No sign of slaughter. No dead body. Just the unmistakable scent of passion and an Amazon sprawled across the bed, sleeping soundly with a big, fat, smug smile on her face. Xena let out a breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding. She should have know. Death would hardly have disturbed Callisto. But lovemaking....now there was a horse of a different color.
Xena exited the hut and, after considering it for a few moments, settled herself down beside the blond. They sat silently for a few moments, the horizon lightening to the east.
"It was your first time?" Xena asked gently.
A long pause. Then Callisto nodded ever so slightly.
Xena took a deep breath. "Are you alright?"
Callisto didn't answer, staring at the ground intently. Gingerly, Xena reached out and put a hand on the immortal's shoulder. "Callisto, are you okay?"
Callisto shrugged briefly under the comforting grip.
Xena wondered if this was some sort of absurd joke the gods were playing on her. She wished Gabrielle were here. The bard did the sensitive chats. Xena preferred action. She knew if Callisto was swinging her sword, or trying another one of her insidious plans of revenge, her response would be clear and easy. This was beyond her.
"I didn't know it could be like that."
Callisto's voice was soft, almost inaudible.
"Un, it can be quite good," Xena allowed lamely. She paused, searched for some words. Surely she could come up with something better than that. "How do you feel?" Oh gods, that was pathetic.
"I don't know," Callisto said in a pitifully small voice. She looked up at Xena plaintively, almost as if she wanted the warrior to tell her what to do next. "How am I supposed to feel?"
Xena wished she was absolutely anyplace else than right here. Her pleasant morning feeling was a rapidly fading memory. She squirmed and thought about it. It had been an awful long time since she had first....though Gabrielle's reaction was still fairly fresh in her mind.
"Solari's a good woman," Xena offered slowly.
Callisto nodded, a little more emphatically this time.
"Un, did you like being with her? Was it pleasurable?" Xena tried again.
The nod was definitely enthusiastic now.
"Okay, then maybe you should talk to Solari," the warrior said kindly. "My impression of her is that she doesn't...offer herself lightly. She must have been quite taken with you. And if you liked it...and you like her...then maybe you can work something out."
"Work what out?"
Callisto couldn't be that dense, could she? Xena considered. Yeah, when it came to something like this....Xena could well believe that this was totally uncharted territory for the blond.
"A relationship," Xena explained. "You know, two people like each other, like being together, want to be together more." She paused. "Do you want to be with her more?"
Callisto went back to studying the ground again. "I don't even know her," she said in a low voice. "And we're leaving today." Real anguish colored the last words..
"No one said you couldn't come back," Xena pointed out reasonably. "You have to, anyway. Cassiope is staying here."
Callisto swallowed convulsively. "Why is this happening to me?"
Xena thought about that for a minute, studying the profile of her long time enemy. For the first time, her heart truly went out to the young woman. Had she been so different? When darkness lay claim to her soul and suddenly there had been that hint of light offered freely and without reservation?
"Maybe it was time," Xena offered gently. "Maybe you were ready." She squeezed the thin shoulder lightly, almost with affection. "You don't know where love is going to come from, or when it's going to hit you. But you know, when you finally let your heart accept that first little bit, it just seems to keep coming from all directions. The more you let in, the more there is waiting to reach out to you."
Her keen hearing picked up soft sounds from within. "Solari's waking up. I think you should go in and be there when she does."
Callisto shot her a stricken look but obediently got up and went back into the hut. Outside, Xena could hear Solari's sensual "good morning" and Callisto's more subdued one. Then Solari's playful urging of the immortal to get out of that robe and get back into bed. When Xena heard the unmistakable whispers of cloth over skin and Solari's appreciative laugh, she decided she had eavesdropped quite enough and quickly got out of there.
She highly doubted they'd be leaving as early as she'd hoped. She allowed herself a bit
of a grin. She'd bet that Callisto certainly hadn't found the previous night boring.
"I don't believe you," Gabrielle said as they stood next to Argo, later that morning. "It's impossible. I think you're making it up."
Xena flashed her a grin and tightened the pack on the palomino's back in preparation for the day's journey. The Amazons had gathered in the square for their departure, surrounding the big well which served as the central point of the village. Callisto's black gelding stood saddled, idly grazing as a young Amazon held his rein. Eponin sat on the well wall, gently teasing the ten year old Cassiope who was trying unsuccessfully to swing a quarterstaff twice her size. Ephiny leaned against the ornamental staff and tried to suppress her impatience as befitted her royal stature.
Of Callisto, there was still no sign and the sun was already high in the sky. Gabrielle, who had forced herself to get up hours ago without complaint and could care less about her royal stature, was rapidly losing her patience. Breakfast was a memory and she began to wonder if lunch was going to arrive before they left. Her stomach decided that wasn't such a bad idea.
"C'mon Xena, this is a joke, right?" Gabrielle persisted, tugging on the warrior's arm.
For answer, Xena nodded at the guest hut across the square.
In the doorway, Callisto had appeared. So did Solari, her arm wrapped firmly around the blond's waist as they walked towards the group.
Gabrielle goggled. Xena smirked. Cassiope didn't even notice and the rest of the Amazons watched with varying degrees of shock and astonishment. Not so much that Callisto had spent the night with an Amazon. Outside of Ephiny, they really didn't have a good idea who she was anyway and Callisto was quite attractive if a little skinny. More than one of them had thought about it. But Solari?
The brunette Amazon was exceptionally choosy and took a long time to get anywhere with anyone. To have nailed a newly arrived guest in one night was some kind of record for the royal guard.
"Good thing we didn't have dinars on it, huh?" Xena said quietly, leaning over and speaking in the bard's ear.
Gabrielle just shook her head wonderingly. The pair paused halfway across the square, turning to look at each other. A few words were exchanged, quiet, intent, then Solari gave a parting squeeze and decorously wandered off to the practice field. Callisto did not immediately resume her progress, staring after the Amazon's retreating form for long moments.
Her revery was interrupted when Cassiope rushed up to her sister, showing her the staff, telling her about her night in the Amazon's dormitory and how Eponin had promised to teach her to swim. Callisto listened solemnly and then, surprising herself, not to mention Cassiope, she reached down and picked her little sister up. She kissed her soundly on the cheek and carried her easily to where the others waited.
"I want you to be good while I'm gone," she instructed the child. She kissed her once more before letting her down.
Cassiope considered this as she stood in front of her sister. "I'll be careful," Cassiope allowed cautiously. She smiled brightly up at her big sister.
"No, you be good, and do what the Amazons say," Callisto insisted, one hand on the child's shoulder. She hesitated, then added. "I especially want you to listen to Solari."
"Just someone I want you to get to know, all right?" She squeezed the small shoulder affectionately.
"Okay," Cassiope agreed and wiggled out of her sister's grasp.
Callisto watched her bound off to rejoin Eponin, then quickly retrieved her horse from the other Amazon, mounting without speaking. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then as the bard swiftly hugged Ephiny, Xena vaulted onto Argo and reached down, pulling the younger woman up before urging the palomino after the gelding which was already trotting out of the
Just before they left the village, Callisto looked back to see a lone figure standing lonely and proud in the practice field. She raised a hand briefly, got a wave in return, then resolutely stared forward as they urged their horses into a gallop.
"Don't you say a word to her, Gabrielle," Xena warned gently over her shoulder. "Not one word."
"You're sure taking all the fun out of this, Xena," the bard replied. "You know that?"
"That's my job," the warrior replied dryly.
They camped that night next to the entrance to the caves. They could have easily entered then, but the sun was low and they decided to wait for a fresh start the next morning rather than make a incursion still tired from the ride to get there. Especially since Callisto had indicated that there were three challenges that must be overcome before they could reach the crystal. The horses, they let loose to drift back to the Amazon village. Artemis had told Callisto that once they secured the crystal, it would instantly transport them to where ever the godling was. They had little time left to argue. Either it was true, or they didn't have a chance at fulfilling their quest anyway.
That was all Artemis could or would tell her immortal charge. Callisto didn't know how the challenges would appear or how difficult they would be. All she could advise was that it was probably wisest that they be fresh and rested before tackling them.
A large fire was built, it's light pushing back the night as Xena and Gabrielle quietly ate their supper of venison, vegetables and bread, which had been provided by the Amazons. Afterward, Xena sharpened her sword, as Gabrielle cleaned up. Callisto sat on a log and stared into the fire, dark eyes blank as the flames flickered off an elven face devoid of expression.
Gabrielle shot an impish look at Xena and sat down close to the blond warrior though still well out of arm's reach. "So Callisto," she offered. "Solari's a really wonderful woman."
Xena looked up frowning as Callisto shot the bard a hard glance from the corner of narrowed eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said.
Gabrielle merely stared back at her with an innocent smile and Callisto sighed.
"How...how did you know?" she asked after a long pause filled with the soft snap of embers. Her voice had lowered so that only the bard would hear. Xena, taking the hint, got up to check the perimeter of the camp.
"Gods, who didn't when you two came out of the hut," Gabrielle said, rolling her eyes.
"No. How did you know she...know Xena was the one?" Uncomfortably, Callisto picked up a stick and poked at the fire, sending an explosion of sparks to rise briefly glowing into the night air.
Gabrielle thought about that for the moment. This was not really going the way she had anticipated. She had hoped to get a few digs in at the blond, payback for the last time they had gone after Valasqua. Callisto, however, was not co-operating. This woman wasn't the sarcastic, bitter person of that time. This was someone who had let the love of a child wrap firmly around her heart. A heart she didn't even know she had and now, suddenly, there was someone else who had also managed to touch it in some inexplicable way.
"I just did," the bard said, knowing it was inadequate but lacking the words to explain. "I felt it deep inside." She touched her chest. "Here, deep in my heart. I wanted to be with her. I was empty when I wasn't. I was complete when I was. When she died...uh, that's a long story," Gabrielle added as Callisto looked up sharply at that. "Anyway, when she died, I knew for sure. When she came back to life, it was like I was given second chance." Unconsciously she reached out and put her hand on the immortal's. "Not everyone gets second chances, Callisto. So it's best to accept love when it appears. It might not work out. But if you don't at least try, you might be throwing away your only chance."
Suddenly she was aware that she was actually touching the woman she had once tried to kill, who had came closer than anyone to forcing her to forsake her blood innocence. Shaken, she withdrew her hand abruptly, and looked around for Xena, relieved when she saw her standing by a tree, barely visible beyond the circle of light. The warrior princess was watching her intently and Gabrielle allowed that look to wash over her, driving out the disturbed emotion.
Callisto did not notice the bard's unease, lost in thought as she stared into the glow of the fire and seeing instead the angular face of a brunette Amazon.
Gabrielle, finally conscious that Callisto was not longer paying her any mind, took the opportunity to get up and leave the campsite, joining her lover. Wordlessly they moved deeper into the woods and darkness, letting the night air surround them as they found a convenient log fallen next to a creek where they had earlier drawn water. Xena sat, leaning back against the pile of rocks at one end of the log, motioning the bard to sit in front of her which Gabrielle happily did. Xena wrapped her arms warmly about the bard and drew her tightly back against her.
"I thought I told you not to do that," Xena rumbled in fond exasperation.
"Hey, words are my business," Gabrielle replied with some asperity. "I know when to talk."
"Oh, no question," Xena allowed teasingly. "It's the not talking you have a problem with."
"Yeah, well..." Gabrielle shrugged and allowed a somewhat sheepish smile. "It wasn't what I expected."
Xena nodded, resting her chin on the coppery hair. "Hmm," she allowed ruefully. "I could have warned you about that. She's been....unpredictable lately."
"Unpredictable," Gabrielle tasted the word. "That says it all right." She leaned back against her warrior, resting her head on that chest. Idly she entwined her fingers in Xena's, resting them on her bare abdomen. "Do you think she's in love with Solari?"
Xena was quiet for a few moments. "I think you can easily fall in love with the first person you ever sleep with," she said. She raised an eyebrow quizzically as Gabrielle twisted around to look her in the face at that. "C'mon, remember what Circe said about her being a virgin. She was right about you. There's no reason to think she wouldn't be right about Callisto." She paused. "Besides, Callisto told me it was this morning. She was pretty shook up by it."*
Gabrielle nodded and relaxed back into the embrace. "It's just so hard to accept," she said softly. "This is Callisto we're talking about after all."
Xena shrugged. "Hey, I changed," she reminded. "And you're the one who said love could break the circle of hatred. Callisto loves her sister."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "She does, doesn't she."
"And you were right, the more you love, the more you are loved," Xena said softly into the bard's hair, tightening her hold. "Solari just walked through a door Cassiope had already broken down."
"I like that," Gabrielle smiled. "I'll have to remember to put that in when I write the story about this." She squeezed the warrior's hand and snuggled closer..
"I guess we should be getting back," she added after awhile.
"I know," Xena said. But neither of them made any effort to move.
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "I know we...can't, out here. But after this is over, can we spend some time with the Amazons? I know we're together and I love being with you. But...last night was really nice. I miss that. I miss being...close to you."
"We will," Xena promised. She nuzzled the bard's neck apologetically. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I said we'd make more time to be together. I haven't been very good at that lately. I miss being close to you too."
"Well, it really has been one thing after another," the bard allowed. "There was that village with the wolves. And the prince who got caught by those slavers. Not to mention that mess with Joxer. And we had to go when Hercules sent for us. We've been busy."
"Yes, but that's no excuse," the warrior said. "What we have is...it's really special, Gabrielle. I don't want to let time slip away and find we didn't give it the attention it deserved." She leaned to the side so that she could look down into the sweet face silvered by moonlight. "I do love you. With all my heart. And maybe you can't tell, but I do want and need you...all the time."
Gabrielle smiled brightly and reached up a hand to caress the strong face. Xena smiled back and bent forward, covering the bard's mouth in a gentle kiss that went on and on. Finally they drew apart with a sigh, and reluctantly, they got up off the log.
Hands linked firmly, they walked back to the campsite.
They each carried a pack containing supplies and ropes as they entered the cave. Xena had no intention of passing the challenges only to be stopped by something as mundane as a sinkhole and she made sure they had everything they might need. Preparation had been one of her trademarks as a warlord. It was one of the few traits she was content to keep in her new life. Torches were prepared that would burn slowly and last for hours, and waterskins were filled though they expected to find more water inside.
Callisto led the way, her immortal senses drawing her to the resonance of the crystal deep inside the mountain, just as Artemis had promised it would. The stalagmite festooned cave they entered eventually gave way to a series of more refined tunnels, clearly manufactured with an unnatural symmetry. Amazed, Gabrielle took a moment to put a hand on the cold stone, surprisingly smooth beneath her fingers under the dust of time.
"Who made this, Xena?" she asked as they took a rest break in one of the cross branches.
"I don't know," the warrior answered thoughtfully. "No one does. Legends have this place existing as far back as people can remember. All these caves are linked in some way, too. This one, the one Callisto found the Tree of Life in, the one where we got the ambrosia....This mountain holds a lot of secrets."
Gabrielle shivered and Xena patted her leg gently. "C'mon," she said.
They got up, and hurried to catch up to Callisto who had gone on to scout out what lay ahead. Hours passed as they moved through the tunnels, following the immortal's lead which took them ever deeper into the maze of crisscrossing caves and halls, alternating between natural formations and the even passageways bored into the mountain.
They found their first obstacle in a dead end, a wall that loomed before them. There were engravings etched into the stone, crumbling but still legible in the torch light. They appeared to be pictures of some sort, the faded paint still maintaining the faint color of an age long past.
"Strange, they look Egyptian," Xena said, kneeling at the base of the wall as she brought the torch closer in an effort to see better. "What would Egyptian markings be doing here? Except...they're not quite." She frowned. On the other side of the world, in four millennium, identical carvings would be discovered in South America in a pyramid shaped structure hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest. They wouldn't know what they were looking at either.
Gabrielle peered curiously over her shoulder. "When were you in Egypt?" she asked.
Xena shook her head. "A long time ago," she said. "I'll tell you about it sometime."
"This is the first challenge," Callisto said then with conviction. They looked at her and she nodded. "We have to figure out what these markings mean. It opens a door."
"How..." Gabrielle began.
"Artemis," Callisto answered wearily. "I just wish the bitch would tell me flat out and spare us the games," she added irreverently, shocking the bard.
"Games are what the gods do best," Xena grunted. She looked at the other two. It had taken most of the day to reach this point. Gabrielle was still game but her face was smudged with dirt and tiny lines of fatigue radiated from her green eyes shaded with red from the smoke which the torches gave off. Xena was feeling a bit weary herself, not to mention grimy, the remains of cobwebs and dust draping her armor and leather. The caves were stuffy and monotonous, making it hard to think beyond the need to keep walking down one tunnel after another.
"I heard water a little bit back," she said. "I suggest we go back there and make camp for the night. We'll think better after a good night's rest."
Callisto nodded. "I'm going to stay here," she said. "Maybe something will come to me. And it will keep me occupied tonight."
Xena nodded and the pair left the blond to it, exiting the dead end and traveling down the side tunnel where Xena had heard the water. It opened up to a cavern which bordered a small black pool which lapped against the far wall, clearly flowing from beneath it. The color of the pool came from the granules of stone resting on the bottom though the water itself was clear and tasted wonderfully clean and cold, a welcome change from the water skins which had grown tepid and warm during the day.
The two women took the opportunity to wash, changing to linen tunics. Xena found some wood washed up on the shore, indicating that the source of the pool originated outside the caves. She also took notice of marks on the rock face. Sometime in the past the water had overflowed it's banks and filled the cavern. Xena didn't think there was any danger but she made a note to sleep light this night.
They built a small fire, more for light than heat and as Xena took the opportunity to check their supplies item by item, Gabrielle wrapped herself in a blanket, huddling on her bedroll. The encompassing dark of the cave took over as the fire died down, embers glowing red, and the bard was suddenly aware of the immense mountain of rock pressing down on her. Sounds seemed magnified, the unceasing drip from the ceiling, the lap of the water on stone, their breathing unnaturally loud in the still air.
Gabrielle shivered and was immediately comforted by the strong arms pulling her onto a large warm body as Xena joined her under the blanket, the vibration of the warrior's heart, slow and steady, calming her and bringing her own heart rate down.
"Are you okay?" The voice was whisper soft, a breath that tickled Gabrielle's ear.
"I always am with you," she whispered back in an effort to reassure her
warrior and then realized it was true. She snuggled against Xena's side, resting her head
on the broad shoulder, the swell of a breast beneath her cheek. Quickly sleep overcame
her, there safe and secure in her lover's arms.
"I've discovered that seven of these markings move," Callisto informed them when they joined her early the next morning. She rubbed her fingers over the markings in question, pressing down on them. "I think there's a certain combination in which they have to be pressed."
"We could be years trying to find the right one," Xena grumbled.
"There must be some clue," Gabrielle insisted, lifting her torch higher to cast light on the lower markings. "If we could somehow translate these..."
Xena leaned back on her heels and studied the wall before her. She recognized some of the markings. One meant freedom, another meant time. But there was no way to know for sure if indeed they did mean that. Just because they looked Egyptian didn't mean they actually were.
"Can we break through?" she offered with a sigh.
Callisto flashed her a arch look. "If it were that easy, any muscle-bound lunkhead like you could do it," she said. "I know you're used to just ramming through things, Xena. I was there at Cirra, remember?"
Xena showed her teeth but she wasn't smiling. "So, what's the solution?" she asked the blond pointedly, stung by the unexpected reminder.
"You're the one who reads Egyptian," Callisto reminded.
"You're the immortal with a line to Artemis," Xena countered.
"You're the military genius," she said, voice dripping acidly. "As all those villages found out."
"You're the one who comes up with convoluted plans," Xena responded coldly.
"For revenge," Callisto retorted in outrage. "Not word puzzles."
The argument was beginning to get heated when a sudden click silenced them both. Gabrielle, who had studied the various groups of markings, realized there was only one string of seven characters that repeated over and over within the others. She had pressed the markers in that order and the click indicated that something happened. The grinding of rock made them step back and before their eyes, the wall slid back to reveal another tunnel, dust sparkling in the torch light as it settled.
"Well," Gabrielle noted as she looked back at the other two. "It's a good thing one of us knows when not to talk."
Satisfied she'd scored big by the look on Xena's face, she grinned and picking up her pack, strutted through the opening. Xena and Callisto exchanged suffering glances.
"How do you put up with her?" the blond asked.
"Sometimes it's a trial," Xena admitted.
"Are you two coming or what?" Gabrielle called from far down the tunnel.
The dust lay heavy in these passages, rising with every footstep. They paused long enough to rip up some cloth and tie the pieces over their nose and mouths so that they wouldn't be breathing in the choking stuff. It was clear that no one had passed this way for centuries. Again the tunnels went on and on, their sameness wearing on the mind. If it weren't for the fact that they were dutifully marking every junction and turning, they'd think they weren't getting anywhere at all. Just going around in big circles.
The large room they entered came as a surprise. They were actually halfway across before the difference in the structure penetrated their dulled senses. They whirled, backs to each other as the chilling sound of falling stone, the roar of the rock slabs slamming down to block both openings, trapped them. With a series of small explosions, the torch holders on the wall flared to life, revealing the large space of the room.
Alertness returned with such clarity that they realized there had been some kind of outside influence, some gas in the air, some kind of spell...something that had blunted their senses in the tunnels they had been following. It was only now they realized it. It had even affected Callisto for all her immortal advantages.
Callisto ripped the kerchief from her face and let lose a stream of invective that impressed even Xena's warlord acquired vocabulary and profoundly shocked Gabrielle who thought she had a pretty good library of curses herself. The slabs of stone barring the doors were totally immovable and it didn't take them long to realize they weren't getting out that way.
"What now?" Gabrielle asked, looking at Xena intently.
To the warrior's dismay, Callisto was also looking to her, clearly expecting her to solve this. For an instant, responsibility lay heavy on the woman's shoulders then with an unconscious shrug, she threw it off and looked keenly around the room.
"This has to be a challenge," she said. "The second one. So there must be a way out."
"You're right," Callisto said in surprise. "This is the second one, and strength is the key." She hesitated, looked at the doors. "No one's that strong," she added doubtfully.
With a unspoken consensus, they dropped their packs and spread out, going over every inch of the room, various statues of the Olympians carved into the walls to watch their search with blank, unseeing eyes, the torches throwing wild shadows as nameless things skittering away in the flickering light leaving thick webs draping the walls. It was Gabrielle who found the etchings by gingerly pulling back the thick strands. This time in clear Greek even if the words didn't make sense right away. It was in the form of a riddle, something Gabrielle was quite good at.
"It had to be the right hand of Zeus," the bard insisted. She pointed back at the statue which framed the door where they had entered. "Grasp the right hand of the king of gods, his strength will be yours," she recited.
Before the other two could say anything to contradict her, Gabrielle strode over to the statues hand jutting from the door frame and tugged at it. For a few seconds, nothing happened, then it shifted slightly and Gabrielle turned back with a triumphant grin as the now familiar grinding sounded. A grin that disappeared a second later when a split occurred in the center of the floor.
"Gabrielle!" Xena cried as the floor began to swiftly disappear into the walls, so swiftly that their feet were taken out from under them.
Xena found herself carried along helplessly until she rammed into the far wall. There she lay stunned on the brief lip that was left, a ledge of about two feet jutting out from the door which had opened even as the floor disappeared. She carefully rolled over and looked across the pit that separated her from the other two, heart clenching in her throat.
There was no ledge there, the floor having slid flush against the wall. And that door, the one they had entered through, was still barred by the heavy slab. Gabrielle dangled from the stone hand, clinging desperately to the statue. From the other hand, Callisto had also managed to secure a hold and was now glaring at the bard.
"Not your right hand, dummy," the blond said irritably as they hung there. "His right hand. It was this one that opened the door."
"Shut up, Callisto," Gabrielle said, gritting her teeth.
"Hang on, Gabrielle," Xena called desperately. Below the two women, three foot metal stakes jutted up from the bottom of the pit, thickly clustered with sharp-edged points. Skeletons, some human, signified the end of previous challengers who had guessed the riddle wrong.
Xena was frantic, eyes darting about the room. Their packs containing the ropes had dropped into the pit, caught on the rusted metal tips beyond her reach. There was nothing close enough to secure her whip to and nowhere on the flat ceiling for her to use it to swing over to the bard. She could leap the pit, barely, but there was nothing for her to catch onto beyond the outstretched stone arms which were barely supporting the two other women.
Gabrielle let out a squeak as the masonry crumbled and dropped a little. It would not last much longer. "Xena!" she cried.
"Hang on," Xena commanded. This was her worst nightmare. There was nothing she could do. There wasn't enough time.
Callisto rolled her eyes. "Oh boy, am I gonna regret this," she muttered.
"Xena," she yelled. "Catch."
The blond warrior swung herself over to where Gabrielle was, grabbing the bard around the waist. In that brief second that the hand supported them both before disintegrating completely, Callisto linked her hands in the bard's waistband, braced her feet against the sheer wall and tossed the bard up and over her head before falling backwards into the pit and the pikes waiting below.
The bard, propelled by Callisto's not inconsiderable strength, augmented by immortality, found herself flung through the air towards Xena. She had an impression of the room spinning wildly about her, the yawning dark of the pit below her as she fell towards it and then she was brought to a sudden wrenching stop as her hands grabbed at the ledge wildly. Callisto's throw had been a bit off and Gabrielle now clung desperately to the brief lip at Xena's far left as the warrior tried to get to the bard without falling into the pit herself.
She looked up to meet the hot blue eyes of Xena, flaring with the terror at just how close she had come to losing her. Then strong hands grasped the redhead's wrists as the warrior pulled her up and onto the ledge.
"Oh gods, Xena," Gabrielle gasped, flinging her arms about the warrior's neck.
"It's okay, you're alright now," Xena muttered, holding her tightly.
"Callisto!" The bard drew back, horrified and together they leaned over slightly to look down into the pit.
Callisto lay impaled on the pikes, the rusted metal jutting up through the slender torso at her stomach, and chest. Her legs splayed, the thighs and calves caught on the cruel points and her left arm was pinned through the wrist, her right through the bicep. One more metal point exited from her left eye socket, having entered the back of her neck and propping the blond head up grotesquely. Blood flowed freely down the poles to pool around the base of the metal.
"Oh gods," Gabrielle made a small sound in the back of her throat, covering her mouth with her hand, eyes wide with horror. "Xena, is she..."
"I don't know," the warrior said somberly, her face stoic. "I can't te..."
Callisto's right eye flew open, prompting a strangled scream from the bard.
"You have no idea how much this hurts," the immortal hissed through gritted teeth, voice reverberating eerily from the metal impaling her neck.
"Hold on, Callisto," Xena instructed. "I'll be right there."
"Oh, I'm not going anywhere," Callisto responded acidly.
With Gabrielle bracing her legs against the frame of the door, the thin end of the whip wrapped firmly around her wrists, Xena used the leather braid to lower herself into the pit, landing with the utmost care in the narrow area between the wall and the first row of pikes. Leaning hard against the sheer stone, Xena sidestepped along the perimeter of the pit, skirting the sharp spikes until she was able to retrieve Gabrielle's staff which had fallen in when the floor had taken the bard's feet out from under her.
Using the Amazonian wood as a brace to support her unsteady footing, Xena made her way through the lances to the center of the pit where Callisto lay helpless, unable to get the leverage needed to lift herself off the terrible spears thrust through her body. If the warrior princess was not as long legged as she was, it would have been an impossible task. As it was, she had to remove her skirt and toss it up onto the ledge before entering the thicket of metal, the points a mere inch below the crotch of her leather breeches.
"How you doing?" Xena asked gently as she positioned herself amongst the pikes next to the horribly injured woman. There was barely enough room for her to fit her feet between the rusting rows of metal.
"Oh, just fine," Callisto muttered grimly.
"Just hang in there a few more seconds," Xena advised soothingly and slid her arms beneath the woman between the thin poles. "Here we go," she warned. Bending her knees slightly, but not too much, Xena clenched her teeth and with all her strength, lifted the woman straight up.
Callisto screamed as she was torn from the spikes, the awful pain too much to bear and blackness claimed her briefly. When she came to, she found she was clinging to Xena's neck like a child, her breath coming in ragged sobs, held in the warrior's powerful arms as somehow, impossibly, the warrior princess, carrying both Callisto and Gabrielle's staff, negotiated through the pikes to where the whip dangled.
"Up you go," Xena grunted, boosting the woman up and onto the ledge with a mighty heave, Gabrielle's helping hand preventing the sorely injured blond from falling back. Xena retrieved the packs and tossed them up, aiming at the dark space of the door. Then she made a leap and grabbed the whip, pulling herself up as quickly as possible to spare Gabrielle's arms.
Exhausted, the warrior helped the seriously depleted immortal to her feet, and the pair of them stumbled through the door, joining the bard in the dark corridor. Painfully, Gabrielle took her pack and staff before handing over the now coiled whip. Xena propped Callisto up against the wall while she redonned her skirt and hefted the remaining packs onto her back, one over each shoulder.
Gabrielle lit two torches, handing one to Xena and keeping the other. The bard looked
anxiously at the warrior, sighing when Xena shook her head, knowing this was not anyplace
to spend a night. Firmly, the warrior princess urged them on and, supporting the
semi-conscious immortal between them, they staggered into the dark passage awaiting them.
Another two hours passed before they found a suitable place, a cavern bisected with a rippling stream winding through the stalagmites. Wearily they dropped the packs and threw their torches together in a depression in the sand in lieu of a campfire, lowering the immortal carefully to the sand. Xena took a moment to look at Callisto's terrible wounds, trying to discover if her healing skills were needed or even up to the task of being able to help. The gaping rips had ceased to bleed and were beginning to close up, the empty eye socket filling up with a milky, gelatinous fluid that the warrior princess didn't care to examine too closely. The immortal was very weak as her body drew all it's resources for healing and she thought Callisto might need to take in some nourishment to support her ability. Clearly the immortal was in a great deal of pain, she didn't even bother to argue when Xena advised her to eat.
Gabrielle threw together some bread and venison for supper, making some rather dry sandwiches which Callisto ravenously devoured as if it were the finest of banquets. Afterward, the immortal rolled herself up in a blanket and promptly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, almost coma-like as her body sought to finish restoring her.
The other two ate as well though less hungrily and when they were done, Xena pulled Gabrielle aside, having noticed her stiffness and subtle wincing. She removed the green top to examine the bard's shoulders and back which had been strained, first by grabbing onto the statue, hanging on for her life, and then by holding the whip for Xena's trip into the pit..
"You should have told me you hurt your back," Xena scolded as she spread salve over Gabrielle's knotted muscles, massaging it in with strong, gentle hands.
"It didn't hurt until now," Gabrielle protested tiredly as she leaned forward, copper hair falling about her face. She managed a small grin. "Though if I had known you were going to do this..."
Xena allowed a ghost of a smile to drift over her face. "You don't have to hurt yourself to get me to do this," she murmured softly.
"Mmmm," Gabrielle agreed in a sleepy voice.
"Hey, lie down on your stomach," Xena instructed. "Before you fall over."
Gabrielle did not need to be asked twice, happily settling on her stomach as the warrior straddled her hips and returned to the job at hand, drawing out the pain and replacing it with a delicious lassitude.
Xena continued the massage until she was sure her lover was completely asleep, then got up, pausing briefly to bestow a fond kiss on a smooth shoulder blade. Then she leaned back on her heels, finally letting the events of the day flow through her.
Inside, she was screaming. It had been so close. She would be having nightmares over this for months. She remembered her feeling of despair, the horrible sense of helplessness as she watched Gabrielle dangle above those spikes. She had been about to fling herself across in an effort to impose her own body between Gabrielle and what waited when Callisto had made her move.
She swallowed hard and looked down at the woman she loved so much...too much. Losing the bard would be the end of her, she knew that. She remembered the night Gabrielle had made her promise not to turn into a monster if something happened to the bard. Xena had made the promise, realizing only later how easy it would be to keep. If Gabrielle died, Xena wouldn't have time to turn into a monster or anything else. She'd be dead by her own hand long before.
Finally, she rolled her shoulders, easing the tension as she twisted her head back and forth. This sort of speculation did little good to anyone, least of all herself. She sighed and pulled off her armor, rubbing a finger ruefully over the swirls of metal, smearing the dirt. She really needed to clean it but it made little sense considering there would only be more of the same tomorrow. She lay it down, leaving it for the nonce. It wasn't wet so there was no threat of corrosion. She drew off her hot leather and took a moment to wash in the stream, pulling on a linen tunic. She glanced at the bard, still clad in her skirt and....Xena smiled suddenly....her boots.
Xena pulled them off and unwrapped the short brown skirt, leaving the bard clad in only her breeches before joining her, draping the blanket over them both. She lay on her back as she stared up at the stalactites dripping from the roof, weariness dragging at her even as sleep stubbornly eluded her. It didn't help that the bard was restless as well, whimpering a bit as she rolled over, draping her arm and leg across the warrior's breasts and thighs. Xena felt a jolt as the bard's warm flesh covered her, even through the linen, her nipples hardening in unmistakable response as her loins tightened involuntarily.
The warrior forced herself to breathe deeply. This was just a reaction to the day's events, she knew. Death had come close and now she wanted to drive it away totally, her body demanding it prove that everything was still functioning, that the one she loved still lived and that they both still needed. It was perfectly natural, an attempt to renew the sense of being alive.
Knowing that and controlling the desire that welled up inside her were two different things however. She sighed and tried to concentrate on the rock formations above her.
Xena became aware that Gabrielle was twitching, eyes fluttering as she battled a nightmare. Usually the warrior's presence was enough to ward of the night terrors for the bard but not this evening as with a sudden jerk, Gabrielle woke, eyes blinking dazedly as she looked into the dark-haired woman's concerned face.
"It's all right, love," Xena murmured, stroking the tangled hair. "It's just a bad dream." She rubbed the bard's neck gently.
"Mph, sorry I woke you," Gabrielle groaned and buried her face in the warrior's shoulder, trying to get comfortable as she snuggled closer.
"You didn't," Xena admitted softly and closed her eyes, trying to grasp sleep by sheer force of will.
It was a losing proposition, for both of them. The bard's breathing was ragged as she lay still, clearly attempting not to disturb the warrior any further but no closer to sleep than Xena was. For long moments they lay there, a rigidness to their bodies that could not be mistaken for relaxation in the slightest.
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered finally. "I'm sorry, I can't sleep."
"I know," Xena said, fondly pressing her lips to the sweaty forehead. "I can't seem to get to sleep either. It was a bad day today. Maybe if you tell me what the dream was about?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Ugh, I don't even want to think about it," she said softly. "I was on the side of the pit and I looked down and it was you lying there...." She hugged the warrior tightly, trying to drive the demons away. "I can't lose you again," she whispered. "It would destroy me. I don't think I could go on without you."
"Well, I'm right here," Xena soothed. She rubbed the bard's back gently, running her hand up and down the smooth, bare skin.
Despite herself, her fingertips lingered, becoming something more sensual, dancing along the bard's spine in long strokes that went all the way down to the hollow at the base. Gabrielle pressed into the caress with a moan, her hand sliding up to Xena's breast, cupping it lightly but hesitating there.
They both knew the rule. It was so easy for them to become lost in each other, to shut out the world around them. On the road, that could have deadly consequences.
"Xena, I'm sorry, I just need you so much," the bard said quietly, keeping her hand still but the longing clear in her gaze as she looked at her lover.
The warrior smiled. "Never apologize for that," she said, voice low and throaty. She glanced over at Callisto who appeared to be out of it for the night. Of course, with the immortal, there was no way to tell. She looked back to meet Gabrielle's eyes who were now hopeful, a half smile on her face. Xena returned the smile.
"C'mon," she said, sitting up.
The alcove next to the stream was well out of sight and earshot of the camp. It was bordered by rocks that surrounded a flat area of hard packed sand which sparkled in the light of the torch Gabrielle jammed in a crevice. Xena dropped the bedroll she had been carrying, spreading it out over the ground as behind her, the soft babble of the water made an almost musical backdrop for them.
Xena looked up from where she was kneeling on the blankets, her dark eyes smoldering as she took in the sight of Gabrielle standing by the torch. It's light made the bard's body golden, clad only in the briefs, her breasts bare beneath the soft coppery strands of hair that fell lightly upon them. Emerald eyes stared back at her, their green tinge catlike as the bard walked to her, stopping in front of the warrior, her muscled stomach a mere breath away from her face.
Xena smiled and rested her hands on the woman's waist, leaning forward to press her lips gently on the flat navel. Gabrielle took a breath, closing her eyes as she enjoyed the touch briefly, then opened them again as she bent over, sliding her hands down the warrior's back to the hem of the linen tunic. She bunched the cloth in her hand and slowly pulled it up and over the warrior's head, the dark hair falling away as the bard casually tossed it to the side. The warrior hooked her fingers in Gabrielle's waistband, drawing the breeches down over the soft swell of hip, letting them drop to the ground where the bard stepped out of them, kicking them over to join the discarded tunic.
"Come here," the warrior said, her voice low and seeming to vibrate through the bard. Smiling, Gabrielle did as requested, dropping to her knees so that they were face to face, placing her hands on the wide shoulders as the warrior wrapped her arms around the small body, holding her close. The touch of skin on skin was a homecoming for both of them, and the feel of the warrior's mouth covering her own healed Gabrielle in places she had not even known were hurting from the day's events.
Gabrielle pressed her hand to the side of the warrior's neck, the pulse throbbing beneath her palm, the unmistakable sense of life renewing her own. Fingertips ran over the small scar behind the ear, then back down to wrap around the warrior's neck and pull her closer, her tongue darting out to meet Xena's, moving against each other, entwining as each sought entry to the other's mouth.
Gently, the warrior lowered her to the bedroll, resting her on her back as she continued the kiss until finally Xena released her mouth and slipped over the chin and down her throat, brushing kisses all the way. The bard groaned and threw her head back, delighting in the feel of the warrior's lips and tongue, gasping as the mouth found her breasts, nuzzling gently before taking a nipple into her mouth, prodding it with a tongue before closing her lips over it, suckling hungrily then trailing over to do the same to the other.
"Oh gods, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. She tangled her small hands in the thick raven hair, gripping the head and pulling it tight against her as her lower body turned to liquid. "You feel so good..."
She felt the bright edge of teeth against her skin, knowing her lover smiled as she went on with her mouth's ministrations to her breasts, the warrior's hands drawing slowly down the bard's stomach and resting briefly on her hips. Gabrielle parted her legs, flexing her knees as she felt the warrior leave off the breasts and continue downward, trailing a thin line down her belly, pausing to plant a kiss firmly on the triangle of hair. Then the calloused hands were on the inside of her thighs, spreading her wider and she tensed as she felt the warm breath bathe her. And there the warrior paused, wether in appreciative observation or to submerge herself in the scent, the bard didn't know. She only knew what she needed and she raised her hips eagerly to meet what she didn't find.
"Xena," she cried out, trying to force the head down. It did not move an inch and she knew that she was being teased.
"Damn you, warrior princess," Gabrielle muttered.
The laugh then, deep and low and shaking her bones. The warrior's kisses began trailing along the soft skin of her inner thighs to her knee and leg before sliding over and starting the slow trip back up the other trembling limb. She knew that Xena would bypass her a few times, building the desire to an almost unbearable level, going all the way up to her mouth then all the way back down to her ankles again until she was squirming and crying, demanding satisfaction. Then and only then would the warrior grant her mercy.
Maybe she relaxed slightly, eased her tension a little in predicting the warrior's next move. In any event, the commanding mouth covered her suddenly, the fingers invading her with gentle yet insistent force sending a jolt all the way to the top of her head, the surprise causing her to raise her entire upper body with the sensation of it.
"Gods, Xena," she exclaimed and fell back, withering helplessly at the firm thrusts that seemed to reach so deep inside, the skilled, talented tongue that knew exactly what to do and where to go until the unrestrained joy of it exploded, the spasms of pleasure leaving her weak and spent, sprawled on the bedroll as the warrior slowly drew away, kissing her way up to reclaim her mouth. The bard could only sigh softly against the lips, wrapping her arms tightly around her neck.
"You fooled me," she said after a while.
"I know," Xena chuckled. "I meant to."
Gabrielle smiled and kissed her warrior gently. She let her hands wander at will over the large body covering her and as she heard the breath catch, she smiled again.
"Now let's see if I can fool you," she muttered. And to her surprise, she did.