The Exchange

 
 

Callisto was impatient to leave right after they ate, but Xena insisted upon saving all the meat that was left from the meal. The goddess paced while Xena and Gabrielle cut and packaged.

“Can’t you hurry with that?”

“You should have whipped up a chicken instead,” Xena said, sharing a smile with Gabrielle.

Callisto hissed at her, and kept pacing.

“You know, you could help,” Gabrielle said.

“I cooked,” Callisto responded, the barest trace of a smile in her eyes.

Xena stood with one of the two hefty bundles and headed for Argo. Gabrielle brought another package over to the warrior goddess. “Do you like leftovers?” the bard asked.

“Like them? I lived on them,” Callisto replied, a thread of sarcasm in her voice. She took the bundle to Whirlwind, then paused, turning back, and gestured Gabrielle over. “Tie it this way,” she said, re-wrapping the string skillfully so that the younger woman could see. With the hide refolded just slightly, the seal was much more complete. “It holds in the juices better.” Callisto put the pack in her saddlebags, then turned back to see Gabrielle looking at her oddly. “What?” she asked.

Xena measured the sun’s height in the sky. “Let’s get going. It’s a few hours trip from here.”

Gabrielle turned to look at her partner. “Oh I’m too stuffed. I don’t think I can walk a ‘few hours’.”

“No need to walk,” Callisto said, smiling slyly, and put her arm around Gabrielle’s waist, hoisting her up into Whirlwind’s saddle before the bard could protest, then vaulted in herself to sit before her. “Are we all packed?” she asked.

“Uhm, yes?” Gabrielle answered, confused and shocked.

Callisto looked over her shoulder. “Hang on, Gabriangel...” she said with a grin. “Yah!” she snapped the reins, and Whirlwind took off on her flaming hooves, leaving Xena scrambling into her own saddle and trying to follow.

Gabrielle had to throw both arms around the goddess’ slim waist to keep from flying off the horse backwards. She pressed her cheek to Callisto’s leather shoulder-pad, her eyes tightly closed.

“Relax, lover,” Callisto smiled above the whipping wind, “you’ll enjoy it more.”

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and slowly eased up her grip, her hands sliding back across Callisto’s stomach to just hold her waist. Her palms tingled where they touched the warrior queen’s smooth skin. She slowly eased her calves up where they dug into the horse’s flank.

There was an energy about both of them. Gabrielle couldn’t help but bounce a little with each stride the horse took, but Callisto seemed one with the animal, in perfect synchronous rhythm. The sensations were different where her thighs touched animal and woman, but there was something the same about them that was sensual and intoxicating.

Gabrielle opened her eyes to watch the forest rush madly by. The beast turned and twisted through and around the trees so frightfully close that she clenched them tightly shut again. And then she realized something else amiss: but for the rushing of the air, there was barely a sound to be heard. The horse’s hooves were almost silent upon the forest floor.

She dared one eye open again, then the other, then eased her cheek off the cool leather of Callisto’s armor. She had to brush Callisto’s long hair aside where it whipped at her, back across the curve of her neck. Gabrielle glanced at her face. The warrior’s look was one of pure, childlike joy.

“What’s her name?” the bard called over the wind.

The goddess turned her blue eyes to Gabrielle’s own. “I call her Whirlwind!”

“Why is that?”

Callisto offered a crafty smile. “You’ll see!” she called, and gripped the reins.

Gabrielle felt her stomach plummet and thought the green blur of forest canopy seemed strangely close. And then, miraculously, it was beneath her.

“Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!” she called frantically.

Callisto laid her head back on Gabrielle’s shoulder and laughed delightedly. The bard threw her arms back around the warrior’s waist tightly.

“It’s all right, you won’t fall...” Callisto said. She clenched her legs gently and Whirlwind began to circle back... and around... and Gabrielle realized Callisto was slowly spiraling the beast higher and higher.

“Ohohohohohoh!”

Callisto gestured with her head as she straightened their path out. “Look... there’s Xena... go on, look...”

Gabrielle shook her head vigorously, eyes shut tight.

Callisto realized that the younger woman was terribly frightened. She let go of the reins, and pried Gabrielle’s hands free of her waist, then held them gently.

The bard relaxed a bit. She leaned back from Callisto just a tad — and somehow found herself leaning back into Callisto. The warrior’s hands left her own and slid forward around her own waist. Gabrielle’s eyes snapped open. Callisto, sure enough, was on the saddle behind her now.

“I’ve got you, Gabrielle,” Callisto soothed, “you won’t fall.” The voice she had always thought of as frightening was instead comforting to her right now. She really did believe Callisto’s words. And with that assurance, she began to enjoy herself.

The ground was far below, but the soft hold of Callisto’s strong hands was enough that she felt exhilarated at the sight of it. A memory flashed to her and away, of being suspended high in Callisto’s hideout while Xena fought the warlord upon a twisting ladder below her. So long ago that felt. Stretched out far ahead of them was the most beautiful sunset Gabrielle had ever seen.

Among the trees, in and out of cover, Xena rode Argo at a hard gallop. Gabrielle turned her head. “Can we go lower?”

“Of course,” Callisto smiled, and Gabrielle could feel her legs work Whirlwind’s flanks again. The horse began to descend gently, not enough to induce a sense of falling, but more giving Gabrielle the sensation of a descending hawk, intent on its prey. They slowed as well, and Xena was ahead of them now. As the trio neared treetop level, Whirlwind sped up, and Gabrielle knew what Callisto was doing. Before she could call out a warning, Callisto let out a yell, “Yah!” and drove her mare past Xena and Argo so that Whirlwind’s hooves passed an arm’s length from Xena’s head. Xena ducked on instinct, then turned a dark look at the goddess as Callisto laughed.

“Callisto...” Gabrielle scolded, but tried to hold back a smile.

“Oh, you’re no fun,” Callisto pouted, bringing Whirlwind back up towards the sky.

The bard looked back behind them. “Xena is having to ride Argo pretty hard, Callisto. Can we slow down?”

“Not and get there before nightfall,” she answered. “But there are easier ways to do this.” Callisto waved her fingers in the Warrior Princess’ direction. As Gabrielle watched, the ground seemed to slide beneath Argo’s hooves far faster than her strides could account for, almost as if a great breeze were pushing her along. Rods turned into furlongs turned into leagues.

Callisto spoke conspiratorially into Gabrielle’s ear. “Want to see what those clouds are made of?”

“Oh...” Gabrielle hesitated, “no, I don’t think so.”

“Come on,” the warrior goddess encouraged. “Could be your last chance...” she smiled.

With a look over her shoulder at a face she’d never thought she’d come to stand, much less possibly like, Gabrielle decided to indulge herself. “All right,” she answered.

Callisto’s hands slid off Gabrielle’s waist and over her knees to grab the reins. With a flick of leather, Whirlwind pounded up some invisible hill towards the sky and Gabrielle, pressed back full against the most dangerous animal she had ever known, felt more than a guilty pleasure.

*  *  *  *  *

Xena had already reared up in the growing dark when the hooves of fire touched down before the domed temple of the Fates. Gabrielle accepted Callisto’s helping hand down from the tall beast, and Xena was beside her almost before the goddess had wheeled away to give a breath’s distance before she fluidly dismounted herself.

“Gabrielle, are you all right?” Xena asked her, both hands gripping the bard’s as she drew her aside.

“I’m fine,” Gabrielle replied, turning her head to look at the warrior queen. “She’s in a good mood.”

Xena was on the verge of furious. “Gabrielle, what are you thinking? Even if this works,” she tossed her head towards the temple, “Don’t trust her. She’s too unpredictable.”

“It won’t work, Xena...” Callisto called over from where she was adjusting Whirlwind’s bridle. “She’s starting to like me.”

“In your dreams, Callisto,” Xena answered.

“No, in reality,” the goddess said, unruffled. “Are we ready to go in?” she asked.

Xena looked at the temple. So many things filled her mind, memories that never happened; the bright face of a loving brother she had lost twice now; the darkened face of the woman beside her, who she loved more than life, twisted by pain and hardship almost beyond recognition, and for whom she had given up that more peaceful life.

“Xena?” Gabrielle asked, beside her.

“I’m not sure I should do this,” Xena said.

Gabrielle frowned. “Do you begrudge her a happy life so much?”

Xena shook her head, looked into her partner’s eyes with pain in her own. “No, I’m just not sure of what will happen to us after this.”

The young woman, with a wisdom far beyond her years, lifted her hand to Xena’s cheek. “If we go in together, we’ll come out together.”

Xena nodded slowly, then looked over at Callisto, who was looking back and forth between the two of them, her expression unreadable.

“Let’s get this over with,” Xena said. 

*  *  *  *  *

“By this flame I call on the three fates,” Xena intoned, lighting the candles one by one. “The maiden... the mother... and the crone.”

Callisto stood almost by her elbow, nearly hidden by the rising smoke of the candles just put out all around. The temple priests, closing up for the night, almost hadn’t let them in. Gabrielle had done some quick convincing before Callisto started resorting to thunderbolts.

“I ask you to grant the wish of Callisto of Cirra,” she continued, “to repay your debt to me.”

Moments passed. The candles dripped their wax. Callisto’s eyes nervously flicked among the temple statues.

Gabrielle stepped forward beside the others. “I don’t think it’s working,” she said softly.

“It will work!” Callisto fairly bellowed. “The Fates will listen to her.”

Silence. Only the sounds of their own breath, Callisto’s becoming ragged. The shadows danced in the candlelight.

“It has to work...” Callisto said softly.

Behind them, the priest who stood by the entrance shuffled on his feet. Then, as Xena could feel the energy radiating off Callisto’s skin charge the room with her pent-up anger, the twitching shadows coalesced before them, and three figures stood there, sharing a string between them. One feeding from a spool, one measuring, and one with shears to the end.

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. The three fates.

They spoke in a chain, each continuing the others’ thoughts. “Xena—”

“—Warrior Princess,”

“You champion—”

“—Callisto Vengeance?”

Xena looked at the goddess beside her. Callisto’s face was lit with such enthusiasm. She looked for all the world like a child. Gabrielle took Xena’s arm.

“I do,” Xena answered.

“But our debt—”

“—to you—”

“—was repaid,”

“in the life—”

“—of a young boy.”

“We cannot—”

“—help you—”

“—noble as your—”

“—compassion is.”

Noooo!” Callisto screamed, and sparks flickered from finger to finger as her hands raised like claws into the air. “You must grant this! You must hear her!”

Xena reached out for Callisto. “I’m sorry, Callisto—”

“None of your pity, Xena,” the goddess raged. “I do not need your help now.” Callisto stepped backward, her face turned upward. “Artemis!” her voice shook the temple walls. “I did your bidding! I killed your enemy! This is my end of the exchange, Artemis! You owe me!”

The priest ducked out the door. A statue turned over. Xena backed Gabrielle away from the dome’s center, for fear it would collapse.

Far off, on Olympus, Ares nodded his head at his half-sister. “I believe that’s your cue,” he said.

High in the temple dome, a small window admitted a single ray of the moon. In its silver pool on the temple’s floor formed the figure of a beautiful, armor-clad woman, quiver on her back, bow in hand. “Callisto...” came her clear voice. “Are you sure this is how you wish our debt settled? The gods’ favors do not come often.”

“Are you trying to renege?” Callisto boomed. “Do you think me more complacent than Velasca was?”

Gabrielle held Xena tightly. Had she really put her life — and her fate — in the mad warrior’s hands?

“Not renege,” Artemis said. “Just advise.”

“Consider me warned. Intercede for me!”

The goddess of the hunt and moon turned her noble face towards the three Fates, and slowly nodded.

Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos laid their gaze upon the warrior queen. “Callisto Vengeance—”

“—name your wish. If it’s ours to bestow—”

“—it’s yours.”

Her anger gone, Callisto’s voice almost trembled. “I want Xena’s raid on Cirra undone. I want my soul back.”

The Fates shared a look among them. “There is a price—”

“—for what you ask.”

“That price is your godhood.”

“In the past you seek—”

“—no ambrosia have you tasted.”

Callisto looked at her hands, the sparks still flickering there. “What good is this light, if it shows only how dark I’ve been?”

The three nodded. “So be it—”

“—all is restored.”

There was as swirl of light, and Callisto fell to her knees, her face twisted in pain. The candles flared, and went out, leaving only the streaming moonlight, not a pool now but a wash, touching all the room’s corners, cold but gentle. Gabrielle let go Xena’s arm, rushing forward.

“Gabrielle!” Xena warned.

The bard knelt by Callisto’s side. Little had changed for her, but she thought nothing of it. Her instinct drove her, her compassion. Callisto was hurt, and for the first time, Gabrielle had no fear.

“Callisto?” her hand touched the still-young woman’s arm, she tried to see the face through a drape of blonde hair.

Then the head lifted, and the face turned to her own. Gabrielle saw a genuine smile, and looked into eyes of deepest brown that, almost, brimmed with tears.

“I feel — whole,” was all Callisto said.

Gabrielle felt very warm inside. “Xena...” she said, eyes still locked with Callisto’s, “where should we stop for the night? Isn’t there a town here named Cirra?”

Xena stepped forward. “It isn’t too far.”

Callisto climbed to her feet, then offered a hand to the bard. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” she said. “I’m going to hurry along. Places to go — family to see.”

She turned to go, slowly at first, then, unable to resist, hurrying out.

Gabrielle watched her leave, then sighed deeply. She turned to Xena, and a line creased her brow. “How come I don’t feel any different?” she asked.

Xena still watched the doorway. “It’s probably because you were in here when things changed,” she answered. “Don’t worry, you will. It just takes awhile.”

Outside they heard the sound of a horse whinnying, then galloping off.

“Shall we follow?” Gabrielle asked.

“Sure,” Xena answered, putting her arm around the bard’s shoulders.

“Told you we’d walk out together.”

Xena offered a small smile. There was nothing behind it, and Xena thanked the dim moonlight for Gabrielle not noticing. Her friend may not feel any change, but Xena did. She felt strange inside. Something was not right.

Callisto had still worn her armor.

 

VI: A Trip to the Fates