When the Warrior Princess remains trapped in the body of her worst nemesis, Gabrielle must prove to herself, angry villagers and Xena that the killer on trial is actually a different person. This story offers an alternate version of what happened between the end of INTIMATE STRANGER and the beginning of TEN LITTLE WARLORDS.
“My body doesn’t make me who I am. My deeds do.” – Xena in the body of Callisto, TEN LITTLE WARLORDS
"Noooo!" she cried, tossing on her bedroll, sweat beading her furrowed brow. "Please, not again."
"Shhhh. It’s all right." Feathery touches soothed her damp forehead. "I’m 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 … 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 haven’t gotten used to this yet either."
The voice wasn’t Xena’s, 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. Gabrielle’s breathing calmed. She studied the tangled hair, its rich mahogany now bleached to …. Well, everything in its time.
Xena noticed with relief the wry grin playing at Gabrielle’s 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 I’d 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 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. "I’m accustomed to a little more meat on my pillows," she continued, feigning a yawn. "If you’re worried about me getting enough sleep, we’re 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 wasn’t 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 – stoking the fire to heat tea, laying out travel rations to accompany anything Xena might catch. Another time, she’d have felt proud of herself, but in truth her initiative wasn’t entirely voluntary. She hadn’t slept well, having spent most of her waking moments pretending her skin didn’t crawl.
This was their second night since Xena’s entrapment in Callisto’s body. The blond witch had played on Xena’s guilt at letting her sink to her death in quicksand. With help from Ares, Callisto had entered Xena’s dreams, then switched bodies with her. Xena had managed to send her nemesis’ 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. She’d almost lost that before, almost thrown it away just a few weeks ago in an impetuous desire to recapture the future she’d escaped the day a dark-haired warrior came to her rescue.
What was it she’d sought in agreeing to settle down with Perdicus, the young man she’d 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. She’d almost let her world go then too, except the same dark-haired warrior saved her once more. Begged – no, ordered – her not to die. Pounded her heart till it beat again, breathed air into her lungs. If ever she’d doubted Xena’s need for her, the profound relief she’d seen on the stoic warrior’s 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 she already had a place, served a purpose greater, more complex and demanding than any she’d ever imagined in her childish dreams? Maybe. If so, she wasn’t 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 warrior’s new body. Gabrielle smiled sadly at the irony. Now that she had tragic confirmation of the life she really wanted, she’d lost the look and feel of the person she expected to come with it.
Xena lay silently, feeling Gabrielle’s eyes on her and the weight of Gabrielle’s thoughts. She hadn’t slept well either. She was pretty sure her closeness had been the source of Gabrielle’s slight shudders, rather than the comfort she intended. She’d felt her companion ease away at dawn, relieved herself to have some time alone with her thoughts. It was bad enough to be in Callisto’s body, to have to adjust to any body other than her own. She could deal with that, though, as she’d dealt with all the other physical challenges she’d faced. But Gabrielle ….
"Why now?" Xena wondered to herself. She’d almost lost the young woman before. Had resigned herself to respecting Gabrielle’s choices to leave, convinced anyway maybe she would be better off not traveling with the infamous Warrior Princess. Except at Thessaly.
Xena’s 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 she’d cried, pleaded, beaten, and breathed life back into her. She’d cradled Gabrielle to her breast with such joy, knowing then that they were both where they belonged.
They’d grown closer during Gabrielle’s recuperation, so that she could no longer think of a world without the young woman’s 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 … uh … thought I’d give you a break this morning. Yesterday was kind of rough." She held Xena’s gaze, giving her a confidently playful smile. "You didn’t 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 it’s your chance to see if ‘irritating blondes’ 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 bard’s head. "Oooo, and I can get better height now that I’m 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.
"Don’t you dare!" Gabrielle exclaimed, hands on hips. "Gods know I don’t need to hear that voice screaming ‘yiyiyiyiyi’ to prove your point any further."
"Spoil sport." Xena ambled over to her clothing.
"So, what other trouble do you have in mind?"
Gabrielle’s jaw dropped. "Shopping?!" She peered suspiciously at Xena. "Are you sure it’s just your body you lost?"
Xena held up the two-piece black leather battle outfit she’d inherited along with Callisto’s body. "This ensemble’s 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. "We’re almost the same height. Look at how much we could save borrowing each other’s clothes."
"I don’t think so. Even Callisto wouldn’t wear that green thing you call a shirt."
"What?! ‘Green thing?!’" Gabrielle gasped indignantly.
Xena raised her hands defensively, laughing. "It’s so ‘you.’ 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 friend’s back, certain 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 they’d been near Amphipolis, they figured it probably wasn’t a good time to visit Xena’s home village. The residents had only recently forgiven the warrior for her youthful leadership of their sons against the warlord Cortes.
Then there was Callisto’s capture of Xena’s kinfolk a couple days ago, which ended in Xena’s saving them, only to find herself stuck in Callisto’s body. "A two-fer," Xena had sardonically referred to herself in terms of the less than fond memories she’d probably evoke as both herself and Callisto.
Still, Xena was being cautious. A few of the travelers they passed stared at her enough that she’d actually agreed to wear one of Gabrielle’s spare outfits – a long dress they’d shortened into a skirt. Gabrielle naturally found great amusement in that. Xena felt more uncomfortable than she let on – not so much because of the skirt, but because of her new face.
She’d long ago become accustomed to accepting the hostility often directed at the Warrior Princess. After all, she’d earned it, regardless of her efforts to make up for her past. The weight of her own guilt was such that she hadn’t thought much about wearing Callisto’s leathers, of the possibility she could be mistaken for her nemesis. But she’d 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 she’d last paid attention. She looked over her shoulder. "What’s up?"
Gabrielle pressed closer into the warrior’s back. "I used to be able to tell your moods better, but that’s a little harder now."
"Oh?" Xena continued looking back. "Something wrong?"
"That’s it – I’m not sure." Gabrielle leaned away and began poking Xena’s back.
"Hey! What’re you doing?"
"This body isn’t 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, I’m drawing a blank."
"Wish I’d 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. "I’d feel better if we could make it to a secluded spot before it gets too dark."
Gabrielle took another look over her shoulder. "So there’s no immediate danger you’re aware of, right?"
"Then we can resume our conversation, right?"
"Ri--. What conversation?"
"The one we weren’t having about your current mood."
"Fine." Gabrielle picked at the fabric covering Xena’s shoulder. "Who knows? Maybe you’ve been wearing this long enough now that it’ll tell me something."
Xena sighed. "No, it’s like you said. These clothes don’t say much of anything."
"What?" Gabrielle leaned forward to peer up at her companion. "Are you saying you’re disappointed?"
Xena sighed again. "I’m not used to hiding who I am, Gabrielle. It feels … odd – your dress disguising Callisto, Callisto disguising me – sort of like being doubly deceptive."
"Xena, you’re trying not to be mistaken for who you aren’t." Gabrielle patted Xena’s midriff, silently wishing for the solidity of the warrior’s usually muscular frame. "Don’t make too much of this, okay? At least this time you’re not having to pass yourself off as Autolycus’ concubine."
Xena chuckled. "Yeah, you’ve got a point." She patted Gabrielle’s arm. "Thanks. I’ll 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 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. "It’s okay. How long did he say it would take to make me an outfit from this?"
Gabrielle glanced at the vendor. "Um, well, we’re up to over a week now. If we don’t 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 merchant’s stall seemed especially large – 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 we’re being watched?"
Xena was rummaging around in her carry bag. "I had that feeling before we got here."
"It could be because we’re so cute," Gabrielle offered.
"Riiiight." Xena pulled out the leathers she’d 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 Callisto’s leathers. It’ll cut down on the draft," she added, smiling, "and give a slightly different ‘look.’"
"Xena?" Gabrielle took hold of the warrior’s arm. "Only a few people other than your kinfolk may know Callisto’s really dead. I’m starting to get a little worried about that."
"I know," Xena answered, patting Gabrielle’s hand. "But I suspect it may be too late to do anything about that right now. If we’re 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 … okay. I’ll 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 Gabrielle’s expression stopped her. "Yes, Mom," she teased. "I’ll try not to get any candy on myself while I’m 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 they’d passed when they first entered the market area, relieved to finally see the shirt she sought. "Arghhh, too big. We’ll have to alter it," she grumbled. Anxious to get back to Xena, she didn’t bother haggling with the merchant or searching for a better alternative. Still, it had taken her longer than she’d expected.
"Xena? I think I found …." Gabrielle’s voice trailed off as she entered the dressing booth and discovered it vacant. She looked around outside, hoping Xena was playing a prank on her. The patrons seemed to have thinned out, but she didn’t see the tall, dark-haired figure that usually stood out anyway. "Oh," she said, remembering that wouldn’t help this time. "Calm down," she told herself. "It’s still Xena we’re talking about."
She walked over to the vendor she’d been dealing with earlier. "Did you see where my friend went?"
The man busied himself with straightening his merchandise. "Sorry, can’t help you," he mumbled, continuing with his work.
Gabrielle stared at him. "Can’t help or won’t?"
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 didn’t see anything," he declared, resuming his straightening. Lowering his voice, he added, "And I’ll 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 they’d been trampled by those horses. In fact, she could still hear the hooves.
"Hey, she’s coming to."
Coming to? Coming to where? She was fairly certain she couldn’t budge, let alone go anywhere. She felt a jolt, like she’d 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. Didn’t 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. It’s just as well she stay out until we lock her up. We’re almost there."
"Aw, she ain’t up to hurtin’ nobody now. All bark and no bite." The sound of wood creaking. "I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere."
She would’ve liked to prove the idiot wrong – at least be able to lift her eyelids or breathe without fearing the pain would send her back into darkness. Then again, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Wherever she was "coming to" obviously wasn’t Elysia. If she could wait long enough … until …. Well, there was something worth biding her time. She couldn’t remember what it was exactly, but she knew it was out there. Somewhere. She’d just relax a little while longer, rest her pounding brain. Give the idiot another chance to wake her. She smiled again. Maybe this time she’d 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 sun’s 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 didn’t have. She was getting close to frantic, close to not worrying about what her nervous behavior might suggest to any spies. She’d inspected the dressing booth from top to bottom. Nothing inside or out – no bits of cloth, drops of blood, scuff or drag marks – hinted at foul play. If not for the suspicious behavior of the few folks who loitered nearby, she wouldn’t have been so concerned.
"Hey! Give that back! It’s mine!"
Gabrielle’s 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, you’re 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, you’re a dangerous little thing," she said to the struggling body in her grasp. "Hold on there. I won’t hurt you."
The girl twisted around to see what the boy was up to. "Don’t let him take it. It’s 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 playin’ with her." He started away. "You’d better get rid of it, if you know what’s good for you," he threw over his shoulder at the girl. He started running. "Or, I’m gon-na te-ell."
"So." Gabrielle grasped the girl’s shoulders and gently turned her. "What was that all about?"
Suddenly shy, the girl dropped her head. "Nothin’," she answered softly, putting her hand behind her back.
"I’m Gabrielle. What’s your name?"
"Well, Sophie, you put up a pretty good fight for ‘nothin’.’ Can I see?"
Sophie peered up, her large brown eyes searching Gabrielle’s face, then traveling down Gabrielle’s body. She looked up again. "You a warrior too?"
Gabrielle stiffened. "What?"
Sophie pointed to Gabrielle’s bare midriff. "You’re dressed kind of like the other lady. She said she was a warrior."
Gabrielle’s breath caught. "Other lady? Sophie, where did you see –"
"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 –"
Sophie wriggled away. "That’s my daddy. He’ll be mad at me." She turned to face the man, but opened the hand she had hidden behind her back. "I’m 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 Callisto’s battle skirt.
"Ohhhh." What in Tartarus were they putting in ale nowadays? She tried to reach up and grab her head, but couldn’t. "What the …?" 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, she’d just have to work backwards. She must’ve had some kind of fight and gotten whacked on the noggin. She’d 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 she’d 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 I’ll bite."
He hesitated a moment before inserting a key in the lock. "Naw, I fixed that." He swung the door open and came inside. "The others didn’t think you needed tying up, but I know better." He went over to the bucket. "If you even look at me funny – or do that growling again – you get nothin’, got it?"
She studied him long enough to establish she wasn’t 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 didn’t mind. The warm wetness felt good on her parched throat, made her feel a little more human. She nodded her head when she’d 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. It’d be more’n you gave my brother’s boy."
She stared at him, her brows furrowing.
"You don’t 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 didn’t do us any good."
"I … 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, we’re decent people. But you won’t get away this time. You’ll get what’s comin’ to you."
More "coming to." But where? Why? What was familiar in the idiot’s words? Her forehead creased as images flashed through her mind – images of death and destruction, of blood on her hands. Of children in danger and vicious battles between warriors …. She forced her head up and peered down her body…. 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 she’d bought would provide a reasonable disguise, though she didn’t think she’d be noticed anyway among those pushing their way toward what seemed to be a meeting hall.
She’d gone in the same direction as Sophie and her father, who’d joined some others in a large food tent. She’d found a table some distance away. She couldn’t hear much, just snatches of a heated discussion with lots of "Yes, we can" and "No, we can’t." Finally a bell rang, and everyone had headed to the meeting hall.
It took awhile to achieve some semblance of order inside. Sophie’s 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 Sophie’s group.
"We’re 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. "You’ll 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 sheathed the sword and nodded to a gray-haired gentleman seated beside him.
The gray-haired gentleman didn’t 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, I’m 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 Duopolis’ most prosperous market season," Genaed began. "As you know, we welcome visitors for their trade with us. Usually we don’t have major problems – maybe a few drunks, some petty thieves, a wife or two beating their husbands for flirting too much." Almost everyone except Sophie’s group chuckled.
"We’re 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, they’re not very suited to running a court."
Sophie’s father heaved himself up. "We don’t need you for that. We have our own court."
"That’s right," added a tall, thin man on the same bench. "We got the judges and witnesses right here."
"All we’re asking is the use of your facilities." Sophie’s 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."
Sophie’s father stuck out his chest. "I am Tallus, mayor of Lycenae. The prisoner wreaked havoc on our village."
"And I’m 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 prisoner’s reputation. We understand your desire for justice. However, we cannot allow Duopolis’ own reputation to be sullied by a lynch mob." Genaed put a cautioning hand up as Tallus’ group began grumbling again.
"I’m sorry, but I have our town’s commerce to think of. People come here because they know we run things fairly, that we try to hear all sides of disputes. We can’t have visitors snatched up and hung just because you come here and say it’s 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 ain’t no defense for what she did!"
"Look, we’ve 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 it’s to take my place up here."
"No," the woman answered, smiling a little at his humor. "Who is this prisoner everyone’s talking about?"
Before anyone could answer, Tallus pointed at her. "I know you! You’re 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 – 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 couldn’t be with her if she’d 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. "That’s kind of complicated," she responded wryly. "But if you’re going to try her, I guess I’m what she needs most right now – an advocate."
Footsteps – one set lighter, sure … 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.
"She’s in there." The idiot again. "Leave the staff and bag out here. Got any weapons on you?"
A soft "no," also familiar.
"You’d better not." The door was unlocked, opened, closed, locked again. "I’ll be sitting out here, watching. Any friend of Callisto’s ain’t 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 I’d 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?
"It’s me, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle? More images, pleasant ones this time.
"Open your eyes. I know you’re awake."
Ah, couldn’t fool this one. Her gut said maybe "Gabrielle" was what she’d been waiting for. She opened her eyes. And smiled.
Gabrielle kissed her forehead. "You had me so worried."
"I …." 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 … know you."
Gabrielle inhaled sharply.
"I … I’m …. My head is all jumbled up. Concussion, I think. Things are a bit … hazy."
"Do you know who you are?"
She snorted softly. "I’ve narrowed it to two choices – ‘Callisto’ or ‘Xena.’" She tilted her chin toward the man watching them. "According to him, neither is a good one."
Gabrielle puckered her lips. "You know, there’s complicated and then there’s complicated, so I’m 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 I’m looking at …. Um, she’s right here in front …." Gabrielle sighed. "Like I said, it’s complicated. You’re her and – you gotta trust me on this – it’s ‘Xena.’"
Caleb strained to hear the two women. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but it wasn’t this. Everything about Gabrielle seemed genuine – her friendliness, her decency and, most surprising, her regard for that monster Callisto. He couldn’t understand how someone like Gabrielle could take up for such a woman.
Callisto was obviously still dazed, so he could understand why she wasn’t acting crazy yet. Gabrielle didn’t seem afraid, though. She was touching and talking to Callisto like they actually cared about each other. He shook his head. They’d 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 d’ya think you’re doing?!"
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at him. "Untying her."
"Wh- wh-," he sputtered. "Are you mad? You can’t do that!"
"Sure I can," Gabrielle disagreed pleasantly, continuing her work. "These knots aren’t very secure. She’d 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 warrior’s hands away.
Caleb shifted indecisively from one foot to the other, not sure if he should stay where he was or run for help. "We’ll leave you in there to rot with her," he threatened.
"Fine with me." Gabrielle began her examination of Xena’s injuries. She looked over at Caleb long enough to add, "If that’s the case, you’d better hope this cell is big enough for Genaed’s court proceedings."
"This is outrageous!" Caleb banged his fist on the bars. "You’ll be staying in there, all right – at least until I get this straightened out." He huffed and walked away.
"Idiot," Xena muttered.
"Caleb’s 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 Xena’s body. "Xena, you’re 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 couldn’t 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 don’t remember much from the past either?"
"I’ve seen battles." Xena closed her eyes. "I’ve seen a sword in my hand. People running from me in fear." She opened her eyes, reached up and brushed Gabrielle’s hand. "I’ve seen you," she added softly. "I’m not sure what order they belong in or how long ago, but the pictures with you in them make me believe I’m the person you say I am."
"Gods, Xena." Gabrielle grasped the warrior’s hand. "Do you know who Callisto is?"
"Not really. Except she’s somebody I probably don’t want to know."
"In the memory flashes, do you see a thin, blond, female warrior, dressed in black leathers like the ones you’re wearing?"
"Yeah. I think we fought."
Xena considered this. "So … we’re related? Alike in some way? Is that why Caleb and the others think I’m her?"
"Xena, do you see images – like reflections in a mirror – 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, that’s you." Gabrielle gently squeezed, then let go of Xena’s 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 couldn’t 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 weren’t 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 first, okay? We’ll get comfortable, and I’ll tell you the unbelievable story of how Xena the Warrior Princess became a ‘two-fer.’"
It took a lot to discourage Gabrielle, but she had to admit she felt at her wits’ end. Caleb hadn’t delivered on his threat to keep her locked up with Xena, much to her disappointment. She’d spent the evening at the local inn, where she now stared forlornly at the meal she’d been picking at since noon.
Xena hadn’t been much help in Gabrielle’s attempts to piece together what had happened to her friend. Caleb and the others who’d brought Xena to the jailhouse refused to say anything more than, "She deserved what she got and what’s coming to her." Gabrielle saw one option left – to throw herself on the mercy of the Chief Councilor. He seemed an intelligent, reasonable man.
She trudged over to Genaed’s office in the meeting hall, hoping she could make him understand why the apparently clear-cut case against the accused was more … complicated … than that. When he asked her what defense she could possibly make, she figured she’d start with the truth – that they had the wrong woman. He politely pointed out that several people were prepared to swear otherwise.
"The whole truth?" Gabrielle sighed. She folded her hands together on Genaed’s desk. "Callisto’s dead. Ares helped her switch bodies with my friend. Callisto’s 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 Callisto’s advocate. I don’t like being played for a fool."
"Sir, if that’s what I thought to do, why would I tell you a story 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 didn’t think you a fool."
They regarded each other in silence.
"Even so, that’s 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. "They weren’t so different once. My friend is also an accomplished warrior. 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 isn’t Callisto."
Gabrielle’s 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 wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to suspect trickery or collusion in what you claim."
Gabrielle slumped in her chair. "I was right. You’re 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."
"How’d it go?"
"Not as well as I’d hoped." Gabrielle sat on the end of Xena’s cot. "How’re 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 doesn’t heal as fast as I recall." She chuckled. "But if you’re wondering whether I’m up to breaking out of here, the answer’s ‘yes.’"
Gabrielle didn’t laugh. "Would you?" she asked seriously. "If we can’t convince them they’ve 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 it’s told by the best bard in the land."
Gabrielle looked down. "I … um …. 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 didn’t 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 you’ve done. You almost let yourself get executed once before for something you didn’t do. Promise me you won’t do that again – try to pay for your own crimes by accepting blame for someone else’s."
Xena stared out at the cell door a moment before answering. "I promise," she said softly. "I remember now, telling Callisto as much in the Underworld." She brought her knees to her chest and stared out again.
"I don’t like this any more than you do. 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 I’ve had to become someone different. I’m not sure what I’ll do," she acknowledged, her eyes now on Gabrielle. "I just know this isn’t quite the same as what I promised."
Gabrielle leaned back, disturbed by Xena’s admission, but understanding that arguing wouldn’t help much right then. "Let’s see what we can do with what we’ve 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 she’d assembled. "I’m pretty clear now about the past, about coming to the market."
"When I left you, you were putting on Callisto’s battle skirt. I thought you’d wait for me to bring a new shirt. For some reason you put her whole outfit on."
Xena looked down at herself. "Yes …. I … I needed to finish dressing."
Gabrielle perked up. "Can you recall why? Did you feel threatened? Did someone call you?"
"I …." 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 – about me hurting his brother’s son. Except …." She paused, frowning.
"My picture is of a little girl."
"A little girl?" Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s arm. "With big brown eyes? Short, curly brown hair?"
"Yes," Xena said in surprise. "About this high," she added, indicating the girl’s size. "A … yellow blouse, I think. Is that good?"
"Oh, yes!" Gabrielle exclaimed, squeezing Xena’s arm. "I think it’s Sophie." She hopped off the cot and began rummaging in her bag. She retrieved something and came over to put it in Xena’s hand.
Xena stared at the bit of black leather. "Isn’t this …?" She held it against her skirt, which she examined until she found a small gap in the columns of leather pieces. "How did …? Where …?"
"Sophie gave it to me. It seems she met a ‘warrior lady.’ 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 can’t …. I don’t remember!"
"Hey, it’s okay," Gabrielle soothed. "We’re making progress."
"You call pulling teeth ‘progress’?"
"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 that’s what drew you outside?"
"I suppose …." Xena sighed in frustration. "It’s all so foggy!" She absently wiped some sweat off her brow and pressed down on the top of her head.
"Let’s take a break," Gabrielle suggested. "You’re 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 Callisto’s brains."
Gabrielle laughed. "I’ve had plenty more proof than this that you take first prize for the hardest head in the known world." Ignoring Xena’s glare, Gabrielle pushed the warrior back horizontal on the cot. "Don’t argue," she commanded, halting the expected complaint. "So far you’ve avoided a bad fever. Callisto’s body may be slower, but it’s mending. Let’s 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. I’ll take a nap, if you insist." She settled irritably into a comfortable position. "And what’ll you be doing while I’m 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 Xena’s dinner. Genaed had sent word they would begin the trial at midday tomorrow. Sophie’s father Tallus would lead the case against the accused. The judges would be comprised of the local council, though Genaed warned many of them knew of a certain female warlord. Gabrielle assumed the wording of his message meant he hadn’t 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 didn’t know what would be best. Her main goal at the moment was to find out more about Sophie. She couldn’t know what help the girl might be, but there must be some reason Tallus didn’t 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 none of Tallus’ group was staying there. The proprietor suggested 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 she’d 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 greeted a woman selling pottery.
The woman started to answer, then glowered. "You’re that witch’s friend."
"You must have me mistaken for someone else. My name’s not ‘That Witch’s Friend.’ It’s Gabrielle."
"Very funny. We’ll see if you’re laughing when we chop off her head."
Gabrielle picked up one of the vendor’s 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 don’t like wasting it on people who aren’t 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 didn’t come here to pass the time. Two dinars?"
The woman stared at her a moment. "Four."
"Ooo." Gabrielle cringed. "Even in Athens I’ve 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. "It’s getting late. I only have time for merchandise that’s up to this quality. Is there anyone else you’d 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. "I’m 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 casually put the bowl in her carry bag.
"We weren’t sure it was her at first."
Gabrielle suppressed her surprise. "I suppose it’s hard to recall what someone looks like when they’re bearing down on you, swinging a sword."
"I wouldn’t know about that," the woman snapped. "But there are plenty who do. You’d better get going, if you really mean to buy anything else."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said brightly. "I’ll 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 the cot.
"You went … 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 wouldn’t believe."
Xena rolled her eyes before starting on her meal.
Gabrielle picked up a leather pouch. "This vendor confirmed Tallus and his merchant friends haven’t been far from the port towns along this coast in ages." She pointed to some quills and blank scrolls. "With these, I confirmed probably none of these folks has seen Callisto. They’re 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." Gabrielle’s smiled faded. "Which reminds me, I couldn’t get to Sophie. I think I know where her folks are camping, but it was getting dark. They’re suspicious enough, without finding me creeping around, spying on them."
Xena patted her shoulder. "Ya done good. Not sure what you’ll 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 her purchases.
"Let’s see…." Xena set aside her dinner bowl and rested her chin on a fist. "The prisoner is innocent because Callisto didn’t do what she’s accused of. The prisoner is innocent because nobody present can prove Callisto did what she’s accused of, let alone saw her do it. The prisoner is innocent because she’s 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."
"That’s not funny."
"I wasn’t trying to be. Am I wrong?"
"No," Gabrielle admitted softly.
"And have you decided which strategy you’ll use?"
"I’m … still working on it."
"So, what’s for me to worry about?" Xena reached over and ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. "I fight, you talk," she teased, resting her back against the wall and closing her eyes. "I’ll simply follow your lead. That’s generally worked in the past. Why mess with perfection?"
Gabrielle stared at her companion with mixed emotions. "I just thought of another defense."
Xena’s eyes opened, one brow raising. "Insanity?"
"Sure. I could say Callisto didn’t 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 you’re in her body. So whether they see you as Callisto or Xena, you’d get an asylum rather than the executioner’s block."
Xena stared at her companion with mixed emotions. "You’re kidding, right?"
"What’s to worry?" Gabrielle responded, gathering up her things. "Just follow my lead, remember? I brought the Titans out of stone and turned them back again, didn’t I? Like you said – except for them almost stomping everybody to death – ‘perfection.’"
Gabrielle strode to the cell door and banged on the bars. "Guard!" She turned back to Xena. "For your information, Callisto’s trial begins midday tomorrow. I’ll be back in the morning to answer any questions you might have."
"Hey…." 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, I’m sorry. Don’t think I’m not taking this seriously, okay?"
The guard opened the door wide enough for Gabrielle to slip through. She gazed at the woman who’d 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 I’m not sure what that means."
Xena watched Gabrielle leave, continuing to stand in the middle of the cell, for the first time truly understanding Gabrielle’s fear. It wasn’t about what Genaed’s 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 she’d sketched an outline of probable scenarios. She’d lived so much "in the moment," literally imbibing how that felt, thrilling at the thought of new tastes and how she’d respond to them. She’d 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 that’s what she trusted most. Now ….
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.
She’d told Gabrielle initially she was okay with Callisto’s body. She knew who she was inside. That was before Gabrielle had recoiled from her touch. Before she realized, if they stayed in Greece, she could end up living out her life either taking on Callisto’s guilt or proving that, underneath, the blond madwoman wasn’t really as bad as she appeared. Before the woman she’d been true to for better or worse had begun disappearing within the woman who’d 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 Callisto’s taunting pull into the Underworld. Could they prove Gabrielle wrong? Even though Callisto’s evil threatened to drag them through Tartarus with her?
Xena didn’t feel up to worrying yet about what tomorrow’s moments would bring. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. For once she couldn’t 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. Xena’s faith in her didn’t do much to allay her doubts about her defense or Xena’s commitment to getting out of Duopolis soon and in one piece. She weighed the possibilities of different strategies, finally concluding it might be best to take a bit of wisdom from the Warrior Princess’ Guide to Getting Out of Jams – "Be prepared for anything and play it by ear."
Just in case, she’d convinced some travelers at the inn to take a message to Xena’s mother Cyrene. Joxer was probably still in the area and not hard to spot, so she’d 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 wouldn’t begin for another couple of hours, a large security detail had already begun assembling outside the jail. This attracted some attention, given the jail’s 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 – shackles, handcuffs, metal collars. Soldiers milled about, armed to the teeth. Four huge men she hadn’t seen before blocked entry to Xena’s 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?
"I’m here to see the prisoner," Gabrielle told the behemoths at the door.
"Let her pass," ordered one of the regular guards. "That’s Callisto’s … 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 warrior’s 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.
"You’ll do fine," Xena assured her, returning the hug, wistfully wishing she was tall enough to rest her chin on the red-gold head as she’d 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 – Xena’s injuries, Argo, Gabrielle’s observations about Duopolis, what mischief Meg might be getting into at Princess Diana’s castle, the fact that Xena could use a bath. To those watching, the two women might as well have been chatting in 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 it was almost time to prepare the prisoner.
Gabrielle confirmed Xena still couldn’t remember the details about what had happened to her. She grasped Xena’s arm. "Xena, I want you to be yourself," she instructed quietly, "but don’t deny being Callisto unless you have to or I give you the okay."
"You have a plan?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Sure. I’m 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. I’ll 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. "You’ve 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 I’m a little ripe," she warned, sniffing her armpits. "You might wanna be careful of my warrior 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 councilors’ 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 didn’t seem amused.
"Either get seated or get out!" he commanded those still trying to get situated. "I’ll have no nonsense at these proceedings. Once I call order, nobody moves, nobody talks, don’t even sneeze unless I say so. We’re 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 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 … session … concerning the crimes of Callisto of Cyrra will now come to order."
Tallus rose. "Is this not a trial?" At Genaed’s glower, Tallus added, "Your honor?"
"I don’t know what this is yet. You’ll present your case. The accused’s 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 she’s guilty! We just need you to –"
"Sit … 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 – 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, here’s how we’ll proceed. First, we’ll hear summaries from Tallus, representing the aggrieved parties, and Gabrielle, representing the defendant. Tallus will call his witnesses, followed by Gabrielle. Each may question the other’s witnesses, but I don’t 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 she’d been killed, but she was spotted a few days ago, despite trying to conceal her identity. We will prove she is a menace and that Duopolis will only be doing its duty by making sure she does not live to destroy this or any other community." Tallus bowed and returned to his chair.
Genaed turned to the defendant’s table. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle squeezed Xena’s 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 the woman sitting there is not who she appears to be."
Murmurs from the spectators accompanied Gabrielle’s trip back to the defendant’s 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 … yes," Tallus answered, as though the problem were perfectly obvious. "We’re here to determine Callisto’s guilt and punishment. What difference does it make who she appears to be? Surely her advocate isn’t trying to suggest we’ve got the wrong woman?"
"That’s not for me to say." Genaed gazed at Gabrielle with a bemused expression. "But you don’t get to my age without finding sometimes a piece of cake isn’t a piece of cake. I guess we’ll see, won’t 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 –"
"Was he there?"
"Are you calling him a liar?"
"No," Gabrielle 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 –"
"You’ve 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 accuser’s 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 that’s 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 must’ve been pretty close to Callisto at some point, to notice all that."
"I …." 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 weren’t 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 don’t 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 councilors’ table. "Everyone’s 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 we’d have to prove it was her!"
"Are you saying you can’t?"
Tallus glanced nervously over his shoulder toward the back of the room. "We … we have it on very good authority by … someone who can."
"Is that someone here?" Genaed squinted in the direction Tallus was looking. "Call them, for gods’ sake. Are they afraid or something?"
"Is it one of Callisto’s victims?"
Tallus lowered his head. "Not exactly."
"Arghhh! My patience is wearing very thin. I can call a recess, so we can talk to this person privately if …." Genaed’s 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 guards’ hold, while keeping a watchful eye on the accused. "You don’t know what you’re dealing with! She’s a witch! A crazy, vengeful witch who’ll 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 it wasn’t 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. "I’m not supposed to be here! Let me go and I won’t be any trouble!"
"Tallus?" Genaed got up and walked to the edge of the councilors’ platform. "It appears you know that man. Who is he?"
Several people shushed their neighbors in order to hear Tallus’ 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, "It’s 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. Can’t you take our word for it he knows Callisto when he sees her?"
Genaed rolled his eyes. "No, but I’ll bet he’s all you’ve got that comes close."
"Put Callisto on the stand!" the man yelled. "She’s not ashamed to say who she is. You don’t need me, if that’s all you want to know."
Tallus huddled briefly with his colleagues. "I’m sorry," he called to the man, "but she and her advocate seem prepared to deny she’s Callisto. If you don’t testify, she may go free. You don’t want that, do you?"
The man ceased struggling. He glanced resignedly at the defendant. "She’s seen me now," he muttered, shuddering at the calm way she was regarding him, as though she’d already dismissed him from her mind. "I’m a dead man anyway." He shrugged off the guards’ hands and, taking the aisle on Tallus’ 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. We’ve had to break our word to him. Could you at least guarantee you will not prosecute him for coming forward?"
Genaed took his seat and conferred with the other councilors, before addressing Tallus. "We’ll consider your request, after we’ve heard what he has to say."
Tallus nodded. "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 Callisto’s army a couple years ago. I now command what’s 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 you’ve got the right … person."
"Thank you, Gressius." Tallus smiled triumphantly at the defendant’s 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 doesn’t change our defense. We certainly don’t object to a recess. However, I would like to ask Gressius a couple of questions first."
Genaed’s colleagues grudgingly nodded their assent. "All right, but don’t 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, I’m 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 … resting … in the forest when we saw you two ride by. We’d thought Callisto dead, but there’s no mistaking her, so we followed."
"Why didn’t you just come up and say, ‘Hi, Callisto, glad you’re back?’"
Gressius glanced briefly at the defendant. "We’d accepted the leadership of her worst enemy. It wasn’t for long, but we didn’t think she’d take kindly to that. I wasn’t sure what she was up to – riding with someone who’d wanted to kill her, trying to disguise herself and act normal. Breathe wrong and she’ll 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 she’d done to their village." Gressius shrugged. "If she was crazy before, she was acting even crazier now. We’d been doing okay without her. I figured if I helped the Lycenaeans, we wouldn’t have to worry about her trying to take over. I told them it was definitely Callisto, that they’d better act fast if they wanted to get her."
"One more question before we break. You say you served briefly under one of Callisto’s enemies. Who was that?"
Gressius directed his response to the blond defendant. "Xena!" he sneered. "She made her mark on my chest with Theodorus’ blood. I’m 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 Genaed’s office in the meeting hall, where he’d sequestered the two during recess. "In a ‘can it get any better’ way, I suppose."
Gabrielle fiddled with a piece of cheese. "On the bright side, it’ll be hard for them to argue you’re in cahoots with Callisto."
"Uh huh. After we’ve convinced them I’m inside Callisto and that she was inside me when I slit Theodorus’ throat." Xena waved a semi-clean chicken bone at Gabrielle. "This isn’t bad. You should try some." She grinned. "I prefer a little meat on my advocate, if she’s going to hold up under all these ‘interesting’ developments."
Gabrielle jumped up and started pacing. "Xena, I don’t know how you can be so …." 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 don’t know what I expected. It’s so … ridiculous, considering who you really are."
Xena wiped her hands. "Is it?" she asked quietly. "When Callisto attacked people in my name, they didn’t have any trouble believing her."
"But you proved you’re not like her."
"We proved she was the one responsible. That time." Xena shrugged. "Now I’m getting credit for what she did in her name – as both myself and her. Has a certain symmetry when you think about it."
Gabrielle gave her companion a long stare. "Xena, it’s not fair. Whatever you’re thinking, you can’t believe there’s any justice in this."
The warrior held out her hands, studying them. "I’ve 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 didn’t feel a chill because these were hers," she admitted softly. "Then I felt a chill because they weren’t yours. Now," she continued, squeezing the hands she held, "I feel warmth and safety from them. It’s the touch of the woman you meant to create, Xena. I call it ‘love,’ and that’s what really matters. Somehow, we’ll make those people out there feel the difference too."
Xena swallowed, eyes brimming. "Thank you." She brought Gabrielle’s hands to her lips for a gentle kiss. "Whatever else I might doubt, I know what’s in my heart. If you can still see that, still feel that …." Xena shook her head, smiling. "If you can convince me," she continued, glancing at her plate, "there’s a good chance you could even convince that chicken bone."
"Thank you, Xena." Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to blink back tears. "You don’t know how much that means to me." She lowered her head with a sigh. "Sometimes I feel so …."
Xena leaned toward her defender. "What?" she asked softly.
Gabrielle looked up. "I didn’t want to be alone in this. Most of the time I’m okay being your ‘light,’ the one who believes in you. It was pretty easy when I could look across the campfire and see … you. But now … 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. "It’s sort of like the chicken and the egg. Am I the ‘real’ 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. "We’ll let this decide which comes first – my belief or yours. Pull."
Gabrielle grinned and grasped one half of the wishbone. She tugged, then smugly dangled the part she’d snapped off in Xena’s face.
Xena pursed her lips at the longer piece she held. "Did I mention the short one wins?"
Xena and Gabrielle sat at the defendant’s 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 … human than a few hours before.
Genaed called the proceedings to order. "Tallus informs me he has finished with his witnesses. Gabrielle, it’s your turn. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us."
Gabrielle slid the longer wishbone piece over Xena’s 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.
"Selenia, you stated 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 accusers’ table, confused. "I …. They …. We found out later who she was."
"And was it who she said she was when she was attacking them?"
"Um …. 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. "We’ll get out of here a lot quicker if you answer."
"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, "you’re saying, 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. "Caleb’s brother, Melas. It was his boy she killed. He went after Xena and knew it wasn’t 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. That’s 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 defendant’s 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, we’ve heard 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, so’s she could go after Callisto herself. Got her too. But she wouldn’t 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 didn’t Xena recapture her?"
"Yeah, and she got away again. Don’t know why Xena was so dead set on letting Callisto be tried." He snorted again. "Maybe it’s some warlord code or something."
"From what your brother said, did Xena seem to be a part of Callisto’s reign of terror?"
Caleb considered this. "Uh, no, but Xena didn’t seem surprised either. Seems there’s 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 don’t appreciate the entertainment, Gabrielle, but let’s stick to the main agenda, shall we?
"Actually, I am, your honor," Gabrielle replied, assuming a more serious manner. "I believe we’ve established there was some confusion among the accusers between Callisto and Xena. It’s important to my defense to establish I’m 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? You’ve obviously thrown your lot in with Callisto now. You’d say anything to free her."
"Enough!" Genaed pointed his finger at Caleb. "You’re not to speak unless asked a question. Gabrielle, are you finished with this witness?"
"Yes, sir. I’d like to call on Gressius."
Caleb strode grimly from the witness stand, to be replaced with an equally grim Gressius.
"Gressius, from everything we’ve heard about Callisto, you’d think she’d want people to tremble at her name. Why would she give credit to Xena for her own exploits?"
"Xena’s 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. 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 can’t say as I remember you. Have you seen me before?"
"Was I ever at Callisto’s 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. You’d have dropped to your death if Xena hadn’t come. The second time, you snuck in and drew a sword on her."
"Oh? I wasn’t happy with her hospitality the first time around?"
"She’d tried to kill you again, but ended up killing your husband instead."
Gabrielle heard several gasps. Her jaw tightened. 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, "she’s crazy. She said Xena’d become weak, that she’d developed a heart. She blamed you for filling Xena’s 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 wasn’t enough. She wanted Xena to suffer like she had. To lose somebody or feel guilty about somebody else’s suffering. So, yeah, bragging about how she ‘stuck’ 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 Callisto’s evil, and puzzlement at why. Stunned, the onlookers tried to reconcile Gabrielle’s 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 – which she did with a hand to the shoulder and a quiet, "I’m all right. Trust me, okay?"
"I’m 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 Xena’d gotten the message that jail wasn’t 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 Xena came to take Callisto’s army?"
Gressius furrowed his brow, thinking back. "Yeah. It was weird. Theodorus told us to throw our weapons down. Claimed Xena had some code about only killing when threatened. We did. That’s when she slit his throat. The look on her face when she cut him …." He shuddered.
"If I hadn’t known any better, I’d’ve 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. We were glad at first, because of Xena’s 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 didn’t understand, `specially since that’s Xena’s home village, but I had enough sense to do what I was told."
"What happened to them?"
"Don’t 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 … retreated … out of there as fast as we could. If it was Callisto attacking, we thought she must’ve died in there with Xena, because neither of `em came after us."
Gabrielle looked up at Genaed. "That’s all I have for this witness, your honor."
"We have a lot to digest," the Chief Councilor said. "There’s still time left for folks to get to the market or do whatever else they need before it gets dark. We’ll adjourn for the day and resume in the morning. Guards, take the prisoner back to her cell."
"I’ll 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 don’t see why not." His smiled matched Gabrielle’s. She turned to leave. "Gabrielle?"
"Yes?" she answered, a little afraid he’d changed his mind.
"She’s mighty lucky to have you at her side."
Gabrielle blushed. "Thank you, Genaed. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel the same about her."
Genaed nodded and watched her walk away.
"An odd couple," one of the other councilors remarked to Genaed. "I’ve presided at many strange meetings. This has got to be the strangest. That young woman is the biggest fool, the best con artist or the most idealistic person I’ve 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.
"Don’t 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. "That’s mighty hospitable of you, but we’re pretty tired. I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere." She flashed him a winning smile.
"Humph." He nudged the other guard to get moving. "You’d 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 hadn’t noticed any other occupant.
Xena allowed her companion’s charade for a while, fully aware that Gabrielle was fully aware Xena would’ve protested this arrangement. If she’d been asked. She also knew Gabrielle was worried about her – worried she’d 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 Callisto’s face every morning. Xena shook her head, smiling wryly. Gabrielle knew her too well.
In truth, Xena welcomed Gabrielle’s presence – 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. Gabrielle’s strength never ceased to amaze her. How her young friend could stand there today – that gentle nature balancing so many conflicting emotions with such grace – 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. "You’re here too! What a coincidence!"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Yes, isn’t it though. And here I thought only special people such as myself could stay in these lovely accommodations."
Gabrielle’s 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 don’t really want to talk about it though. As it is, my brain’s got too many story lines running through it, and I’m not seeing how any of `em’ll 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 Xena’s 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 …." Xena paused with a faint growl of annoyance and spit some hairs out, having momentarily forgotten her mouth wouldn’t be above Gabrielle’s head anymore. "Even if your ‘pillows’ still don’t have enough meat on `em?"
"Wh- what?" Gabrielle gasped, wondering if maybe she’d mumbled aloud what she’d 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, locked the door and walked away.
"I have to say, the service here isn’t 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 accusers’ 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 didn’t 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, you’d 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.
"Caleb’s 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 Callisto’s advocate that somehow we caught the wrong woman. She has been so bold as to challenge –"
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 I’ll 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 Callisto’s hands."
Melas glanced coldly at the defendant before answering, "Yes. My son."
"At first you thought the murderer was Xena."
"Yes. That’s the name she gave."
"But you found Xena and discovered the murderer was someone else."
"And you got to see Callisto in action, as well as when she was captured."
"Gabrielle has suggested 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.
"I’m sure the woman in chains is Callisto. But the woman next to her couldn’t possibly be Gabrielle."
Tallus looked from Melas to Gabrielle to Genaed to Gabrielle and then finally Genaed again. "But … but that’s not important." He drew himself up. "What’s important is that you have confirmed 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. You’re overstepping again." Genaed regarded the two women at the defendant’s table, neither of whom appeared as surprised by Melas’ 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 isn’t who she says she is."
"The Gabrielle I witnessed was peace loving and compassionate," Melas answered, disgust evident in his appraisal of Callisto’s advocate. "Xena admired her for that. Yes, she looks exactly like the Gabrielle I remember. And, yes, she showed me hate is not the answer to the most evil of deeds. But I can’t believe 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 accused’s chains as she raised her hands to rest on her advocate’s shoulder.
"Gabrielle?" Genaed’s eyes seem to bore through the advocate. "Do you have any questions of this witness?"
Gabrielle 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?"
Gabrielle 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 … hate … and vengeance mixed in. For the pain she’d caused a friend."
"So you understand how the Lycenaeans feel. You even agree 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 it’s not. It’s Callisto."
"What’d she say?"
"What’s going on?!"
"Pipe down!" Genaed ordered, banging his fist on the table. "Let them finish!" He looked at Gabrielle. "Continue."
"Are you saying you’re not Callisto?" Gabrielle resumed, as if there had been no interruption.
"Yes. I mean, no, I’m 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 …. This is …. I object!"
Genaed didn’t 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. Proceed."
Gabrielle directed the accused to explain how she had come to occupy Callisto’s body, which the warrior did.
"Xena, Callisto is the person you said you let die. Why didn’t you kill her before, when you had the chance? Why insist on taking her to jail, on risking the chance she might get free to murder again?"
Xena raised her chin and gazed resolutely out at the assemblage. "Callisto had good reason to say I ‘made’ 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 – 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 – 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 there’s justice in what’s happening here now?"
Xena’s jaw tightened. "Maybe for me." She smiled sadly at the consternation forming on her partner’s 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 I’m 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 I and Callisto stained. Your faith has helped me stand for that too. Melas reminded me you’ve put your deeds and ideals on trial, right along with the two Tartarus-be-damned killers you’re defending." Xena smiled wryly. "We have to prove I’m the woman you say. Otherwise, you’ll come off as not quite the Gabrielle Melas spoke so highly about. 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 don’t mind, I’d 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 don’t see what difference it would make anyway," he responded bitterly. "This can’t get much more of a farce than it already is."
"I’ll take that as a ‘no,’" Genaed stated, choosing to overlook Tallus’ 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 didn’t answer immediately. His comrades stirred nervously. "I …. When I look at that face …." He closed his eyes and brought his hands up, lowering his chin to rest on tightly clenched fists. "I still have to remind myself rage won’t bring my boy back, that I can only keep him with me in loving memory." He took a deep breath before lifting pain-filled eyes toward the defendant.
"That voice is the one I dreamed of strangling into silence. But the words, the spirit behind them …." 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 couldn’t possibly know?"
Melas closed his eyes again, searching his recollection of that awful time he’d 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 at the accused. "Do you remember that?"
Xena’s unwavering eyes held Melas’ 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 – 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 people like us should listen to people like Gabrielle."
"Yes," Melas confirmed softly, still not believing his ears. "That’s what you said."
"Your honor!" Caleb yelled, jumping to his feet. "She tried to hurt another child the other day, just like she did Melas’ boy!"
Tallus grabbed Caleb’s arm. "Quiet," he hissed. "Leave it be!"
"What’s going on?" Genaed squinted suspiciously at the accusers’ table. "Is there other evidence you’re withholding for some reason?"
Bolstered by encouragement from other Lycenaeans, Caleb snatched his arm away and forged on. "Callisto attacked Tallus’ little daughter, Sophie. We wanted to spare her from having to talk about it. We never dreamed it’d get this far, but maybe that’s what it’ll 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, we’d love to know what happened. Xena doesn’t 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 – what?!" Caleb sputtered. "You sayin’ we attacked her? Why, if she hadn’t –"
"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 shouldn’t complicate things further by bringing in complaints that have little bearing on Callisto’s past crimes. Melas’ grief has obviously confused him. We’ve 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.
"We’ve reached an agreement," the Chief Councilor announced. "We wish to hear from Sophie. Ordinarily, we’d 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. "Sophie?"
Sophie’s frightened brown eyes darted between Genaed and the accuser’s table as she backed toward the chair he gently guided her into.
"Sophie, I’ll be right here with you," Genaed assured her, continuing to hold her hand as he sat down next to her. "Do you know why you’re here?"
The girl glanced at her angry father, before hanging her head. "I’ve been bad?"
"No, Sophie, not at all." Genaed 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 defendant’s 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 she’s scared!" Tallus rose to lean on his table. "You’ve got no business getting her mixed up in this."
Genaed threw Tallus a warning look over Sophie’s 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 daddy’ll be mad at me. He told me to forget about the lady." She peeked sheepishly at the defendant’s table. "He said she’s bad."
"Sophie," Genaed began, continuing to glower above her at Tallus, "your daddy probably didn’t want you playing with strangers. That’s the last time he’ll yell like that, since I’m sure he doesn’t 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 Sophie’s sight, Genaed pointed at the accusers’ 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 the lady over there."
Xena smiled back when Sophie shyly grinned her way, and waggled her fingers slightly in acknowledgement of the girl’s earlier attempt at a greeting. While her encounter with Sophie was still fuzzy, Xena did recognize her as the child she’d 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 she’d been playing in the market, how her ball rolled under one of the dressing stalls. She’d stood outside, not sure what to do. Her father had told her to stay in the play area. She didn’t mean to disobey him. Just as she’d decided maybe to forget the ball and run, a voice called from inside, asking who was there. Still afraid she’d get in more trouble, she’d 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. ‘Is this yours, hmmm?’" Sophie mimicked a gruff voice. "She was grinning and tossing my ball up and catching it. I wasn’t scared anymore. I was mad, `cause it looked like she wanted to keep my ball. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Give it back.’ She laughed and asked me if I minded playing catch with her first. I said that was okay, so we did."
Sophie said they’d gone a little ways behind the dressing booth. "The lady must’ve been worried about getting in trouble too. She kept looking around at the other people. We did a few catches, then she said she’d better get back before her mother found out she’d left."
"Her mother?" Genaed shot a bemused glance at the defendant’s table. Gabrielle bumped shoulders with the suddenly blushing accused.
"Uh huh. That’s what she said. Anyways, I didn’t want to stop. She started to go. I threw my ball the other way and yelled, ‘First one to the ball wins!’" Sophie lowered her head. "I shouldn’t’ve done that."
"How come?" Genaed gently prodded.
Sophie peered apologetically at the accused, then at her father. She sighed and continued on with how she’d 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. ‘I’ve got you,’ 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 ‘crack!’ Then we were tumbling over and over. We landed hard on a flat rock."
"You must’ve been very scared." Genaed drew back, examining Sophie. "You weren’t hurt?"
"Uh uh. The lady wrapped herself around me." Sophie giggled. "Like a big wheel. It was kind of fun. But when we stopped rolling …." She sniffed, tearing up. "The lady didn’t move. Her eyes were closed, and she had blood on her. I thought …." She shuddered. "I thought she was …. 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 they’d take care of the lady, so I knew everything would be all right."
"Didn’t 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 wasn’t 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. He 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 …. It seemed harmless enough at first. Then all of a sudden Callisto was chasing Sophie and hollering at her. Once we’d pulled them up, and Tallus had a chance to talk to Sophie, he told us Callisto tried to kidnap her. We wanted to string’er up right then." Caleb pursed his lips. "But, noooo. Tallus said we were too decent for that. He wanted an ‘official’ record of her earlier crimes against us and for people to know she deserved to die."
Genaed regarded Sophie’s 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 could’ve left her on that ledge. Just because she fooled a child like she’s trying to do to us, doesn’t mean she’s not the same woman who killed Melas’ boy. We gave her the chance to hear our grievances against her, which is more than she deserved. I still say she’s 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 …." 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 didn’t look like any warriors I knew."
"Did she tell you her name?"
"Uh uh, she just laughed. ‘Oh, don’t let that fool you,’" Sophie drawled in imitation of her playfully threatening adversary. "`I’m not just any ol’ warrior. Underneath this skinny body and funny outfit is a real live warrior princess.’"
Back in Xena’s 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. She’d begun rubbing her temples during Sophie’s 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 she’d 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 – framed first in dark hair, then in light – transformed into a monster.
"Nooooo." Xena’s arms wrapped tightly around her body. "I’ve got you."
"She won’t hurt you. I won’t let her."
"Xena, wake up."
She felt insistent hands on her arms. A warm touch replaced the cool weight on her forehead. Xena’s 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 friend’s 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. "It’s a wonder she didn’t pull the whole thing off, using me as a ladder."
"Xena! You remember something now?"
Xena looked up. "Huh. Yeah, looks like my head’s 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. "That’s quite a kid."
"Uh huh. Reminds me of another kid I wish I’d gotten to meet."
Xena was quiet a moment. "Gabrielle, do you think we’re born what we are? Or made what we are."
"That’s a deep question, coming from someone who just woke up from a nap." Gabrielle studied her companion. "What’s 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 didn’t think so much about good or bad, right or wrong. I just … did. I don’t know that I’ve changed much. Because I care about others more? Because I help them? I still hurt people – people who aren’t much different than me. What gives me that right?"
"Xena? What gives me the right to say they shouldn’t be hurt?" Gabrielle smirked at Xena’s astonished expression. "Didn’t 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 ‘justice’ 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. I’m not sure how I knew that. I just … did."
Gabrielle took Xena’s hand. "I used to be more certain about things too. But even before this, I got used to living with someone who wasn’t 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. "We’re back to the chicken and egg."
"No we’re not. My point’s that you had a heart to build on. Callisto didn’t want one and did everything she could to destroy whatever parts remained. So, to answer your question, I guess I think we’re what we start with and what we do with it."
Xena grinned. "Yes, Mom."
Gabrielle glared. "I can’t 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 Gabrielle’s opinion. "Must be time for you to pull that rabbit out of the hat. Better get ready."
"Imperial maternalism, my eye," Gabrielle muttered. "I’m gonna get you off, all right. Then you’ll 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 didn’t 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. We’ll hear closing arguments and then adjourn. You’ll know we’ve reached a decision when you hear the bell ring." He addressed the accusers’ 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 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 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 Callisto’s advocate. We have proof, corroborated by Gabrielle herself, that not only is she a good friend of Xena’s, but Callisto kidnapped her and later killed her husband. Gabrielle suggests Callisto couldn’t possibly know of a conversation between Xena and my brother Melas. But given Gabrielle’s capriciousness, what’s to say she didn’t 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 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 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 don’t need tales of gods and magic or complicated relationships to prove our case. There’s a very simple saying – if it looks like a hydra and moves like a hydra, it’s probably a hydra. We urge the council not to let Gabrielle persuade them we’re 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, I’ll say what I did in the beginning. Callisto’s crimes were terrible, but the woman sitting at the defendant’s table is not who she appears. She is Xena – the person who ignited Callisto’s rage, sought to bring Callisto to justice and watched Callisto die.
"But Callisto’s vengeance lives on. She vowed to destroy Xena’s reputation, her family and anything else Xena loves. She got something even better – forcing Xena to live in a body no one loves. Yes, that’s hard to believe. But ask yourself, what else makes sense? Why would witnesses who do not love Callisto give us doubts the accused is Callisto?"
Pacing, Gabrielle headed toward the Lycenaeans’ table. "Gressius described a time recently when Xena commanded Callisto’s troops, when she acted strangely and even threatened her home village. Why would Xena suddenly act like Callisto, unless maybe it wasn’t Xena at all?
"Melas admitted he can’t look at the defendant’s 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 isn’t Callisto?
"Callisto cared nothing about the life of a child. Yet a child says the accused risked her life for her. Sophie didn’t know the lady, only that she called herself a ‘warrior princess.’ 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 wasn’t 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 Lila 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 she herself wasn’t so different once?
"Xena would agree with Tallus that the gods are a poor excuse. She doesn’t blame them for what she has done. Ask her and she will own up to it. But don’t ask her to take on any more of Callisto’s 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 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 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. It’s hard enough imagining why she’d want to travel with Xena. We certainly can’t think of any reason she’d willingly choose life with Callisto.
"Some warrior friend of Gabrielle’s sent word he’s on his way with ‘important news.’ 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 you continue to go about your business here without further incident."
Genaed looked toward the accused. "Um …."
"Xena?" the blond warrior supplied dryly.
"If you say so," he acknowledged with a small smile. "We regret you had to go through this. We hope your … condition … is not permanent. The council finds insufficient evidence to pursue this case further. You are free to go. May the gods …. Strike that. Go in peace … 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, ‘Oooweee! I got it back! And from a warrior princess too!’ She was disappointed you didn’t come, of course. Still, I think her daddy got big points for letting her take your ‘gift.’"
"Mmmm." Xena surveyed their surroundings. "I think we’ve gotten far enough away now." She lifted her head to the sky. "Sun’ll be setting soon. Let’s try through there."
The two led Argo off the trail and into a small clearing bounded by majestic trees. Gabrielle didn’t 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 Argo’s neck, gazing off into the distance. "Um, what was that?"
Gabrielle noted her companion’s distraction, but stored it away for discussion later. "I asked if we’re going to camp here."
Xena began unsaddling Argo. "Yeah, sure. Looks as good a place as any. If the information on Joxer is right, we’ll probably run into him on the road tomorrow."
"Heh, gods only know what ‘important news’ he has for us."
The two wordlessly went about their respective duties. Each seemed determined to make their outdoor "home" extra pleasant. Gabrielle gathered wild flowers and arranged them in the bowl she’d bought in Duopolis. She laid 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 light of their fire. She closed her eyes and sniffed the aroma of the stew they’d brought with them from town.
"Mm." Xena came to stand beside Gabrielle. "Much better than the Amazon Princess Suite." She chuckled at the rumblings coming from her companion’s 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 Xena’s 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 hadn’t once shaken her head to remind herself 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.
Xena’s smooth movements told Gabrielle 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 companion’s 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 … me." She shrugged. "Don’t 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 ‘Xena’ in the end."
Xena snorted. "More because of you, my friend. You’re the one he believed." She slid closer to lay a hand on Gabrielle’s 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 don’t think he’d have done that if he believed there was any chance you might be Callisto. Or," she hastened to add emphatically, "if he’d doubted you’re a different Xena than in the past."
Xena gave a mock glare and waggled her index finger. "You keep anticipating my thoughts like that, I’ll 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, how’re you feeling? Generally speaking."
"Fine." Xena began tackling the fastenings on Callisto’s elaborate armguards. "Head’s 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 Xena’s 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 he’d 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 that’ll ever happen," Xena mumbled, engrossed in shedding Callisto’s ridiculously impractical battle gear.
"Oooo, even better, you could be pregnant!"
Xena’s head jerked up. "Pregnant?!" she choked out. "Pregnant?!"
"Yes! Throwing up, falling down in exhaustion. Lugging an extra 20 pounds …."
"Well, look at its moth - …." Gabrielle paused, an interesting thought occurring to her. "Xena, if you stay like this, would it have your bloodlines or Callisto’s?" She smacked her forehead. "By the gods, the baby could be from both of you!"
"Gabrielle, what in Tartarus –"
"Let’s see…." 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 –"
"Huh?" Gabrielle shook herself back to the present.
"I get the point, all right? Yes, I could do worse. Much worse. I’ll 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?!’" Gabrielle fell back, laughing hysterically. "Oh, wouldn’t Callisto love to hear that!" She took several deep breaths, mindful of the glower on Xena’s 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." Gabrielle 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?"
Gabrielle’s hands stopped rolling up the dinner cloth. "Oops. Yeah, I did." She shivered. "Let’s not go there. We’ll 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 boot lengths away.
The lump stirred. "Mmmph."
"Grrrrmph." Xena’s head emerged and rolled toward Gabrielle. "Put that green thing on over your shift."
"Ha ha. That hardly covers much, as you’ve so helpfully pointed out on many an occasion."
"What about the extra blanket we ate on?"
"No, I don’t think that’d 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 won’t do either."
Xena chewed her lip. Brow raised dangerously high, she peered up at Gabrielle, finally noticing the gleam in her companion’s eyes. "Oh." She 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 this’ll 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 it’s 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 there’s a way to get your old … I mean, your real … body back?"
Xena sighed. "I don’t 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."
"It’s a riddle, Xena. It’s supposed to go on forever. The answer isn’t so important, long as there’s a chicken and an egg keeping the cycle going."
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 ‘Two-fer.’ Kinda like us."
Return to the Academy