Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
SEXUAL VIOLENCE WARNING/DISLAIMER:
This story depicts scenes of sexual violence and/or their aftermath. Some readers may be disturbed by this type of depication and anyone who is sensitive to this particular issue may wish to read something other than this story. Specifically the issue of child sexual abuse is raised and while it is not described in any gory detail, it wasn't fun to write and won't be fun to read. It is necessary to the story however which is why it's there.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
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FAN FICTION COVER:
The graphic below is a fan fiction cover for this story created by Barron Chugg. To view a larger version of the cover or read 'Barron's Comments' about this story, please click on the graphic.
Callisto sauntered into in the prison wrinkling her nose in distaste against the fetid stench of refuse and decay. Her eyes gleaming, she walked along the corridor of gated cells with the jail keep until she reached the end of the stone corridor. Few prisoners were currently housed in these iron cages, those who were appeared to be asleep, drunk or both.
"I want to talk to that one." She said unceremoniously to the keep, gazing at the occupant leaning against the stone wall of the last cell. The stout man nodded and inserted his key into the heavy lock. With a swift turn and hard pull he opened the heavy barred door. The occupant of the cell eyed Callisto with interest, not moving as the warrior studied her, nodding approvingly.
"Leave us." Callisto said to the jail keep who shut the door, it's lock snapping into place with a clang. Without a second glance the big man turned and left.
"Uncanny," Callisto said, with a light chuckle. "You're absolutely perfect."
"Nice of you to think so." The prisoner replied dully, "mind telling me who you are?"
"My name is Callisto. Not that you'd ever heard of me I suppose, what I want to know is- have you ever heard of a woman named Xena."
The prisoner shrugged. "I'm in prison, not living under a rock. Of course I've heard of the Warrior Princess."
Callisto paused in her stalking. "Sharp tongue for one who needs my help."
"I don't recall asking for your help?"
"Ah, but you will. What is your name girl?"
The prisoner frowned at being called 'girl', she always hated that. Especially coming from someone who couldn't be much older than herself. "Alandra," she replied.
"Ah, but that's not what I've heard." Callisto teased in a sing song voice, gazing into vibrant green eyes. You may go by the name Alandra but that's not who you are, is it Raven?"
The prisoner arched her eyebrows slightly at the accusation. "You think I'm Raven- The Raven? My friend, you are deluded."
"Is that so?" Callisto asked, laughter in her voice. "Then explain to me why a woman of ill repute, who was housed in this very jail, left this morning...dead."
"Must have been something she ate." The prisoner replied, "the food isn't very good here."
Callisto circled the smaller woman, "it had nothing to do with the fact she was carrying Martinus' child? What better place to dispose of trash than in a garbage dump? I suppose Martinus was going to put up your bail today... except that I killed him this morning."
Green eyes narrowed with controlled rage, "so I guess I work for you now?"
"Oh, I like you" Callisto purred, "you're smart. But what is a woman with such a sunny disposition doing with a name like Raven?"
"You know," Raven replied, "Light exterior- dark heart."
"And I don't doubt your darkness Raven," Callisto said, appreciatively. "Don't forget that. Smart, dark... in time I might think you beautiful as well."
"I can hardly wait." Raven replied dryly. Callisto responded with a backhand slap across Raven's face. The young girl didn't flinch, but continued to study the warrior with mild amusement.
"There are limits to my tolerance of impertinence." Callisto spat.
"Apparently." Raven replied.
Taking a deep breath Callisto continued. "So if you know about Xena, do you also know about the woman she travels with?"
Raven shrugged, "I've heard she travels with a bard who isn't too shabby with a quarter staff. Can't say I pay much attention to the Warrior Princess' private life, I intend to avoid meeting her."
"Ah, but if you want my help, you'll just have to risk it. Tell me Raven, have you ever seen the Oracle at Minos?"
Raven shook her head, wishing the war lord would leave- make that, get her out of jail then leave. She was beginning to think the woman mad; people that cheerful were usually crazy.
"Not many people have, she's quite shy. But I have a simple plan, if you help me I will get you out of this dreadful place- you do this one small thing for me and you will be free to go your own way."
"I'm listening." Raven said, evenly.
"I want you to go to Minos. Make an attempt on the Oracle's life, but don't kill her. Xena is in the area and naturally they will send for her help. When they do, I want you to kill her little traveling companion, Gabrielle."
"And then?" Raven asked, flicking strawberry blond hair behind her shoulder.
Callisto smiled, looking into Raven's green eyes, "I want you to take her place."
Gabrielle shifted her stance slightly and swung her staff in a tight arc behind her opponents legs. Instead of connecting, the blow was easily blocked as she'd hoped. Her opponent, now slightly off balance was in no position to block her next strike to the mid-section. Had it been anyone but Xena, the blow would have connected solidly.
"No fair." Gabrielle complained as Xena leaped gracefully over her head, landing behind her. Argo lifted her head from the clover field at the outburst, chiming in with a loud nicker. "I didn't ask you." Gabrielle shot back to the mare.
"Argo has a point." Xena observed dryly, "all's fair in love and war."
"Then perhaps I'm fighting on the wrong battle field." Gabrielle replied with a glare.
Xena arched an eyebrow. "You've had enough practice for one day?" She asked, noticing the thin sheen of sweat covering the bards body, her red hair hanging in damp tendrils.
"With the staff maybe." Gabrielle replied stepping closer to the warrior. With deliberate movements she unclasped her top, letting it fall to the ground. Running her hands slowly over her breasts and down her abdomen a seductive smile slid across her lips at Xena's eyes widening in appreciation. Gracefully she undid her skirt and let it fall to earth as well, watching Xena's eyes roam over her body. When the azure blue gaze fell to her hips, the warrior moistened her lips unconsciously. Leaning in for a hungry kiss, Gabrielle ducked out of her grasp with a laugh.
"Gotcha!" She exclaimed, taking off at a run to the nearby lake.
With a wry grin Xena watched her lover run for a few moments before removing her own armor. They'd been working out all morning and a swim in the lake would feel quite good. She took her time, her pulse quickening in anticipation of the cool water, and Gabrielle.
Naked, Xena walked through the short grass to the shore of the lake. Gabrielle was no where in sight, but her boots were discarded nearby. Xena stopped to listen. The waterfall tumbling into the crystal blue waters of the lake made listening difficult but the warrior's keen hearing picked up the heavy panting of the concealed bard.
Still unable to locate her visually, Xena began climbing the rocks that rimmed the side of the lake. Gabrielle was close by- just hidden. About twenty feet up the sheer rock wall, nearing the waterfall, an outcrop of rock overhung the deep lake. It was from behind the outcrop that Gabrielle came at Xena yelling loudly, swinging on a rope.
"Yiyiyiyiyiyiy" She howled, in her best Xena impersonation. Xena flattened herself against the rock face and let the bard swing past. As she headed back over the water, Xena leaped and caught the rope a body's length above the bard.
"Hey!" Gabrielle exclaimed.
"Let me guess," Xena replied coolly, "no fair?"
"We'll see about that princess." Gabrielle replied beginning to climb the rope.
Xena couldn't help but remember the time they'd been trapped in that well. Gabrielle, barely able to hang on, much less climb. Hard to believe it had only been a short year ago, the bard had come so far, improved so much, "and stolen your heart in the process", Xena thought ruefully. They'd only been lovers for several months and still, every time with the bard was a rebirth for the warrior.
Gabrielle reached Xena's foot, and securing her position on the rope with her feet, she gently caressed Xena's leg with her free hand. "Give up Xena?" She asked, reaching the warrior's knee, nibbling on it playfully.
"To a bard?" Xena replied, "I don't think so."
Gabrielle smiled, and hoisted herself two more times. Still secure on the rope, she was able to lean forward and trail wet kisses across the warrior's thighs.
"Gab...rielle," Xena murmured, "I don't think this is the best place for..."
The words died on her lips as Gabrielle gently teased the soft down between Xena's legs, first with her fingers then, her mouth.
"Oh really?" Gabrielle said, drawing back. "Well maybe this will be more to your liking." Another couple of pulls on the rope and she was even with the warrior's breasts. Sliding her free arm around Xena, Gabrielle attacked one ample breast hungrily, then the other. She released Xena long enough to shift the rope then brought her legs up, hooking them around Xena's hips. With a chuckle, she let go of the rope, wrapping her arms around Xena as well. "Not quite like the last time I climbed you like a tree?" She murmured into Xena's neck.
"Better," Xena replied. "Definitely better." Xena could feel Gabrielle's moist labia pressing against her own sex, and did her best to think clearly. Under the circumstances, it was very difficult. "I can let go", she thought, looking down into the deep blue of the lake. But the thought of falling twenty feet into cold water, with a bard wrapped around her body was unsettling. Besides, there was the chance that Gabrielle might be hurt. Very carefully she passed her hands over each other as she slowly descended the rope. She almost lost her grip a couple of times as the bard's tongue caressed the outside of her ear, or her teeth nipped at her throat. Gabrielle shifted again, sending a charge like electricity through Xena's groin as nimble fingers reached to caress an already taught nipple.
Xena gasped as the cold water closed on her feet. The rope descended all the way to the water and she was going to make use of every inch of it. Gabrielle's ambush could not go unanswered. Shifting again Gabrielle straddled Xena's thigh, sliding her wet cleft down, until she could take a firm breast into her mouth.
Gabrielle squealed in surprise as Xena let go of the rope and gracefully slid into the water, bard still attached. Under the surface of the cool lake, Xena trailed her arms up the sides of Gabrielle's body, reaching behind her neck and claiming her mouth with her own as they broke the surface. They kissed for long minutes, Xena treading water for them both, Gabrielle's strong legs still wrapped around the warrior's middle. Finally Xena headed to shore, awkward but well worth it. When the water was shallow enough for her feet to touch bottom, she hoisted the bard higher, claiming the bards breasts with her hungry mouth.
"Xena." Gabrielle panted.
"Mummmm?" Xena asked her attention focused on the task at hand.
"Why do you always win?"
Xena drew back from the bards breast and gave the question some thought. "Are you complaining?" She finally asked.
Gabrielle smiled, lovingly brushing wet bangs away from the warrior's forehead. "No" She breathed, canting her head, claiming Xena's lips with her own.
"Good," Xena replied when the tender kiss broke. "Because I see this as a tie," she said as she carrying her to their camp on the grassy bank.
From the dark shadows in the cliff wall, Raven watched. Skilled in silence and patience she could sit immobile for hours, days if necessary. Her back supported by the rock wall, limbs relaxed and comfortable she watched and listened; studying the bard with professional detachment. At first Callisto had been angry with her refusal to carry out her orders as planned. "How can I take the bards place on looks alone?" Raven asked. "What good is assuming the role then failing as soon as I open my mouth to speak. Will that not alert Xena all the more?" Callisto had finally been won over by the assassin's logic and had given her a month to follow the duo provided she could do so unobserved.
Glad to be out of that rancid jail, Raven welcomed the challenge. And it was indeed a challenge. It took a week of careful observation of their trail before she could follow close enough to see her quarry, undetected, and several days more before she could get close enough to hear them. She spent part of her day determining where they were headed, then it was a matter of scouting ahead to find the most likely camp spot. After finding a safe spot to hide it was a matter of waiting, and Raven was very good at waiting. At first she spent as many nights alone as in the company of her quarry, but as she grew to understand the warrior's thinking, she was now always in good company.
She sat and watched in silence, night after night. Listening to their conversation, noting the cadence of the bard's speech, reading their body language, watching them make love. She would drift into a light sleep only when she saw Xena sleeping. Then after they departed in the morning, she'd doze for a couple of hours before choosing an alternate route to their likely destination and sprinting. Raven ate very little. Some bread, and cheese she carried with her, as well as berries and other edible plants she found along the way. She wasted no time hunting game, getting protein instead from a variety of insects encountered in her search for plants. It was simple, basic. Assassins, the good ones at any rate, knew to keep things simple.
So she watched with a sense of detached professionalism as Xena gently lowered her bard to the ground. Soft spoken endearments were exchanged as the warrior covered the bard's body with her own. Strong hands caressed the face so like Raven's even as long fingers stroked strawberry blond hair the same shade as her own. Raven was used to the uncanny resemblance of Gabrielle by now, although at first it had been a bit of a shock. Raven noted that she would need to get her hair cut, a little shorter on the bottom and she'd need it short over her eyes, but that was easily done. Getting the right outfit might be a bit harder but it could be done. She didn't take notes, there was no need.
Raven remembered everything. Every book she ever read, every conversation she'd ever heard. Every sight, every sound, scent, every body, every kill- they were with her... always. After one glance at the bard's garb, Raven noted the color, cut, and weave of the material. A lesser assassin might have just planned to steal the bard's clothes after the deed was done. But Raven never stole from the dead. She was an assassin, not a thief. Besides depending on one's client for anything was risky, often blood stains were enough to undo sloppy assassins, and Raven was not sloppy.
Attention to detail had been a way of life since she could remember. At once her salvation and her curse. Her earliest life must have been much like any other child of her village. She didn't know, she couldn't remember back that far. No, her memory, every crystal clear image, was after It entered her life and shattered everything.
It. The beast that had moved into their house after her father had died in a farming accident. She suspected her older brother had received It's attentions first. Adonis didn't handle It's affections well. Like her he rarely ate, seldom spoke, never smiled. Ravaged by remorse and guilt he took the rage out on himself. First with fire then knives, finally when he could take no more he hung himself in the barn. He was sixteen. Raven was ten at the time. She could not be sure but suspected It started with her when she was eight. Pinned down on the table from It's greasy bulk she turned her head from the fetid stench of It's breath. As she did, she saw a raven perched on the branch of the tree outside. No longer was she a little girl being raped by a monster grunting like a boar in rut. She was the raven. She studied the details of the bird's form. The shade of black, the quick movements of the bird's head, the wisdom in those avian eyes. If she were a bird, a raven, she could fly away, be elsewhere. From that moment on when It cornered her she was gone. Unconcerned by the betrayal of her own body, she left it. She would fly, leaving the village, the valley, everything terrestrial and claim the sky as her own.
Sadly, she would return, when It rolled off of her like a beached whale and told her to get out. After wiping herself off in the kitchen, she would go out to the chicken pen and gather eggs or milk the cow. All the while honing her rage, waiting. Raven thought It left few visible scars. She would not eat eggs, nor milk and whenever she came across a wild boar, she killed it. Killing was a natural part of life. There were predators and prey. She did not run from the predatory part of her nature. Rather, she immersed herself in it like a hot bath.
Raven remembered her first kill very clearly. Around the one year anniversary of her brother's death, It didn't seem to notice. For some reason It was drunker than usual and that proved to be It's fatal mistake. Raven was not a large for her age, actually she was rather slight and clearly undernourished. She was however very strong, even for the age of eleven, and inside of her a weapon forged from her torment and honed on her rage waited to be drawn. This particular evening It decided on some new sport. Taking a wine skin, It dumped the entire contents over Raven's nude form. After telling her to hold the wineskin It began to lick the purple liquid from her flesh. As It moved up her calves Raven fingered the strap on the wine skin experimentally. The strap was thick but not wide, and most likely long enough. She felt a surge of adrenaline mixed with calm as the weapon unsheathed itself. Before It got past her knees she had wrapped the chord around It's neck. With muscles she didn't realize she had she strangled It. Oh It tried to fight but too much wine and a lumbering bulk were no match for years of meticulously honed rage. As It turned more purple than the wine staining Raven's skin, she noted the bulge of It's eyes, the silent gasp for air It would not get and the look of terror as It realized It was about to die. Only then did Raven smile. The look of satisfaction easing across her features was the last thing It ever saw.
After that her weapon became her life. Killing became her profession. Everyone eventually ended up in the Elysian Fields or Tartarus- she just helped some arrive there sooner. She was quick, efficient and careful. Her clients were usually dead before they realized they were in any danger. It kept them from begging for their lives. Not that it would have made a difference. Usually there was little or no pain involved for the client; for Raven it was a point of professional pride. Sure she could make it hurt, but she only did that if the client in some way reminded her of It.
Before even seeing Gabrielle, Raven decided it would be best to quickly break the bard's neck. Make it look like an accident if at all possible. If Callisto wanted to take credit to torment the warrior, Raven didn't care. But she knew of Xena's healing proficiency, so most of her other options were out.
The assassin's expression didn't change as Gabrielle's cries of passion became louder, the sounds of desire and fulfillment filling the early afternoon air. She watched the passionate scene before her with neither disgust nor excitement only detached interest. The amorous display held the same fascination one might have for the unusual plumage of a rare bird, even more so since she would most likely be a participant if Callisto's plan came to completion.
Callisto's plan bothered Raven. Clearly the war lord was insane, not the calculated clear thinking insanity that Raven suspected she'd succumbed to, but the raving insanity of a madwoman. Raven had only accepted the job from a desire to be out of that rancid prison. With Martinus dead, Callisto was indeed her only hope. The prospect of killing the bard didn't bother her, but the requirement to take her place, even if only for a short time did lace Raven's thoughts with worry. While she had assumed many roles in her career as an assassin, this one as lover would be new.
Raven wasn't stupid. She knew that looking and sounding like Gabrielle would not be enough to convince the warrior that she was indeed Gabrielle. She wasn't squeamish about the prospect of physical intimacy but knew that if the warrior didn't suspect by then... Raven strongly doubted she smelled like Gabrielle after all. Besides, there were thousands of minutely subtle signals exchanged by people in a constant symphony of sensation. While she could feel them, and distill most of them into very specific elements, she doubted she could mimic them- certainly not all of them, for very long. This was a challenge that, while she readily accepted it, had honest doubts if she was up to it. So with calm eyes Raven waited and watched as Xena surrendered herself to the gentle ministrations of her lover and was again reborn.
Daphne woke with a start, the word sister dying on her lips. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light of a few embers in the fireplace she saw gentle eyes gazing into her own. With a small sigh she relaxed.
"Daphne, are you alright?" A warm voice asked, rich with concern.
"Just a dream Beatrice..." Daphne replied nodding slightly and touching the loving arms that held her in a circle of protection.
"A dream or a vision?" Beatrice asked, relaxing her hold slightly, but not letting Daphne go.
Daphne shook her head, closing her eyes in an attempt to erase the memory of her recent sleep. It wasn't fading. "I don't know yet love," she shrugged, "what happened?"
Beatrice released her hold on Daphne, and after sliding out of bed, crossed the small room to the fireplace. She put some small sticks on the embers which quickly ignited into flame. "You became very still," she explained as she put several larger logs onto the fire. "Something was clearly bothering you, you were very tense, and you became cold."
Daphne nodded, taking in the details supplied by her lover. Oh, she might be the famed Oracle of Minos, but it was Beatrice who was instrumental in sorting out her thoughts and dreams that became prophecy. "Did I say anything?"
Beatrice shook her head, her long braid swinging gently with the motion of her head. "No, wait." She said suddenly, looking up. "You said the word 'sister' just as you were waking up."
Daphne arched an eyebrow at the information that at the moment meant nothing to her. Without being asked, Beatrice crossed back to the table by the bed and, picking up a heavy glass pitcher, filled a matching goblet with water. She handed the goblet to Daphne who took it gratefully, kissing the inside of her wrist in thanks.
Beatrice smiled at the gesture. Socially their roles were quite different, but Daphne never failed to let her know with every fiber of her being just how much she was loved. Unconsciously, she fingered the three small hoops pierced through her left eyebrow that marked her as a slave. Daphne's slave. Turning back to the table she picked up Daphne's tablet and quill, handing them over as she crawled back into bed.
"Is it my imagination or do you actually read my mind?" Daphne asked as she snuggled back into the warm embrace of her lover.
"You're not hard to read love," Beatrice replied, taking a sip of water from the offered glass. Daphne smiled and began to scribble on the tablet. "So, what did you see?" Beatrice asked as she lightly kissed the strawberry blond hair at Daphne's temple. Lightly caressing the oracle's neck, she deliberately tried to distract her from her sketching. It was important for the drawing to emerge on it's own.
Daphne knew this as well and sighed at the loving attention. "There was darkness, a lot of it. That may be why I became so cold. Not the dark of night, but the dark of evil. Well, not quite evil, maybe something else, I'm not sure."
"Go on." Beatrice murmured behind Daphne's ear.
"I keep seeing the image of a mirror, but I think it's a symbol." Her thoughts were starting to coalesce and the speed of her sketching increased.
"Dark and light perhaps?" Beatrice asked.
"Something like that. But this is more personal." Daphne stilled her hand and turned in her slave's embrace. Genuine dread clouded vibrant green eyes. "I'm involved."
Beatrice kissed her gently. "Go on love," she encouraged.
"I see lovers."
Daphne shook her head. "Not us, but like us. There are so many parallels. I can see Lachesis weaving frantically. The threads spun by Clotho coming together as Atropos the crone readies her shears. Similar threads but made from the wool of very different sheep. Two of us are similar, another is so different. So dark. There is one with an affinity for dark, it's so confusing." Daphne began to rock slightly, staring off into the vision of her dream. Her words began to rush out, tumbling over each other like water from the pitcher. "I see death, hatred, torment. Someone tries to kill me but it's a ruse. There is a battle. A vulture watches from a tree as an eagle battles a smaller bird over the death of a sparrow. I can't see the other, it's too dark. This bodes badly for the eagle. With the sparrow gone darkness rushes out. An inky blackness covers the land and Ares stands in triumph." Slumping back into Beatrice's, embrace Daphne took several deep breaths.
"Is there anything more?"
Daphne nodded mutely, closing her eyes tightly against the awareness that slammed into her consciousness with all the force of a war hammer. "The darkness," she whispered tightly, "is my sister." Glancing down at her tablet she closed her eyes again at the sketch glaring back at her. A raven perched in a tree stared back at her, eyes shining brightly.
Beatrice gently pried the quill pen from cold fingers. Taking the tablet and the glass she placed them carefully on the table near the bed. Turning back she wrapped her arms around the cold body of the oracle murmuring gently into the hollow of her neck, "It's over love, we can sort this out in the morning."
"But..." Daphne choked, fighting for some breathing space from the appalling vision.
"Shhhh," Beatrice whispered trailing delicate kisses along the length of her throat. "You will be Oracle in the morning, but for now you're mine."
"I don't deserve you Beatrice." Daphne murmured, grateful for the opportunity to surrender yet again to the woman easing her back down into the pillows.
"Deserve me?" Beatrice chuckled, "love, you own me."
"No more than you own me." Daphne whispered, gently touching the three rings above her lover's eyebrow. With that she drew the woman who was her heart and soul to her. Surrendering herself and yet claiming herself in the process.
With skilled movements, born of years of familiarity, passion ebbed and flowed, chasing the demons of Daphne's vision from their bedroom. Beatrice well knew the toll the gift of prophecy took from her lover. It was at moments like these where she felt she knew her place in the universe. It was within her power to fill the well in Daphne's soul that the visions drained. Only she could give the oracle the strength she needed to banish the night terrors from her sight, to let her rest, let her live. Oracles were notorious for dying young; their ability taking just too much from them. With her help Beatrice knew that Daphne might not only live to be an old woman, but would also have a life in the process. While tradition, culture and society at large might see their relationship as drastically different, each woman knew they were equal partners in the office as well as life of Oracle of Minos. Without Beatrice, Daphne would not be able to help so many and that knowledge made her smile. Not because she craved power or position, but because it was so apparent how much she meant to the wise woman.
Beatrice smiled as Daphne gently rolled her over. Straddling her hips, looking down with love in her eyes, Daphne slowly undid the braid that kept her strawberry blond mane in place for sleeping. Beatrice loved the sight of her with her hair down, the feel of it, the way it reflected firelight. As full lips descended on her own, caressing and exploring her body Beatrice's thoughts drifted back to her arrival at the palace. In moments she relived first meeting this gentle woman who treated her with such reverence, to loving her for the first time.
Born into slavery, it was all Beatrice ever knew. She was luckier than most, her mother had been a skilled cook to a kindly nobleman. He allowed his servant to keep her child and she grew up attending to his children. She was permitted to sit in during their education and became quite learned. When her mother died, he agreed to sell her away from memories that were too painful to bear. Passing through several noble households, not all of which were pleasant, she arrived here in Minos. Purchased by the king himself. She was a gift to his daughter, who she discovered was only a couple of years older than herself.
That was six years ago, when she was seventeen. At nineteen, Daphne was only the king's Daughter, not the Oracle of Minos. From the very beginning Daphne treated her with special care. There was a shy giddiness to the young woman's words and actions that as a slave Beatrice found very confusing. It was only in the course of tidying the woman's library that she found the writings. Writing that since early adolescence predicted a number of events. There were mentions of headaches, nightmares, rain storms, good crops, bad crops and the arrival of a slave. Beatrice blushed as she read the description of herself, then blushed further to what Daphne had described in vivid detail doing with her. She stopped reading abruptly when she got to the part where Daphne described discovering Beatrice reading her words. The slave turned slowly to see Daphne enter from the garden, smiling at her with devotion shining from her face.
Beatrice sighed at the memory of then and the sensation of now, as Daphne parted the folds of her labia with her tongue. She would never refuse Daphne, even though she knew Daphne would not think badly of her for doing so. While the vestiges of slavery were important to the people outside the palace, within the palace walls they held no meaning. Granted it took several years of constant effort on Daphne's part but in time Beatrice did believe. Only rarely did the specter of servitude rear it's ugly head and when it did it was the doing of some other member of her father's staff. Daphne had made it abundantly clear that she would under no circumstances assume the mantle of Oracle unless she and Beatrice were granted a private residence and privacy. At the time Beatrice had wondered out loud why Daphne just didn't burn her papers of ownership.
"Oh, I did that the day you arrived," she had replied.
Beatrice opened her eyes to the aroma of cinnamon filling the cozy bedroom. "You're up early." She said propping herself up on an elbow, studying the figure hunched over the desk, writing.
"I can't be decadent every morning, now can I?" Daphne replied as she rose from the heavy wooden table. Moving to the blazing fireplace, she picked up a heavy mug of tea from where she'd set it to keep warm. "Sleep well?" She asked with a wry grin, handing the tea to her lover.
"What sleep I got was blissful, and the sleep I missed... even more so."
"Glad to hear it." Daphne replied leaning in for a luxurious kiss. "Because I need you to do something."
"About the vision?"
Daphne detected the subtle note of disappointment in the younger woman's voice and smiled. Beatrice was irresistible when she was insatiable, but at the moment too much hung in the balance to spend the morning making love. "Yes love, about the vision." With gentle hands she unclasped her lovers arms from around her neck and crossed back to her desk, looking over at what she'd just written. "I need you to take my horse and go to a tavern, it's in the outer-most village to the south. I don't know the tavern's name, but you'll know it, a red rooster will be walking around just outside."
"Appropriately vague for a vision." Beatrice quipped.
Daphne ignored the jibe and continued. "Inside, sitting by themselves at a table will be two women, the eagle and the sparrow."
Beatrice peered over the rim of her mug. "The lovers?"
Daphne shrugged, "I think so but I'm not sure. You'll know them when you see them, I think one of them might remind you of me."
"The eagle or the sparrow?" Beatrice asked, annoyed with the vagueness of prophecy, a name or two from time to time would be nice.
"You tell me, love." Daphne shot back.
"How can I? You didn't include siren in that list."
Daphne smiled in spite of herself. "You will need to take the small portrait with you. I don't know why," she added forestalling the next barrage of questions "I just know you need to. I need to meet with these women, but not here, someplace safe and secret. The temple will be watched so we have to be careful. When you leave that village do so separately, go to the next village north, I will try to meet you by the well at the west end."
"And the darkness?"
"She will be in the village attending to business of her own."
Beatrice nodded and got out of bed. "When do I leave?"
Daphne looked at her with concern clouding her delicate features. "Have your bath and dress, after you've eaten you can go." She shook her head, "I wish I could go myself and leave you out of this..."
Beatrice held up her hand. "We're in this together love. Besides you've already told me I'm going to live to be a very old woman. Is there anything else I should know."
Daphne nodded, glancing down again to her notes, "if you see a lost child in the village, leave him be. Keep the eagle and the sparrow away from him as well. If I don't meet you by the well, come back here and we'll try tomorrow night. Be careful," Daphne admonished, "one of these women is especially dangerous, while my prophecies haven't been wrong yet, I'd hate for your longevity to be my first erroneous prediction."
Beatrice eased out of bed and headed for the bath. "Daphne," she said with a wry grin, "your most infuriating quality is that you're never wrong."
Daphne watched her go hoping to Athena she was right. Finally she stood. Thinking about Beatrice's favorite foods, she headed to the kitchen to fix her breakfast.
Raven finished her business with the shopkeeper without any trouble. She'd bought a few supplies and managed a pleasant conversation with the shopkeeper's wife who was a seamstress. Her outfit, Gabrielle's outfit would be ready by sundown. She looked at his selection of boots with interest. "These from Athens?" Raven asked, fingering the leather.
"Good eye." The shopkeeper commented. "You're such a nice girl, I'll let you have 'em for five dinars."
"Highway robbery if you ask me." Raven shot back with a winning smile, "but I'll take 'em. Could you throw in a bar of that soap?"
He nodded adding the selected soap to her small bundle of items. She counted out his money- twice to make sure and with a nod headed back into the market square. She would pick up her goods when she came to retrieve her new clothes. Raven glanced at the sky. Xena and Gabrielle would be arriving soon. She needed to find someone to cut her hair and disappear until sundown. She had avoided Xena's campsite the night before, wanting to get into town and conduct her business before the bard and warrior arrived. As a precaution she'd darkened her hair with bark oil and wore a shawl. Relying on a hunch and tavern gossip, she headed to the stream that she'd noticed just outside the village.
She'd not walked far when the sound of young women singing reached her ears. She took a deep breath and forcibly lightened her step, singing softly to herself to alert the group she was approaching. Before she reached the bathers however, she heard a startled cry.
"Toris, get away from here, we're bathing."
"I can see that love," The enthusiastic male voice replied, more giggles erupted.
"You can't see me until we're married."
"I can't wait until tonight."
"Don't worry Elaine, Seph and I have to take the wash back anyway- we'll see you later." A gentle female voice interjected.
Raven watched as two young women left, carrying an assortment of laundry with them giggling all the way. Raven waited until the young man got close to his beloved before showing herself at the stream's edge.
"Um... excuse me." Raven said in a timid voice.
The lovers looked up. Toris initially with alarm until he saw Raven's unthreatening form. "Elaine?" Raven looked at the woman hopefully, "your father the innkeeper sent me. He said you were the best haircutter in the village, he also said you were getting married and some extra dinars to start out with would be welcome." Raven was relieved at the young woman's smile. "So the old buzzard was telling the truth to that drunken sot of a merchant who needed a trim," she thought. Inns might be good for little else than information, but they do supply that.
"Do you want your hair cut?" Elaine asked. Toris glared at his betrothed for offering.
"Yes," Raven managed to blush, "I'll be seeing my own beloved tomorrow and wanted to look nice- he's been away for so long."
Elaine smiled knowingly and gestured for the assassin to join them. "This won't take long Toris, you can wait. How would you like it cut?"
Raven headed back through town a half-hour later, and except for the color, with Gabrielle's hair. Two young lovers were floating face down in the stream, necks broken most likely the unlucky victims of a bad fall. "Too bad," Raven mused, "it was a great hair cut." But getting one's haircut at a streams edge was unusual enough to be remembered. That created loose ends, and Raven never left loose ends. Without giving them another thought she headed to the tavern. Something made her stop halfway across the small village street. A woman approached from the opposite direction, apparently looking for something. She eyed all the small thatched buildings with interest. It was Raven's instinct to freeze, but a statue in this active street would stand out like a beacon, so she continued on her way, shawl pulled more tightly around her. A red rooster crossed in front of the tavern, right past the door and Raven noticed the woman smile. With sure steps she headed for the door. With a casual glance she smiled at Raven who returned the greeting in kind. She watched for a moment more as the woman greeted other passers by with the same open friendly smile. When the woman was inside the building Raven let out a slow sigh of relief, the woman hadn't paid any particular attention to her. There was no reason to kill her. Besides, she'd killed enough for one day, and she wasn't even getting paid by the body.
Her thoughts were disturbed by the cries of a small child. She turned to see a young boy standing in the middle of the street wailing, three fingers of his pudgy hand in his mouth, tears streaming down his face. Raven looked around the boy, people continued about their business ignoring him. Cautiously she walked over. The boy looked to be about six, his clothes heavily mended but clean.
"What's the matter?" Raven asked, kneeling down to look him in the eye.
"I can't find my mommy." The boy wailed.
"If you stop crying, I'll help you. How does that sound?"
The boy considered his options. He was afraid, but at least now there was someone to talk to. He sniffled loudly, "I guess so." He replied. Raven walked to the nearby well, as she turned her back she didn't see two more figures enter the tavern. Slimy fingers reached up and took her hand. Raven frowned but let the boy hold her hand. When she reached the well she drew up a cup of water and handed it to the boy. She also handed him the corner of her shawl.
The boy took a drink of water and looked questioningly at the corner of material.
"Dip the fabric in the water and clean your face boy, you'll feel better."
Afraid to disobey and lose his only friend on the planet he complied. To his utter astonishment, he did feel a bit better.
"What's your name?"
"Maxar." He replied in a small voice, determined not to cry.
"Okay Max. Where were you going with your mother?" Raven asked, taking the cup back from the boy and finishing the water he didn't drink.
He dried his face on the other corner of Raven's shawl. "Shopping."
Raven shook her head. "I could have guessed that much. Come on Max, think. Was it food? Clothes? Soap? Think about your house, what did you need more of?"
Max blinked. No one had ever talked to him this way before. It was up to him to find his mommy. The nice lady would help but he had to help her. He tried to remember that morning. What had she said? "Duck!" he exclaimed.
Quickly Raven crouched down and looked behind her, turning back to the boy in puzzlement. He laughed at the sight. "We were going to have duck for dinner."
With a wry grin, Raven stood up. Taking the now clean hand in her own, she headed to the poultry vendor. They were only halfway there when a frantic woman rushed up to them.
"Maxar! By Zeus, where have you been!" She hugged him fiercely, checking him quickly for signs of injury.
"The lady helped me find you." Max replied, tugging at Raven's skirt.
"Thank you so much." the woman said, looking up at Raven with tear filled eyes.
"He did all the work, I just listened to him." Raven replied quietly, squeezing Max's hand quickly and stepping away. He beamed at her then turned to his mother.
"Can I be Max?" Was the last thing she heard him say as she headed down the street.
Entering the dimly lit tavern Gabrielle sighed. The aroma of spicy food filled her nostrils unhampered by the usual stenches commonly found in taverns. The ripe smell of unwashed bodies was almost nonexistent. Not surprising since the tavern was almost empty, and for a change she did not detect the scent of rancid ale. "Nice place." She murmured to Xena as they made their way inside.
Xena quickly surveyed the inhabitants of the common room. One man asleep by the fire; another man alone, waiting for someone; a cloaked woman alone in the corner; two men conducting business over a bowl of something steaming; two more gambling; two bar maids behind the bar; one inn keep. Gabrielle walked up to the bar and addressed one of the women.
"I'd like some hot cider and a mulled mead." The woman looked at her expectantly, then moved to fill the order when she saw Gabrielle put a couple of coins on the counter. "What smells so good?" She asked, picking up the two goblets.
The woman picked up the coins. "Stew, sit down, I'll bring you lunch."
Gabrielle followed Xena to the table by the fire. She stared down at the lone man who was studying the door. When he turned his head he was visibly startled by the sight of leather and bronze filling his view. His eyes slowly traveled upward until they reached penetrating blue. He gazed at the warrior for long moments before she finally smiled pointedly at his seat. With a start he realized what she wanted. He grabbed his drink and headed to another table.
"You do that just to be intimidating." Gabrielle quipped, taking the seat next to Xena.
"I did that to get near the fire, it's cold out there."
"I didn't think Warrior Princesses were supposed to notice the cold." Gabrielle shot back playfully.
"Oh, we notice the cold alright, we're just not supposed to show it."
"Funny," Gabrielle considered, "you weren't cold this morning."
"I don't intend to be cold this evening either." Xena replied a slow smile easing across her mouth.
Gabrielle felt herself flush. "Gods but she's sexy" she mused. It was still hard to get used to, this new side to the warrior. She had known Xena had a sense of humor, dry and underdeveloped as it may be, and known the warrior was a passionate, fiercely loyal person, generally speaking. What she hadn't anticipated was that Xena could be playful. Passionate and playful at the same time. She still smiled when she thought about their first night together as lovers.
The rain storm on their way back from Athens had driven them from the road to an inn for the night. It had apparently driven everyone else there as well. The room was at a premium, only one palate and a small one at that, although she did manage to haggle baths for both of them into the price. Gabrielle had come in from checking on Argo, cold and dripping from the rain only to find Xena relaxing in the tub, curls of steam rising up off of the water.
"How'd that tub get in here?" She had asked unloading Argo's saddle bags onto the floor and trying to get some of the excess water out of her hair.
"I carried it." Xena replied not bothering to open her eyes.
"Getting soft, aren't you Warrior Princess? I could have been a brigand."
"A brigand with Gabrielle's footsteps. That would be interesting." Xena smiled.
Gabrielle frowned, her mood sour from the cold and list of chores she'd already performed. "So do I get the tub next?" Gabrielle asked hopefully, ignoring Xena's state of supreme relaxation.
"Um hummm." Xena sighed, which the bard found more than a little unsettling, even as she was irritated. "But you might want to start bringing up your water to heat now, I'm not getting out any time soon."
"I go stable Argo, check on her hay, unsaddle the beast, bring our supplies up, arrange for our room and bath and now I have to fetch my own bath water?!"
Xena opened one eye, "at least I didn't make you fetch mine." She replied closing her eye again.
Gabrielle stormed out muttering under her breath unkind things about warrior types.
Xena had seemed far too relaxed all evening. She'd tried several times to startle, or surprise the warrior woman. None of them worked. While she could see Xena's weapons always nearby, the usual tension she carried on the road was nowhere to be seen.
Finally that night as they readied for bed Gabrielle stretched painfully, pinching the back of her neck with her fingers. She had not appreciated the requirement of carrying the used bath water back down the stairs in buckets in order to refill the tub with hot water- then repeating the process after her bath. While far from relaxed, at least she was clean.
"So admit it Xena, your whole reason for having me around is to wait on you?" She asked hotly.
"No." Xena replied evenly, "But I consider it a definite perk."
"Mind telling me why you're so blasted relaxed? Or do I have to beat it out of you?"
"Come here." She requested gently, her eyes laughing. Xena was sitting on the edge of the bed. She scooted back, making room for Gabrielle to sit in front of her. With gentle force she turned Gabrielle around and sat her down on the edge of the bed. She carefully began to brush the hair of the fuming bard. "Just so you won't beat it out of me I'll tell you why I'm relaxed."
"Okay." Gabrielle replied, still angry but finding it difficult to remember why with the gentle hands on her hair.
"It's safe here. I know the innkeeper, it's a secure room, a relatively peaceful village and people are nicer in rainstorms. Troublemakers don't relish the possibility of being turned out into a storm. I certainly wouldn't want to make trouble in this kind of weather."
"So you're saying," Gabrielle replied hotly until strong hands began to massage the knots out of her shoulders, "you're relaxed because you can be."
"Mummmm." Xena replied.
"So why aren't you being nicer to me."
"Gabrielle, I am being nicer to you."
Gabrielle realized minutes had gone by and she'd not spoken. "Oh, I guess you are," she replied absently. Coherent thought was almost impossible above the din of her singing muscles. She felt warm, very warm and knew it wasn't just the fire in their room. She wondered absently if Xena could tell. "But it's just because you don't want me to beat you to a pulp."
"Oh, that could happen. I worry about it every night." Xena replied amused.
"Hey," Gabrielle shot back, "you think you're tough, but I could get you off guard if I wanted to."
"Mummmm." Xena murmured slowly bringing her hands to a stop. "Better?" She asked. She smiled at the bards affirming nod. "Then we'd better get some sleep. Think you can keep from snoring tonight?" She glanced away to avoid the bard's angry glare. She also didn't notice Gabrielle look at the bed approvingly.
Xena began to lay a blanket on the floor by the bed as Gabrielle stopped her. "Ah, Xena I think you'd better sleep with me."
Xena looked at her questioningly. "Bed's not very big."
"Yeah, but it is cold in here."
"I don't feel cold."
"That's because you're a warrior. Warrior's don't get cold, everyone knows it. Bards however do, so unless you want chattering teeth to accompany my snoring..."
"Okay, okay." Xena held up her hand, "makes no difference to me."
"We'll see about that." Gabrielle thought. Xena put on a sleeping shift and climbed into bed with the bard. The bed was next to the wall, so Gabrielle moved close to it. Xena put her sword, chakram and boot dagger with in easy reach and laid down on her side, away from Gabrielle facing the door.
"Hey!" Xena exclaimed as she drew the covers over herself. Something cold was resting against her calves.
"My feet will warm up. Remember, that's why you're here." Xena grunted, enduring the chill from the body resting against her own. After a moment's worth of getting comfortable on the crowded palate, she settled in for sleep.
"You smell good." Gabrielle commented just as Xena's thoughts drifted toward slumber.
"Ah, thanks, it's..." Xena replied uncertainly.
"The bath, I know." Gabrielle continued. "But generally speaking- you do smell good. Faintly of leather, but in a nice way. 'Night Xena."
"'Night Gabrielle." Xena replied, puzzling through the bard's comment.
About ten minutes later Gabrielle piped up again. "You're incredibly beautiful too."
"What?" Xena asked, eyes flying open.
"I said, 'you're incredibly beautiful too.'" Gabrielle said clearly, "surely you must know it. It isn't like you've not been told by every warlord we run into."
"Ah, yeah." Xena muttered, "I didn't know you thought so."
"Of course I think so. Goodness, I've told you before. At least I thought I had. If not, make no mistake, you are without a doubt the most magnificent creature I've ever seen."
"Ah..." Xena stammered
"I mean your eyes, alone."
"What about my eyes?" Xena asked, beginning to suspect the bard was up to something.
"They are the most intense blue I've ever seen, almost like lapis. Your hair, like ebony, skin of bronze, muscles of granite and a smile... well it's beyond words."
"It's only your personality that needs work. Physically you're perfect. I can see why Hercules prefers..."
"Prefers what?" Xena asked hotly, sitting up and glaring down at the bard.
"To spend time with you in small doses. I mean, I know he enjoys your...ah... company... but not too much of it."
Recognizing the playful tone of Gabrielle's voice Xena wasn't angry, just curious. She wondered where the bard was going. "If there was anything between Hercules and me I think I might be offended. But there isn't, and yes Gabrielle, I am very good company."
"Uh hunh, always boasting. Is that something they teach in warrior school?"
"Gabrielle..." Xena said in a warning tone.
"Yes, many skills, I know, I know."
Looking down at the bard, Xena was surprised by the fire in her friends eyes. Green eyes were practically smoldering with challenge, at this moment she looked simply incredible. "Gabrielle what's gotten into you?"
Gabrielle sat up, "I'm sorry Xena, I just don't believe you're the most gifted lover that's ever crossed the street. Okay? No hard feelings, I just don't buy it."
"Like you would know." Xena shot back, stung in spite of herself by the bard's words.
"Oh, you bought that virgin act, oh that's rich." Gabrielle could see that she was getting a rise out of the stoic warrior. "Definitely got her off guard," she thought. Only this playful teasing was no longer heading where she expected. "I'll just wing it," she told herself.
"I see." Xena replied, challenge in her own eyes. "So you're telling me you're experienced? With men and women Gabrielle? Or just men?"
The question baffled the bard. "Great, now what am I going to do?" She took a guess, "Ah, with both, aren't you?"
"Oh, of course, it's part of warrior school you know." Xena smiled a slow sultry smile. She had her now. "So prove it."
"Kiss me, oh great wielder of worldly experience." Xena said calmly. "I don't bite... often." Laughter danced triumphantly in the warrior's eyes which hardened the bard's resolve. "Look I'll even make it easy for you I'll close my eyes." Xena leaned in a bit and closed her eyes.
"She doesn't think I'll do it?!" Gabrielle seethed to herself. "I'll show her!"
Xena was surprised by the feel of soft lips pressing tentatively against her own. She was even more surprised by the emotion surging through her veins in response. She waited a moment for the moist warmth to leave, leave her lips and leave her aching, only they didn't. If anything the warm softness pressed against her own was intensifying. The mouth became bolder as she melted under the contact. Sensing the warrior's surrender Gabrielle's tongue made its first forays into Xena's mouth seeking greater intimacy, and finding it. Xena slowly brought her arms up the bard's body, holding her close, even as she felt small hands around her own neck and shoulders. When the kiss broke, Xena felt naked in the gaze of penetrating green eyes.
"Wow," Gabrielle breathed, "that was for real."
"Yes is was." Xena whispered back. Then regaining her composure, moved back from the bard. "Look Gabrielle," She began in a rush, "I'm sorry, I know you didn't mean... I'll sleep on the floor okay."
"No." Gabrielle replied, her eyes still wide and full of wonder. "You're not getting on the floor, and I don't think you'll be getting much sleep."
"Gabrielle, what are you saying?" Xena's voice was thick with building emotion.
"I'm saying Xena, that I want you. I think I've wanted you forever and I'm only beginning to realize how much right now. And I suspect you want me too."
"I do." Xena breathed.
"So take me." And that was all the encouragement the warrior needed.
Gabrielle's memory was interrupted by the sensation of a knee, Xena's knee, pressing firmly against her own. She looked up quickly, Xena's eyes intent on someone moving up behind her. Slowly a cloaked figure eased around their table.
"By the Goddess... remarkable." The figure facing Gabrielle breathed.
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"What do you want?" Xena asked, her voice full of warning.
The figure quickly turned to face Xena, removing the hood of her cloak in the process. "I'm sorry warrior." She began in a gentle voice. "May I sit down? I would like to explain."
Xena nodded, studying the woman carefully as she sat down.
"My name is Beatrice. I belong to the Oracle of Minos."
"Belong?" Gabrielle asked.
"A slave, Gabrielle." Xena said quietly, nodding to the three rings pierced through the woman's left eyebrow. When Beatrice turned her head Gabrielle saw the tiny gold rings, and nodded. Before she could respond, one of the barmaids approached the table, setting a steaming bowl of stew in front of the warrior and the bard, as well as a small loaf of bread between them.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and smiled, inhaling the complex fragrance of the stew. "I haven't had squash in forever!" She commented looking into her bowl, "and here's carrots and broccoli? I'll have to remember this place." After catching Xena's indulgent glance she shook her head and returned her attention to the newcomer at their table. "I'm sorry Beatrice, you were saying... you're a slave?"
"Yes, " Beatrice continued, smiling at the bard's response to her food. "So like Daphne," she thought, "always hungry." She put those thoughts aside as she addressed the bard and her companion. "I'm a slave in name at least, although I don't really function in that capacity. I'm quite spoiled actually." Gabrielle took a moment to study the woman since she couldn't very well talk with her mouth full of stew. Beatrice was tanned, like Xena and had long brown hair that hung well past her shoulders in soft curls. What was most unusual about the woman, to Gabrielle anyway, was her eyes. They were a vibrant hazel with gold flecks. She looked too beautiful and pampered to be a slave. Although this was the bard's first trip to the city of Minos she was aware the society here accepted slavery, detestable as it was. Now however she was able to see that the rings through the eyebrow not only identified slaves, but apparently classified them into some sort of caste system as well. She had seen people earlier with one ring and at the time had not realized what it meant.
"Here, let me show you." Beatrice went on, and was about to put her hand beneath the folds of her cloak. With a quick glance to Xena she explained. "Daphne asked me to bring a scroll to show you. It's in my pocket..." Xena nodded and the slave slowly extracted a scroll case from her garment. Carefully she opened it and slowly unrolled a thin piece of hide. "This is a portrait I painted of Daphne a few months ago. I'm no artist but I think you'll see..."
She left her words hanging. There was no need to explain. Unrolled before Xena and Gabrielle was a small, exquisite portrait of the bard- or rather of some one who could have easily been the bard. A young woman with strawberry blond hair gazed at the viewer with a smile that radiated amused indulgence.
"It's amazing." Gabrielle breathed, setting down her spoon, looking closely at the picture.
"The resemblance...I've never seen anything like it." Beatrice continued.
"Oh we have," Gabrielle broke in with a laugh, "If you ever meet Princess Diana or her father's cook Meg..."
"I take it this is the Oracle of Minos?" Xena asked, her voice serious.
Beatrice nodded, "Yes. Not many have seen her. She does not make her predictions in public as the Oracle at Delphi does. We live adjacent to the temple of Artemis. Her prophecies are read by the high priestess there. She had a vision last night, involving an eagle and a raven battling over the death of a sparrow as a vulture watched. She fears," Beatrice turned to look pointedly at Gabrielle, "you may be the sparrow. Daphne would like to meet with the two of you, and discuss this further."
"Where?" Xena asked, keeping the bard silent with a glance.
Beatrice scanned the tavern common room before answering. When she spoke her voice was barely above a whisper "there is another village just north of here. Water well, west end."
"We'll consider it." Xena replied.
Beatrice looked as if she were about to say something in response, then changed her mind. Instead she sighed. "Very well. We will be there should you decide to come. There is one other thing though. The darkness Daphne fears will kill your bard is near. I don't know why, but should you see a child lost in the street, leave him be. It has to do with keeping you out of the darkness' path."
Xena nodded once and the slave stood. With a final glance at Gabrielle she turned and left the tavern. Gabrielle looked at Xena who appeared preoccupied with her stew. She knew that this was not the case but left her in silence to mull over her own thoughts. She turned her attention back to her bowl when she spotted the portrait still sitting uncurled on the table. She spun around to see if the slave was out of sight. "Wait, you forgot your..."
"Leave it Gabrielle." Xena said, "you can return it when me meet them later."
"So we are going?"
Xena returned her attention to her stew. The food was good but she'd lost her appetite. "I think so. Unless we see a lost child, then I might want to see who else in interested."
They ate in silence. Xena brooding about Gabrielle being in danger, Gabrielle gazing in rapt fascination at the portrait on the table. "She's beautiful." She murmured, unaware she'd spoken out loud.
"Yes she is." Xena confirmed.
Gabrielle's response died on her lips as loud cries erupted outside the entrance to the inn. Wails of despair and sorrow ripped through the late afternoon quiet as Xena and Gabrielle headed outside. Two bodies were lying in a cart partially filled with straw, the innkeeper wailing over the lifeless female body. Gabrielle rushed to his side and tried to urge him away from the carnage. "My daughter," he pleaded.
"What happened?" Xena asked the cart owner.
With a sad glance at the innkeeper he shrugged. "Found 'em floating in the stream. Looks like they slipped on some rocks, fell, broke their necks."
"My baby, Elaine." The innkeeper sobbed tenderly stroking the wet black hair partially covering her face.
"Gabrielle, why don't you take him inside." Xena urged. The bard nodded, and putting her arm around the innkeeper, and with gentle words led him indoors.
"Tragedy, that one." the cart owner said looking back down. "Elaine and Torus were to be married tonight. I'm not surprised he'd stolen a visit at the ritual bath, I did that myself when I got married. But Elaine can't swim. Don't know why they'd go walking around on those slippery stones."
Xena nodded, indicating that she was listening to the man, but she wasn't looking at him. She studied each of the lifeless forms with interest. Easing a hand behind each of the necks, she could feel where the bones had broken. She also noticed patches of discoloration on the forehead of each corpse. Something caught the warrior's eye and she turned her attention to the front of the dress on the female, Elaine, she reminded herself. Several short tufts of hair clung to the front of the woman's skirt, near the waist. Several more people rushed over to the cart. Thankful for the distraction, Xena quickly picked up several bits of hair and closed them in her palm.
"Goddess no!" The newcomer wailed. "I saw her not two hours ago."
"Easy Seph." The cart driver placed a comforting arm around the young woman's shoulders. "These things happen, they're together in the Elysian Fields now."
"When did you see this woman last?" Xena asked as gently as she could.
"I was with Elaine when she was bathing by the stream. We heard someone approach, sounded like a woman. Then we saw Torus across the bank. He came to visit. Trini and I left with the laundry to let them be... alone." Her slight frame was trembled with renewed sobbing. Xena felt for the girl, but pressed on.
"When you left, did you see the other woman you thought was approaching?"
Seph stopped her sniveling for a moment and considered the question. "No." She answered, "we didn't see anyone. Must have just been Torus we heard approaching."
Xena nodded. There was nothing else to be gained from pushing so she let her be. With a final nod to the cart driver, she made her way back into inn to check on Gabrielle. The innkeeper was sitting on a stool sobbing uncontrollably. Gabrielle stood next to him, a comforting hand on his shoulder, listening. Shortly, several more people entered the inn, going to the elderly man's side. A heavyset woman wrapped him in a motherly embrace and held him as he sobbed. Gabrielle made her way back to Xena as the warrior closed the top of the scroll case.
Once outside the inn, Xena unteathered Argo and headed out of town. "What a tragedy." Gabrielle commented, walking at the warrior's side. "He lost his wife last summer, now to lose his daughter..."
"His daughter wasn't lost Gabrielle," Xena replied, "she was taken. That was no accident."
"What makes you say that?" The bard asked.
Xena casually looked around before answering. Nobody on the sparsely populated street was paying any attention to them. "The breaks in their necks are not consistent with the bruises on their heads- which makes me think that their necks were broken before they fell. Besides two people slipping, and breaking their necks in almost the same spot? Not very likely. Whoever did this is good, very good."
Gabrielle shuddered. "How creepy."
"Did you find out anything from the innkeeper?" Xena asked as they passed the market area of the village, nearing the front gate.
"Not really," Gabrielle replied. "He was very upset. Elaine and Torus were going to be married. He said that the town joked that the couple would take care of the village from head to toe. Elaine cut hair and Torus was the son of the cobbler."
"Cut hair?" Xena murmured to herself as their attention was diverted.
"Here she is mommy." A small voice said, grabbing onto Gabrielle's hand.
The bard looked down in surprise to a small face beaming up at her. Xena glanced up and saw the woman finish her transaction with the butcher and rush over.
"I'm so glad Maxar found you."
"Max mom, just Max." The boy interjected.
The woman nodded, hushing her son, "I just wanted to thank you again for finding him. Please take this," she said pushing the small bundle into Gabrielle's hands, "it's nothing really. Just some sweet meats and stuffed dates, but I had to do something. Maxa... Max is so precious to me."
"I'm sorry I..." Gabrielle began confused.
"I won't take no for an answer." The woman continued, her eyes gentle. "What you did was very kind. Children can get so frightened. Thank you."
Before Gabrielle could think of an alternative refusal, the woman turned and grasping the boy's hand was gone. "What was that all about?" She finally wondered aloud, looking at Xena.
"Obviously mistook you for someone else." The warrior replied, picking up the horse's reigns once again. "Or someone that looks just like you."
Both women looked at each other remembering the words of the oracle's slave. "Lost child, darkness," Gabrielle thought. "Is the oracle a good guy or a bad one?" She wondered out loud.
"We'll find out." Xena replied.
Return to Bat Morda