The Exchange


Maelon was a village like any other. Its business was farming, like most; this year, its harvest was not memorable. So it did not ask for what it received, but none ever did.  Its sole crime was that it was in the way.

Atop a hillock nearby, Theodorus frowned. “It hardly looks worthwhile stopping for. Especially when I have a comfortable lead, and Balthus waiting with ten thousand men three leagues up the road.”

His men, a ways behind him, could not see Theodorus’ companion. To them, he was talking to the air. While it bothered a few, to his lieutenants it was merely an unusual idiosyncrasy, tolerable because, in matters of war, his judgment for the past couple of months, since he developed the oddity, had been incontestable. Some whispered he talked to Ares, others didn’t care at all. All followed Theodorus without question.

“Theodorus, all pillage is worthwhile,” spoke the wicked beauty beside him. “Besides, a lead on what? Four warriors? You have a great army.”

“I have faced Callisto,” he frowned, glancing self-consciously at the scar across his chest. “She alone is worth a hundred. And the Warrior Princess rides with her.”

“Oh, I have faced Xena... though she took pains to avoid me, both as a general and to protect her little Amazon Princess,” Velasca said with disgust. “There is nothing to worry about.”

“Don’t underestimate them, my Queen.”

Velasca turned her pale blue eyes towards him. Her hand reached out to run through his hair, then gently slipped over his ear. “Why, Theodorus, it does sound like you’re having doubts.” Her fingers pinched the silver earring he wore, and tugged harshly. His teeth grit and he winced sharply, tilting his head to relieve the pain. “Never doubt me,” Velasca snarled. “When they catch up, kill them. Or I will. But we don’t stop sacking until we reach Athens.”

With a smile, she vanished. Rubbing his ear, Theodorus scanned the terrain, planning the best way to approach so to catch the villagers unsuspecting.

Not that it would make any difference to the outcome. At least, if they had enough of a lead.

*  *  *  *  *


Her breathing was slow and deep, her eyes closed, hands a steeple before her. She could hear the wind in the trees, a snake in the undergrowth. Her ears were her alert to danger, while her mind stayed on the task.

On a branch at eye level in front of Xena, two short fire logs balanced, one atop the other. She could see them clearly in her mind, and then, only the top one, standing on the branch. Visualize one state, then the other. Move between them.

A last breath, drawn deep for a fierce battle cry, and Xena sprang into the air, twisting like a top, one leg kicking. As she reached the proper height, her foot swept the bottom log away, and straight down fell the other, in perfect balance. She hit the ground in position neutral, hands once more centered.

There was a clapping from above and behind her.

Xena spun, sword immediately in hand. She saw Callisto twenty feet up in the air, perched on a branch like an owl. “Well done,” the warrior said.

“Thank you,” Xena pursed her lips.

Callisto twisted to the side, facing the tree trunk, and bent lithely over backwards, to her hands, then her feet, and over again. When the branch began to bend she neatly flipped to another, lower down, still rolling, and lastly, hands tucked by her side, landed gracefully before the Warrior Princess. “It’s good to have focus,” Callisto said. “But your hearing could use a little work.” She winked. “I’ve noticed that over the years.”

Xena turned away. “I’m sure you have.” She picked up the fallen log, tossed it gently in the air and split it lengthwise with a quick stroke of her sword.

“And you could use a little more acrobatics to your fighting style.”

Xena put away her weapon. “We’re not duplicates, Callisto. I can live with the differences.”

Callisto cocked her head. “Oh, you’re right, we aren’t the same. You have strength,” she said, “I have speed.”

Xena looked back at her, raised an eyebrow. “You think I’m slow?”

Callisto smiled. “I think I’m faster.”

“I think we should get going,” Gabrielle said, coming through the trees. “If you two are through showing off for each other, we have an army to catch. Iolaus thinks they’ve turned south again.”

Xena frowned. “We weren’t—”

“Oh please,” Gabrielle cut her off. “Let’s just go?” She turned away and started off.

Xena looked at Callisto, who was smiling wryly. She bowed, gesturing forward with her hand graciously. “After you?”

*  *  *  *  *

There was a fire and spreading bruise over Iolaus’ rib cage where he had been repeatedly kicked. Then Xena’s well-timed punch to the back of his opponent’s head as she passed gave Iolaus the break he needed to take the man down. Which he did.

Trails of smoke curling up into the sky had been the first warning. With hooves kicking the dust to ground-hugging clouds, the four had pounded up the crude road and into the sounds of conflict. At first it appeared they had missed the brunt of the battle; there were only a few warriors and villagers still clashing, far less than could account even for the group encountered in the woods the previous day, much less Theodorus’ entire army. It was only as they descended from the horses, weapons at the ready, that the ruse was revealed. From within the huts and houses poured more than two hundred soldiers at the ready.

There was never a request for surrender. After all, Theodorus was hardly likely to capitulate without a fight.

With a simultaneous war screech and “Aiyiyiyiyiyiyi!” the battle was on. With a flick of her wrist, Callisto sent her sword sailing end over end into the chest of an oncoming warrior. She ran towards him and, as she passed, yanked out the blade and kept moving, its crimson-slick surface slicing and spinning through armor and limbs. It was like a dance she performed, twisting away from blows at the last minute, vaulting and somersaulting through a sea of bodies.

Xena preferred to wait for the oncoming tide, and make a breach with the shear force of her strength. A long, vicious slash turned aside her first two attackers, a third just behind was downed when her palm smashed his nose flat against his face. From then she drove forward like a wedge, fists and sword pummeling men back in twos. The sliver made by Callisto’s dash was pushed wide open by Xena’s attack and, to her sides, that of Gabrielle and Iolaus.

Xena slammed her opponents back with a rain of blows; Callisto made hers miss and then caught them off balance. Together they were wreaking havoc.

The concerted attack against them divided and scattered, but did not cease. By pulling back slightly, Theodorus’ men drew Gabrielle and Iolaus away from Xena and each other. It was a good strategy, allowing each to be surrounded rather than having a common rear guard.

Though weaponless, Iolaus held his own for a while. Years of fighting alongside Hercules taught him the art of momentum. He could dodge so well as to pit his opponents against one another with grace and ease. A shoulder throw here, a knee kicked out there... Iolaus landed a stiff punch to a solar plexus and doubled an enemy over, then, grabbing the man by the back of his armor, drove his head into the breastplate of an ally, bringing both down. A lucky blow brought Iolaus to his knees until Xena moved to help.

Gabrielle’s arms, toned well since her days in Poteidaia, powered her staff into more stomachs, throats, groins and foreheads than she could count. With warriors all about, she found taking out more than one with each swing almost impossible to avoid. But though she had plenty of skill and practice, Gabrielle did not have, like the others, years of experience fighting odds that at some points were ten to one. The accumulation of fatigue and opponents’ blows took their toll. Knocked backwards by a powerful hit, her legs gave out as she stumbled, her staff skittering away. For a moment the bard thought she saw death in the oncoming downstroke of a two-handed sword. But at the last second there came a blur from the corner of her eye and both feet of a flying woman warrior caught Gabrielle’s would-be executioner full in the chest as she vaulted by. Gabrielle smiled up into the blue eyes of her rescuer — but found them a bewitching brown instead. Flashing the same intoxicating grin the bard had seen so often from her partner, Callisto held out the staff she had pivoted upon to Gabrielle. “Lose something?” Callisto teased. Grabbing hold with both hands, Gabrielle let Callisto pull her to her feet. Then, with a series of backflips, the blonde warrior was back off into the fray.

Invigorated by the four warriors’ assistance, the villagers were making a renewed fight to preserve their home. After long moments of doubt, the tide of the battle was beginning to change. Energized, Callisto made a sharp whistle and a dash for Whirlwind as the mare came at her call. Vaulting astride, she wheeled and charged and stomped into the throng of dark warriors like vengeance personified.

Xena spotted her hellion’s attack — and the three soldiers on horseback racing towards her. “Callisto!” she called, and launched her chakram. Bouncing off half a dozen skulls on its way in, Callisto timed her catch perfectly, passing the weapon behind her back to her other hand and in one fluid motion sent the weapon on a deadly-accurate return arc, felling all three of the mounted warriors and at least a half dozen more before slipping back into the Warrior Princess’ grip. With a shared nod and smile, Callisto wheeled her horse and charged at a group of soldiers beating back a farmer desperately set on protecting his elderly neighbor, wife and children trapped in their hovel behind him. With her legs alone, Callisto walked the horse between two warriors and, grabbing them by their collars with either hand, yanked them backwards then kicked them each in the face. She winked at the farmer as she turned on the others and scattered them with only a fierce battle cry.

From across the village square came the sounds of more horses. Callisto looked around and spotted six mounted soldiers thirty yards away, lined up in a wall. Behind the wall, also astride his warhorse, was Theodorus.

“Afraid to face me alone?” Callisto called out to him.

Theodorus smiled. “Don’t let them stop you,” he gestured to his guard.

“All right, we won’t,” came a voice from beside her. Turning her head, Callisto met the blue eyes of her new ally, riding up on Argo. They shared a quick moment in that glance that spoke volumes, then a nod. The grin they each wore made Theodorus’ vanish.

Yah!” they called out together, and charged, dark warrior, light horse, and the reverse, two very deadly swords at the ready.

The horses of the six were smarter than their riders, and tried to break and run. Forced to obey with spurs and gripped reins, still they fought, and their skittishness proved fatal error to the first two the charging pair reached, blown out of their saddles as from a strong wind. Wheeling and struggling, not one of the horsemen lasted the furious onslaught of Xena and Callisto’s attack for longer than the third pass. As Xena threatened and challenged the fallen riders, Callisto turned Whirlwind to face her lieutenant from another life. Even then he was a strong fighter. This would not be easy.

Her charge never reached him though. As Theodorus stood his ground with strange passivity, Callisto felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. With swift, wide-eyed recognition, she reigned Whirlwind back just in time for the lightning bolt to miss and strike not a dozen feet in front of her. In the booming blast of thunder and cloud of raised dust, an athletic figure appeared.

“Ah, the great Callisto,” Velasca intoned.

Callisto glared, then glanced behind her. “How ’bout that, Xena, she knows me this time.”

“You were right, Theodorus,” Velasca said, “she is a worthy enemy. I haven’t seen such a brilliant display of carnage since... well, since me,” she grinned wickedly.

“Why thank you,” Callisto mockingly half-bowed.

“Of course, you had help,” Velasca sneered. “Even our favorite little Amazon Princess held her own.”

Callisto shifted Whirlwind sideways, in between Velasca and Gabrielle. Atop Argo behind, Xena did the same.

“What, you think I need to go through you to get to her?” the God of Chaos chuckled.

“Xena,” Callisto called back, “get her out of here!”

Velasca waved the thought away. “Oh, if I chose, I could kill her wherever she was. But I have more important things to take care of. When I complete my march on Athens, Ares will be the strongest of all the gods. And little things like Gabrielle aren’t of much concern to me until that is finished.”

“Then why are you here, Velasca?” Xena called.

“To protect my favorite general,” she indicated Theodorus. Then she sneered, “From my least favorite,” she stared her blue eyed gaze at Xena, “and her hero lapdog,” her eyes landed on Callisto. “The two of you are worthy of my immediate attention.”

She held out her hands and lighting flickered from finger to finger. “You know, I guess I started you on your hero’s quest, Callisto, when I burned Cirra,” her sarcasm made Callisto bristle, “How fitting I should end it as well.” She drew back her hand. “Good-bye.”

Before she could launch her bolt, there came a yell from one of the nearby huts, and the farmer Callisto had saved came charging forward. “No!” he cried, diving at the goddess, who vanished as his vaulting body neared her, then reappeared a few feet away as he rolled in the dirt.

“You draw a cast of heroes, Callisto,” Velasca smiled.

“I just bring out the best in people,” Callisto returned.

“And I bring out the end in them.” She pointed a finger at the man, now scrambling back to his feet. But then she cocked her head at some unheard sound. Callisto frowned, and took the moment to ride forward and snatch the farmer up onto her saddle, then brought him back towards Xena and Gabrielle.

“Perhaps this is your lucky day,” Velasca said, coming out of her funk. “Gather your men, Theodorus!” With a blast of lightning, Velasca disappeared into the sky. The warlord didn’t need to be told twice, as he and his men were already heading quickly out of town.

“What was that about?” Gabrielle asked.

“Let’s worry about that later,” Callisto said, “Where’s Iolaus?” She let the farmer down, then dismounted herself.

“Thank you so much, milady,” the burly farmer said. “Twice you saved my life.”

“And you saved mine as well,” Callisto replied, “Call us even.”

“My name is Saer,” he smiled a hopeful grin at her.

Gabrielle instantly recognized the mooning look in Saer’s eyes. She had to suppress a laugh. Of course, looking at Callisto herself, she couldn’t blame him. With the slight sheen of sweat on her skin and the flush of battle-rush to her cheeks, atop the rich brown eyes, the long, silken blonde hair, the perfectly sculpted body... Callisto was a ravishing beauty.

“I still owe you, milady.”

Xena spotted Iolaus approaching. She dismounted, and with Gabrielle started off to meet him.

Callisto touched the farmer’s arm, her voice patient. “No, Saer, that’s not necessary. Right now I need to talk with my friends.”

He stood still as she turned away, delighted that the beauty had deigned to touch him.

Callisto caught up with Xena and Gabrielle. “Does that happen to you as often as it happens to me?” she asked the Warrior Princess.

Xena only smirked. Gabby leaned around her. “Yes,” she said.

“Must be the leather,” Callisto shook her head.

“You could wear chain mail,” Xena said dryly.

Iolaus winced a little as he approached them. “Are you all right?” Callisto rushed to his side, concern heavy in her voice.

“I’ll live,” he said as she ran her hand over his bruised ribs. “His army is growing.”

“Yes,” Xena agreed, “and this wasn’t all of it, either. As we came in I saw lots of dust rising from farther up the road. Most of it had already moved on.”

Saer, still trailing and now in earshot, trotted to catch up. “Milady,” he said to Callisto, “I think it’s worse than that. I heard some of the soldiers talking while they were waiting to ambush you. They said at least ten thousand more were joining their ranks farther south, near Pharsalus.”

There was a shocked moment of silence. “We need reinforcements,” Xena said.

“And how,” Gabrielle agreed.

Iolaus touched Callisto’s arm. “I know where to get some. But I’ll need to move fast to get there.”

Callisto met his eyes and shared his thoughts. “Go,” she nodded. “You can take Whirlwind.”

Xena shook her head. “We can’t keep up with Theodorus on just one horse.”

Saer cleared his throat. “Uhm... there are some horses over there that I think you could use.” His blood-stained hand pointed at some of the war-horses whose riders, no longer breathing, had no more use for them.

“Thanks, Saer,” Callisto said. “Good thinking.” His ragged smile beamed at her.

“Stay close to them,” Iolaus clasped Callisto’s shoulder as the four reached the horses. “But don’t you dare get in their way. If you’re not around when I get back...” he couldn’t finish.

“I know,” she said, and hugged him tightly. “I’ll be careful.”

He mounted. “See you soon,” he told them all, and received a round of forced smiles.

A distance behind and unobserved, Saer looked on with a sly grin. The guise faded, and, Ares, God of War, stood there instead. “Get plenty of reinforcements, Iolaus,” he laughed, “I want it to be a glorious battle.”


XI: Battle Tides