The Exchange


“Remind me to give Uncle Iphicles a big kiss when I see him, Iolaus,” Callisto said. “It can’t have been easy for him to send off twenty five hundred soldiers, knowing how thin that made his own defenses. Not to mention the militiamen you’ve gathered from towns between there and here.”

Iolaus looked up from the half-dozen maps covering the table’s surface inside the command tent. He glanced over at Hercules, sitting on the outskirts of the lamp-lit tent beside Gabrielle. “Thank your father, he did the convincing.”

“Before you thank anybody,” Xena growled, “I’d remember we’ll still be outnumbered at least four to one.”

“That’s what you’re here for,” Callisto returned with a smile that the Warrior Princess did not share. She met Hercules’ almost distracted look and offered a nod to thank him anyway before she went back to discussing strategy with Talmus, one of Corinth’s generals, and a handful of his captains. Hercules was less interested in discussing strategy than in watching Callisto, and by contrast, Xena.

His daughter displayed the same confidence and leadership he’d seen grow in her almost from when he’d taken her in. He could remember that hollow, withdrawn look she’d had when he first saw her amidst the smoking ruins of Cirra, not so far from here. At first he couldn’t believe she was still alive, but she’d told him she had taken to hiding in a cave nearby, and still came to the burned-out town every day, searching, hoping to find something she could cling to. And she had found it; it had been him.

She had no relatives to take her in. No neighbors. He’d taken her to Pharsalus, hoping for some bit of charity for the girl. All the while, day after day while he searched, her hand clutching his, she kept that lost look. The first time Hercules saw anything else in her was when he asked if she wanted to stay with him.

Callisto took to Deianeira right away, and his wife had managed to bring back the life in her. After a few weeks, Callisto almost seemed like any normal, happy young girl; after a few months, it was like she had always been with them. As Deianeira grew heavy with their third child, Callisto even managed to take over the household for her, running things when his wife couldn’t — including ordering Hercules around as she deemed necessary, something Deianeira was forever amused at. And that same confidence showed here among the other soldiers, as it had ever since.

The Warrior Princess, on the other hand, seemed uncomfortable and withdrawn — qualities he would rarely associate with her when matters of war were being discussed. Perhaps it was that Talmus hadn’t hidden his distaste for her, despite both Callisto’s endorsement and Hercules’ own. She watched the battle plans laid out, and had argued strongly over a few points, but now acted like she distinctly wanted to be somewhere else.

He leaned in close to Gabrielle beside him, voice pitched low. “Is Xena all right? She doesn’t seem herself.”

Gabrielle snorted. “You have no idea.” She shook her head, then stood. “Excuse me,” she said, and ducked under the tent flap past the guards and out into the night.

Xena, seeing Gabrielle’s departure, moved to follow, but Callisto caught her arm and her eyes, silently cautioning her to stay. Seeing Hercules heading out after the bard, Xena forced away her impulse and forced her attention back to the planning.

But she couldn’t focus on it. Callisto could sense her uneasiness, though the other commanders didn’t, and didn’t miss her repeated glances at the tent’s exit. When the Warrior Princess finally shook her head and started to leave the table, the goddess blocked her path.

“No,” Callisto said.

Xena answered only by stepping around her and into the night air. She pulled up short when she found Callisto in front of her again, and frowned at the divine display. “I have to talk to her!” Xena said angrily.

“No, you don’t,” Callisto said gently, but firmly. “You know why. He’ll watch her closest of all; she lives and breathes the truth... which is why he fears her the most.” She touched Xena’s arm. “Come back inside. This battle has to be yours most of all.”

The dark-haired warrior could not meet the goddess’ eyes. “Callisto, I know it’s important to your plan, but... I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can lead out there tomorrow.”

“You’re right, Xena,” Callisto answered after a moment, “it is important to my plan. It’s essential. What it comes down to is this: Velasca, and Theodorus’ army, against me, and what we can band together here. Theodorus is a good warlord, but he’s no general. I can defeat Velasca, I have before, but our legion needs a general, Xena. And no one is better at that than you.”

Xena looked up at the admiration in Callisto’s voice, unaccompanied by the contempt she had grown so used to hearing along with it in the past that she had such trouble shaking. As she looked into eyes that held such wisdom for their age, Xena thought she saw for the first time what Gabrielle had been seeing right along — a faith that matched the bard’s own. She just hoped that tomorrow, she could live up to it.

*  *  *  *  *

Hercules caught up with the bard warming her goose-flesh by one of the camp’s many fires. She didn’t turn her head as he stepped up beside her, merely stared into the flames. Hercules offered his palms to the heat.

“This feels good,” he said. “There’s been a chill in the air the last few nights.”

Gabrielle sighed. “It’s not the cold that’s making me shiver. But I sure have felt a chill.”

She was silent for long moments. He didn’t press her; he knew better. Gabrielle was very much like someone else in his life.

At last she turned to him. “Hercules... has anything ever come between you and Iolaus... I mean something so strong you felt like you didn’t know him anymore?”

He just looked at her, eyebrows raised. After a moment she rolled her eyes at her own question. “Of course it has... Xena did.”

Hercules half-smiled with her, then let it fade as she looked distantly into the orange flickering again. “Is that what’s wrong, Gabrielle? Do you feel something’s coming between the two of you?”

“I don’t know,” the bard shook her head. “It’s just that ever since Callisto has been with us... Xena has seemed different. I’ve seen a darker side to her. I’ve felt it.”

“Well I don’t think Callisto is trying to come between the two of you in quite the way Xena did with Iolaus and I,” Hercules shrugged. “I don’t think it’s a plot or anything, I mean. My daughter has always been headstrong and reckless... but she’s never been conniving.”

Gabrielle blinked several times before she answered. “I didn’t mean it like that, Hercules,” she assured him finally. “Maybe it’s just the two of us relate to different sides of her.” She poked a smoldering log back into the fire with the end of her staff. “Obviously I don’t fight anything like Callisto does... but she and Xena are like a matched set of scroll holders that way. Brings out something I haven’t seen in Xena very much. And a lot of things come with that darker side of her.”

The demi-god gestured around them. “And you’ve been fighting quite bit lately, as I understand it.”

She nodded, looking down.

He turned to face her full. “Bloodlust is a powerful thing, Gabrielle. However empty it finally makes you, hate and anger can make you feel very full at the time, can seem to give you purpose. For someone like Xena, who gave into it for so long, it is very easy to slip back.” He touched her arm. “She needs you to help her, Gabrielle, like you have for so long.” Looking down himself, he added, “I wish I had been with Callisto more like that myself.”

Gabrielle shook her head. “Hercules, Callisto is a good person. She is just like you.”

“Not ‘just like’ me. She uses weapons, and I never have.”

“She’s not quite as strong as you are,” the bard smiled.

He didn’t. “She kills.” He met her eyes. “There’s an anger in her, Gabrielle. One I thought had gone away years ago, but was just hiding. Now, tomorrow, against Velasca... I’m afraid for her, Gabrielle.”

“You don’t think she can handle Velasca?”

“I’m sure Callisto can handle her. I’m afraid Callisto will kill her.”

Gabrielle frowned. “That would be a bad thing? With all that Velasca’s done?”

“All that’s important tomorrow is to defeat Velasca’s army. Then even Ares can’t protect her from the rest of the gods for how she’s interfered here.” He looked past Gabrielle, back the way they had come. “But if Callisto kills Velasca... she’ll face their anger.”


“Gods mustn’t kill other gods.”

Gabrielle felt a knot in the pit of her stomach. “What would they do?”

He shrugged. “Normally, they’d take her godhood away. But since Callisto doesn’t care about that, I’m afraid it would be worse. Maybe much worse.”

Though she could tell Hercules didn’t know what “much worse” meant, Gabrielle had the deepest suspicion that she did. And as the knot tightened to a hard little ball, the bard knew with certainty sleep would not come easily or well that night.

*  *  *  *  *

It was full night, Artemis’ moon halfway up the sky, when Iolaus and Xena emerged from the command tent, eyes bleary from too many maps and throats hoarse from too many arguments.

“That Talmus is a stubborn old man,” Iolaus growled.

“He doesn’t like turning over control of his troops,” Xena replied. “I can understand that. It takes a lot of work to earn your soldiers’ loyalty.”

Iolaus looked at her, then away. “I’ve never had troops,” he said. “With my father being a general, I never had much stomach for organized war. But I do know about loyalty.”

She sensed a vague insult in his words, but ignored it. “This isn’t a barroom brawl we’re going into tomorrow. Are you going to be ready for this?”

“I know what kind of fight this is going to be, Xena,” he answered, “your kind.”

The Warrior Princess forced a deep breath, but couldn’t control her anger. She stepped in front of the shorter man, and poked a finger into his chest. “Look, Iolaus, I gave up all this! And I didn’t ask to be dragged back into it.” Xena gestured back at the tent. “I have your niece or your girlfriend or whatever you want to call her to thank for that.”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” Iolaus blinked.

“She’s trouble, that’s what she is,” Xena spat, and headed off into the night.

“You could learn a lot more being around her than walking away, Xena!” he called to her retreating back. He hung his head, shaking it, at her lack of response. “She’s not my niece, either,” he said to himself. Then he noticed Callisto standing just behind him to one side, watching the Warrior Princess’ departure as well.

“Did you hear that?” Iolaus asked her disgustedly. “The nerve of her.”

Callisto’s sad expression didn’t change. “She’s right. I am trouble.”

Iolaus frowned. “That’s not true.” He moved to her, taking her hands in his. “With all the good things you’ve done in your life, how can you say that?”

Inexplicably, she seemed on the verge of tears. “All the things I’ve done in my life, Iolaus, have been because of an obsession with a tragedy I can’t let go.”

“It’s not an easy thing to do, Callisto.”

She shook her head. “But it is possible. Look at father. He hasn’t spent all his time bent on revenge.” She gestured back the way Xena had left. “Even Xena got past all her pain. Why can’t I?”

“Hercules does still have that anger, Callisto. He lets it drive him to do good — just like you do.”

She looked down. “It’s not the same. Look around you, Iolaus. My quest has brought all this about in ways you can’t even imagine. I’ve put everybody in danger, everyone I care about.”

He touched her cheek softly. “Everyone you care about is by your side, Callisto, however it came about. That’s what’s important.”

Wetness hung on her lashes. “I want to believe that. I don’t want everybody trapped by my obsession, Iolaus.”

The blond warrior pulled her close, arms wrapped around her tightly. She buried her face in his shoulder. “Tomorrow, Callisto, that will all be over.”

At the idea of such a thing, Callisto felt her guts twist. She pushed back to look into his face. “And then what do I do?”

Iolaus looked at her puzzled face. Her beautiful face, as fearful and confused as a child’s on the verge of something strange and new. She was really so young, this woman, so vulnerable beneath the great warrior’s skills. He adored her all the more for it. “Then you begin living your life, Callisto. Then you begin your life.”

*  *  *  *  *

The raven-tressed warrior knelt among the silent headstones, arms resting atop the hilt of her planted sword. She could make out the etched names in the silver light, but she didn’t want to. How many more would join them tomorrow, what began here ending here again?

She was not surprised when the hands touched her shoulders and the quiet voice spoke from behind her. “You really ought to get some sleep.”

“I had to see the landmarks in person, something maps aren’t always good for.”

A hand left her shoulder to touch her hair, stroking it softly. “And how important is the placement of my mother’s grave to the battle plan?” There was vague amusement in the tone.

There was no response.

“You’ve been very convincing, by the way.”

“I haven’t had to try very hard. People here just naturally expect it out of me.”

“Like you have of me.”

A pause. “Like I have of myself.”

“Welcome to the club.”

The raven warrior turned her head. “You mean there’s been a conscience in that pretty head of yours all along?”

A shrug, tossing the bright hair, snowy in the pale light. “Depends on which me you’re asking.”

“Callisto... if it happens tomorrow, if Ares does take me... I want you to take care of Gabrielle,” Xena said after a long pause. “Watch over her, keep her out of trouble.”

There were a thousand responses in Callisto’s mind as she knelt beside the Warrior Princess, but only one that was appropriate. “I will.” She put out her hand and rest it atop Xena’s on the sword hilt. “Now let’s see that it doesn’t happen.”

Xena met the goddess’ eyes, pale blue to paler. There was something akin to a smile in her own, as much as she dared allow. With a nod, she stood. “I’m going to head back. I’ve seen all I need here.” Xena lifted her sword and sheathed it. “Are you coming?”

Callisto sat back on her heels, then reached out an arm to touch the headstone of her mother’s grave. “I think I’ll stay awhile, actually.”

“In the morning, then,” Xena nodded, and started back.

The goddess smiled to herself, running her fingers over the chiseled letters in the stone. With the morning would come a new day, a new chapter for her. Until then, she thought she’d keep a vigil here, for the last night of the old.

XV: Vigil