The Exchange

 
 

For all its size, and Xena’s best estimates put its numbers at around thirty five, the remains of Zagreus’ party moved surprisingly fast. The group had no trouble following, but even on horseback they saw none of it. Callisto kept her rising anxiety in check by losing herself in Iolaus’ conversation while he chatted on about Falafel and Iphicles and things of Corinth.

She loved listening to his voice. It reminded her of... home. She could close her eyes and picture it: Hercules and Iolaus talking in the next room while she and Deianeira were putting Aeson and Ilea to bed; or Iolaus trying to distract Clonus while Callisto helped him with his lessons. Endless stories of Cyclopes and Minotaurs, his many exploits with father, at the dinner table when he would visit... which, she thought with a smile, was all the time.

And then, she remembered lying in bed, overhearing Iolaus’ other tales to her foster parents. Tales of brutal warlords destroying and raiding villages across the countryside. Tales of feared names like Mezentius and Krykus, Xena, Dagnine, and... Velasca. Tales that Hercules tried to keep Callisto from hearing. But it was these stories that drove her so hard, made her so passionate about her own studies with the sword and staff, bow and chakram — many of which she learned on her own, after too many of those tales entreated her to leave the shelter of protection Hercules had made for her, to challenge those evils that had to be faced, had to be stopped somehow.

And it was Iolaus’ voice that gave her the news... that Deianeira and the children had been murdered while she was elsewhere, fighting the evils.

“Callisto?”

She turned her head to him, opening her eyes.

“You haven’t really told me why you’re traveling with Xena,” he said quietly. “Oh, don’t get me wrong,” he glanced back at the others, “I’m glad you two have worked out your differences... I guess...”

“More than you have,” she forced a smile.

“Yeah, well,” he shrugged.

“I don’t blame you, Iolaus,” Callisto reassured. “What she tried to get you to do... to turn you against Hercules... well, she wasn’t a very good person back then. And you know how I am about father — I was as reluctant as you to believe she’d changed. But she’s trying.”

Iolaus shook his head. “You have his heart, Callisto. Sometimes I marvel at both of you.”

Xena spurred Argo up alongside them. “I think we should set up camp for the night. We’re not going to gain any more ground until we get some rest.”

“Agreed,” Callisto said.

They found a suitably secluded spot and dismounted, then unpacked their gear. As Xena set up a firepit, Iolaus headed off to gather kindling.

“I’m guessing that leaves us with dinner,” Callisto said to Gabrielle as the bard lifted Argo’s saddle off the mare.

“Oh,” Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Do you and Xena usually take turns hunting?” Callisto asked. “What does she like to eat?”

“She’s not picky,” Gabrielle chewed her lip. “Too bad you don’t still have your powers... you could just whip something up,” she half-laughed.

Callisto cocked her head. “You don’t hunt, do you?”

“Well,” Gabrielle cleared her throat, “Xena usually catches dinner, and, well, I cook.”

“And what if you’re alone?”

The younger woman fidgeted.

Callisto furrowed her brow. “You haven’t really been alone, have you? Ever, I mean.”

“No,” Gabrielle admitted humbly. “Since I left Poteidaia I’ve always been with Xena.”

Callisto touched Gabrielle’s arm gently. “Come on... let’s go catch dinner.” Grabbing a rope from her things, Callisto guided Gabrielle towards the brush with an arm about the bard’s shoulders. “We’ll be back!” she called to Xena.

Looking up from her work, the Warrior Princess nodded but said nothing. With a frown on her lips and a strange flutter in her heart, she watched the two head off into the trees together.

*  *  *  *  *

“No, no,” Callisto coached gently, “thread it through there, then pull it tight.”

Gabrielle nodded. This was exciting; Xena never showed her things like this. Gabrielle wondered if it was so she’d feel more needed, which of course was totally absurd. Obviously Gabrielle needed Xena, but Xena was still funny about it sometimes.

“So, what are we after? Boar?” Gabrielle asked, starting to coil the rope.

Callisto looked at her, smiling slightly. “Let’s start a little smaller. How ’bout rabbit?”

“Oh,” Gabrielle blushed.

“Don’t worry, I make a good stew,” Callisto said, diverting the embarrassment. “But you’ll need to catch a couple, because Iolaus can eat quite a bit.”

“Me? Aren’t you going to—”

“No, no, the only thing I’m catching out here are spices and some roots.” She put a hand to Gabrielle’s shoulder. “You’ll do fine.”

They spent a while finding young saplings and low branches to bend, and Callisto described the finer points of baiting and disguising traps, but Gabrielle did all the work herself. Still, despite her accurate work, Callisto had the feeling Gabrielle was not entirely focused on the task at hand. Something about the way her eyes seemed to be studying Callisto.

“What is it, Gabrielle?” she asked at last.

The bard shook off her distraction. “Hmm?”

“What are you thinking about? Because it’s not rabbits.”

“It’s you,” Gabrielle said. “I’m trying to piece together my memories. It doesn’t seem that much has changed for Xena and myself here; she took a different route, but got to the same place to meet me. And a few of the names have changed, but I seem to have the same memories of our time together.” She cocked her head. “But you... you couldn’t be more different.”

“You noticed, huh?”

“It’s funny. That other life is starting to feel like a dream that I just woke up from.” She looked off.

“I’m remembering things, stories I used to hear, you know, from townsfolk or travelers, about the brave Callisto and her deeds, with Hercules, and on your own. Things that made me want to leave Poteidaia, to find adventures like that.”

Callisto looked down. “So in a way, I brought you to Xena.”

Gabrielle thought about that. “I guess you did.” She leaned down a bit, to look in Callisto’s eyes. “And despite all I thought I’d gone through with you... it’s like I’m getting to know you for the first time.”

“I suppose you are.” She smiled a little. “So is that why you keep looking at me the way you have been?”

The bard shook her head, “No, I just can’t tell if I like the blue or the brown better.”

Callisto’s smile widened. “Catch our dinner.” With a turn and a step into the trees, she started off on her own food quest, her heart a little lighter than before.

*  *  *  *  *

“That’s enough, Iolaus,” Xena said as he was about to start on his third trip for firewood. “We’re only staying one night.”

He looked back at the fire and the two-foot stack of kindling and wood beside it. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Xena sat back from her stoking to a log beside. “You don’t have to avoid me, you know.”

“I’m not trying—”

She met his eyes.

“All right, I suppose I was.” He approached the fire and squatted near it, and began to break up some dry twigs, tossing the remains into the flames. “I can at least make the same effort as Callisto.”

“I thought we were over all that, Iolaus.”

“It’s hard to get over being used.”

Xena sighed. It had been hard enough getting over this the first time. “I was a different person back then.”

His voice was bitter. “Were you? You seduced me, you seduced Hercules...” He nodded his head towards the woods. “It seems like you’ve seduced Callisto. How do I know your intentions are different now than then?”

“Do you see an army here, Iolaus?” she was angry. “And I didn’t seduce Hercules... that was more.”

“Gee, thanks.”

She shook her head. “I’m not going to apologize for that anymore, Iolaus, I’ve done it enough. What I’ve done lately should be more important than what I did in the past.”

“And traveling with Callisto makes you some kind of hero? Is she supposed to rub off on you?”

“Callisto sought me out, Iolaus!”

Iolaus held up his hands. “Look... this isn’t going very well. I’m sorry. It’s just that... that girl is family to me. I don’t have much of that.”

Xena took a deep breath. “Neither does she,” she said, surprising herself.

He tossed another twig. “Yeah, you’re right... neither does she. I guess I’m just upset because she’s been gone for so long and I don’t know why. And then, to find her with you, considering—”

“—considering our past... I understand.”

“Callisto is strong. But she’s lost so much already...”

Xena looked off. “Well, we all have.”

His tone was firm. “Not like her.”

She met his eyes. “Iolaus, believe me, her loss is something I think about a lot.”

He read the honesty in her face, and nodded. Taking a deep breath, his voice became light. “Now where did they go for our dinner, Athens?”

*  *  *  *  *

“This stew is delicious,” Iolaus said, with a mouth full of it.

Callisto smiled. “You always say that.”

He shrugged. “It’s always delicious.”

“Thank the Great Rabbit Hunter,” she deferred to Gabrielle.

The bard was relishing her own bowl. “No, no, rabbit is good, but this is fantastic. Where did you get this recipe?”

Callisto involved herself in her stew. “I learned it when I was a girl. My next door neighbor in Cirra taught me.”

Gabrielle shifted on the log beside Xena. She gave the Warrior Princess a brief sidelong glance, but Xena was staring at the fire. “Well, it’s... it’s really terrific. You’ll have to teach me.”

Callisto smiled at her, “I’d be glad to.” Her eyes drifted to Xena, the smile faded.

Watching her, Gabrielle ate another spoonful. “Iolaus,” she said, “why don’t you tell us one of your stories. Callisto tells me you’re a great storyteller.”

Iolaus grinned at the blonde warrior. “Does she?”

Xena looked up. “Gabrielle’s a great storyteller too.”

“Xena’s right,” Callisto nodded. “I’ve read some of Gabrielle’s scrolls.”

“Oh, then we can take turns,” Iolaus said. He ladled another bowl of stew from the pot over the campfire. “Let’s see... do you want to hear how Hercules and Callisto freed Prometheus?”

Xena coughed, her stew traveling the wrong path.

Gabrielle pounded her on the back. “You okay?”

“Fine,” Xena gasped.

“Uhm, let’s skip that story, Iolaus,” Gabrielle said.

“All right...” Iolaus frowned.

Callisto touched his arm. “Tell us about when Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena asked you to pick which was the most beautiful.”

Gabrielle leaned forward, wide eyed. “Oh yes, that sounds interesting.”

They went on that way for hours, trading stories, with tales of Death, Hephaestus, Nemesis and Sisyphus. Callisto wanted to cry from the utter peace of it. Even as she was stretching out on her bedroll, the two were going at it. She wrapped herself up in it.

From her own blanket nearby, Xena leaned up on her elbow. “You had to get them started, didn’t you?”

“You don’t enjoy it?” Callisto whispered.

“Like they don’t talk enough as it is.”

She laughed.  “Then you’re missing the point.” Callisto looked up at the stars through the canopy of trees. “I enjoy hearing people talk. I’ve missed too much of it.”

Xena lay back down. “I envy you.”

Callisto rolled onto her side, facing the Warrior Princess. “Now there’s a switch.”

“Everything’s new to you here,” Xena said. “I wish I could have that.”

Callisto was silent for a few moments. When she spoke her words were quiet. “Don’t envy me, Xena. There’s still a hole in my heart so big I can’t fill it. I’m just making do better here.”

As she lay still and began to drift off, still listening to the voices of her friends, Xena began to share in Callisto’s anxiety for the days ahead. Though for entirely different reasons.

 

X: Rabbits and Campfires