The Exchange

 
 

At first Gabrielle thought it was just the light of sunrise dripping crimson on the earth. At least that part of her which took comfort from denial clung to the idea. It was only as the sun climbed higher and higher, the color a pungent sheen, that the illusion disappeared and her imagination recast the slickness beneath her feet as what must coat the walls of Tartarus.

Gabrielle couldn’t remember feeling this alone since she had left home, excepting the first few days after Xena’s death on Mt. Nessus. Alone, yet surrounded by people, each of them possessed of the madness of war. Ares must be laughing, she thought.

She had lost track of Hercules and Iolaus hours ago, Xena longer still, and Callisto she hadn’t seen since the previous evening. Long before sunrise, Xena’s plan broke the army into several pieces, placed strategically through the valley of Cirra.

The valley of death.

Cirra had nestled at the bottom of a gently sloping, tree-topped hill, in the soft bottom of a dale that ran northeast to southwest. Two hundred yards to the southeast beyond the ruins, themselves amidst heavy greens, was a thin line of tall trees, and a quarter mile beyond them, east and south, the heavy forest began again.

Theodorus’ army moved around the hilltop and down the valley, strong guard to its right flank, protecting against attack over the hill. He would have preferred to flood the valley with troops, in one solid caravan, or better yet, cross along the hillcrest, making Xena’s army attack from below. But the geography made that impossible. Instead they had to travel down the angled valley floor. Worse, because of their numbers, they had to split around the narrow run of tall, bare-bottomed pines and again to both sides of the dilapidated remains of Callisto’s long ago home.

His first mistake was concentrating attention on what he expected was hidden amidst the broken buildings and copse of woods around it, when the danger was above his men instead. Right in the belly of his war machine Xena had planted a dangerous stinger: three dozen bowmen high in the artificially close, dark branches of the spine of trees at mid-valley. Such trees were usually high but sparse, a detail that Theodorus’ normally sharp eye missed in the dark skies of early morning.

Waiting long moments as the foot soldiers and cavalry trudged by, eyes sharp and ears keen, the Warrior Princess watched among the trees on the hill above. As the sun’s first rays broke the horizon and stole into the highest branches, she nodded for the signal. Iolaus trained a mirror on the rouge sliver and sent a shaft to the archers’ commander. The high perched soldiers set aside their camouflaging branches and began a deadly rain upon the unsuspecting troops below. Wave after wave came down, a hundred soldiers dead before the screams of the first reached the ears of the generals.

An alarm was sounded and more soldiers streamed towards the valley’s center, backs turned towards the ruins on the west and the treeline to the east. Then, as the ranks thinned just enough, several hundred more soldiers of Corinth rose up from hiding places beneath the feet of those in Cirra proper.

With the attack coming from within and not without, Theodorus gave out his orders and the other generals followed suit to their followers. The army turned in upon itself... at which point Talmus began a charge in from the woods below Cirra and the southern valley end, and, like Death upon a pale horse, Xena herself lead her warriors over the hillside and down like hawks on the startled right flank, and around from behind the hill to Theodorus’ back.

Just as Xena said, her army was outnumbered four to one. But attacking on eight fronts, four within and from all sides without, they had the upper hand almost immediately.

Still, three hours later and surrounded by the stench of spilled blood and torn bodies, Gabrielle knew first hand how hard it is to kill a trapped animal. Hands stinging, she drove her staff into the belly of a scarred, red-slicked man who’d probably seen his share of friends die that day, and watched his eyes go blank as the wind left him. Unable to allow sympathy to drive her here, she spun and cracked the back of his skull with her weapon’s other end.

Then swung back to position neutral, ready for another, and dreamed that someday this battle would end.

*  *  *  *  *

Ambrosia in her veins, she could feel Velasca’ anger as she could sense Ares’ mirth. It was only a matter of time, Callisto knew, before Velasca lost control and attacked Xena’s army herself.

In fact, she thought this part would be harder, the waiting. In the command tent last night, Callisto had read the maps and shared the strategies, and imagined her pulse pounding now, seeing the battle unfold before her, anxious to fight and defend her uncle’s men, her friends’ lives. But it was not so. The ambush working perfectly, the battle for her hometown playing out like she wished it had years ago, the goddess felt strangely at peace. Her part clear, her mission set, she felt no bloodlust at all.

Down in that valley was a man she loved with all her heart, another she might yet, and a young woman she could call friend — her first since blood was last shed here — and none of them took lives, whatever the cause or urge for revenge. Callisto thought she might, at day’s end, take that vow herself. It might just be time.

Down, too, on the battlefield, Callisto could feel another heart, and in it something quite different. There was more blood on her skin and armor than that heart pumped through her veins, and with every drop Xena spilled, Callisto sensed the Princess’ soul inch closer to that chasm it had been approaching since a night in the Temple of the Fates. With Callisto’s encroaching peace, so had anger stolen over Xena, like sand through a timeglass, leaving one vessel for the other. And just like seconds counted out so, approached the moment to use that exchange.

The warrior queen thought back to an endless time trapped inches away from her divine opponent, remembering every detail of it, playing through the memories, her own discipline against the unfocused rage. Velasca would not be long. Knowing her advantages, Callisto watched still and waited.

Patience is a virtue.

*  *  *  *  *

It was like the old days. For so long, Xena had been trapped in that solitary life with only one real companion, and spent moment after moment making hard choices that ever seemed to keep her alone. Only in brief moments did she get to feel this rush of battle, and now that it was upon her, a real fight, she knew something fundamental about herself:

She missed it.

Argo felt nimble and confident beneath her. The mare was feeding off her mistress’ energy, responding willingly to every nudge and command as Xena plowed through the enemy like a battering ram. She longed for this too, the challenge, the drive, what she’d been trained for. Almost without encouragement, the horse would stomp flailing limbs and kick fallen enemies.

Turning her horse to ride back up the hillside, Xena wheeled and her eyes scanned the field. Theodorus’ army was a mess, split into dozens of pieces as her forces drove through and splintered them. Off to the south Xena could see the pennon of Talmus’ command. Almost directly between herself and the Corinthian general were the colors that indicated Theodorus’ position.

She gestured to a nearby soldier of her army. “Yes, Warrior Princess?” the sweating young man asked, reining his horse up near her.

“Ride to General Talmus,” she ordered. “Tell him to make a push towards Theodorus, and I’ll meet him there. If we can pinch him off directly, we can force a surrender. He won’t be in shape for anything else.”

“Right away sir,” the soldier nodded, and charged off with a snap of leather.

Setting Argo beneath her, Xena twirled her sword to slough off the thin veneer of blood. Breathing deep a heady mixture of sweat and gore, and imagining the look of shocked resignation on Theodorus’ face when she would ask for his submission, her lips twisted into a satisfied smile and she kicked Argo into a full charge.

This might be a good day yet.

*  *  *  *  *

“I’m losing!” Velasca raged at Ares. “This cannot continue!”

The God of War shrugged from his throne. “Apparently it can. It’s continued for hours now.”

“You don’t care,” she growled, “You’re feeding off the bloodshed.”

Ares held out his arms. “I’m just soaking up the rays,” he smiled.

She drew her sword, eyes focused on the battle far below Olympus and nothing within the room. “You will care when your army is slaughtered and nothing is left to march on Athens.”

He stood and stepped to her, his hand closing over hers on her sword-hilt. “Relax, my little spitfire. I’m just taking some necessary losses.”

“Necessary?” Velasca questioned, brow furrowed.

“Which of us is more experienced at war, here?” He followed her otherworldly gaze. “Theodorus is losing three to one down there. But Xena’s about to take some heavy losses. She’ll be too thin, Theodorus will break through, and with Corinth’s army half-gone nothing will stop us.”

“And what losses would those be?”

Ares took her hand in his, raising it to his lips. “The ones that you’re about to inflict, my dear.”

The God of Chaos cocked an eyebrow, pursing her lips. “And what about Callisto?”

“You let me handle her. After all,” the God of War’s eyes sparkled, “I promised my support, didn’t I?”

Velasca flashed a crooked smile, and leaning in, kissed Ares teasingly. “Then let’s get to it, shall we?” And she vanished.

“Time to loose the dogs of war,” Ares smiled to himself.

*  *  *  *  *

Velasca’s first act upon materializing on the battlefield was to loose a long flicker of lightning at the trees Xena’s archers had been perched in all morning. Though half had already lost their lives, the rest joined them in Hades’ company as what was not immediately incinerated of the pines was roasted in the flames that licked up their trunks and out along the branches.

Her second, upon locating the flag of Corinth with her far seeing eyes, sent a wave of earth, rising five feet from level ground, directly towards it. Friend and foe were knocked indiscriminately out of the way and, as the swell closed upon its mark, the forces holding the ground together against it gave way, and what reached General Talmus in his last moments of life was not so much a wave as a giant mouth of crumbling rock that literally swallowed him — and his horrified screams — whole.

Velasca’s third act was to pitch forward into the dirt as the flaming hooves of a massive supernatural horse kicked her in the skull as the beast passed overhead.

Knocked to the edge of groggy, the God of Chaos rolled to her back and shot a blast of lightning blindly, missing Callisto completely. Whirlwind wheeled about and charged again, and though Velasca rolled at the last moment, it was straight into the loop of Callisto’s lariat. With a jerk the warrior queen tightened the rope and began to drag Velasca along the ground.

The trapped goddess couldn’t seem to right herself as she whipped heavily along the earth, rocks and dirt and fallen bodies stinging and slamming her as she careened over them. Lashing out an arm to slow herself, she gripped an ankle and brought the leg with her, but not the unlucky soldier. Blood sprayed across her face and into her pale eyes.

Blind and buffeted, Velasca was just regaining her senses when the rope jerked her sideways and then released her, sending her body rolling like a log across level and empty ground. The sounds of battle were lessened here as she pitched to a stop and struggled to her hands and knees. Wiping the blood from her eyes and looking about, she realized why. This was where the battle had swelled from and left behind.

Callisto had dragged her to the center of the ruins of Cirra.

Velasca’s head whipped back to the front at the sound of creaking leather, but that served only to let Callisto’s boot catch her full in the face instead of the ear.

“You can’t imagine how long I’ve wanted to do that!” the Vengeance Immortal said as Velasca flipped end over end in the air to land on her back in the dirt.

The God of Chaos shook her head as Callisto approached again. As her enemy neared she rolled to her stomach and kicked back with her leg, catching Callisto in the belly. But the blonde warrior recovered quickly as Velasca leapt to her feet, and twisted sideways around a punch to snap a backhand to the rear of Velasca’s head. Stumbling forward, the exiled Amazon caught herself on a brittle timber that long ago supported a roof. Across the bloody battlefield she could smell the sickly odor of charred flesh, see scorched branches fall from the fire-licked pines.

In single combat, Velasca could not win, and she knew this instinctively. She grasped instead at a psychological lever. As Callisto stalked forward she eyed the ceiling post in her hand, and with a thought, its dry fibers burst into flame. Velasca took a deep breath, drawing the fingers of fire towards her lips as her lungs filled with rancid air. Then she blew upon the flames and they whipped in a sudden strong wind and leapt across to the next dead building, and the next.

She could see the startled look in Callisto’s eyes. “Familiar, isn’t it?” she taunted. The warrior queen took a step backwards. “Isn’t it lovely?”

Callisto felt a sweat break out on her forehead. Smoke belched up from the dry timbers and the moister, smoldering grass around them. The sky was suddenly dark with it.

“Can’t you just see it in your head, Callisto?” Velasca said, stepping forwards. “You remember that night, don’t you?”

Velasca breathed across her open palm and abruptly the wind shifted, blowing smoke in Callisto’s eyes, forcing them closed. She thickened the air and the cries from the battlefield were immediately louder, almost deafening. “Can’t you hear the screams, Callisto?” she spoke slowly, hypnotically.

Unable to see, Callisto was gripped by memories in the field of vision within her head. The noise, so deafening, wails of pain, roar of fire, rush of wind. The acrid smell of smoke and roasted flesh. Her blood began to pound.

“Remember how I smothered you here, Callisto? How I ripped everything away from you that made you happy, made you a person?”

She tried to blink open her eyes, but the same flames as in her mind were there before her, the same buildings, the same trees, the same fires.

“How I crushed you, Callisto?” Velasca growled, very close now, reaching out a hand to tear out her throat. “How I made you helpless?”

Callisto’s eyes snapped open, staying open against the burning smoke. Same smoke. Same fires. Same trees. Same buildings.

Different her.

Callisto grabbed Velasca’s wrist three inches from her throat and twisted it savagely. She jerked it and the body attached closer, and slammed her other palm into the middle of Velasca’s chest, knocking the breath completely out of her.

Velasca stumbled backwards, gasping for air.

“You can’t scare me, Velasca,” Callisto spoke evenly. “I’m not a child anymore.”

She stepped forward, backhanding the brunette warrior savagely across the face.

“And you never made me helpless.” Callisto grasped Velasca with a hand behind her neck. “You made me what I am today,” she leaned in very close. “Alive. And more powerful than you.” Snapping forward she head-butted the God of Chaos fiercely, and Velasca reeled.

Callisto stalked forwards—

—and stopped dead, then sailed backwards violently. Crashing to her back, she struggled to sit up and saw the God of Chaos bent over, wheezing, hands on her knees, and the God of War shaking a finger in her own direction.

“It’s not nice to bite the hand that made you,” he snickered.

*  *  *  *  *

Iolaus swung about at the grip on his shoulder, fist in full flight to connect with a nose. Hercules stopped it with his palm, ducking his head sideways. The shorter man rolled his eyes in realization.

“It’s time, Iolaus,” Hercules said.

Iolaus looked about. “It is? How do you know?”

The demi-god pointed towards the flaming village, and the great blasts of lightning that were now arcing out of its center and smacking down into the midst of the Corinthian army.

“I guess you’re right,” Iolaus nodded. Looking about, he spotted two warriors in the heavy bearskins of the warlord Elaria’s guerrilla army, one tall, the other much shorter. “Those’ll do,” he said, and with a nod of agreement, the two old friends started towards them.

*  *  *  *  *

Callisto struggled to breathe as she slammed into the clutter of collapsed ceiling beams, the flames around her sucking away the air. Ares was coming towards her again. Beyond him she could see Velasca laughing, arms raised high, shooting off bolts of death, turning their victory into ruin.

She rolled deeper into the smashed hut, smacking a flaming log at Ares that he easily deflected.

“Come now, Callisto,” he mused, “that’s hardly worthy of a god.”

“So is what you’re doing,” she snapped back. “And I’m sure Zeus will look so highly on it.”

He shrugged, stalking through the flames. “Didn’t Velasca tell you, Callisto? I won’t care what Zeus thinks about this very soon now.”

“Very soon maybe,” Callisto grabbed another burning timber. “But not yet.” Again, she hurled it at him. He knocked it away, but for an instant he lost sight of her and she dove past Ares and out of the building. Rolling to her feet, Callisto let loose a bolt of her own, and the roof fell in on him.

Seconds passed, and Callisto hoped, but then the entire structure blasted apart and the God of War stepped out unmarred. He came at her again.

“You don’t get it,” Ares growled. “I become stronger with every death in this battle. And your pathetic army is the only thing between me and Athens. When we walk into there, I’ll sit in Zeus’ throne on Olympus myself.”

Callisto turned and tried to flee, but Ares was in front of her instantly. He wrapped an iron fist about her throat and lifted her off the ground. “Now, let’s get this over with.”

“Wait!” Callisto panted, “I’ll make you an exchange.”

Ares shook his head. “I think I’ve had my fill of those,” he said, gripping her throat tighter.

“Not this one, Ares,” she gasped.

“What’s that?” he sneered impatiently.

She blinked, and then, deciding, seemed painfully resigned, “You give up Velasca... and I’ll give you Xena.”

*  *  *  *  *

The Warrior Princess tried to calm her troops but was becoming angrier all the while. With the first bolts of lightning her men had begun to scatter and leave their positions, and Theodorus’ men were taking quick advantage of it to regain ground. No one was listening to her orders.

She wheeled around another blast from the sky and resumed her charge towards the opposing general’s position. As a footsoldier she had recognized from camp last evening turned tail and tried to run past her and towards the forest and safety, Xena kicked out with a boot that caught him square in the temple, knocking him unconscious. With barely a second thought she kept moving towards her goal.

*  *  *  *  *

Ares threw back his head and laughed, but dropped Callisto to the ground. “That sounds like the Callisto I knew! But how are you going to manage it?”

The blonde goddess crawled to her feet, massaging her windpipe. “She’s already on the edge,” Callisto said. “I’ve nearly taken her precious Gabrielle away from her already. Now I have her back in charge of an army.”

Behind her, Velasca stopped her attack, suddenly curious.

“She can smell it, Ares,” Callisto went on, “the glories of war are in her nostrils again. All she needs is a little push, and she’s yours. You abandon Velasca, and Xena will crush Theodorus’ army. And when I take away the bard permanently... Xena will be yours.”

The God of War cocked his head. He glanced momentarily over her shoulder at his protégé, who was starting to approach, then back at the woman before him. “And what about you? Do I get you back in the fold?”

Callisto sighed, and shook her head. “I’m done with you, Ares. I’m done with fighting, done with war, done with paying back every horrid thing life has dealt me. I’m tired of it; I’ve done it all too long. Velasca is my last debt.”

“And you’d betray Xena to pay it?”

“Xena loves war, Ares, and I don’t. She wants to be with you again.” She took a deep breath. “I want a life.”

The God of War pondered deeply. He nodded towards Velasca. “But... I do have obligations.”

Then, for a moment, there was a venomous, childlike twist in Callisto’s voice. “Honestly, Ares, wouldn’t you rather have Xena lead you into Athens?”

And that did it. A great smile formed on his lips that grew wider by the second.

“Ares, you can’t!” Velasca called to him.

With a sigh, Ares shrugged. “Sorry, Velasca, but what is it they say, ‘all’s fair in love and war’? And, well, what can I do? This is both.”

The God of Chaos blanched.

“You’ll be along presently? Work to do, you know,” Ares said to Callisto.

“I’ll be just a minute,” she said, and Ares vanished.

For perhaps the first time in her life, as Callisto turned her head slowly around to face her own, Velasca felt very, very afraid.

*  *  *  *  *

The distraction was just what he’d been needing. Theodorus had left too much in the gods’ hands, that much he knew, but still he had stalwart, experienced warlords in his company and above all else, they knew how to judge and use their opportunities. When the attack that could only have been from Velasca came, every warlord still standing had given the same order, to attack like banshees.

And it was working. His warriors, on their heels since the ambush at dawn, were retaking ground quickly. With the archers’ roost in the trees destroyed, they had more room to negotiate around Xena’s contingent in the ruins, which had pressed out towards the archers and nearly cut the valley — and his army — in two. He gave an order to have Flaavus drive back down through the gap between Cirra and the archers’ roost from the northeast, where Xena’s position was weakest. Maybe they could play the same game on her as she had on them.

Then, not for the first time, Theodorus wondered just what it was that had led him into Velasca’s clutches in the first place. Yes, she was strong, and beautiful, but she seemed to have little need for love. He wished, as he did often, that his life had followed a different path.

What would it be like, he wondered, had he taken up with someone like the heroine Callisto instead?

*  *  *  *  *

Velasca hadn’t realized that it was possible, as a god, to feel pain. But with the blow across the face that would have shattered any mortal’s cheekbone, she couldn’t consider the discomfort to be anything else.

As the Vengeance Immortal had approached, twisted grin on her face, Velasca had had time to draw her sword and prepare, but that had only made it worse. The Amazon was no slouch with a blade, and had faced her share of skilled opponents, but Callisto was like nothing she’d ever seen. The blonde goddess’ eyes had lit up at the sight of Velasca’s sword and she drew her own with glee. The God of Chaos stepped in to attack, rather than react, but Callisto’s weapon struck Velasca’s and slid down to hit the crosspiece with an impact that made Velasca’s hand sting.

Callisto pulled back and Velasca followed, swinging, but the warrior queen had twisted clean away and Velasca struck nothing, still moving forward, off balance. Callisto, her motion smooth and fluid, smacked Velasca smartly across the backside with the flat of her sword and laughed.

Still, the brunette warrior felt no choice but to stay on the offensive, so, wheeling quickly, she attacked again. This time Callisto stood her ground and exchanged blows.

Left, right, parry, counter, right thrust, lunge — Callisto matched each move in a hypnotic dance. Then, like an angry hovering wasp, the warrior queen’s sword dipped in for a quick strike, a neat tear across Velasca’s left arm, before returning to the fast jig of swings and jabs.

Sweat broke out on Velasca’s forehead. Ten more blows, another easy slice, while the God of Chaos couldn’t find an opening in her opponent’s defense. Callisto was toying with her.

Velasca’s arm began to tire, and the cuts she was receiving only hastened that. She doubled her efforts and Callisto’s smile faded. The blonde goddess’ eyes narrowed and she launched a rain of real attacks that drove Velasca backwards, off balance again. The sword’s edge cut her again and again, while her own counters were practically useless. Finally Callisto, tired of the game, knocked aside Velasca’s blade and grabbed the God of Chaos by the throat, lifting her from her feet. Face ablaze with pent-up rage, Callisto swung her sword back and smacked Velasca hard across the face with hand and hilt, knocking her to the ground.

The Amazon looked up from the ground, head ringing, to see Callisto’s sword raised over her heart, perched to plunge.

“You can’t kill me,” Velasca said.

Callisto’s tone was arrogant and angry. “Oh, but you’re wrong. You weren’t born a god, you see, and ambrosia only takes you so far.” She dimpled Velasca’s skin with the point of her sword. “There are a thousand ways for you to die. And you’ll be begging me to use any of them when I’m finished. The flames of Tartarus will seem a comfort to you.”

She drew back the sword and delivered instead a kick to the ribs that sent Velasca tumbling. The God of Chaos righted herself and let loose a blast of lighting as Callisto stalked towards her again. The warrior queen ducked.

“That’s right, Velasca, give me reasons.” She held out her arms. “Provoke me.”

The ground shook, then opened at Callisto’s feet, but her feet were no longer there as she sprung and tumbled towards Velasca like a demon. Suddenly before the Amazon, Callisto grabbed Velasca by the hair, wrenching back her head. “I’m going to make you scream before you die, like my mother did.”

Velasca winced. “So the self-righteous Avenger of Cirra stoops to torture, eh?” she said through gritted teeth. “Are all those stories of how just you are only stories, then?”

“Right now,” Callisto seethed at her, “I am justice!” The warrior queen slammed her face into the ground, then pulled the head back again, sword at her throat.

“You know what the gods will do if you kill me, don’t you?”

Callisto smiled crookedly. “Oh, because you ate their candy you’re entered into their precious club?” The smile drained from the edges, leaving only a bitter mask. “I can’t think of any god but Ares who would mourn your passing, Velasca. And where is he now?”

Velasca couldn’t answer. Callisto withdrew the sword and slammed the pommel into the back of the God of Chaos’ skull, knocking her groggy. Then, with a wave of Callisto’s hand, the ground rumbled and split, and Velasca slid down into the opened hole. Another motion, and the earth sealed back up around her, trapping all but her head and shoulders, which rest in the dirt.

“You wait here,” Callisto sneered to Velasca, who was too weak to raise her head, “I have to go fulfill my end of the bargain.”

*  *  *  *  *

Her army faltering on all sides, Xena’s mad charge against Theodorus seemed intended to will victory to her by itself. The Warrior Princess’ sword trailing blood in a wind-curled wake, Argo could barely avoid trampling the bodies as they fell before and around her.

Ares watched in pride and awe. Soon she would be his again. As disappointing as it was to lose Callisto and, by necessity, Velasca, this would all but make up for it.

Xena barreled her way through the outer guard towards the General’s pennon. Following Flaavus’ lead they were pushing into the soft belly of Xena’s forces between the ruins and the cinders of the archer’s nest.

There was as motley a group in Theodorus’ inner circle as comprised his army: a host of horsemen from Timus’ ranks, a half dozen brawny footsoldiers of Galteus’ and Flaavus’ legions, a mismatched pair of bearskin-clad brutes from Elaria’s menagerie, and all around, longbowmen from Balthus and crossbowmen from his own army. Doubtless chosen for their prowess, Xena knew this would be a hard fight to reach the commander-in-chief. She steeled herself for their onslaught as she broke into their midst.

But the first attack, a lethal arrow strike from her blind-side, stopped in mid-air six feet from its target. Hearing the whistle that would have been too late, Xena spun in her saddle to see, as no one else around her did, the leather-clad God of War, arm raised, fletching protruding through his fingers.

“Don’t thank me yet,” he smiled.

“I don’t intend to thank you at all,” Xena replied. “I intend for you to stay out of this.”

“And lose my general?”

“Wouldn’t you rather the battle decided that?”

Eyebrows raised, his look almost amused, Ares bowed and gestured Xena forward graciously. The Warrior Princess saw a little echo of Callisto in the movement, but said nothing.

The ruckus had drawn the General’s attention. Theodorus had swung his horse around to face her, his minions pushing in on all sides for a shot, but he held them off with a raised hand, forming a circle about the two leaders.

“This is the end of the line, Theodorus,” Xena called. “This battle is decided by my fight with you.”

Theodorus shrugged. “Maybe, Xena. You might gain advantage by defeating me, but the rest of your army is running.”

“He’s right, Xena,” Ares agreed from behind her.

Theodorus’ eyes went wide as he too saw the powerful figure.

“That would be a hollow victory, wouldn’t it?” Ares continued. “On the other hand,” his lips twisting in a smirk as he walked the perimeter of the circle, “there is a way to turn this entire thing around. Right here.”

Xena’s tone was skeptical. “And what would that be?”

Ares raised his hands. “Kill Theodorus and take his place. You could lead an army of that size much farther than the one you command.”

Theodorus gripped the reins of his horse tighter in his fist.

“That’s not what I want, Ares,” Xena said.

“Oh yes it is, Xena. I know you miss the old days,” Ares said craftily, knowing how her heart agreed with him. “And why are you here anyway? Because Callisto asked you to be?”

Xena nodded curtly.

“And what has she done but step between you and your little friend? Like she stepped between you and Hercules.”

Xena felt her stomach churning, her blood beginning to boil at his truth, and the buried feelings it was playing to.

“You know it’s true, Xena. You miss this. The smell of a battlefield, the sounds of it, of your orders being followed, of outwitting a powerful enemy. You can salvage that now. Come back to me, Xena.”

She felt the rage building inside her like a snarl; she flexed her grip on her sword.

“All you have to do is kill him, and take his place. Just kill him,” his tone low and encouraging, still moving slowing around to before her. “Otherwise, just surrender and get it over with. You’ve lost.”

Every muscle was coiled now, all the cries within herself, all the memories of her short time fighting for life drowned by those of ten years lived with death.

Ares locked eyes with his greatest student, his priestess, general, lover. “Only a killer can win here today.”

Xena urged Argo forward slowly, turning her face towards Theodorus.

The General looked calm against her pent-up fury. He could see Ares’ tactic, how his words unbalanced her, giving his commander the advantage, allowing Theodorus’ bodyguards time to ready their weapons. Still, Theodorus offered her one last carrot. “We don’t have to do this, Xena. You could abandon your false friends and join me.”

“There can’t be two generals, Theodorus,” Xena said quietly.

“You’re right, I guess. Pity,” he smiled, and raising a gesture, his circle began to surge forward towards the Warrior Princess — then stopped in their tracks, as though slamming into an invisible wall.

Confused, he looked to the God of War. The smile faded from Theodorus’ face as he saw Ares’.

“I hate to play favorites, Theodorus,” Ares shrugged, “but I am. And she’s it.”

The general’s face paled, and gripping his sword tightly, he turned to defend himself against Xena unleashed.

*  *  *  *  *

Gabrielle was bruised badly and favoring her left leg as she fought. Caught in a stampede as the lightning bolts rained down from the heavens, she was even now struggling to maintain her position, isolated though she was.

She was starting to feel, deep in her heart, that her happy dream just two nights old would never come to pass. She would die here on this battlefield, victim to the hatred and madness of people she had never met, and would never know.

As if in punctuation, a hideous battle cry spun her around to see one more blood-covered hellion bearing down on her. He wielded a large axe, its shaft as long as her own staff. His right ear was missing.

Gabrielle stood her ground. His blow came while he still had some distance on her, and she caught his shaft crossways. Pulling her staff towards herself, it slid under the head of his axe and nearly ripped the handle from his hands. As he was drawn in, slightly off-balance, Gabrielle kicked him hard in the groin.

Had she been able to plant firmly, the blow would have taken him down. Instead she faltered a little on her injured leg and missed her target slightly. Worse, he noticed the injury. The warrior thrust his axe away and it slid over her shoulder, the blade almost slicing flesh. He spun around her and grabbed the handle, then whirled the weapon around, the shaft striking the back of Gabrielle’s knee. The leg buckled.

Flat on her back, the bard had no time to roll out of the axe’s path as it arced downward. She pulled her staff up before her face, arms extended, but knew somehow the blade would cleave it first and then her skull. But as she braced her arms for the impact, hoping to slow the strike, Gabrielle saw something instead that she hoped never to again:

A set of flaming hooves passed twelve inches above her nose, then Callisto, reaching out as she rode by, drove two fingers clawlike through the soft flesh beneath her attacker’s chin, gripped his jaw from the inside, and ripped his head raggedly from his shoulders. The body, still swinging the axe, was pulled backwards with it still clutched in his dead hands.

Gabrielle was on her knees by the time the goddess had wheeled back around and discarded the body, sloughing away the blood from her hand. Still moving, Callisto drew Gabrielle up into the saddle before her as she rode, one arm around the bard’s waist, and her chin almost resting on the younger woman’s shoulder.

“This is getting to be a habit,” Callisto said.

“One I don’t mind in the slightest,” Gabrielle smiled tiredly, eyes closed, resting just a moment, allowing the tingle of Callisto’s touch to recharge her. As the wind rushed across her face, signaling they were climbing, the bard turned her head to survey the carnage below. It was a nightmare landscape of smoke, crimson, and broken bodies that little resembled the maps she had seen last night.

“Where’s Xena?” Gabrielle spoke into the ear near her lips.

A sad, pained look overtook the warrior queen’s face, and she slowly gestured with her head.

The bard puzzled through the scene she saw below them. A host of warriors formed a circle around three others, Xena among them. The Warrior Princess was fighting another warrior, who, Gabrielle could make out as she squinted, was Theodorus himself. They had abandoned their horses, which milled idly nearby.

“We should help her,” Gabrielle said, agitated. “She’s surrounded!”

Callisto shook her head. “She has all the help she needs. See there beside her?”

Gabrielle looked more closely at the third person in the ring. Tall, broad, wavy black hair, watching closely, arms folded across his chest. A chill went through her.

“Ares?”

The goddess nodded sadly.

The bard kept watching. Xena wasn’t just fighting Theodorus, she was half-killing him, while his men didn’t even come in to help. Or couldn’t.

But there was more. Theodorus was hardly able to defend himself anymore, yet Xena kept attacking. A second, more profound chill touched her spine at the wanton cruelty of her friend. “I don’t understand, Callisto,” she half whispered, realizing as she spoke that she didn’t want to.

Callisto’s voice was heavy. “She’s full of Ares’ bloodlust now, Gabrielle. We can’t help her.”

Gabrielle’s jaw trembled. “No... Xena...”

Almost as though he heard her, Ares raised his head and seemed to meet her eyes even from so far below. The bard shrank back further against her protector.

She tore her eyes away. They were heading towards the hillside from where Gabrielle had first seen Cirra, another lifetime ago. There were no soldiers of either side there now.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked.

Callisto sighed, and pulled her even closer. “I made a promise to her, and right now that means taking you out of harm’s way.”

They touched down effortlessly, and Callisto swung them both to the ground.

“Now you stay here, okay?” Callisto turned her head to look down at the fiery ruins. “I have to go finish something.”

Her heart torn, it took a moment to place the goddess’ meaning, and she’d almost made it back to Whirlwind before Gabrielle caught her. “Callisto, don’t...”

Callisto turned her pale eyes to meet the bard’s.

“You mustn’t kill her. Don’t give in to the hate. Let the gods take care of her.”

“Like they’ve taken care of her so far?” Callisto said bitterly, and turned away again.

Gabrielle grabbed Callisto’s arm tightly once more, turning her back. “Callisto,” she pleaded, her voice shaking, her dream slipping farther and farther away. “Please... I can’t— I can’t lose...”

Callisto’s face softened. She held the bard close. “Both of us?” she finished.

“Isn’t there something we can do?” Gabrielle whispered.

“Do you trust me?” the warrior queen whispered back.

Gabrielle pulled back, moist eyes meeting Callisto’s. “Yes.”

Callisto touched her cheek tenderly. “Then trust this: we’re going to make it through this, okay? I promise.”

She seemed to want to say more, the bard thought briefly, but was unable, or unwilling. Gabrielle could only watch helplessly as the goddess mounted up and, with a last, sad look, urged her horse over the hillside and into the air, heading for the death below.

*  *  *  *  *

Xena felt almost giddy, lightheaded from the battle and the fury she had unshackled from within against the bleeding man before her. All around were the screams of his men, struggling against Ares’ magic.

Their cries were almost deafening, but still somehow the God of War’s voice slipped through them like a snake with his endless monologue of seduction.

“Yes, Xena. That’s right, he’s helpless now, just kill him. You and I will be a pair forever.”

Xena massaged her knuckles, cut and bleeding. She’d sheathed her weapon long ago, no longer needing it. Theodorus was a powerful man, and agile as well, but as Callisto had said, he was no match for her.

“Think of it,” Ares intoned, “You leading this army through the gates into Athens. Who can send a more powerful force against you? Sparta? Troy? You’ll have ruined Corinth right here.”

Xena had pummeled Theodorus with her fists after she’d disarmed him. When he’d fallen she’d kicked him. It had felt good.

“Nothing is left for you here, Xena. You have no real friends but me anyway. Where is Hercules, or Iolaus? Where is Gabrielle? And where is the one who dragged you into this in the first place?”

She felt that line inside of herself, the one she could not cross in this place, in this plan, slowly dissolving in his words. Then, from the corner of her eye, she saw the God of War look up.

“Oh, there Callisto is now,” he said, and she had to follow his gaze, to where a black horse and two riders were sailing across the sky. “See, she knows you, Xena. She knows what you are: a ruthless warrior-general, who shouldn’t be traveling around corrupting an innocent young girl like you have.”

Her own voice echoed in her head. She heard her words to Callisto last night. “No... not my Gabrielle...” Xena whispered, to no one who cared.

Her face hardened, her eyes went a little wild.

“She’s not yours anymore, Xena,” Ares stepped closer. “After all this time you’ve come back to what you truly want, what you truly are.” He was upon her now, his words almost in her ear. “And you have our friend Theodorus to thank for that.”

Xena felt her control give way and she drew her blade. Memories flooded her, from some non-existent life — of Callisto riding away in Delphi, Gabrielle slung over her horse; of Gabrielle suspended high above the ground, Callisto’s army all around; of Callisto’s sword high over Gabrielle’s heart, ready to plunge — and there, before her, was a brutal symbol of all the hate Xena felt, in the bruised body of the warrior queen’s old lieutenant, risen to his knees and swaying, like some supplicant. Like a sacrifice.

Xena stalked forward and, wrenching back his slumping head by a fistful of hair, thrust her sword home into his broad, scarred chest. Theodorus’ eyes went wide, then empty; he convulsed, and blood sprayed from his lips to wet her face. Startled, Xena loosed his hair, and he fell backwards, lifeless. 

Something gripped her heart as she stared down at the motionless man, a puppet whose strings were now limp. The insane rage passed, and some spark, struck days before, lit a flame inside her.

Xena looked hard into Ares’ eyes, emotions playing across her usually well-controlled face. “I want to address the generals,” she said at last.

Ares nodded. “Of course.”

“Now, Ares!” she snapped.

He smiled broadly and lifted his hand, and suddenly a handful of warlords appeared before the Warrior Princess, the ones still alive, each looking bloodied and confused, pulled from amidst their different parts of the battlefield.

Galteus was the first to react to the scene before him, and he tried to step towards Theodorus’ crumpled form. But like the warriors all around, he too was held by Ares’ power.

“Let them go,” Xena instructed, and Ares did so. A few of the footsoldiers fell to the ground, having still been struggling against the magic. Xena held out the point of her sword, addressing each of the warlords in turn.

“Each of you has led your troops well today,” she said, “or you wouldn’t be standing here before me now. But,” she reached down, picking Theodorus up by the hair, “you didn’t have a real leader. I won’t try to convince you — what you’ve seen here today is all I need to say.”

She met Ares’ eyes and hers now held a sparkle. “How would you like to have a real general lead you into Athens?”

At their confused and hopeful murmuring she lifted her voice higher. “Because if you follow me, that’s exactly what I’ll do! I’ll lead you into Athens, generals...”

Her eyes scanned the perimeter until she spotted just what she’d known would be there, before she continued. “Through the gates of Athens,” Xena called, “and straight into her dungeons! Hercules, now!”

The two bearskinned warriors threw off their cloaks to reveal the faces of the demi-god and his long time friend. Xena dropped the dead general and leapt at Flaavus, knocking him to the ground.

Before Ares could react to the betrayal, his half-brother had lifted the giant Galteus into the air and tossed him at the god, knocking him off his feet and to his backside. The three warriors made short work of the remaining generals and Hercules took to sending the members of Theodorus’ guard skyward.

Ares struggled to sit up and found Xena’s face right in his own.

“You’ll never get me again, Ares,” she said quietly and calmly. “I’m free, and there is nothing you can hold over me or my friends ever again. Zeus will see to that.”

She turned and walked away, not looking back.

Behind her, Ares climbed to his feet slowly. His face went white with rage as he realized the depth of this deception, and his voice, when it came, shook the sides of the valley.

“Callisto,” he bellowed, “you little bitch!”

*  *  *  *  *

She felt a rumble, like thunder, as she touched down amidst the flames. Across the town square from her, Velasca was clawing weakly at the earth around her body.

It was as Callisto crossed the distance between them, mind lost in deciding how to bring her life’s quest to an end, that the first blow came. Amidst the crackling and breathing of the flames, she didn’t hear his swift approach, so as he slammed into her like some horizontal meteor, Callisto never had time to brace herself. Which was just as he wanted it.

What he’d done before was just for show, and now, with this real anger, came crushing hits like she’d never imagined. A fighter whose greatest skill was avoiding strikes, Callisto had no way to prepare for his onslaught. He pummeled and punched. She tumbled and sprang back but he caught her midair and drove her back-first to the ground.

Callisto rolled as he stomped a great boot down and he missed. Pulling out her sword and rolling to a crouch, she aimed a perfect swing at his belly, but her sword rang on his as he drew and the shock numbed her hand. He twisted his wrist and her weapon flew away.

Ares swung a vicious blow and she drew back a half inch from the arc of its point, falling back on her hands. He stepped in and kicked her in the ribs, and she slid, rolling, along the ground for fifty yards. Callisto felt something poking her stomach as she struggled for breath lying face down. Distractedly she glanced down to see the small crossbow, still at her waist, pinned beneath her.

She tried climbing to her feet, but felt her head dragged back as Ares grabbed her by the hair and lifted. A huge fist connected with her chin and Callisto flew backwards along the ground again, sliding, sliding, until her head connected with something hard and flat and she stopped. Cracking her eyes, squinting against the sun, she could see stone-carved writing above her, and she gave a short laugh that ended in a painful choke. How fitting that he’d kill her here, in the graveyard she’d dug with her own hands.

Something big blocked the light, and Callisto saw Ares’ angry face through blurry eyes.

“Congratulations,” he spat, “that was quite a ruse.”

“Thanks,” she coughed.

“Too bad you won’t see the results.”

Callisto licked lips that were suddenly dry. “I don’t have to. Just imagining you in Hephaestus’ chains is enough for me.”

Ares almost laughed, but lifted his sword high instead. “Well, wherever dead gods go, Callisto, be sure to write.”

Then the sword, slashing downward for a powerful last blow, came to an abrupt halt and Ares almost lost his grip at the crushing pain on his wrist. Head jerking sideways, he looked into the blue eyes of his half-brother with a frown.

“Not so fast, brother,” Hercules said calmly. “That’s my daughter, you see,” he shared a brief, tired smile with Callisto that spoke of the greatest love, before locking Ares’ gaze once more, “and I’m very protective of my family.”

 

XVI: Legion