The Exchange

 
 

The sky was deep sapphire as Xena and Gabrielle emerged from the temple, the moon climbing, the sun’s presence all but gone. Xena mounted Argo and was about to offer Gabrielle a hand up, but the bard, staff in hand, had already started off walking at a brisk pace.

The night was warm. They traveled along for a while, each caught up in her own thoughts, before Gabrielle broke the silence. “What are you thinking about?”

Xena watched the road ahead. “The things in our past that tell us what we’re made of.”

“Hmm...” Gabrielle cocked her head. “I was thinking about what things might be changed here, and when they’ll just seem normal to me. And not even big things, maybe just little things, like, what if here, Joxer is married to Meg?”

Xena gave her a raised eyebrow.

“Did we go to their wedding? Oooh,” Gabrielle frowned, “what if they have kids?”

They both laughed.

“I hope they get your looks,” Gabrielle teased.

Xena looked shocked amidst her smile, then her face turned a little more serious. “Gabrielle,” she said, “I want to apologize for what I said earlier.”

“Which time?” Gabrielle asked, still smiling.

“Both,” Xena answered dryly, “This morning, I was just worried about not being able to protect you. If Callisto was out... well...”

“I know,” her partner nodded.

“And then, when Callisto took you on her horse, I— I know that you couldn’t stop her. I didn’t mean to blame you for that.”

Only Gabrielle’s abrupt silence told Xena the last was a mistake.

“Xena, I can handle myself around Callisto,” Gabrielle said finally, stiffly.

Xena frowned. “Really.”

“She’s not exactly who you think she is, Xena.”

The Warrior Princess reined Argo to a stop. “She’s tried to kill you twice, Gabrielle!”

The younger woman looked up at her with dark eyes. “Well she had every opportunity, yes. But she never did it. I don’t think she really would have.” Gabrielle looked away. “She’s not just an unfeeling killer.”

Xena was mystified. “No, you’re right there... she feels quite a bit when she kills someone.”

“Xena you haven’t seen what I’ve seen in her.” She started walking briskly away.

“All you’ve seen, Gabrielle, is the cunning side of a butcher,” Xena called after. Shaking her head, she spurred Argo to catch up. “Gabrielle, you’re the one who told me that her heart had been eaten away by hatred.”

“Well there’s nothing like a second chance to find out what we’re made of, is there?”

Xena knew there was nothing else right now that she could say that would reach. More uncomfortable than before, they walked on in silence.

*  *  *  *  *

Xena knew, even before they had crested the hill, that something was very wrong. Even after nightfall, every living village makes noise, from the braying and bleating of penned animals to the jingling of a night watchman’s armor. But from Cirra, she heard no such noises. Then the sight only confirmed her fear: reflected moonshine was the only light from the grassy ruins the town had long ago become.

“Oh, no...” Gabrielle cried as she looked down on the peaceful yet unsettling scene. “Callisto...” she started running down the hill. Xena followed behind.

It was not hard to find her; Cirra had never been the largest town on the map. Amidst sounds of only night birds and crickets, the soft whinny of Callisto’s horse was loud enough to follow. Xena rode Argo in that direction, beyond the scorched walls, past the overgrown well and the broken fences. Just after the last empty shell of a building was something not here before, on her last fateful visit, when the ghosts were still overwhelming to her: in a small field that would likely have been overgrown but for recent trimming, stood an assemblage of headstones. Gabrielle had paused at its edge, and as she climbed down from Argo, Xena knew why from the look in her eyes. She was reluctant to disturb the lone figure crouched on her heels among the grave markers, head bowed and very still. Bolstered by Xena’s arrival, the bard took the few cautious steps that brought her to Callisto’s side.

“Do you like my field?” Callisto asked softly as Gabrielle knelt down in the grass before the stones. “I used to lie here as a girl, dreaming of my future.”

Gabrielle leaned in to look at Callisto’s face, and was shocked to see it, always so hard, moist with tears.

“The grass was longer, of course,” Callisto looked about. “but I keep it short now, when I can.” She met the bard’s eyes. “Don’t ask me how I know that, I just do.” She reached out a hand towards the markers. “I even— even had these stones made. What do you think?”

“Callisto...” Gabrielle spoke gently, her hand touching the other woman’s arm.

“It’s not fair...” Callisto’s lip quivered, then her face twisted in anger and she stood, drawing her sword. “What is this betrayal?!? Show yourselves, maiden and mother! This is not what I asked for! Answer me, crone!”

Gabrielle looked up at the warrior. As familiar as she was with Callisto’s anger, this was somehow different. Even shadowed, there was no darkness there. Only grief.

The Fates provided their own light to add to the pale moon on the graves and grass. Their voices echoed eerily in the stillness of the evening.

“All is restored—”

“—exactly as you asked,”

“Callisto Avenger.”

“Nothing has changed,” Callisto argued.

“Much has changed,” said Atropos.

“But time must be balanced,” continued Clotho.

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle asked, standing. “Cirra was still destroyed.”

“Not by Xena,” Lachesis answered.

“And Callisto’s life was not soiled—”

“—by the endless quest for revenge.”

Xena left Argo beside Callisto’s horse, now just a horse, and approached.

“This is a trick!” Callisto cried.

“This is how the Gods—”

“—have seen things play out.”

Which gods?” Xena asked as she reached the others, suspicious.

“Artemis wouldn’t do this to me, not after how I helped her,” Callisto said, mostly to herself, unbelieving.

“Fates, if I did not destroy this town, then what warlord did?” Xena asked.

An image flashed in Callisto’s head. War cries, orange flame. A warlord on horseback. She knew who it was before the Fates answered.

“Her name is Velasca,” Atropos intoned.

Callisto felt sick. But there was no time for that.

“Did you say is?” Gabrielle asked. “Velasca’s alive?”

“Her heart beats,” Lachesis said, “But pumps no blood.”

“So she is a god again.” Callisto spoke bitterly.

“Then we’ll have to destroy her, like before,” Gabrielle said with more confidence than she felt.

Xena and Callisto exchanged a glance. Each mind was racing ahead. “It’s not that simple, Gabrielle,” Xena said.

“What do you mean?” the bard asked.

Callisto turned to face her. “She means me, Gabrielle. I’m no longer a god here. And you need a god to fight one.”

“We can figure something out.”

Callisto shook her head. “That’s not all. You’re still alive.”

“I don’t understand.”

Callisto met Xena’s eyes a second time. “Fates, keepers of time,” she called. “If I did not fight her, who stayed Velasca’s hand from Gabrielle?”

“Ares,” Clotho said simply.

Gabrielle was more confused than ever. “But why would Ares...”

“To take Velasca into his fold,” Xena answered. “Because neither Callisto nor I would stay there.”

The bard shook her head. “So you’re saying that Ares is the one who twisted Callisto’s request with the Fates.”

Callisto sheathed her sword. “And to get to Ares, I have to go through Velasca. How convenient.” Decision made, she headed for her horse.

“Callisto, where are you going?” Xena asked.

“To find her.”

“Now?”

Gabrielle caught up to the striding warrior. “Callisto, there’s nothing we can do right now.” She glanced at Xena and back. “We should all rest. There’s another village nearby we can stay in.”

“Yes, I’ve been to the market there,” Callisto said, behind an unreadable expression. “All right.”

Gabrielle nodded. Callisto started off for Whirlwind again, the bard a step behind.

“Gabrielle...” Xena’s voice stopped them both. The two turned to face her, Gabrielle’s look questioning. “You could ride with me this time,” Xena said

“Oh...” Gabrielle looked from Xena to Callisto, who smiled just a bit. “Sure.”

As she changed course to walk with the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle turned back to where the Fates had stood, a question on her lips. But their weaving had already taken them elsewhere than the ghost-town of Cirra.

VII: Cirra Revisited