DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and other recognizable figures and their backstories belong to Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement intended - no profit made.
NOTE: As always, thanks to the big kids (Steph and Oz) for letting me trick-or-treat at their house.
ANY WITCH WAY
The arm flew forward, two fingers stiffly extended, the jab solidly connecting.
The guard’s knees buckled. He clutched a hand to his throat. He tried swallowing, but it felt like his tongue was suddenly three sizes too large for his mouth. A hand closed about the front of his jerkin, fingers gathering the material tighter around his neck as they curled into a fist. A cold wave of fear washed over him as he looked up into a deadly gaze and a snarling face.
“W-w-wi…” The man tried forming the word, but found he no longer had control over his vocal cords. Or his bladder.
His eyes darted from the dark-haired warrior to the shorter blonde beside her. The blonde had her hand on the warrior’s upper arm and was standing dangerously close to the clearly maniacal woman. Then again, given what the magistrate had said, he wasn’t entirely certain which was the more dangerous of the two. Given his current circumstances, though, he was leaning towards the woman that had knocked him to his knees.
“I asked a question.” Blue eyes bored into the guard. “I expect an answer.”
“Witch, Xena. He said witch. With a W.”
“Because a capital W makes it so much better,” said Xena.
Another set of boots came into the guard’s diminishing range of vision. He tried blinking away the growing black spots that were blocking his sight. When that didn’t clear it, he rapidly shook his head from side to side. Blood flew from his nose and landed on the toe of the newest pair of shoes. The guard’s head lolled back and he was able to make out the black robes and distinctive features of the circuit judge.
“Regardless, warrior princess, that is the charge.”
A hand reached for a weapon holstered at the warrior’s side.
“Xena.” The chains fastened about her wrists clanked as Gabrielle reached out, using both hands to capture the warrior’s chin in her grasp and turn her head until she was looking directly at her. “Xena, please?” Green eyes darted to the side.
Blue eyes shifted, looking from the smaller woman’s face to her waist. Specifically, to the white bandage stained with red tied around her stomach.
“Are you certain you’re okay?”
“It’s fine,” Gabrielle nodded. “Xena, the guard didn’t harm me.”
The warrior’s hand moved off her weapon. The guard’s eyes widened as Xena’s hand shot out, fingers extended, and jammed into his throat. There was a sudden release of building pressure. He fell forward gasping, unconcerned that he was lying face down in the street in his own urine. It was enough that the warrior and the witch hadn’t killed him. Everything else, he could live with.
“This is insane! I leave you alone for three—” Xena held up the appropriate number of corresponding fingers “—three days! And, I come back to find…” she gestured helplessly at Gabrielle.
“Oh, sure. Like I’m having the time of my life here.”
Xena stopped pacing, turned and pierced the bard with a cold stare.
“You know, the look isn’t nearly so intimidating from here.”
An ebony brow arched. A hand closed about a steel bar. “You think I couldn’t be inside that cell in a heartbeat?”
“Don’t tell me,” Gabrielle flexed, pulling an arm away from the wall. The eyelet the chain was fastened through jangled, tiny bits of mortar fell from the bricks, but both held fast. “Jail-breaking is one of your skills?”
“One of many.” Xena smirked, folded her arms over her massive breastplate. “Just like yours is getting into trouble.”
“Hey! This isn’t all my fault, you know.”
“Real-ly?” The ebony brow arched as high as mortally possible.
“Yeah, really.” Despite being in chains, Gabrielle managed to put her whole body behind the finger-point. “You’re to blame, also, Xena.”
“Me? You’re going to put this off on me?” Xena jerked a thumb at herself. “I was in Thrace. I wasn’t anywhere near here.”
“You were three days ago, remember?”
Blonde hair was splayed out, falling about her shoulders and cloak. Her head was tossed back, green eyes staring unseeingly at the multi-colored leaves falling from the trees as the first rays of sunlight peeked through the canopy of branches. Gabrielle’s mouth was open and throat muscles were constricting, but for once, the bard was rendered speechless.
Her halter was unfastened and opened at the front, revealing a set of pert breasts. The first bite of chill morning air had caused the nipples to tighten and stiffen. It was the bite of sharp teeth nipping at each of them in turn that kept them that way. Bare feet were flat on the blanket, her heels digging into the coarse material and the ground beneath. Hips rocked. Her back arched to meet each thrust.
Her climax built, then ripped through her body. Fingers clutched blindly at ebony locks, tugging hard. Teeth savagely bit at the swell of her breast. Gabrielle’s head flew back, her skull striking against a rock. A scream borne of equal parts pleasure and pain was wrenched from the bard’s throat, frightening the birds nested high in the trees to take flight in a loud chorus of annoyed squawks and flapping wings.
Xena abruptly sat back on her heels. “Ow?”
“Ow.” Gabrielle sat up, holding her palm over the upper portion of her breast.
Xena reached out, capturing Gabrielle’s hand in hers, and moving it aside. Blue eyes widened at the sight of the reddening flesh.
“Damn, Xena.” Gabrielle looked down at her injured breast. “I think you left puncture wounds.”
“Bards and their gift of exaggeration.” Xena rolled her eyes. “It was hardly a nip.”
“I’m amazed you didn’t draw blood.”
“It was a love bite.” Xena placed a soft kiss to the abused flesh. “A reminder of how much I’m going to miss you.”
“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle cupped Xena beneath the chin and lifted with her fingers, finding and meeting her warrior’s gaze. “I’m going to miss you, too.”
“Go with me, then.”
“I can’t. Autumn Harvest ceremonies, remember?” Gabrielle bit her bottom lip. “You could stay with me?”
“I’d like nothing better in the known world, Gabrielle.” Xena released a heavy sigh. “I promised Hercules. If I don’t go, he’s liable to come looking for me.”
Gabrielle made a face. “Just what we need. A demigod showing up at an Amazon ritual.”
“Wouldn’t be the first one.”
“Don’t remind me. Pan almost went from a horny Satyr to a harmless gelding with one flick of Eponin’s blade,” Gabrielle said. “I don’t think Zeus would appreciate the same thing happening to his son, do you?”
“I remember that morning, Gabrielle,” interrupted Xena. “We made love three more times before you finally let me leave.”
“Me? As I recall, warrior, it was you that wouldn’t let me off the blanket long enough to cook breakfast.”
“Point is, Gabrielle, how does any of that make me partially to blame for…” Xena gestured at the bard chained to the wall of the cell.
“It’s said that witches carry marks on their bodies as a brand or seal of their pact with evil demons. The law is allowed to examine an accused person’s body for any signs of a mark.” Gabrielle glared at the warrior. “Anywhere on the accused’s body.”
Xena’s eyes widened, her gaze dropped to Gabrielle’s halter and the hints of discolored flesh protruding from the edges. “Hey! That could be either a hickey or a bruise.”
“Or a witch’s mark, Xena.” In a sudden fit, Gabrielle struggled against her chains, tugging with her arms and pulling with her legs in an attempt to get close enough to reach through the bars and wrap her fingers around her soulmate’s neck.
“Antilles, do you fully understand the seriousness of naming someone witch?” asked the magistrate. “It’s not something to be done lightly.”
The young man seated on the straight-back chair beside the judge’s table frantically nodded his head. The sound of a throat being cleared drew his gaze to where the witch was seated on a bench.
Seated beside her was the warrior woman that had ridden into town like a maniac the day before. Yesterday, she had been like a woman possessed, taking out three guards in the blink of an eye. Today, she was like a different woman. Calm and docile, seated on the bench beside the witch, looking very subdued. Until you noticed the deadly look in her eyes, the clenched jaw, and the way she twirled the tiny dagger between her fingers end over end.
Antilles’ throat muscles swallowed convulsively. The blonde-haired woman gave him a puzzled look, then turned to look at her companion. She frowned and leaned in close to whisper something to the warrior. The warrior tucked the dagger back into its place beneath her breast armor. A subtle shifting of her shoulders had the hilt disappearing into her deep cleavage. Despite being bound by chains, the blonde reached out and stroked a hand down the warrior’s arm. The warrior visibly relaxed beneath the other woman’s touch.
Antilles breathed a sigh of relief. Feeling braver now that the warrior was under control, he said, “She is a witch.” Seeing the enraptured faces of the courtroom spectators, he puffed out his chest and proudly proclaimed, “I can prove it.”
An excited murmuring of voices swept through the courtroom. The judge banged his gavel repeatedly in an effort to quiet the crowd.
“As magistrate, it’s up to me to decide what constitutes proof and what doesn’t.” He gave one final rap of his gavel and turned to look at the man seated in the witness’ chair. “Okay, Antilles. Perhaps you should just tell us what you saw.”
“Okay.” Antilles nodded his head and did his best to ignore the pairs of blue and green eyes attempting to hurl imaginary daggers at him from the accused’s bench. “I was returning home from selling my wares in Cypress. It was already late and I was tired and hungry. I – I guess I didn’t notice my horse went off the regular route. I must have fallen asleep in the saddle. She spooked, rearing up and throwing me off. I struck my head on a rock.”
Antilles used his fingers to brush back waves of shaggy brown hair, revealing a discolored bruise on his temple. The crowd rewarded him with sympathetic murmurs. The judge banged his gavel and they quieted down.
“This is the first I’ve heard…or seen…of this injury, Antilles,” said the judge. “Exactly when did this incident occur?”
The young man brushed his mass of hair back over the wound, hiding it from view. He wiped his palms on his breeches. Sitting up a little straighter in his chair, Antilles cleared his throat and said, “Two days ago…”
“Ow. Ow. Ow.” Antilles slowly climbed to his feet and looked around. His horse had taken off, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. “Damn ninny.”
Antilles picked his hat up off the ground and slapped it against his thigh, cursing his bad fortune. His business in Cypress had taken longer than he’d expected. There were more traders in town than usual and he’d had a harder time peddling his wares. By the time he’d finished and fortified himself with a drink or two for the long trek home, it had been well past dusk.
It was full on dark now. Antilles looked up. He was in a dense forest; the overhead leaves and branches blocking the night sky from view. The temperature was dropping fast; he wrapped his cloak tighter about his thin frame. He looked around, trying to figure out which way was the right direction home.
“Damn. Should’ve never left the road.” Antilles spat upon the ground. “Nothing for it now.” With a resigned sigh, he began walking.
He guessed he’d been walking for a candlemark, maybe two, when he saw the light in the distant. At first, he thought it might be the light from a cottage. As he drew nearer, though, he realized it was much too bright. A hearth inside a dwelling wouldn’t give off so much light to be seen from such a distant. And, it was too large to be that of a campfire. No, this had to be the size of a bonfire.
It was then that he heard the sound of the drums. It wasn’t war drums, he was certain of that. The beat didn’t sound angry or menacing. It wasn’t frightening. If anything, it was mesmerizing. Antilles found himself enchanted, following the music to its source.
Deeper and deeper, he went into the forest. Until, at last, he found himself in front of some thick shrubbery. On the other side, he could see the bright light of the bonfire, hear the hissing and popping of the logs as they burned, see the embers as they shot upward into the night sky. The drums were so loud now, the pounding echoed in his ears. And, voices. He heard female voices. They were singing? No, not singing; chanting.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Antilles crouched down and snuck into the bushes. Thick fingers parted the green underbrush. He peeked between the leaves. Antilles froze, his eyes bugging out, his mouth dropping open.
He was looking at an open clearing in the middle of the woods. Without the trees to hide it from view, the moon was clearly visible. It was heavy and full, casting beams of moonlight on the clearing’s occupants.
There were seven women, all of them wearing fur cloaks made from animal hides. Three of them carried small drums and were beating the top of them with their open palms, keeping the beat that had mesmerized Antilles. They were chanting and dancing round and round the bonfire. Every so often, one of them would tilt her head back and howl, as if wailing at the moon.
The beat became faster. The pace around the bonfire turned frenetic. Their dancing became chaotic. They began taking off their cloaks, tossing them aside. They each carried a knife in a sheath, strapped to their bare thighs. They wore nothing else, except arm and wristbands. Their hair was worn loose, falling wildly about their bare shoulders. Hanging from their hair, their armbands, and their wristbands were feathers in all different sizes and colors. They waved their arms about in the air, they gyrated their hips to the music, and the feathers looked like they belonged to them; as if they were a part of the women, as if they could actually take flight with them.
The tempo slowed. The dancers slowed along with it. Two of the women put their drums aside. The third kept hers, but the beat became softer, then softer still, until it was no louder than the sound of a lover’s whisper upon the wind. The dancers’ pace dropped off completely.
Sweat dripped from their hair and glistened on their nubile, young bodies. Their breasts heaved with every indrawn breath. Then, they began to turn to one another. A beautiful woman with curly blonde hair beckoned with her finger to another woman with hair as black as night and muscles as big as any man’s. The muscular woman went to her and the blonde took her in her arms, welcoming her with open-mouthed kisses.
The other women watched, enraptured, before turning to one another and pairing off together. There were two, sometimes three or more women together. They were kissing and touching each other, fingers and tongues caressing over breasts, buttocks, between parted—
“He’s lying!” Gabrielle exploded from the bench.
Even being chained, she’d managed to take three steps towards the witness’ chair before two burly guards restrained her and forcibly made her sit back down on the bench.
The judged rapped his gavel. “You’ll be given a chance to make a statement after Antilles has given his testimony.”
“That’s your statement?” asked the judge. “That he’s lying?”
“You don’t want to offer up any other explanation for what he saw?” At Gabrielle’s confused look, the judge said, “Fine; so noted. Not another word out of you or I’ll give my verdict now.”
Gabrielle started to protest, but Xena’s hand clamped over her mouth before she could utter a sound.
The judge looked about the courtroom, taking note of the flustered and flushed looks on the spectators’ faces. Hearing Antilles’ description of events, he was feeling a bit overheated himself. He poured a mug of water and downed it in one gulp. He poured a second mug and drank this one much more slowly, allowing him time to regain his composure.
“I’m going to call a short recess,” said the judge. “During that time, I want the womenfolk cleared of the courtroom.” At the disgruntled Aww’s, he said, “This isn’t appropriate testimony for you women to be exposed to. When we reconvene, Antilles will give the rest of his narration.”
“Then, how are we to know if he can prove she’s a witch, if we aren’t allowed to hear his testimony?” asked a large buxom woman from the front row.
The judge turned to look at the man on the witness stand. “Antilles?”
“Because,” Antilles pointed at Gabrielle, “She was one of the women I saw.”
Xena stopped her pacing and turned and glared at Gabrielle. The bard had been returned to her cell and chained ankles and wrists to the wall. The guard had given Xena the once over, but didn’t tell her she couldn’t stay with the prisoner. He’d left them alone, closing the exterior door behind him. The warrior princess had been wearing a path the length of the floor outside Gabrielle’s cell ever since.
“Antilles was clearly trespassing on Amazon land. I get that. What I don’t understand is how could he get so far into Amazon territory unnoticed? I mean, what; the patrols just let him waltz in?”
“The Autumn Harvest ceremonies were conducted in the heart of the village, same as always. What Antilles witnessed, Xena, was a private ceremony.”
“Oh, I gathered that much, Gabrielle.” Blue eyes flashed and throat muscles tightened. “The entire freakin’ courtroom gathered that much!”
“He was lying, Xena.”
Xena folded her arms over her impressive breastplate and leveled a look at the bard. “Gabrielle, he gave exact descriptions of both your regent and your weapons master.”
“So, he could describe two Amazons. Big deal. How many times have you said you could spot Ephiny’s curly head across a crowded battlefield? Eponin makes a pretty memorable impression herself, you know.”
“So, you’re telling me he didn’t see a troupe of naked Amazons dancing in the moonlight?”
“Have you ever danced around a bonfire, Xena? Your heart starts pumping, your blood starts humming and you get hot. Clothes come off. But, we weren’t completely naked. Most of us were wearing our breechcloths.”
“Most of you…” Xena pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers in an attempt at warding off the headache building behind her eyes. “Since when do you dance, Gabrielle? Better yet, since when do you dance in only your breechcloth?”
If Gabrielle could have folded her arms over her chest in righteous indignation, she would have. Or, at the very least, put both hands on her hips in defiance. Instead, chained to the wall as she was, she was reduced to a proud chin tilt and an insolent look.
“I never said I was one of those still clothed, Xena. Don’t assume I was.”
“I’m going to kill Ephiny.”
“Your regent, Gabrielle. I know she’s responsible for…for…” Xena gave up trying to find the words and settled for gesturing wildly in the corrupted bard’s direction. “Damn Amazon harlot. Should’ve taken her head off the first time I saw her. She convince you a threesome with her and Eponin was perfectly natural? What about Solari; did she get some, also?”
“You want to give me a chance to explain, Xena? Or, do you want to go ahead and ship me off to Meg’s brothel house now?”
“First, I wasn’t naked. I just don’t like you assuming that I couldn’t be if I’d wanted. Second, if I stripped naked, painted myself blue and howled at the moon, Ephiny wouldn’t be to blame. For anything, other than teaching me about my Amazon heritage.”
“Yeah, right,” was mumbled beneath Xena’s breath. “I’ll bet she personally taught you everything you know.”
“Xena, this autumn harvest holds significant meaning for the entire Amazon Nation.”
There was a derisive snort followed by an eye roll.
“Xena, stop that and listen. This ceremony is conducted only every seventh autumn harvest and requires the seven leaders of the seven castes perform a clandestine, sacred ritual in service to the goddess, Artemis.”
“In service to the goddess?” Xena’s eyebrow arched. “Sounds more like Aphrodite than Artemis.”
“Xena! It’s a ritual to celebrate the freedom of Amazonian womanhood. You don’t have to make it sound as sordid as a…a…”
“A Pagan orgy, Gabrielle? Cause that’s what it sounds like. I guarantee that’s what Antilles is describing to all those horny bastards in that courtroom.”
“It was nothing like that, Xena. It was…beautiful…”
There was something in the way that Gabrielle said the word that gave Xena pause. A thought flashed through her mind at all the beautiful things in the known world that this young woman had taught her to see. Things that she never would have allowed herself to notice if it hadn’t been for the blonde bard. Then, she thought about the family Gabrielle had given up to travel with her and the extended family that she’d found with a bunch of wild Amazons.
“Gabrielle, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have belittled your Amazon customs. I’m sure it was a beautiful ceremony.”
Gabrielle’s look was one laden with suspicion. “Really?”
Xena nodded. “You’re an Amazon. Not just an Amazon, but also an Amazon Queen. I need to remember that more often.” If anything ever happens to me, I know you’ll have a home with Ephiny and the Amazons.
The warrior princess turned around and walked toward the exterior door.
Xena turned and looked back, surprised by the fearful expression on Gabrielle’s face. She arched her brows in question.
“You’re leaving?” asked Gabrielle, a slight tremble audible in her voice.
“Gotta go see a judge about granting a pardon to a queen.” She gave her soulmate a bold wink.
The judge rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers together. The warrior princess had flung open both doors of the courtroom and demanded that her friend be released. Even though he was trembling like a leaf beneath his robes, he banged his gavel until order was restored, then dismissed the court and ordered that Xena be taken to his private office.
The warrior willingly went with the guards, even going so far as to allow one of them to take her by the arm. In Corineus’ mind, that gesture had gone a long way in helping him save face in front of the assembled townspeople. That was, in part, the reason he ordered the guard to wait outside while he spoke with Xena. The other reason was because although he wasn’t sure what she planned on doing to him, he was certain he didn’t want anyone else to bear witness should he pee himself as that poor guard had.
He nearly passed out when she said she wanted to talk. He thought that was code for I’m going to cut off the flow of blood to your brain. Instead, it had meant exactly what she said. She wanted to talk; with words, not violence.
Although, he did suspect that if the talk didn’t progress as she wished, she would resort to violence in a heartbeat.
“Gabrielle is a lot of things. She’s a young girl from a little village not unlike this one. She’s a bard. She’s a wide-eyed adventurer that embraces any new culture she finds. She’s an Amazon. The one thing she’s not is a witch.”
The judge nearly laughed aloud; until he remembered who it was that had made the joke. “Amazons don’t exist. They’re the monsters that hide under children’s beds, ogres that steal babies from their mothers, wives from their husbands and disobedient little girls that wander too far from home and hearth.”
“I’ve battled an ogre or two in my time, your magistrate. Believe me, they’re much easier to kill than Amazons. Those border markers that Antilles ignored when he took that shortcut home? That was a warning. He’s lucky they didn’t catch him and cut his manhood off for trespassing.”
“About Antilles…” The judge paused, picking up a piece of parchment off his desk and perusing it. “His wife has admitted that he didn’t have that injury when he returned home. She caught him in the barn, beating his head against one of the support posts.”
“He did that to himself? Why?”
“To make his story appear more credible, probably,” the judge said. “Antilles is, shall we say, a colorful drunk? He probably figured no one would believe he’d seen anything if he didn’t have some kind of proof.”
“Then, that proves Gabrielle is innocent.”
“It proves that Antilles was lying about at least part of his testimony. It doesn’t mean everything he said is false. The evidence is inconclusive.” The judge opened a drawer on his desk and placed the signed parchment inside, then closed and locked the drawer. “As is the witch’s mark above her breast.”
“That’s not a witch’s mark. It’s a bruise.”
“Could be.” The judge looked Xena in the eye. “Looks like it could be a bite. Except, you’re telling me Antilles was lying about seeing those nubile, naked maidens cavorting around a bonfire in the moonlight. And, there was no one with her when she was arrested.” The judge shrugged. “It’s hard to prove it’s a lover’s bite when there’s no lover to be found. Unless, of course, she’s a witch with a demon for a lover.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my time. Gods know demon may have been one of them.”
“Witness statements confirm that you were assisting Hercules in defeating a horde of Hydras in Thrace.”
Xena nodded towards the closed drawer. “I’ll sign a parchment.”
“You, with her? No one would believe it. They’d say you were lying to protect her.” The judge shook his head. “She’s been accused of being a witch. I can’t just ignore the charges because she looks like a nice, innocent village girl…or because you claim to be her lover. I must perform my due diligence for the good of the town.”
Xena braced both hands on the judge’s desk and pressed down. The wood creaked beneath the pressure. She leaned in until she was almost nose-to-nose with the man. When she spoke, her voice was low and her words were forced through gritted teeth.
“You know who I am. I assume you also know my reputation?”
The judge nodded briskly.
“Then, you also know I’m capable of breaking into that jail, grabbing Gabrielle and riding out of here. You don’t have a guard skilled enough to stop me.”
“Which is why I’ve instructed them that at the first hint of trouble from you, they are to kill Gabrielle.” Corineus smiled widely. “I suggest you go get something to eat, Xena. The trial resumes after the midday meal.”
A long grumble followed by three short gurgles had Xena looking dubiously at Gabrielle’s midsection.
“They already think you’re a witch, Gabrielle. You might want to try quieting down that monster that lives inside your stomach.”
“I’ve had nothing to eat since yesterday, Xena.” Gabrielle shot a disgruntled look at the guards. “I guess they didn’t want to waste good food.”
Xena sighed and produced a small bundle wrapped in cloth. She unwrapped it, revealing a bit of bread she’d had left from her meal. Even with her wrists chained, Gabrielle managed to neatly snatch the bread from the warrior’s grasp. She brought her hands to her mouth and shoved nearly three-quarters of the dough in all at once. As Gabrielle chewed with her mouth open, Xena looked away.
The courtroom was full to capacity, with every available chair occupied. Xena had been permitted to sit on the accused’s bench beside Gabrielle. However, it didn’t escape her notice that guards lined all four walls; and that they were all seemingly focused on her.
Xena brought her arm up. Her fingertips brushed the pommel of her sword. Blue eyes narrowed as all around her, she saw guards’ hands moving to their weapons. She brought her hand up and scratched at her scalp. The guards’ hands slowly moved away from their weapons.
The warrior princess turned to look at the man taking the witness stand. He was dressed in farmer’s attire and nervously clutched the brim of his straw hat in his hands as he looked around the courtroom. Past him, Xena saw the judge watching her in turn.
“Now, Damocles; the women have been permitted to return to these proceedings.” The judge leaned forward, looked the farmer in the eye and asked, “I trust your testimony isn’t as…graphic in nature…as Antilles’ was?”
“What?” The farmer looked from the judge to Gabrielle. A bright red blush spread over his face. “Um…no! No, nothing like that.”
“Good. Go ahead and tell us what you saw, then.”
The young farmer nodded his head vigorously. “It was only a day ago…"
Damocles braced his bow against his thigh as he knelt down. He’d been out hunting and returned home to find a distraught wife. After learning what had upset her, he’d gone out back and was now inspecting what was left of his wife’s small garden. Every carrot had been uprooted, every green had been trampled. The entire garden was ruined.
A rustling noise caught his attention. He looked up, spotting a large brown rabbit. It was at the edge of his property, midway between his wife’s garden and the underbrush that skirted the surrounding forest. It was sitting up on its two hind feet. The hare’s nose was twitching as it sniffed the air. As slowly as possible, Damocles reached for an arrow from his quiver.
The rabbit looked right at him. He nocked the arrow upon his bow. The rabbit’s head turned and it looked towards the forest. Damocles raised his bow. The hare bolted for the underbrush. Fingers released the string and the arrow flew.
The arrow grazed the hare’s side. Damocles heard a loud thunk! as the hare plunged into the underbrush.
“Yes.” Damocles jumped to his feet and rushed into the bush, intent on retrieving his arrow for his quiver and the rabbit for his dinner.
“When I pushed back the bushes, I found her instead of the hare. She was on the ground, clutching at her side, and she was bleeding.”
A series of excited whispers and murmurs raced through the courtroom. The judge rapped his gavel and held up his hands for silence. When he received it, he addressed the entire audience.
“For anyone who is unaware, and I suspect there are few that are, witches have the ability to change their form, usually becoming cats or hares. If a witch is injured while in hare form, she will have the same injury when she returns to human form.” The judge paused and looked directly at Gabrielle. “I believe, young lady, you have an identical injury to the one Damocles has just described.”
Gabrielle’s palm pressed against the bandage wrapped about her midsection.
“I…I can explain.”
“By all means…” the judge gestured to indicate that everyone was waiting.
“As a general rule, I don’t even like hares.” Gabrielle looked around, seeing the disbelieving looks. “I had a bad experience with one before. I was hungry, though, and with Xena being gone…she’s the hunter…the only thing I know how to catch is rabbit. Anyway, I was just beginning to think I’d starve to death when I saw one on the other side of these bushes. Damocles must have spotted the same hare. I was just about to leap on it when an arrow came shooting into the forest and…well, shot me.”
“Is that your statement in response to Damocles testimony?” asked the judge.
“Yes, it is.” Unaccustomed to hearing discontented murmurs from an audience, Gabrielle looked to her warrior for help.
“Has anyone checked the forest?” asked Xena. “If Gabrielle is telling the truth, there should be three sets of tracks; hers leading out of the forest and Damocles’ and the hare’s going into the woods.”
The judge rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Very well. We’ll check. Myself and four members of the town council will go with Damocles to inspect the area.”
“We’re going, also,” Xena said.
“In the interest of fairness, Xena, you may join us. However, Gabrielle will remain here, in her cell, until we return.”
Xena looked from the judge to the guards lining the walls to Gabrielle. She gave a low growl, but looked at the judge and nodded her agreement.
“The trail proved to be inconclusive,” the judge addressed the courtroom.
“After your council members trampled all over the tracks,” said Xena.
The judge pointed a finger at Xena, then made another motion with his hand. The guards lining the interior wall of the courtroom reached for their weapons.
Xena returned to her seat on the bench beside Gabrielle.
“However,” the judge smirked at his effectiveness in cowing the famed warrior princess. “However, there is one last witness to hear from. Hopefully, he will be able to attest to the true nature of the accused.”
“Oh, Gods.” Xena slapped a hand to her face. She turned to Gabrielle and said in a strangled voice, “It was only three days. Three days. What else could you have possibly done?”
Gabrielle opened and closed her mouth like a fish out of water. At last, she gave up trying to offer an explanation and simply shrugged, causing her chains to rattle. A door leading from the judge’s private office opened and a man about Gabrielle’s age walked into the courtroom. He walked to the witness’ chair and sat down. Gabrielle’s eyes widened.
“Would you please state your name for the scroll?” asked the judge.
“Icarus,” said the youth, “Icarus of Potadeia.”
Xena let out a long-suffering sigh.
“And, you claim to know Gabrielle of Potadeia?”
“In what context?”
The judge sighed. “How long have you known her?”
“Oh. Since we were kids. My best friend, Perdicus, he used to have a thing for her. He used to hang around the market, waiting, hoping that her mother sent her to fetch bread or fruit or something for the house. He’d wait around for candlemarks. If she showed up, he’d pretend to be shopping too, and offer to walk her home. He was always doing things like that; finding reasons to be around her.”
“Sounds like perfectly normal behavior for a growing boy,” said the judge. “What about Gabrielle? What was she like?”
“Um, well, you know.” Icarus shrugged. “She always was a little strange.”
“She was born with six toes, for one thing.”
Gabrielle crossed her feet at the ankles, trying to hide the toes of her boots from every curious gaze directed her way.
“Well, don’t look,” said Icarus. “Her mother had them removed.”
There was a very palpable air of disappointment in the courtroom.
“There was other stuff, though. She used to talk. To herself, I mean. Only, it was like she was having a conversation with someone that no one else could see. She used to make these wild hand gestures.” Icarus tried to mimic the gestures while still seated.
“Mm.” The judge nodded. “Witches often converse with their demon masters. Naturally, these demons can only be seen by their minions. They’re invisible to normal, mortal eyes.”
“I’m a bard,” Gabrielle said. “I was acting out my stories, trying to make them sound better for when I told them in front of a real audience.”
“Only, she wasn’t a famous bard back then.” Icarus turned and looked at the judge. “She was just plain Gabrielle of Potadeia, betrothed to Perdicus of Potadeia. Perdicus’ family owns a great stretch of land near the river. They have four oxen and three goats. Any girl in Potadeia would’ve been happy to settle down and raise a family with Perdicus. Except Gabrielle. First chance she got, she ran off in the middle of the night…” He jerked a thumb at Xena “…chasing after her.”
“I didn’t want to marry Perdicus,” said Gabrielle. “I didn’t want to marry anyone. I just wanted to get away from Potadeia, to be more than a farmer’s daughter or a farmer’s wife.”
“Perdicus was so heartbroken that he joined the army and volunteered to fight at Troy.”
The sounds of tsk-tsking filled the air. Gabrielle pierced the audience with a look. “That doesn’t make me a witch.”
“No, it sure doesn’t.” The judge turned and addressed Icarus. “You got anything else, son?”
“Uh?” The youth shrugged, “Um, no?”
“Then, I’m afraid there’s only one test left to conclude guilt or innocence in this matter.”
The judge rapped his gavel twice and nodded at a guard. The guard and two of his companions approached the accused’s bench. One held his weapon trained on the warrior princess, one held his trained on the bard, and the other grabbed Gabrielle’s chains and yanked her to her feet.
The judge rose to his feet and rapped his gavel once more. “We’ll reconvene at the river.”
It took five guards struggling with all their might to restrain an agitated Xena. Someone kicked at her knee from behind and she went down. On her knees on the muddy embankment, arms twisted and held behind her back, Xena watched helplessly as two men working in tandem raised the chair Gabrielle was chained to.
“Hang on, Gabrielle. I’m – unh—” A knee pressed in the center of her back took Xena’s breath away. “I’m working on it.”
The wooden chair was lifted high in the air. The back of the chair was attached to a long pole that was horizontally attached to a vertical beam. By tugging or pulling a series of ropes tied to the end of the horizontal piece of wood, the men were able to control the height and direction of the chair.
“Xen-ah!” The horizontal pole was swung around and instead of being suspended over dry ground, Gabrielle was now dangling several feet over the water.
Xena renewed her struggles, only to find herself being pushed all the way down until she was face first in the mud. A pair of black boots appeared in front of her nose. A brutal yank of her hair forced her neck and head back.
The judge knelt before her, balancing his forearms on his thighs. “Let it be, Xena. It’s the only way to prove her innocence or guilt.”
The judge swiveled on the balls of his feet, moving so that Xena had an unobstructed view of Gabrielle being lowered into the water.
“Xena ? Xena!” She couldn’t see her soulmate from the position she was in and Gabrielle’s screams were beginning to grow frantic. “A little help here.” She screamed sharply as the chair bounced violently. “Anytime you’re ready. Not to rush you, but now would be gmmphhh—”
A boot to the back of the neck forced Xena’s face into the mud. She worked a hand loose from the pile of bodies that was holding her down. She pressed her palm flat in the mud as she pulled her face free. She glared at the judge through mud-encrusted eyelashes.
“You know, ever since the trial started and especially after our little chat in my office, I’ve been wondering,” the judge tapped a finger against his chin as he looked askance at Xena. “How is it that a great warrior like yourself just from one day to the next decided to let a little slip of a peasant girl traipse around the countryside after you? The only reason I can figure is that Gabrielle is a sorceress. She’s clearly enchanted you. There’s no other possible explanation.”
“I…” Xena gritted her teeth and tried pushing against the guards piled on top of her. “I…was…lonely…and she’s very…persuasive when she wants to be. Doesn’t…make her a …witch.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Only one way to know for sure.” The judge looked at the bank of the river. The wooden arm was still extended out over the river, but the chair was no longer visible. “If she’s a witch, she’ll survive the dunking stool and we’ll burn her at the stake. If she drowns, she’ll be declared innocent.”
“She’ll…also be…” Xena pushed up with all her might. Guards went flying in all directions and she made her way to her feet, “dead.”
Xena gave the judge a shove, causing him to fall backwards on his robes. She vaulted over him, running down the embankment. Behind her, she heard the guards rushing after her. She took in a great gulp of air and did a flying somersault that had her landing feet first in the river.
The water was cold – and murky. Her feet touched the bottom and she looked around. Above her and to the left, she discerned an object in the water. She kicked off from the sandy bottom of the river and pushed herself towards what she hoped was Gabrielle.
Her hand connected with a boot. She pulled herself up the length of Gabrielle’s body. Gabrielle’s eyes were closed and she was very still. Xena pressed her mouth against Gabrielle’s and she exhaled, expelling all the breath that she could. Hands frantically pulled and yanked at the chains securing Gabrielle to the chair. Xena struggled, but they wouldn’t budge. Fingertips touched Gabrielle’s cheek and pressed against her throat. Xena pressed her lips to the blonde’s forehead. Then, with a powerful kick, she swam towards the surface.
Both lungs were burning by the time she broke the surface of the water. Xena gulped in lungfuls of air. She drew in one last breath, then dove underwater again.
This time, she held onto her breath as she traveled over Gabrielle’s body and the chair. She reached for her waist, fingers finding and closing about her chakram. She balanced it in her hand and banged it against the chain in several places, using it to cut through the metal.
Gabrielle’s body began to float up from the chair. Xena caught her, embracing her. Pressing her mouth against Gabrielle’s, she exhaled, forcing the air out of her lungs and into her soulmate’s. Gathering Gabrielle up beneath the arms, Xena pushed them both towards the surface.
The spectators from the courtroom, the witnesses, the guards and the judge were all gathered about the two women on the muddy bank of the river. Xena was on her hands and knees in the mud, her breasts heaving as she took in great gulps of air. Gabrielle was on her back, arms and legs limp, her head tilted back, eyes closed. Where the warrior princess’ chest had been obviously heaving, Gabrielle’s was eerily still.
“Are you satisfied?” Xena looked at the assembled crowd. Most everyone turned their eyes from her icy stare. Her gaze fell on the mud-encrusted magistrate. “Are you?”
The judge nodded.
“Say it.” Xena reached out, grabbing the judge by his robes, forcing him to his knees beside her. “I want to hear you say it. Touch her and say it.”
The judge’s hand shook as he reached out and touched his trembling fingers to cold flesh. “She’s…” He cleared his throat and looked up at the gathered townspeople. “She drowned. She’s innocent.”
“That’s all I wanted to hear.”
Xena roughly shoved the judge away from her. He fell backwards, landing on his rear in the mud. Instead of protesting, or accepting one of the many proffered hands reaching to help him up, he pushed them away. Even as the mud seeped through his robes, he continued to sit there, silently watching the grieving warrior princess.
She tilted Gabrielle’s head back, forcing her mouth open. She breathed into Gabrielle’s mouth. Then, she used her fists to beat on the dead woman’s chest. She paused long enough to blow a few more breaths into her mouth.
“Come on, Gabrielle.” Tears were streaming unchecked down the warrior’s cheeks as she beat her closed fists against the bard’s chest. “We’ve done this before. Don’t you quit on me.” She forced a few more breaths into Gabrielle’s mouth. “Don’t you dare stay dead on me this time.”
Xena’s fist and gauntleted wrist smacked against Gabrielle’s chest. The bard’s body came halfway up off the ground. There was a great gasp of indrawn air and green eyes flew open.
The warrior wrapped her arms about the bard, holding her tight, crying and talking and pressing kisses against her wet hair all at the same time.
The judge looked up and around at the clearly shocked faces. Before any of them could think to raise the cry of Witch against a warrior princess that he knew he couldn’t prosecute – or persecute – he motioned for the guards. The guards complied, ushering the citizens away from the river and back towards the town.
Eventually, Xena and Gabrielle became aware of their surroundings again. Still embracing, they turned and looked. Everyone else was gone. However, the magistrate was still sitting on the ground, arms braced on his knees as he watched them.
“She was…” He looked at Gabrielle. “You were dead.”
“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded. “I was.”
“But only a witch could survive the dunking stool.”
“She didn’t survive.” Xena’s stare was stone cold. “She died, remember? You said an innocent woman would drown.”
The judge nodded. “I’ve never seen someone come back from the dead before. I’ve never seen someone risk their life to save someone else like that.” He looked at Xena. “I saw you. You almost drowned.”
“Almost.” Xena stared down at the shivering woman wrapped in her arms. She squeezed her tightly. “I’d do anything for Gabrielle, though, even die for her. Maybe it’s like you said, maybe I’m enchanted.”
“Not an enchantment,” said the judge. He could see it radiating from the two women now. “It’s love.”
Xena lowered her head and kissed Gabrielle. It wasn’t one of Xena’s all consuming, plundering kisses. Given what they’d just gone through, Gabrielle wasn’t sure either of them could have survived one of those. No, it wasn’t long. It wasn’t overly passionate. But, what it was, was full of love.
“Yep, Xena loves me alright,” Gabrielle winked. “Any witch way she can.”
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