The Exchange


The town of Pharsalus, residing at a crossroads, was a bustling one — though not at the late hour that the three women rode into it on their horses. Its large marketplace was empty and silent, the inns all dark, taverns nearly the same, but for a barkeep or two shuffling the last drunk out the doors.

Two of the three women had memories of here; Gabrielle was all but asleep against Xena’s shoulder. The Warrior Princess knew this town from a visit or two, but little more. Unlike Cirra, Pharsalus had paid its tribute, and been spared the work of her army.

For Callisto, this place produced a jumble of memories she could not quite sort out. Bartering trips with her family, every season, those were clear and distinct, though bittersweet. Endless hours spent wandering the booths and stalls, alone or with her sister, while mama bargained. Looking at pretty fabrics she one day dreamed of buying, working on Penthia’s loom. Or hanging about at the trappers shops, listening to hunters share their stories and techniques, almost a pet for the shopkeepers indulging the little girl.

But then two sets of memories after that fateful night, and neither very clear. Had those blissful days descended to the tortured years as an urchin? What did she really feel as she looked at these stone walls and wooden doors? If she felt at all?

“We’ll have more luck making camp out of town,” Xena interrupted her thoughts. “No one’s awake to help us here.”

Callisto looked about at the black windows beside otherwise friendly inn signs on the long street of accommodations. Then she looked at the drowsy bard on Xena’s saddle behind the warrior. “Let’s give at least one a try.”

Xena gave a glance to the head on her shoulder and, raising a private smile, nodded. “C’mon, Gabrielle,” she urged softly, as Callisto dismounted and led her own horse towards the one door that offered at least a candle’s worth of light beyond, bearing the posted sign, “The Wandering Cyclops”. Gabrielle roused just enough not to need help climbing down Argo’s flank.

No one was in the small lobby of the sturdily-built little inn. The candle burned very low on the crude counter, but no light at all came from the doorway behind it. “Hello?” Xena called gently as Gabrielle rested elbows on the counter top, lids half-closed. Callisto secured the horses outside. “Anyone awake?” Xena’s voice was pitched almost so as not to rouse anyone who wasn’t already. 

After a long moment there was a quiet bustle and grumbling from within. “...bothering us at this time of night,” came an old woman’s voice, followed presently by the leathered crone it belonged to, wrapped in a thick blanket atop her night clothes. “People have no sense to travel at respectable times of day...” The woman trained unkeen eyes upon Xena and Gabrielle with great suspicion. “You might as well be on your way, you. We don’t have no rooms—”

Blinking, the woman leaned forward, eyes focused on the doorway. “—Callisto!” the crone drew a breath as the warrior stepped inside. “I didn’t see you back there. I do have your room...”

Callisto met Xena’s eyes, but offered nothing to them. “We’re all together,” she told the innkeeper.

The woman raised her eyebrows, raising the candle stub and looking Xena and Gabrielle over. “Both of them?”

Callisto’s voice held the hint of amusement. “Yes, we’re all together.”

“Will you be needing an extra cot, or is the one bed—”

“Extra cots, please. Two of them.”

The innkeeper fidgeted. “I only have one extra...”

“We’ll make do,” Xena answered.

With an unsure glance at the Warrior Princess, the old woman nodded to Callisto. “Follow me,” she said, and started off through the inner door.

“I’ll take the cot,” Callisto said, lips curled in a small smile as she headed after the innkeep. “C’mon sleepyhead,” she roused Gabrielle gently as she passed, bringing a frown to Xena’s face as the Warrior Princess coaxed the bard to follow behind.

*  *  *  *  *

Xena found her sleep fitful as the previous day’s events roiled in her mind. That Gabrielle kept stealing the covers was only a minor annoyance. Worse was leaning up from the bed to peer beyond the bard at the nearby cot, and being unable, in the room’s dimness, to discern whether Callisto’s eyes, turned towards the bed each time she looked, were open or closed.

What was going on in that head of hers? Did it matter to her that Velasca had destroyed Cirra, or in her madness did she still somehow blame Xena? Or was it both, now? There were more unsettling thoughts as well; the Fates had changed Xena’s path at least once, but right now all her memories were giving her fits. And it was her deeds that said who she was — so what was she here and now? The one thing she should have been sure of more than any other was the woman lying beside her.  Yet even that bond had been frayed. Gabrielle’s compassion knew no bounds, of this Xena was sure — but how much of her actions towards Callisto had been only that, how much was Callisto’s preternatural charm... and how much something Xena could not bear to fathom?

She leaned up again, looking over at the cot, to no change — and leaning back, met the open eyes of Gabrielle, watching her. “Stop fidgeting, Xena.”

“Sorry,” Xena smiled.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, snuggling her pillow. “You’d think you’d never seen a hero before...” her voice was low and sleepy. “You never act this way around Hercules...”

Disturbed to her core, Xena resigned herself to completing the night studying ceiling beams.

*  *  *  *  *

Sunlight through the lone window opened Xena’s eyes, and both the empty spot beside her and empty cot across said she had slept some after all. The smell of oatmeal and eggs drew her out into The Wandering Cyclops’ common room, where the crowd of a dozen ranged from well-dressed merchants to dusty clothed travelers. Plus, one pretty young bard, composing a scroll, and an attentive blonde companion, seated beside her. The two conversed in hushed tones. She had the feeling that more than her own eyes watched the pair.

Xena sat on the bench across the table from the two, wearing the slightest frown. Callisto kept reading intently. Gabrielle looked up only to push her steaming bowl of porridge across to the Warrior Princess. “Here, finish this... I’m not hungry. It’s still warm.”

Eating a spoonful, Xena looked at the shadows on the floor. “We should get going, the sun’s already high.”

“We need to know where to go first,” Callisto answered, not looking up.

“Sitting around isn’t going to accomplish that,” Xena almost growled.

Callisto met her eyes. She indicated the scroll. “No, but studying Velasca might. You see, in the life I remember, I didn’t know her all that well before I killed her, so I’m reading Gabrielle’s account.”

Xena ate another spoonful, not answering.

“Could you see if they have juice?” Gabrielle looked up from her work at Xena. “I’m parched.”

Mouth half-open, Xena sighed and stood, heading for the service bar. “Juice, any kind,” she told the old innkeeper. The outside door was darkened by several large, loud shapes in the form of sweaty, leather-clad warriors.

“Barkeep, ale!” called one as the five of them entered the common room.

“Just a minute,” the crone called, shuffling off to fetch Xena’s juice.

“Not a minute,” the first, with a hanging belly and arms crisscrossed by scars, yelled, “Now!”

“Patience is a virtue,” Xena said, and thought she heard a light laugh behind her.

The warrior growled. “You got somethin’ to say to me, lady?!”

Xena drew back. “You’re breath is saying enough for both of us.”

The innkeep set down her juice. Xena snatched it up just before the warrior’s mace came down to smash it all over the bar. She walked back to their table.

“I’m not finished with you!” the fat man yelled after her, to the rousing approval of his friends.

“You’re about to be,” Xena said under her breath. She set down the mug, but Gabrielle stood instead of taking it.

“I’d be a little more careful,” the bard called to the warrior, the pride obvious in her voice. “That’s Xena, Warrior Princess.”

The man turned a shrug to his colleagues. “Is that supposed to mean something to me? Huh, brat?”

Callisto just leaned back and smiled.

Xena turned slowly back around. “What was that?”

“None of your business, princess,” the warrior chuckled, stepping forward, fellows close behind. “I was conversing with the brat.” He reached out a meaty paw and grabbed the bard by the arm. “Eh, brat?”

Xena let out a yell and smashed down a bracer on the man’s wrist. Hand suddenly numb, he let Gabrielle go. Xena planted a spinning kick to his chest, he reeled backwards. Gabrielle reached for her staff, the four other leather-clad men drew their weapons, and the fight was on.

Gabrielle ducked a sword blow and countered with a staff across the bridge of the nose. Xena retrieved the helmet that fell off the man’s head and bounced it off two other skulls. The helmet-less warrior recovered his feet only to have them swept out from under him again by the staff.

The fat warrior grabbed a nearby chair and swung it at Xena’s back as she traded sword blows with the fifth fighter. She heard the whistling in time to duck and the wood smashed to pieces over her opponent’s head. Rising back up, Xena gave the fat man an elbow smash to the chest.

Two maces came at Xena from opposite directions. With a full-throated “Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiy!” she planted a boot in one man’s belly, the other’s chest, the first’s head, actually running up them, and flipped to a somersault over their heads. One mace merely found the air, but the other, its owner still spinning from the swing, clobbered Gabrielle from behind as she worked the helmet-less fighter over with a series of staff blows.

Callisto stood up.

The fighter over Gabrielle shook his head, slinging blood from his smashed nose away. He raised his sword high as the bard, on her knees, tried to recover her senses.

Callisto gave the bench she’d been sitting on a hard shove from the end, and it skittered across the floor and into the unhelmeted warrior’s knees, overbalancing him. He fell straight back, head catching the edge of the bar, and was out cold before he hit the floor.

Xena sent one of the two still-standing warriors tumbling with a strong backhand. He caught the fat man in the back, and the battles’ first aggressor sprawled forward directly towards Callisto. She instinctively caught him by the throat, and jerked him up to eye level.

His look was one of terror. “Callisto!” he exclaimed.

“Feel like behaving?” she said calmly.

“Uh... yeah, yeah!” he gasped.

Callisto spun him around. “Well find somewhere else to do it!” She planted a boot in his backside and sent him stumbling towards the doorway. Off balance, he tripped at the doorsill and sprawled out into the street, just missing an incoming patron who stepped aside at the last second.

“Nothing like one of those to start the morning,” said the chipper, curly-blond man in an open vest and leather pants.

Even woozy, Gabrielle recognized the voice instantly. “Iolaus!” she called as Xena helped her to her feet.

Iolaus let his eyes adjust from the brightness outside, surveying the piles of bodies slowly untangling themselves. Xena and Gabrielle stepped forward to greet him, but he had other plans.

“Callisto!” Iolaus exclaimed happily, and came over to welcome the warrior with an exuberant hug.

Callisto’s expression was guarded as she pulled back from Iolaus as far as his friendly arms would allow.

“I’m glad to see you here,” he said, eyes studying her face like remembering old territory.

“What brings you to these parts, Iolaus?” Callisto asked.

He looked around at the groggy miscreants. “They did, actually. I’ve been following them for some time.”

“Iolaus?” Gabrielle called, a little put off.

The warrior turned his head and finally saw the others. “Gabrielle,” he acknowledged, and then, with even less enthusiasm, “Xena...”

He looked back to Callisto. “Let’s sit down, I’d like to talk to you.”

Callisto nodded and they moved to a table. Gabrielle and Xena followed. Iolaus offered Callisto a questioning glance.

“Oh, they’re with me.”

He nodded acceptance. “Callisto,” Iolaus said as they sat, “I want to thank you again for helping Hercules save his family — well, and saving me too — when Velasca poisoned us.”

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance at time’s revision.

For Callisto, the demi-god’s name brought back a flood of memories and a rush of emotions so strong she caught her breath. Of the miracle of Hercules passing through just days after Velasca’s raid. Of how he had spent time trying to find a family to take her in, but settled, at last, for doing so himself. How he had become like the father she had never known, and Clonus, Aeson, and Ilea little brothers and sister to her, soothing her own loss. How he had taught her, against his better judgment but to end her constant pestering, the skills she had with weapons.

How, after she had left that home to strike out on her own, tragedy had invaded her life another time, and Hera had taken her second family away as Velasca had her first.

“I owe Hercules more than I can ever repay,” Callisto said. As she turned her eyes to the Warrior Princess and bard, Callisto knew from their faces that this memory was reaching them too. She reached a hand across the table to hold Iolaus’. “And I couldn’t let her take any more family away from me, could I?”

Iolaus swallowed a lump, nodding.

“So you were following them?” she indicated the warriors even now dragging themselves out the door.

“Yes, they’re scouting easy pickings for a warlord that’s been marauding through these parts.”

“Velasca?” Callisto asked.

Iolaus looked confused. “Velasca? She hasn’t been around in a while. Not since she got hold of that ambrosia.” His glance at Xena was more than a little accusatory.

Callisto turned to Xena. Gabrielle leaned in between them. “Could be anyone,” she said. “We don’t know who’s alive in this time.”

The two nodded.

“Is it Virgilius?” Xena asked Iolaus.

“No, ah—”

“Atyminius?” Callisto offered.

Iolaus shook his head.




“Not him—”

“Sinteres!” Gabrielle stuck out a finger, her look confident.

“No,” Iolaus held up his hands. “Callisto, you’ve killed every one of those.”

Xena and Gabrielle were each speechless, Xena’s brow furrowed, Gabrielle’s eyes wide. Callisto, for her part, looked positively sheepish.

“Well then who is it?” Xena asked impatiently.

“It’s Theodorus.”

Xena and Callisto looked at each other, both shocked this time. “Theodorus??” they said together.

Callisto shook her head. “Theodorus is an ape who can follow orders. Exactly who Velasca would choose to work through.”

“But like I said—” Iolaus began.

“Trust me,” Callisto cut him off. “Since she became a god, you’ve seen more of Velasca than you can imagine.”

Iolaus thought on that. “So, does this mean I can get your help?”

Callisto felt a connection happen deep inside; a piece of herself, long missing, gently put back in place. She smiled warmly, and gripped his hand again. “You can count on it.”


VIII: A Night in Pharsalus