Xena, Junior, Meets Callisto

By PruferBlue

PruferBlue@aol.com

ęCopyright 1998

DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess and the names, titles, and some of the characters are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement through the writing of this work of fiction is intended. It's just for fun.

This story may not be sold and may be archived only with direct permission of the author. Any archive must carry this entire copyright statement.

VIOLENCE: There is reference made to spousal and child abuse and its violent aftermath. There also are several occurrences of Xena-type violence and some hurt/comfort scenes.

SUB-TEXT: The relationships in my stories set their tone from what is seen on the TV show. They can be seen as mildly alt, romantic friendships, or very good friends, depending on the reader's view.

Author's note: This story is the second of a three-part arc. It directly follows my previous story, "Dahak's Entrance Delayed," which should be read first in order to fully understand references in this story.

My profound thanks to Karen Surtees for her "unerring eye of truth," and her ability to pinpoint weaknesses in a story and make useful suggestions for correcting them. I am grateful, my friend.

Please feel free to comment on why you did or didn't like the story. Suggestions are also welcome, as long as they don't leave bruises.

And, finally, thank you to all of you who have been kind enough to send me your comments on my other stories; I value your encouragement.

 

Xena, Junior, Meets Callisto

By PruferBlue

Prologue

A huge party was planned in the Amazon village to celebrate the rescue of Queen Gabrielle from the evil Dahak. Xena and Gabrielle had returned to the Amazon village to await the celebration.

Xena woke up before the dawn, saddled Argo, and made her way out of the Amazon village to the cool quietude of the forest to practice her drills. The best way to stay sharp enough to outdo her enemies was to keep all her reflexes in tiptop condition. Lately, a change had been made to her usual routine. The young Amazon, Elisa, had asked Xena to teach her the drills she used to develop her warrior skills.

Elisa was as tall as Xena, but thin and wiry. She had Xena's black hair and bronzed skin, but her large eyes were the pale gray color of a stormy sky and seemed to go lighter or darker depending on her mood. She wore her hair pulled straight back into a single large plait that hung to the middle of her back. The girl's flat cheekbones and tip-tilted eyes gave her face an exotic, haunting beauty that she was totally unaware of.

Elisa had been astonished by the physical prowess of the Warrior Princess and had beseeched her to act as her teacher. For the past five predawn mornings, Xena had been showing the young Amazon some of the basic drills and exercises she would need to become proficient in, before attempting anything further.

Gabrielle was a little jealous of the time that Xena was spending with Elisa, and Xena was aware of it. The warrior had reasoned that Gabrielle slept during that time anyway and assured her that their friendship was not in jeopardy. "Remember, Gabrielle," she had said, "the messenger from the One Creator told me your destiny was to be my pathfinder and mine was to love and protect you. I promise to do that, always."

That should have appeased the bard, and, on the surface, it did, but emotions have their own rationale and cannot always be persuaded to act as they should. Jealousy lurked.

 

Chapter 1

This predawn morning, just as for the past few days, Xena and Elisa met at the stable as they were preparing their horses for the ride out. "Hi, Leese," the Warrior Princess acknowledged the youngster, then walked to Argo. The golden palomino bumped her head into Xena several times in greeting. The warrior, grinning, wrapped her arms around Argo's neck in a quick hug, then rubbed the mare's forehead before saddling and bridling her.

"Hi, Xena," responded Elisa, still thrilled to be anywhere near the most awesome warrior she had ever seen. Elisa went to prepare her stallion, Viktor, also a palomino. She, too, gave her horse a hug, then got him ready to ride. Once mounted, she followed the Warrior Princess to the clearing she picked to practice her drills.

The warrior and her pupil reached their destination, dismounted, loosened their saddles and dropped the reins to the ground, knowing the horses would stand there until needed. They walked away from each other, taking 5 paces apiece, then turned and faced one another. Even in the darkness of the predawn, they could see each other well enough for Elisa to follow Xena's movements. After several warm-up drills, the two women spent the next hour mirroring each other, doing exercise after exercise with many repetitions of each one. Each exercise started at a slow pace then increased in speed until each was going as fast as she could. Elisa still had far to go to catch up to Xena, but, after only five days, improvement was apparent.

By this time, dawn had broken and the early morning sun lit the surrounding landscape. Light flowed through the openings between the trees and filled the clearing.

"OK, Leese," Xena said. "We've run through all the usual basic drills that I do. Now, let's have some one-on-one swordplay. Try, as hard as you can, to hit me."

Elisa had some expertise with a sword; she had been practicing with one for five of her seventeen years and had even fought well in a few battles. But if she had any idea that she could come close, yet, to the Warrior Princess, she soon found out she was wrong. Her first three attacks on Xena left her without a sword. The warrior nonchalantly flipped her blade right out of her hand.

For five long minutes, Elisa tried to lay a sword somewhere, anywhere on Xena's body. Every time she caught her breath, fearing that she might wound the Warrior Princess, her sword struck air. In these instances, Xena's sword would touch her lightly in a vulnerable spot to illustrate how the Amazon was leaving vital parts of her own body unprotected.

"Take a ten-minute break, Leese, then it's my turn," the warrior grinned wickedly. The two women stopped for a rest and Xena shared some water and biscuits with the young girl.

"I'm better at throwing knives, Xena," the girl offered.

The Warrior Princess arched an eyebrow at the girl, jumped up, went over to Argo's saddlebag and pulled out a large square of dirty parchment. Then she found a marking stone and drew a large target on the parchment. She walked to a tree about 20 feet away and turned her head to Elisa. "Is this too far?"

"No," Elisa grinned," take it twice again that far."

Xena raised both eyebrows and shrugged, but she moved the target sixty feet away and stuck it to a tree with her breast dagger. Then she went back to the saddlebags, picked out four throwing knives and brought them over to Elisa. "Try these, they are really well balanced," the warrior suggested.

The young Amazon hefted each one, nodding her head in agreement. "These do feel good, Xena, but I prefer my own, thanks." Elisa reached down to a scabbard attached to her boot and pulled out a knife. She turned to face the target and let the knife fly. Bullseye. As Xena was about to look back from the target to the girl, another knife flew toward the target and struck immediately next to the first one. Two more knives quickly followed, embedding their points next to the others so that all four knives were implanted in a tight square, dead in the center of the bullseye.

Xena didn't say a word. She jogged to the target and removed the four knives then shifted the target to a tree thirty feet further away. She trotted back to Elisa and handed her the knives. "Put these back where they were, then do that again," the Warrior Princess prompted.

She watched Elisa sheathe the knives, one on the outside of each boot and the other two in scabbards on her back, concealed by her clothing. Unlike most Amazons, Elisa wore a loose tunic that completely covered her back. "What's in the other boot scabbard on the inside of your leg?" Xena asked.

"A hunting knife," the Amazon answered, glancing down.

"Go," shouted Xena unexpectedly.

Elisa leapt into action. Like a fast-moving automaton, the young Amazon placed the four knives dead center once more. Xena again jogged out and back, getting the knives but not moving the target. As Elisa sheathed the knives, Xena asked, "Can you do that without looking?"

Elisa looked intrigued. "I've never tried... yet."

Xena grinned at the young Amazon's eager answer. She put her hands on the girl's shoulders and moved her to a different spot in the clearing. "Look at the target," she directed. "Now, close your eyes and try it."

The four knives flew one by one in a slightly slower sequence than before, but all landed in the middle of the bullseye.

"Very good!" Xena praised Elisa, who blushed. "Now," the Warrior Princess grinned wickedly again, "let's try using just your hearing." She went to the saddlebag and fished out a scarf. "I'll be directly in front of you, so when you hear me moving, DON'T throw my way. I'll move the target, tell you when I'm ready, then throw a rock at it. When you hear the rock hit, let just one knife go. OK?"

"Sure, I'll give it a try," Elisa grinned. Xena tied the scarf around the girl's eyes.

Four times Xena moved the target, then hit it dead center with a rock. On the Amazon's first and second tries, the knife struck just below the middle, but was still in the bullseye. On the third and fourth tries, Elisa was right on target again.

Xena took the knives back to the young Amazon then returned to the target. She moved the target up, down, over and back, and still the girl hit it perfectly. "OK, Leese, take off the scarf," Xena hollered to her. Ninety feet away and blindfolded! The girl is a marvel!

Xena pulled out the knives, brought the target back and stuck it back in the saddlebag. "Leese, that's just amazing! I've never seen anyone any better than you are. Where did you learn to throw like that?" the warrior was uncharacteristically enthusiastic.

The Amazon almost burst with pride. "My mother and father had a knife-throwing act. They used to travel all over the countryside putting on shows. I learned to throw almost before I learned to walk," she explained. "When I was six, I was good enough to be part of the act." The girl's face was shining. Xena had never seen her with a happier look on her face.

"Do your parents still travel like that?" Xena asked. Uh, oh, wrong question, warrior.

The light in Elisa's eyes was suddenly shuttered and, on her face, a door closed. "No, my father died when I was ten years old."

There's something more she's not ready to tell me. I recognize that face, almost like looking into a mirror. Sounds like bard territory to me.

Xena patted the girl on the shoulder. "Sorry. But he left you a wonderful legacy."

Elisa's face brightened a little with that remark. "Ready for the sword, now?" Xena smiled and arched an eyebrow.

For another hour the two worked with the sword, with Xena as the attacker and Elisa on defense. Every time Xena got past her defenses, they would stop and Xena would teach the Amazon the proper moves. By the time the hour was up, Elisa had become an accomplished defender. Very fast learner, Xena thought to herself. And strong! She's barely tired from all this.

"Leese, feel my sword," Xena directed and tossed her sword to the Amazon.

"Whew! It's heavy," Elisa said in surprise.

"Yeah, I'm going to leave an order with the smithy to make you one just like it. If you're going to fight enemy soldiers, you have to have a heavier sword. A lightweight one is no match for the heavier one," the Warrior Princess explained. "Now, we better get back. Even MY stomach is ready for food."

********************

The celebration for Gabrielle's return had been a week in the planning. Each morning, before dawn, Xena had been doing her regular drills and working with Elisa. Each afternoon was spent practicing with Gabrielle and some of the braver Amazons with the wooden staff. The relative inactivity was making the warrior restless. She was ready to move on.

Xena had demurred when asked to sit at the special table set up for the Queen. This celebration was in honor of Gabrielle, and the warrior didn't want to run the risk of stealing any of her limelight. Besides, the dark-haired woman's favorite spot in most crowded rooms was at a table in the far corner nearest the door, with her back to the wall and her feet propped on the table's crossbeam.

She was sitting there now, her cobalt-blue eyes and beautiful face seeming to be at rest. In reality, she was her usual alert self, her eyes unobtrusively scanning the crowd. The festivities had been going on for awhile and were now in high gear. Xena was pleased to see Gabrielle getting the attention and appreciation she deserved.

Ephiny, the Queen's regent, approached the Warrior Princess' table with Eponin and Solari in tow. Xena invited "the big three," as she was beginning to think of them, to join her. These three women were trustworthy, dependable and fierce warriors. But what meant the most in Xena's eyes was that they truly loved their Queen and would sacrifice their lives for her, if need be.

"Why aren't you sitting with the Queen, Xena?" the dark-complexioned Solari queried. "If not for you, she wouldn't even be here."

"This is her day, Solari, these are her people. I'm just a guest, here," the warrior explained.

"Why don't you become an Amazon, Xena?" Eponin pitched in. "You sure have an Amazon's heart. I, for one, would welcome you as one of us." Three sets of eyes were fixed expectantly on the Warrior Princess, waiting for her answer.

Xena put her elbow on the table and leaned her head down, long fingers covering the grin that was trying to spread across her face. Her magnificent blue eyes twinkled as she released her mouth long enough to say, "Weeelllll, no offense intended, but I don't really hate men, ya know?"

Three sets of eyes showed varying degrees of disappointment. Ephiny took a deep breath to say something when Solari broke the sudden silence, "Eph was telling us that the fight you two had in the Queen's hut was just for show."

"Yeah," the warrior answered. "I had told Eph that Hope was masquerading as Gabrielle and informing Ares of our every move. We staged the fight so he would believe that Gabrielle and I were through with each other and the Amazons were almost ready to kill me. We had to make him believe that I was ready to switch sides."

"Well, that was a pretty darn realistic hold you had on Eph's throat," Eponin shook her head. "To tell the truth, Solari and I WERE ready to kill you," she added bluntly.

Xena's eyebrow flew up and she shrugged, "I would have just swung Ephiny around to block your thrusts," she said matter-of-factly. Ephiny shivered at the cold truth of that statement and the other two Amazons glanced at each other in astonishment.

"But I knew Hope wouldn't let that happen," Xena assured them. "That's why she jumped between us. She wanted me to join Ares so I could be perverted to Dahak's side. He wanted me as HIS warrior. Come to think of it, EVERYONE seems to want me," she grinned wickedly and waved her eyebrows, breaking the tension.

Ephiny elbowed her in the ribs. "Don't go getting swell-headed on us, Princess," she laughed. "And next time you want an argument staged, remind me to send someone else," she rubbed the front of her neck and made a face. "I'm still sore."

"Well, I actually got a little angry, thinking of Hope trying to pretend she was Gabrielle while Gabrielle was still at Dahak's mercy. I was trying to use that anger to make the fight more believable and I started to get carried away," Xena apologized.

"Yeah, well Eph was the one who almost got carried away, feet first," Eponin quipped and all joined in the laughter. The three Amazons arose to continue making the rounds of their friends and Xena got up, too.

"Ephiny, will you let Gabrielle know that I'll be outside for awhile? Probably near the stables or taking a ride on Argo," the imposing warrior requested.

"Sure, Xena, no problem," answered the regent. She recognized that the Warrior Princess was getting restless. A restless Xena was not a soothing thought.

Before she left the hall, Xena caught the eye of the young Amazon, Elisa. A silent message passed between them and Elisa nodded slightly.

Xena walked outside and took several deep breaths of the fresh air. She loved the outdoors. When she entered a building, it was as though she had donned a heavy cloak that weighed her down and she couldn't wait to get outside and remove it. She loved the feel of the sun, the rain, the air against her body and, unless the temperatures were extreme, she was rarely uncomfortable. A swim in icy water, that left others shivering, invigorated her. Hot, humid weather, that prostrated most people, she just shrugged off.

Xena stood there for a few moments, thinking of the question Eponin had asked, and grinning wryly. Why wouldn't I become an Amazon? Well, there's more to it than just the one reason I gave the big three. For 10 years, I was a warlord. And not just any warlord, I was the warlord who conquered half of Greece. Xena, Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations. And I was proud of it. Proud to be the one in charge of an army that struck fear into the hearts of so many. Proud to be Ares' Chosen.

But then I changed. I saw that the life I was leading was wrong. With Hercules' help, I was able to change to the right path and with Gabrielle's help I've been able to stay on that path.

Well, you might change a tiger's territory, but you can't change her stripes. I fight for good now, but I'm still in charge of the fight. I answer, ultimately, to no one but myself. If I do right, it's my praise; if I do wrong, it's my blame. I'm still the warlord who wants to conquer half of Greece, only, now, I want to conquer the evil half. I could never commit myself to any group or organization as a member. I'm just too damned independent. I'm still Xena, Warrior Princess, one of a kind. And that's the way I like it.

Xena pulled herself to her full height and squared her shoulders. Had anyone been watching, they would have seen a warlord stride across the square from the common hall to the stables.

As the Warrior Princess entered the stables, Argo tossed her head and whinnied in welcome. "Hi, girl," Xena gave her warhorse her usual greeting. She wrapped her arms around the golden palomino's neck and hugged her. "Ready to go for a ride?" she asked. Recognizing the tones, the mare's head bobbed up and down. Xena chuckled, "You're restless, too, huh?" She saddled and bridled the animal. Mounting, she backed Argo out of her stall and headed out of the stable.

The dark-haired woman picked a trail that led into open lands. When she reached them, she trotted the mare for awhile to warm her up, then urged Argo into a pounding gallop. With the wind streaming in her face and raven hair flying behind her, the Warrior Princess was exhilarated by the flowing movement of the warhorse's powerful muscles.

 She would slow Argo to a trot to allow her to rest, then be off again, flying with the urgency of a tempest. Eventually, she made a wide sweep and returned to the starting point. Then she quieted Argo and allowed her to walk for awhile to cool her down. Xena herself quieted down and was soothed by the rhythmic rocking of the golden mare's motions. When her restlessness had subsided, she returned to the stable, brushed Argo down and gave her some extra hay and water.

Xena walked back into the common hall to see that the celebration was winding down. Gabrielle sat at the Queen's table talking with Ephiny. Eponin and Solari were sitting at the next table, both holding their heads. The warrior grinned. A little too much ale, maybe.

At the third table over, Elisa sat with a few friends. Her eyes had met Xena's as soon as the warrior entered. As the imposing woman passed Elisa she briefly squeezed the young Amazon's shoulder. At that moment, Gabrielle looked up and saw Xena. A wariness flitted across her eyes but her face creased with a smile as her friend approached.

"My Queen," Xena smiled and bowed. "Are you ready to call it a night?"

"I think so, Xena," the golden-haired woman sighed. "It has been a glorious celebration. While you were gone, the Amazons put on a show. They did several dances and even a little skit. You missed it."

"Well, it was for you and you saw it. That's what counts," Xena said.

The bard arose, hugged Ephiny and thanked her for the party, "It was perfect, Ephiny, thank you for all your trouble."

"We were thrilled to do it, Gabrielle, and thrilled to have you back." She turned her curly blonde head toward the Warrior Princess, and gazed into her breathtaking blue eyes. "And thank YOU, Xena, once again, for saving her for us."

"You and the other Amazons helped make it possible, Eph. I won't forget that." Xena and Ephiny clasped arms in the warrior handshake, and Xena and Gabrielle left.

 

Chapter 2

The two women had agreed that they would stay for one day beyond the party and leave the morning of the following day. That morning had arrived, and they were ready to move out. They had said their goodbyes the night before, and went directly to the stable so Xena could pick up Argo. Argo was still saddled and bridled from Xena's predawn drill time, so it was just a matter of re-tightening the saddle cinch and leading her from her stall.

Xena came riding out of the stable and Elisa was right behind her on Viktor, a bedroll in evidence behind her saddle. "Elisa is going to ride with us for a while, Gabrielle. I have some advanced drills I've decided to teach her," Xena explained.

Gabrielle was a little bent out of shape to learn that Elisa would be accompanying them for the next several days. Seeing this, Xena dismounted and walked beside her friend as they left the Amazon village. "Elisa wants to learn some of my fighting skills. She's fast and strong and eager. I think she could be a great warrior. She has just a few more advanced drills to learn; once she knows them, it's just a matter of intensive practice to get good at them. I thought she could come with us until I finish teaching them to her."

"All right," the bard agreed reluctantly. "Just so long as it's only for a few days."

"Besides," Xena grinned and elbowed Gabrielle in the side, "I don't think she's heard any of your stories, yet. You'll have a captive audience." Gabrielle made a face at her. Xena laughed and swung back up onto Argo.

The three women, two mounted and one walking, moved along the trail. Lunchtime passed uneventfully. In the late afternoon, Elisa dismounted and walked along beside the bard, holding Viktor's reins. Gabrielle knew the young Amazon would not have the temerity to speak first to her Queen. Out of pique that the girl had been foisted on her as a companion, she did not speak to Elisa for awhile. Finally, realizing she was being childish, she looked up at the tall girl and asked, "Did you want something, Elisa?"

"My Queen, Xena tells me you know some great stories. Would you mind telling me one?"

Gabrielle heard the voice of temptation, I know she wants to hear about Xena. Maybe I'll tell her about Hercules, instead... And how come I have to travel with two trees? I'm going to have a permanent crick in my neck! But the bard relented and started the story of Cecrops and the haunted ship. She was well into her third tale when Xena hissed, "Quiet!" She dismounted and melted away from them.

Gabrielle and Elisa left the horses behind and crept forward as quickly and quietly as they could. Soon, they heard the sounds of a battle and dashed toward it. Xena was holding her own with about fifteen attackers. Another five, bearing nets, were almost upon her. Elisa and Gabrielle tried to reach the Warrior Princess, but were cut off and separated by another group.

Gabrielle, surrounded by a ring of attackers, could see Xena being ensnared by nets and beaten to the ground. "Elisa," the bard yelled desperately, "Help Xena."

Instead, the tall young Amazon back-flipped into the air and landed next to her Queen. As Gabrielle fought off several attackers with her staff, Elisa stood at her back and fought furiously with her sword. Ducking under a blade swung at her neck, she sliced her weapon into the foe's now unprotected side, felling him. Continuing the swing, she parried a downward blow from a second enemy then raised up, twisted her sword and disarmed the attacker. She swung her body around, pivoting on one foot and laid her boot, hard, against the man's head. He went down like a sawed off tree trunk. A third attacker launched his body at her, sword out-thrust to spear her. The nimble Amazon swiftly sidestepped and the foe impaled himself on her weapon as he flew past. Yanking her sword from his body, Elisa glanced quickly toward her Queen.

Gabrielle had been busy, too. Holding her staff horizontally, head high, she thrust it forward and caught two of the foe in their throats, knocking them off their feet. Then she swatted each of them in the head to make sure they stayed down. Two more men were running straight at her back. She heard a lusty "EeeeeeYaaaahhhh," and Elisa cartwheeled over between them and the bard. She jumped about three feet in the air and kicked out at the two onrushers, stomping her boots into their stomachs. Both men doubled over and she rabbit-punched them with her fists in the back of the neck as she landed. Looking around, she saw that the others had gone.

Gabrielle and Elisa searched for Xena but she was nowhere to be found. The attackers apparently had beaten her into submission and borne her off. The young Amazon had turned deathly pale and kept muttering over and over, "They beat her. They beat her. I'll make them pay for this."

"Why didn't you help her?" Gabrielle fumed at Elisa. "I could have managed. Xena was the one who was in the worst situation."

The girl looked down at Gabrielle in almost dazed puzzlement for a moment, then her eyes cleared, and she pulled herself taller. "You are my Queen. It is my duty to protect you first."

"Yes, I'm your Queen, and I ordered you to help Xena," the bard stated more vehemently.

"Xena told me that, if she isn't able to, I must always stay by your side in a fight, and never leave you," Elisa stated matter-of-factly.

The Queen took a deep breath to yell again at Elisa, then realized she was fighting a useless battle. "Yeah, she would," muttered Gabrielle.

The bard changed focus. "Elisa, ride back to the village and get some help. I'll start following their trail. We've got to find where they've taken Xena." And why.

Elisa reached into the scabbard on the inside edge of her boot and handed Gabrielle a hunting knife. "Hit an occasional tree with this, my Queen, it will make it easier to follow you when it gets dark. Gwynna's got a really sharp eye for tracking, I'll try to bring her, too," Elisa said as she left.

 

Chapter 3

Xena's unconsciousness ebbed and she woke to a throbbing head and aching body. Eyes still shut, she considered her environment. She was enclosed in something that had her lying on her side with her knees pulled up, which prevented her from stretching out. Listening closely, she could hear nearby men's voices talking and laughing. She heard one say, "She's coming tomorrow and bringing the payoff." But they said nothing further of any use.

Slowly, she opened her eyes. She discovered she was in a heavy net bag suspended from a tree limb, about ten feet up in the air. On examination of her battered body she found no bones were broken. And she was naked.

Ten years as a warlord had stifled any modesty that might have caused her to be embarrassed by her nudity. What caused more frustration was the lack of anything that might be useful in freeing herself from the imprisoning net. Even a piece of leather could have been used to create friction by sawing away at one of the thick fibers. She tried biting, but that was ineffectual. So, lacking any other means of attack, the Warrior Princess sat up on her folded legs, crossed her arms, leaned back against the webbing and went to sleep, allowing her body a chance to heal.

Gabrielle had unsaddled Argo and left her to fend for herself near a stream. The bard had been following the trail for hours and finally came upon the enemy camp. She crept a little closer to the fire-lit scene before her. From her vantage point, she could just about make out Xena's dark head leaned back against the inside of a heavy net bag. Seeing her friend was in no immediate danger from her abductors was an immense relief. It also meant she could wait for the Amazon reinforcements before attempting to rescue Xena. What kind of physical condition the warrior was in remained to be seen.

********************

Elisa arrived at the Amazon village and immediately reported to Ephiny, the Queen's regent. Word was sent out to some of the most accomplished warriors to meet, ready for several days' travel, at the head of the eastern trail.

With Ephiny's permission, Elisa went to get the tall, blonde-haired Gwynna.

"Why should I worry about what happens to Xena?" Gwynna protested. "She kicked the Hades out of me and never said one word of apology. I was bruised for weeks!"

"Look, Gwynna, if we're going to be pals, you've got to stop whining about Xena. She's the most fantastic warrior I've ever seen. And you know she's teaching me some of her tricks," the raven-haired Amazon responded impatiently. "Besides, Xena was only semi-conscious when she kicked you and it was your own fault. I would have done the same thing. And so would you."

"Maybe," Gwynna admitted grudgingly. "I still don't trust her."

"Yeah, well, she probably doesn't have a very high opinion of you, either. I mean you only tried to kill her," Elisa retorted sarcastically and gave her friend a push. "C'mon, let's get going."

"I was trying to save the Queen," Gwynna argued as she followed Elisa towards the outbound trail.

"Xena knows that, which is probably the only reason you're still alive!" rejoined the dark-haired Amazon.

The two young women met up with the rest of the rescue party that included Ephiny, Eponin, Solari and ten other Amazons. The number was purposely kept small to allow for speed. If they were vastly outnumbered, more help would be sent for. Elisa had reported about 50 attackers, with the three women having put about 15 of them out of commission, dead or injured.

When Ephiny heard that Xena had been beaten into submission, she asked Claris for a healer. Claris sent one of her assistants, Rhea, to accompany them.

As regent, Ephiny took charge. "Elisa, you and Gwynna go on ahead and mark the trail. We'll follow as quickly as we can. When you've found the Queen, or Xena's captors, one of you come back for us."

Knowing she could move faster in the dark on foot, Elisa had left Viktor in the village stable. She and Gwynna took off running and the balance of the group moved out.

Even in the dim light of dusk, Gwynna's acute eyesight was able to quickly follow Gabrielle's trail. The bard had marked trees as Elisa suggested and the two scouts hurried along. When at last they came in sight of Gabrielle, she was hiding in the brush, gazing at the abductors' camp.

Gabrielle didn't hear a thing. Elisa slipped to the ground beside her and patted the earth to cause a vibration. The bard turned and met wide, gray eyes. Elisa moved her lips next to Gabrielle's ear and whispered, "My Queen, the regent's coming with 12 others, perhaps an hour behind us. What can you report?

Gabrielle, pleased to see Elisa sooner than she had expected, pointed to the net enclosing Xena. "I can't tell how she is, but no one has bothered her since I've been here," she whispered back. "The men are just laying around, talking or sleeping. I've counted about 30 healthy ones and 5 or 6 who are injured."

"I'll send Gwynna back for the others," Elisa murmured. She dropped back to Gwynna, passed on the information, and sent her off. She then returned to Gabrielle's side.

"My Queen, I would like to work my way nearer to Xena. I am pretty good at knife throwing and when the others get here, I can sever the rope that's holding her up. If she's able to fight, we can use the help."

Gabrielle pondered Elisa's words. "But if she's injured, Elisa, it may be better for her if we leave her in the net until we subdue her abductors. If she's no threat to them, perhaps they'll ignore her," Gabrielle suggested.

The wiry Amazon nodded at the truth of these words. "I'll try to find out if she's injured, before I act."

"OK. We'll give you a double owl hoot when the Amazons are in place and the attack will start," the bard said. "Then use your own judgment."

Elisa stole silently away. She moved in a wide circle and crept as near to Xena's position as she could. The young Amazon was still about 50 feet away, where the trees ended and the clearing began. There were three guards seated at the bottom of the tree the warrior was suspended from, but they were paying her no attention.

The young Amazon saw Xena's head lift and move slowly from side to side as though zeroing in on something. She knows someone's here, realized Elisa. How does she do that? Maybe I can learn that, too!

Looking around the campsite, Elisa saw Xena's leathers, boots, armor, sword and chakram piled carelessly under the tree adjacent to the one the net hung from. Those were the only two trees in the clearing and too far away for Elisa to reach them unseen. She hunkered down to await the others.

Gwynna made great time reuniting with the Amazon contingent and leading them quickly to the enemy camp. Ephiny knelt beside Gabrielle and the bard pointed out the placement of the enemy troops. She explained Elisa's position and said the girl was waiting for a double owl hoot signal.

The regent studied the situation, then motioned for Eponin and Solari to join her. "Pony, you take three archers and circle to the other side of the largest group over there," she pointed them out for Eponin. "Solari, you take three more and get them in a crossfire. Gabrielle and I will take the others and wait to see if the three guards move from beneath the tree when the battle starts. If they do, we'll move between them and Xena, and attack them from behind. If not, we'll make a frontal assault on them and then get Xena out of there."

Ephiny looked to make sure both Eponin and Solari understood. They both nodded. "When you get in place, give me a single owl hoot. Then wait till I give the signal to attack. It will be a double owl hoot."

Xena, with her remarkable senses, did indeed realize that someone was out there. About 50 feet away, in fact. Elisa, she smiled to herself. When the movement stopped and did not continue, the Warrior Princess surmised, correctly, that the young Amazon was waiting for reinforcements.

Xena leaned her head back against the net again, but now every sense was extremely alert. She actually heard the Amazons arrive on the far side of the camp, and soon deploy to areas on either side of the main body of the enemy. She reached up, grabbed the net above her and had just enough room to hoist herself partly erect. She managed to uncross her legs and crouch them, bent at the knees, in preparation for hitting the ground. Having learned of Elisa's proficiency with her knives, the warrior fully expected her to take out the three guards and slice through the rope by which the net was suspended above the ground.

Elisa, her eyes never having left Xena, saw the dark-haired woman pull herself into a crouching position. Well, she's not injured too badly to move, the Amazon was happy to see. And she must have heard something, so I better be ready. Elisa unsheathed a knife and held it poised to throw.

"Hoo-hoo," came a single owl hoot from the far left. Another owl hoot sounded from the right. Almost immediately, a double owl hoot sounded from Gabrielle's position. "Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo."

Elisa waited to see how the assault was going to develop. At the far end of the clearing, she could see several men falling with arrows through their bodies. Pandemonium ensued. The three men guarding Xena drew their swords and two of them dashed off to help the ones being attacked.

As Gabrielle and Ephiny led their small force in behind the two running guards, Elisa threw her dagger with unerring precision. The net holding Xena crashed to the ground and fell open. The remaining guard turned and had just a quick glimpse of a naked Warrior Princess before a heel hit him under the chin and smashed his head into the tree. Xena dashed to the next tree, pulled on her boots and literally flung on her leathers and armor. Hooking her chakram with one hand and drawing her sword with the other, she raced to join the assault on the main body of men.

Elisa, coming right behind her, whooped with glee. "I never saw anyone get dressed so fast in my life," she hollered to the warrior, "and on the run!"

"Practice, Leese," Xena laughed back, "lots of practice!"

Nearing the grouped enemy forces, the Warrior Princess let out a yell, "Yiyiyiyiyiyi," and vaulted into the air. She flipped overtop Gabrielle, Ephiny and their fighting group, and landed, with a terror-inducing smile, in the midst of the enemy. Swinging her sword in a circle with one mighty swipe, she took down four of the foe. Reversing her swing, the formidable warrior eliminated three more. When the next group of enemy troops hesitated, Xena's lip curled up and she taunted, "What's the matter, boys, don't want to play anymore?"

Glancing for a split second to her left, the warrior saw that Elisa had moved to Gabrielle's side and the two of them were working as a team. Gabrielle would divert foes with her staff, while Elisa would finish them off with kicks, punches or sword thrusts. Ephiny and her group were at work on the far side of the Queen, accounting for a number of foes with their expert swordsmanship. Additional men on the perimeter were falling from well-placed arrows shot by the Amazons still in the trees.

Satisfied that Gabrielle was protected, Xena returned her attention to the men in front of her. She made a small jump toward them, at the same time kicking a powerful leg straight up under one's chin, knocking him into two others. Back on her feet, she leapt over a swipe made at her legs, raised her sword aloft and, as she came down, chopped it onto the exposed shoulder of the unlucky man who had missed her.

Sensing an enemy behind her, Xena twirled her sword so it pointed behind her and thrust it into the midsection of the surprised, but now dying, enemy. Emboldened by the warrior's shift of attention, another man rushed her from the front. Xena sidestepped his onslaught and incapacitated him with a fierce forearm to the bridge of his nose.

As the dark-haired warrior pulled her weapon from the body it had impaled, the Amazons rushed out of the trees and the remaining enemy turned tail and ran.

The Warrior Princess whirled around as Gabrielle reached her side. The two women threw their arms around each other in a big hug. "Thanks for the rescue, my bard," Xena said. By this time, everyone had congregated around the warrior. "Thanks to all of you," she said.

Eponin snorted, "You could have saved some for me, Princess."

Xena wiped the back of her forearm across her face and grinned, "Maybe you'll move your tail a little faster next time, Pony."

Solari snickered. Eponin stuck her hands on her hips, "What? I got here faster than you did, Solly, so stop snickering."

"Yeah," Solari laughed, "but I had to climb down from the top of the tree I was in and I could see you, framed against a fire, already on the ground. Face it, Pony, you just can't run." Solari ducked as the weapons master faked a punch at her, and the assembled group all grinned.

"Well, Xena, I'm glad to see you don't need any attention from Rhea," Ephiny remarked.

"No, just some bruises, Eph, nothing to worry about. But thanks for bringing her," the Warrior Princess responded.

"Xena," Gabrielle asked, "why do you think they wanted you?"

"I'm not sure, Gabrielle. I heard them say that a woman was coming in the morning with their payoff. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect..." the warrior hesitated.

"Callisto!" the Queen declared.

"But didn't you say you killed her with the hind's blood dagger, Xena?" Ephiny queried.

"I did, Ephiny. But I can't think of anyone else who would want me captured," the Warrior Princess remarked, puzzled. "Dead, maybe, yes. But captured? And they knew to use nets and take everything off of me so I had nothing to use to try to escape. It just SMELLS like Callisto."

Xena looked around at everyone. "We still have a few hours until daybreak. What do you say we take a rest until then? We can clean up, later."

Ephiny posted lookouts and the group split into smaller bunches. They all selected their own spots at various campfires and settled down for the night.

As Elisa passed the Warrior Princess, Xena reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Thanks, Leese," she remarked.

The young Amazon's face lit up. "Anytime, Xena," she offered. She started to walk on, then turned her head back. "Drills this morning?" she asked.

Xena smiled broadly, "No, I think I'll pass, today. Give this body a chance to recuperate."

Elisa blushed. She knew the warrior had taken a pretty bad beating but when you saw Xena fight so ferociously, it was easy to forget that she was hurt. The girl walked over to Ephiny, bent down and said something. Ephiny said a few words back to her, then nodded, and Elisa disappeared into the trees. Xena noticed that she left.

The Warrior Princess foraged for food in the packs left near the campfire she and Gabrielle sat at. She found some dried beef and a few biscuits and handed them to the bard. Gabrielle wolfed them down before she realized Xena hadn't saved any for herself. "That's OK," the warrior assured her when she tried to apologize, "I'm not hungry, just tired."

The Warrior Princess stretched out on the ground, closed her eyes, said, "Goodnight, Gabrielle," and was immediately asleep.

"Goodnight, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. She knew the warrior was covered with bruises that would be gone in another day or two. Her healing abilities were that powerful. But they still have to hurt when they happen, the bard commiserated, and she never complains. Gabrielle closed her eyes in sleep with thoughts of Xena warming her heart.

About two hours later, Xena came awake with a pounding in her head. Hoofbeats, she realized. Then, Argo. THAT'S where Leese went. Good kid. With a smile on her face, the Warrior Princess fell back to sleep.

********************

Shortly before dawn, Xena awoke as usual. Wouldn't hurt to catch some rabbits for breakfast, she thought, they all deserve some reward for helping me. She got up and slowly stretched, still sore from the bruising she had taken, and moved toward the trees. As she melted into their cover, Elisa joined her. Xena turned her head and smiled at the girl and Elisa smiled back. "Rabbits. You catch three, and I'll catch three, deal?" the warrior offered.

"Deal," Elisa grinned. "Race?" And she took off running, as silent as the air. Xena chuckled and ran in a different direction. About fifteen minutes passed and the Warrior Princess returned carrying three rabbits.

She started to skin and gut them. She had just finished the first one when Elisa showed up pretending to pout. "One of these days, I intend to beat you, Xena," she threatened as she started to skin and gut her catch.

"In your dreams, Leese," the warrior chuckled. "At least not till I'm old and decrepit!"

Xena changed the subject. "I want to thank you for getting Argo for me. Where did you put her?"

The young Amazon looked startled. "That was supposed to be a surprise. I even have her nose covered so she wouldn't smell you and whinny. Who told you?"

"Argo told me," Xena confessed. "I heard you bring her in this morning. I recognized her hoofbeats."

"You were supposed to be sleeping!" the gray-eyed girl charged. Xena cocked an eyebrow at her and Elisa grinned. "OK, I should have known better. I'm not going to slip anything past you. Argo's tethered to a tree directly across the field from your campfire."

"I appreciate that, Leese, a lot." Xena finished with her rabbits and started on one of Elisa's. "I was curious about something, Leese."

"What's that, Xena?"

"When I was stuck up in that net and there were three guards below me, why didn't you just take them out with your knives? As good as you are, it would have been easy for you."

The Amazon blushed, then paled and became obviously ill at ease. "I don't want to kill anyone with my knives. If I had to, in order to save your life, maybe I could have, I don't know. But I figured we could rescue you without it."

"It's OK to kill people with your sword, but not with your knives?" Xena was puzzled. What's going on here, anyway? What scares her about her knives?

"Uh, yeah... sorta... I can't explain. I just don't want to kill anyone with my knives, OK?" Elisa was getting agitated.

Xena smiled at the girl, "OK! I'm just glad you cut me down. Without having to kill anybody with your knives."

The two women were finished gutting the rabbits. Xena stood up. "Let's get these washed off and go find a cook."

After breakfast, the Amazons gathered their gear and prepared to move out. Ephiny, Eponin and Solari gathered to say goodbye to their Queen and the Warrior Princess. "Hey, Xena," Ephiny teased, "you're always telling us to look out for our Queen, but this time she looked out for you."

"But I had a lot of help," Gabrielle was quick to point out.

"I'm grateful to all of you," Xena acknowledged.

"I'm glad we were able to do you a favor," Ephiny declared. Eponin and Solari were nodding their agreement. The Warrior Princess grasped their forearms, Gabrielle hugged Ephiny goodbye and waved to the others, and they led their people out of the camp.

While the leave-taking had been going on, Elisa saddled and bridled Argo and brought her over to Xena's campsite. After saying goodbye to the Amazons, the warrior hurried over to Argo and enclosed the mare's golden neck in her bronzed arms. The warhorse whinnied and nuzzled her mistress until Xena let go of her neck and, laughing, kissed the side of Argo's face. Then she swung aboard the palomino and the other two women moved out ahead of her.

 

Chapter 4

They had been on the trail for most of the day when Xena called a halt near a stream. "Let's camp here for the night," she decided, indicating the small clearing they had reached.

Suddenly, she felt that telltale creepy feeling she always got when Ares was near. Dismounting, she handed Argo's reins to the bard. "Gabrielle, you and Elisa go ahead and set up the camp." She glanced at Elisa, who nodded. "I think someone wants to see me. My skin is crawling."

"Ares," the bard guessed. "We'll be here, Xena." The two young women started unloading bedrolls and saddlebags from Argo's back.

The warrior walked off the trail and deeper into the woods. "C'mon Ares, show yourself. I know you're here," she called.

Sure enough, the God of War appeared in a dazzle of light.

"Xena, my Princess, you always can tell when I'm near! Don't you think that's because we have some connection with each other? Because we care for each other?" the darkly handsome man suggested.

"Get real, Ares. You didn't come here to talk about our 'connection.' What do you really want?" Xena demanded.

"Well, since you saved my... uh... skin... in that Dahak fiasco, I owe you one. So I thought I'd give you fair warning. You ended Callisto's godhood, but... the gods decided you both deserved punishment. You, for offing a god... and Callisto, for helping Hope. So, they decided to kill two birds with one stone," Ares smiled wickedly.

"What are you saying, Ares? Spit it out," Xena sneered impatiently.

"Callisto has been sent back... as a mortal," Ares found this very amusing. He clapped his hands together in glee. "Your archenemy has returned! Now the two of you can play your war games all over again, and I'll take a front row seat."

"Callisto is BACK?" Xena's eyes narrowed ominously. "She WAS behind that abduction!" But why me instead of Gabrielle?

"Well, Ares, it's rewarding to get some useful information from you for a change, instead of your usual taunts," the dark-haired woman remarked with a hint of grudging gratitude.

The God of War stepped to within a hair's breadth of the Warrior Princess. "I have ways to be even more rewarding, Xena," he purred.

The warrior stepped back and snorted, "I'll just bet you have. Don't you ever give up?"

Ares' face lit with his brilliantly devilish smile, and he waved his eyebrows, "Like you, Princess, I am... relentless!" He disappeared in a dazzle.

Callisto! Xena's mind raced. But what was she up to? Why abduct me instead of Gabrielle? She's always wanted to hurt me through Gabrielle before.

The Warrior Princess mulled possibilities over in her mind as she returned to the campsite. Instead of going to the two women, she sat down cross-legged against a tree and sat there for a few minutes, thinking. Gabrielle, recognizing that something must have upset her friend, went over and sat down next to her. Elisa stayed near the fire they were building until Xena looked up and motioned her over, too.

"I just talked with Ares," the warrior began, "and he told me..." Xena's cobalt-blue eyes looked straight into Gabrielle's mist-green ones, "Callisto is alive." A sharp pain grabbed the bard's face, and Xena reached for her hand. "The gods sent her back as a mortal. Apparently they can do that because she was a mortal before she became a god, and I only killed the god part of her. So... to punish ME for killing a god, and HER for helping Hope... they've sent her back."

Elisa noticed that the Warrior Princess' eyes had darkened and seemed to be very sad. Xena sighed, "I guess this means she WAS the one behind my abduction."

"You mean that horror is going to start all over again?" Gabrielle emitted a low cry.

"NO! I won't LET it start again," Xena spoke with determination. "I'm not going to sit around and let her dictate our reactions. I'm going after her."

"And then what, Xena? Kill her?" the bard demanded almost angrily. "The one time in the past when you let her die in the quicksand, your guilt almost ruined you. I think you felt differently about killing her as a god, but now she's a mortal, again. What makes you think you can do it? Or that you even want to?"

The dark-haired warrior looked troubled. She's right. I know Callisto needs killing, but I can't do it. I'll always feel partly responsible for what she is. "I don't know yet... maybe have her put in prison for her crimes."

"But that didn't work the last time, either. She's too dangerous," Gabrielle was getting more upset with every passing minute.

"I'll figure out what to do when the time comes," Xena asserted irritably. "First things first. I need to find her and I'm going to do that now. Elisa, I'd like you to stay with Gabrielle in case Callisto makes an attempt to hurt her. Would you do that?"

Elisa nodded, "Whatever you want, Xena. I'll stick to my Queen like a burr."

"Xena, I am coming with you. Where you go, I go, remember?" the bard argued.

"Gabrielle, this is one time we're going to have to set that aside. I have no idea where Callisto is or what trouble she may be stirring up," the Warrior Princess reasoned. "I may have to cover a lot of ground and I need to do it as quickly as possible. Other people's lives may be at stake, too, you know. By myself, I'll have a better chance of finding her in a hurry, and you'll be safer here with Elisa."

"Being safer has never been an option with me, Xena, and you know it," the golden-haired woman heatedly contended. "You also know I can take care of myself. I don't need a baby-sitter who's practically still a baby herself," Gabrielle glowered. Elisa's eyes dropped to the ground.

"Look, Gabrielle, you're exceptionally good with your staff, but by yourself you're no match for Callisto. She gives ME a good battle. I know I can beat her one-on-one, but it's not easy. I'm stronger than she is but she's fast enough to be a difficult target. I'm afraid she'd crush you," the warrior said curtly, her patience thinning.

Xena continued, "And I want to avoid that, so when I ask Elisa to stay with you, don't get upset. The two of you, together, stand a better chance than you do alone. And Elisa's presence gives me more freedom to search for Callisto with less worry about her sneaking up on you. So, get used to it," the warrior ordered in a steely voice.

"Xena, your imperious mode is showing," the bard grumbled.

"I only get imperious when you get unreasonable," the dark-haired woman retorted in frustration.

"Don't you think that might just be a matter of opinion? Wait... wait..." the bard put her hands up to stop Xena's reply, "I can see that this arrangement will make you feel better, so I'll go along with it. For now. I'm not saying I like it, but I'll go along with it," Gabrielle surrendered.

Xena gave the golden-haired woman a heartfelt hug. "Thank you," she sighed gratefully, relieved the constant battle had been temporarily won. "I have to get going. You two stay right here."

The bard leaned back and gazed into her beloved friend's glorious blue eyes. She looked at her earnestly and said the words reserved for Xena's departure into life-threatening situations. "Promise me you will take very good care of the person I love most in the world."

And Xena returned her sincere reply, "I promise. Always." The two hugged again and Xena stepped over to Elisa and clasped her arm in the warrior handshake, then gave the surprised Amazon a quick hug. "Keep her here," she murmured in the young woman's ear. The Warrior Princess mounted Argo and left at a gallop to search for her archenemy.

 

Chapter 5

Xena had passed through three villages the day before, asking after Callisto, to no avail. Early the next morning, she was pounding down the trail, in a dark and furious thunderstorm, on her way to the next village. The sky was charcoal gray, lit by one lightning strike after another. Thunder rumbled and roared almost continuously and rain pelted down in stinging drops, soaking everything within reach.

Xena pulled Argo to a sudden stop on a rocky promontory. A bolt of lightning had dispelled the gloom of the storm and revealed the blonde warlord standing between two tall trees in an otherwise clear area, her arms crossed and water streaming down her face and body.

"Xeeeena," she crowed. "How nice to see you again! You've become the one bright spot in my whole miserable existence. I live to torment you... I'm drawn to you like a moth to the flame."

The Warrior Princess dismounted, drew her sword, and walked to within reach of her tormentor. "Draw your sword, Callisto, the moth is about to get burned."

"Hahahaha," the half-mad woman mocked, "just like you burned my family?"

Lightning crackled in the sky and thunder roared, making a fitting backdrop for the storm raging between the two women.

The warrior's head lowered, her eyes narrowed, and her mouth turned down in loathing. "Draw... your... sword."

"Oh, very well, if you insist," the blonde woman pulled her sword swiftly from its sheathe and swiped at the dark-haired woman before her. Xena easily parried the blow. She jumped over a swing at her legs and ducked one at her head. Blocking a thrust at her stomach brought the two women face-to-face, their sword hilts locked.

Callisto's wild brown eyes stared into Xena's determined blue ones. "My, my, Xeeena, this defensive mode of yours is just scaring me to death. By the way, have you killed any other gods, lately?" Callisto scoffed.

Xena pushed with her sword arm and knocked Callisto away from her face. The dark-haired woman propelled herself forward, ran up the blonde warlord's body, flipped in the air and kicked her under the chin.

Callisto hit the hard, rocky ground in a puddle of water. She slid a few feet along the surface then did a back-roll and bounced up. "Good, Princess, very good," she cheered, then charged at Xena, full speed. At the last second, she threw her hands to the ground, started a somersault and caught the Warrior Princess in the chest with both boots.

Xena was staggered, but she didn't go down. Callisto had used the power of the thrust to backflip and come to rest on her feet, facing her opponent. "Bravo, Xeeeena, bravo!" she jeered. "That usually takes a fighter right out of the action. But not our Warrior Princess, oh, no. I mean, she hasn't killed anybody yet, so how could the fight be over?"

"You talk too much," Xena growled, and thrust her sword at the warlord. Callisto neatly parried. For a good three minutes, the two fighters traded swings, swipes, thrusts, blocks and parries in a grisly ballet, steel clanging on steel in a counterpart of the storm raging around them.

Callisto, worn down by the frontal confrontation with the heavier, stronger warrior, stepped back, her chest heaving. Xena, too, welcomed the respite. "What's the matter, Xeeeena," the blonde woman taunted when she had caught her breath, "are you letting puny old me hold you off? Can't kill me when I'm not stuck in quicksand? Or," she snarled, "when I'm expecting it? That hind's blood knife in the belly was underhanded even for you, Princess!"

Pulling her lips back in a feral smile, Xena attacked. First, she surprised Callisto by punching her in the face with her sword hand, reinforced by the hilt. Then she pirouetted around and slammed her foot sideways to the blonde warlord's head, stunning her. The warrior head-butted the warlord, stunning her further. Xena then raised her weapon to slice through Callisto's body... and hesitated. This is too easy, she thought. She WANTS me to kill her.

At that moment, lightning struck one of the trees the two combatants were standing between, and it fell. It toppled directly toward Callisto, who seemed unaware of it. At the last moment, Xena dove and slammed her shoulder into the blonde warlord, knocking her away from danger. The Warrior Princess landed on her back, with no time to get out of the way of the falling tree. It delivered a hard blow to her head as it crashed to the earth across her body.

Callisto wobbled to her feet, sheathed her sword and stumbled over to the tree. Sitting down cross-legged on the rocky ground next to the apparently unconscious warrior, the blonde warlord pushed Xena's wet hair away from her lovely face and stroked her fingers down the Warrior Princess' rain-covered cheek. She sat there for a long minute, collecting her senses and appraising Xena's immobile features.

Eventually, Callisto broke the silence with her half-mad singsong voice, "Oh, Xeeena, I soooo wanted you to kill me. After all, you made me what I am, no matter how you rationalize it. And I know you carry a lot of guilt from that... But if I could force you to kill me, you would have eternity to feel guilty about eradicating my WHOLE FAMILY. Just the thought of that almost makes me FEEL something," Callisto threw back her head and laughed maniacally.

She cocked her head at the silent warrior and continued in a rational instant, "Of course, that's precisely why you won't kill me. But I won't kill you, either... I want you to SUFFER because of your guilt."

She continued to think that through. "You killed me as a god, because you were out of your mind with grief over Gabrielle's death and I taunted you into it. And, I suppose, you considered me partly to blame for that. I could almost thank you for that short time of oblivion. Almost," she sneered.

"When those ridiculously jealous gods sent me back, I decided to capture you, hang you in that net, and parade you through the villages you destroyed as a warlord. I would have encouraged them to throw dung at you, spit on you and curse you. I wanted to humiliate the mighty Warrior Princess and make you an object of ridicule." Just the thought twisted Callisto's beautiful face into an evil smile.

"I didn't really want to have to bother killing your little brat, Gabrielle. She's nothing to me. But, the plan to humiliate you has fallen through and, rethinking it, you're just too dangerous to have constantly... hanging around," Callisto laughed at her own pun. "So, maybe Gabrielle has to go, after all..."

Xena's magnificent blue eyes flew open and she fixed Callisto with a threatening look.

"Ah, ha," the blonde woman chortled and clapped her hands, "I knew you were playing possum, Xena. I know you as well as anyone else does, remember?"

The warrior curled her lip in distaste. "Xeeeena," Callisto jeered, "you're the only one I know who can curl both sides of your lip at the same time! Another of your many skills?"

"I'll show you a few of my skills when I get out of here," the warrior's ominous tone promised.

"Hahahaha," Callisto trilled. "You'll never get out of there, without help. You're lying on solid rock. Just relax and picture me tying little golden girl to a tree and... GUTTING her. And, too bad, her wonderful Warrior Princess protector isn't anywhere around. She's... ah... stuck somewhere! That should make a pleasant bedtime story."

The blonde warlord stood up, a suddenly serious look on her face, "I'll be back, Xena, AFTER I've taken care of your dear friend. I might even let you out of there, but... only if you promise to kill me. And I think you'll be ready to by then," Callisto leaned her head sideways, put her hand to her mouth and pretended to be lost in thought. "Maybe I'll bring her head back with me... to keep you company!"

Laughing maniacally again, Callisto jumped on her horse, grabbed Argo's reins and tore off the promontory into the forest, pulling the golden warhorse behind her. Xena waited a few minutes then whistled. Nothing happened. She whistled again. Still nothing. What did she do with Argo? The warrior wondered.

Xena took stock of her situation. The large branches of the tree were supporting some of its weight, preventing her from being crushed, but she was solidly pinned by the trunk lying almost directly across her middle. Her right and left sides were free from her head to her waist, except that her left arm was flung up parallel to her head, caught under a large branch, and possibly broken. She couldn't move the fingers on that hand. She could move her legs and wiggle her feet, so her back and lower limbs seemed all right. She could reach her chakram and her whip. And, finally, the storm had ended.

The Warrior Princess closed her eyes. If that maniac touches even one hair of Gabrielle's head, I WILL kill her. What's a little more guilt compared to Gabrielle's life? I should have killed her while I had the chance!

No sooner did these thoughts pass through her mind than Xena saw Gabrielle's face from the past, as they sat at a campfire. She heard the golden-haired woman's voice again, as clear as a bell: "Promise me that if something happens to me you will not become a monster!" And her own voice answering, "I promise."

Oh, my bard, I DID promise, and I'll keep that promise. A tear trickled down the warrior's cheek as she realized she might be forced to live up to that. She couldn't cold-bloodedly kill Callisto, no matter what horrible things the warlord did to Gabrielle, no matter how strongly she wanted to kill her.

Xena knew her situation was virtually hopeless. Thoughts of her bard, which usually were comforting, now had an aura of horror. Callisto was perfectly capable of carrying out her threats. And Elisa was there, too. Could she and Gabrielle, together, keep Callisto at bay? The blonde warlord had more experience with fighting than most of the Amazons combined. I made a mistake, leaving them. I was too sure of my ability to protect them. Now, I've got two to worry about. Increase your circle of friends and you increase your possibilities of getting hurt through them. And, worse, them getting hurt because of you.

Xena lay there for at least two hours. No amount of turning or twisting would budge the tree. A prayer formed in her mind and rose into the ether. Oh, One Creator, I'm not asking for a miracle, just, please, protect Gabrielle and Elisa until I can find a way to get out of here and back to them! And a little help with THAT would be appreciated, too.

Lying right against the stone ground, Xena felt, sooner than heard, hoofbeats. Her spirits lifted as she recognized them. Two minutes later, Argo appeared, dragging a six-inch wide tree from her reins. "Good girl," Xena laughed and rubbed her mare's nose as the warhorse nuzzled her face. "How foolish of Callisto to think that a tree would stop you from coming to me. Though it did take a little while before you could uproot it, eh? And, now... have I got a job for you," the warrior smiled gratefully, as she one-handedly untied the warhorse's reins from the tree.

First, Xena worked her chakram loose from between her body and the tree trunk. Then she pried the whip out from under her body. Using one hand and her teeth, she fastened the small end of the whip to the chakram. She picked up the butt end of the whip and tied it securely around the large branch that was resting on her left arm. An advantage to having long arms, she smiled. She flung the chakram up in the air and it settled firmly around Argo's saddle horn.

"OK, girl," the warrior directed the golden palomino, "start pulling." Xena gritted her teeth as, first, the large branch came across her broken arm, then the tree trunk rolled across her hips. She got up gingerly, her head and body aching. Supporting her left arm with her right, she examined the break. The bone hadn't come through the skin, but it needed to be set. She lowered her arm down against her side.

The Warrior Princess recovered her dropped sword and cut two straight pieces of tree limb to use for a splint. Then she pulled a short piece of rope from a saddlebag and tied it, shoulder high, to a standing tree. She tied the other end to her left wrist and pulled against it with the full weight of her body. When she heard, and felt, the bone click into place, she untied the rope from her wrist, and from the tree. She used the rope to secure the two pieces of wood to her arm.

Once the splint was in place, Xena untied the whip from the tree and the chakram. She connected both weapons back to her body. Mounting Argo, she galloped quickly down the trail toward where she last had seen Gabrielle and Elisa. "C'mon, girl," she urged her golden warhorse, "we have a bard to rescue." And an Amazon!

 

Chapter 6

After Xena rode away looking for Callisto, Gabrielle turned to Elisa and saw her again casting her eyes down at the ground. That was a nasty thing to say about being a baby. The girl just wants to help me. No, the bard corrected herself, she wants to help Xena. But it works the same for me.

"Elisa," Gabrielle asked the girl, "I'll start setting up the camp. Would you please gather some firewood? And do you think you could catch a rabbit for us? I'm really hungry."

The young Amazon perked right up. "Yes, my Queen, I guess it's still safe to leave you for a moment." Elisa ran into the forest, thinking. The Queen gets a little cranky sometimes with the Warrior Princess. I wouldn't have the nerve. Xena could break her in two with one hand! But I know she never would. It's obvious the Queen is the most important person in her life.

And the Queen seems to have some kind of control over the warrior. I remember hearing the regent tell Eponin and Solari that if there was any trouble with the Warrior Princess to run get the Queen, she's the only one who can handle her. And I saw that was true when Xena's leg was infected and she was out of her head. The Queen was the only one who could get near her.

But she's always been nice to me. Teaching me her drills is really unselfish. My skills have improved already. And I'm the first one she's taught them to!

The dark-haired Amazon quickly collected some fallen twigs and branches and even a few small logs, just the right size for building a fire. She returned with them to the camp and saw that Gabrielle had dragged a large log into the middle of the clearing.

"Elisa, would you make the fire near the log? That way I'll have a place to sit while I cook. I put the iron and flint there on top of the log when you're ready for it."

After digging a small pit near the log, the girl placed the twigs in it, broke the branches into usable lengths and placed them in the pit, also. She scooped up some dry leaves from the ground and stuffed them under the twigs. She picked up the iron and flint, knelt down and struck them together until the sparks caused the leaves to start smoldering. She blew softly on the leaves until the twigs started to burn then made sure the fire was spreading to the branches. Once the branches were engulfed, she laid two of the small logs across the top of the pit. They would eventually catch fire also but would take a longer time to be consumed, extending the life of the fire, even overnight. Right now, Gabrielle could use them to rest her frying pan on, keeping it away from the base of the fire.

Elisa looked around and saw that Gabrielle had set aside the bedrolls and saddlebags and was setting out the utensils and makings that she would use for the meal.

She turned to Gabrielle and said, "I'll be back soon, hopefully with a rabbit." She loped off into the trees.

Elisa had a smile on her face as she returned about fifteen minutes later with the skinned and gutted rabbit and handed it to her Queen.

"Thanks, Elisa," Gabrielle smiled back. "I apologize for the remark I made about your being a baby. I didn't really mean it. I was upset that Xena was leaving me behind." Gabrielle began to prepare their meal.

"I understand, my Queen, but Xena really worries about you," the Amazon offered.

"I know she does," the bard sighed. "But I really worry about her, too, and it's easier on me when I'm with her and can see that she's all right. When she's gone, a thousand possibilities pop up in my imagination. Elisa," the Queen continued, "while we're away from the Amazon village, please just call me Gabrielle. I feel more comfortable with it."

"Very well, my... Gabrielle," the dark-haired girl grinned. "And I can understand how you feel about Xena. I know you two are best friends. I worry about my friend, Gwynna, when I'm not around her. And she doesn't get into near the trouble your warrior does!"

So much for jealousy, Gabrielle. The girl does just want to improve her skills and that darned imagination of yours had her pushing herself between you and Xena.

"Yeah, Xena does have a knack for finding trouble," Gabrielle agreed. "But sometimes I'm the one who gets into trouble and Xena comes to the rescue." And I just take for granted that she will always be there. What if someday she isn't? I don't want to even think about that, Gabrielle shuddered.

The bard turned her attention to the browning meat, sprinkling it with some of the herbs she had collected earlier and turning it until it was perfectly done.

"Dinner's ready, let's eat."

The two young women spent the rest of the evening with Gabrielle telling stories, mostly about Xena's adventures. "Did Xena teach you her conversation skills, too?" the bard teased her new friend. When Elisa looked confused, Gabrielle laughed, "Neither one of you is much of a talker."

Elisa smiled at Gabrielle's joke. "I never have talked much. Don't feel a need to," the dark-haired Amazon shrugged.

Gabrielle grinned again, "That sure sounds like a Xena answer."

"I'm really happy to be compared to Xena. She's the best warrior I've ever seen and I'm going to work real hard to be just as good as she is," Elisa admitted. Suddenly, Elisa's whole appearance changed. Her brows came down and her face darkened. "Those men never should have beaten her the way they did. There was no call for that. I wish I could have beaten them," she snarled.

"Well, we did get to beat a few of them and so did Xena. I think they got paid back," the Queen asserted, surprised at Elisa's vehemence. "Let's turn in. Maybe we'll hear something from Xena tomorrow."

********************

"STOP IT! STOP IT! STOP IT!"

Gabrielle came awake with a jolt. She automatically grabbed her staff and jumped up into a defensive position before she realized the scream was emanating from Elisa's mouth. The Queen looked in the direction of Elisa's bedroll. The fire threw just enough light for her to see the young Amazon kneeling, with a knife in her hand, striking over and over again at the ground. Each time her knife hit the dirt, she screamed "STOP IT!" at the top of her lungs.

What made this whole strange scene even eerier was the fact that Elisa had her eyes closed and, apparently, was still asleep. Oh no, another one with nightmares, frowned the concerned bard.

Gabrielle, afraid to approach the girl while she was so viciously attacking someone, even if it was only imaginary, called the Amazon's name over and over as loudly as she could, "ELISA, ELISA, WAKE UP! Finally, she gave up, as it had no effect. The girl's own screaming was drowning out the bard's voice.

At last, Elisa stopped screaming, stopped stabbing, and bent to the ground with wrenching sobs shaking her body. Gabrielle approached her cautiously, reached down and gently removed the knife from the girl's now limp hand, laying it on the ground away from them both.

Standing away from the young Amazon, the bard leaned forward and pushed against her shoulder, calling again, "Elisa!"

Elisa suddenly came wide awake. Seemingly all in one motion, she jumped up, pulled another knife from behind her shoulder and crouched in a defensive posture. Seeing Gabrielle just standing there, looking at her oddly, confused the girl. "What's wrong? What is it?" she demanded, sweeping the area with her eyes, but seeing no threat.

"That's what I want to know," Gabrielle answered gently. "Relax, Elisa, we're not being attacked. You had some kind of nightmare and I was trying to waken you out of it. C'mon, sit with me over here by the fire. There's still a little tea in the pot. We'll have some, together."

The bard reached slowly for the Amazon's elbow. The girl reflexively jerked her arm away but Gabrielle remained there, hand out, waiting for a response. Embarrassed, Elisa relented and let her Queen take her by the elbow and lead her to a seat on the log near the fire.

Gabrielle grabbed a piece of cloth, picked up the teapot from the edge of the embers and filled two mugs that had been left out for morning. She took a stick and stirred the embers, laying some more wood on the fire for light. She handed one mug to the girl and sat next to her on the log.

The two young women sat in silence sipping their tea until they were done and the mugs were set aside. Elisa had calmed somewhat but Gabrielle could tell she was still edgy.

"Do you want to talk about it?" the bard asked gently. Elisa rested her arms on her knees, clasped her hands together and looked down at her fingers, which started to fidget. Gabrielle reached down into her pouch that was leaning against the log and pulled out a short length of rope that she handed to the girl. Elisa almost unconsciously accepted the rope and started to tie and untie the ends of it.

The silence dragged on but Gabrielle had become an expert at waiting for stoic people to express themselves. The bard's sympathetic nature led her to want to hug the girl, who obviously was hurting, but early experience with the Warrior Princess had taught her that unexpectedly touching someone might get her knocked off the log. So, she waited. What can this girl, at her young age, have done that has injured her so deeply?

The night was pitch black. The only light came from the fire whose occasional flicker reflected off the faces of the two. Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Sometimes, when we have demons locked inside of us, it helps to talk about them, let them out. Xena does that once in a while. She has nightmares, too. She hasn't been able to forgive herself for some of the things she's done in her past."

"Neither can I," came an agonized whisper.

"Tell me about it, Elisa. Having someone else share your pain can help make the burden lighter," Gabrielle prompted.

Several minutes of silence passed.

At last, the girl took a deep breath, her fingers flying even faster with the rope, tying and untying, sometimes just twisting it.

"I killed my stepfather."

Gabrielle had to bite her tongue to keep from gasping. Without thinking, she reached out her hand and placed it supportively on Elisa's arm. The youngster flinched and her whole body jerked, but then she subsided.

More minutes passed, then, "Have you ever seen a cat-o'-nine-tails, my Queen?"

"Yes," Gabrielle whispered, shivering. She recalled hearing about one while on Cecrops' ship. It was a whip made of nine knotted rawhide strands, joined at the handle, which left cruel marks on the victim's back, resembling deep cat scratches.

"My stepfather was a heavy drinker. At first, he just used to wreck our house, breaking furniture and throwing things at me and my mother. Later, he started beating us, slapping us around, an occasional punch, nothing we couldn't handle. My mother wouldn't leave because she had vowed to stay with him." Once the young Amazon started talking, it was as though someone had opened a floodgate.

"Then I got older and bigger. I could have run away, but I wouldn't leave my mother at his mercy. I tried to protect my mother, stepping in between them when he was abusing her. A few times I punched him in his nose, but that just made him worse. He started getting even more violent, punching and kicking us. He got to the point where he was getting drunk one or two times every week and beating us each time."

Tears had started overflowing Elisa's beautiful eyes and dripping down her face. "Then one day, about two years ago, he came home, half-drunk, with a cat-o'-nine tails. He laid it on the table and told us, if we didn't learn to do as he said, he would use it on us. And I got it first."

Elisa turned her head and looked at Gabrielle then looked back at her agitated hands. Her eyes had turned very dark and her face, jaw set, held a stormy, haunted look. Gabrielle's heart ached for her.

"I had gone out of the house to a small clearing nearby and was practicing my knife-throwing. He came out, now completely drunk, and in a rage over some imagined wrong I had done. He had the 'cat' in his hand. I put my knife into its scabbard on my boot, and turned to face him. Before I could even say a word, he punched me and knocked me down, stunning me. Then he started to whip me with the 'cat.' He hit me once across my chest and I had just enough sense left to turn onto my stomach."

Gabrielle's hand came up and covered her mouth to keep from crying out. Now tears were streaming down the bard's face.

"I don't know how many times he hit me; I passed out. When I came to, I was lying in a pool of blood. I somehow managed to get up and stagger into the house." Elisa's voice turned into a grating rasp and her body started shaking, "That monster was beating my mother. With the 'cat.' I was so insane with rage that my mind went totally blank."

Gabrielle, already horrified at this tale of unbelievable torment, held her breath, knowing the outcome.

"When I came to my senses, he was lying on the floor, dead. I was kneeling beside him with my knife, dripping blood, in my hand. His body was covered with stab wounds. I must have hit him fifty times." Elisa let go of the twisted rope and dropped her head into her hands. "I had killed him." Sobs wracked her body.

Throwing caution to the winds, Gabrielle put both arms around the young Amazon and pulled her close. She had no need to worry. Elisa, starved for affection, collapsed into the bard's soothing embrace. "Shhhh," Gabrielle whispered through her own tears while patting the girl on the back, "It's all right. It wasn't your fault. You didn't know what you were doing."

The compassionate bard held the emotionally exhausted girl in her arms until, at last, she felt her relax into sleep. She gently lowered Elisa to the ground and covered her with a blanket. Well, my young friend, you want to be just like Xena, and in one of the worst ways, you already are. Neither one of you knows how to forgive yourself.

********************

When Gabrielle woke, she could smell rabbit cooking. She got up and Elisa, looking a little uneasy, handed her a mug of tea. "Thank you, Leese," she smiled broadly, unconsciously adopting Xena's nickname for the girl. "I hope you're feeling better, this morning."

Elisa let out a held breath. "Thank YOU, my Queen... I mean... Gabrielle. I do feel better. I was afraid you wouldn't like me any more after last night."

The bard reached up and grabbed the girl's shoulder, shaking it a little. "Don't worry about that. You were driven to what you did, Leese, by your stepfather's brutality. Anyone else might have done the same thing. You shouldn't let yourself feel guilty about it. You're fine with me. I hope you consider me your friend," Gabrielle assured her and was rewarded with a shy smile that rivaled the morning's sunshine.

The two young women shared the meal of rabbit then cleaned up. They spent the morning, companionably, searching through the nearby forest to find roots, plants and berries suitable to use for food. They also collected some of the herbs Xena used for medicinal purposes. Gabrielle pointed them each out to Elisa and explained their uses. The girl was a quick learner and had an eagle eye. Soon, she was spotting the items they were collecting even faster than Gabrielle saw them. Now I see why Xena took such an interest in her, the bard thought. She is quick in her actions and in her thoughts. Good combination for a warrior.

In the afternoon, Elisa cut and shaved a staff of the same length as Gabrielle's and they practiced staff movements. She's really good at this, too, I only have a slight edge. And her hits sting!

"Gabrielle, you are terrific with the staff!" Elisa remarked admiringly. "My hands are stinging!"

Hmmmm. I wonder if I sting Xena's hands and she just never mentions it? "I had to learn to get really good with the staff," Gabrielle explained. "I always work out with Xena. And if you're going to work out with Xena, you better get good!" the bard laughed. "I don't use a sword but I had to learn to defend myself. We always seemed to be running into trouble."

"Did somebody say 'trouble?'" Gabrielle's blood turned to ice as she recognized Callisto's voice. Elisa picked up on the bard's reactions right away and drew her sword. She stepped in front of her Queen.

"Well, well, well, what have we here... a junior Xena?" the blonde warlord taunted. "Xena, senior, is stuck somewhere right now, squashed under a tree, so I guess you'll have to do. What charm do you have, Gabrielle, that draws these protective warriors to you?"

Callisto drew her sword and advanced, confidently, on Elisa. She tried several forward thrusts but could not penetrate the Amazon's defenses. Stepping back, she threw herself into a flip over Elisa's head, swiping at her as she passed. Elisa had learned from Xena to watch for this action. She squatted out of reach of Callisto's sword, and, while down, thrust her leg out in a horizontal sweep and upended Callisto just as she landed next to Gabrielle. The tall Amazon jumped up and unceremoniously pulled her Queen behind her.

Callisto rolled back up into a standing position and bared her teeth. "So, Xena, junior, has a few moves, too! This should be interesting." The warlord attacked with even more vigor, thrusting, swinging, down thrusting, keeping the less experienced Elisa on the defensive. The young Amazon knew she was being beaten back but she kept leading Callisto further away from Gabrielle hoping to give the bard time to get away.

But Gabrielle was no deserter. She stood ready with her staff to repel an attack from Callisto if the warlord turned toward her. The Queen watched in horror as Elisa slipped, crashing to her back. Even as she was falling, Callisto brought her blade down toward the girl's body in a fatal blow, but the wiry and quick Amazon managed to turn as she hit the ground and lift her sword. Callisto's sword glanced off of Elisa's and caught the Amazon, hitting across and down on the top of her forehead. She stayed down, blood pouring from the flapped skin.

Intent on killing Gabrielle now that the Amazon had been disposed of, Callisto swerved around and ran, sword raised above her head, directly at the bard. Gabrielle waited until the last second then quickly crouched. She thrust her staff forward with both hands, horizontal to the ground. The blonde warlord's shins crashed against the staff and she flew over the bard's head. Callisto's agility enabled her to flip over and land on her feet. She swung around again toward Gabrielle, wearing her evil grin, "Nice try, my sweet."

This time she advanced on Gabrielle more slowly and methodically. She made several forward thrusts which Gabrielle, turning Callisto in a circle, parried; then the warlord smashed her sword hilt into the bard's face. "Let me show you what I just learned from Xena before she went down," Callisto sneered. "Oh, yes, dear bard, your precious Warrior Princess will be no help to you ever again."

No, never, she could never beat Xena, Gabrielle's heart felt as though it would burst.

Seeing the look of incredulity on the bard's face, Callisto again let loose with her half-mad laugh. "Hahahaha, you know I NEVER lie, Gabrielle."

She never has lied to me or Xena that I know of. Xena! Don't let it be true. Xena!

Callisto, tired of playing with Gabrielle, remarked, "And now back to the lessons from Xena." She faked a thrust, then smashed Gabrielle in the face again with her sword hilt. Next, in perfect mimicry of the Warrior Princess, she pirouetted around and slammed her foot alongside the bard's head, stunning her. Callisto head-butted Gabrielle, stunning her further. She then raised her weapon to slice through Gabrielle's body... and hesitated... as she heard a cry.

"EeeeeeeeYaaaaaaaaaahhh!" came from behind the blonde warlord and she jump-turned. Just as she got her body all the way around, a dagger embedded itself in her stomach and knocked her to the ground. She had caught a glimpse of her attacker and an incredulous look pasted itself on her astonished face.

A still-stunned Gabrielle, shaking her head to clear it, murmured, "That wasn't Xena's battlecry," and for a moment she was confused. Her vision quickly returning, she saw Elisa thirty feet away on all fours, her head down and her body sinking to the ground.

The bard cast a quick look at Callisto, who was conscious but not moving. Flat on her back, she had both hands wrapped around the dagger and an oddly tranquil look on her face. Kicking the warlord's sword out of her reach, Gabrielle ran to Elisa and turned her onto her back. The young Amazon was unconscious and her face and tunic were covered with blood streaming from her wound. A flap of skin from her forehead hung down over her eyes.

Gabrielle pulled the Amazon's belt off, pushed the flap of skin back where it belonged and cinched the belt tightly around her head, holding the wound closed. She managed to stop the flow of blood.

"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi."

The bard's whole face lit up as she said aloud, "Now THAT'S Xena's battlecry!" I KNEW Callisto couldn't beat her! Gabrielle ran toward the sound.

The Warrior Princess came riding into the clearing, sword in hand. Seeing nothing threatening the bard, she sheathed her sword and dismounted. She ran to meet Gabrielle and swept her off her feet in a huge one-armed hug. "You're all right, you're all right, you're all right," the warrior shouted joyously as she swung the bard around.

"Xena, stop!" Gabrielle finally got breath enough to say. "Elisa's been hit with a sword, and Callisto has a knife in her stomach."

When the bard's words finally registered, Xena quickly put her down and turned where Gabrielle pointed. She ran to Elisa and, squatting down, she examined the girl's forehead and felt for her pulse. "She's lost a lot of blood, Gabrielle, but her pulse is still pretty strong. She's a tough kid. She'll be all right, barring infection. We need to get that cut sewed up." Gabrielle noticed that her friend was getting up slowly and in all the excitement of her arrival had not seen that the warrior's arm was splinted.

"Xena, are you all right?" she asked with concern.

"Yeah," the warrior smiled down at her, "just some minor damage is all. A tree fell on me. I'll tell you about it later. Let me take a look at Callisto. Did Elisa throw that knife at her?"

"Yes, Xena, she saved my life. She really did," the bard marveled as it began to sink in. "She fought Callisto and did really well, but she slipped and that's when Callisto slashed her forehead. She went down and I guess Callisto thought she was finished because then she came after me. I fought her off for awhile, but you were right, I'm no match for her. Callisto had her sword raised, ready to kill me. But Elisa distracted her with some kind of yell and threw the dagger from where she is now. When Callisto turned around, the dagger hit her and knocked her down."

Xena had arrived alongside Callisto, who smiled weakly up at her. Xena crouched down next to the warlord and looked at the position of the dagger. "Well, Callisto, it looks like you'll finally get your wish to die," she remarked coolly. "But you sure are taking your time about it."

"Well, you know me, Xena, always doing things the hard way," the warlord joked in a tired voice.

"Callisto, you still can choose good before you pass over; it may not be too late," Xena urged her.

"Xeeena, still trying to convert me even at this late date?" the blonde woman rolled her head back and forth, laughing weakly. "Lost cause, Warrior Princess... lost cause. Ever since you burned my family at Cirra."

Xena pursed her lips and bent her head. The woman's on her deathbed and she can still hurt me.

Callisto's evil smile played around her mouth as she relished the fact that her final verbal dagger had wounded her archenemy.

She reached for Xena's long-fingered bronzed hand and squeezed it tightly. "I have only one regret, Princess," she murmured.

Xena returned the squeeze on her hand. "What's that, Callisto?" she asked in a hushed voice.

"That it was Xena, junior, who finally got to kill me and not Xena, senior," Callisto jeered in her sing-song voice. "I've always half expected that one of us would eventually kill the other one. I've had this beautiful hate-filled relationship going with you for such a long time... ever since you killed my family at Cirra," the blonde warlord sneered then grimaced with pain.

"I tried time after time to make you hurt as badly as I did. I wanted you to suffer the way I've suffered. Then I helped to kill your son and I thought I would feel something besides the searing hate, but I didn't.... I just felt... empty."

Xena's face was turned to stone but an occasional tremor moved across her lips. Her eyes had deepened to a midnight blue and, although trained on Callisto, they seemed to be looking inward to her own soul.

"But you know what I always found the strangest thing of all, Xena?" the dying warlord queried. "Even though we both had plenty of chances, I was never able to kill you and you were never able to kill me, not as a mortal, anyway," Callisto conceded. "You even felt guilty when you LET me die in the quicksand. Why do you think that was, Xena?" the blonde woman released her other hand's hold on the dagger and reached up to cup it around the side of the warrior's face. "Do you think... do you think we... maybe... CARED for each other?" Xena's cheek twitched as Callisto's hand trailed down it and slipped off to the ground. The blonde warlord mustered enough final energy to give Xena a smirk and a wink then she died.

Xena sat for a long time holding Callisto's hand, her head bowed.

Gabrielle was tending to Elisa's wound, wiping off her face and putting a blanket around the girl to keep her warm. When she finished, she looked over at the Warrior Princess, whose whole attitude seemed depressed. She walked over, crouched down beside her and put an arm around her drooping shoulders.

With her other arm she reached down and pried Xena's fingers from Callisto's cold hand and kept Xena's hand in her own warm one. "Let her go, Xena," she said softly.

"Why, Gabrielle? Why couldn't she turn away from her evil side, like I did?" the warrior agonized. "She ruined her whole life being bitter about something she couldn't change. Why couldn't she see that?"

"Because she didn't have your heart, Xena," Gabrielle answered.

The warrior turned that over in her mind for a moment. "No, Gabrielle," her husky voice finally responded, "it's because she didn't have YOUR heart, like I do."

 

Chapter 7

Xena pulled herself together and went over to check on Elisa. The young Amazon was still unconscious, but her color was already improving. "We'll have to sew her wound and get that belt off her head," Xena told the bard. Gabrielle ran to Argo and grabbed the saddlebag that held the needle and thread and other healer's necessities. She brought it back to Xena.

"Thread that for me, Gabrielle, will ya? It's a little tough with one hand." The bard removed the needle from its parchment holder and threaded it. Xena used her very fine stitches to close the wound. Then Gabrielle bound it with a cloth from her usual supply in the saddlebag.

When the bard was finished, Xena reached down and, despite her splinted arm, picked Elisa up. You'd never know she had a broken arm if it wasn't splinted. How can she just ignore pain? That's something I'll never understand, the bard marveled.

The warrior carried the young Amazon to the campfire and gently laid her down beside it on the bedroll that Gabrielle had prepared. Elisa stirred as Xena was lowering her and opened her eyes. "Xena!" Although her head was pounding, her voice registered welcome relief.

"Hi there, hero," the warrior smiled.

"What do you mean, hero?" the Amazon looked puzzled.

Gabrielle came running over when she realized Elisa had awakened. "Leese," she exclaimed, "you saved my life. You killed Callisto!"

The girl at first looked disturbed, then relieved, realizing she had, indeed, saved Gabrielle's life. "Then the knife hit her?" she questioned. "I couldn't see. My head was bleeding into my eyes and there seemed to be something else in the way. I threw it by listening for her. Like you just taught me, Xena... Use all your senses."

"You learned your lesson well," the Warrior Princess praised. "And that something else was a flap of skin. It was flopping down from your forehead right in front of your eyes. I just sewed it back up where it belongs. It's amazing you were even able to THROW your knife, let alone hit anything."

Xena squeezed the girl's shoulder gratefully. "And you protected your Queen, which will probably earn you an Amazon celebration."

"A celebration? For me?" Elisa seemed disconcerted. She started to raise up, but the pain in her head wouldn't let her so she quickly lay back down. Only a flicker of her eyelids showed that she was in pain.

Xena opened the waterbag Gabrielle had placed near Elisa's bedroll earlier, and handed it to the girl. "Drink all of this, you lost enough blood for two people," Xena grinned. She's fast and she's smart and she's tough, too. "I'll be right back." The Warrior Princess walked over to the bard who had moved away and signaled to Xena to follow her.

"She's a really brave person, Xena," Gabrielle remarked.

"Oh, you like her OK, now that she saved your life, huh?" Xena teased.

Gabrielle made a face at her friend. "We had a long talk last night and I found out a lot of her history. I'll tell you about it later, just... she had a bad time a couple of years ago. She's carrying a lot of guilt about it, just like a certain Warrior Princess I know. But also like that certain Warrior Princess, she has a good heart and is worth caring about. I think we've become friends."

Xena wrapped her good arm about the bard's shoulders and, pulling her close, kissed the top of her head. "And that certain Warrior Princess says Elisa couldn't pick a better friend than a certain bard."

Xena returned to the girl. "Now, since you're awake, let's get you cleaned up," the warrior declared. She removed the blanket, picked the Amazon up and carried her over to the stream. She sat Elisa down and joined her on the ground. "Gabrielle," Xena called, "c'mon over here and get the rest of this blood off Leese's face, will ya? I'll wash out her tunic." The Warrior Princess reached to lift Elisa's tunic over her back. "NO!" the girl shouted weakly, "leave me alone!" She wriggled around and tried to escape from Xena's hold on her, but, even with Xena's broken arm, the young Amazon was too weak to put up much resistance.

"Relax, Leese," Xena laughed. "We're all women here. No need to get upset." Xena lifted the tunic over the protesting girl's shoulders. As she did, her eyes fell on Elisa's back. It was covered with hideous scars.

"By the gods, Leese," she muttered as she heard Gabrielle's indrawn breath hiss. The Warrior Princess' face turned ugly and her voice venomous, "Who did this to you?"

Elisa started to cry silently and hung her head in embarrassment. Xena pulled her close and rocked her gently. Gabrielle handed the warrior a clean shift and Xena put it on the girl then continued to rock her back and forth.

"Her stepfather beat her with a cat-o'-nine-tails," Gabrielle explained softly.

"He better be dead or he'll wish he was," Xena growled in a guttural voice.

"He IS dead, Xena." The bard laid a hand on the warrior's arm for a moment to get her attention. She looked into the tempest brewing in her partner's eyes. "He IS dead, for two years now," she repeated and gestured with her head to Elisa.

"Well, that's a lucky thing for him. I'd have cut him into pieces and fed him to the dogs," the warrior spit the words out as though they were dirty. But Gabrielle's touch did help to calm her.

Xena stopped rocking Elisa and moved back to look into her face. "Are you OK now, Leese?" she asked tenderly.

Red-rimmed smoke-gray eyes looked back at the Warrior Princess from beneath a cloth bandage. "He was beating my mother with the 'cat' and I killed him," she said. "With one of my knives, one of the knives my own dad gave me. My dad would think I'm horrible, he would never love someone as evil as I am." Elisa's whole body started to shake.

"Leese, listen to me," Xena commanded sternly in her compelling voice. The girl was startled enough to stop shaking. Her eyes were glued to the Warrior Princess whose brilliant blue eyes bored into her. "You... are... NOT... evil! Your stepfather was the evil one. He was the one beating and scarring two women, body and soul. If you hadn't stopped him, he would have killed both you and your mother by now." Xena paused a moment to let that idea sink in.

"You were protecting your mother. She was in danger of being killed, and you knew you had to do something. You were what? 14? 15? You did the only thing you could do; you protected your mother with a knife given to you by your father. If your father hadn't given you that knife, your mother would be dead today. Don't you think your father would want you to save her? And yourself?

"You executed a beast in the middle of a crime against you and your mother. You had a right, maybe even a duty, to do it. You are NOT evil. Do you understand that?"

"Thank you, Xena," the young Amazon whispered haltingly. "It... helps... a lot... to have you... believe in me."

Gabrielle put a hand out and touched Elisa's arm. "We both believe in you, Leese," she assured the shaken girl. "And you WILL have a celebration for saving my life!" the bard promised with a big smile.

"Thank you, my Queen...Gabrielle," a small answering smile tried to form on Elisa's trembling lips.

The warrior noticed that Elisa's eyes were starting to close. "Go ahead, Leese, get some sleep. We'll take another look at that head in the morning," Xena promised and hugged Elisa close again. The young Amazon drifted to sleep, the small smile beginning to spread on her face.

Xena stood up, cradling Elisa in her arms, and walked slowly back to the bedroll. Carefully, she put the girl down on the bottom blanket and covered her with the top one. Reaching down, she gave the young Amazon's cheek a soft pat.

Then Xena went over and removed Elisa's knife from Callisto's body and walked back and handed it to Gabrielle to clean. She went back to Callisto, picked up her body and walked into the trees and down along the stream. She walked until she found a small clearing. Glancing up at the sky, she moved to a spot that would be exposed to the morning sun and laid the warlord's body flat out upon the ground.

The warrior gathered stones and piled them on top of Callisto's body until she had built a structure approximately three feet high, four feet wide and seven feet long. Then Xena knelt beside the pile of rocks, turned her body and, cradling her head with her good arm, rested it against the cold stones.

Visions of the evil but beautiful warlord passed across the screen of Xena's mind. Her sacking and pillaging of villages in Xena's name; Gabrielle hanging from a rope in the street of ladders while Xena and Callisto fought; her killing of Perdicus; her attempt to burn Gabrielle while Xena was strapped, helpless, in a chair; her sinking into the quicksand, begging Xena to save her; her inadvertent saving of the Amazons when her greed for ambrosia led her to defeat Velaska. These and other scenes tumbled through the Warrior Princess' mind and played havoc with her emotions.

How is it possible to feel affection for someone like Callisto? She was a monster. But she was right. In some strange way we did care for each other. I find myself grieving for her and I don't even know why. Do I really feel responsible for who and what she turned out to be? Because of Cirra? Maybe. Maybe I am responsible. Maybe I am partly to blame. I wish it had never happened. I wish she could have had a chance to grow up like a normal young girl.

I know Gabrielle says she made her own choices, but if it hadn't been for me those choices might have been very different. I'm sorry, Callisto, so terribly, terribly sorry that you didn't have a better chance. So terribly, terribly sorry you never changed. I always hoped you would.

At last, Xena rose to her feet, took a deep breath and sang the burial chant for her lost enemy.

She was gone a long while before she finally returned to the campsite.

"I put her body in a tiny clearing near the water and covered it with rocks. She had no family so there's no need to report its place to anyone," the warrior said to Gabrielle, her face a stone mask. But I'll never forget where it is.

Xena and the bard munched on some dried biscuits and drank some of the tea that had been brewing since noon in the campfire. Xena was even quieter than her usual self and Gabrielle, respecting her mood, kept quiet also. Elisa continued her exhausted sleep in her bedroll.

At day's end, they settled onto their bedrolls and lay there waiting for sleep to arrive.

"Why do you think I feel so bad about Callisto?" Xena asked, breaking the silence of the night.

Gabrielle's answer wafted over to her, "Maybe I'm finally getting to you. Maybe you're getting a soft heart."

There was a minute of silence, then, "Soft head would be more like it," scoffed the warrior.

"Now you're sounding more like yourself, Xena," Gabrielle chuckled.

"Xena?"

"Hmmm?"

"Would you sing something tonight?" Gabrielle loved to hear Xena sing, but persuading her to was often difficult. But Gabrielle knew, too, that sometimes when Xena was upset, singing made her feel better.

For awhile there was no answer and the bard thought perhaps the warrior had fallen asleep. Then Xena's pure, rich voice lifted softly into the evening air and blended with it.

I see her golden hair, her glowing face,
Her mist-green eyes alit with tale to tell.
She turns her head and aims a smile at me,
And I feel blest to have my Gabrielle.

My heart has doubled since she came to me;
Her destiny's to turn me from my wrath.
One-half my doubled heart belongs to her;
She's given hers to me to light my path.

Though trouble sometimes comes between our souls,
Her heart beside mine never stops its beat.
I've strayed and so has she, if truth be told,
But without hers, my heart is not complete.

Her heart's become a vital part of me,
Its beating helps me draw my ev'ry breath;
If she should ever tear her heart from mine,
There's naught would stop mine bleeding, but my death.

"Xena, that was so beautiful," the bard had a hard time getting words past the lump in her throat. "You just now made that up, didn't you?" Gabrielle asked, a soft smile creasing her face.

"Umm hmm," Xena acknowledged sleepily.

The bard just lay there for a moment gazing lovingly at her best friend's profile. Your heart is part of mine, too. Finally, she nodded her head and said deliberately, "You have many skills."

"Hey, that's my line," the dark-haired warrior chuckled as her eyes closed. "Goodnight, Gabrielle."

"Goodnight, Xena." I love you.

 

The End.

Hope you enjoyed the story.

Please send your comments to PruferBlue@aol.com.


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