This "classic" XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS story offers an alternate version of what happened at the end of "Intimate Stranger" and the beginning of "Ten Little Warlords." Many thanks to Cousin Liz for her design.
WHEN XENA WAS CALLISTO
"Noooo!" she cried, tossing on her bedroll, sweat beading her furrowed brow. "Please, not again."
"Shhhh. Itís all right." Feathery touches soothed her damp forehead. "Iím here." A warmth settled at her back. Instinctively, she rolled toward it, welcoming its embrace. She turned to get more comfortable, snuggling and twisting for the "fit" her body knew even in sleep.
"Nooo," she moaned, continuing to fidget. "Not Ö right." Suddenly she froze. Her eyes blinked open. She tilted her head back, searching the face behind her for evidence that her nightmare was over. And screamed.
"Gabrielle?" Stunned, Xena watched her horrified friend scrabble away. The warrior began reaching out, hesitating when she saw the limb stretched out in front of her -- the arm too thin and pale, the hand smaller than it should be.
"Oh," she said, closing her eyes briefly, letting the arm fall. She shook her head, giving Gabrielle a small, apologetic smile. "Sorry. Guess I havenít gotten used to this yet either."
The voice wasnít Xenaís, but Gabrielle recognized the soul behind it. The brown eyes held the same deep affection as the blue ones she wished for so fervently. The body language communicated restrained anguish unmistakably Warrior Princess. Gabrielleís breathing calmed. She studied the tangled hair, its rich mahogany now bleached to Ö. Well, everything in its time.
Xena noticed with relief the wry grin playing at Gabrielleís lips. "You okay now?" she asked softly, still not daring to make any sudden moves.
"You betcha," Gabrielle wanted to respond. "Now that I can dream again, I thought Iíd start with having my best friend in the body of the she-demon who killed my husband and vowed to make our lives Tartarus on earth." She focused instead on the posture of the woman in front of her, reminding herself that it spoke of pain even greater than her own. And of uncertainty that needed all the support she could give.
Gabrielle crawled back to her bedroll. "Not really," she answered aloud, lying down and pulling on the foreign body to join her. She snuggled into it as best she could, patting the strange arm that encircled her. "Iím accustomed to a little more meat on my pillows," she continued, feigning a yawn. "If youíre worried about me getting enough sleep, weíre gonna have to fatten you up."
She heard a small chuckle, felt a grateful squeeze, but the rapidly beating heart at her back said all she needed to know: she wasnít the only one afraid.
For once Gabrielle had risen before Xena, gingerly moving away from her sleeping companion just as day began to break. She quietly went about their morning routine ñ stoking the fire to heat tea, laying out travel rations to accompany anything Xena might catch. Another time, sheíd have felt proud of herself, but in truth her initiative wasnít entirely voluntary. She hadnít slept well, having spent most of her waking moments pretending that her skin didnít crawl.
This was their second night since Xenaís entrapment in Callistoís body. The blond witch had played on Xenaís guilt at letting her sink to her death in quicksand. With help from Ares, Callisto had entered Xenaís dreams, then switched bodies with her. Xena had managed to send her nemesisí soul back to Tartarus, but not the physical vessel that had haunted them so.
"Why now?" Gabrielle wondered to herself, glancing at the companion who normally reminded her of what was right with her world. Sheíd almost lost that before, almost thrown it away just a few weeks ago in an impetuous desire to recapture the future sheíd escaped the day a dark-haired warrior came to her rescue.
What was it sheíd sought in agreeing to settle down with Perdicus, the young man sheíd been betrothed to back home? A "normal" existence free of the bloodshed and turmoil she experienced traveling with Xena? An "adult" role as full partner to someone who professed his need for her? Someone who also reminded her of the innocence that seeped away each time she tangled with warlords, gods or misguided villagers with hate in their hearts?
Gabrielle lowered herself to the ground and idly sifted some tealeaves from a pouch into their cups. Her mind drifted some months back, to a healing temple in Thessaly where whatever potential she might have had nearly came to an end. She pictured herself lying gravely wounded from trying to save a child thought to be imperiled on a battlefield. Sheíd almost let her world go then too, except the same dark-haired warrior saved her once more. Begged ñ no, ordered ñ her not to die. Pounded her heart till it beat again, breathed air into her lungs. If ever sheíd doubted Xenaís need for her, the profound relief sheíd seen on the stoic warriorís tear-stained face promised otherwise.
Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at the cup in her hand. Was that it? Had she really been running from the realization that she already had a place, that she served a purpose greater, more complex and demanding than any sheíd ever imagined in her childish dreams? Maybe. If so, she wasnít afraid of that anymore. She drew her knees up, hugging them, as she recalled the Xena who had emerged after Thessaly. Taking care of her recuperating companion with amazing patience and tenderness. Smiling, talking, listening, playing more. Appreciating closeness, even initiating it without needing a practical reason.
Gabrielle shuddered, recognizing the gift Callisto had unwittingly enabled her to keep by murdering Perdicus the day after their marriage. Yesterday, Xena had told her to think of him, if she found herself hating the warriorís new body. Gabrielle smiled sadly at the irony. Now that she had tragic confirmation of the life she really wanted, sheíd lost the look and feel of the person she expected to come with it.
Xena lay silently, feeling Gabrielleís eyes on her and the weight of Gabrielleís thoughts. She hadnít slept well either. She was pretty sure her closeness had been the source of Gabrielleís slight shudders, rather than the comfort she intended. Sheíd felt her companion ease away at dawn, relieved herself to have some time alone with her thoughts. It was bad enough to be in Callistoís body, to have to adjust to any body other than her own. She could deal with that, though, as sheíd dealt with all the other physical challenges sheíd faced. But Gabrielle Ö.
"Why now?" Xena wondered to herself. Sheíd almost lost the young woman before. Had resigned herself to respecting Gabrielleís choices to leave, convinced anyway that maybe she would be better off not traveling with the infamous Warrior Princess. Except at Thessaly.
Xenaís fists clenched. She felt again the anguish of helplessly watching her friend writhe in the throes of death, then go still. Of her own instinctive, gut wrenching refusal to let Gabrielle go. How sheíd cried, pleaded, beaten, and breathed life back into her. Sheíd cradled Gabrielle to her breast with such joy, knowing then that they were both where they belonged.
Theyíd grown closer during Gabrielleís recuperation, so that she could no longer think of a world without the young womanís voice or touch. Until Perdicus. Until now. Callisto had inadvertently restored her world one moment, then turned it upside down the next. How could it ever be the same again, with Callisto always between them personifying everything they loathed?
Xena finally rolled her head toward Gabrielle, catching the green eyes observing her.
"Oh, hi there," Gabrielle said brightly, quickly busying herself with resuming her chores. "I Ö uh Ö thought Iíd give you a break this morning. Yesterday was kind of rough." She held Xenaís gaze, giving her a confidently playful smile. "You didnít seem quite yourself."
Xena nodded, her eyes shining gratitude. "Yeah," she confirmed, sitting up, combing her fingers through the tousled mane on her head. "Bad hair day, huh?"
"Maybe not." Gabrielle tilted her chin, a glint of mischief in her eyes. "Maybe itís your chance to see if ëirritating blondesí really do have more fun."
Xena pursed her lips and frowned in feigned concentration. "Hmmm, that does have possibilities. I can let my dark side out and not have to worry about sullying my own reputation any worse than I already have."
She rose to her feet and examined herself. "Think of all the tight situations I can get out of with this skinny frame." She ran toward Gabrielle, at the last minute leaping into a high somersault over the bardís head. "Oooo, and I can get better height now that Iím a few pounds lighter," she reported, landing a good distance away. She lifted her head, grinning devilishly, took a deep breath and threw back her head.
"Donít you dare!" Gabrielle exclaimed, hands on hips. "Gods know I donít need to hear that voice screaming ëyiyiyiyiyií to prove your point any further."
"Spoil sport." Xena ambled over to her clothing.
"So, what other trouble do you have in mind?"
Gabrielleís jaw dropped. "Shopping?!" She peered suspiciously at Xena. "Are you sure itís just your body you lost?"
Xena held up the two-piece black leather battle outfit sheíd inherited along with Callistoís body. "This ensembleís airier than I like," she stated, pointing her nose at the space between the top and bottom. "I think some new duds are in order."
"Awww," Gabrielle pouted, indicating her own midriff-baring garb. "I thought we could be like twins now." She grinned. "Weíre almost the same height. Look at how much we could save borrowing each otherís clothes."
"I donít think so. Even Callisto wouldnít wear that green thing you call a shirt."
"What?! ëGreen thing?!í" Gabrielle gasped indignantly.
Xena raised her hands defensively, laughing. "Itís so ëyou.í I simply meant nobody else could do it justice." She ran her hands down the prominent bones of her ribcage. "Certainly not Callisto."
Gabrielle snorted. "Got that right, Warrior Fashion Critic." She resumed her breakfast preparations. "Now hurry up and get over here, so we can start padding those bones."
Xena smiled at her friendís back, certain that Gabrielle was smiling too. Maybe their world was askew, but at least they were beginning to turn it right again.
The two women had spent an uneventful couple of days riding toward the port town of Duopolis. Even though theyíd been near Amphipolis, they figured it probably wasnít a good time to visit Xenaís home village. The residents had only recently forgiven the warrior for her youthful leadership of their sons against the warlord Cortes.
Then there was Callistoís capture of Xenaís kinfolk a couple days ago, which ended in Xenaís saving them, only to find herself stuck in Callistoís body. "A two-fer," Xena had sardonically referred to herself in terms of the less than fond memories sheíd probably evoke as both herself and Callisto.
Still, Xena was being cautious. A few of the travelers they passed stared at her enough that sheíd actually agreed to wear one of Gabrielleís spare outfits ñ a long dress theyíd shortened into a skirt. Gabrielle naturally found great amusement in that. Xena felt more uncomfortable than she let on ñ not so much because of the skirt, but because of her new face.
Sheíd long ago become accustomed to accepting the hostility often directed at the Warrior Princess. After all, sheíd earned it, regardless of her efforts to make up for her past. The weight of her own guilt was such that she hadnít thought much about wearing Callistoís leathers, of the possibility that she could be mistaken for her nemesis. But sheíd found herself surprisingly disturbed by the hatred in the eyes of those who seemed to recognize her new likeness to the blond woman who had terrorized the countryside so.
"A dinar for your thoughts?"
Xena felt the arm at her waist tighten. She glanced up the road they were traveling, noting how much ground Argo had covered since sheíd last paid attention. She looked over her shoulder.
Gabrielle pressed closer into the warriorís back. "I used to be able to tell your moods better, but thatís a little harder now."
"Oh?" Xena continued looking back. "Something wrong?"
"Thatís it ñ Iím not sure." Gabrielle leaned away and began poking Xenaís back.
"Hey! Whatíre you doing?"
"This body isnít giving me much to go on," Gabrielle replied, prodding and grinning. "Even your leathers used to give me hints."
"Gabrielllle," Xena drawled, snorting and turning to focus ahead.
"No, really. I could tell a lot from the sweat, the wrinkles, even how they squeaked. Now, Iím drawing a blank."
"Wish Iíd known that when I was wasting my time on sensitive chats."
"Heh. Like we had those more than once every six moons."
Xena surveyed the stretch ahead, which would take them through a forest. Frowning slightly, she kneed Argo into a faster pace.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, glancing around.
"Nothing I can put my finger on," Xena said. "Iíd feel better if we could make it to a secluded spot before it gets too dark."
Gabrielle took another look over her shoulder. "So thereís no immediate danger youíre aware of, right?"
"Then we can resume our conversation, right?"
"Ri--. What conversation?"
"The one we werenít having about your current mood."
"Fine." Gabrielle picked at the fabric covering Xenaís shoulder. "Who knows? Maybe youíve been wearing this long enough now that itíll tell me something."
Xena sighed. "No, itís like you said. These clothes donít say much of anything."
"What?" Gabrielle leaned forward to peer up at her companion. "Are you saying youíre disappointed?"
Xena sighed again. "Iím not used to hiding who I am, Gabrielle. It feels Ö odd ñ your dress disguising Callisto, Callisto disguising me ñ sort of like being doubly deceptive."
"Xena, youíre trying not to be mistaken for who you arenít." Gabrielle patted Xenaís midriff, silently wishing for the solidity of the warriorís usually muscular frame. "Donít make too much of this, okay? At least this time youíre not having to pass yourself off as Autolycusí concubine."
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, youíve got a point." She patted Gabrielleís arm. "Thanks. Iíll try to lighten up a little, being your twin and all." Secretly she wondered if maybe the person she was really afraid of deceiving was herself.
"How about this?" Gabrielle pushed a roll of brown leather under the dressing room curtain. She gathered the pile of pre-made dresses, skirts and blouses outside, topping it with bolts of colorful fabrics that Xena had also rejected. She carried them over to the scowling vendor with an apologetic smile, then returned to the dressing booth. "Well?"
Xena was examining the hide, suspecting that for once Gabrielle was more tired of shopping than she. "Itís okay. How long did he say it would take to make me an outfit from this?"
Gabrielle glanced at the vendor. "Um, well, weíre up to over a week now. If we donít make up our minds soon, we might have even more people ahead of us."
"Oh?" Xena stuck her head out and examined the patrons hovering nearby. The crowd around this merchantís stall seemed especially large ñ and nosey. Several pairs of eyes averted at her gaze. She beckoned for Gabrielle to join her in the dressing booth.
"Yes, I noticed too," Gabrielle said, once inside. "Do you get the feeling weíre being watched?"
Xena was rummaging around in her carry bag. "I had that feeling before we got here."
"It could be because weíre so cute," Gabrielle offered.
"Riiiight." Xena pulled out the leathers sheíd hoped to replace. "You know, I saw a black blouse with long sleeves, when we first got to the market. I could wear something like that with Callistoís leathers. Itíll cut down on the draft," she added, smiling, "and give a slightly different ëlook.í"
"Xena?" Gabrielle took hold of the warriorís arm. "Only a few people other than your kinfolk may know Callistoís really dead. Iím starting to get a little worried about that."
"I know," Xena answered, patting Gabrielleís hand. "But I suspect it may be too late to do anything about that right now. If weíre gonna run into trouble, I might as well look like trouble." She stepped into the thigh-length studded battle skirt. "And be able to move like trouble."
Gabrielle sighed, still uncertain. "Well Ö okay. Iíll check the front market stalls, see if I can find the shirt you saw. You stay in here until I come back, okay?"
Xena started to object, but Gabrielleís expression stopped her. "Yes, Mom," she teased. "Iíll try not to get any candy on myself while Iím waiting."
Gabrielle stuck out her tongue in response, then left. She casually wove her way through the crowd, in truth unsettled by all the furtive glances her way. Quickly she scanned the booths theyíd passed when they first entered the market area, relieved to finally see the shirt she sought. "Arghhh, too big. Weíll have to alter it," she grumbled. Anxious to get back to Xena, she didnít bother haggling with merchant or searching for a better alternative. Still, it had taken her longer than sheíd expected.
"Xena? I think I found Ö." Gabrielleís voice trailed off as she entered the dressing booth and discovered it vacant. She looked around outside, praying Xena was playing a prank on her. The patrons seemed to have thinned out, but she didnít see the tall, dark-haired figure that usually stood out anyway. "Oh," she said, remembering that wouldnít help this time. "Calm down," she told herself. "Itís still Xena weíre talking about."
She walked over to the vendor sheíd been dealing with earlier. "Did you see where my friend went?"
The man busied himself with straightening his merchandise. "Sorry, canít help you," he mumbled, continuing with his work.
Gabrielle stared at him. "Canít help or wonít?"
He glanced up. "Hey, I come here to do business. All you and your friend did was pick over stuff. Maybe she wandered off to sightsee somewhere else."
Gabrielle steeled herself. She reached into her bag and brought out a few dinars. "Here," she said, thrusting the money at him. "Perhaps this will jog your memory?"
The man gazed longingly at the coins, then glanced around at the few patrons milling nearby. A couple of them stared pointedly back at him.
"No, I said I didnít see anything," he declared, resuming his straightening. Lowering his voice, he added, "And Iíll bet nobody else did either."
Her head felt like a contingent of mounted soldiers was riding across it. Hard, fast. She wondered if opening her eyes meant seeing her entrails strung out in the dirt, her limbs flattened and squished into the ground. She tried wriggling her fingers. They seemed all right. Her toes too. But everything else felt like theyíd been trampled by those horses. In fact, she could still hear the hooves.
"Hey, sheís coming to."
Coming to? Coming to where? She was fairly certain she couldnít budge, let alone go anywhere. She felt a jolt, like sheíd run over a bump or something. Maybe "dragged" was more accurate, as she did appear to be traveling somehow. Something hard poked her in the side, rolling her onto her back. She groaned. Well, that was another way to get from point A to B, though not her preference.
Another poke, this time in her shoulder. Idiot! She was starting to get annoyed. Didnít whoever it was realize she hurt too much to do anything but lie absolutely still? Something inside told her to growl. She did and heard the idiot gasp. She smiled. That would teach whoever it was to leave her alone.
"Leave her be!" Another voice, female, muffled and further away. "You know how dangerous she is. Itís just as well she stay out until we lock her up. Weíre almost there."
"Aw, she ainít up to hurtiní nobody now. All bark and no bite." The sound of wood creaking. "Iíll be back. Donít go anywhere."
She wouldíve liked to prove the idiot wrong ñ at least be able to lift her eyelids or breathe without fearing the pain would send her back into darkness. Then again, maybe that wouldnít be so bad. Wherever she was "coming to" obviously wasnít Elysia. If she could wait long enough Ö until Ö. Well, there was something worth biding her time. She couldnít remember what it was exactly, but she knew it was out there. Somewhere. Sheíd just relax a little while longer, rest her pounding brain. Give the idiot another chance to wake her. She smiled again. Maybe this time sheíd surprise him with a big hug.
The market covered a large area on the outskirts of Duopolis. Given its proximity to the wharf, it offered a wide variety of goods produced locally and shipped from elsewhere. Even veteran shoppers could spend hours sampling and comparing prices with similar wares in other stalls. Only the sunís height overhead had convinced some patrons to break for mid-day sustenance, which had thinned the crowds to where you could walk between booths with relative ease.
Gabrielle used this opportunity to wind her way up and down every aisle, searching for the one thing the market apparently didnít have. She was getting close to frantic, close to not worrying about what her nervous behavior might suggest to any spies. Sheíd inspected the dressing booth from top to bottom. Nothing inside or out ñ no bits of cloth, drops of blood, scuff or drag marks ñ hinted at foul play. If not for the suspicious behavior of the few folks who loitered nearby, she wouldnít have been so concerned.
"Hey! Give that back! Itís mine!"
Gabrielleís eyes tracked toward a cleared area where some children were playing. A little girl kept jumping up, trying to snatch something away from an older boy who held it above her head.
"Not any more," the boy taunted, backing away, still dangling the object out of reach.
"Is too." The girl lunged, this time tackling the boy. They landed in a heap on the ground. Despite her smaller size, she managed to pin her opponent long enough to grab her prize. "Na na na na na," she sang, jumping up and retreating.
"Oh, youíre gonna pay for that," he warned, getting to his feet. He walked menacingly toward the girl. She turned and ran smack into Gabrielle.
"Oof." Gabrielle caught the girl. "My, youíre a dangerous little thing," she said to the struggling body in her grasp. "Hold on there. I wonít hurt you."
The girl twisted around to see what the boy was up to. "Donít let him take it. Itís mine!"
Gabrielle held her hand up before the boy. He stopped and shrugged his shoulders.
"Aww, she can have it, for all I care. I was just playiní with her." He started away. "Youíd better get rid of it, if you know whatís good for you," he threw over his shoulder at the girl. He started running. "Or, Iím gon-na te-ell."
"So." Gabrielle grasped the girlís shoulders and gently turned her. "What was that all about?"
Suddenly shy, the girl dropped her head. "Nothiní," she answered softly, putting her hand behind her back.
"Iím Gabrielle. Whatís your name?"
"Well, Sophie, you put up a pretty good fight for ënothiní.í Can I see?"
Sophie peered up, her large brown eyes searching Gabrielleís face, then traveling down Gabrielleís body. She looked up again. "You a warrior too?"
Gabrielle stiffened. "What?"
Sophie pointed to Gabrielleís bare midriff. "Youíre dressed kind of like the other lady. She said she was a warrior."
Gabrielleís breath caught. "Other lady? Sophie, where did you see ñ"
"Sophie!" A large man came barreling towards them. "Get over here!"
"Sophie," Gabrielle whispered urgently, "I think that lady is my friend. I need to know what happened to ñ"
Sophie wriggled away. "Thatís my daddy. Heíll be mad at me." She turned to face the man, but opened the hand she had hidden behind her back. "Iím coming," she called, skipping off after she felt a touch on her palm.
Gabrielle watched Sophie sidle up to the man. He scowled at Gabrielle before
nudging the girl in the opposite direction. She raised her hand and stared at the gift Sophie had offered her. It was one of the leather pieces that layered Callistoís battle skirt.
"Ohhhh." What in Tartarus were they putting in ale nowadays? She tried to reach up and grab her head, but couldnít. "What the Ö?" She recalled something about being trampled by horses. And some idiot who tried to wake her with a cattle prod. Ah. The "come to" place? Maybe it was time she had a look-see.
She cracked open an eye. "Hmmm, not too bad." A gingerly roll of her head and she could tell she was in some kind of cell. Lying on her back on a cot. Something wrapped around her body, pinning her arms to her sides and her legs together. She tried to raise her head. "Ohhhh, bad idea," she gasped, as her eyes slammed shut again. Concussion. Great.
Not particularly encouraged to do anything too physical, she concentrated on a mental review of her situation. That proved a bit of a challenge also, as her brain seemed clogged with cotton. Okay, sheíd just have to work backwards. She mustíve had some kind of fight and gotten whacked on the noggin. Sheíd been carted to a cell and bound, obviously deemed a fight or flight risk.
Thirsty. She opened her eyes and turned her head, locating a bucket not far from the foot of the cot. Water? At least that would suggest sheíd be kept alive for awhile. "Kept alive for what, is the question," she muttered to herself.
As if in answer, she heard footsteps approaching. She focused on the cell door.
"About time you woke up." He was tall and thin, sounded like the idiot from before.
"Water?" she croaked out. "Or are you afraid Iíll bite."
He hesitated a moment, then inserted a key in the lock. "Naw, I fixed that." He swung the door open and came inside. "The others didnít think you needed tying up, but I know better." He went over to the bucket. "If you even look at me funny ñ or do that growling again ñ you get nothiní, got it?"
She studied him long enough to establish that she wasnít the only pitiful creature in the room. "I got it."
He brought the bucket over and ladled out some water. He lifted her head so she could drink, though most of the liquid went everywhere but her mouth. She didnít mind. The warm wetness felt good on her parched throat, made her feel a little more human. She nodded her head when sheíd taken in enough.
He carried the bucket back over near the wall. He started for the door, then turned, his face clouding. "I could kill you all tied up like that and not feel bad. Itíd be more than you gave my brotherís boy."
She stared at him, her brows furrowing.
"You donít remember, do you? Just one more piece of dirt on your road to victory." He spat on the floor. "He was only six. His daddy almost avenged him, but she said you should have a trial. Xena. Supposedly turned do-gooder, but didnít do us any good."
"I Ö I do remember something," she murmured, though it was still blurry.
"Good," he said, opening the door, then locking it behind him. "Lucky for you, weíre decent people. But you wonít get away this time. Youíll get whatís coming to you."
More "coming to." But where? Why? What was familiar in the idiotís words? Her forehead creased as images flashed through her mind ñ images of death and destruction, of blood on her hands. Of children in danger and vicious battles between warriors Ö. She forced her head up and peered down her bodyÖ. Warriors dressed like her.
She eased her head down. A somberness settled over her. What if the idiot was right? When her mind cleared and she did finally "come to," would she discover she deserved whatever was coming to her?
Gabrielle hoped the scarf sheíd bought would provide a reasonable disguise, though she didnít think sheíd be noticed anyway among those pushing their way toward what seemed to be a meeting hall.
Sheíd gone in the same direction as Sophie and her father, whoíd joined some others in a large food tent. Sheíd found a table some distance away. She couldnít hear much, just snatches of a heated discussion with lots of "Yes, we can" and "No, we canít." Finally a bell rang, and everyone had headed to the meeting hall.
It took awhile to achieve some semblance of order inside. Sophieís father stood with a clump of people near the front. Other clumps had positions elsewhere, and each seemed to have a different point of view.
"This has nothing to do with us!" a man in the back yelled at Sophieís group.
"Weíre not used to this kind of thing," said a woman standing with people on the left side of the room.
"We took months bringing our goods here." Merchants lining the right side nodded their agreement. "Youíll ruin us if you go ahead with this."
Some townsfolk and military types seated themselves at a long table on a raised platform at the front. After much whispering among themselves, one of the military types unsheathed his sword and pounded its hilt on the table. When people eventually quieted, he resheathed the sword and nodded to a gray-haired gentleman seated beside him.
The gray-haired gentleman didnít appear all that pleased to be in charge. He scowled at the assemblage, then cleared his throat. "All right, let the meeting come to order. Those of you from Duopolis know me. As for the rest of you, Iím Genaed, the Chief Councilor. I will preside unless and until we figure out someone better to lead discussion of what to do about this mess."
Those still standing grumbled a few more minutes before finding seats for themselves on the rows of benches. They looked suspiciously but attentively at Genaed.
"This is Duopolisí most prosperous market season," Genaed began. "As you know, we welcome visitors for their trade with us. Usually we donít have major problems ñ maybe a few drunks, some petty thieves, a wife or two beating their husbands for flirting too much." Almost everyone except Sophieís group chuckled.
"Weíre not set up for much more than that," Genaed continued. He glanced at the man next to him. "Fortunately, there are usually soldiers and sailors passing through who can lend some muscle if we need it. Unfortunately, theyíre not very suited to running a court."
Sophieís father heaved himself up. "We donít need you for that. We have our own court."
"Thatís right," added a tall, thin man on the same bench. "We have the judges and witnesses right here."
"All weíre asking is the use of your facilities." Sophieís father turned to his colleagues. "And the materials to build a gallows." His comments were met with shouts and raised fists.
Genaed waited for quiet. "Perhaps you should introduce yourselves to everyone," he said dryly, "since you seem intent on spilling a little blood with us."
Sophieís father stuck out his chest. "I am Tallus, mayor of Lycenae. The prisoner wreaked havoc on our village."
"And Iím Caleb," said the tall, thin man. "I lost a young nephew to that beast. She was brought to justice, but escaped. The gods saw fit to drop this chance in our laps to set that right."
Genaed conferred with the other councilors, many of whom nodded their heads as they exchanged opinions. He turned back to the gathering.
"We have some knowledge of the prisonerís reputation. We understand your desire for justice. However, we cannot allow Duopolisí own reputation to be sullied by a lynch mob." Genaed put a cautioning hand up as Tallusí group began grumbling again.
"Iím sorry, but I have our townís commerce to think of. People come here because they know we run things fairly, that we try to hear all sides of disputes. We canít have visitors snatched up and hung just because you come here and say itís all right. And none of us here seems inclined or knowledgeable enough to offer the accused a proper defense."
"Defense?!" Caleb clenched his fists in outrage. "There ainít no defense for what she did!"
"Look, weíve been more than accommodating," Genaed said reasonably. "But without a proper hearing, things are bound to get out of hand."
Everyone turned at the soft voice. Genaed leaned forward, squinting at a small woman standing in back. "Now what do you want? I hope itís to take my place up here."
"No," the woman answered, smiling a little at his humor. "Who is this prisoner everyoneís talking about?"
Before anyone could answer, Tallus pointed at her. "I know you! Youíre the one who was with her!"
"With whom?" she asked.
"That monster! Callisto!"
"My name is Gabrielle," the woman said, removing her scarf. "Callisto killed my husband. She tried to destroy my best friend and everything dear to her ñ her horse, her home village, me."
"You lie! We saw you talking and laughing with her. Maybe she has some hold over you; otherwise you couldnít be with her if sheíd done what you say."
"Quiet, Caleb! Let her speak." Genaed regarded Gabrielle curiously, obviously weighing her words. "Just what is your relationship to the accused?"
Gabrielle looked back at him with compelling sadness and sincerity. "Thatís kind of complicated," she responded softly. "But if youíre going to try her, I guess Iím what she needs most right now ñ an advocate."
Footsteps ñ one set lighter, sure Ö familiar. She kept her eyes closed, letting her other senses take over, hoping her brain would catch up by the time she needed to figure out what it all meant.
"Sheís in there." The idiot again. "Leave the staff and bag out here. Got any weapons on you?"
A soft "no," also familiar.
"Youíd better not." The door was unlocked, opened, closed, locked again. "Iíll be sitting out here, watching. Any friend of Callistoís ainít to be trusted."
At last, a name. Callisto.
"She looks hurt." The soft voice again. "Please, could you hand me the herb pouch and some rags from my bag?"
"I said Iíd watch her, not be her nurse maid." Silence, then, "Here."
The familiar footsteps came closer. A caress and gentle breath against her face. A heartfelt, softly murmured, "Oh, Xena."
Xena?! The no-good do-gooder?
"Itís me, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle? More images, pleasant ones this time.
"Open your eyes. I know youíre awake."
Ah, couldnít fool this one. Her gut said maybe "Gabrielle" was what sheíd been waiting for. She opened her eyes. And smiled.
Gabrielle kissed her forehead. "You had me so worried."
"I Ö." She swallowed, trying to moisten her throat.
"Wait. Let me get you some water." Gabrielle retrieved the bucket and carefully ladled water into the waiting mouth.
"I Ö know you."
Gabrielle inhaled sharply.
"I Ö Iím Ö. My head is all jumbled up. Concussion, I think. Things are a bit Ö hazy."
"Do you know who you are?"
She snorted softly. "Iíve narrowed it to two choices ñ ëCallistoí or ëXena.í" She tilted her chin toward the man watching them. "According to him, neither is a good one."
Gabrielle puckered her lips. "You know, thereís complicated and then thereís complicated, so Iím going to make this as simple as I can. One of those choices is the bravest, most honorable and wonderful woman in the world. And Iím looking at Ö. Um, sheís right here in front Ö." Gabrielle sighed. "Like I said, itís complicated. Youíre her and ñ you gotta trust me on this ñ itís ëXena.í"
Caleb strained to hear the two women. He wasnít sure what he expected, but it wasnít this. Everything about Gabrielle seemed genuine ñ her friendliness, her decency and, most surprising, her regard for that monster Callisto. He couldnít understand how someone like Gabrielle could take up for such a woman.
Callisto was obviously still dazed, so he could understand why she wasnít acting crazy yet. Gabrielle didnít seem afraid, though. She was touching and talking to Callisto like they actually cared about each other. He shook his head. Theyíd thought Callisto must have some hold over Gabrielle. Now he wondered if maybe it was the other way around.
"Hey!" he shouted, suddenly realizing something in the cell was amiss. He walked over to the bars. "What díya think youíre doing?!"
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at him. "Untying her."
"Wh- wh-," he sputtered. "Are you mad? You canít do that!"
"Sure I can," Gabrielle disagreed pleasantly, continuing her work. "These knots arenít very secure. Sheíd have gotten out of them anyway, soon as she felt better." Xena was now free enough to try assisting. "Keep still until I can check you out," Gabrielle commanded, swatting the warriorís hands away.
Caleb shifted indecisively from one foot to the other, not sure if he should stay where he was or run for help. "Weíll leave you in there to rot with her," he threatened.
"Fine with me." Gabrielle began her examination of Xenaís injuries. She looked over at Caleb long enough to add, "If thatís the case, youíd better hope this cell is big enough for Genaedís court proceedings."
"This is outrageous!" Caleb banged his fist on the bars. "Youíll be staying in there, all right ñ at least until I get this straightened out." He huffed and walked away.
"Idiot," Xena muttered.
"Calebís not so bad. He has good reason to be angry."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels. She spread her arms out to indicate the length of Xenaís body. "Xena, youíre covered in cuts and bruises. Your head has a knot the size of a pomegranate. A couple of your ribs may be cracked." She dipped a cloth into the bucket. "I couldnít have been gone for much more than half an hour. What on earth did you get yourself in to after I left?"
Xena winced as Gabrielle cleaned a cut over her eye. "Except for flashes here and there, my first real memory is of being in some kind of wagon and then here."
Gabrielle paused in her ministrations. "You still donít remember much from the past either?"
"Iíve seen battles." Xena closed her eyes. "Iíve seen a sword in my hand, people running from me in fear." She opened her eyes, reached up and brushed Gabrielleís hand. "Iíve seen you," she added softly. "Iím not sure what order they belong in or how long ago, but the pictures with you in them make me believe Iím the person you say I am."
"Gods, Xena." Gabrielle grasped the warriorís hand. "Do you know who Callisto is?"
"Not really. Except sheís somebody I probably donít want to know."
"In the memory flashes, do you see a thin, blond, female warrior, dressed in black leathers like the ones youíre wearing?"
"Yeah. I think we fought."
Xena considered this. "So Ö weíre related? Alike in some way? Is that why Caleb and the others think Iím her?"
"Xena, do you see images ñ like reflections in a mirror ñ of a tall warrior with long dark hair and blue eyes, dressed in brown leathers, throwing a circular weapon?"
Gabrielle grinned, encouraged. "Yes, a chakram."
"Yeah, I do. Me?"
"Yes, thatís you." Gabrielle gently squeezed, then let go of Xenaís hand. "Here," she said, helping the warrior ease into a sitting position. "Lean against the wall for a moment." She got the bucket and held it up in front of Xena.
Xena grasped the bucket. She couldnít tell much from the watery outlines or the dull metal outside, but she easily saw which of her two candidates she resembled more. She let Gabrielle take the bucket, then pulled some strands of hair around for inspection. She looked at Gabrielle, puzzled. "How?"
Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "You know, the last time things with us werenít complicated is the day I prayed for a miracle and you appeared out of nowhere to save my life. Let me finish tending your wounds, okay? Then weíll get comfortable and Iíll tell you the unbelievable story of how Xena the Warrior Princess became a ëtwo-fer.í"
It took a lot to discourage Gabrielle, but she had to admit she felt at her witsí end. Caleb hadnít delivered on his threat to keep her locked up with Xena, much to her disappointment. Sheíd spent the evening at the local inn, where she now stared forlornly at the meal sheíd been picking at since noon.
Xena hadnít been much help in Gabrielleís attempts to piece together what had happened to her friend. Caleb and the others whoíd brought Xena to the jailhouse refused to say anything more than, "She deserved what she got and whatís coming to her." Gabrielle saw one option left ñ to throw herself on the mercy of the Chief Councilor. He seemed an intelligent, reasonable man.
She trudged over to Genaedís office in the meeting hall, hoping she could make him understand why the apparently clear-cut case against the accused was more Ö complicated Ö than that. When he asked her what defense she could possibly make, she figured sheíd start with the truth ñ that they had the wrong woman. He politely pointed out that several people were prepared to swear otherwise.
"The whole truth?" Gabrielle sighed. She placed her hands on Genaedís desk and folded them together. "Callistoís dead. Ares helped her switch bodies with my friend. Callistoís soul got sent back to Tartarus, but not her body. The prisoner is Callisto on the outside, but the person inside is someone else."
"You disappoint me," the Chief Counselor responded after a few moments scowling at Gabrielle. "You struck me as sincere, which is why I agreed to this trial with you as Callistoís advocate. I donít like being played for a fool."
"Sir, if thatís what I thought to do, why would I tell you a story that even the biggest fool on earth would laugh at?"
Genaed continued to study her. "That is puzzling. You tell me."
Gabrielle held his gaze. "Because I didnít think you a fool."
They regarded each other in silence.
"Even so, thatís still not the whole truth, is it?"
Gabrielle looked down at her hands.
"Why, of all the people in Greece, did Callisto choose your friend?"
Gabrielle looked up with pain that once more gave Genaed confidence in her word.
"Because they werenít so different once. Because my friend is also an accomplished warrior. Because Callisto blamed my friend for everything bad that happened to her and wanted to take revenge in the most intimate of ways."
"I see." Genaed leaned back in his chair. "I take it I might have heard of your friend?"
Gabrielle nodded and took a deep breath. "Xena."
"Xena?!" His eyes widened in surprise. "The Warrior Princess Xena?"
Gabrielle nodded again.
"Yes," he murmured thoughtfully, "that would make sense. Someone physically superior and already skilled. Someone equally feared, capable of commanding brutal armies. Whose motivation or deeds no one would question."
"Someone too few know or believe is trying to make up for her past," Gabrielle said earnestly, leaning forward. "Who may seem like Callisto, but is determined to use her sword for good."
"Yet is far from innocent, even if she isnít Callisto."
Gabrielleís jaws clenched, but she accepted this truth in silence.
Genaed crooked his head, measuring the character of this young woman who sought to defend two warlords in one.
"The Lycenaeans blame Xena for allowing Callisto to get away before," he noted. "It wouldnít be unreasonable for them to suspect trickery or collusion in what you claim."
Gabrielle slumped in her chair. "I was right. Youíre no fool. You understand now why I hesitated to tell the whole truth."
"Yes," he agreed with a sigh. "You were right about something else. This could be more complicated than I thought."
"Howíd it go?"
"Not as well as Iíd hoped." Gabrielle sat on the end of Xenaís cot. "Howíre you feeling?"
Xena gingerly twisted her upper torso and rocked her head back and forth. "Better. Only a half-dozen horses kicking me now. This body doesnít heal as fast as I recall." She chuckled. "But if youíre wondering whether Iím up to breaking out of here, the answerís ëyes.í"
Gabrielle didnít laugh. "Would you?" she asked seriously. "If we canít convince them theyíve made a mistake?"
"That bad, huh?" Xena pulled her legs up on the cot and leaned back against the wall. "The body-switch story is pretty lame," she joked, "even if itís told by the best bard in the land."
Gabrielle looked down. "I Ö um Ö. The only person I told was Genaed. He seemed our best shot at listening."
"Ah." Xena nodded her head knowingly. "And when you revealed who I really am, I bet he didnít see where it made much difference anyway."
"Xena?" Gabrielle turned to sit cross-legged on the cot facing the warrior. "I know you feel guilty about not being brought to justice for things youíve done. You almost let yourself get executed once before for something you didnít do. Promise me you wonít do that again ñ try to pay for your own crimes by accepting blame for someone elseís."
Xena stared out at the cell door a moment before answering. "I promise," she said softly. "I remember telling Callisto as much in the Underworld." She brought her knees to her chest and stared out again.
"I donít like this any more than you do. The truth is, my own guilt got us here. My guilt in creating someone so twisted and determined in wanting me to pay for her crimes. My guilt in letting her die without all the chances Iíve had to become someone different. Iím not sure what Iíll do," she acknowledged, her eyes now on Gabrielle. "I just know that this isnít quite the same as what I promised."
Gabrielle leaned back, disturbed by Xenaís admission, but understanding that arguing wouldnít help much right then. "Letís see what we can do with what weíve got," she finally said, leading the subject in a new direction. "Do you remember anything more about what happened?"
Xena relaxed, giving her companion a grateful smile. She closed her eyes and mentally reviewed the pieces sheíd assembled. "Iím pretty clear now about the past, about coming to the market."
"When I left you, you were putting on Callistoís battle skirt. I thought youíd wait for me to bring a new shirt, but for some reason you mustíve put her whole outfit on."
Xena looked down at herself. "Yes Ö. I Ö I needed to finish dressing."
Gabrielle perked up. "Can you recall why? Did you feel threatened? Did someone call you?"
"I Ö." Xena put her head in her hands, thinking. "I keep seeing a little red ball. I thought it had to do with what Caleb said ñ about me hurting his brotherís son. Except Ö." She paused, frowning.
"My picture is of a little girl."
"A little girl?" Gabrielle leaned forward and put her hand on Xenaís arm. "With big brown eyes? Short, curly brown hair?"
"Yes," Xena said in surprise. "About this high," she added, indicating the girlís size. "A Ö yellow blouse, I think. Is that good?"
"Oh, yes!" Gabrielle exclaimed, squeezing Xenaís arm. "I think itís Sophie." She hopped off the cot and began rummaging in her bag. She retrieved something and came over to put it in Xenaís hand.
Xena stared at the bit of black leather. "Isnít this Ö?" She held it against her skirt, which she examined until she found a small gap in the columns of leather pieces. "How did Ö? Where Ö?"
"Sophie gave it to me. It seems she met a ëwarrior lady.í I was hoping you could supply the how and where."
Xena continued studying the bit as though it were a crystal ball into her recent past. "Arghhh!" she groaned, closing her fingers around the leather piece and hitting the cot with her fist. "I canít Ö. I donít remember!"
"Hey, itís okay," Gabrielle soothed. "Weíre making progress."
"You call pulling teeth ëprogressí?"
"Absolutely," Gabrielle chuckled. "What about the red ball? Are you inside or outside the dressing booth when you first see it?"
Xena squeezed her eyes shut, visualizing. "Inside. I think."
"Excellent! Maybe thatís what drew you outside?"
"I suppose Ö." Xena sighed in frustration. "Itís all so foggy!" Absentmindedly, she wiped some sweat off her brow and pressed down on the top of her head.
"Letís take a break," Gabrielle suggested. "Youíre still recuperating, you know."
"Yeah," Xena agreed, leaning her head wearily against the wall. "If I ever get my old body back, shoot me if I complain about it. I can see why it was so easy to rattle Callistoís brains."
Gabrielle laughed. "Iíve had plenty more proof than this that you take first prize for the hardest head in the known world." Ignoring Xenaís glare, Gabrielle pushed the warrior back horizontal on the cot. "Donít argue," she commanded, halting the expected complaint. "So far youíve avoided a bad fever. Callistoís body may be slower, but itís mending. Letís keep it that way."
Xena grumbled, but mostly for show. She was feeling warm, and her headache was shooting quite a few stars anyway. "Fine. Iíll take a nap, if you insist." She settled irritably into a comfortable position. "And whatíll you be doing while Iím lying here on my deathbed?"
"Getting your last supper," Gabrielle teased, pulling a thin blanket up around her friend. "And seeing what other morsels I can scrounge up for your defense."
Gabrielle had a few hours before sunset and Xenaís dinner. Genaed had sent word that they would begin the trial at midday tomorrow. Sophieís father Tallus would lead the case against the accused. The judges would be comprised of the local council, though Genaed warned that many of them knew of a certain female warlord. Gabrielle assumed the wording of his message meant that he had not disclosed to others her revelations about Xena and the body switching. She supposed this was his way of giving her the freedom to reveal information as she deemed best.
Frankly, she didnít know what would be "best." Her main goal at the moment was to find our more about Sophie. She couldnít know what help the girl might be, but there must be some reason Tallus didnít want her talking to Sophie. She wondered if Tallus had been following them or just happened to be in Duopolis.
Gabrielle decided to start at the inn. She learned that none of Tallusí group was staying there. The proprietor suggested that maybe they were merchants, many of whom set up camp outside the market. She took another extended tour of the market, this time searching for faces sheíd seen at the meeting hall. Sure enough, she did recognize several vendors with stalls near the dressing room from which Xena had disappeared. She figured she might as well approach a few.
"Hello," she said to a woman selling pottery.
The woman started to answer, then glowered. "Youíre that witchís friend."
"You must have me mistaken for someone else. My nameís not ëThat Witchís Friend.í Itís Gabrielle."
"Very funny. Weíll see if youíre laughing when we chop off her head."
Gabrielle picked up one of the vendorís bowls. "Oh, this is exquisite," she crowed in genuine admiration. "No wonder you came to a port town like Duopolis to display these."
The woman blinked, obviously not expecting that response. "I only sell in the bigger markets. I outgrew villages a long time ago." She took the bowl from Gabrielle. "I know I have talent, which is why I donít like wasting it on people who arenít buying."
Gabrielle smiled sweetly. "I know just what you mean." She fished in her money pouch for some coins. "How much for that bowl?"
"What?" the woman said, flustered. "You want this?"
"I didnít come here to pass the time. Two dinars?"
The woman stared at her a moment. "Four."
"Ooo." Gabrielle cringed. "Even in Athens Iíve never paid that much." She looked at the bowl. "It is beautiful though, so I would consider three."
"Three then," the woman agreed, not quite managing to hide her glee. "You want this wrapped?"
"Yes, please." Gabrielle scanned some nearby stalls, noting the puzzled frowns she was receiving. "Itís getting late. I only have time for merchandise thatís up to this quality. Is there anyone else youíd recommend?"
The woman looked up from her wrapping. "All of us from Lycenae only sell the best." She pointed to several of the frowning vendors, including the one from whom they failed to buy any of the clothing he'd brought out.
Gabrielle tilted her head his way. "Iím surprised he even catered to us the other day."
The woman glanced at the merchant. "Why? He likes money, same as the rest of us." She handed Gabrielle the wrapped bowl.
"Well, considering how you all feel about Callisto." Gabrielle nonchalantly put the bowl in her carry bag.
"We werenít sure it was her at first."
Gabrielle suppressed her surprise. "I suppose itís hard to recall what someone looks like when theyíre bearing down on you, swinging a sword."
"I wouldnít know about that," the woman snapped. "But there are plenty who do. Youíd better get going, if you really mean to buy anything else."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said brightly. "Iíll do that."
Gabrielle set a bowl of stew in front of Xena, then began taking out items from her carry bag, which the guards had searched thoroughly before letting her inside the cell. She displayed the items on her cot.
"You went Ö shopping?"
"Uh huh. Guaranteed to perk a girl up." Gabrielle glanced sideways at Xena. "Well, most girls. And even the shopping-challenged can get into trouble you wouldnít believe."
Xena rolled her eyes before starting on her meal.
Gabrielle picked up a leather pouch. "This vendor confirmed that Tallus and his merchant friends havenít been far from the port towns along this coast in ages." She pointed to some quills and blank scrolls. "With these, I confirmed that probably none of these folks has seen Callisto, that theyíre going on hearsay. And this little baby," she said, unwrapping the bowl, "got the ball rolling."
"An expensive ball, no doubt."
"Yeah, but worth every dinar." Gabrielleís smiled faded. "Which reminds me, I couldnít get to Sophie. I think I know where her folks are camping, but it was getting dark. Theyíre suspicious enough, without finding me creeping around, spying on them."
Xena patted her shoulder. "Ya done good. Not sure what youíll do with this information yet, but I have every confidence in you."
"You know, you could show a little more interest in your defense," Gabrielle admonished, putting away the recently purchased merchandise.
"Letís seeÖ." Xena set aside her dinner bowl and rested her chin on a fist. "The prisoner is innocent because Callisto didnít do what sheís accused of. The prisoner is innocent because nobody present can prove Callisto did what sheís accused of, let alone saw her do it. The prisoner is innocent because sheís really Xena, the not-so-innocent ex-warlord who created Callisto, kept her from being killed by her victims, then killed Callisto herself and got stuck with her body because no good deed should go unpunished."
"Thatís not funny."
"I wasnít trying to be. Am I wrong?"
"No," Gabrielle admitted softly.
"And have you decided which strategy youíll use?"
"Iím Ö still working on it."
"So, whatís for me to worry about?" Xena reached over and ruffled Gabrielleís hair. "I fight, you talk," she teased, resting her back against the wall and closing her eyes. "Iíll simply follow your lead. Thatís generally worked in the past. Why mess with perfection?"
Gabrielle stared at her companion with mixed emotions. "I just thought of another defense."
Xenaís eyes opened, one brow raising. "Insanity?"
"Sure. I could say Callisto didnít get the right nutrition as a child, which left soft spots in her skull and also made your brains more vulnerable to scrambling now that youíre in her body. So whether they see you as Callisto or Xena, youíd get an asylum rather than the executionerís block."
Xena stared at her companion with mixed emotions. "Youíre kidding, right?"
"Whatís to worry?" Gabrielle responded, gathering up her things. "Just follow my lead, remember? I brought the Titans out of stone and then turned them back again, didnít I? Like you said ñ except for them almost stomping everybody to death ñ ëperfection.í"
Gabrielle strode to the cell door and banged on the bars. "Guard!" She turned back to Xena. "For your information, Callistoís trial begins midday tomorrow. Iíll be back in the morning to answer any questions you might have."
"HeyÖ." Xena slid off the cot and headed toward Gabrielle.
"You! Get back!" A guard approached, unsheathing his sword as he moved toward the cell door.
Xena halted, her eyes on Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, Iím sorry. Donít think Iím not taking this seriously, okay?"
The guard opened the door wide enough for Gabrielle to slip through. She gazed at the woman whoíd come to mean the world to her, even in the guise of someone who belonged in Tartarus. "I know," she said, wrapping her hands around the bars. "What worries me is that Iím not sure what that means."
Xena watched Gabrielle leave, continuing to stand in the middle of the cell, for the first time truly understanding Gabrielleís fear. It wasnít about what Genaedís court would do. It was about what Xena would do.
Xena sat on the cot. She slid back and let her head plop against the wall. What would she do? She rarely thought that much ahead, once sheíd sketched an outline of probable scenarios. Sheíd lived so much "in the moment," literally imbibing how that felt, thrilling at the thought of new tastes and how sheíd respond to them. Sheíd been used to being her own best offense and defense, shaping each moment to her desires with her will, her intellect and prodigious skills. Being true to herself, if only because thatís what she trusted most. Now Ö.
She slid down to sprawl on the cot. Now there was Gabrielle to think about. And Callisto. One, constantly reminding her of who she wanted to be. The other, dedicated to reminding her of what she might never be able to leave behind.
Sheíd told Gabrielle initially that she was okay with Callistoís body, that she knew who she was inside. That was before Gabrielle had recoiled from her touch. Before she realized that, if they stayed in Greece, she could end up living out her life either taking on Callistoís guilt or proving that, underneath, the blond madwoman wasnít really as bad as she appeared. Before the woman sheíd been true to for better or worse had begun disappearing within the woman whoíd wanted her destroyed.
Xena shivered. She pulled up her blanket, reminded of the night Gabrielle had come to cover her shoulders as the warrior leaned against a doorframe in the cold night air, trying to shake her nightmares of an accusing Callisto. The usually upbeat bard had remarked sadly that Callisto seemed to have won after all. A few moments later, Xena had dozed off and succumbed to Callistoís taunting pull into the Underworld. Could they prove Gabrielle wrong? Even though Callistoís evil threatened to drag them through Tartarus with her?
Xena didnít feel up to worrying yet about what tomorrowís moments would bring. It wasnít that she didnít care. For once she couldnít trust her own emotions or instincts. But for once she also had someone else she could trust, someone who loved her and was hopefully a truer reflection of the "real" Xena than she was herself. With that thought in mind, she let her eyes close, made herself comfortable and slipped peacefully into sleep.
Gabrielle had spent another restless night at the inn. Xenaís faith in her didnít do much to allay her doubts about her defense or Xenaís commitment to getting out of Duopolis soon and in one piece. She weighed the possibilities of different strategies, finally concluding that it might be best to take a bit of wisdom from the Warrior Princessí Guide to Getting Out of Jams ñ "Be prepared for anything and play it by ear."
Just in case, sheíd convinced some travelers at the inn to take a message to Xenaís mother Cyrene. Joxer was probably still in the area and not hard to spot, so sheíd found a man willing to try locating him too. Neither of them might get there in time or be deemed credible witnesses, but she thought it worth trying. Now there was nothing left to do but go by the jail and hope Xena was in a better mood than she.
Even though the trial wouldnít begin for another couple of hours, a large security detail had already begun assembling outside the jail. This attracted some attention, given the jailís location in the heart of the business area. Still, most of the passersby seemed more interested in their own chores and problems. From the conversations she overheard, shoppers were concerned about too many stalls being closed, while merchants worried that customers might be drawn away to the meeting hall.
Gabrielle gasped at the pile of chains in the front office of the jail ñ shackles, handcuffs, metal collars. Soldiers milled about, armed to the teeth. Four huge men she hadnít seen before blocked the entry to Xenaís cell. Gabrielle had to smile. If they thought they needed all that caution for Callisto, how much more would they have added had they known it was actually the Warrior Princess they were dealing with?
"Iím here to see the prisoner," Gabrielle told the behemoths at the door.
"Let her pass," ordered one of the regular guards. "Thatís Callistoís Ö advocate," he sneered.
Gabrielle went through the door, only to find more men talking and shifting impatiently outside the cell. She started to complain about all the noise, until she looked through the bars. There sat Xena in the middle of the floor in some kind of meditative pose, appearing completely oblivious to the surrounding din. Only when she heard the key turning in the lock did Xena open her eyes and show expressiveness that ended in a smile.
"Good morning," Gabrielle greeted her companion, bolstered by the warriorís calm. "Looks like somebody slept well."
Xena got up and stretched. "I did." She examined Gabrielle. "Wish I could say the same about you."
"Had a few things on my mind," Gabrielle acknowledged, walking up and putting her arms around Xena, ignoring the twinge she felt at holding the strange frame.
"Youíll do fine," Xena assured her, returning the hug, wistfully wishing she was tall enough to rest her chin on the red-gold head as sheíd become accustomed to doing.
They broke apart and went to sit on the cot. Without verbalizing any agreement to do so, they conversed casually about everything but the trial ñ Xenaís injuries, Argo, Gabrielleís observations about Duopolis, what mischief Meg might be getting into at Princess Dianaís castle, the fact that Xena could use a bath. To those watching, the two women might as well have been chatting in front of a campfire or a quiet corner of the inn.
A guard brought them some bread and cheese, which they ate silently, each now absorbed in her own thoughts. Soon thereafter, he informed them that it was almost time to prepare the prisoner.
Gabrielle confirmed that Xena still couldnít remember the details about what had happened to her. She grasped Xenaís arm. "Xena, I want you to be yourself," she instructed quietly, "but donít deny being Callisto unless you have to or I give you the okay."
"You have a plan?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Sure. Iím gonna do your inscrutable, cryptic warrior thing and pull a surprise out of my hypothetical breastplates at the last minute."
Xena grinned. "Works for me. Iíll see if I can manage something similar."
"Okay, you two. Time to go." The guards massed around the door, chains and weapons rattling. "And no funny stuff when we come in to put the shackles on. We have orders to kill you if we have to."
Xena rose and sauntered toward them, arms spread. "Youíve nothing to fear from me." She tilted her head, frowning thoughtfully. "Well, except maybe one thing."
A hush descended. The men waited nervously for her threat.
"My advocate says Iím a little ripe," she warned, sniffing her armpits. "You might wanna be careful of my water sweat. Could be lethal."
The procession of guards and their prisoner arrived at the meeting hall without incident, save for a few snide remarks from observers. When they entered, Genaed indicated a table up front on the left, where the accused and her defender sat facing the councilorsí raised platform. Tallus, Caleb and a woman were already seated at a table on the right.
"I seem to be a popular attraction," Xena whispered to Gabrielle, inclining her head toward the packed rows of benches behind them.
"Silence!" Genaed boomed, scowling down at the accused from his ornate chair. Xena raised an eyebrow, and the corner of her mouth quirked up, indicating she was impressed by his acute hearing. He didnít seem amused.
"Either get seated or get out!" he commanded those still trying to get situated. "Iíll have no nonsense at these proceedings. Once I call order, nobody moves, nobody talks, donít even sneeze unless I say so. Weíre going to get this over with as fast as possible. You can gossip on your own time after. Anybody got a problem with that?"
The sudden stillness suggested that no one did.
Genaed surveyed the room, making sure everything was to his satisfaction. "Bar the doors." Guards did so. Genaed stood and cleared his throat. "This Ö session Ö concerning the crimes of Callisto of Cyrra will now come to order."
Tallus rose. "Is this not a trial?" At Genaedís glower, Tallus added, "Your honor?"
"I donít know what this is yet. Youíll present your case. The accusedís advocate will present hers." Genaed gestured toward the four people seated on the platform with him. "My fellow councilors and I will determine what role Duopolis is to play in what happens after."
Caleb jumped up. "But we already know sheís guilty! We just need you to ñ"
"Sit Ö down."
Genaed slammed his fist on the table. "I said, sit down!"
Caleb and Tallus gritted their teeth. They sullenly resumed their seats.
Genaed relaxed back in his chair. "Most people here are guilty of something ñ you two, of trying my patience. Speak again without my permission and you might find yourselves in that cell."
The Chief Councilor squared his shoulders and addressed the gathering. "Now, hereís how weíll proceed. First, weíll hear summaries from Tallus, representing the aggrieved parties, and Gabrielle, representing the defendant. Then, Tallus will call his witnesses, followed by Gabrielle. Each may question the otherís witnesses, but I donít want any speeches. Understand?" he asked, looking at Tallus and Gabrielle. They nodded. "Good. Tallus, you may begin."
Tallus stood, drawing himself up to his considerable height and pushed his equally considerable girth to the front of the room.
"That monster," he intoned, pointing toward the accused, "wantonly attacked our home village, killing anyone in her path. She was captured twice and escaped twice, the second time after being sentenced to life in prison. We heard rumors that sheíd been killed, but she was spotted a few days ago, despite trying to conceal her identity. We will prove that she is a menace and that Duopolis will only be doing its duty by making sure that she does not live to destroy this or any other community." Tallus bowed and returned to his chair.
Genaed turned to the defendantís table. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle squeezed Xenaís arm before walking to stand where Tallus had a few moments before. She faced his table.
"Tallus, I am sorry for your loss. The crimes you accuse Callisto of are terrible, and I am not here to say otherwise. I am here to prove that the woman sitting there is not who she appears to be."
Murmurs from the spectators accompanied Gabrielleís trip back to the defendantís table. Tallus and his group glanced at each other in puzzlement, then disbelief.
"Y-y-your honor!" Tallus sputtered, heaving himself up. "May I speak?"
Genaed smirked. "Something wrong?"
"Well Ö yes," Tallus answered, as though the problem were perfectly obvious. "Weíre here to determine Callistoís guilt and punishment. What difference does it make who she appears to be? Surely her advocate isnít trying to suggest weíve got the wrong woman?"
"Thatís not for me to say." Genaed gazed at Gabrielle with a bemused expression. "But you donít get to my age without finding that sometimes a piece of cake isnít a piece of cake. I guess weíll see, wonít we? Are you ready?"
Tallus conferred with Caleb and a few others from their group. Apparently reassured, he turned back to Genaed. "Yes, your honor. I call upon Caleb of Lycenae to testify."
Caleb stalked to the witness podium. He angrily told how Callisto had attacked Lycenae, killing nearly everyone, including his young nephew. When he finished, he looked defiantly at the impassive defendant, then at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stood and asked him one question: "Were you there during the attack?"
Caleb looked at Tallus, before answering scornfully, "No, but my brother ñ"
"Was he there?"
"Are you calling him a liar?"
"No," she answered quietly. "I simply asked if he was there."
Caleb glared at her, jaws clenching. "No. An old woman who survived told him, and she said she saw ñ"
"Youíve answered the question," Genaed interrupted. "Gabrielle, do you have any other questions of this witness?"
"Not at this time, your honor. May I call on him later?"
"Of course. Tallus, call your next witness."
Tallus and his comrades conferred again with some agitation. Finally they decided upon the woman sitting at the accuserís table.
"Selenia of Lycenae, please describe the woman who led the attack against our village."
She did, in great detail. When she concluded with, "And thatís her over there," nearly every head in the room seemed to nod in agreement.
Gabrielle stood. "Very observant, even down to what kind of horse Callisto rode. How did you manage to get away?"
Selenia blinked. "Get away?"
"Well, you mustíve been pretty close to Callisto at some point, to notice all that."
"I Ö." Selenia pursed her lips in a grim line. She looked at Tallus in frustration, then mumbled, "I know from others in neighboring villages who got quite close and personal."
"I see. You werenít there either."
"Hush!" Genaed put his hands up to quell the murmuring that had swelled again. He gestured for Selenia to return to her seat. "All right, Tallus. Why donít we save some time here? Call on somebody who actually saw what happened."
Tallus threw up his hands. "All of us here are merchants," he said plaintively. "We were away when it happened. But our friends and neighbors all told of the same woman." He swept his arm around the room, including the councilorsí table. "Everyoneís heard of her. Look at her! How many other skinny women warlords with pale hair and black battle clothes like that do you know of? We never thought weíd have to prove it was her!"
"Are you saying you canít?"
Tallus glanced nervously over his shoulder toward the back of the room. "We Ö we have it on very good authority by Ö someone who can."
"Is that someone here?" Genaed squinted in the direction Tallus was looking in. "Call them, for godsí sake. Are they afraid or something?"
"Is it one of Callistoís victims?"
Tallus lowered his head. "Not exactly."
"Arggh! My patience is wearing very thin. I can call a recess, so we can talk to this person privately if Ö."
Genaedís voice trailed off as suddenly one of the spectators bolted for the door, only to be stopped by the guards.
"Let me out!" the man screamed, straining against the guardsí hold, while keeping a watchful eye on the accused. "You donít know what youíre dealing with! Sheís a witch! A crazy, vengeful witch whoíll get free again and kill me!"
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances, not sure what to make of this new development, but having the gut feeling that it wasnít going to take them in the direction that, up until then, had been looking pretty good.
"Who in Tartarus are you?" Genaed called out above the numerous folks now standing to see what was going on.
"Nobody!" the man yelled back. "Iím not supposed to be here! Let me go and I wonít be any trouble!"
"Tallus?" Genaed got up and walked to the edge of the councilorsí platform. "It appears that you know that man. Who is he?"
Several people shushed their neighbors, so that they could hear Tallusí answer. Soon the only sound was the grunting of the mystery man in back.
Tallus sighed, looking helplessly at his friends. They shook their heads as if to say, "Itís out of our hands now."
"Tallus, I asked you a question. Does he have some bearing on this case?"
"We promised to keep his identity confidential, your honor. Canít you take our word for it that he knows Callisto when he sees her?"
Genaed rolled his eyes. "No, but Iíll bet heís all youíve got that comes close."
"Put Callisto on the stand!" the man yelled. "Sheís not ashamed to say who she is. You donít need me, if thatís all you want to know."
Tallus huddled briefly with his colleagues. "Iím sorry," he called to the man, "but she and her advocate seem prepared to deny sheís Callisto. If you donít testify, she may go free. You donít want that, do you?"
The man ceased struggling. He glanced resignedly at the defendant. "Sheís seen me now," he muttered, shuddering at the calm way she was regarding him, as though sheíd already dismissed him from her mind. "Iím a dead man anyway." He shrugged off the guardsí hands and, taking the aisle on Tallusí side of the room, walked slowly to the podium in front.
"Your honor, this man may incriminate himself in helping us get to the truth. Weíve had to break our word to him. Could you at least guarantee that you will not prosecute him for coming forward?"
Genaed went back to his seat and conferred with the other councilors, then addressed Tallus. "Weíll consider your request, after weíve heard what he has to say."
Tallus nodded his head. "Tell them who you are and how you know Callisto," he directed the man.
After a momentary hesitation, the man removed his peasant coat, revealing black leather battle garb. He assumed an erect military stance, staring straight ahead at the door.
"I am called Gressius. I joined Callistoís army a couple years ago. I now command whatís left of it. I was in on the raid of Lycenae. She told us to wipe them out. What has been said about her today is true." He turned to gaze unflinchingly at the accused. "And I can swear that youíve got the right Ö person."
"Thank you, Gressius." Tallus smiled triumphantly at the defendantís table and resumed his seat. His comrades patted him on the back.
"Gabrielle, I suggest we take a brief recess. You could probably use the time, in light of this new development."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thanks, your honor, but this doesnít change our defense. We certainly donít object to a recess. However, I would like to ask Gressius a couple of questions first."
Genaedís colleagues grudgingly nodded their assent. "All right, but donít take too long. Some of us could use a potty break."
"I understand," Gabrielle chuckled. "I could use one myself." She turned to the witness. "Gressius, Iím curious. How did you come to share this information with your former victims?"
"A couple of my men and I were on our way here to get some supplies," he responded, continuing to stare at the door. "With money," he hastened to add. "We were Ö resting Ö in the forest when we saw you two ride by. Weíd thought Callisto dead, but thereís no mistaking her, so we followed."
"Why didnít you just come up and say, ëHi, Callisto, glad youíre back?í"
Gressius glanced briefly at the defendant. "Weíd accepted the leadership of her worst enemy. It wasnít for long, but we didnít think sheíd take kindly to that. I wasnít sure what she was up to ñ riding with someone whoíd wanted to kill her, trying to disguise herself and act normal. Breathe wrong and sheíll gut you, so we bided our time.
"When we got here, we heard those Lycenaeans talking about it, saying if it was her, they wanted her to pay for what sheíd done to their village." Gressius shrugged. "If she was crazy before, she was acting even crazier now. Weíd been doing okay without her. I figured if I helped the Lycenaeans, we wouldnít have to worry about her trying to take over. I told them it was definitely Callisto, that theyíd better act fast if they wanted to get her."
"One more question before we break. You say you served briefly under one of Callistoís enemies. Who was that?"
Gressius directed his response to the blond defendant. "Xena!" he sneered. "She made her mark on my chest with Theodorusí blood. Iím just sorry it was his throat she cut and not yours."
"Well. That was interesting."
"Umm hmm." Xena picked a chicken thigh from the plate the guards had brought to Genaedís office in the meeting hall, where heíd sequestered the two during recess. "In a ëcan it get any betterí way, I suppose."
Gabrielle fiddled with a piece of cheese. "On the bright side, itíll be hard for them to argue that youíre in cahoots with Callisto."
"Uh huh. After weíve convinced them Iím inside Callisto and that she was inside me when I slit Theodorusí throat." Xena waved a semi-clean chicken bone at Gabrielle. "This isnít bad. You should try some." She grinned. "I prefer a little meat on my advocate, if sheís going to hold up under all these ëinterestingí developments."
Gabrielle jumped up and started pacing. "Xena, I donít know how you can be so Ö." She stopped and scowled at her seemingly relaxed friend, who met her gaze with fond concern. Gabrielle sighed and resumed her seat. "Sorry," she sighed. She reached for a chicken wing. "I donít know what I expected. Itís so Ö ridiculous, considering who you really are."
Xena wiped her hands. "Is it?" she asked quietly. "When Callisto attacked people in my name, they didnít have any trouble believing her."
"But you proved youíre not like her."
"We proved that she was the one responsible. That time." Xena shrugged. "Now Iím getting credit for what she did in her name ñ as both myself and her. Has a certain symmetry when you think about it."
Gabrielle gave her companion a long stare. "Xena, itís not fair. Whatever youíre thinking, you canít believe thereís any justice in this."
The warrior held out her hands, studying them. "Iíve become what I created." She looked up at Gabrielle. "What would you call it?"
Gabrielle reached over and took the hands that had killed Perdicus. She regarded them a moment in silence.
"A few days ago, I wondered how long it would be before I didnít feel a chill because these were hers," she admitted softly. "Then I felt a chill because they werenít yours. Now," she continued, squeezing the hands she held, "I feel warmth and safety from them. Itís the touch of the woman you meant to create, Xena. I call it ëlove,í and thatís what really matters. Somehow, weíll make those people out there feel the difference too."
Xena swallowed, eyes brimming. "Thank you." She brought Gabrielleís hands to her lips for a gentle kiss. "Whatever else I might doubt, I know whatís in my heart. If you can still see that, still feel that Ö." Xena shook her head, smiling. "If you can convince me," she continued, glancing at her plate, "thereís a good chance you could even convince that chicken bone."
"Thank you, Xena." Now it was Gabrielleís turn to blink back tears. "You donít know how much that means to me." She lowered her head with a sigh. "Sometimes I feel so Ö."
Xena leaned toward her defender. "What?" she asked softly.
Gabrielle looked up. "I didnít want to be alone in this. Most of the time Iím okay being your ëlight,í the one who believes in you. It was pretty easy when I could look across the campfire and see Ö you. But now Ö now I need to know you believe too. That you believe the woman inside is worth whatever it takes for us to save you, no matter what else people think. Can you understand that?"
Xena gave her a lopsided grin. "Yeah. I can." She chuckled. "Itís sort of like the chicken and the egg. Am I the ërealí me because you believe I am? Or because you think I believe I am?"
She stuck her hand in the remains of the hen carcass, searching for something. "Ah, here it is." She sucked off bits of meat clinging to the wishbone. "Weíll let this decide which comes first ñ my belief or yours. Pull."
Gabrielle grinned and grasped one half of the wishbone. She tugged, then smugly dangled the part sheíd snapped off in Xenaís face.
Xena pursed her lips at the longer piece she held. "Did I mention the short one wins?"
Xena and Gabrielle sat at the defendantís table waiting for everyone to settle down after the break. Observers thought the two appeared remarkably calm, given what had transpired earlier. The young advocate actually looked cheerful. She playfully kept sliding some tiny object in front of the accused, which the hitherto expressionless blond warlord playfully kept sliding back. Indeed, she somehow seemed more alive, more Ö human than a few hours before.
Genaed called the proceedings to order.
"Tallus informs me that he has finished with his witnesses. Gabrielle, itís your turn. I canít wait to see what you have in store for us."
Gabrielle slid the longer wishbone piece over Xenaís way and stood. "Your honor, I would like to call Selenia back to the stand."
Selenia whispered something to her colleagues before walking to the front.
Gabrielle smiled at her. "Selenia, you stated that several people described to you the woman who terrorized them. How did they know her name?"
"How did they know her name? Had they seen her before? Did she yell it out to them?"
Selenia glanced at the accusersí table, confused. "I Ö. They Ö. We found out later who she was."
"And was it who she said she was when she was attacking them?"
"Um Ö. Well, no. She lied at first."
Gabrielle walked over to the witness stand. "Would you mind telling us who she said she was?"
"Wh- what difference does it make?" Selenia sputtered irritably. "She was lying."
"She asked you a question," Genaed interjected. "Weíll get out of here a lot quicker if you answer her."
"Xena," Selenia huffed. "She said to tell everybody she was Xena the Warrior Princess."
"Hmmm. And did everyone think it was Xena until they found out otherwise?"
"So," Gabrielle said, tilting her head, "youíre saying that, despite their detailed descriptions, the eyewitnesses you talked to had their attacker confused with someone else. How did you happen to discover it was really Callisto?"
Selenia straightened, confident she was stepping back on firmer ground. "Calebís brother, Melas. It was his boy she killed. He went after Xena and knew it wasnít her when he saw Callisto attacking another village. The woman he described is the same one sitting over there."
Gabrielle smiled. "It would seem so, yes. Thatís all, Selenia." Gabrielle looked up at Genaed. "I would next like to call Caleb back to the stand."
As the witnesses exchanged places, Gabrielle walked back to take her seat at the defendantís table.
"Got `em right where you want `em, eh," Xena whispered to her advocate.
"Yep," Gabrielle whispered back. "Like the chicken on her egg." She turned her attention to Caleb.
"Caleb, weíve heard that your brother went after Callisto and found Xena instead. Did he say Xena was happy about being mistaken for Callisto?"
Caleb snorted. "He said Xena was fit to be tied. Heh. She tied him to a tree, soís she could go after Callisto herself. Got her, too. But she wouldnít turn the murderer over to him for hanging. Took her to a jail instead, so she could be tried. Instead, the witch got away."
"But didnít Xena recapture her?"
"Yeah, and she got away again. Donít know why Xena was so dead set on letting Callisto be tried." He snorted again. "Maybe itís some warlord code or something."
"From what your brother said, did Xena seem to be a part of Callistoís reign of terror?"
Caleb considered this. "Uh, no, but Xena didnít seem surprised either. Seems thereís some history between `em. Melas heard Xena talking about it to this girl traveling with her." He stared pointedly at Gabrielle. "Who happened to have the same name and description as you."
Gabrielle grinned. "I get around, huh?"
Murmuring swelled again, this time accompanied by a few snorts and chuckles.
"Quiet!" Genaed cleared his throat. "Not that I donít appreciate the entertainment, Gabrielle, but letís stick to the main agenda, shall we?
"Actually, I am, your honor," Gabrielle replied, assuming a more serious manner. "I believe weíve established that there was some confusion among the accusers between Callisto and Xena. Itís important to my defense to establish that Iím one of the few people here with enough personal experience to know the difference."
"Why should we believe you?!" Caleb angrily hurled at Gabrielle. "So what if you traveled with Xena? Youíve obviously thrown your lot in with Callisto now. Youíd say anything to free her."
"Enough!" Genaed pointed his finger at Caleb. "Youíre not to speak unless asked a question. Gabrielle, are you finished with this witness?"
"Yes, sir. Iíd like to call on Gressius."
Caleb strode grimly from the witness stand, to be replaced with an equally grim Gressius.
"Gressius, from everything weíve heard about Callisto, youíd think sheíd want people to tremble at her name. Why would she give credit to Xena for her own exploits?"
"Xenaís army killed her family. Callisto let the rest of us take whatever we wanted on our raids, but all she cared about was Xena -- being like Xena, following Xena, destroying Xena. She went into a rage when she heard Xena was going around helping people. She said she wanted the world to see Xena as a demon, then kill her in combat."
Gabrielle got up and approached Gressius. She studied him curiously. "Gressius, I canít say as I remember you. Have you seen me before?"
"Was I ever at Callistoís camp?"
"Yeah. A couple of them."
"I just dropped in for a friendly cup of tea?"
Gressius snorted. "You dropped in, all right. The first time, Callisto snatched you at that jail she broke out of. She had you hoisted up on a burning rope, and youíd have dropped to your death if Xena hadnít come. The second time, you snuck in and drew a sword on her."
"Oh? I wasnít happy with her hospitality the first time around?"
Gressius snorted again. "Sheíd tried to kill you again, but ended up killing your husband instead."
Gabrielle heard several gasps. Her jaw tightened, and she took a few moments to compose herself. "And that gave her satisfaction?"
"Like I said," Gressius answered, stealing a quick glance at the defendant, "sheís crazy. She said Xenaíd become weak, that sheíd developed a heart. She blamed you for filling Xenaís head with sappiness about how Xena was different from her, even though Xena had more blood on her hands." He shook his head.
"Callisto loves to play games with people. Killing Xena wasnít enough. She wanted Xena to suffer like she had. To lose somebody or feel guilty about somebody elseís suffering. So, yeah, bragging about how she ëstuckí your husband right in front of you and your great protector gave her more satisfaction than sacking a whole village."
An uneasy hush descended on the hall, as Gabrielle stood silently with her eyes closed. The Lycenaeans seemed torn between relief that the advocate herself had now confirmed Callistoís evil, and puzzlement at why. Stunned, the onlookers tried to reconcile Gabrielleís obvious pain with her decision to defend the monster who had caused it.
Suddenly the accused tried to rise, her shackled hands stretching toward Gabrielle.
"Guards!" Genaed commanded, though several were already rushing to push the prisoner back in her chair.
Gabrielle spun around. Instead of shrinking from what could have been an attack, she hastened over to calm the accused ñ which she did with a hand to the shoulder and a quiet, "Iím all right. Trust me, okay?"
"Iím not going anywhere," the blond warlord finally told the guards, who were more than happy to back off from her withering glare. She settled herself back in her chair, her posture radiating self-restraint, then nodded to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle nodded back with a grateful smile. She turned to Gressius. "One more question. You said you thought Callisto was dead."
Gressius shrugged. "Most of us were lying on the ground after Xena tore through our cave to get you that second time. The last we saw of Callisto was Xena chasing her outside." He smirked. "We figured Xenaíd gotten the message that jail wasnít permanent enough to keep Callisto out of trouble."
"Or death either," Gabrielle mumbled under her breath, with a knowing glance at the accused. She addressed Gressius again. "Were you surprised that Xena came to take Callistoís army?"
Gressius furrowed his brow, thinking back. "Yeah. It was weird. Theodorus told us to throw our weapons down, that Xena had some code about only killing when threatened. We did. Thatís when she slit his throat. The look on her face when she cut him Ö." He shuddered.
"If I hadnít known any better, Iídíve thought it was Callisto."
"Hmmm. Did she say why she was taking over?"
"Why else? If you want to be a warlord, you need men. And she seemed to have the idea that Callisto would do it, if she didnít. We were glad at first, because of Xenaís reputation as a leader. But she turned out to be as nutty as Callisto."
"Oh? How so?"
"Her first big order was to round up these folks from Amphipolis. Not loot the place, just drag them unharmed to a cave, so she could kill `em later. I didnít understand, `specially since thatís Xenaís home village, but I had enough sense to do what I was told."
"What happened to them?"
"Donít know. Somebody threw oil pots at us. We had torches and were more afraid of burning to death than of what Xena would do to us. We Ö retreated Ö out of there as fast as we could. If it was Callisto attacking, we thought she mustíve died in there with Xena, because neither of `em came after us."
Gabrielle looked up at Genaed. "Thatís all I have for this witness, your honor."
"We have a lot to digest," the Chief Councilor said. "Thereís still time left for folks to get to the market or do whatever else they need before it gets dark. Weíll adjourn for the day and resume in the morning. Guards, take the prisoner back to her cell."
"Iíll meet you later," Gabrielle informed Xena, as the guards led the warrior away. "I need to see Genaed a minute." Xena nodded and soon disappeared among the dozens of burly men escorting her through a side door.
Gabrielle approached the platform where the councilors sat. She hovered in front of Genaed until she finally got his attention. He excused himself and crouched down to hear her quietly asked request.
"Sure," he responded. "I donít see why not." His smiled matched Gabrielleís. She turned to leave. "Gabrielle?"
"Yes?" she answered, a little afraid heíd changed his mind.
"Sheís mighty lucky to have you at her side."
Gabrielle blushed. "Thank you, Genaed. But I wouldnít be here if I didnít feel the same about her."
Genaed nodded and watched her walk away.
"An odd couple," one of the other councilors remarked to Genaed. "Iíve presided at many strange meetings, but this has got to be the strangest. That young woman is either the biggest fool, the best con artist or the most idealistic person Iíve ever witnessed."
Genaed chuckled. "Mix love in, and I imagine all of those could apply."
Xena sat with her head cocked, eyebrow arched, as Gabrielle arrived to supervise delivery of another cot.
"Donít forget the extra blankets. And a lantern," Gabrielle added, looking up through the small window at the darkening sky. "I may want to write tonight. Oh, and some fruit would be nice, in case I get the munchies."
One guard rolled his eyes. "How `bout we leave the cell door open?" he asked sarcastically. "You know, in case you get the hankering for a midnight stroll?"
Gabrielle seemed to consider this. "Thatís mighty hospitable of you, but weíre pretty tired. I donít think weíll be going anywhere." She flashed him a winning smile.
"Humph." He nudged the other guard to get moving. "Youíd think we were running an inn."
Gabrielle watched them leave. She placed her things around the second cot, humming and talking to herself as though she hadnít noticed any other occupant.
Xena allowed her companionís charade for awhile, fully aware that Gabrielle was fully aware that Xena wouldíve protested this arrangement. If sheíd been asked. She also knew that Gabrielle was worried about her ñ worried that sheíd fall into a guilty funk about Perdicus and all the other horrors that went with accompanying the Warrior Princess. Not to mention having to wake up to Callistoís face every morning. Xena shook her head, smiling wryly. Gabrielle knew her too well.
In truth, Xena welcomed Gabrielleís presence ñ both for herself and because she too was worried. About Gabrielle. Few would describe the sensitive young woman as "stoic" or have a clue about what painful experiences lay beneath her easy smile. Xena did. Gabrielleís strength never ceased to amaze her. How her young friend could stand there today ñ that gentle nature balancing so many conflicting emotions with such grace ñ was a mystery to Xena. Part of her was so proud. Another part wished it could protect that precious soul from ever being hurt again.
Gabrielle whipped her head around and fell on her cot as though startled. "Oh! Xena! Hi!" She smiled sheepishly. "Youíre here too! What a coincidence!"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Yes, isnít it though. And here I thought only special people such as myself could stay in these lovely accommodations."
Gabrielleís giggle came out more like a whoosh of relief. "I think Genaed took into account the kind of people I associate with."
"Uh huh. Like you said, you do get around." Xena regarded her young companion fondly. "So, you here to keep me company or do some strategizing?"
Gabrielle fondly regarded her predictably unpredictable companion. "Mostly the company part." Her expression turned serious. "Tomorrow could be even rougher than today. I donít really want to talk about it though. As it is, my brainís got too many story lines running through it, and Iím not seeing how any of `emíll end yet."
"Ah. That could be a problem for a bard. Maybe I can help." Xena scooted back against the wall. She patted the space in front of her.
Gabrielle came over and sat between Xenaís legs. She felt herself gently pulled back against the body behind her and then fingers lightly massaging her temples.
"Mmmmm. Just what this bard needed." Gabrielle closed her eyes, imagining larger hands soothing her and softer "pillows" at her back. "I could get used to this."
"Even Ö." Xena paused with a faint growl of annoyance and spit some hairs out, having momentarily forgotten that her mouth wouldnít be above Gabrielleís head anymore. "Even if your ëpillowsí still donít have enough meat on `em?"
"Wh- what?" Gabrielle gasped, wondering if maybe sheíd mumbled aloud what sheíd been thinking.
"I know you, Gabrielle," Xena replied smugly. "You do like your luxuries."
As if on cue, a couple of guards came to the cell door, bearing the items Gabrielle had requested. They looked curiously at the two women on the cot, then with what resembled grudging respect for their privacy. Without saying anything, they unlocked the door, laid everything inside, then locked the door and walked away.
"I have to say, the service here isnít bad."
"Sure, for you. Maybe they took into consideration my associations too, and gave us the Amazon Princess Suite."
As soon as Xena and Gabrielle entered the meeting hall the next morning, they sensed something was up. Tallus and Caleb stood at the accusersí table gesticulating excitedly, grinning like cats with canary feathers in their teeth. The smug looks they threw at the manacled defendant and her advocate certainly didnít bode well.
Genaed rose from his chair and glowered at the assemblage. When most folks had settled into their seats, he boomed out, "All right, all right, everybody quiet down! We have another interesting day ahead, so if you want to spend any of it outside, youíd better come to order this instant!"
"We have a new development. Gabrielle, Tallus would like to present another witness, who arrived late last night. Do you have any objections to hearing from that witness now?"
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. "Who is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Calebís brother, Melas."
Gabrielle suppressed a smile. "No, your honor, I have no objections."
Melas emerged from the group of Lycenaeans and made his way to the front.
Tallus came forward and faced the onlookers. "We have heard implications from Callistoís advocate that somehow we caught the wrong woman. She has been so bold as to challenge ñ"
Tallus whirled his bulky frame around to see Genaed pointing a finger at him.
"I said, no speeches! Either ask that man some relevant questions or Iíll object to this myself!"
Tallus chewed the inside of his cheek. "Of course. Your honor." He turned to address Melas.
"Melas, you suffered a great loss at Callistoís hands."
Melas glanced coldly at the defendant before answering, "Yes. My son."
"At first you thought the murderer was Xena."
"Yes. Thatís the name she gave."
"But you found Xena and discovered that the murderer was someone else."
"And you got to see Callisto in action, as well as when she was captured."
"Gabrielle has suggested that the confusion between Xena and Callisto might have led us to bring the wrong woman to justice. You had the tragic circumstance of being in the company of both. You were there when one attacked innocent people, while the other fought to save those people. Is there any doubt in your mind which one sits at the table for the accused?"
Melas took a long, hard look in that direction. "No," he said emphatically. "And yes."
"Wh- what?" Tallus stared at his witness in disbelief.
"Iím sure the woman in chains is Callisto. But the woman next to her couldnít possibly be Gabrielle."
Tallus looked from Melas to Gabrielle to Genaed to Gabrielle and then finally Genaed again. "But Ö but thatís not important." He drew himself up. "Whatís important is that you have confirmed that the defendant is Callisto, and that she is rightly accused of the unspeakable crimes detailed during these proceedings." Tallus looked haughtily at Genaed, as if nothing more need be said.
"Hold on, Tallus. Youíre overstepping again." Genaed regarded the two women at the defendantís table, neither of whom appeared as surprised by Melasí remarks as everyone else in the room. "Gabrielle has established herself as somewhat of an authority on Xena and Callisto. Some of us have wondered about her motives and loyalties in defending Callisto. I, for one, am curious as to why Melas thinks Gabrielle isnít who she says she is."
"The Gabrielle I witnessed was peace loving and compassionate," Melas answered, disgust evident in his appraisal of Callistoís advocate. "Xena admired her for that. Yes, she looks exactly like the Gabrielle I remember. And, yes, she showed me that hate is not the answer to the most evil of deeds. But I canít believe that even Gabrielle would want that monster free to kill another child."
Every eye focused on Gabrielle, who sat with bowed head. The only sound came from the accusedís chains as she raised her hands to rest on her advocateís shoulder.
"Gabrielle?" Genaedís eyes seem to bore through the advocate. "Do you have any questions of this witness?"
She took a deep breath. "No, your honor," she answered, leaning briefly into the shackled hands that seemed to comfort her. "Not at this time."
"Do you wish to proceed with your own witnesses now?"
She put her hand over the ones on her shoulder and gazed questioningly at the defendant, who gave her a reassuring smile. "Yes. I call the defendant to the stand."
Xena stood slowly, regally. She ignored the nervous whispers and cordon of beefy men who led her to the stand and took up posts on either side of her. Her attention centered on the small woman who approached.
Gabrielle stood tall. Still, when she began her questioning, those in back had to strain to hear.
"You have heard descriptions of a warlord responsible for the destruction of villages, for death and injury to innocent people. Do you deny committing such crimes?"
The entire room held its breath.
The Lycenaeans glanced around at each other with open mouths. Everyone else leaned forward, mesmerized.
"You have heard the pleas for you to pay for those crimes. Do you believe there would be justice in that?"
"Have you ever come across someone else like that, someone you believed had no hope of redemption?"
"What did you do?"
Xena swallowed. "I killed her."
"You killed her?"
"I let her die."
"And was that justice?"
Xena took a moment before answering, "Some might call it that." Her chin lowered a bit. "There was also Ö hate Ö and vengeance mixed in. For the pain sheíd caused a friend."
"So you understand how the Lycenaeans feel. You even agree that death might be an appropriate punishment for what you have done."
"Then why not let them hang you today and be done with it?"
Xena smiled without humor. "If it was me, I might consider it. But itís not. Itís Callisto."
"Whatíd she say?"
"Whatís going on?!"
"Pipe down!" Genaed ordered, banging his fist on the table. "Let them finish!" He looked at Gabrielle. "Continue."
"Are you saying youíre not Callisto?" Gabrielle resumed, as if there had been no interruption.
"Yes. I mean, no, Iím not Callisto." The accused raised a questioning eyebrow. The advocate nodded back.
"My name is Xena."
"No!" Tallus levered himself up, as the Lycenaeans muttered angrily among themselves. "Th- this is Ö. This is Ö. I object!"
Genaed didnít even attempt to stifle the buzz that spread throughout the hall. He sat, hands steepled beneath his chin, regarding Gabrielle with an unreadable expression. Soon people quieted on their own, everyone waiting anxiously for his next words.
"So, your defense is that we have Xena sitting before us, not Callisto?"
"Yes, your honor. The circumstances are quite extraordinary, but we are prepared to reveal them now."
Genaed smiled thinly. "By all means, then. Proceed."
Gabrielle directed the accused to explain how she had come to occupy Callistoís body, which the warrior did.
"Xena, Callisto is the person you said you let die. Why didnít you kill her before, when you had the chance? Why insist on taking her to jail, on risking the chance that she might get free to murder again?"
Xena raised her chin and gazed resolutely out at the assemblage.
"She had good reason to say I ëmadeí her. She lost everything because of me. She was right that I probably have more blood on my hands, yet got the chance to try and make up for my crimes ñ free in body if not in my heart." She paused to look affectionately at Gabrielle. "I met people who gave me the courage to believe I could be different than the bloodthirsty warlord who was so easily mistaken for Callisto."
"You wanted to give her the same chance?"
"At first, yes. I even considered letting her go." Xena snorted softly. "She mocked me. Said it disgusted her to think of me defending her, that she would dedicate herself to killing everything I value. I promised not to let anything happen to her before she could have a fair trial. Later I realized the only justice she cared about was seeing me destroyed ñ no matter who else she had to cut down to do that."
"Xena?" Gabrielle walked closer to the witness stand and waited for Xena to look at her. "Do you feel thereís justice in whatís happening here now?"
Xenaís jaw tightened. "Maybe for me." She smiled sadly at the consternation forming on her partnerís face. "But not for you."
Gabrielle swallowed. "But not for me?" she repeated softly.
"No Not for you." Xena stared out at the on-lookers again.
"Callisto is getting her justice every time someone looks at this body and sees the darkness Iím trying to fight. The Warrior Princess inside deserves to be held accountable for that and for many other deeds she can never wash clean."
Xena gazed at her advocate with shining eyes. "But you, you stand for all the good that I and Callisto stained. Your faith has helped me stand for that too. Melas reminded me that youíve put your deeds and ideals on trial, right along with the two Tartarus-be-damned killers youíre defending." Xena smiled wryly. "We have to prove Iím the woman you say I am. Otherwise, youíll come off as not quite the Gabrielle Melas spoke so highly about. And that would be the greatest injustice of all."
Gabrielle seemed at a loss for words. "Thank you," she said finally, then addressed Genaed. "Sir, if you donít mind, Iíd like to call on Melas, while Xena is still at the witness stand."
Genaed blinked in surprise. "Uh, Tallus, you have a problem with that?"
Tallus conferred with his colleagues. "We donít see what difference it would make anyway," he said bitterly. "This canít get much more of a farce than it already is."
"Iíll take that as a ëno,í" Genaed responded, choosing to overlook Tallusí insolence. "Melas, you can stand where you are. And, Gabrielle," he warned the advocate, "this had better be relevant."
Gabrielle nodded. She pointed toward Xena. "Melas, do you still believe this woman to be Callisto?"
Melas didnít answer immediately. His comrades stirred nervously.
"I Ö. When I look at that face Ö." He closed his eyes and brought his hands up, lowering his chin to rest on tightly clenched fists. "I still have to remind myself that rage wonít bring my boy back, that I can only keep him with me in loving memory." He took a deep breath, then lifted pain-filled eyes toward the defendant.
"That voice is the one I dreamed of strangling into silence. But the words, the spirit behind them Ö." He shook his head, trying to comprehend it all. "She sounds like the woman who vowed to take care of Callisto for me. Xena."
Genaed put up a hand to silence the room.
"Yes, Melas, I know exactly what you mean." Gabrielle nodded her head in understanding. "Melas, is there some way you could tell for sure? Maybe something between you and Xena that Callisto couldnít possibly know?"
Melas closed his eyes again, searching his recollection of that awful time heíd tried so hard to put behind him.
"I believe so. When Callisto escaped from jail and took you, Xena and I had brief exchange, before she went after you." He stared purposefully at the accused. "Do you remember that?"
Xenaís unwavering eyes held Melasí own, as she recalled those horrible moments when all she could think about was saving Gabrielle.
"Someone in the mob outside threw a torch in the jail. The fire allowed Callisto to escape." Xena narrowed her eyes at Melas. "I wanted to strangle the fool responsible. You said something like, Gabrielle was right ñ your hate would only lead to somebody else getting hurt. I said what I usually do in those situations." She glanced at her advocate. "I said that people like us should listen to people like Gabrielle."
"Yes," Melas confirmed softly, still not believing his ears. "Thatís what you said."
"Your honor!" Caleb yelled, jumping to his feet. "She tried to hurt another child the other day, just like she did Melasí boy!"
Tallus grabbed Calebís arm. "Quiet," he hissed. "Leave it be!"
"Whatís going on?" Genaed squinted suspiciously at the accusersí table. "Is there other evidence youíre withholding for some reason?"
Bolstered by encouragement from other Lycenaeans, Caleb snatched his arm away and forged on.
"Callisto attacked Tallusí little daughter, Sophie. We wanted to spare her from having to talk about it. We never dreamed itíd get this far, but maybe thatís what itíll take to prove both of those two are frauds."
Genaed regarded the two in question. "Gabrielle, what do you have to say about that?"
The advocate and defendant conferred. "Your honor, weíd love to know what happened. Xena doesnít remember." Gabrielle stared accusingly at Caleb. "She suffered a terrible blow to the head, among other injuries, just before being jailed. It seems she was the one attacked."
"Wh ñ what?!" Caleb sputtered. "You sayiní we attacked her? Why, if she hadnít ñ"
"Shut up, you idiot!" This time Tallus rose and used his considerable bulk to push Caleb back into his seat. Red-faced, Tallus beseeched Genaed. "Your honor, we shouldnít complicate things further by bringing in complaints that have little bearing on Callistoís past crimes. Melasí grief has obviously confused him. Weíve proven that woman is Callisto and that she is guilty as charged. That should be enough."
Genaed instructed that the accused be escorted back to her seat. He and his fellow councilors put their heads together, as everyone else waited in stunned, angry or anticipatory silence.
"Weíve reached an agreement," the Chief Councilor announced. "We wish to hear from Sophie. Ordinarily, weíd take a brief recess, but we have concerns about her testimony being influenced." He paused to scowl at the seething Tallus. "Councilor Hedalia is going to fetch Sophie. I want the room cleared of everyone except the Lycenaeans and the witnesses. Guards, wait outside until further orders."
Genaed sat in one of two chairs positioned near the witness stand. When Councilor Hedalia entered with Sophie, he stood and gestured for the little girl to approach.
Sophieís frightened brown eyes darted between Genaed and the accuserís table as she backed toward the chair he gently guided her into.
"Sophie, Iíll be right here with you," Genaed softly assured her, continuing to hold her hand as he sat down next to her. "Do you know why youíre here?"
The girl glanced at her angry father, before hanging her head. "Iíve been bad?"
"No, Sophie, not at all." Genaed gently turned her face toward him. "We have an important decision to make. We think you might be able to help us."
"Uh huh. Do you know anything about that lady over there? The one in black with the chains on her?"
Sophie seemed to notice the defendantís table for the first time. Her face brightened. She started to wave, then bit her lip and hunched down in her chair.
"Sophie, are you still scared?"
She nodded. "A little."
"Of course sheís scared!" Tallus rose to lean on his table. "Youíve got no business getting her mixed up in this."
Genaed threw Tallus a warning look over Sophieís head. "Are you scared of that lady?"
Sophie nodded without looking up.
"See? Stop this nonsense now and let me take the child home."
Genaed scowled at Tallus again. "Did the lady hurt you, Sophie?"
She shook her head slightly. "My daddyíll be mad at me. He told me to forget about the lady." She peeked sheepishly at the defendantís table. "He said sheís bad."
"Sophie," Genaed began, continuing to glower above her at Tallus, "your daddy probably didnít want you playing with strangers. Thatís the last time heíll yell like that, since Iím sure he doesnít want to have to leave before we find out whether the lady is bad or not. Right, Tallus?"
Tallus scowled at Genaed, then resignedly fell back in his chair, arms folded across his chest.
Out of Sophieís sight, Genaed pointed at the accusersí table, used his fingers to pantomime lips moving, then made a slashing motion across his throat.
"All right, my young friend," he said lightly, "so tell me how you came to meet that lady over there."
Xena smiled back when Sophie shyly grinned her way, and waggled her fingers slightly in acknowledgement of the girlís earlier attempt at a greeting. While her encounter with Sophie was still fuzzy, Xena did recognize her as the child sheíd pictured as somehow connected to the red ball. She leaned forward with an odd mixture of warmth and apprehension, listening intently for clues this innocent witness held to the mystery of who she really was inside.
Sophie recounted how sheíd been playing in the market, how her ball rolled under one of the dressing stalls. Sheíd stood outside, not sure what to do. Her father had told her to stay in the play area. She didnít mean to disobey him. Just as sheíd decided maybe to forget the ball and run, a voice called from inside, asking who was there. Still afraid sheíd get in more trouble, sheíd backed away without answering. Suddenly a lady came out, looking around like she expected trouble.
"I tried to make myself real small, but she saw me anyway. ëIs this yours, hmmm?í" Sophie mimicked a gruff voice. "She was grinning and tossing my ball up and catching it. I wasnít scared anymore. I was mad, `cause it looked like she wanted to keep my ball. ëYes,í I said. ëGive it back.í She laughed and asked me if I minded playing catch with her first. I said that was okay, so we did."
Sophie said theyíd gone a little ways behind the dressing booth. "The lady mustíve been worried about getting in trouble too. She kept looking around at the other people. We did a few catches, then she said sheíd better get back before her mother found out sheíd left."
"Her mother?" Genaed shot a bemused glance at the defendantís table. Gabrielle bumped shoulders with the suddenly blushing accused.
"Uh huh. Thatís what she said. Anyways, I didnít want to stop. She started to go, so I threw my ball the other way and yelled, ëFirst one to the ball wins!í" Sophie lowered her head. "I shouldnítíve done that."
"How come?" Genaed gently prodded.
Sophie peered apologetically at the accused, then at her father. She sighed and continued on with how sheíd chased the ball, hoping the lady would follow. It rolled near the edge of a high place where you could look down at the beach. She knew better than to get too close. She heard the lady scream at her, but thought it was safe to go where the ball had stopped. Next thing she knew, she was falling, like the ground was swallowing her up. Then something grabbed her.
"It was the lady. ëIíve got you,í she said." Sophie paused to look in wonder at her rescuer. "She was hanging on something with one hand and had me in the other. She helped me climb up her back. I heard a big ëcrack!í Then we were tumbling over and over. We landed hard on a flat rock."
"You mustíve been very scared." Genaed drew back, examining Sophie. "You werenít hurt?".
"Uh uh. The lady wrapped herself around me." She giggled. "Like a big wheel. It was kind of fun. But when we stopped rolling Ö." Sophie sniffed, tearing up. "The lady didnít move. Her eyes were closed, and she had blood on her. I thought Ö." She shuddered. "I thought she was Ö. I shook her, and she groaned. I was so happy. Then I heard my daddy calling me. I looked up and saw people on ropes coming to get us." Her face now bright again, Sophie looked at the defendant. "My daddy promised theyíd take care of the lady, so I knew everything would be all right."
"Didnít your daddy say she was bad?"
Sophie glanced sideways at her father. "He says that about almost everybody," she mumbled. "I tried to tell him it wasnít her fault. He said I was too young to understand the ways of grown-ups." She stuck out her chin. "But he was wrong about her."
"Thank you, Sophie. You did very well." Genaed patted her shoulder, then turned in his chair toward the stone-faced Lycenaeans. "So, Caleb, care to explain your earlier accusation?"
Caleb threw a disgusted look at Tallus. "Our folks were keeping an eye on Callisto. The thing with Sophie happened so fast Ö. It seemed harmless enough at first. Then all of a sudden Callisto was chasing Sophie and hollering at her. Once weíd pulled them up, and Tallus had a chance to talk to Sophie, he told us Callisto tried to kidnap her. We wanted to stringíer up right then." Caleb pursed his lips. "But, noooo. Tallus said we were too decent for that. He wanted an ëofficialí record of her earlier crimes against us and for people to know she deserved to die."
Genaed regarded Sophieís sullen father. "Tallus? What do you have to say for yourself?"
Tallus looked at his daughter, then at Genaed. "We are decent people," he said stubbornly. "We couldíve left her on that ledge. Just because she fooled a child like sheís trying to do to us, doesnít mean sheís not the same woman who killed Melasí boy. We gave her the chance to hear our grievances against her, which is more than she deserved. I still say sheís Callisto and that what we did was justified."
"Your honor? May I ask Sophie a question?"
"Keep it simple."
"I will." Gabrielle smiled at her young witness. "You told me this lady said she was a warrior. When was that?"
"Ummm Ö." Sophie scrunched her face in concentration. "Oh, when I told her I wanted my ball back." Sophie straightened proudly. "She asked me if I knew who I was going up against. I said no. She said I must be mighty brave then, `cause she was a mighty warrior." Sophie snickered. "I told her she didnít look like any warriors I knew."
"Did she tell you her name?"
"Uh uh, she just laughed. ëOh, donít let that fool you,í" Sophie drawled in imitation of her playfully threatening adversary. "`Iím not just any olí warrior. Underneath this skinny body and funny outfit is a real live warrior princess.í"
Back in Xenaís cell, Gabrielle sat with her eyes closed, re-playing in her mind all the bits of evidence she could use. The parties involved had been given time to rest, eat and prepare for the final stage. The general public would be invited back to hear closing arguments, after which the councilors would retire to begin their deliberations.
Xena lay napping with a cold cloth across her forehead. Sheíd begun rubbing her temples during Sophieís testimony and barely made it outside before heaving up her morning meal.
Images once again flashed beneath her lids. She saw herself hurtling through the darkness, struggling to hold on to a small form wrapped in her arms. The face she hugged to her chest kept changing. Sometimes it belonged to someone she knew, like Gabrielle, Sophie or her son Solan. Sometimes it was a nameless child, like a boy sheíd thrown food to as he rummaged among the ruins of the home her army had leveled. Some smiled at her, while others peered up with scorn or fear. All were innocent, except one whose face ñ framed first in dark hair, then in light ñ transformed into a monster.
"Nooooo." Xenaís arms wrapped tightly around her body. "Iíve got you."
"She wonít hurt you. I wonít let her."
"Xena, wake up."
She felt insistent hands on her arms. A warm touch replaced the cool weight on her forehead. Xenaís breathing slowed. Her eyes blinked open.
"Bad dream?" Gabrielle helped Xena sit up.
Xena groggily inched back to rest against the wall. "I thought naps were supposed to be good for you."
Gabrielle smiled. "Feel any better?" she asked, lightly brushing her friendís cheek. "The headache, I mean?"
Xena frowned. "Um, yeah, it does." She looked down at her battle skirt. "That Sophie has some grip," she said, fingering the spot where a missing piece of leather belonged. "Itís a wonder she didnít pull the whole thing off, using me as a ladder."
"Xena! You remember something now?"
Xena looked up. "Huh. Yeah, looks like my headís finally cleared." She snorted. "Not sure how important that is, given I might lose it anyway."
Gabrielle lightly whacked Xena on the midriff. "Stop it. I think our chances look pretty good. With Sophie on our side, how can we lose?"
"Yeah," Xena grinned. "Thatís quite a kid."
"Uh huh. Reminds me of another kid I wish Iíd gotten to meet."
Xena was quiet a moment. "Gabrielle, do you think weíre born what we are? Or made what we are."
"Thatís a deep question, coming from someone who just woke up from a nap." Gabrielle studied her companion. "Whatís going on?"
Xena fiddled with the leather pieces on her skirt. "I used to be so certain about things. Like going after Cortes or joining up with Caesar." She swallowed. "Leaving my son with the Centaurs. I didnít think so much about good or bad, right or wrong. I just Ö did. I donít know that Iíve changed that much. Because I care about others more? Because I help them? I still hurt people ñ people who arenít much different than me. What gives me that right?"
"Xena? What gives me the right to say they shouldnít be hurt?" Gabrielle smirked at Xenaís astonished expression. "Didnít think about that, didya, Warrior Philosopher?"
Gabrielle slid back to sit beside Xena. "I know you wanted to give Callisto a chance, because you thought you were alike. Truth is, there was hate and vengeance mixed in with my feelings about ëjusticeí for her, just like you felt. But I knew her heart had been damaged beyond repair, while yours had been turned in the wrong direction. Iím not sure how I knew that. I just Ö did."
Gabrielle took Xenaís hand. "I used to be more certain about things too. But even before this, I got used to living with someone who wasnít what people thought. I believed she had a noble heart already when we met, because it led her to rescue me in the first place. I was certain, once I saw how determined she was to do good."
"Yeah, well, it was your plucky little noble heart that inspired me to do it." Xena grinned. "Weíre back to the chicken and egg."
"No weíre not. My pointís that you had a heart to build on. Callisto didnít want one and did everything she could to destroy whatever parts remained. So, to answer your question, I guess I think weíre what we start with and what we do with it."
Xena grinned. "Yes, Mom."
Gabrielle glared. "I canít believe you told Sophie that."
"Why not? You do have a certain imperial maternalism about you."
"Listen!" Xena put her hand up. "The guards are coming back." She hopped off the bed, a little too eagerly in Gabrielleís opinion. "Must be time for you to pull that rabbit out of the hat. Better get ready."
"Imperial maternalism, my eye," Gabrielle muttered. "Iím gonna get you off, all right. Then youíll see some real imperial maternalism."
Anticipation buzzed throughout the meeting hall. Parties at both tables in front looked confident. Despite whatever had gone on during the closed session, the councilors didnít seem to favor one side over the other. However, observers did notice one interesting change. Guards continued to ring the hall, but the accused no longer wore chains.
Genaed had found a gavel. He pounded it. "Order!" he bellowed. "This is a short session. Weíll hear closing arguments and then adjourn. Youíll know weíve reached a decision when you hear the bell ring." He addressed the accusersí table. "Tallus, you may begin."
Tallus strode pompously to the front. "Frankly," he began, "I have nothing new to tell you. We know now what we knew before. That woman is Callisto. Witnesses have confirmed it. Callisto committed great sins against my own and other villages. Witnesses have confirmed that also. Gabrielle claims that the gods cared enough about Callisto to allow her to switch bodies with none other than Xena the Warrior Princess. Yet we have had testimony that Xena and Callisto were enemies. On the other hand, we know Xena allowed Callisto to escape, even though Xena supposedly killed her later."
Tallus gestured dismissively at Gabrielle. "On top of that, we have the equally questionable behavior of Callistoís advocate. We have proof, corroborated by Gabrielle herself, that not only is she a good friend of Xenaís, but that Callisto kidnapped her and later killed her husband. Gabrielle suggests that Callisto couldnít possibly know of a conversation between Xena and my brother Melas. But given Gabrielleís capriciousness, whatís to say she didnít learn of it from Xena, then pass it on to Callisto?
"Finally, we have the recollections of a traumatized little girl who only a few days ago was seen being chased into harm by Callisto. Is it any wonder that the girl would rather believe she was being rescued by some kind of princess? Yes, Xena might have tried to do that, if it is true she has changed. And she probably deserves to be sitting in that seat for crimes she committed before this so-called change. But none of that has anything to do with why we are here today. It is merely an artful, nonsensical subterfuge the advocate has used to convince us that we are somehow trying the wrong woman."
Tallus cleared his throat for his final assault. "We Lycenaeans do not take the people of Duopolis for fools. We are decent people trying to do the decent thing with a murderer we only wish Xena had really killed. We donít need tales of gods and magic or complicated relationships to prove our case. Thereís a very simple saying ñ if it looks like a hydra and moves like a hydra, itís probably a hydra. We urge the council not to let Gabrielle persuade them weíre dealing with a harpy. The accused is Callisto. Allow us to put her to death, which is the justice she deserves."
Genaed waited for Tallus to resume his seat. "We will now hear from Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled at the defendant. She stood before the assemblage. "Like Tallus, Iíll say what I did in the beginning. Callistoís crimes were terrible, but the woman sitting at the defendantís table is not who she appears. She is Xena -- the person who ignited Callistoís rage, sought to bring Callisto to justice and watched Callisto die.
"But Callistoís vengeance lives on. She vowed to destroy Xenaís reputation, her family and anything else Xena loves. She got something even better ñ forcing Xena to live in a body no one loves. Yes, thatís hard to believe. But ask yourself, what else makes sense? Why would witnesses who do not love Callisto give us doubts that the accused is Callisto?"
Pacing, Gabrielle headed toward the Lycenaeansí table. "Gressius described a time recently when Xena commanded Callistoís troops, when she acted strangely and even threatened her home village. Why would Xena suddenly act like Callisto, unless maybe it wasnít Xena at all?
"Melas admitted he canít look at the defendantís face without feeling pain and anger. Yet when he hears her words, looks into her soul, he sees someone he respects. How is that possible, unless maybe the accused isnít Callisto?
"Callisto cared nothing about the life of a child. Yet a child says the accused risked her life for her. Sophie didnít know the lady, only that she called herself a ëwarrior princess.í What was in it for Callisto to save Sophie, or for Sophie to risk punishment for someone her father said was bad, unless maybe it wasnít Callisto?"
Gabrielle walked over to stand in front of the accused. "And what about me? Xena has saved me more times than I can count, twice from Callisto. Xena stood with me at my marriage ceremony the day before Callisto killed my husband. Why would I betray Xena for someone I once wanted to kill myself?
"Why make up an unbelievable lie about body switching? Or, even then, not say it was my sister Lilla inside, or someone else pure of evil deeds, someone you would have sympathy for? Why would we pick the one person who readily accepts responsibility for what Callisto became? Who admits that she herself wasnít so different once?
"Xena would agree with Tallus, that the gods are a poor excuse. She doesnít blame them for what she has done. Ask her and she will own up to it. But donít ask her to take on any more of Callistoís burdens than she already has. The woman sitting there has shown remorse and caring completely foreign to someone like Callisto. She may look like a hydra, but we all know that looks can be deceiving. Trust your hearts, like Melas and Sophie, rather than your eyes, if you really care to see the truth inside. Thank you."
The councilors talked in hushed tones among themselves as Gabrielle returned to her table. People shifted restlessly, anticipating their dismissal. The moments wore on, and a few avid shoppers drifted out the door. Soon, others started to get up, until they heard Genaed banging his gavel.
"Order! Order!" The Chief Councilor then surprised everyone by announcing, "We have reached our decision."
The Lycenaeans looked at each other. Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other. This was not what either side expected.
Genaed smiled. "All this talk about hydras and harpies has left us dizzy, but we agree that we see some things clearly enough to end this now." He summoned an "official" demeanor.
"Of those here with complaints, Melas has experienced the most grievous loss. He met both Xena and Callisto. He believes we have the wrong woman. Sophie knew neither woman, yet the warrior who befriended her sounds nothing like Callisto. Finally, despite appearances to the contrary, Gabrielle has struck the councilors as genuine in her defense. Itís hard enough imagining why sheíd want to travel with Xena, but we canít think of any reason sheíd willingly choose life with Callisto.
"Some warrior friend of Gabrielleís sent word heís on his way with ëimportant news.í Not sure if he can vouch for the body-switching, but we doubt his testimony would change our decision. Tallus, we understand your disappointment at how things have gone here, but we believe Xena has already seen to the justice you seek. We hope that you continue to go about your business here without further incident."
Genaed looked the accused. "Um Ö."
"Xena?" she supplied dryly.
"If you say so," he acknowledged with a small smile. "We regret that you had to go through this. We hope your Ö condition Ö is not permanent. The council finds insufficient evidence to pursue this case any further. You are free to go. May the gods Ö. Strike that. Go in peace Ö Xena."
"That was nice of Melas to offer his well wishes."
"Yeah, it was."
"Tallus was pretty civil, when I went by their tent. I think he understood you were helping him save face."
"Sophie like her bit of leather?"
"Heh. To quote the young lady, ëOooweee! I got it back! And from a warrior princess too!í She was disappointed you didnít come, of course. Still, I think her daddy got big points for letting her take your ëgift.í"
"Mmmm." Xena surveyed their surroundings. "I think weíve gotten far enough away now." She lifted her head to the sky. "Suníll be setting soon. Letís try through there."
The two led Argo off the trail and into a small clearing bounded by majestic trees. Gabrielle didnít see a brook or stream, but somehow Xena usually managed to set up not far from one. "Okay?" she asked, ready to unload their gear.
"Mmmhmm." Xena absently stroked Argoís neck, gazing off into the distance. "Um, what was that?"
Gabrielle noted her companionís distraction, but stored it away for discussion later. "I asked if weíre going to camp here."
Xena began unsaddling Argo. "Yeah, sure. Looks as good a place as any. If the information on Joxer is right, weíll probably run into him on the road tomorrow."
"Heh, Gods only know what ëimportant newsí he has for us."
The two wordlessly went about their respective duties. Each seemed determined to make their outdoors "home" extra pleasant. Gabrielle gathered wild flowers and arranged them in the bowl sheíd bought in Duopolis. She lay her scarf on top of a blanket to make a tablecloth, then placed the flower arrangement in the middle. Xena stuffed soft fir branches and piles of leaves under their bedrolls. She scoured for berries, which Gabrielle would snack on soon enough, but until then added more color to their floral centerpiece.
"Not bad," Gabrielle commented, standing back to appraise the camp in the dancing light of their fire. She closed her eyes and sniffed the aroma of the stew theyíd brought with them from town.
"Mm." Xena came to stand beside her. "Much better than the Amazon Princess Suite." She chuckled at the rumblings coming from her companionís stomach. "Methinks we should stop gawking and eat."
Awhile later, Gabrielle lay on her back, sated and feeling more relaxed than she had in days. She glanced at the slender profile perched on a log nearby, a yellow curtain of hair obscuring Xenaís face as she bent to unlace her boots.
Gabrielle was surprised at the surge of affection she felt watching the too short fingers perform their simple task. She realized she hadnít once shaken her head to remind herself that the woman with her was Xena. It had felt so natural, hugging Xena after the trial, fussing with her about the need to spend a little time purchasing items before high-tailing it away, walking beside her for most of the trip to this spot.
Xenaís smooth movements told Gabrielle that the warrior too was feeling more relaxed. Still, a pensiveness hovered around the silent figure, though seemingly lighter than the dark thoughts that often haunted the warrior. Gabrielle levered herself up on her elbows.
"Feels like old times, huh?"
Xena raised her head. She glanced thoughtfully around the camp, then at Gabrielle. "Yeah," she answered, returning her companionís smile. "Starting to." She studied the boot in her hand.
"Duopolis still with you a little?"
Xena gazed at a wisp of smoke curling up from their fire into the darkness above . "I think Genaed still had doubts about me being Ö me." She shrugged. "Donít know why that matters. He kinda grew on me, I guess."
"Me too. But you know, he never addressed you as Callisto. He dispensed with the chains and called you ëXenaí in the end."
Xena snorted. "More because of you, my friend. Youíre the one he believed." She slid closer to lay a hand on Gabrielleís shoulder. "You did a good job back there."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, blushing a bit. She cleared her throat. "He gave you the warrior handshake. I donít think heíd have done that if he believed there was any chance you might be Callisto. Or," she hastened to add emphatically, "if heíd doubted youíre a different Xena than in the past."
Xena gave a mock glare and waggled her index finger. "You keep anticipating my thoughts like that and Iíll have even less to contribute to these chats than usual."
Gabrielle grinned broadly. "Nah, just helps us skip past the parts I already know." She got up to pluck some berries from her flower arrangement. "So, howíre you feeling? Generally speaking."
"Fine." Xena began tackling the fastenings on Callistoís elaborate armguards. "Headís fine. Bumps and bruises are fine. Balance could be a little better. I still miss my old endurance and recovery, but all in all, I could do worse."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Xenaís interpretation of her question, but decided to play along. "You could be an old lady with a cane. Or a monster with horns, six arms and snake eyes." She dropped to sit cross-legged across from Xena, warming up to this intriguing exercise of her creative skills. "Heh. Maybe an uncoordinated dork like Joxer. With bad eyesight."
Xena stared at the bard with hiked brow, seriously considering whether to return to Duopolis and ask Genaed if heíd ever jailed anybody with a dangerous imagination.
Figuring Xena was only half-listening anyway, Gabrielle blithely continued exploring possible worst-case scenarios. She grinned evilly. "A contestant in some competition for the most beautiful woman in the known world. With sequined gowns and fancy shoes."
"Like thatíll ever happen," Xena mumbled, engrossed in shedding Callistoís ridiculously impractical battle gear.
"Oooo, even better, you could be pregnant!"
Xenaís head jerked up. "Pregnant?!" she choked out. "Pregnant?!"
"Yes! Throwing up, falling down in exhaustion. Lugging an extra 20 pounds Ö."
"Well, look at its moth Ö." Gabrielle paused, an interesting thought occurring to her. "Xena, if you stay like this, would it have your bloodlines or Callistoís?" She smacked her forehead. "By the gods, the baby could be from both of you!"
"Gabrielle, what in Tartarus ñ"
"Letís seeÖ." Gabrielle stared sightlessly at the heavens, her mind grappling with future visions, weighing the pros and cons of various possibilities. "If we kept it with us, we could make sure ñ"
"Huh?" Gabrielle shook herself back to the present.
"I get the point, all right? Yes, I could do worse. Much worse. Iíll be happy as a clam from now on the way I am. Cheesh! If Warrior Princess Psycho Babe works for you, it works for me."
"`Psycho Babe?!í" Gabrielle fell back, laughing hysterically. "Oh, wouldnít Callisto love to hear that!" She took several deep breaths, mindful of the glower on Xenaís face. "Whew! Sorry," she finally managed with minimal giggling. "Guess I needed that."
"Always happy to add a little mirth to your day." Xena got up and completed her preparations for bed.
"Come on, Xena. Ya gotta admit that was pretty funny." She suppressed another giggle. "Especially you with baby on board. Bwahahahaha!"
"And just whom did you picture as the daddy, hmmm?" Xena inquired sourly. "Or did you forget that little detail in your grand scheme?"
Gabrielleís hands stopped rolling up the dinner cloth. "Oops. Yeah, I did." She shivered. "Letís not go there. Weíll assume it involved one of your many skills and leave it at that." Her shoulders started shaking. "Knowing the mothers is bad enough."
Xena ground her teeth, in between muttering darkly about gags and chains. She plopped down on her bedroll and pulled the covers over her head.
Gabrielle smiled at the lump affectionately. "Good night, Xena."
Gabrielle quietly finished cleaning up. She got herself ready for sleep and stretched out on the cushy bed Xena had created. "Mmmmm. I could get used to this." She turned to her side, facing the companion cocooned a few bootlengths away.
The lump stirred. "Mmmph."
"Grrrrmph." Xenaís head emerged and rolled toward Gabrielle. "Put that green thing on over your shift."
"Ha ha. That hardly covers much, as youíve so helpfully pointed out on many an occasion."
"What about the extra blanket we ate on?"
"No, I donít think thatíd be enough."
Sighing heavily, Xena extricated herself from her bedroll. She stalked to their fire pit and knelt to throw more twigs in.
"Thanks, but that wonít do either."
Xena chewed her lip. Brow raised dangerously high, she peered up at Gabrielle, finally noticing the gleam in her companionís eyes.
Xena shook her head, a smile playing at her lips. She knelt beside her bed and took off the covers, then carefully dragged the branches, and as many leaves as would come, next to Gabrielle. She smoothed the covers over the pile and lay down, holding up a corner of her blanket.
"Maybe thisíll work?"
Gabrielle grinned and scooted over. She squirmed around until her head lay on a bony chest and her arms circled a miniscule waist. She felt a thin arm wrap around her shoulder.
"You know, I may have lost a few pounds in Duopolis. Could affect your restfulness."
Gabrielle nuzzled closer. "Funny, but itís amazing what you can get used to when you give it a chance."
"Yeah," Xena agreed, giving her companion a light squeeze. "Funny."
"Do you think thereís a way to get your old Ö I mean, your real Ö body back?"
Xena sighed. "I donít know. Maybe." She regarded the head on her chest. "Why?"
"Just wondering." Gabrielle yawned. "And, yes, this one works okay for me, if it works okay for you."
"Gods," Xena groaned. "Not the chicken and egg again."
"Itís a riddle, Xena. Itís supposed to go on forever. The answer isnít so important, long as thereís a chicken and an egg keeping the cycle alive."
Xena grinned. "Kinda like us, huh?" she murmured gratefully into the soft hair she no longer minded tickling her lips.
Gabrielle smiled. She sighed contentedly against the less than meaty surface she was used to. "Exactly, Warrior ëTwo-fer.í Kinda like us."