The Exchange

 
 

It was quiet as Xena rode beneath the arch and into the ruins. Rain had not yet washed away the scorch marks where Velasca’s thunderbolts had struck out at Gabrielle — and herself and Callisto — despite the months and months that had passed. Little seemed to have changed at all here, since that day.

It was just exactly the way she kept picturing it in her mind when she thought about it. And she thought about it often, more often than she’d have imagined.

It was different than when she had let Callisto drown in the quicksand. The guilt of that had plagued Xena for months. At the time there was so much to hate her for... the horrible things she had done in Xena’s name, the things she had done to Gabrielle especially. It had seemed justified. It was justified, she insisted, despite all that it had led to. Despite all the dreams.

Yet, seeking Callisto’s help against Velasca, all the while planning her demise, that was more like outright murder than simply not rescuing her had been. What made it worse still was that somehow, Gabrielle had found it in her heart to forgive the steel-hearted warlord, something Xena herself could not do, perhaps because she had not yet forgiven herself for contributing to Callisto’s downfall in the first place. But what was worst, what left her with the nightmares, was what she was here to find out. In the quicksand, Callisto had died; as impermanent as it had turned out to be, Xena had had no lingering worries about vengeance. But here, in this place, Xena’s betrayal had not been just of a woman, a warrior. Here, Xena had betrayed a god. Eventually, Callisto was bound to escape. If it was in her lifetime, the consequences could be far worse than what the act had saved Gabrielle — and herself — from in the first place.

Then, as she looked about the setting of so many of her bad dreams, Xena realized something was different. Not in how things looked. It was the way things sounded. Before, low but steady, had been the rushing sound of liquid rock in the river of flame far below. That sound was missing now.

Dismounting, Xena tied Argo to one of the many crumbled pillars that littered the ruins. She headed for the precipice, and the remains of the rope bridge she herself had cut, dooming her enemies to a tomb of stone. Something had definitely changed here; someone had repaired the bridge.

She almost stopped as she approached, but curiosity drew Xena closer. The rope that had been strung across in repair was not ordinary, but multi-colored. It was not hemp, either, but smoother to the touch — almost like silk. As Xena ran her hand across the reattached hand railing, she puzzled over the colors. Three strands. The first a rich red, like a sunset. The second, light yellow, almost gold. She bent closer to discern the third. Dark brown, almost black. As she leaned her face close, a lock of her hair fell forward off her shoulder, into her vision, and Xena drew back in shock. This was someone’s sick joke. The third rope was the color of her hair. And not one like that, but all three: hers, Gabrielle’s... and Callisto’s. She closed her eyes against the obscenity. Perhaps this was just nerves, or her conscience taking over her imagination.

She opened her eyes again. The rope was unchanged. Three colors, braided together.

Xena wanted to leave, but she couldn’t. Not yet. She had to know.

Trying not to look at the bridge, Xena crouched down by the ledge, and looked over. Sure enough, the lava no longer flowed, but to her surprise the valley was not still barren but quite lush. Her eyes searched. She had seen, as she and Gabrielle had left here, a twisted monument to her victory: the two gods frozen in the still steaming rock. But from this angle it was not visible.

Xena scanned the sides of the canyon, looking for a way down. A path, maybe, or if nothing else, something in the brush that would provide handholds for climbing. There was something a ways off, but it would take maybe an hour to work her way to it, and then, given the gulch’s sharp descent, at least two hours to safely descend. At least the same for the trip back up, plus riding time. She couldn’t make Gabrielle wait that long. She really needed to apologize for how she had acted before.

No, there was no other way. As disconcerting as the repairs to the rope bridge might be, from even ten paces out from the ledge she could see what she was looking for. Standing, Xena gripped the two rope railings and stepped out onto the bridge.

There was a slight breeze, so Xena had to hold the rails tightly. The repaired side was so smooth beneath her palm, like a fine satin gown, such as she hadn’t owned in years. Unbidden came the thought that in all her life, Callisto would never have worn one. Never have had the chance. Xena shook the thought away.

Down below, the earth was like a green carpet. Over the silken handrail, in the direction the lava had flowed, would be the statues. Her eyes found only green and lush, shifting and dancing like a pond’s surface in the wind.  Then there, farther up, what looked like scorch marks. As from the lick of lightning. Perhaps she was wrong. Maybe the lava had flowed in the other direction. She turned her back.

The wind felt cold to her back suddenly. That sensation again, that she was not alone. And then that sugar-sweet voice, almost in her ear.

“Xena...” it called, from far away, and very close.

She whirled about, gripping the new rail with both hands to steady her. It gave way as she clutched it, as though it were cut. Off balance, she pitched forward, and downward, into the valley far below.

Xena looked about as she fell, for something to grab. But she had come too far out onto the bridge, and the canyon’s walls were too steep, too distant. Looking up, really down, she prayed the vegetation was thick enough to cushion her, that she could catch a branch or tree, but beneath her were only bushes and grass. And beneath that, hard volcanic stone. No, she knew, this careless act was her death.

Down.

Down.

The earth coming fast. Closer.

She struck no earth, but passed completely through. All was black.

And then she hit. It was not rock, but dirt. She felt only like she’d fallen from a small tree. Then the heat hit her in waves.

Xena looked about her. She lay on the ground in the midst of horrific flames. Loud, brilliant flames. For a moment she felt it was Tartarus, as before when Callisto had lured her there. As her eyes adjusted she could see people running to escape the fires. As her ears adjusted she could hear them wailing.

But there were no buildings in Tartarus, like the one burning before her. Behind her. All about her. She was lying in the street, in the middle of a town aflame. The darkness was merely night. But not just any night.

The figures running about were armored, Xena could hear the clashing of swords, the screams of slaughter. Innocents, slaughtered. And there, not ten feet from her, stood a gangly young girl, in soot stained clothes, frozen with the horror before her. Her cheeks were wet with tears. She was speaking one word, over and over. “Why?” she cried.

And then, as if to punctuate this nightmare, from around the corner, not twenty paces away, came a warhorse, and astride it, herself.

She knew where this was. She knew when this was. The girl turned molten brown eyes towards Xena with her pitiful cry, but Xena couldn’t see her anymore, for seeing herself.

“You didn’t even notice me, did you?” came a clear voice from behind her.

On instinct, Xena rolled to her feet, sword out. Callisto walked towards her slowly, unarmed.

“It was like you couldn’t see me at all,” Callisto said, looking from her younger self to Xena’s and back.

Xena said nothing, tightening her grip on her sword.

Callisto looked at her, eyes so blue and stark they pierced her soul. “You didn’t actually think the lava would hold me forever, did you?” she asked, her tone sarcastic. “And how could you treat me like that, after saving your life and your sweet Gabrielle’s? I think you owe me for that.”

Xena half-shook her head, eyes never leaving her enemy. “I don’t owe you anything. You were after the ambrosia, and you got what you wanted.”

Callisto’s face suddenly darkened. “I’ve never gotten what I want, Xena. You know that.” The look was gone as fast as it came. She seemed almost cheery, coming closer. “Even now, you greet me like this?” she gestured at the sword. “It’s a dangerous reflex against a god, my love.”

Callisto grabbed the blade of the sword and a shock ran up it. Xena let go quickly. Callisto took the grip in her hand, tested the sword’s balance, examining it closely. She seemed fascinated by it, but in no hurry to use it on Xena.

Xena massaged her tingling hand. “What do you want, Callisto?”

Callisto’s attention snapped back to her. “Now really, Xena, after all this time, you don’t know yet?”

Xena’s jaw tightened. “If you’re going to torture and kill me, why don’t you just get started?”

Callisto cocked her head, considering. “As delicious as that image is, dear... I’m afraid you still don’t understand.”

“Then what do you want?”

Callisto was beside her in an instant, her blue eyes flashing. She grabbed Xena’s arm, the Warrior Princess flinched in pain, trying to shake away. Callisto let go her arm to grab Xena’s chin instead, and forcibly turned her head to look at their ghosts, so near. “By the gods, Xena, I want you to notice me!”

Xena’s tried to look at the young girl, but it was so difficult. A blackness leapt from within her to squeeze her heart. “I see you, Callisto. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry...”

No, Xena,” Callisto almost screamed, in the core of a rage. “Not you. I don’t care if you see me.” With Xena’s own sword she pointed at the other one, the Xena on horseback. “I want you to notice me. I want you to see me, and ride up to me. Pick me up, carry me away. I want you to make a world for me, a home for me, like you have for Gabrielle.”

Against every fiber of her being, every ingrained habit, Xena felt tears slipping down her cheeks. “I can’t do that, Callisto,” she struggled to say. “I can’t change the past.”

Callisto let go of her, and stepped in front of her. “Ah, but you forget,” she tapped a finger to Xena’s forehead. “I am a god, Xena.” She traced the finger down Xena’s cheek, down her throat, the lightest touch, to her bosom. “I can see into your heart. I know that you have changed the past. I know that you brooked a deal with the Fates, and changed your history. I know that in that life, my mother and sister were still alive. I was still alive. Not dead to everything like I was after this moment,” she gestured to the Cirra around them, the Cirra of Xena’s nightmares.

Xena drew back, horrified. “You can’t... you can’t make that past happen again!”

Callisto rolled her eyes. “Ah yes, it would stain your little Gabrielle. I know that too, Xena. But that’s not what I’m after.” She held out her hands, one empty, one armed. “My thought is this: if they would change the past for you, they can do it for me. They can give me back my life, Xena. They can give me back my soul.”

She looked off, at the sobbing young girl. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Xena watched Callisto silently. “Why would they listen to me?” she asked after a moment.

Callisto turned back to her. “That’s not what you really want to know, is it? You want to know why you should help me, don’t you?”

Xena pursed her lips. “Because you’ll kill me if I don’t, I suppose.”

“Now that would hardly be a challenge, would it, Xena?” Callisto almost laughed.  “After all,” she gestured upwards, and suddenly Cirra was gone, leaving them instead at the bottom of the canyon where the lava had flowed. Above them was the broken rope bridge. “I could have already done that, couldn’t I?” Callisto finished.

Xena looked around. Now down here at the bottom, she could clearly see the scorched brush and earth she had noticed from above. Where the statue had been, there was only a pile of smashed rocks. No Callisto. No Velasca. Xena felt kicked. “Gabrielle...” she whispered.

Callisto followed Xena’s gaze. “Oh, don’t worry about her, Xena. Your little girl need never worry about Velasca again. She proved an interesting challenge... but there was a little stunt she pulled at a temple nearby that—” she smiled a wicked smile, “—crossed the wrong people. Now,” she continued, “back to our dilemma.”

The warrior queen thrust Xena’s sword into the hard stone ground, raising sparks, but fixing it firmly. It vibrated back and forth from the blow. She walked to the broken lava, kicking away stones, including some larger than Hercules could easily lift that flew off as if weightless. “No, if I wanted to kill you, that would hardly be an effort. Instead,” she looked back at Xena, “I want to offer you an exchange.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of ‘exchange’?”

“Well, if you help me with the Fates,” she walked around Xena as she talked, “you’re rid of me. Forever. I’ll be too busy living a happy life to have bothered with you, my love.” She was behind Xena now. “Unless you just can’t resist, of course.” She snaked her head over Xena’s shoulder, kissing her on the cheek. Xena jerked away; Callisto laughed.

Xena looked straight ahead as Callisto continued around her. “And if I don’t help you?” she asked.

Callisto put her elbow in her palm and her fingers at her chin, one placed beside her cheek. “You know,” she cocked her head, “being a god gives one all sorts of interesting abilities. It’s not just death that I can control...” she looked down at the shattered rocks about her. “It’s also life.”

An instant of vertigo, and suddenly they stood before a little house, in what Xena instantly knew were the outskirts of Potedaia. “Do you recognize it?” Callisto asked.

Xena looked at the cottage. “It’s Gabrielle’s house... the one she was to live in with—” and from out of the front door stepped, impossibly, Perdicus. He noticed Xena, and raised a hand to wave, then saw Callisto, and looked instantly fearful. Callisto held up a hand and he froze, like time itself stopped. Xena felt not just bewildered but suddenly ill.

“How?” was all the sound she could produce.

Callisto shrugged. “Hades owed me a favor or two. I sent him enough business, after all.” She smiled wickedly. “So did you, of course. Maybe you can call one in someday. Oh, but then you’ve cheated him a few times, haven’t you? Maybe you shouldn’t ask,” she laughed.

Xena grit her teeth. “Get to the point, Callisto.”

The sardonic face hardened. “The point is, Xena, if you don’t help me,” she gestured back at Perdicus. “I’ll give him back his life.”

Xena tried very hard to keep her face empty.

“Oh, don’t fight it, Xena,” Callisto said, not fooled. “Even if I wasn’t a god I could read your thoughts right now. For once, you were glad for me, I know. You don’t like to show it, you don’t even like to feel it. But when I took this lummox away from Gabrielle,” she cocked her head at the frozen man, “deep down you were happy I did.”

“That’s a lie!” Xena growled, stepping towards the warrior.

Callisto turned an angry gaze towards her and the Warrior Princess stumbled backwards from its physical blow. “No, it’s not, either. It was painful that I hurt Gabrielle by killing him, but by taking him away, I left her to you. It still tears you apart, doesn’t it, Xena, that she chose him over you?”

She stepped closer as Xena righted herself. “How much worse would it feel then, if I brought him back, and she chose him again?”

Xena could barely contain the flood of her feelings. She wanted to hit something so badly it hurt.

The goddess raised her hands. “So there it is then, Xena. The exchange. You lose me — or you lose her.”

She stepped closer still to Xena, her face serious. “I can’t think of an easier choice, can you? I am war; she is love. I am death; she is life. Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted, Xena, ever since Hercules gave you that second chance?”

Xena stared into those pale blue eyes, and felt like jelly inside. Callisto’s body emanated such power the air throbbed with it. Xena felt it on her skin, in her lungs; she felt drunk with it. Callisto was wild and beautiful, maddening, intoxicating. Xena felt again like she had all those years, sword in hand, cutting down armies and raping villages.

And then she realized this was Callisto’s doing, and why. This was part of the choice. Help Callisto, and live in peace; refuse, fight her, and feel this again, this rush. Somehow the choice was harder than she’d expected. The seconds stretched out.

“I’ll help you,” Xena said.

Callisto smiled a small smile, perfectly lined lips around dazzlingly white teeth. She turned away and the spell was broken. Xena almost had to catch her breath. “Oh,” Callisto turned back. “Here...” Waving her fingers, the sword materialized back in Xena’s hand.

They were suddenly at the top of the canyon, amongst the ruins. Shaking her head, Xena headed towards Argo.

Callisto watched Xena mount up, thinking for a minute. “Hmm...” she said. “You know, I need one of those.” She waved her hand again, and from out of the woods nearby bolted a black mare, sleek, but nothing near what Xena would call ordinary. From its nostrils spouted fire, and it had hooves of flame. Xena looked wide-eyed at the goddess. Callisto seemed delighted with herself. “Perfect!” she clapped her hands.

“What’s that?” Xena asked, incredulous, having to still the suddenly nervous Argo.

“Oh,” Callisto giggled, “you could call her... a Nightmare!” She vaulted into the saddle of the restlessly prancing horse. She patted its neck, then turned to Xena. “Race you...” she laughed, and started off in a cloud of smoke.

Xena shook her head. With a last glance behind her, at a rope bridge that was miraculously whole again, she twitched her mare into a full gallop, hoping somehow to reach Gabrielle before her newfound partner did.

Distracted by the smoke-filled air far before her and the multi-colored bridge far behind, Xena never noticed her old master Ares watching, fascinated, amongst the crumpled buildings nearby. But then, he hadn’t wanted her to.

 

III: Bridges