ROPE TRICK

by M.Parnell
xedi1@hotmail.com

Copyright 1997


The characters in this story are the property of MCA-Universal, and have been borrowed because I wanted to tell this story.

Disclaimer: This story contains low level violence and a whole lot of mind games by Callisto.


"He who wrongs, to him shall wrong be done-in full." The Agamemnon of Aeschylus

 

Two voices rose above the gurgling of a small brook, blended in a harmonious chant,

accompanied by rhythmic clapping: :

"Attica, Sparta, Delphi---"

"Delphi?" asked the voice of higher pitch.

"Delphi," affirmed the lower voice.

"Thatís not right. Itís supposed to be ĎCorinthí. "Attica, Sparta, Corinth, roam, where do you go when you go home?"

"Gabrielle, where did you get that from?" Xena, the Warrior Princess sat, cross-legged, in full regalia, sword on her back, across from her smaller companion. "It goes like this." She motioned for Gabrielle to put her hands up and they slapped hands together in an intricate pattern while Xena said: "Attica, Sparta, DELPHI, roam, How many miles Ďtil you get home?" She spread her hands and nodded. "See?"

" ĎHow many milesí? Xena, no! ĎWhere do you goí. Then you name as many villages as possible without missing a beat. Thatís how we do it in Potadeia. Your way makes no sense. You just count miles?"

"Yeah, in Amphipolis we JUST count miles. But then in Amphipolis weíre not clapping hands while we count, weíre jumping rope."

"Jumping rope?" Gabrielle wrinkled her nose, puzzled. "I should have known jumping would be involved. I bet you were good at it."

"Yeah, I was," she grinned with pride.

"Still, that doesnít sound too hard, jumping over a rope. Unless...? Was it raised off the ground?"

"Gabrielle, they donít jump rope in Potadeia?" Xena was genuinely surprised.

"No, weíre just simple, country folk, with our feet on the ground, she said with cheery sarcasm. "So what is this rope jumping like?"

"Wait here." Xena retrieved a rope from Argo and walked back, wrapping the excess around her hands until the desired length remained suspended between them. She smiled enigmatically at her audience of one and began to twirl the rope, jumping as she intoned: "Attica, Sparta, Delphi, roam, how many miles Ďtil you get home? One, two, three, four..."

Gabrielle sat astonished as the warrior continued to count and jump, now skipping, now crossing the rope before jumping through, now slowing down, now speeding up, turning in circles as she jumped, smiling broadly, letting an occasional shout of joy escape her.

She looked at Gabrielle sitting open mouthed on the ground before her. "This is rope jumping," she said before resuming her count, " 204, 205, 206, 207... Gab, jump in!"

"What?"

"Jump in!"

"I canít," she said uncertainly, "How do I do that?"

"Iíll slow down, you time the jump, and jump in. Just do it," she urged.

Gabrielle rose to her feet slowly, and rocked rhythmically to the steady beat of the rope as it slapped the ground.

"Now, Gab," Xena commanded. The bard leaped, eyes closed, in to the center of the rope, and for a few glorious turns, she avoided stepping on the rope.

"Hey, this is fun," she smiled, face to face with Xena. In that second she lost concentration and landed heavily on the rope. She began to fall, and grabbed at Xena, pulling the warrior down in a heap on top of her.

As they lay sprawled in the grass, Gabrielle said "We never did that in Potadeia."

"You were getting the hang of it," Xena said, as she extricated herself from the rope, and Gabrielle.

"That was impressive," Gabrielle acknowledged. "How long has it been since you did it last?"

"About three days," Xena replied, as she coiled the rope.

"You still do this?" Gabrielle asked, surprised.

"Yeah."

"Youíre kidding, right?" Her green eyes narrowed.

"No, itís great exercise; good for stamina; I try to fit it in about twice a week"

"Well, when do you do it? Do you wait until Iím asleep and sneak off behind a bush?"

"What? Why would I Ďsneak offĎ ? Itís not anything to be ashamed of."

"I agree. But Xena, donít you think itís odd that you do this twice a week, and in all this time, Iíve never known about it?" Gabrielleís voice was quiet, her eyes steadily on Xena.

Xena was disconcerted by Gabrielleís serious tone. "I donít think itís odd," she began defensively. "You just havenít been around, I guess. Or you didnít notice."

"Xena, if you were biting your nails I might not notice; I think Iíd notice a six-foot tall warrior leaping through a loop of a rope several hundred times in rapid succession."

Xena nodded at the logic. "I see your point. But I wasnít trying to be secretive."

"I think you were, Xena. I donít know why, maybe you didnít even realize it, but itís more than a coincidence that Iíve never seen you jump rope before."

ĎWell, all right, Iíll make sure youíre around when I jump. Okay?" Xenaís tone said letís move on to another topic.

"Not so fast. Iíd like to know why you never told me."

"Well, since I wasnít really aware that I hadnít told you, I canít explain why," Xena said, trying to keep the exasperation from her voice.

"Well, how about this? Until just a few minutes ago you were trying to hide part of yourself from me."

"Gabrielle, there are a lot of parts of me I hope you never see, but the rope-jumper? Why would I hide that?"

"Because," Gabrielle responded quickly, " you didnít want me to see the little girl who could have such fun, so totally give herself over to play. You didnít see your face. You were like a kid, Xena." Gabrielle remembered, wondering.

Xena rolled her eyes and threw her hands in the air. "Gabrielle, weíve Ďplayedí together many times, one way or another. Iíve never known anyone I could laugh with as easily, except maybe Lyceus. Why are you so upset?"

"Did you jump rope with your brother?"

"Sure," she shrugged. "Why?"

"Just wondering."

"Gabrielle, will you tell me what, exactly, the big deal is here?"

Gabrielle paused. "Iím not certain. But it has to do with this: every time I think Iím getting to know you, I mean really know you, I discover something else youíve hidden. I suppose it hurts me that you still have so many secrets, that you canít be open with me."

"Youíre serious?" Xena was no longer defensive. "You learn the big secret that I jump rope and youíre hurt because Iím not open with you? Gabrielle, who in the name of Zeus have I been more open with? Should I just sit down and start with day one? How many details would you like?" Xenaís spoke quietly, but her voice came through clenched teeth. She was very close to losing her temper, and both women knew it. "I donít want to leave anything out, here. Favorite color, favorite fruit, god-I-find-least-offensive: you know all that---"

"Stop it, Xena, thatís not what I mean and you know it. Itís little things like say, Solan, that you hide."

Xenaís eyes flashed in anger. "How did you react when you learned about Solan? Do you seriously wonder why I kept him secret?"

"I donít understand how you could give him up, why you wonít tell him, but---"

"But what? Youíre a better person, no reason you should understand."

"Xena, thatís not what this is about."

"Yes it is! You just want to know everything. Does it make you feel better knowing that no matter what you do in life youíll never touch the depths Iíve sunk to?" Her stare penetrated Gabrielle. "It must feel good to have your life be an open, unblemished book. Is there even one page you donít want to turn?" Without waiting for an answer she went on: "Youíll just have to excuse me for not being more sharing about my life. Iím sorry. Iím doing the best I can!" That was as close to an apology as she was willing to come. "And if that Ďlittle girlí wants to jump rope off by herself someplace, thatís her right."

Gabrielle watched as Xena returned the rope to Argo. For once, she was speechless. Did she really appear to be condescendingly virtuous? Did she have a right to expect more from Xena? The warrior was inspecting the area, careful not to leave traces of their mealtime pause. That was usually Gabrielleís job.

"Xena, let me take that." She reached out for the small sack which held their bread and cheese. Xena let her take it. Her face muscles were still tight with barely contained anger, which she tried to swallow as she squinted at the noontime sun.

"Weíd better get moving. The weather can change quickly so close to the mountains."

"Xena," Gabrielle reached out to take Xenaís arm. "Iím sorry."

"Donít apologize," she moved away and began to smooth Argoís saddle blanket. "You just have expectations of me I canít meet. Thatís not your fault." She stopped and considered a new thought. "See, Gabrielle, I have an advantage. You want a lot of things about me to change. I like you just the way you are." She mounted Argo, and held a hand down for Gabrielle.

"Iíll walk, thanks," she murmured.

"Suit yourself," Xena shrugged.

 

Two hours later they arrived at a place where the road forked. "Rustica,?" Gabrielle said quizzically. "I know that name." It was only the third time either of them had spoken since theyíd resumed their travels. "Iíve got, it," the bard said with some relief. "Twickenham lives there. Gosh, I wonder how he is? Sure would like to see him again."

"Wonít he be in Athens?"

"No, just now the Academy would be---"

"On holiday?" Xena finished, knowingly. "So, you want to go pay a visit to Twickenham?"

"It seems like a good time for a visit. We donít come this way much, and youíll be busy for a few days..."

"Yeah, sure," Xena said indifferently. "How far is it?"

"I donít know. Iíve never actually been there."

"Well, letís go. This isnít getting us anywhere."

"Xena, you donít have to escort me there. Iím a big girl." Gabrielle smiled, but her tone made it clear that she wanted no company.

Xenaís face was impassive as she replied. "Have a nice visit. See you in a few days." She spurred Argo down the left fork, and stole a glance at Gabrielle as the bard started off toward Rustica, whistling the tune she could never get right on the pan flute.

Xena rode faster that day then usual. She had decided to take a route she would have avoided with Gabrielle, one which took her much closer to the mountains. The terrain was rough, and only out of necessity would she have subjected the bard to it. There was no reason for her to take the route now, except that it was scenic, and it was also unlikely that she would meet many other travelers. Her business in Krul was not urgent. A band of centaurs there had occasional contacts with the village where Solan was being raised by the centaur Kaliopes. She had a small collection of curiosities she wanted him to have. Kaliopes had suggested the centaurs in Krul as safe and secure messengers. Gabrielle had wondered at her business in Krul. Another secret. She shrugged mentally.

There was, incongruously, a small farm on the route. The land looked inhospitable for planting, or even sheep grazing. There was little sign that anything productive happened here, yet a small house perched on a slope, and an old woman stood at the door, as if expecting someone. Xena waved, hoping this woman was not like so many other rural folk, desperate for a chat. But it seemed she was. She waved her cane above her head and hailed Xena with a frail voice. Xena tried to put on a pleasant face as she approached. She quickly learned the old woman did not want a friendly bit of gossip.

"Youíd be a warrior?" she said with hope in her voice.

"Yes," Xena affirmed, solemnly. "I am a warrior."

"The gods be praised," she said fervently. Iíve been praying all this time for a warrior, and they sent one. A warrior of virtue, if Iím not mistaken."

Xena ducked the question. "Why do you need a warrior?" she asked instead.

"Over the mountain, in Trimen, theyíre preparing to face the onslaught of a marauding army. My son, Victor came to get my son Horatio to help. They left me here and set off yesterday to fight Draco. Iím afraid Iíll never see them again."

Draco. Great. Xenaís heart went out to the old woman. Chances were sheíd never see her sons again. " What did-Victor?- say about Dracoís army? When did they expect the attack?"

"There seemed to be time to gather a few men from nearby villages, if theyíd be willing to leave there own homes exposed. Dracoís men have been ravaging the land in these parts."

Xena thought it odd that she hadnít heard of Dracoís activities, but let it go. She didnít hear of everything. Sometimes her journeys were rather isolating.

"If I leave now, I might arrive in time to help defend Trimen. Iíll do my best," she promised the old woman.

"Iím sure the gods will be with you," the old woman assured her.

ĎYeah," Xena nodded and mounted Argo. After a few steps Argo pulled up, one hoof in obvious distress. Xena examined the hoof and declared that Argo was unrideable for several days at least. "Gods will be with me," she muttered to herself. The mountains loomed ahead, an opportunity and a challenge. "Since Iíll be on foot, Iíll save a lot of time going over the mountains, instead of around them." A second time she left the old woman, this time leaving Argo behind to be tended to in her absence.

She carried one bag, containing a blanket, her long cloak, and some bread the old woman had hurriedly bundled together for her. With luck she would be only one night on the mountain, and in Trimen by nightfall of the next day. It seemed increasingly that it was not to be one of Xenaís luckier days. Every path she tried seemed to have just experienced a new rockslide, forcing her again and again to retrace her steps and forge a new trail. Lucky Gabrielle isnít here, she thought, then immediately missed her friend, and wondered how the visit with Twickenham was going. Ahead, she heard the low rumble of rocks moving, and looked around to find a new direction to go. The rumbling sound moved nearer, and seemed at once to surround her. The whole mountain feels as if its moving, she thought. That was her last coherent thought for several hours.

She swam through layers of pain and consciousness happy to be engulfed again by oblivion, until at last her instinct for self-preservation forced her to be aware of her changed circumstances. Pain was the first reality. The front of her head throbbed, sharp pain radiated through her face from a central point in her forehead. She winced, and closed her eyes against a bright light before her. A campfire. She tried to focus, but her vision was blurry and the light stabbed at her eyes like knives. Gabrielle, she thought, hoped. She tried to turn her head and became aware of a second new reality: restraint. A rope was around her neck, not tight, but it was anchored to something behind her and prevented movement.

The third reality prevented her from removing the rope: her hands were bound tightly behind her. She lay still, recalling her last conscious moments, listening for signs of life, anything that would provide a clue about her captor. She didnít have to wait long.

"Welcome back, sunshine," a cheery voice came out of the darkness. "I was afraid youíd sleep all night." Callisto. "Yes, itís me, back from my fiery prison. You managed that very nicely, dear. You must be wondering how I got out. Iíll let you wonder for now. Comfy? here,let me help you." Unceremoniously she hauled Xena to a sitting position. The world began to whirl around her. "There, thatís better. Now you can feel the warmth of the fire. Thatís a nasty bruise on your forehead. Must hurt, huh," she asked with mock sympathy. "Your eyes look kind of funny. The whites are all red, sort of bloody. Must be hard to see," she ended harshly.

Xena sat on the ground facing the fire, feeling its warmth, seeing its flame, yet unable to distinguish any objects at all. She saw light, she saw dark. That was it. Near her, Callistoís

voice betrayed her location, but she could not pick her out of the shadows.

"Whatís the matter my sweet? Cat got your tongue? Quite a coincidence, isnít it, me finding you in the woods like this. What are the odds?" she smiled archly, and Xena felt long fingers stroking her hair.

"Whereís your little friend? You two didnít have a spat did you? Hope not; itís been so much fun getting at you through her."

Xena didnít know what to say. A wave of nausea came over her, she retched and felt Callisto dragging her by the rope around her neck to vomit in the bushes.

"Xena, youíre being a bore. I would have just stuck a sword in you if I knew youíd be this much fun. Why donít you go back to sleep, or unconsciousness, whatever it was, and wake up in a better mood. And donít try to go anywhere dear. Iíll be watching." She half-shoved, half-pulled Xena back to the fire and pushed her into a reclining position. "Nighty-night, dear."

There, in the heat which radiated from the campfire, Xena struggled against the pain to collect her thoughts, to fight the sense of despair which threatened to overtake her. She couldnít see, she was bound, her worst enemy held the business end of the noose which encircled her neck, and her worst enemy was a god. Maybe things could be worse, but Xena couldnít think how. Somehow the humiliation of vomiting in front of Callisto bothered her enormously, yet in the scheme of things that was insignificant. Any humiliation could be endured, if it helped her survive. Think, Xena she ordered herself, think. Yet no thoughts came.

Callisto had allowed the fire to die overnight, and Xena woke shivering in the chill mountain air. Being a god, Callisto wouldnít be troubled by the cold. For Xena, nothing had changed. She eagerly blinked her eyes to test her vision in daylight, but the results were disappointing. Areas of light and dark. Mostly dark. Callistoís description of her eyes led her to believe that the condition would clear up with time. There was no way of knowing exactly how much time. She guessed that Callisto was behind her, or she would have heard some comment when she opened her eyes. If she lay very still, she might buy time enough to consider her predicament. The first consoling thought was that Callisto was unlikely to kill her, at least, not right away. Sheíd had ample time to kill her if that was her intention. She might not kill her at all this encounter. Sheíd toy with her, humiliate her, let her know who was clearly on top, and then let her go for yet another encounter when Xena was fit to give her a real fight. That, anyway, would have been the behavior sheíd expect of Callisto, the mortal. Callisto the god was an unknown quantity. Had godhood changed her? Maybe Callisto didnít know that yet herself. Sheíd been plunged into a river of lava immediately after eating the ambrosia. Xena didnít know how or when she had escaped. but guessed it had been very recently. She would have wasted no time finding Xena to continue seeking revenge for the past, and for Xenaís success in entombing her in lava.

Xena had little doubt sheíd hear about it soon enough. Callisto loved to talk, and Xena was a captive audience. Maybe she could use that to her advantage. She resisted the urge to stretch, signaling Callisto that she was awake. There was still so much to think about. She hoped the people of Trimen had fortified their village well. She might not arrive in time to help. She had to suppress a snicker. With her eyes closed she had momentarily forgotten that at this moment her usefulness would be severely hindered by her vision problem. That, at least, she might be able to help cure, with Callistoís consent. No point even guessing about Callistoís answer. That left Gabrielle to consider. She would be safe enough in Rustica, at least as long as Callisto was occupied with Xena. If this went on too long, if Gabrielle waited for Xena and she never returned...She didnít know what the bard would do. She might think Xena had been angry enough to just walk away. For good. She tried to remember the source of their quarrel. Something to do with jumping rope...

She started as a splash of cold water fell on her face and shoulders.

"Canít sleep the day away, Princess. Weíve got lots to do."

Xena came to a sitting position by herself, unwilling to let Callisto touch her more than was necessary. Once her head was off the ground the dizzying, whirling feeling returned. She could feel Callistoís hot breath on her face as she examined her eyes. "Still blind? Never mind, I can see for both of us. Sorry, I have nothing to offer you for breakfast."

"Thereís cheese and bread in my bag," Xena offered. No sense going hungry.

"The cheese was very good, but itís gone. Most of the bread was inedible. You must have had it for months." She held a piece of crumbling, moldy bread before Xenaís nose. Xena was puzzled. She had watched as the old woman wrapped freshly baked bread the day before.

"Maybe weíll find some berries on the trail."

"Trail to where?" Xena asked.

"Trimen, dear. Isnít that where you were headed?"

"How do you know that?" Xena was suddenly suspicious. "You wouldnít have set me up for this would you?"

"Xena, I think youíre getting paranoid. How could I have set you up?"

"By masquerading as a little old woman looking for help. By causing rock slides to stop my passage, and arranging an accident." The neatness of the plan was suddenly apparent.

Callisto laughed. "Oh, Xena, youíre so behind the news. You still think Iím a god! Thatís over. Iím just like you now. Does it disappoint you to know that a mere mortal is capable of controlling you? Hurts your pride, huh? Easier to swallow being captured by a god."

That was stunning, and welcome news. However this turned out for Xena, it made things easier to know that Callisto the god would not be left behind to continue her work of destruction. Callisto the mortal was quite dangerous enough.

"Youíre dying to know what happened, arenít you? But you wonít give me the satisfaction of asking. Okay, Iíll tell you anyway. It was the price I paid for getting out of the lava. I donít know how, or who made the deal, but I thought it, and in a heartbeat I was on the side of the volcano, mortal again, but free."

"Velaska?"

"That crazy witch would rather be a god in a stream of lava, than a mortal anyplace else. Sheíll be there forever. Your little Gabrielle will be safe; from her anyway."

Xena hid her relief and changed the subject. "How did you know I was going to Trimen?" she asked once again.

"I knew Draco was in the area. I knew you were headed this way. Sooner or later youíd find each other. Again. When you headed for the mountains, I concluded that you were going to make life hell for another warlord. No wonder they see you as a class traitor."

"You were following me?"

"Sure. Not closely, but itís easy to keep track of a woman who inspires such intense emotion. Just listen outside any tavern. Your exploits seem to grow by the hour. Good thing Iím not the jealous type. Then again, the bigger your rep, the more glorious to be remembered as the one who brought you down." She paused. "Xena it occurs to me that Iím wasting my best smiles on you," she said with regret. "As much as Iíd love to sit and chat, we have to get moving. Draco will destroy that village and weíll miss all the fun."

She sprang to her feet, and began to lift Xena by one arm. "Oh," she said as a sudden thought occurred. "youíll be wanting to relieve yourself, if Iím not mistaken. Unless youíve already done it. No? Good. Iíll just help you get your breeches down. Good thing youíre not excessively modest."

It was hard going in the mountainous terrain. Callisto led the way, leading Xena by the rope around her neck. The act of standing upright was a major accomplishment. She was thoroughly disoriented in space. Without free arms for balance, and unable to see roots and rocks which littered the path, Xena moved awkwardly, falling more than once. "Get up, clumsy," Callisto cooed in her ear. Xena had the added burden of her bag, which now contained her armor, as well, Xena suspected as a few added rocks. Callisto carried the weapons. Once she fell and skittered down a stony slope, ending at an angle that made it difficult to regain her footing. "Good thing Iím here, sweet. How would you manage without me?" Callisto asked as she hauled her to her feet.

"If you free my arms, weíd make much better time," Xena pointed out.

Callisto threw a backhanded blow to the face that sent her sprawling again. "Donít tell me how to treat my captives, warrior princess," she hissed. Thereís only one of us here whoís not enjoying every moment of this little excursion, and she doesnít count. Now get up."

"I think itís time for a little break," Callisto said at last, tethering Xena to the branch of a tree. Too bad about the bread. Too bad Iím not a god anymore, or I could conjure us up a feast. And I could heal your eyes. Then it would be like old times."

"I could start to heal my eyes right now, if youíd let me," Xena said without expression.

Callisto made no reply, so she went on. "This type of terrain supports a lot of healing plants. Iím sure there are some to stimulate circulation. That would help." And there are others to help this headache, she thought.

"Weíll see. Maybe I donít miss the old times as much as I thought," she shrugged. "Did you miss me, Xena? Just a tiny bit?"

"Why would I miss you, Callisto? Life is hard enough without a personal scourge."

"Oh, thatís very good. Nice imagery. Donít penitents use scourges? Maybe Iím doing you a favor. Isnít this some mission of atonement? Your guilt trip through the known world."

"Gabrielle has nothing to do penance for. Neither did Perdicus," Xena said evenly.

"Perdicus? Xena, come on, be honest. My killing Perdicus was the biggest favor anyone ever did for you. Donít scowl; it will leave lines. Didnít your mother ever tell you that?"

"How was that a Ďfavorí?" she managed.

"Donít pretend with me, Xena. It was killing you to lose your sweet young thing. Ever consider where youíd be if I hadnít intervened when I did? Gabrielle would be back in Potadeia, settled down with that sappy husband of hers. And where would you be? Alone? Would you stay on the straight and narrow then, with no admiring portage to cheer you on? My guess is that inside a year youíd gravitate back to your old life, assemble an army just to keep you company. And then maybe, get a little careless in battle, just to get life over with."

Xena sat silently, eyes closed, wondering why Callistoís scenario seemed so plausible.

"I saved your life, Xena. And you helped me do it." Xena stiffened. "I know what you can do, Xena. The morning Perdicus died you helped defend a village I raided. I threw a knife at a little girl and you outran the knife to save her life. I knew you would. Therefore, you can appreciate my shock when I actually drove my sword into Perdicusí body without a chakram knocking it from my hand, without your booted feet driving into my back, without any real attempt by you to save him at all. How many ways could you have stopped me if Gabrielle were in the place of Perdicus?"

Xena sat stony faced. "That isnít true," she said quietly.

"Keep telling yourself that, dear, maybe youíll convince yourself someday. Funny thing is, I wouldnít have killed him if Iíd known how happy it would make you. Then I thought, ĎNo, this is good, someday Gabrielle will realize, and sheíll hate Xenaí. Iíd like that, for Gabrielle to hate you before you die. Iím surprised she hasnít figured it out yet. Maybe she needs a hint."

"Callisto---"

"Donít use that threatening tone with me, Xena." She jerked hard on the noose, and Xena struggled against falling over. "Youíre a little slow at getting this Ďwhoís in charge thingí, arenít you?" She launched a strike to Xenaís face; the warrior moved her head to avoid the blow and brought a foot up to send Callisto to the ground. She rose from her seat; the length of rope prevented her from moving more than a few feet. She strained at the leather ties which bound her hands. As she felt them give, Callisto landed unseen a vicious kick to her midsection, then swept her legs from under her. She felt the dagger at her throat, and remained still. "Youíll regret that, Princess." The butt end of the dagger slammed into her temple.

"I found a little medicine for you." Callisto held Xena propped against her chest. Her left hand held a dagger to the blind womanís throat. She began to rub the fingers of her right hand against the injured eyes. Xena tried to close her eyes, twist her face away from the stinging substance that Callisto forced under the eyelids. "Donít struggle," Callisto commanded. "You like things the hard way donít you?" Xenaís hands were newly bound behind her back, and a length of rope held her arms tight against her body. Callisto had fastened a rope hobble for her feet, "No more kicking," she had said. Xena almost cried out as the embrocation was rubbed into her eyes. Callisto closed the lids and held a finger against each one, massaging harshly. "If it doesnít hurt or taste nasty medicineís not worth anything," she said solemnly. "I guess that stuff should fix you right up. Of course I lack your healing skills. Hope I took the leaves from the right bush." Finished, she got Xena to her feet, and settled the bag around her shoulder. "Weíll be moving more slowly than ever now, with you hobbled like that. It probably doesnít matter. Your vision will never be cleared up in time to make you of any use at all. You should have thought of the poor people of Trimen before lashing out at me. Iím your only chance of getting there, Xena. But then, your selfish desires must come first. And why should the people of Trimen get a break anyway? Are they any more worthy than the people of Cirra?"

They did move slowly. The journey seemed pointless except for the pleasure it gave Callisto. Sometimes she let Xena walk ahead , unable to avoid the bushes which pressed in on each side, or the overhanging branches which dogged the path. Time and again she was unable to raise a foot high enough to step over a rock or tree limb, because the hobble wouldnít permit it. At those times she would have to sit on the ground, swing both feet over the barrier together and then struggle to her feet again. All the while, Callisto prodded her with sharp words and the tip of long stick sheíd found, urging her to hurry up. They had been climbing steadily upward, and the footing grew more treacherous. Xena remembered that in places the trails wound inward through the forests that covered the slopes; in other places they seemed to leave you hovering between earth and sky, so tenuous was their grip on the mountainís face. Xena knew those spots approached when the vegetation seemed to disappear. The wind came whipping against her face with icy tendrils and then she slowed, feeling tentatively for each successive inch of ground. Once, she found her inch of ground and it collapsed beneath her foot. She threw herself backwards and jammed the heel of her boot against a protruding rock; her other foot dangled in mid-air, at the end of the hobble. Callisto let her spend a long moment there before hauling her up.

"Next time you try to escape Xena, remember: without me, you donít get off this mountain alive."

As nearly as Xena could tell, it was noon before they paused for rest. Callisto shoved Xena to the ground, to sit back against a tree, and as before, fastened the rope to a tree branch. She sat on the other side of the path, keeping a wary eye on the still-dangerous warrior.

"Iíve got to hand it to you, Xena. You face adversity well. If you promise not to be naughty again, Iíll give you a drink of water."

"I wonít hurt you," she promised, her voice suggesting that it was a matter of choice whether she hurt Callisto or not. Callisto laughed at that, but held the waterskin to her mouth anyway.

Xena swallowed the water, licked the drops from her lips and made a bold suggestion: "Callisto, when you take a prisoner you accept the obligation to feed her." She braced herself for another blow, but Callisto accepted the duty with aplomb.

"Yes, my captive warrior, I do have certain obligations toward you. And Iíd be happy to fulfill them, only I canít seem to do it."

"Excuse me?"

"I didnít bring any food, as Iíve said, I canít leave you unattended to find any, and my last resort, materializing, seems not to be working. I havenít had long to practice this god thing you know."

"Callisto, you said you were no longer a god," Xena reminded her through tight lips.

"OOPS! I lied. I was that little old woman, Xena. I lamed Argo. I gave you that loaf of bread that decayed overnight. I sent you on a foolís errand to Trimen. And I arranged for the blinding accident. It all worked. It wasnít as much fun when you guessed it, so---"

"No Draco?"

"Hmmm," she nodded absently. "And now nothing seems to be working. Iíve even gotten hungry. Maybe Iíve worn down the energy for a while." She smiled, as if amused by the situation.

"Callisto, it may be that now you have lost your godhood," Xena observed. "Donít you know how the gods hate for godhood to be trifled with? You lied about it. Thatís a sacrilege in their eyes. Zeus could have already stripped you of your powers, made your lie a reality."

"Do you think so," she asked plaintively. "I donít really know about these things." She brightened suddenly. "Still easy come, easy go. It wasnít going to be much fun being immortal without you, Xena. Tartarus forever, with you sounds much more appealing."

Xena was little interested in Callistoís plan for the afterlife. While they were moving, her concentration on the trail had pushed her discomfort to a secondary place. Now she felt every stab of pain and wondered how much new damage the embrocation had done to her eyes. "Xena, I said---"

"I heard," Xena said wearily. "Callisto, itís really time you got over me. Move on with your life."

"What?" Callisto asked, in disbelief. "Youíre in no position to give me orders."

"Callisto someday, sooner or later, I will be dead. Maybe by your hand. What do you do then? All right, you follow me to Tartarus and continue the game there, but donít you want to find anything else in life first? Seems like a waste."

"You should know, you began the process."

"I do know," she acknowledged gravely. "And youíre making sure you destroy whatever survived me. Revenge isnít worth it Callisto. I learned that the hard way."

"After a terrific blood-letting to satisfy your thirst," she smirked.

"Yeah," Xena agreed, remembering. "And then I found that there are better ways to live."

"Better ways to live," Callisto mimicked. "How noble. But answer me one question: If Julius Caesar suddenly walked by our little resting spot, what would you do? Tell him all is forgiven? Or tie him to a tree and break his legs?"

Xenaís face might have been chiseled from alabaster as she absorbed Callistoís question, understood the extent of Callistoís knowledge about her, and remembered Julius Caesar.

"Oooh, I struck a nerve there, didnít I? Itís amazing how much information the gods can access about mortals. Before you woke I poked around in your memories. Very entertaining. I canít think why Ares is so inept. Iíd have recaptured your heart long ago if I had his power and knowledge. So how about it, Xena? What for Caesar: the olive branch or the sword?"

"Caesar was a long time ago," she said her throat tight.

"Not so long ago that the memories canít bring tears to your eyes."

"Yeah? Well Iíve had a problem with my eyes, " she said with barely controlled emotion.

"Oh, Xena, admit it. Youíll always have a special place in your heart for the one who set you on the path of wickedness. I do. When I saw you hanging on that cross, your legs broken, utterly betrayed by the man you loved, I felt sort of bad." Her voice held a tinge of sorrow." I wished Iíd thought of it," she grinned maliciously. "But seriously, it was quite an eye opener for me. I had always thought of us being so alike. You became a warrior when your village was attacked and family was killed by Cortese. I became a warrior when my village was attacked and even more family was killed by Xena, the Warrior Princess. Yet it wasnít Cortese who turned you to evil. It was Caesar."

"I was a fool," she admitted. "I learned my lesson."

"You seem to have forgotten the lesson, Xena. Any old woman with a sob story can enlist your sympathy. Thatís why youíre here, remember? But I digress. Where was I?" She reached out a hand to wipe the tears which still streamed down Xenaís face. Damn, Xena thought, why in front of her?

"Xena, youíre making yourself quite vulnerable in front of me. Is this how it is for you and Gabrielle, sharing intimacies, wiping each othersí tears?"

Xena turned her face away. "Leave it Callisto," she warned.

"What button did I push there? Caesar? Or the delightful Gabrielle?" She moved closer to

Xena, and put one arm around her shoulders. "I caught a glimpse of you," she confided, "that night Caesar returned for that romantic rendezvous at sea. You looked quite lovely. Those colorful silks, the golden headress." She ran long fingers through the disheveled bangs which brushed Xenaís face. "I never would have guessed. Youíve gone so--.dark. Is this a symbolic thing?" She stroked Xenaís leather. Xena shrank from her touch. "Along with those breastplates, this certainly sends a message. Of course, I can never decide if this is all to keep others out, or you in?" She stopped to inspect Xenaís face. "I think my medicine has had time enough to work," she decided. She picked up the water skin, and holding Xenaís head back, began to flush the harsh concoction from her eyes. Xena almost moaned in relief as the irritants floated away. Her eyes still stung; she still had no useful vision, but the feeling that coarse sand lined her eyelids was gone. After an eternity Callisto released her, and she felt the ropes which bound her arms to her sides fall.

"I think weíve learned our lesson," Callistoís voice was almost tender.

Xena caught at the gratitude which tried to rise in her. This was a technique she had used with much success: treat captives with unnecessary harshness, and the tiniest concessions to decency would seem like acts of benevolence. She wouldnít grant Callisto that victory.

Unnervingly, Callisto said in her ear: "I know, Xena. You want to express your thanks but youíve grown so hard that you see every kindness as a trick, some betrayal. I can understand that. After Caesar, Petrocles, Borius. Donít you ever tire of men who spurn your affections? Must be disheartening. And look at you: beautiful, intelligent, multi-talented. Yet youíre like me: all alone. Even Gabrielle has deserted you." She held the waterskin for Xena to have another drink. "Now that was really odd. I couldnít come up with a plan to make her go away. Then, suddenly, I didnít have to. You two had that silly fight about jumping rope, and she takes off. Does she do that a lot?"

Xenaís only half-listened to her captor. The mention of Borius had sent shivers along her spine. Her mind was replaying the scene between herself and Gabrielle the day ---gods! was it only that long?---before. How much had been said? Callisto certainly knew of Borius; she hadnít mentioned Solan. Did she know? How much had they said? Had Callisto been borrowing her memories or eavesdropping?

"Xena? Itís quite rude to drift off in the middle of a conversation," she admonished. "I was inquiring about your little companion. Sheís become quite the independent young woman, hasnít she?"

"Gabrielleís free to do as she pleases," she said, fighting to keep the uneasiness out of her voice.

"Free to come and go, marry or not, follow her whim," she sing-songed. "Xena always waiting to welcome her back. Much as I hate you Xena, I must confess: Iíd rather have you as a friend than that inconstant little brat. Under other circumstances, we could have been great friends. In Cirra, we jumped rope," she ended. "Come on, " she said, her voice suddenly harsh. She snapped on the rope, pulling Xena to her feet once more.

Throughout the afternoon Xenaís thoughts turned frequently to Gabrielle. Twickenham. She had never met him, but Gabrielleís vivid depiction had made him come to life for her. She could almost hear his stuttering defense of Gabrielleís right to remain at the Academy for bards. Gabrielle had chosen to return to life on the road with Xena. Thanks, Gab, she offered silently, but it was a bad choice. For you. If you had stayed at the Academy, you wouldnít have become a target for Callisto.

She was still fairly certain that Callisto didnít intend to kill her this time, but her temper was unpredictable. In the heat of anger, or through a careless miscalculation Callisto might send her over the cliffs to her death, or cause a fatal mishap with the noose. The really frightening thing was that Xena had not yet found a way to escape. True, Callisto held an advantage, but it wasnít overwhelming. No advantage was ever overwhelming, unless you let it be. She had preached that to her men, burned it into her own soul. It had been so for her since the night she had hung on a cross, defeated, waiting to die, and not much caring if she did. A young slave had freed her from the cross; that act of -what? Mercy? Love? had given her a new reason to live. MíLilla had died hours later, defending the new life she had helped create. And in response the newborn Xena dedicated herself to evil. She shook her head in remorse for having so dishonored MíLilla.

They were stopped before a small clump of bushes. Callisto saw the dark head move slowly from side to side.

" Sorry, Xena. These are the only berries around," she sighed with mock regret, and pushed a small red berry into Xenaís mouth. It was sour. "Not many of them. Pity. Weíll be hungry tonight."

"Hasnít there been any small game?" Xena asked carefully. "Iíve heard things in the brush, and in the trees. Youíre not bad with the chakram."

"But not as good as you, even if you canít see or stand up straight.?"

"No. Itís my weapon." Xena spoke with quiet confidence. Callisto had to know she was not yet in complete control. "I could have supper for us in ten minutes."

"If I untied you, youíd be gone in two minutes, youíd stumble over a cliff, and then what fun would I have?"

"Thatís a chance youíd have to take. Let me know when you get hungry." Her voice was almost smug.

Callisto chose a strange campsite. Too close to the edge for comfort. Callisto chatted about her choice, as she did about everything, maintaining that the deeper they ventured into the woods, the more likely theyíd be prey for the mountain lion sheíd heard the night before.

"You were unconscious most of the night. Iím not surprised you never heard it.," she replied to Xenaís questioning look. A bit deeper in the woods it would have been warmer. Here they were exposed to winds which whipped across the face of the mountain with little windbreak. It was really cold now, despite the fire Callisto had built. Xena could see it as a huge, bright light. It seemed to be awfully large compared to the amount of heat it radiated. It was burning quickly. Callisto would have to feed it all night to keep it going. A smaller, steadier fire would have made more sense. Still, she couldnít comment. Xena telling Callisto how to build a fire would have created a ruckus to make the Trojan War look like a loverís quarrel. She shivered and leaned closer to the fire. "Callisto, thereís a cloak in my bag."

"I know." Callisto said. She pulled it out and draped it across her own shoulders, before crossing to Xena. "Lie down, Xena weíre having an early evening," she ordered. She covered Xena with the blanket and sat by the fire. Xena had obeyed gratefully; only when she was horizontal did the world remain still. She hoped Callisto would let her sleep, and not provoke new conversation. It was wearying to listen to Callisto, and frightening. She had spoken of Borius. Solan was next, she was sure of it. Borius was only mentioned and dropped to tease. When she raised his name again, Solan would be the real focus. Xena didnít want to hear that before she slept. If she slept. Sleep was never guaranteed to the warrior. Her mind was seldom at rest, and she believed her body had learned to rest independent of her mind. Tonight would be especially hard; apart from the persistent headache she was hungry. Her last meal had been early the day before with Gabrielle. She wondered what Gabrielle was eating. Rustica was sheep country, like Amphipolis. For a special guest she guessed that Twickenhamís family would kill a lamb. She liked lamb. Her mother had killed a lamb the last time she was home, with Gabrielle. Gods, she missed her bard. She wondered whether Gabrielle thought about her all. Of course she does, she assured herself, weíve had quarrels before, worse than this. They hadnít changed anything.

Callistoís voice purred above the crackle of the fire, as she settled herself into the warmth of the dark cloak. "Good wool, Xena. Had this long? Not as far back as Caesar," she answered herself. "He left you with nothing but the shift you were crucified in. But you must have gotten it not long after. Isnít this what you wore the night you gave your son away?" she asked innocently.

Xena lay on her side, her face away from Callistoís view. She hadnít moved in some minutes, and hoped against hope Callisto would decide she was asleep and let it go. It was not to be. A pebble was tossed against her back. "Xena? I feel like company. Talk to me."

"About what?" Her voice held a threat: donít push me too far.

"Oh, just girl talk. About mother-kind of things. Iíve never gone that route myself, and Iím just curious, one woman warrior to another: how did you manage a pregnancy and birth while leading an army? Wasnít it during the campaign against the centaurs?"

"You seem to have access to all my memories. Why donít you tell me?"

"I didnít have time to poke everywhere; I just browsed through the highlights, some of the more sordid spots." She tossed another, larger pebble at Xena. "Iíd love to share a few of those with Gabrielle. Knock her snowy white socks off her feet. But I skipped the pregnancy. How exciting could it be? Were you all bloated? Moodier than usual? What did you wear? I canít picture it?" She shook her head, perplexed. "So you see, I really would like to hear about your pregnancy and your little boy. Maybe if I feel closer to the situation, I wonít be so anxious to kill him," she ended enticingly.

Xena opened her eyes and stared hard at the fire, managing to fix no details. She cursed herself for having been so passive a captive of this madwoman, for not having broken her bonds and killed her the first day. Her attempt had not been a rousing success, yet it was no excuse to stop trying. Why had she done that? Had she just fallen into the rhythm of Callistoís pattern? Was she just content to wait for Callisto to call it quits and let her go?

"Xena?" Callistoís voice came softly through the night air. "Iím waiting."

Xena closed her eyes again, and remembered. "I concealed the pregnancy as long as I could," she began, her voice steady. "When I began to show I wore a cloak, stayed in my tent, issued commands through my lieutenants. Some of the men knew, and word spread.

A lot of the men never believed it; I guess they couldnít believe I was even biologically capable of motherhood." She snorted. "That suited me. I didnít want them to see me that way. Borius helped in the deception." She paused, bit her lower lip and took a breath before continuing. "After Borius betrayed my plans to Kaliopes it was clear I couldnít keep the baby. When my time grew near I left camp for a few days, made some excuse about exploiting a weakness in the centaur alliance with the local men. There was a small hut, a hovel really. I had Solan there."

"You had a midwife?"

"No. All alone." Her eyes narrowed, as she recalled the circumstances. "I couldnít trust the local women. Theyíd have slit my throat and drowned my baby as the child of a demon. The women who followed my army couldnít be trusted to be quiet." She waited for a comment from Callisto. None was forthcoming. "We had seven days together." She blinked back the tears and swallowed hard. "He was a good baby. Looked like Lyceus; thatís what I called him. Kaliopes gave him the name Solan. He was my Lyceus. It rained hard all those seven days, but we were warm, and dry. He was as content as a lamb in clover." She stopped. It was clear she would not continue.

"And then you gave him to the centaurs."

"I returned to camp without him. The story I told was that he was stillborn. The men who knew I was pregnant accepted that. Happily. Some thought I s-smothered him." She swallowed, and blinked hard. "That was a good indication Iíd done the right thing in giving him away. I was a monster. I worked hard to get that reputation, why not use it to my advantage? I walked away from that pregnancy with no one guessing that I had a surviving son. Thatís the story Callisto. Satisfied?"

"Not quite. I need one more thing. You see Xena, As self appointed predator of your nearest and dearest, my natural inclination is to seek out Solan immediately and send him to Hades. So, so what I need from you," she said, her excitement rising, "is some reason not to kill your bastard."

Xena laughed bitterly. "What do I say? Please donít kill my son; I love him. I do love him, " she said with feeling, "across all these miles, all these years. And knowing that youíll want him dead more than ever."

"Then try harder. There must be some reason you can find for me to spare his life."

"I donít expect you to spare his life." She spoke matter-of-factly. She might as well have been discussing the weather. "Your family is dead because of me; I watched you die and never lifted a finger. You wonít stop until youíve evened the score. Or until I stop you."

"Youíre probably right," Callisto agreed. "I do hate you, Xena. I canít understand why the rest of the world doesnít see you for the loathsome creature you are. I find some consolation in the thought that if I spare you long enough youíre bound to return to the path of evil," she said confidently. "Itís just in you, Xena. You can hide it, but that darkside is just waiting for the right moment, the right provocation. And you know it. Just a matter of time," she crooned, as she crossed to Xena. She knelt behind her and began to knead the tight mass of muscles in the her shoulders. "This will happen when your hands are tied behind your back for too long." Callistoís long fingers felt good, Xena admitted despite herself. As the muscles responded Callisto crowed approvingly. "Much better. Now maybe you wonít be so cranky. "How does Gabrielle put up with your moods? It must be as hard as putting up with her sweetness."

"I thought we were having an Ďearly eveningí?"

"Canít sleep. You know how that is," she added knowingly. "Funny isnít it? If you had gone to Rustica with Gabrielle, we wouldnít be here now. Iím sure I would have thought of another little game, but it would be different. The slightest alterations can cause the most dramatic changes in our lives. Can you imagine how different life would be if you had sacked Potadeia instead of Cirra? Maybe...maybe, you and I would be the best of friends, and Gabrielle would be our despised enemy." She laughed, and caught her lower lip between her teeth. "What do you think, " she asked eagerly.

"I think Gabrielle would never be like you."

"Now Xena," Callistoís gentle kneading became a pinching grip for a moment. "You saw how she was when I killed Perdicus."

"Yes," Xena agreed, "I did see. She held a sword to your throat and couldnít bring herself to make the final thrust."

"Gabrielleís a grown woman. My loss came in myóformative years." She snickered. "I never had a chance. Besides, Gabrielle had you. When you killed my family, I was left alone. All alone. Iíve been alone ever since. You see Xena, I had no MíLilla. No Hercules. No Gabrielle. No Xena." She paused and concentrated on the massage. "I canít seem to keep my mouth shut when Iím around you." She stopped her work and sat back in a squat. "Does Gabrielle ever let you get a word in? Maybe youíre content to let her chat. Less fear that youíll slip, start to reminisce about the old days. How did the little bard react to Solan? Surprised?"

"Yeah," Xena made the minimal reply.

"And the story of your lone confinement? How your men thought youíd killed the baby." Xena was silent. Callisto pulled her head around by a handful of dark hair. "Never told her the whole story, huh? I canít blame you. You know why you told me?" She didnít wait for Xena to respond. "Because weíre so alike. You can share anything with me. I could never be judgmental. Except maybe about Cirra, and thatís to be expected. Kind of a family thing with me."

Xena sat up. The world began to spin again. Maybe it was just Callistoís chatter that made her dizzy. She opened and quickly shut her eyes again. The campfire glow was painful. All light was painful. She would have liked a blindfold to allow her to blink without letting light in, but asking Callisto for too much was dangerous. "Doesnít look like weíll be sleeping tonight." Xena knew she wouldnít sleep anyway now. Callisto had spoken too much truth, and revealed too much knowledge for Xena to be at rest. Any sleep would be ended by a nightmare. She didnít want another nightmare in Callistoís presence.

Second Part