The Exchange

 
 

The night’s dinner was the last of the roasted boar, as no one had felt much like hunting. Tracking while avoiding, the three camped on a hillside above a steep, tree-filled valley with the army they followed down below. Not an hour before nightfall they had passed a ruined Temple of Artemis, towers crumbling, walls scorched in a pattern very familiar to them. Its presence was like a veiled threat.

Callisto tossed the remains of a chop into the fire and sat back, licking her fingers. The worry was infectious. Even Gabrielle had been silent most of the day. Callisto hoped the horse Iolaus had taken was swift.

Xena reached out with her hunting knife to cut another slab of meat from the hock that was warming there. She winced almost imperceptibly, but Callisto could see through the feigned toughness.

“How’s your shoulder?” Callisto asked.

Xena froze, caught. “It’s fine,” she dismissed, going back to eating.

Callisto cocked her head, rinsing her hands with her waterskin. “I know you hurt it.” She stood. “Here, let me look.”

She walked over to Xena, stood behind her. Xena tried to shake her off, “I’m fine, honestly.” Gabrielle, frowning, stepped over beside Callisto as she managed to slip Xena’s shoulder strap aside, exposing an ugly gash.

“Hmm, that’s a nice one,” Callisto said.

“I sat behind her on a horse all day and didn’t notice that?” the bard said, incredulous.

“Your partner’s a tough character,” Callisto half-smiled. “There’s some clean cloth in my saddlebag, a skin of ointment, and a pouch of willow bark. Can you get them for me?”

“Sure.”

“It’s not that bad,” Xena said over her shoulder as Gabrielle retrieved the supplies.

“Leave it like this and it could get that way. You know, you don’t have to be tough all the time, Xena.”

Gabrielle handed over Callisto’s things. The warrior slipped a piece of bark out of the pouch, and handed it to Xena. “Here, chew on this.”

Xena frowned. “Why?”

Callisto dipped a cloth in the pot of water perched over the fire. “Just do it. It’s for the pain you’re pretending not to have.” She began to cleanse the wound. Xena grit her teeth, but uttered no sound. “You’re like fath— Hercules. You fight with your strength, taking the hits. I bet you get a dozen bruises and scrapes a day.”

“Yes, she does,” Gabrielle nodded.

Xena frowned at the bard, then winced the tiniest bit as the ointment, a pungent red paste, was applied.

A wistful smile touched Callisto’s lips as she continued her ministrations. “Deianeira would get so annoyed at him she’d refuse to patch him up and make me do it.” She chuckled, remembering. “She’d say I had more patience for him than she did.” Her smile faded a little then. “But the truth is, all the patience I have I learned from her.”

Xena sighed. Callisto’s touch was soft. One more thing that her instincts rebelled against, letting Callisto touch her like this, or even get this close. She could barely fit the idea of Callisto in Hercules’ home into her mind; accepting it in her heart seemed impossible.  She shook her head.

“What?” Callisto asked.

Xena stared into the fire. “I’m still trying to get used to this. It’s not easy.”

Callisto tilted her head, looking at the Warrior Princess’s profile. “You love him, don’t you?”

She said nothing.

“He has that effect.” Her binding complete, Callisto slipped Xena’s shoulder strap back in place. “There...” she smoothed Xena’s hair with a palm gently, “all done.” 

Xena turned her head at the tender caress, but Callisto was already at her horse, putting away her supplies.

“There’s a lot of things I’m having to get used to,” Gabrielle said, sitting back by the fire. “Like knowing I could be a target again. I didn’t like it the first time, and don’t now.”

“That’s not going to happen, Gabrielle,” Xena said, leaning forward to touch the bard’s knee. “We won’t let it.”

Callisto slowed as she approached the fire. She had the strongest, warmest feeling that “we” included her.

Gabrielle nodded. “I only knew her for a couple of days, really, but it was nice when she was gone.”

Callisto felt chilled at the mention of Velasca, but tried to push it aside. She forced a half-smile as she sat. “Me too, I suppose.”

“That... is entirely different,” Gabrielle said, meeting her eyes.

Xena wiped off her hunting knife. “I guess I can second that.” She looked up. “It’s nice to have your skills at hand when I think about going up against that army.”

“We should have reinforcements soon,” Callisto said, “And that will be nice too.”

“Do you think it’s true? Do you think there are ten thousand men joining Theodorus’ army?” Gabrielle asked.

Callisto and Xena shared a look. “Theodorus couldn’t gather that many,” Callisto said. “But I think Velasca could.”

Xena nodded slowly. “From what we know, and what Iolaus has told us, Velasca commanded an army close to the size of the one I used to. It’s like Callisto’s wish split my legion down the center, in all its glorious horror.”

“And her half destroyed Cirra,” Gabrielle added.

Callisto stood abruptly and walked away from the fire. Frowning, Gabrielle stood and followed her into the trees. She caught up with the blonde warrior at the edge of the hillside, where the moon turned the valley beyond to shadows and silver.

“Callisto... I’m sorry,” the bard said quietly. “And Xena didn’t mean—”

“—that it was my fault,” Callisto shook her head, eyes on the moon. “I know that. It’s Ares doing, all of it.” She sighed. “He sure twisted my words around. Or got Artemis to.” Her jaw hardened, but Gabrielle could see a reflection in her eyes, like tears held there against their will, unable to fall. “But I’ll get to him, after I’m through with Velasca.”

Gabrielle took Callisto by her arms, forcing her to face the bard. “Callisto, no. You have another chance. You heard what the Fates said: you haven’t been poisoned by revenge here. Don’t fall into the cycle of hate now.”

Callisto bowed her head. Gabrielle searched her face. “I know she has to be stopped,” the bard said. “But don’t let this get personal. Don’t let yourself be destroyed by her. Because then, she would win.”

Two of the brimming tears escaped, shining trails in the moonlight.

“I know this is hard,” Gabrielle said, “I can’t imagine how it must feel.”

Callisto looked up. “Can’t you? She killed Perdicus here, Gabrielle.” Her jaw trembled with anger and sorrow. “For that alone I want her dead.”

Tears welled in Gabrielle’s own eyes. “I know,” her voice caught. “I have known. But think what you have been through. In— in that other world, you suffered so terribly, and without love, you became a monster. But here,” she laid a hand along Callisto’s cheek, “you had love, and it healed you. Even when you lost almost everything again, that love you grew up on prevailed. You fought, but for love, with love, not against it.”

Gabrielle’s voice was low, but full of warmth and admiration. “Callisto... here, now, you are the strongest person I have ever known.”

Callisto wrapped Gabrielle tightly in her embrace. “I don’t know about that,” she said into the bard’s strawberry hair. “But I know she will never get to us again. She will never hurt the people I love again. No matter what it takes.”

“It takes love and strength, Callisto. That’s all.”

The warrior pulled back to match brown eyes to green. “Then she’s a goner, because I have plenty of those around me.” And they shared a tearful laugh under the moonlight.

*  *  *  *  *

Stark black against the gray stone, the scorch marks were visible from a fair distance. Bodies of the worshippers crushed beneath the crumbling walls, the splintering pillars. The other bodies, blown to little pieces by the bolts themselves.

Orange flames whipping from house to house, tortured screams and the smell of burning flesh, Mama’s pained cries, the rider so close but hearing none of it.

The army of darkness, Theodorus at its head, crushing town after town; and then, at its moment of judgment, the forces of light aligned before it — sweeping away all the ranks opposed with the power of its evil god, throwing thunder and wind in its path.

She saw the blue eyes boring into her heart, standing just yards away. She could hear the crackling of sparks flowing from finger to finger, gathering strength at Velasca’s will, feel the hair stand up on her own arms. No rescue this time... she felt the blast of energy slam her backwards from the saddle, eating away the flesh from her ribs and exposing her heart to the air even as her body fell through it to crush lifeless to the earth.

Xena and Gabrielle exposed, blue bolts coming from all sides, no escape, then searing the skin from their bones—

—Callisto sat up with a start, body drenched in sweat. The fire was low, but still burning. Pale light painted the treetops. The others lay unmoving on the bedrolls. Callisto steadied her breathing, then climbed silently to her feet.

She cat-stepped past the Warrior Princess to Gabrielle’s side. Kneeling down, Callisto watched her in the fading firelight. There was a dark line behind her ear where flame turned to moon and her hair became silver from gold. Callisto touched it, feather-soft, with her fingertips. How could the warrior have been so cursed to be fighting murderers, while death, unseen behind her, was slipping into her home? This should be Ilea lying here, in her care, not so far off in the ground.

Oh, sweet child, Gabrielle. Callisto could not sort out all the feelings. She knew that, in some fate, it was her own sword, not Velasca’s, who had cut poor Perdicus open. That his blood washed over her hands, not those stained with Mama’s. The feeling — the enjoyment — was in her heart, somewhere, and she loathed it.

So it was in some fate, but not this one.

Gabrielle, how I could love you. You are so pure. I don’t know if Xena deserves you, but I never could.

And how can I possibly protect you? Even with the reinforcements Iolaus will bring, how can we face the army of a god...

...without one of our own?

With her eyes shadowed from the fire, Xena watched Callisto in silence as the blonde warrior secured her bridle and mounted her horse. Waiting as long as she dared, she slipped from her bed and, with a look behind at Gabrielle, urged Argo to follow.

*  *  *  *  *

The moonlight was almost worse than darkness, as it ruined her vision stepping from light into the inky shadows around the battered temple. Scattered rays through the broken roof lit the sanctuary piecemeal, and with great caution Callisto stepped through the bricks and boulders to the step before the altar.

Her voice was soft, yet echoed in the stillness. “In my old life, I never prayed. I never thought about the gods. I never thought about anything but vengeance against Xena. That life was so simple. I didn’t realize until now, how empty it was as well.”

She looked at the soiled fineries around her, torn tapestries, smashed statues. “What have I gotten myself into? Gotten all of us into? Did I give up the hatred and the vengeance for this? Is this my end of the exchange?

“Our fates are tied together, Artemis, yours and mine,” she said to the moonlight. “I became your tool, and carried out your dirty work. Now, I need your help. Don’t let these lives, this love, be in vain.”

“How little you understood what you wished for, when you wished it,” came a voice from within the light before her. “Did you think that love was as simple as hate? No, it is far more work.”

Callisto blinked and tried to focus on the slender figure. “I don’t need a lecture, Artemis. I need your help.”

“What love builds is far stronger than hate. You don’t need me. You have all you need.”

Callisto held up her hands. “You stand here in your vanquished temple and deny the power Velasca has?”

The goddess looked around her. “She destroyed the walls. But I am still here. She did not drive me out.”

“Our lives are far more fragile than yours.”

Artemis stepped forward from one shaft of silver to the next, until she stood directly before Callisto. “Would you sacrifice all you have gained for the lives of your friends?”

Callisto did not bat an eyelash. “What have I really gained if I wouldn’t?”

The goddess held out her hand, and within it rest the key to their survival.

*  *  *  *  *

Into the silence of the night came the sound of rushing birds, disturbed from their perches as Xena approached the fallen temple. In the moonlight, she could see their black shadows emerging from the blacker patches in the structure’s roof. She could hear, too, the quiet snort of Callisto’s horse. Then, just as she was about to make her way within, she saw the blonde warrior emerge herself.

“Finish your business?” Xena asked quietly.

“Yes.”

“I just wanted to make sure you were intending to come back.”

Callisto’s voice had an unusual quality to it that she could not place. “You won’t lose me that easily, Xena.”

And then, as her face moved from shadow into the light, Xena knew what the difference was. Callisto’s soulful dark eyes were now, again, the brightest blue.

The Warrior Princess drew back on instinct, but Callisto’s hand lashed out with the speed of a cobra to take her arm in an iron grip.  “I can’t fight her as a mortal,” Callisto said.

Xena struggled to pull away. “So instead you’ll fight her as a god, and draw out Ares as well?”

Callisto held her firm. “I have a plan, Xena, if you’ll help me. But you have to trust me.” She let the wrist go.

She shook out the numbness in her arm. “No, our bargain is finished. You can bring Perdicus back if you want. You have that power again now. It’s Gabrielle’s happiness that’s important, even if it means losing her to him.”

Callisto frowned. “That won’t happen, Xena. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“To me?” Xena’s voice was sarcastic. “I thought she was your new best friend, Callisto.”

The goddess cocked her head. “Jealousy doesn’t look good on you, Xena.”

“I’m not jealous!” Xena protested.

Callisto looked back the way they had come, as though she could see all the way to the camp. “So you’re just going to run, then.”

“You’d rather I brought her into harm’s way?”

“If you go, I’ll cover you as best as I can,” Callisto said. “But Xena, if I fail, Velasca will find her anyway. The only safe place on Earth for Gabrielle right now is by my side.”

The Warrior Princess tried to think of an argument, but there was none. Despite her deepest wishes, Callisto was right. Xena looked back at the face of the goddess, anxious and yet, somehow, radiant.

“Tell me about this plan.”

 

XII: The Cycle of Hate