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by Judy (Wishes)
"Above, Apollo's sun is shining, And Ceres' fields grow ripe with grain. Long days of summer warm hearts once frozen: Persephone graces the earth again. Below, in darkness, darkness, darkness, Dread Hades sits on a lonely throne. Hades regrets he made such a bargain: Six months with Persephone, six months alone." -from "Songs of the Potidaean" trans. from the Greek
Hades' minions approach him with caution. There's news no one wants to share with their dark lord. Finally, one shadow whispers, "My lord? My lord?'
Hades raises his head and glowers, but the shadow still speaks. "My lord? Callisto's here."
Having summoned her before him, Hades nods, and Callisto appears.
Some who have known it liken Hades' gaze to fire. Others have felt it as freezing cold. But Callisto strides insolently to within a sword's length of that ebony glare. She stands at ease, defiant, as bold in death as in life.
"I'm told you find Tartarus amusing." Hades fixes her with a still more baleful stare. "We'll find some torment less to your liking, create a chamber of horrors that will make you long for their end."
"Hades, friend, I like your tortures. Give me more." Callisto laughs. "My only complaint is at the feebleness of the efforts of these shades. Perhaps you could give me some personal attention....the benefit of your long experience, as it were."
Callisto's answer creeps beneath Hades' godly indifference and his temporary grief. "I have to admit some curiosity. Any other mortal consigned to such....attention....as we have given you would, by now, beg for mercy, not that any mercy would be forthcoming, you understand."
Callisto nods. She understands a lack of mercy.
"But you, instead of groveling," Hades continues, "stand there and criticize our lack of ingenuity. Why? Just curiosity, as I said."
"Will an honest answer cause you to grant my petition?"
"For more pain?" Now Hades laughs, a chilling sound that causes punished souls thoughout the underworld to shudder and set doubly about the harsh tasks assigned them. "In Tartarus, pain can always be arranged."
"Then I'll answer. Since Xena tricked me back to my punishment and tried to add the extra measure of unrelenting guilt, I am plagued by those voices."
"Of the slain?"
"The slain, the tortured, my warriors whose lives I squandered, those whose loved ones I slew. You know: all the complaining sheep I drove before me. You would think I could learn to ignore them, but I can't." She hesitates, as if unsure whether she will tell the rest. Then: "And one more that's the worst."
"My mother's voice continues to haunt me, louder than the others in concert."
"She says she loves me."
Hades says quietly, "I understand the voices, but what does this have to do with your request of me?"
"There's only one thing that muffles the voices."
Hades guesses it then. "The pain."
"To still those voices, I would stand anything."
Hades rises, but Callisto shows no fear. "Anything?"
Hades smiles, a fearsome sight. For the first time, Callisto seems to shudder at the cold he emanates. Then, steeling herself, she raises her eyes to stare directly into the darkness in his.
Hades speaks. "Some say you are well-matched with my brother Ares. I rather think that you are more like me. Well, I am going to grant your plea." Callisto stiffens. "All right, Lady Death, your....request." Callisto relaxes. "I have a task for you to perform. To do it, you will have to return to the world above." He stops, wishing that he were free to visit in that realm, where his own love dwells for two more long months....
"And?" Callisto prompts the god.
"This task will require all of your skill and cunning, as well as some of the violence you love. A certain king, Baudus by name, is sitting on a stolen throne. To keep it, he must kill his nephew Tyrrus, his dead brother's son. The boy, if he lives, will be a light to his kingdom and will lead his people to greatness. So say my sister Fates. But if you don't save him, Tyrrus will be down here by tomorrow night."
"You're hardly a lover of light, Hades. Or a champion of mortals. Why do you care what happens to this boy?"
"I have my reasons, and the reasons of a god may make no sense to mortals."
Callisto laughs. "I'll bet your rivalry with Ares enters into this somehow. But the truth is, I don't care. I just want to know what's in it for me?" She sniffs and wrinkles up her nose. "I don't suppose a successful outcome will leave me breathing sweet, fresh air?"
"No." Hades shakes his head, implacable. "Your home is Tartarus for eternity. But while you are above, no voices will accuse. You'll be able to hear only your own thoughts, not that those are any more pleasant, I would guess. And when you return, perhaps at least one voice could be eliminated."
"We'll see. There's one more thing you need to know. You'll have a partner in your quest."
"A certain dark-haired beauty on a golden horse."
"Xena! You plan to partner me with Xena?" Callisto feels the hate start to warm her cold, dead soul. "Is this so she can have the pleasure of killing me--again?"
"Xena has been....enchanted," Hades answers. "She'll greet you as her best friend. Everyone else will see Callisto. Xena will look at you, and see Gabrielle."
"And won't she be suspicious to be followed by two Gabrielles?"
"Xena has withdrawn for some solitary contemplation. She'll think that you are Gabrielle, returned early to engage her in this mission."
"Then I suppose you think you have a way to keep me from killing the unsuspecting Xena?"
"The only limits on your actions will be those you impose." Then Hades warns her, "Our bargain depends on the successful rescue of the boy. Also, remember this: everyone you kill will add their voices to your accusing chorus."
"You think the prospect of Xena's voice in my head for eternity will stop me from murdering her?" Callisto thinks for a moment. "Actually, it might....or it could make my vengeance sweeter. When can I go?"
"Will you save the boy?"
Above, in glaring light, Xena stands on a rocky hilltop. Her posture straight, but relaxed, she faces the east. Eyes open, she gazes within. This is but the second day of a five-day fast.
Callisto appears behind her, just below the crest of the hill She wears, not her armor, but the simple Amazon garb favored by Gabrielle. Her only weapon is a staff. She searches her clothing and finds nothing sharper, no sword, no dagger, no knife. At her first movement toward Xena, the tall warrior turns.
Callisto stiffens, ready for an attack, but Xena only looks surprised. "Gabrielle, what are you doing here? I said that I would join you in Potidaea after five days. Is something wrong?"
Callisto looks down. Yes, her shape is that of Callisto, but Xena is greeting her as Gabrielle. Hades told the truth about the enchantment.
"Gabrielle?" Xena steps toward her, a look of concern on her face. "What's wrong? Are you all right?" She places her hand on her friend's shoulder.
Callisto steps back. "Someone needs your help. A child."
"A child?" The look of concern deepens. "Tell me."
"His name is Tyrrus."
"Tyrrus....I knew a King Tyrrus of Palos. I heard he died a few months ago, left a son...."
"Yes. This is the son. His dear Uncle Baudus has made himself king--and he plans to dispose of young Tyrrus."
"I don't know Baudus, but I've heard of him, and none of it's been good. I was surprised he was going to be regent for the boy-king."
"From what I hear, the boy won't need a regent after tomorrow. How long will it take us to get to Palos?"
"Who says you're going? It will take nearly a day, riding hard." Xena looks down the slope to where Argo is grazing peacefully. "And I see only one horse."
Callisto inwardly curses the stupidity of the famous "walking bard."
"I'll ride behind you. I don't weigh enough to slow Argo." And in her thoughts: Maybe soon I'll ride alone.
"I said riding HARD."
"And I said I would ride behind." Callisto steps toward Xena.
Xena laughs. "We'll see," she says. "Come on."
After saddling Argo, Xena reaches down to help Callisto up. She is surprised that Argo keeps shying away. Finally, Callisto surprises Xena by walking behind Argo and leaping onto the tall mare's back. "When did you learn to do that?"
"There are a lot of things I can do that might surprise you," Callisto says.
At the base of the hill, Xena urges Argo into a gallop, and the nervous animal responds with a leap forward. Xena reaches behind her to steady her friend. "Can't this nag go faster?" Callisto asks. Xena drops her protective arm and shifts her weight forward. Argo responds to her subtle signal by flattening out, becoming little more than a golden blur.
As they blaze down a rocky road, a figure appears in the road directly in front of them. Xena reins Argo in. Argo stops on her haunches, rearing, almost sitting down to avoid the man blocking their way. Xena again reaches a steadying hand behind her.
"Joxer!" Xena roars. "What are you doing here?"
Xena and Callisto drop to the ground. Joxer stands in the middle of the road, his mouth open, staring at Callisto.
"Joxer!" Xena repeats impatiently. "Answer me!"
Joxer gulps and tries to talk. "What....she...."
Xena gives him a slap on the back to get him started.
"Wh....What are you doing with....her?"
"Gabrielle?" Xena shakes her head at Joxer's continual silliness. "She interrupted my meditations because someone needs our help."
Callisto steps forward and stands inches in front of Joxer. "Yes, Joxer, I'm Gabrielle. Haven't we been introduced?"
"Uh, yes, I mean, no. I mean, I was coming to tell Xena something."
Xena looks down at the confused man. "So tell me."
Joxer shakes his head as if to clear it, then looks at Callisto again. She smiles at him, baring her small, even teeth. He steps back. "I don't know. It wasn't important." He hurries off the road and sits down.
As the two women remount Argo, they hear him mumble something about how some people are satisfied to stay in their own bodies. Then they race away.
Darkness finds them just a few miles from the fortress at Palos. Xena pulls Argo up, and she and Callisto dismount. "I know this place," Xena says. "There's a sheltered spot a little off the road. We'll stop here and let Argo rest."
They walk to the place Xena has described. Xena loosens Argo's saddle, but doesn't remove it yet. From her saddlebags, Xena takes a small pot, a knife, and a handful of dried meat. She hands these to Callisto. "Here, add whatever you have in your pack. This may be your last chance to eat until we've finished this business."
Callisto draws up to her full height, which brings the top of her head to Xena's chin. "You expect me to cook the food?"
Xena chuckles. "I expect you to eat it, too. I'm fasting, remember?"
Callisto, who has decided she is hungry, finds a few vegetables in the pack she carries and begins to make a simple stew. She realizes that eating is one of the many pleasures not found in Tartarus.
Xena now removes Argo's saddle and bridle, but she hobbles her before allowing her to graze. This is something Xena almost never does, but the animal is still so skittish Xena is afraid to just turn her loose. As Argo starts to eat the sweet, short grass at the edge of the clearing, Xena pulls some coarser grass and rubs it over Argo's back and belly, where the saddle and straps might rub.
By the time Xena returns to the fire, Callisto is eating. "Is that all you're going to eat?" Xena asks. "There isn't any bread or fruit in that sack you carry?"
"This?" Callisto looks at the mixture of meat and vegetables. "This seems like a lot to eat. Since you don't want any."
"Gabrielle? Are you sick?" Xena teases. I've seen you eat more than that for a snack--a half hour after dinner! Eat. Then, if you can, get a little sleep. We won't leave until a couple of hours before dawn. I'm going to get a little more wood for the fire."
When Xena returns, she is surprised to see her friend still awake and staring moodily into the flames. Xena adds a few sticks and sits down. "Gabrielle, do you want to talk? You know, that isn't something I usually have to ask you. You usually talk enough for both of us!"
"Then you should enjoy the silence," Callisto snaps. "I do!"
"I don't mean to pry. You just don't seem yourself tonight."
"Who do I seem like?"
Xena studies her companion and then says gently, "I don't know. Maybe an unhappy Gabrielle."
Callisto meets Xena's gaze. "Are you afraid of dying, Xena?"
This is obviously not a question Xena expects from Gabrielle. "In general? Or during battle? What?"
"During a battle--when you're hard-pressed by a dangerous opponent, when the outcome is still in doubt. Are you afraid of death then?" Callisto leans forward, and her voice is almost a hiss.
Xena, considering her response, seems not to notice. "No, I'm not afraid then. Maybe a little before. But when the battle is joined, no, I'm not afraid of dying. Don't get me wrong. I know I could die in battle, but I don't feel fear. I feel...."
"You feel what?"
"No, let's not talk, or let's talk about something else."
Callisto finishes for her. "You feel....you feel completely yourself in battle. The harder pressed, the better. You feel the blood pounding through your veins until a hot red cloud fills your brain. You see your enemies as moving shapes against that blood-colored mist....You smell leather and the sweat of exertion and hear the cries. You are all senses and no thought." Callisto's voice rises, as Xena sits, stunned by her description. "And you kill....kill...."
"Gabrielle! Stop!" Xena reaches out and shakes her friend as if to wake her from a nightmare. "How can you know this? Is this imagination? You've never killed."
"You fight, but....how can I say it so it doesn't sound wrong? (You're the wordsmith, not me.) When you fight, you fight cold."
"Warriors' blood rises in a battle, and we fight hot. You fight because you have to--but you're always controlled. You do the least violence you have to. Even with your life in danger, you know who you're striking and where."
"And you don't?" asked Callisto, playing the part of Gabrielle, but knowing the answer.
"Oh, I know: the enemy."
"Whoever you're fighting is the enemy?"
Xena's answer is emphatic. "The enemy, yes."
Callisto nods. This would be her answer, also. She feels, not for the first time, that she and Xena are alike. She wonders if Xena knows this, and if this is why Xena let her die, let her sink beneath the smothering sand.
They sit for a while in silence, Xena occasionally adding sticks or stirring the fire. Callisto speaks first and finds she really wants to hear Xena's answer. "We struggle so hard to stay alive. Do you think being dead is so terrible?"
"For you, no. Elysian Fields, remember? Perdicus. But don't be in a hurry to get there, all right? Wait a little while, like forty or fifty years."
"Yes, then that's all right for sweet little Gabrielle." Callisto barely realizes she has spoken in the third person, and Xena notices not at all. "What about you? Are you afraid of death because of Tartarus? Or do you hope to live long enough that your good deeds will outweigh the bad?"
Xena answers quietly and honestly. "I don't do good to buy my way out of punishment for the life I lived before. I would hope you know that, Gabrielle."
Callisto persists. "Then do you expect to go to Tartarus no matter what you do from this time on?"
"That is for the gods to say. You know I don't have much commerce with them--if I can help it. You're making my head ache. If you're going to philosophize, my friend, you keep watch, and I'll rest."
Decisively ending the conversation, Xena rolls into her bedrobe a little apart from the fire. Callisto waits a few minutes, then picks up the knife Xena gave her earlier. She creeps cautiously toward Xena, sharp blade in hand.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asks quietly.
Callisto freezes in place, the knife clutched tightly in her hand.
"I know you're worried about the boy-king. I have a plan, but it will take both of us to carry it out. I'm glad you're here."
Callisto doesn't reply. She returns to sit by fire.
Dawn finds Xena and Callisto in a small stand of trees studying Palos fortress. The walls are stone, about two feet thick, and rise for forty feet or more above a level plain.
"I see only one gate," Callisto comments, "and it's guarded."
"Yeah, there's another gate in the south wall," Xena says, "and it's guarded, too. But the guards don't matter, because we're going to walk right in."
"I see. King Baudus will be so frightened of the mighty Xena that he'll just let us in, see the error of his ways, and return the throne to his nephew Tyrrus."
Xena laughs mildly. "That would be a better story. Maybe that's the one you should write down, Gabrielle." She turns serious. "There's more risk in the plan we're going to use. If you don't want to chance it, tell me. We'll find another way."
"Okay, here's the plan. You know I said King Tyrrus was a good man. That's true in regard to the citizens of his small kingdom. But the prosperity of this kingdom is based on an evil. Palos is a center for the slave trade. The whole center of the town is a market that barters in the lives of women and men."
Callisto wonders what evil Xena is talking about. She herself sometimes regretted killing so many villagers when her blood was up in battle. Think of all the gold they would have been worth as slaves.
When her companion doesn't comment, Xena continues, "I will take you into the city as a captive that I wish to put up for sale in the slave market. I'm sure they'll let us in. Strong, young women are always in demand as household slaves--as servers, children's nurses, and. . . .for other purposes. If what I've heard about Baudus is true, he reserves the best slaves for his own household."
"You think he'll buy me."
"Or just take you. For our purposes, it doesn't matter."
"Why can't I be the warlord, and you be the captive?" Callisto asks.
"Maybe next time. Change your clothing. Dress like a village girl. Put some dirt on your dress and face."
Thinking about Xena's explanation of slave-trading as "evil," Callisto asks, "Won't the people know you're Xena and that you've turned good? Won't that make them suspicious that you're out slave-trading?"
"The pity is that they won't see any contradiction."
Getting into the fortress goes as smoothly as Xena predicted. If anything, when the guards see Callisto, hands tied, following along behind Xena's horse, they seem in a great hurry to wave Xena by. Xena carries the staff, as well as her own sword.
Around the large open square inside the fortress, farmers and tradesmen are already setting out their wares. In the center of the square is a high, stage-like construction, underneath which is a pen. Inside the pen are huddled several men and women.
Xena dismounts and leads both Argo and Callisto toward the pen. A guard approaches, along with a man who looks like a prosperous merchant.
The second man speaks, "Ho, there, is this an addition for today's auction? A skinny little thing, isn't she? And what a dirty face!"
Xena thrusts Callisto forward and speaks coldly, "Don't try to drive the price down. I know what I have here. 300 dinars, not a dinar less."
The slave merchant looks skeptical. "Well, I won't pay it, but someone might. You can sell her from my platform for a one-fifth commission. The tax will be 2 dinars per hundred."
"I'll pay a one-tenth commission--if I can leave her here until the auction. The tax, well, there isn't anything to be done about taxes."
"Done and done," the man says. He nods toward the guard, who grabs Callisto and roughly shoves her into the small enclosure. She steels herself not to struggle. If the opportunity arises, she thinks, you are dead, you pitiful piece of cattle dung. Xena watches impassively, but, for once, her thoughts aren't too different from Callisto's.
"When is the auction?" Xena asks the merchant.
"A couple of hours."
Xena leads Argo across the square and ties her in a side-path near what looks like a soldier's tavern. Xena enters and sees that she has guessed right. Even though it's early morning, four uniformed men lounge against the bar, drinking mead, and swapping stories.
As usual, conversation stops at first sight of the tall, bronzed warrior. But these are veterans, not youngsters looking to make a reputation. They size her up for what she is and go back to their stories. Xena sits at a table and, when the barmaid comes, asks her if she can have some water.
The barmaid blinks, but she is a veteran of sorts, also, and, without comment, brings a flagon of cold well-water.
After a few minutes, one of the soldiers walks over to Xena. She tenses, but he speaks respectfully. "You are Xena?"
"I am Osantes." He gestures toward the other chair, and, when Xena doesn't object, sits down.
"Am I supposed to know you?" Xena asks in her usual direct manner.
"I sent for you. That is, I sent that strange little man to find you. He said he knew the great warrior Xena, so I asked him to find you and to bring you here--if you would come."
"I believe that was his name."
"I'll wager he said a lot more than that he knew me."
The big old soldier seems to be embarrassed. "Well, some other things. But I hoped that one thing, at least, was true: that he knew you and could bring you here. Didn't he give you my message? Isn't that why you're here?"
Xena answers, "I did see Joxer yesterday, but he didn't seem to be in a mood for taking." Thinking of Gabrielle's strange reticence this morning, she adds, "There seems to be a lot of that going around."
Osantes looks puzzled, but goes on. "You're here. That's all that matters, if you will help."
Xena studies the old soldier: his massive size, his broad, scarred face, and his huge, gnarled hands. "You don't look like someone who needs much help."
His face splits into a grin. "Can't say I do. But this is different. The help isn't for me. It's for the little lord."
"The little lord?"
"King Tyrrus, rightful king of Palos."
Xena is still suspicious. "Unless I'm wrong, you're a member of the King's Guard--King BAUDUS' Guard."
"I'm a member of the King's Guard, all right." He gestures toward the other veterans, still standing at the bar and carefully not looking at Osantes and Xena. "We are all members of the King's Guard, the Guard of King Tyrrus I and, gods willing, of King Tyrrus II." With the mention of his present lord's name, he strikes the table a might blow with his fist."
"I might be interested in this problem," Xena says carefully. "If I were, what would be required?"
"I know where the little lord is held by that. . . .that. . . .by his UNCLE." He spits out the last word like discovering dung in his mouth. "There are supporters outside the fortress who would care for the boy until his return to his kingdom could be arranged."
"Then why do you need me?"
"We members of the old Guard are not fully trusted. We. . . .I . . . .have no way to get the boy out of the castle and to his supporters outside the wall."
"You are watched?"
"Except in here. No one will enter here without my approval."
"Or stay long, I wager."
The barmaid brings Osantes another mead and Xena more water. The barmaid smiles warmly at Osantes before she walks back behind the bar.
Xena makes up her mind. "I will help you. There' a certain girl-slave I need to get inside the castle. She's very ingenious. If she's there, she'll find a way to get to the boy."
"Is she young?"
"Is she pretty?"
"Then she's as good as in the castle. Don't count on a good price though. No one bids against Baudus for that type of slave." Osantes looks disgusted. "You know, I don't want to give offense, since you brought her here and all, but I don't have much patience with the slave trade, especially that kind, if you get my meaning."
Xena finally smiles. "We're like-minded on more than one thing, Osantes. Don't worry. That one will never really be a slave, not if I have anything to say about it. And you know what? I DO!"
Xena returns to the square in time to see Callisto taken from the holding pen. The merchant leads her toward the block.
"Wait!" Xena protests. "I thought you said two hours before the sale. Where are the buyers?"
The merchant points to a short, fat man standing off to the side. "That man works for our lord King Baudus. He IS the buyer."
"He's the buyer if he pays my price," Xena huffs, playing the part of the greedy seller.
The merchant chuckles, an ugly sound. "He's the buyer no matter the price."
Xena pulls the young woman away from him, quickly whispering, "Osantes is our ally."
The merchant motions his guard, who grabs Callisto and lifts her to the slave block. Callisto stands on the block, her head down. Xena wonders if she is wrong to put her friend through such an ordeal, even to save the child. Callisto is hiding her red, angry face and thinking about the satisfaction she will feel when she disembowels everyone in this rancid place.
The king's man shouts, as if outbidding a whole square full of buyers. "150 dinars!"
"Any other bids? No? Done!" the slave merchant yells back quickly.
For form, Xena steps forward to argue. "That's half my asking price! Less your commission and the tax, I won't even make my expenses!"
The king's man is already leading his purchase away, so Xena accepts payment from the merchant and walks away, still muttering about cheats and liars. It is not lost on her that she has just sold her best friend into slavery and that she holds the price in her hand.
Xena enters the tavern to find Osantes and his men still there, now seeming very drunk. Xena sits down at a table, and Osantes stumbles over.
"Stumble home, big man," Xena tells him. "She's in. And I don't want her there alone."
Osantes winks, then signals his men. One by one, they weave their way out and toward the castle. Osantes leaves last, singing a bawdy soldier's song. Villagers in for the market shake their heads. These soldiers, they think, drunk in the middle of the morning!
Inside the fortified castle, Callisto is led to a tiny space below the stone steps. It isn't exactly a cell, but room would be too exalted a title for it. "You will wait here until evening," the fat man orders and, pushing her to the stone floor, closes and locks the heavy timber door.
Callisto passes time in the darkness with daydreams of all the different ways a fat man can die. When she is sure at least an hour has passed, she easily removes the rope bonds from her hands and finds the knife hidden in the leather belt around her waist. In seconds, she springs the lock on the door.
Callisto walks down a short hallway and steps into the empty great hall of the castle. She guesses that there are only kitchens and public rooms on this floor and decides the boy is on another level. Callisto hears voices and slips back into her previous prison. When the voices fade, she fairly leaps up the stairs.
She looks in several rooms before deciding this tactic won't work. Although not large as castles go, there are too many rooms to search in the time she has. When next Callisto hears voices coming, she hides the knife and stands where she is, head down, feigning timidity. Two crones approach, carrying dirty laundry and talking about their grandchildren.
One of them speaks sharply to Callisto. "You, there, what are you about?"
"Beg pardon," Callisto says quietly, all the time hiding her feral eyes. "I was sent to serve the Prince. And I got lost. They'll beat me if I don't find him."
"Serve the Prince?" the sharp-tongued woman cackles. "Won't be a very long-lasting job, dearie. I hope you got other employment lined up."
The other woman gasps at her friend's audacity. "Watch your tongue! No telling who's listening. There's some here still supports the Prince, y'know."
Shutting her mouth like a trap, the crone points up a narrow stairway. Callisto looks up and sees one small door at the top. As the crones hurry away, Callisto springs up the stairs, touching no more than two steps of the flight.
Tiring of the tavern, Xena stands in the side-path, brushing and talking to Argo. She hears Osantes' heavy step, but doesn't turn to face him.
"She's found him," he says quietly from behind her. Then, after some hesitation, "She's your friend?"
"My best friend. Why?"
"No reason. She says the boy is well. She can have him to the roof and then to the castle wall in a minute."
"I'm glad she's with him. He must be frightened, such a young boy."
"And your friend is supposed to help that?" He sounds skeptical, but Xena, knowing Gabrielle's way with children, is sure that the Prince is in comforting hands. The bard is probably regaling him with tales of Hercules right now, she thinks.
"Send word to Gabrielle that I'll need an hour. I have a couple of things to do. Then I'll be outside the fortress--on the castle side--with Argo. I'll come up and help get the boy down."
"Up the castle side of the fortress? You'll need a hundred-foot rope for that!"
"Don't worry about it, Osantes. It's just a short climb."
Xena leads Argo away before Osantes can argue further.
When Xena reaches the slave enclosure, the merchant doesn't look pleased to see her. "Look, warrior, if you think you're getting more money, you can just. . . ."
Xena takes out her purse and interrupts him. "I'm not here to collect. I'm here to pay."
"Pay for what?" the merchant asks suspiciously.
"How much for the lot?" Xena gestures toward the slaves in the pen.
"You'll have to bid, just like all the rest."
Xena looks around the square. "I don't see any other buyers. Doesn't look like business is all that good."
"Well. . . .I might consider an offer."
"Here's the offer." Xena tosses the purse to him, and he greedily dumps the coins and counts them.
"This is everything you got for the girl!"
"That's right," she confirms. "And, since that's all I have, it's my last offer. Take it or leave it."
"Done and done," the merchant says before this crazy woman can change her mind. He knows all the slaves in the pen aren't worth half this amount.
"Bring them out," Xena orders. The guard pulls the slaves out of the pen: two men, three women, and a boy of about twelve. When the guard starts to bind their hands so he can rope them together, Xena stops him.
"They'll run," he growls. "As soon as you're outside the walls, they'll take off in six different directions."
"I'll chance it," Xena answers. Looking at their pitiful condition, she doubts that they could run far. "Don't you feed your slaves?" she asks the merchant.
He appears surprised by the question. "They're only here a few days. No profit in it."
Xena mounts her horse and, the slaves meekly following her, she leads her small procession out the city gates. When they reach the shelter of the trees beside the road, she dismounts and motions for them to sit down. The bard's pack is hidden in a tree. Xena retrieves it and is not surprised to find bread and some dried fruit inside. Gabrielle can always be counted on to have some food stashed away, she thinks. For emergencies, of course.
This being an emergency, Xena distributes the food to the slaves. Five of them eat hungrily, but one, a woman of about forty, sees Xena's empty hands and offers her half of her small portion of bread.
Xena speaks gently, "No, thank you. You eat it."
When the woman continues to offer the bread, Xena explains, "I'm fasting."
The woman then falls to eating as hungrily as the others. Finished, she rises and approaches Xena, who has politely averted her eyes from their hunger.
"Since when does a slave trader fast? Do even slave traders get religion?" she asks.
Xena takes no offence. "I don't know what slave traders do. I'm not religious, but I fast. It clears the mind and the body."
The woman states flatly, "I'm a Thracian. I know who you are."
Not knowing which Xena the woman knows, the tall warrior stands silent.
Straining upward to look into Xena's clear blue eyes, the woman challenges, "What will you do if we just walk away?"
"I hope you will--if you have somewhere safe to go. If not, stay here. When I return, I'll lead you to safety."
"My husband there, the one with the scar across his forehead, he has relatives near here. The boy is my son. The others, well, we'll see that they are taken care of." She hesitates, then asks more humbly, "Is there parchment in that sack? Do you know how to write? Things would be better if we could prove that we are free. . . ."
Xena looks in the sack, but finds no parchment. This seems strange, as Gabrielle always manages to have a few sheets, no matter how dear or rare. Xena remembers that she carries in her saddlebags a poem that Gabrielle gave her just before Xena started her fast. She hates to use that, but it is all she has.
Using a piece of charcoal from an old campfire, Xena writes out a declaration freeing all six of the slaves. Before handing the parchment to the woman, Xena turns it over and reads: Above, Apollo's sun is shining/ And Ceres' fields grow ripe with grain. . . .
Xena hands the parchment to the woman. "Be careful with this," Xena warns. What's on the other side is almost as precious as your freedom."
"I'll have to take your word for it," the woman says, "I can't read."
In the Prince's small chamber, Callisto paces impatiently. Twice, footsteps on the stairs have caused her to dive under the Prince's bed, but both visitors brought messages from Osantes. She swears that the next time it happens, she will forego the message and cut the throat of the messenger.
The Prince is sitting on his bed, eyeing her cautiously, but without fear. He accepts that she is here to help him, but, although only ten, he is a good judge of character. He knows that Callisto is no friend. A slender boy, with fair hair, the Prince seems calm and alert.
When she can wait no longer, Callisto speaks roughly, "Get up, boy. We're going."
Deciding now is not the time to insist on protocol, the royal prince jumps up and follows Callisto to the door. Again using her knife to spring the lock, she opens the door cautiously--to find herself looking at what appears to be another wall! It is the broad back of a soldier dressed in the uniform of the King's Guard. Without hesitation, Callisto kicks him behind the knee and shoves him off the landing. His body smacks heavily on the floor, thirty or so feet below. The Prince starts to speak, then closes his mouth.
Motioning to the boy to follow, Callisto strides onto the landing and to a narrow flight of stairs that leads to the roof. Callisto checked this route earlier and has already broken the lock on the trap door at the top. Without being bidden, the boy steps up beside Callisto and helps her push the heavy door upward.
Once on the roof, the boy looks around in wonder. It is daylight, and he has lived for months in the twilight world of torches and candles. "I thought it was night," he whispers.
Callisto ignores him and moves toward the castle parapet, being careful to keep her head below the top of the wall. At the wall, she rises enough to look over. The dizzying height leaves Callisto unfazed as she looks down to see Xena looking up from the ground.
Seeing her friend, Xena breathes a sigh of relief before beginning the arduous climb. Sword and staff both lashed to her back, Xena reaches for a handhold and pulls herself up. On what appears to be a perfectly flat surface, Xena's hands and feet find small crevices and tiny knobs among the stone blocks. Her strength and skill make the climb look effortless.
From the top, Callisto and the Prince watch the phenomenal climb. Callisto chuckles softly and breathes, "She IS good, isn't she?" Holding his breath, the Prince can only nod. On impulse, Callisto looks around the roof. If she can find a loose rock, perhaps a large piece of metal, she can make Xena's climb more. . . .challenging.
Movement at the open trap door distracts her. Stupid not to close it, she thinks. Being dead can really dull your edge. Callisto waits until she sees helmet and shoulders above the level of the roof. Then she springs and kicks the trap door with both feet. The door shuts with a loud thud that is echoed in seconds by a muffled thud below.
Just then, Xena's head appears above the parapet. The Prince gallantly reaches out to help her to the roof. Not needing his proffered hand, Xena smiles and accepts it anyway.
Callisto is standing on the trap door looking around for a way to secure it. There's pounding from below and then, with a mighty shove, two soldiers burst from the stairway. Callisto, her weight too insubstantial to stop their rise, literally flies through the air--to land, like a cat, on her feet. Xena throws her companion the staff and, sword drawn, jumps into the fray. Two more soldiers follow the first pair onto the roof. Callisto already has a man down and is about to smash his skull when another soldier grabs her from behind. Xena's chakram whistles through the air and ends his attack.
Using the hilt of her sword, Xena knocks out the other two attackers, but there's more shouting below. "Get him! Kill that little pretender!" they hear. "As your King, I command it!"
"Take the boy," Callisto hisses. When Xena hesitates, torn between duty and friend, Callisto adds, "I can hold off an army at this small opening."
Xena leaps to the wall. She knows she cannot carry the boy on her back and her sword, too. Regretfully, she sheathes her sword and drops it, scabbard and all, over the parapet. Xena speaks quickly, but reassuringly, to the boy. "Your Highness, climb up on my back. You have to hold on. I need my hands free for the climb. You'll be fine. Just don't look down." To her friend, Xena promises, "I'll come back for you!"
As Xena and the boy disappear over the parapet, Callisto engages the enemy. Each time a helmeted head appears through the trap door, she bats it back down with the staff. Oh, for Xena's sword, Callisto thinks. I could lop off their stupid heads and send them bouncing back down these steps! Finally, the narrow stairs are completely blocked by unconscious forms. As more soldiers can be heard trying to clear the way, Callisto springs to the parapet and, abandoning the staff, begins her own rapid descent.
Xena is already on the ground and, keeping the boy between herself and the fortress wall, is engaged in unarmed combat with three soldiers--unarmed on her part, that is. The soldiers swing mace and swords, as she fends them off with punches and kicks. Her sword, still sheathed, lies tantalizingly close, but she is unable to reach it without exposing the boy.
Just as Callisto reaches the ground and considers whether to join the melee, a flight of arrows cuts the soldiers down. The four loyal guardsmen ride up on heavy mounts. Osantes brandishes a grin and a bow. Astonished to find her friend already safely on the ground, Xena claps her on the back before retrieving her sword. Xena whistles for Argo, and the golden mare gallops toward her. Xena leaps astride and pulls the boy up to sit in front of her.
As more soldiers run heavily around the corner of the fortress, Callisto grabs the belt of one of the mounted guardsmen. As he kicks his horse into a run, Callisto allows the momentum to pull her up behind him in a flying mount. A soldier grabs at her from the ground to be rewarded by the toe of her boot in his teeth.
Xena gives a war cry as the horses pound down the road. Callisto echoes it with a chilling whoop of her own.
Osantes takes the lead, and they ride swiftly, by a round-about route, to a small farmhouse, isolated, with no village near. "We will stay here 'til nightfall," Osantes announces. "Then my men and I will take the little lord to his other supporters." With that, the big man kneels before his rightful monarch.
Prince Tyrrus smiles with obvious affection for his subject. "Rise, Osantes. There's no formality between comrades."
Tyrrus turns to Xena and says sincerely, "Thank you."
"You're welcome, your Highness. If you don't mind, I'll return to Palos for a little chat with your uncle." There is a dangerous glint in Xena's blue eyes.
"No, warrior," he says, already a hint of command in his young voice. "Leave my uncle alone. Knowing I'm safe and out of his power will put a check on his behavior. He'll serve well enough as regent--until I'm ready to return." He speaks then, as much to himself as to Xena. "There is a disease within my land, one that my father was unable to cure. When I reclaim my throne, it will be to see that all who live in Palos do so as free women and free men."
The Prince flicks a glance toward Callisto, who is watching their back trail for pursuit. "Thank your friend, too," he says curtly before stepping into the farmhouse.
At dusk, Prince Tyrrus and his loyal guardsmen ride to the north, and Xena and Callisto travel together a short distance west. Xena, entering the third day of her fast, light-limbed, with her thoughts turning inward, still notices her companion's silence.
Callisto, again mounted behind Xena, fingers the hilt of the knife hidden in her belt. She knows that it is only a matter of inches and seconds. She can thrust the six-inch blade upward under Xena's ribs, burying it in her enemy's flesh. Callisto remembers a time when she stood above Xena and held a sword to her cheek. That time, she had told herself that she was sparing Xena's life in order to inflict more pain on her later. Then, she planned to rob Xena of Gabrielle. Now, she has BEEN Gabrielle. She has seen Xena's eyes alight and mouth smiling in welcome and friendship, and that look was meant for her. She has heard Xena's voice, all warmth and concern, and it was responding to her.
Telling herself that nothing is worth listening to Xena's voice for all eternity, Callisto signals Xena to stop and drops lightly off Argo's back.
"Gabrielle, farewell," Xena says, gazing down at her friend. "I'm returning to my meditations. I'll meet you in two days, as we planned. We'll talk then."
Callisto shakes her head. "No, let's make this one adventure we don't discuss. During the next two days, think of all you've heard me say and seen me do. You may soon realize this was all a vision induced by your fast."
"What? No poem? No story?" Xena teases gently.
"Don't worry," Callisto replies. "When next we meet, I promise to write a different story."
With that, Callisto turns and strides away.
BACK IN THE GLOOM of the dark kingdom, Callisto finds that Hades has kept his word. The chorus of voices returns, but one voice is missing. Callisto hears the sweet, loving voice of her mother--no more.