anything to do with that stone, if you know of the stoneís whereabouts, best it would be for you to instead relinquish it to Odin - or his son Thor. That would ensure that itís evil is never put to use."
"What makes you think we know anything" Xena gave him a sharp look, "about any stone?"
"Thatís the second insult youíve given me this eve." Gagnradís voice lowered with his anger, "No one, no one, enquires after Hel or her temple, foreign or not. It could only be because of the stone. Now," his voice, which did not carry beyond their table, growled with restrained thunder, "will you see it goes to Odin?"
"We didnít mean" Xena replied carefully but firmly, "to offend your personal beliefs or you intelligence. Weíre just here on personal business. We donít know anything about any stone. However," the look from her eyes was harder than her voice, "if we did know how to get hold of such an item, I would simply give it back to its rightful owner rather than get involved in a bunch of politics I know nothing about. If I had it, which I donít."
It seemed to Gabrielle that, if it were possible and from the way his nostrils flared, the man would haved breathed fire from his nose. There was no way he could accuse them of having the stone without calling Xena a liar. Which, essentially, she wasnít since it was Gabrielle who actually had the stone, and not her.
The giant of a man stood up , a flat palm against the table. His final sign of entreaty. "To go against the Aesir is no small thing and it wouldnít be them that anyone who did have the stone would have to worry about anyway."
"Where gods are concerned" Xena said "itís been my experience that thereís little one can choose not to worry about."
"Then heed my words warrior, Loki wants glory of his own and would not be above stealing his own daughterís property for his own gain. Its in order to save it from his grasp that I will tell you where you should go," his visible eye shone bright against the dimming torchlight and his lips curled into a humourless smile, "should you happen to come across any who hold the stone, that is. Head north, north-east. There you will find the path you should follow."
"Gagnrad" Xena meant it, "thank-you."
His smile was genuine this time as was his laugh, although there still seemed to be some underlying hardness, "Thank me? Hah. Just the three of you journeying into unknown lands with foreign gods and frightening creatures makes you either very brave or very foolish. It would be interesting to see if you live through your quest or not. If you do, Iíll thank you to come back this way and Iíll buy you a tankard of ale just for surviving." With these words he left, stepping out into the cold night air, his blue cloak a dark swirl behind him.
"Strange man." Gabrielle said after he left. Glancing at the window for a crow she thought she had seen there earlier.
"Hmm." Xena noticed how well-behaved Callisto was being. The blonde warrior barely blinked when they were given steaming plates of food. The darker warrior looked on the other with mistrust.
They took their time eating despite the fact that it had been some time since their last meal. Once sated they were shown to the tiny room where they were to pass the night. It was cold and ill-lit, furnished only with two small cots and a pile of old hay.
Xena quickly shut the door behind them and with one deftly placed pinch released Callisto from the paralysis she had been suffering throughout the evening.
"Planning any trouble tonight?" Xena asked sardonically.
Callisto ignored the question, using her hands to manipulate her stiff jaw. "Something doesnít fit here."
"Yeah," quipped Gabrielle, "like the three of us."
Not here, you annoying chatterbox," her tone held none of its habitual mockery, "but here, with all of this. The entire time we were downstairs I felt like we were being watched. And that strange man ... donít you think it odd that he would leave to go outside after full dark when heís at a way station?"
"Maybe." Xena was unperturbed. "Whatís it to you?"
"Donít get me wrong, Xena." now she spoke with all too familiar spite. "If you and your sweet friend here get your fat into the fire, Iíll be only too happy to help. I just donít trust that man. And Iím not about to allow anyone, man, Olympian, Aesir or other , to deprive me of your suffering."
"Iím touched." the warrior princess responded with practised sarcasm.
Callisto merely laughed and began to hum to herself while appearing to look at the walls as though they were interesting masterpieces.
Gabrielle walked the short distance and keeping her voice low so as not to be heard by Callisto, consulted with Xena. "So, how are we going to do this, take shifts watching her while the other gets some sleep?"
"Sounds like a plan" she gave her friendís arm a conspiratorial squeeze. "Iíll take the first watch, ok? You try to get some rest."
"Oh yes, do try to sleep Gabrielle" Callisto was overzealous in her concern, "and dream about whether or not Iíve managed to escape after killing Xena here." Her pale eyes, which seemed grey rather than white, probably due to the low-hanging lantern, lit up. "Or maybe youíll dream about when youíll feel my dagger in your gut. Iíll kill you just like I did your Perdicas." She blew a kiss to the strawberry blonde, "Sweet dreams."
Before Xena could say anything, Gabrielle stepped in front of Callisto, one hand on her staff, the other on her hip. "First of all, you wouldnít kill Xena like that, you want to see her suffer first. Secondly, you canít get out of those manacles. Thirdly, Xena will make sure that you wonít lay so much as a finger on me. And finally," Xena could not recall her friend ever looking this cold, "youíre not going to mention Perdicas again."
"And how do you plan on stopping me from doing that?" Callisto snorted derisively. "Look Xena, your little sidekick here has delusions of grandeur. Really Gabrielle," she made a sympathetic clicking noise with her tongue, "youíre too little to have claws."
A swift, hard thrust brought the end of Gabrielleís staff into contact with Callistoís jaw, snapping the other womanís head back sharply. Callisto dropped like a felled tree, unconscious.
Gabrielle had knocked out the immortal Callisto. "Thatíll teach you" she spoke to the unconscious form at her feet, "not to underestimate me again. Just because you canít see my claws doesnít mean I donít have any."
Surprised by her own courage and either ignoring or unaware of the shocked expression on Xenaís face, Gabrielle made her way towards one of the beds.
Later, Xena watched Gabrielleís sleeping form. Callisto was still slumped over in a corner. Xena watched, and Xena brooded. Pressure points shouldnít have worked on Callistoís now immortal and near invulnerable body. Nor should Gabrielle have been able to knock her out. Hapheastus had said changes would occur. Were these signs of those changes, this decreased invulnerability? If so, it was all for the better and would make handling Callisto that much less dangerous though no less lethal. What truly disturbed Xena, though, was the way Gabrielle had acted. Being that decisive in anger. Resorting to violence. It was more like her than like the gentle , yet passionate Gabrielle. What am I worrying for, she chided herself, Gabrielleís on edge, having to deal with Callisto all over again. Of course sheíd be out of sorts.
As time passed, however, her disquiet refused to leave. First Callisto stops baiting us and pushing limits every chance she gets and now Gabrielle is acting .... differently. Xena sighed, What else is going to change before tomorrow?
From the rooftop where it listened, a crow flew off. Itís glowing eyes switching from red to green and back again.
From the folds of the shadows within the shadows that observed all, came a soundless laugh of wickedness, filled with peals of malevolent purple and gold. Oh, and how it laughed.
Sleep brings no joy to me,
Remembrance never dies;
My soul is given to misery
And lives in sighs.
The next day, Callistoís eyes were brown.
At first, no one noticed this remarkable change. They had left the way station before dusk to avoid anyone who might be tempted to follow them. The sun rose, a slow and inevitable stab of light. And as the light brought into view the world around the three women, so too did it slide into and upon their eyes.
It was Gabrielle who first noticed, seeing the normal - mortal - brown of the eyes that cast an evil glance back at her.
She smothered her surprise as best she could and hurriedly whispered to Xena, "Is that supposed to happen to her?" indicating Callisto with an imperceptible motion of her head.
Callisto stopped walking.
She turned and faced her captors. And in the full morning light one could see the rich depths of brown her eyes had become. As they had always been until that day when she had swallowed ambrosia.
"What." a demand, flat and toneless.
Wordlessly, Xena unsheathed the sward strapped across her back and approached her enemy. Callistoís stance was braced for attack. It was only when Xena held the flat of her blade lengthwise at the other womanís eye level that she saw her own reflection and understood.
She moved her godless eyes from the weapon to itís owner.
"You bitch." There was no preamble. No facade. Just the words, distinct and direct.
Xenaís lips thinned. She re-sheathed her sword. "What did you expect" she stated, not really caring.
"How much?" she shouted, her voice made raw by the intense rage she was feeling. "How much of my immortality did you steal from me?"
"I donít know." Xena walked past her.
"You donít know!?!" Callisto screeched and placed a swift kick to the back of Xenaís leg. Xena fell down of one knee, her palms stopping her from hitting the ground. She looked back over her shoulder at Callisto. She stood and faced her.
"I told you" she said through gritted teeth, "I donít know. Hapheastus didnít even know to what extent the manacles would subdue the ambrosiaís strength."
I also ate one of the golden apples before that. I should still have my immortality from that, if these bonds were meant only for the ambrosia."
Idea mixed with resolve to become action. She spun, raising one leg to come around and kick Xena in the face. The dark warrior barely stumbled from the vicious blow and reacted instinctively. She stepped into her opponentís immediate space and gave Callisto a powerful backhand. Which was exactly what Callisto wanted.
Rather than attacking as Xena and a braced Gabrielle expected, she stopped any aggressive movement and spat on the ground between them. Callisto looked at it with intense interest and was not pleased by what she saw.
Red. The blow had split her lip and she was bleeding.
Immortals do not bleed.
"So much for immortality", Xena stated flatly. "Now are you ready to move on or do you want to see how much more you can bleed?"
Hatred, pure and all-encompassing, is an emotion and state few people can handle. It burns everything from within. It can cause disease or illness in the more tender hearted person. It can burn all thought and reason; all other emotions, until only insanity remains. Fewer people still can handle it, be it, for any enduring length of time. This all consuming, festering hatred was to Callisto as air is to others.
And this was never more true than at this moment, when she met Xenaís stony countenance with her own smouldering stare.
Without a word she passed the living figure that was at the centre of her hatred. She looked back at neither woman. Since neither foe could see her from behind, they only noticed the white of her knuckles as she clenched her manacled fists tightly behind her back. And perhaps that was for the best, as it might have disturbed them to see the way Callistoís teeth gnawed at the soft pink flesh of the inside of her lips, tasting her own blood over and over again.
CHAPTER 8 : Q & A
Callisto, arch enemy to Xena and thereby to Gabrielle, has yet to truly lash out at them. Despite bondage, she remains a formidable fighter and thus a threat. As we have seen, she hates them. She admits to wanting to torture and kill them. Therefore, why has Callisto so far refrained from attacking Xena and Gabrielle? Sheís waiting for something.
Does Xena wonder why Callisto is controlling herself? Yes.
Does Gabrielle? Yes.
Has either surmised Callistoís reasoning?
Yes. And no.
Xena has estimated that Callistoís doggedly waiting for the opportunity to somehow break the manacles of Hapheastus and that, optimally, would want to find a way to do this before they reached the temple in order to take the Hel stone before the two women have a chance to return it.
Considers the above to be part of the reason, not all of it.
That would be difficult. She guesses, but does not - or cannot- allow these thoughts to reach the full surface of her awareness. Thus she guesses, but does not know. Consciously yet.
Is Callisto aware of what Xena surmises in regards to her plans?
Probably. As in yes.
Is Callisto aware of what Gabrielle has deduced?
If she did, would she fear?
...........Would she fear?........
..........Wait and see!..........
Five days. Five days since we left that small inn and travelled in the direction that fierce man told us. I write this now by firelight, during the winter dark of this part of the known world - it even smells different, crisp and cold. How I long for home. I long for familiar, warm surroundings. I long to hear Xenaís laughter again and to pass a peaceful nightís sleep. I can find none of that here. Not with the woman who murdered my husband sitting on my far side across the flames. Her regression back to mortality becomes more and more apparent with the passage of time. She sleeps. After seeing her shiver with cold, we gave her warmer clothing. She donned them only after Xena told her she would be "assisted" otherwise. The same with food. Our rations are now cut down unexpectedy by a third. To be a coptive and re-enslaved to the needs of the body ... perhaps itís no wonder that sheís so quiet. Brooding. I find I watch her a lot, and yet, she never seems to notice.
The silence over the past days has been deafening. Even Callisto seems subdued. Of course I wonder why, but Iíve learned not to ask her. Although I want to. I want to know why that look thatís akin to a wounded animal hides in the dark of her eyes. She hides it to protect herself but I see it; a sadness in the line of her mouth, a lost look. To want to probe so deep a pain, does that make me a sadist? To want to understand her out of compassion, of a need to let go of my hate? Or is it a desire to hurt her further for the pain she has caused me?
Perhaps Xenaís right, I think too much. Even she seems different here. We treat each other almost as strangers. A needed direction here, a civil word there. We donít ever touch. It is like this mist that has covered the ground and swirled about us for the past five days - is there never a day without fog here? - like we cannot see each other clearly, or even ourselves. Lately I feel almost numb, unlike myself, unreal. The whole world seems unreal to me. I feel as though I were falling, falling forever into a mist filled darkness and that I left myself and those I love up at the edge of the abyss - unreachable. For the sake of my soul, I could not say which I fear more, losing sense of Xena or of myself. The one thing I do know for certain is that I wish this was all a bad dream, that I would wake up with Xena on her blanket beside me and hear and feel the joy of our laughter together. I long to see her smile again, to feel the freedom of my own.
More than anything, I wish the nightmares would stop.
from the personal chronicles of
Gabrielle of Potedea
Twas in a dream revealed to me,
But not a dream of sleep:
A dream of wakeful agony,
of grief that would not weep.
Emily Jane Brontë
It was a familiar dream for Callisto. In fact, it was the only dream she had ever truly had. As vivid as the day it had actually happened. A revisited memory. A nightmare. Yet it was all she had of them; of the people she had loved before the murder of self she had perpetrated. And since it was all she had; to feed her, drive her, to fill that fathomless space, she feared it and yet was eager for it to return.
The screams start before the flames. Screams of fear. Mother clutching her and her sister to her in the middle of their simple thatch home. Her home. From outside, more screams and cries of pain, of death. The sound of horses and of bodies being trampled underneath or hacked at with swords while They passed.
Then came the smell of smoke. Bitter and choking. Tearing already weeping eyes. Then she sees the flames that begin to lick the inside of the roof. And, thatís when the screams grow from fear to paralyzing terror as the flames consume their home - her home, in seconds. Surrounded by the fire with no avenue of escape. Her mother wraps her and her sister in her skirts, trying to beat at the red-hot fingers of flame trying to brand them. She is blind from the smoke, choking on the acrid fumes. It is only when the pitch of her motherís voice goes beyond terror to something she would know later as unimaginable pain, did she realize that she was choking on the fumes of her own motherís burning flesh. No longer able to breathe, she swears she can still hear the screams of her mother joined by her sister, and another voice she knows was her own, before she falls into darkness. And yet, even there, the sound of their cries, the smell of their dying, does not leave her childís mind.
Like always, she wakes, a weight atop her, pressing her down into the floor. Desperation gives her the strength to push herself up despite her weakened state. The weight falls away, behind her. There is still smoke but the fire is gone. So is her home. She is surrounded by the charred remains of her home and the homes of her friends. Without exception, all of the buildings that made up her village are now smouldering ash. Fresh air fills her lungs. Open sky is above her head. In what had been their street, she sees the unmoving bodies of neighbours, friends of her mother. Where was mother? She tried to call out but no sound would issue from her throat, raw from screaming and scorched by the fire and smoke. Where was her family? They wouldnít have left her behind would they? Could they have forgotten her? Fear of being alone quickly descended into her childís heart. A whimper escaped her. Another. Tears stung her eyes and made murky furrows down her smoke blackened cheeks. She stood tentatively. Someone had to be around somewhere.
Thatís when she turned around.
The weight that had held her down, that had kept her from being burned alive as they were, were the cooked remains of her sister and her mother. Their skin all burned away except for some charred crisps that broke off like autumn leaves. Hairless. She could see the bone through the cooked meat of what was left of her family. The eyes, lidless, stared out lifelessly. Stared out from a place that she could not go. They had left her behind. This wasnít her family. How could it be? It was all a bad dream and she would wake up and her sister would be there to tell her how silly she was, and she would hold her favourite toy, a straw stuffed horse she called "Horsey" to herself and Mommy would come in and hug her and rock her and sing her to sleep and sheíd have happy dreams and everything would be alright because Mommy always made everything alright, Mommy ....
A shift in the wind. The upper torso of the larger body before her broke and crumbled. The skeletal hand released something.
It was the burned remains of Horsey.
Her universe shattered. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came.
From that day on, all she would ever be able to see when she closed her eyes were the burned and crumbling remains of her mother and sister. Hear their cries. And remember the implacable stares of their dead gaze.
Wait and see
Said by someone who is patient or annoying or intolerably both
Day seven since the way-station. Xena knew the others had been sleeping as badly as the others. A least, from what she could tell by their haggard looks and eyes that looked bruised from the lack of rest. Oddly enough, despite - or maybe because of Callistoís cowed behaviour, Gabrielle seemed energetic, restless. Xena envied her, all she felt was lethargic, having difficulty focusing her thoughts. With Callisto around, she had to be at her sharpest. And yet she couldnít banish the nagging doubts and self-recriminations that kept pulling at her from the inside-out.
"Hey Xena." Darn, the red-blonde seemed almost perky as she sidled up to walk beside her friend. "I was wondering about something."
"Yeah?" She responded casually, in a voice devoid of the concern and urgency that she actually felt. Some days, she hated herself for being so duplicitous. "What?"
"How come you donít write down any of your music?"
The question surprised her but Gabrielle was like that: able to explore and come out with thoughts on any number of things without any warning. Ever curious. She never asked things lightly, she really wanted to know and understand the world and those in it. So Xena considered the question seriously, grateful for the light distraction. However, someone else spoke before she could put voice to her thoughts.
"And here I was just beginning to think you had some entertaining qualities," Callisto stated; the longest sentence sheíd spoken during the entire trip, "but, oh no, you had to shatter your improving image with your incessant chatter and reveal that youíre still the same irritating nitwit that I first met."
"From you," Gabrielle said to her back, "Iíll take that as a compliment."
"Can you at least talk about something a little less trivial or tedious?" Her voice turned from boredom to wicked glee. "Like torture, maiming, murder - fun things."
"All you seem to be able to contemplate" the calm, taunting words surprised Xena, "is how to bait a person here, twist a knife in there, avenge this, hiss at that. How to blame anyone but yourself. Revenge, revenge, revenge. Now thatís a tedious thing to ponder all day, every day. Now me, I wonder why Xena doesnít write down her songs."
I bet that puts a kink in Callistoís chain mail, thought Xena.
"I donít write them down because theyíre all here", she tapped her head with a slender finger. "Besides, I only sing when Iím moved to. The song is for that moment and time. It wouldnít seem right to repeat it."
"Hmm" was all Gabrielle said, pondering her friendís reply.
"How grand" Callisto drawled, "really".
"Well" Gabrielle surprised them both again, "what would impress you Callisto?"
"Getting rid of all this damned fog for one thing." she said irritably. "How can you be sure that guy at the inn didnít lie about NNE being the right direction?"
"Wait a second." Both of the others stopped abruptly, one out of trust and the other simply because. "How do you know what he said?"
"Hey thatís right." Gabrielle stepped in, "I didnít hear anything different in my right ear." She touched Hapheastusís ear clip on her left one.
Xenaís eyes narrowed. "So he was speaking not only fluent Greek, but perfectly. Her voice hardened to reflect the iciness of her eyes. I somehow doubt that."
"So weíre heading into a trap." It was not a question. Callisto gave an eager, evil smile.
It took a moment for Xena to take command. Odd, thought Gabrielle, sheís usually faster than this to act. When danger threatened, a moment for the Warrior Princess was like an hour to others. Sheís usually sharper with Callisto around.
The thought had to go unfinished. The sky darkened.
"We head back to the inn" Xenaís voice said Now. Thunder rumbled close by. "Iíll ask a few more questions and get some answers from those people whether they want to give them or not."
"All youíll do" roared a voice that was thunder "is die!"
The figure of a man appeared in the mist. Norse. Heavy braces of intricately carved silver encased each forearm. Coarse Nordic clothing of sea blue could be seen under the thick white fur that fringed his cloak. An immensely wide leather belt encircled the waist of this huge bear of a man. His eyes were twin blue flames and his hair crimson fire. The strait beard jutted out defiantly with his words and in his hand he held a metal war hammer with an uncommonly short handle, the likes of which the three women had never seen before.
Except painted on a Norse shield.
"Thor." Lightning struck nearby as Xena spoke the name of the Overgodís favourite son, making the godís hair and eyes light up, adding to the ferocity of his expression.
"Aye woman!" If anything he seemed to draw himself up to look even larger. "You face Thor, Storm-god, Giant-killer, Son of Odin the one-eyed Allfather, Bearer", he held the massive hammer high, "of Mjollnir. My glory is legend and my might well known and well feared in all of the nine worlds."
"You refused to surrender what the Allfather sought yet he did not slay you with his spear, Gungnir, which never misses its mark." His voice grew with the now gusting wind. "Now you shall give it to Thor or I shall smite you where you stand!!"
Callisto, even with her hands bound behind her, stood with an air of offensive indifference. "Storm-god, hmm?" She drawled in an underwhelmed, mocking tone. "A name you undoubtedly received for all the hot air you carry. Itís amazing you Northerners ever get a chance to fight when youíre so busy spouting about your many names and boring battles.
"By the way, my nameís Callisto and you can call me Warrior Queen."
"Arrgh." He thumped his breast. "You dare to mock the Champion of the gods!?"
"Mortal, immortal", she sighed musically, "it all depends on the colour of the apple doesnít it? Either way, it makes no difference to me, youíre all only good for one thing - dying!"
"Even chained you challenge me!" He seemed pleased. "Perhaps itís not true that the countries beyond only teach women weakness and do not treat them with equal respect as we do. Youíd make a fine Valkyrie Callisto, Warrior Queen." He raised Mjollnir. "Your bravery alone in facing me may earn you a place in Valhalla. Prepare for your death!!"
The Storm-god bagan to swing Mjollnir, lightning sparked from it. Callisto laughed, and with a battle shriek, charged him. Too late, Xena saw the darker gleam in Callistoís dark eyes and how they looked upon the war hammer. Too late, Xena realized the other womanís intentions. Too late to reach her in time. Too late.
He did not heed her.
He swung and released Mjollnir, Callisto launched herself into the air, twisting her body over itself. Her timing was perfect. The magical war hammer struck not her, but the bonds of Hapheastus. Lightning sprayed like deadly water, blinding the onlookers. Xena covered Gabrielle from their arcs as a great cracking sound rent the air.
Thus did the slayer of monsters become the liberator of one.
Mjollnir flew back to the hand of its master, only a small part of itís magic. Callisto herself had been thrown several feet away, crashing and dragging along the ground. Not dead, for she moved, though slowly. And raised herself with hands no longer fastened together.
She looked down and saw this. Saw too that, though broken apart, only one manacle had been broken off. The other was still firmly in place. A quick rake of her nails drew blood from her bare arm, yet before her eyes it healed. No god like powers yet, but a portion of her immortality had been restored. She laughed as the others stared. Two in dread, and one in confusion.
"Well, waddya know, I feel less cranky already." Callisto lazily flicked her long hair back over her shoulder. "What do you say to leaving these two mortal s and the stone to me? And then when Iím done with the stone, your precious daddy can have it back."
"Tis no small wonder that you survived one of my blows." Eager to fight, Thor had never been one for thought, only for battle. He could not see the cunning danger that confronted him. "You will be worthy to slay after all!"
"Nay." She raised a hand up in supplication. Thor paused. "Wait. Thereís something you donít seem to understand. The stone will be mine. And the suffering of Xena", her face twisted as her voice rose, "and her little friend belong", she began to run toward the god, "to".... He raised his hammer, "Me!!" She launched herself.
Gabrielleís staff, thrown like a spear, hit Callisto off to the side, causing Thorís hammer blow to just miss the manacled arm she had raised to absorb the blow and break the remainder of her chains.
"Thanks" Xena said to Gabrielle, unsheathing her sword.
"Hey, anytime you want to use my staff to stop our most evil enemies - feel free. Besides, you throw harder than I do." Although she spoke with levity, the soberness of their present situation was apparent in her demeanor.
Callisto half-screamed, half-howled and then miraculously switched to wicked enjoyment. "You play dirty Xena", her teeth flashed. "I like that."
"Now Callisto", lips pursed, eyebrows raised, "you know I couldnít just walk away and let you get your powers back, now could I?"
Gabrielle, with no weapon, could only stand back.
"Oh, I wouldnít dream of you leaving the party." Although she had no weapon, Callisto was still a very formidable enemy. "But how long do you think you can keep me away from Storm-god over there before he kills you and your friend-for-life. Besides," her dark eyes flashed, "that Valhalla, where the dead fight each other forever sounds perfect for us!" She turned to Thor. "Can we reserve rooms ahead of time?"
"Tho I know not what strangeness is about," the god Thor seemed very puzzled and very put out, "you will fall under my might! You shall not stop me again!" He prepared to smite Xena for her interference.
"Sure thing". Her smile and voice were almost sweet. "But whoís going to stop me?"
The ground suddenly erupted beneath their feet, throwing them all off balance. Large forms loomed above the mist, above the trees.
"Giants" breathed Gabrielle.
Enemy of the Aesir, yet their large, loathsome eyes were not upon Thor alone.
"The mortal women are ours little god!" challenged the biggest, and coincidentally the ugliest, of the brutes. "Even you cannot slay this many of us."
"Not only are they uninvited," Callisto said, "but also greedy! If anyoneís going to take or kill anyone, I think it should go to the person, or whatever," she eyed the giants, "who has the most seniority of hating these women." Her expression perked up. "And that would be me."
"Shut-up!!" hissed Xena turning from one enemy to the others. "Canít you see that weíre all in danger here! We could be killed, caught between them!"
"Hmm?" Callistoís smile was sickeningly sweet. Not failing to notice Gabrielle inching around in an attempt to regain her staff and outflank her.
Staring threateningly at each other, their mutual hatred burning with the heat of a thousand suns, the Norse god and the giants remained oblivious to the mere mortals they coveted.
"You dare insult the Son of Odin by calling him a coward!!" His red beard thrust out like shooting flames, "I, Thor, champion of the Aesir, care not whether your fearful show of numbers be ten or ten thousand!!"
Thor roared and raised Mjollnir.
In dungeons dark I cannot sing
In sorrow`s thrall `tis hard to smile:
What bird can soar with broken wing?
What heart can bleed and joy the while?
How well I remembered the days when I could fly. When the wings that sprouted majestically from my back had not been so drenched in the blood of vengeance; so heavy with the weight of the crimson deaths that my wings could no longer spread upon the wind, ready to catch each upward draft. Ready to be caught by them and lifted, lifted everlastingly high to soar above the clouds .......
That had been then.
All was not lost however, for before the loss of freedomís flight could completely submerge me in itís bitter despair, I had found a friend. A sail beyond measure , a friendship beyond friendship.
And with her I flew.
Not with my wings but carried in the otherís arms. Up, up, up into the sky. So high I felt like together we could touch the stars. And looking up into that smile, I felt myself return it with everything not yet dead inside of me, there with her I could again feel joy and leave the sadness on the ground to disappear below. It seemed like the Heavens themselves smiled upon us. Smiled with us. It felt like we shared in Eternity.
Yet even Eternity ends.
We would land. And others, the world, reality, would intrude upon us. And why not? My friend shone with and inner light brighter than the sun, more beautiful than the moon. Beauty and benevolence both. Others were drawn to her like moths to the flame. And she would laugh openly and smile generously at them. Her wings, those strong and breathtaking wings of shades of deep brown would shine gold in the right light.
If one stares too long at the sun, one could be blinded.
What would happen to someone who stares too long at one who shone far brighter than that golden orb? Would it burn more than the eyes?
Would burn the soul?
If only that could excuse what I have done.
When it started, how, I couldnít say yet, with the passage of time, fear - no, worse than that - cowardice seized my heart, shook it - me - like a rag doll and did not relent itís merciless grasp.
It was the fear of losing her.
Oh, there was the flying to be sure. Yet even if I could fly once again on my own, that could not parallel the joy I shared with her.
If only ... if only I had known ....
She was everything. She was the air I breathed, the well from which I drank, upon her love I feasted and was sated, almost. She had been the celestial lights by which I used to guide us. Almost.
And I knew, I knew, that others would take her away from me. Lure her away. And in her generosity, her goodness, her need to help, she might leave.
Left alone, without her, I would be but a shade of a life; half a soul.
I could not allow that.
So one day, after weeks of work, I led her into my home. A place where she had spent much time. Upon a carpet of petals of hyacinth I led her, eyes closed in anticipation of the surprise I had promised her, into the gilded room of gold I had constructed for her. Full with her trust in me, she did not open her blue within blue eyes until after I said she could. Until after I had closed and bolted the door.
The door to her cage.
She opened her eyes. And stared at the beautiful bars of gold, at the cushions of silk, at the marble table with the rarest and most delectable fruits placed upon the exquisitely designed platters. She saw the ceiling, high enough to fly up a short way and around inside the cage. It was a beautiful cage. And then she looked at me.
At first she cried. She wept for many days, her tears falling like clear-silver jewels. Not once did I leave her side then, arranging for servants to bring drink and food which she did not touch. Over and over I spoke to her, explaining how I was only trying to protect her. That I couldnít let what happened to me, befall her; how she was safe now; that I would always keep her safe.
On the eighth day she ceased weeping. A trembling smile touched her lips and she looked at me with eyes I recognized yet did not. In the softest of voices, she told me she understood. She asked me, me, to go to the market to get her the dates she so loved from a particular stall there. They had the best dates, she insisted. And she was hungry, for she had not eaten since the onset of her imprisonment. Nor had she flown. She wished she had the strength to fly again, she said, maybe if I ... ?
I went to get the dates.
It was only on my way back from the vendor that her words struck me. About her not flying. About wishing ....
Too late, I realized the real meaning behind her words.
I ran home. In actuality, activated by my fear for her, my wings, useless for so long, lifted and I flew. I flew home. Now a gift without meaning.
Breathless from dread. Breathless from this sudden gift of what I thought long lost, which was now only a means to an end - reaching her. I threw open the doors and rushed inside.
The sight of her motionless body crushed the shattered remains of my heart. I fumbled at the lock and stumbled to her side; saw the remains of some poisonous berries and flowers which had been outside of her cage but, apparantly, just within her reach. Chosen for their colours, I had not thought of any other purpose for them. In her desperation, she used them in order to free herself from her golden prison, to fly again.
The flight which I had stolen from her. With the last shreds of My sanity torn away, I laughed at the irony of being the perpetrator rather then the protector I had assumed I was.
And I had thought that I had done it all for her. Yet it had been all for me, to save her for me. I murdered her as surely as if I had crushed those poisons and fed them to her myself.
Beyond the ability for words. Beyond a wordís ability to express what I now felt. Over the edge of regret and guilt into and through the abyss of self-condemnation and insane grief was where I could now be found. And as I tenderly rolled her lifeless form over and smoothed the hair away form her lovely face, I looked into eyes that laid no blame. More damning than anything else she could have done, for even though I had in my selfishness and jealousy, stolen her flight, I had not killed her soul.
Through the abyss the further I fell, choking on the dust of loss and hopelessness, for she whom I had held above all others, she whom I had destroyed, looked up at me with the dead eyes of an angel.
Every breath you take,
Every move you make,
I`ll be watching you.
Being the popular cult icon of our time was no easy thing. Yet she held herself with such quiet dignity and grace that the burden on her slender shoulders appeared weightless. She leaned over to listen to something that someone had said that interested her. Effortlessly she laughed, without a trace of artifice. I admit to feeling a familiar twist of jealousy but when she looked up, it was me she looked at. And smiled. She would have glided over to me right then, I swear it, but for the new swarm of fans that descended upon her.
I hate these parties.
I know, I know, she owes almost all of it to her admirers, her staunch and devoted supporters. Ungraciously I suppose, I hated all of them because they kept her away from me.
It hadnít been that bad at first. A soiree here, a luncheon there, but as her fame grew into legend, the obligatory appearances grew. And my time with her diminished considerably. Becoming less and less as time went by.
Now her "obligations" had become insufferable to me.
Of course they needed her. Of course Iím only one person and theyíre many. Of course I understood that.
I understood all too well.
It had finally gotten to the point where she had been forced to choose between the one or the many.
Guess who lost.
Sure decisions are made. But sometimes, sometimes, the decision can be taken away from you. After all, I knew she hadnít made a choice. They had made it for her. And now I was going to unmake it; going to make it so that they could never make decisions for her again.
I resettled the rifle against my shoulder from the darkened flat I sat in. I levelled the barrel just past the window sill and peered through the scope.
I could see her.
One quick shot and they would never be able to have her again. Nor would they follow, but I would. The cold metal of the .38 tucked into my pants would see to that. Where she will go, I will follow - one shot apiece. No one would ever be able to come between us again.. No one would ever be able to tear her away from me again. In death we would attain the blissful union we couldnít find in life.
I pulled the trigger.
Sometimes you picture me,
I`m walking too far behind.
You`re calling to me,
I can`t hear what you`ve said.
Then you say - go slow.
I fall behind -
Time After Time
The world had exploded.
At least thatís what Xena remembered happening.
There had been yelling between the titanic creatures. Thor , enraged about the giants being close to the well of ... was "Mimir"? Something about the mist being from there. The giants saying they would either take or destroy all that the Aesir possessed. Typical war-talk. Then the fighting began. Thor had hurled his hammer and thatís when the world had shattered into a thousand stars to be followed by the blackness of unconsciousness.
Xena had awakened with a piercing headache and a tender bump near her right temple. It was dusk. The dusk of the same day or the next day or the day after that. She had no way of knowing. Probably the same day or only the next she decided because she wasnít hungry or thirsty enough to have been unconscious for longer than that. Other than the bump on her head and some bruises she was fine.
And she was very, very alone.
No giants. No god. Not even any mist. For the dusk was clear enough for her to see the outline of a mountain range in the distance. But she could see no sign of Callisto.
Nor was there any sign of Gabrielle.
A rare terror pushed adrenalin through her heart as she searched for any sign of either her former companion or their prisoner. Using every hunting technique she had ever learned, Xena began to worry that the strange nightmares sheíd been having were in actuality a foretelling of a dreadful future.
Sheís okay. Sheís got a good head on her shoulders. Xena reminded herself. Gabrielleís alright. She has to be. Contemplating the alternative was a paralysing thought.
Xena only hoped that wherever the blast had thrown Gabrielle, it was far from Callisto.
Callisto, with her immortality partially restored, had recovered quickly. She had made it to the mountains easily and in very little time had found a secluded cave and started a fire (though the cold had become far less biting since her demi-god recovery). Nor did she hunger or thirst (not sufficiently to bother her anyway). And had begun to plan her revenge strategy.
Xena might well find her first. The warrior Princess was the best when it came to tracking - but so am I, Callisto thought. True, Callisto had no weapon other than what she could make (which was a lot - traps, spears, darts, bow and arrows, ...) but she did not necessarily need them. Besides, she mused, I prefer to work with my hands. A thought which she found infinitely entertaining.
The footstep, so light and nearly soundless alerted her to the presence entering the narrow cave. Xena, of course, since who else could have gotten that close to her before she could detect them? Too bad for the now unusable plans, not that it mattered to Callisto. She almost trembled with excitement as she stood-up from the fire.
"If you had called ahead", she spoke while turning, "I could have had something ready for you."
And looked upon Gabrielle.
"Well, well, well". Malice curled her lips upward and showed her teeth. "If it isnít Gabrielle. Now this is a surprise! Coming in here as quiet as a mouse; Xenaís been teaching you new tricks sweet pet. Well, little mousey, here you come walking into this cave as if you were walking into my arms. An early solstice gift for Callisto, hmm? How generous of you."
"I came" Gabrielle spoke in a voice of quiet moderation "to finish what we started."
Callisto pursed her lips, this was not the Gabrielle she knew.
"So youíve come to settle the score for that sorry husband of yours? Looks like the mouse wants to play cat but whatever would Xena say if she found out that her precious innocent friend finally took a life?" She grinned.
"Oh, Iím not here to kill you Callisto", completely indifferent to the otherís words, "Iím here to finish our game."
The grin faded. "And what game would that be?" Her voice was petulant because of the otherís lack of reaction.
"When you joined us to beat Velasca", Callisto thought the sudden flash in Gabrielleís eyes must have been from the firelight, "before we tricked you into the lava pit with her. We had a wee "chat" then. A game of truth; quid pro quo. You do remember donít you?"
" I remember" her dark gaze eyed the bard, wondering where this was going, "that you werenít very good at it."
"That was then."
"Alright." Callisto crossed her arms loosely, her tone and stance condescending. "Letís see if I recall it correctly shall we? I asked you how long it took for your husband to die after I ran him through and then you took off feeling violated and oh-so hurt." She gave a fake moue of sadness. "So Gabrielle, how long did it take that helpless, pathetic excuse for a man to die after I did the world a favour by thrusting my sword hilt-deep into his guts and out his back?" Her smile regained its former malice.
Silence. Then, "Not as long as it took for your mother and sister to die." Her words were as quiet as the grave. "I bet he screamed a lot less too, didnít he Callisto?"
The impermeable sound of silence that followed her retort was a surer sign that Gabrielle had hit her mark than any spilt blood would have been.
"Who are you?" Callisto said with such quiet severity that she did not sound like her usual self. "I know Gabrielle and she would never resort to cruelty of any kind. So before I cause you pain like youíve never felt before for the words youíve just spoken to me, tell me who it is that Iím going to slowly kill."
Gabrielle threw back her head and laughed. It was not a sound that lent ease to any within hearing.
"Oh, Iím "precious, sweet, little" Gabrielle alright. The only difference is that Iím now completely myself. And Iím not going to let some pretense at innocence allow you or the rest of the world to claim me as a plaything; a victim."
"As for killing me", her narrowed eyes resembled dark pools, "thatís not on my agenda today."
Although her face remained as calm as granite she suddenly screamed. "Please, youíve got to help me!! Please save me from the giants!! Theyíre coming this way!! Heellp!!"
"What are you ..."
Callisto never had the chance to finish that sentence, as a gargantuan hand reached into the cave and cut off more than her words.
Xena went headlong into a dead run towards the cave to save Gabrielle before her friendís cries for help had even ended. The first sound of the bard had propelled the warriorís body instantly into swift motion.
She had been following what she had assumed to be Gabrielleís trail. The satchel of scrolls that she had found gave clear indication that Gabrielle had come this way. It was far too obvious to have been planted by the canny Callisto. Xena had been concerned then for her friendís safety for Callisto could have tracked the bard just as easily. She may already be wounded, for the broken foliage by Gabrielleís bag had been overt even for her newly acquired skills.
Then came the scream.
Xena had never heard Gabrielle cry out like that. And knowing the giants were close-by, feared the worst. And the giants were there; there where the cry had come from. Xena didnít care how many of them there were, sheíd obliterate every last one of them if they had harmed Gabrielle.
A voice a couple of giant strides away and in front (and above) her made her halt her headlong rush.
"Be still." said a booming male voice.
She waited, no immediate movement toward her. The giant hadnít seen her then. He was closer than she had estimated. Quiet movement for a giant. Sheíd have to circle around in the bush, try to find a tree or rock face that would give her less of a height disadvantage.
"Good eve, dark and dazzling warrior." came a lyrical voice of flutes and pipes. "Perhaps I might make a suggestion?"
Sword already drawn, the speaker quickly found himself staring at the point of Xenaís sword that was only inches away from his throat. Smooth and fair of face with hair a darker flame than Thorís copper tones, he seemed young. His lithe build was visible beneath the pale blue and forest green tunic he wore. His stance, even so threatened, was casual and he carried no weapons.
"If you donít keep quiet", she whispered intensely, "you wonít have to worry about those giants over there, because Iíll separate your head from your body before they get here."
He grinned playfully. "All my worries have been taken care of . And as for the giants, Iíve nothing to fear from them."
"If", now his grin widened charmingly, "you look out there, I think youíll see the person youíre looking for."
Who in Hades was this odd man? Suspicious as she was, Xena did, however, peer through the sheltering greenery, keeping the strange fellow in her peripheral vision.
And, indeed, there was Gabrielle, still alive.
She was bound back to back with an unconscious Callisto.
"You see? Sheís perfectly alright and sheíll stay that way ... as long as you cooperate."
The sword was back at his throat. Closer this time.
"Youíre in league with them." A statement.
"Yes and no." Sly and coy. "Are they with me? Yes. That "league" thing makes it sound like theyíre my equals. And they are not."
"And this whole sword-threaten-my-life tactic," he said with marked boredom, "is utterly ineffectual against me. You may wish to simply give me what I want. Youíd probably find it much more desirable than the death of your friends."
"What" she hissed between her clenched jaw, not bothering to correct his false assumption, "do you want?"
"Itís so small and trivial a thing really." He gestured with his hands, charming and wheedling even though there was no need. It appeared to amuse him to be this way. "Iím embarrassed to even voice so minuscule a request."
"What." The hiss became a growl. The question turned into a demand.
"The Hel stone naturally."
"Oh my, where are my manners this century." His eyes flashed both red and green. "I neglected to introduce myself. Iím Loki."
Xena dropped her sword. "What makes you think I have the rock?"
"Loki." He restated more slowly as though she hadnít heard him correctly the first time. "Foster-brother to Odin the God of the Gods? You met him by the way. At the way station. He was there, full of wind, evil tempered fellow with lanky hair that covered his missing eye. You foreigners are amazingly easy to fool. I mean that whole storyteller disguise of his is positively ancient." His tone turned dry. "Legendary, some might say."
"I know all this you see because I was there too, spying. I am rather good at that." He gave a eloquent shrug.
He began to walk from the bushes into the clearing. Xena had no real choice but to follow. The giants kept a respectful distance.
Loki, the Trickster, swept an arm toward the two bound women. "I know neither of them have it so that obviously leaves me with you."
"Then why not just take it from me? It shouldnít be too difficult for you. Iím only mortal after all." She jerked her head toward Gabrielle, who looked at her apologetically. "Let her go." Callisto was not her priority.
"Well." Loki huffed. "Where would the entertainment be in that?"
"The girls for the stone. Now. And please." He smiled sweetly, maliciously.
The life of Gabrielle over a weapon used by foreign gods in a far away land over some internal feud.
For Xena, there was never a choice.
She slung the satchel off her shoulder and held it out. "The red-haired girl first."
He lowered his head in the hint of a nod. "Of course." With the barest of gestures from Loki the ropes fell away from the two women. Gabrielle immediately staggered and fell against Xena, forcing the warrior woman to hold her up with her free arm. Callisto was left, momentarily forgotten, where she had slumped onto the cold ground.
"You alright?" She whispered to the cherished friend in her arms.
"Yeah, just a little bruised and shaken up." Gabrielle answered. "Are you really going to give that to him?"
"Not if I can help it." Xena spoke against Gabrielleís soft hair, near her ear so that no one else could hear or see what she was saying. "Youíre good with that slight of hand stuff. I want you to switch the stone with a rock I have in there. Pass the stone to me so he canít see, then hand the pouch with the rock to him. After that, Iíll cause a distraction and we both run for it. Iíll try to grab Callisto and carry her out of here but you keep running. Got it?"
A polite clearing of Lokiís throat caused them to start to break apart, but not before Gabrielle had passed a rock from the pouch into Xenaís belt while they moved away from each other. She walked toward the Sly One. She made a show of fishing into the satchel for the coveted item.
"Gabrielle?!" What was she doing?!! "He can get it for himself! Letís just get out of here, OK?"
Gabrielle turned to look at her.
It was Gabrielle.
It was not Gabrielle.
And yet, it was her, a familiar and sudden stranger who regarded her from eyes that held things the like of which Xena had never before seen in her friends gaze. A sharp and dawning suspicion caused her to examine the stone that Gabrielle had placed in her belt.
It was a useless rock.
Gabrielle held up the orb. Now, was it Xenaís shock or did the Hel stone seem , well, dulled? However, she could only watch as her dearly trusted friend placed it into the hands of the god who desired nothing more than to bring about the demise of the world.
Gabrielle had never taken her eyes from Xenaís. "Trust me Xena. This is for our - your own good."
And before Xena could even take a breath unconsciousness descended upon her and, with it the promise of oblivion.
Loki laughed and laughed on his throne which had been carved from bone in the hall he had made for himself here in Juntenheim: the world of the giants. An expansive room of gold with rich tapestries covering both floor and walls. And Loki continued to laugh and the torch fires hissed and spat with the sound for it was not one of merriment. It was fury and wrath.
Its cause was what he held in his fair hands up to his fairer face, for his pleasure upon receiving it had been quickly killed. On the floor, discarded, was the satchel of the mortal woman. In his hand was the Hel stone.
At least, what remained of it.
So near to his goal toward Ragnarok, the thought of triumph had blinded his eyes and other, supernatural, senses from catching the elusive truth. The suspicion that had first gnawed at the back of his mind was now stabbing with ever growing clarity at the forefront of his thoughts.
The stone was empty.
Specifically, the stone was broken.
Ever so minutely, there was the tiniest of cracks that revealed itself to the meticulous scrutiny of his eyes. What had been in there was now gone. Beyond his control. No longer attainable. To have such power snatched from the grasp of his evil ambition after having taken such pains to obtain it was unacceptable to Lokiís ego.
Someone was going to pay.
The laugh grew louder. He would start with the three mortal women in his dungeon below.
"If you care for what life you still have, Oh God of Mischief, you would do well to abandon any such idea. The women are not to be killed."
Loki, ever crafty and cunning, hid his surprise as he scrutinized the strange, handsome man of darkness who approached him from out of the shadows. Anyone who could enter his hall and not have him know it was a person to be wary of. And as green-red eyes looked into a gaze of lavender and gold as unending as the void and more unyielding than Odinís will, Loki experienced at least two realizations. First was fear, the second was that not only did he not recognize this figure before him, he did not know what the stranger was either.
"You must forgive me." Loki said with liquid smoothness. "I was not expecting guests so there was no servant prepared to herald your arrival, and therefore I have not been granted the generosity of your name."
"How polite." the stranger bowed magnanimously. "You may call me Chaos."
"Your name and my nature have much in common." Loki put slyly, not seeing the fearful truth in his words. "You are one of these southern gods, Greek perhaps?"
"Perhaps." Chaos spoke in a voice of hidden things.
"Perhaps," Loki echoed. "A brave god to traverse the barrier across foreign soil."
"A trifle." The other said.
"And yet your interest in the mortals", Loki measured Chaos with eyes sharper than any birds, "does not seem trivial."
"Nor is it."
Loki was not getting what he wanted; answers. His cunning was futile with this stranger. The gods patience waned.
"Nor is mine." His voice turned crueler with his resurfacing wrath. "They thwarted me of a key that would have unlocked the door to my destiny sooner than the Norns had said. I will not let them go unpunished."
"You wonít harm them." Chaos restated with all the patience of a father correcting an errant child. "In fact, you will leave this place in the care of one of them, with your servants catering to her every whim."
My what astonishing generosity I seem to possess." the Norse god mocked softly. "Indeed, I would appear to be the very soul of benevolence."
"You stole" the other pointed out "that which belongs to your own daughter in order to avoid the punishment foretold by the Norns in which you will endure great torment at the hands of the Aesir for a heinous crime. And will do so until Ragnarok."
"For a foreigner" Loki interjected "you know much. However, since Hel is my daughter, what she has is rightfully mine since she owes her very existence to me and therefore she is mine as well."
"An existence she would indeed be grateful for, so full of loneliness, loathing and cruelty. Tell me, when Odin threw her down into the depths of the Land of the Dead what, o loving father, did you do to stop him?"
"It was fated." Loki shrugged unperturbed. "One cannot go against fate."
"And yet you have attempted to do so by bringing the time of Ragnarok closer. Fate, it seems, has intervened."
"Fate." Loki nearly spat acid at the one who so subtly baited and mocked him. "I would say instead it was the act of the interloper who stands before me now in my own hall."
"I will not give you what you want."
"Wonít you?" Chaos smiled full of anger. Denial ... displeased him. "As the one who is the downfall of the Aesir and this age, you think too highly of yourself. Know this, little godling, all that you are I made. Just because bags of flesh birthed you, you consider them your parents. Yet it is I to whom you owe all. Your very essence of anarchy is but a single breath from my mouth. I am the End of All Things and Their Beginning. You are but a tool for one to provide the other. If you doubt my words, look upon me and I will allow you to know the truth I speak of."
Ever daring, Loki looked. He saw and in that instant he understood.
"Now" he embraced the unmoving Loki and breathed into his ear, "go tell the servants to do the bidding of my chosen mortal, then leave here to tell Odin that the stone and its power were lost along with the females when you fought them in an effort to take it from them. You will return here only when I have need of you. Nor will you remember me or this meeting." He released him. "Now go."
Loki looked about him, as if a thought had just eluded him. He shook his head and left the chamber, never glancing at Chaos who stood not three paces away.
Chaos smiled and vanished into the curtain of shadows.
Now tell me, dear reader, if Loki was a god with the power to bring about the end of the world, then Chaos, who bent him to his will as easily as a breeze does a reed, to be able to do that to a god ... what then was he?