The Exchange

 
 

Iolaus easily put the group back on Theodorus’ trail after a brief breakfast. As she and Gabrielle trailed a few paces behind, walking Argo, Xena wondered how unprepared Theodorus would be when then found him, considering how animatedly Iolaus was entertaining Callisto. The blonde warrior didn’t seem to mind the attention one bit.

“Now there’s something I never imagined seeing,” Gabrielle said beside her. “Kind of strange how that one worked out.”

“Mmm hmm,” was Xena’s only reply.

The bard tilted her head, thinking. “So if you think about it, you could have been Callisto’s foster step-mother.”

“Gabrielle, don’t go there,” Xena said.

Gabrielle smiled to herself.

Ahead, Iolaus gestured wildly with one hand at some anecdote, while the other came to rest on the bare small of Callisto’s back.

“You know the old Callisto would have broken his hand by now,” the bard said.

Xena looked at her sidelong. “Jealousy doesn’t look good on you, Gabrielle.”

“I’m not jealous!” Gabrielle’s said, wide-eyed. “I mean he’s practically her uncle, anyway.”

“Uh huh.”

“...so I was right,” Iolaus said, “after he hadn’t eaten for a while, Salmoneus reacted to the gold nuggets just like he always would.”

“So the food was drugged...” Callisto concluded.

“Exactly!”

Callisto smiled. This was so new to her, this feeling, yet so familiar. She wanted to drown in it. “So how is King Iphicles?”

“Oh, Iphicles is his dour self.”

“And Alcmene?”

“She’s fine.” He turned to her. “She’s disappointed you don’t stop by to see her more often.”

“Soon, Iolaus,” Callisto said, her eyes on the blue sky, petting Whirlwind’s nose as she led her along.

Iolaus touched her arm. “Callisto, where have you been for so long?”

She smiled enigmatically, glancing over her shoulder at Xena and Gabrielle. “Between a rock and a hard place, actually.”

His face was serious. “You know, Herc was really hurt that no one could find you for the wedding.”

Callisto stopped. “What wedding?”

“Actually, it happened so fast we couldn’t find anybody; I was the only one there.”

“What wedding, Iolaus?”

He lowered his head for a moment. “Her name was Serena. She was the last of the Hind, pledged to Ares.”

“‘Was’, Iolaus?” she wore the hurt she felt on her face.

“Just after they were married, she was murdered by Strife.”

Callisto’s jaw trembled. “Oh, Hercules...”

He raised his hands. “It was all part of Ares’ plan to destroy Herc and to bring Xena back into his fold as a warlord.”

Her fists clenched and unclenched at her sides. Her tone was even as she started walking again. “If Ares wants war, he’ll get one.”

Iolaus shrugged. “So what else is new?” He hurried to catch up with Callisto. “It’s funny, you sound just like him.”

Callisto turned her head as she walked. “Who, Ares?”

“No, your father,” he said. “I mean, you know, Hercules.”

Callisto half-smiled, but kept moving. Her eyes followed the tracks they’d been following, turning a different way into the brush. She signaled back the change to Xena, and the Warrior Princess nodded.

Her senses kept to the tracking easily. But her heart was dwelling on another newlywed she knew whose life had been cut too short. His name was Perdicus.

*  *  *  *  *

Gabrielle held the two sets of reins while the others crept forward in the brush, on a hillock overlooking the noises.

“I count twenty,” Callisto said. “But this is hardly a camp.”

“More like a rendezvous point,” Xena concluded. She looked at Iolaus. “This can’t be all that’s doing the raiding you’ve been talking about.”

Iolaus shook his head. “No, Theodorus has at least a hundred in his army, maybe more.”

“Maybe a lot more,” Callisto touched Xena’s arm. “Isn’t that Zagreus down there?”

Xena looked closer, spotting the bald man. “Yes, it is.”

“He traveled with your army. How many men do you think he could pledge?”

“What’s that?” Iolaus asked.

“Only forty or fifty, but I see you’re point,” Xena said.

“What point?” Iolaus poked her.

Callisto bent her head down below Xena’s to look at him. “My guess is that Zagreus is here to meet Theodorus and pledge his own army. And where there’s one, there’s probably more. Who and how many is the question.”

“And for what,” Iolaus replied.

“Maybe Zagreus knows...” Xena wondered aloud.

Callisto turned a sly smile to her. “Do you want to—” with the index and middle finger of each hand, she poked the air, “—ask him?”

Xena raised an eyebrow. “If I can get him alone.”

“Oh,” Callisto said, “allow me.” With barely a rustle of grass she disappeared into the undergrowth.

Xena started to back up.

“Wait,” Iolaus stopped her with a hand. “Where’s she going?”

“Just watch. Signal me when she’s coming, I’m going back to the horses.” Equally silent, she vanished as well.

Iolaus sighed and looked back down to the gathering. Amidst the bustle, Zagreus had drifted near the edge of the small clearing, watching the boasting and back-slapping mixture of his own men and some Iolaus recognized as troops of Theodorus. Had he not been watching the warlord — as he alone was, in fact — Iolaus would not have seen him disappear backwards into the trees with nary time for a yell.

It would have been perfect if there hadn’t been a commotion in the camp just a moment later that was the arrival of several warriors on horseback — one of them Theodorus, looking for Zagreus. As Iolaus watched, the warriors began to band into search parties and fan out into the woods. With a last glance, Iolaus rolled to his feet and sprinted to beat the searchers.

*  *  *  *  *

“Where are the others?” Gabrielle asked as Xena returned. She had secured Argo and Whirlwind.

“Iolaus is still scouting,” Xena said. “Callisto is bringing an old friend to see me.”

“An old friend?”

“We didn’t spot Theodorus, but some of his men were there along with another warlord, one who used to travel with me. You remember Zagreus, don’t you? From Laurel?”

Gabrielle nodded.

“Could be he is supposed to meet Theodorus here.”

“But what would they be meeting about?” the bard asked.

Zagreus, hands bound behind and mouth gagged, fell into the dead leaves at their feet.

“Why don’t we ask him?” Callisto said, grabbing the squirming man by the scruff of the neck and dragging him up to his knees. “One warlord, delivered.” She tugged the slip knot on the gag and pulled it from his mouth.

“Hello, Zagreus,” Xena smiled. With the quickness of a snake striking she stabbed the pressure points on either side of his neck.

“I love that,” Callisto said to Gabrielle.

“I’m sure you remember this, Zagreus, but just to remind you: I’ve cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You’ll be dead in seconds if you don’t tell me what I want to know.” She leaned down close to the warlord. “Why are you out here with Theodorus’ men?”

He forced the words through a face twisted in pain. “I— I was supposed to meet him here! He wants me to join up with him. He’s gathering all the warlords.”

Xena frowned. “What do you mean, all?”

“Every warlord he can find!” he grunted.

“Why?” Callisto asked.

The answer to that question was interrupted by the lunging of an armor-clad warrior in the direction of Callisto’s back. The back became her front, and the lunge landed him on the point of her drawn sword. A fierce battle cry and the arrival of half a dozen warriors to effect their leader’s rescue drowned his scream. Callisto shoved the first warrior’s body aside.

“You were only supposed to bring Zagreus, not all his men!” Xena called, dodging and slashing.

“I didn’t invite them!” Callisto said, turning around and elbowing two warriors in the midsection, then flipping them over onto their backs.

Iolaus pounded towards them, grabbing a warrior by the head from behind and slamming it into the ground. “No, that would have been Theodorus. There’s more on the way!”

Iolaus was right. Drawn by the commotion, other search parties were arriving. The two warriors still standing became eight, then twelve, then twenty.

Gabrielle repeated Callisto’s performance with her staff, winding two soldiers with the stick in their gut then flipping them over on their backs. She planted the end of her staff and pivoted over it, two feet to the back of a warrior attacking Iolaus.

“Thanks,” Iolaus told her before ankle-tackling an oncoming attacker.

With a nod, Gabrielle turned her own attention to a large man brandishing a spiked mace at her. She dodged and parried, waiting for him to commit to a blow, then slipped left around it and gave a sharp whack to the back of his skull. He wavered on his feet, and she swept them out from under him.

Looking around, Gabrielle was caught up in the dazzling spectacle of Callisto and Xena. She had often, of course, marveled at Xena’s prowess in battle, but seeing the two side by side almost made her catch her breath.

Xena greeted the swing of a halberd with a fluid sidestep and a grab of the shaft, then with a sharp jerk upwards drove the weapon’s handle into the armpit of its bearer, and bringing the weapon to one side slipped it behind his back and broke his shoulder with a crunch. Beside her, Callisto waited for her opponent to make a sword thrust and dodged it, grabbing his outstretched wrist. The hard slam of her other fist, still clutching her sword, snapped his elbow the wrong way. He dropped, screaming. With a new opponent coming up behind her, Callisto made a backwards somersault and landed sitting atop his shoulders, then raked her nails up his face. When he fell to his knees, planting her feet back on the ground, she grabbed his hair and drove his face into the dirt.

The two were in their element. As more soldiers closed in they stood back to back, swords and fists cutting red ribbons through the enemy. They even seemed to pick up one another’s rhythm, forcing opponents coming from each one’s weak side back behind them to the other’s strength.

A flail-wielding warrior approached at an angle behind Callisto’s sword hand while Xena was twisted to him blind-sided. The warrior spun his weapon back for a hard blow at the Warrior Princess. Seeing him from the corner of her eye, Callisto turned her head. “Xena!” she called. Xena looked around and ducked backward against Callisto’s back as the blonde warrior leaned forward. The spiked ball on chain whistled over her nose by inches. With her momentum carrying her, Xena rolled completely over Callisto to end on her feet facing the other woman. They shared a smile, then a double swing at the off-balanced flail-wielder. After a short flight, he caught a tree trunk head on.

Gabrielle saw between them a kindred spirit, like that she’d seen between Hercules and Iolaus. If circumstances had been different, they could have been the best of friends.

There was a sharp whistle, and the bard’s attention turned to a familiar yet unfamiliar face, a clean-shaven and almost handsome Theodorus, his mostly bare chest still bearing a wicked scar, astride a powerful horse not twenty feet away. At his signal most of the soldiers still standing broke for the woods. Iolaus concluded the departure with a kick to the seat of one warrior’s pants.

“Well, Callisto,” his deep, accented voice rumbled, “we meet again. Too bad I don’t have time to talk.”

“Yes,” Callisto replied. “I could finish your scar collection.”

He turned to the Warrior Princess. “You used to be a great warlord, Xena. What mistake paired you up with Miss Goody-Two-Sandals?”

“Long story,” Xena said dryly.

“We’ll have to catch up sometime. Right now I have others to see, since you’ve ruined the meeting I had planned.” He nodded, then wheeled his horse about and rode off.

The direction of his nod brought their attention to Zagreus’ unmoving body nearby. Sighing, Callisto squatted on her heels next to the warlord. His eyes were open and staring, a trail of blood ran from his nose. Distracted by the fight, Xena’s pinch had gone on much too long. “I guess we won’t get the answer to our question, will we?”

Shaking her head, she stood and put her sword away on her back. She looked after Theodorus’ departing back. “I’ve never seen him so confident.”

Xena pursed her lips. “When you have a god behind you, I suppose that comes easy.”

“Did it for you?” Callisto asked.

The Warrior Princess was a little taken aback. She thought on her past, and how Callisto was right. At her peak, Ares had been right behind her. “I guess it did.” She looked at the blonde warrior. “How about you?”

Callisto took a deep breath. “The glory of war was never my concern.”

Iolaus stepped up to the pair, Gabrielle at his side. “So what’s our next move?”

“We keep following,” Xena said. “We still don’t know just what he’s up to.”

Callisto had another thought, one she didn’t share. It was whether, when they found out, they’d be strong enough to stop it.

IX: Skirmish