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THE ASHES OF CIRRA
by Linda Tellez (aka Saahira)
She was running again, racing the fire, contesting Death Herself. Yet no matter how fast she ran --- * it didn't matter, nothing mattered * --- still the flames licked at her bare feet as she pounded across the scorched earth; it brushed her back, torching her tattered dress and burning her pale child's flesh. Thirsty tendrils stretching, it caressed her streaming blonde hair. She screamed, a shrill sound against the crackling of thatch and timber. Other screams were more distant now, dying away as the people died.
Buried in the ashes of Cirra.
Callisto awoke, shivering in the dark. Her hair was tangled, her body drenched in sweat. It was the dream again, nothing but the dream. The nightmare. But the screaming . . . that part was real enough. It always was. Her throat ached, dry and painfully raw. She swallowed hard, her eyes still shut tight against the vision. Vision? Laughter bubbled up, exploding into the night. Mad, frenzied laughter.
It helped to fill the void.
Birds startled at the sound of it, flapping frantically up and away through the treetops. A squirrel chittered and dashed to a more distant branch. Somewhere, an owl mantled and screeched his own insult back.
The laughter died in her throat just as the screaming had died seconds earlier, and she was alone again. All alone. Just her and the night. And the darkness. The shadows. Not even the moon was there to watch her.
She shuddered as the tears came, following the dream just as they did every night, filling her eyes. But shed them? No, never again, not ever. Through the strength born of a child's despair, they dried before spilling onto her cheeks.
It was in these times, in these awful lonely moments, when it hurt most of all. The emptiness, that is. The never-ending agony of loss, the never-dulling ache of loneliness. It cut like a knife, like a dagger twisting in her guts. The pain drove all else aside.
It was in these times when she most cherished her madness.
It kept them all away. The people. The pity. The hurt. With madness, one never had to look into another person's soul, one never had to witness love or loss or regret. One never had to experience life or living. It protected her like a blanket, encircling her like a warm womb. Cultivated like a treasured rose, it kept her from feeling.
With the madness, there was just her and the darkness. And, of course, the screaming ...
Nearby, a twig cracked and broke.
Callisto froze in place. As she listened . . . very slowly . . . her mouth spread in a wide, happy grin. Her brown eyes twinkled.
"Come out come out wherever you are," she whispered in a small, sing-song voice. She giggled softly, a child's gentle laugh. When it died on her lips, the silence was chilling.
Grinning still, she unwound her lithe form, rising gracefully to her feet even as a cobra rises before its deadly strike. Almost casually, her hand dropped to caress the hilt of the dagger sheathed on her hip.
"Oh, come on now," she pouted prettily, "I won't hurt you. Yet," she amended with a slyly whispered grin.
Another twig cracked and branches trembled; tethered nearby, her black gelding stamped a hoof. Her hand tightened eagerly against the dagger.
"I . . . I mean you no harm, ma'am. Honestly." The boy that limped from the shadows caused the smile to fade from Callisto's mouth and her hand to drop from the dagger's hilt; or rather, it was the pale sheen of scar-tissue puckering his face and neck that killed her anticipation. Her smile vanished even as her brows drew into a puzzled frown. "I heard your scream," the youth explained, drawing closer. "I . . . thought you might need help."
"You've been burned," she answered with all a child's bluntness. She stared as the last glimmers of her campfire lit his craggy features; on one hand, two of his fingers had been reduced to uneven stumps. He couldn't have been more than nineteen, though the scarring made it hard to be certain.
Apparently it was a common thing, this open voicing of his misfortune. He nodded grimly and queried, "May I sit, ma'am? Warm myself by your fire?" Even as he asked, he was lowering himself to the ground, to the very spot where the nightmare had awakened her scant moments earlier.
Callisto continued to stare, finally dropping down on her haunches to study his scars more closely. He glanced away, not daring to meet her curious gaze. "Could I ... may I share your food?" he ventured uncertainly, indicating the dry remains of the hen she had cooked the previous evening. "I'm so hungry and ... I'm not much of a hunter, I'm afraid."
She nodded wordlessly, watching as he took up the small roasted carcass. She waved at a nearby gourd, saying, "There's water there, if you want some."
"It looks painful," she murmured, her voice almost gentle as she studied the tight, slick flesh of his cheek.
"Not . . . anymore," he answered. "At first though . . . at first, I would rather have died."
"Why didn't you?" she asked practically. She scooted closer, settling herself beside him. With one finger she reached out, poking his scarred flesh experimentally.
He flinched away from her touch, telling her, "I was little more than a child. I had no desire to die."
"And yet you lived ... like this?" He shrugged guardedly, having no answer. She continued brusquely, "My family died in a fire ooooooh ... must be ten, eleven years ago now." She chuckled, "My how time flies when you're having fun."
"I'm sorry," he said.
"Oh, don't be," Callisto replied curtly, and tossed her matted hair back behind her shoulder. "At least they died clean deaths. Not slow drawn-out deaths like you."
"Perhaps I should leave?" he queried softly.
"Oh please!" She laughed aloud then, a strange sound rising through the pre-dawn light. "Where would you go, stumbling around in the dark? Go on and eat. Besides," she grinned, "it's not often I have someone to chat with."
The youth sighed, still not meeting her eyes. Watching him, Callisto exclaimed, "I've got it! Let's swap horror stories, shall we? I'll start." She cleared her throat with theatrical aplomb, then offered, "When I was just a little girl, my family was burned to ashes when our village was torched." Her eyes took on a brief, faraway glaze. She whispered, "I loved my mother and my sister. They were my world. I still hear their dying screams in my nightmares. It's all I have left of them now." Then brightening, she grinned, "Your turn!"
Another sigh, bone-weary and resigned. Putting the food aside, the boy replied, "The fire that did this to me ... it claimed my whole village. My mother and dad. My little sister. My grandmother." Voice breaking, he shook his head. "I remember ... their screams, too. They haunt me. They'll always haunt me."
"And the fire," Callisto asked eagerly, edging closer, "was it caused by a fierce warlord? One who torched your village and killed your family for no good reason? One who raided and pillaged and stole your lives and your loves, and then left you alone to pick up the empty pieces? Was it her?"
The boy turned finally, frowning as best his scarred visage would allow. He murmured, "You, too? She did this ... to you, too?"
"Yes," Callisto hissed.
He turned away, his eyes filling with sudden tears. "I hate her," he muttered.
"I live for the day I hear of her death."
"I curse her name."
"I can't ..."
"SAY IT!!!" she screamed.
"C-Callisto ..." he whispered hollowly. "Callisto ..."
Callisto sat back, her eyes growing wide. Frowning, she asked sharply, "Don't you mean Xena?"
"No." He shook his head, swallowing hard. "It was Callisto. It was the she-demon, Callisto."
Callisto fell into silence, the frown still creasing her brow as she studied the boy's profile. Cocking her head to one side, she asked curiously, "Tell me, boy ... what exactly do you know about this ... Callisto?"
Another swallow, and he shook his head. "Not ... too much," he whispered hoarsely. "She swept out of the night like one demon-possessed, screaming and shrieking ... like a harpy. I remember thinking she sounded like a harpy. I caught only a glimpse of her as she passed."
"And what do you remember?"
"Her hair ..."
"Bright as white-hot flame ..."
"Oooh, I like that. And what else?"
He shook his head, saying slowly, "Just ... just her laughter. She laughed while her men murdered us."
She leaned forward, dark eyes glittering. She asked, "And what would you do if you found yourself in her presence? If she were sitting no further away from you than I am now, what would you say to her?"
"I ... I don't ..."
"Or maybe you wouldn't say anything at all? Maybe you'd lunge for her sword and end her miserable existence?'
"I couldn't ... couldn't ..."
"... do it? But she murdered your family! Think how sweet it would be, to see her bright blood staining your hands."
"I would never ... it's wrong ..."
"Wrong?" she laughed. "To answer blood with blood? It's the only right thing
there is." Watching him closely, she said, "What if I told you that I was Callisto?"
For the first time he turned fully her way, for the first time met her gaze. Her hands tingled against the dagger as his eyes shot briefly to her tangled blonde tresses. But disappointingly, he only dropped his eyes back to the campfire and murmured, "I could never believe that."
The joy slipped from her face.
"You'd be surprised how many turn their backs to me because of my scars, as if
not seeing me will make me not exist. You welcomed me to your camp, shared your fire and your food. You've been kind to me and for that I'm grateful." He laughed then, a soft sound strangely devoid of humor. "I suppose in a way, I should actually be grateful to Callisto, too. For good or ill, she made me the man I am now. Without her, I might've been foolish enough to go soldiering when I was grown, like my father before me." He swallowed hard, shook his head. "I might have been responsible for the same kind of atrocities she caused."
Shocked, Callisto hissed, "But what about revenge? How can you sit there knowing she reduced your family to a handful of charred cinders, and still claim you don't want to rip her living heart from her body? Don't you yearn to avenge your family's deaths?"
A sad shrug and, "It wouldn't bring them back."
* Tendrils of smoke rising, filling the sky. The sharp cries of ravens feasting. One little girl's angry wailing. *
Buried in the ashes of Cirra ...
"No," she murmured acidly, rocking back on her heels. "No, I suppose it
Callisto rose slowly to her feet, her mouth twisting in an ugly sneer. As the boy remained crouched before her, she slid her dagger soundlessly from its sheath. "Fool," she whispered softly, and loosed the blade ...
He trembled as the dagger plunged deep into the earth beside him, hilt quivering against the night air. He turned slowly, looking up at her with wary eyes.
"Take it," she ordered tersely, and swung gracefully into the gelding's saddle. Angry tears filled her eyes. "Take it and learn how to use it, unless you plan on joining your family someday." Wheeling the horse, she growled, "You've got a lot to learn about revenge ..."