Callisto walked through the dense forest with careful steps. Pausing a moment, she listened. Only the normal sounds of the forest assailed her ears. The last traces of a fire already a vanishing scent on the breeze. "Oh, you're good Raven. Very good. Now show yourself." She raised her voice for the last command and was startled by the nearness of the response.
"Trying to sneak up on assassins can be very hazardous to your health." Raven replied.
Callisto snapped her attention skyward to see Gabrielle's twin calmly standing among the thick branches. With casual grace, she swung down from the lowest branch and with a back flip landed behind the warlord.
Grinning with approval Callisto walked a slow circle around the assassin. "You've outdone yourself Raven." She murmured. "You look exactly like the irritating blond." The clothes were a perfect match, even the worn detail of the Amazon style fighting staff. In every way she duplicated the bard's appearance. "Now put out your hand." Callisto commanded.
Raven did as she was asked and before she could draw her hand back, a dagger flashed in the warrior's hand cutting a small gash into the palm of the assassin's hand. "Ow!" Raven exclaimed, drawing her hand back angrly. She was not seriously hurt, but the cut would leave a scar.
"I intend to know exactly who is who." Callisto explained, although Raven hadn't asked for an explanation.
"You mean the fact that the bard is the dead one isn't good enough for you?" Raven shot back, sucking on her bleeding palm.
"Oh, that." Callisto laughed. "There's been a change of plan."
"I don't change plans, Callisto." Raven growled.
In a lightning move the warrior unsheathed her sword, flipped over the head of the assassin and held the steel tip to the base of Raven's back. "If you don't want me to run you through, you'll start now." She hissed.
"When you said 'irritating blond' I think you were referring to the wrong one." Raven muttered with a shrug. "So what is our new plan?"
"You are going to take the brat's place, but you're not going to kill her. I want her captured. Alive." Raven's silence told Callisto all she needed to know about how the assassin saw her plan. "It is not as risky as you think. There is someone else who is going to join my little party. Once I have her and the brat I'll be ready to properly entertain Xena. I think revenge is a dish best served after a long meal. Don't you agree?"
Raven turned and stepped into the extended sword, letting the blade nick a scratch in her abdomen, oblivious to the blood. "Revenge is a dish only worth serving if it will be consumed. Your dinner guest may very well decide she does not want to sit for a long meal. Revenge, Callisto, is pointless unless eaten."
"Oh, Xena will stay alright." Callisto said, eyes shining in their insanity.
"Callisto, you are a fool." Raven replied shaking her head sadly.
Striking out with a backhand, Callisto's fist was blocked. Deftly Raven grabbed her arm and with more speed and strength than the warlord would have given her credit for, she found herself flipped in the air, flat on her back and gasping for air.
Turning her back Raven clearly spoke as she walked away. "I've let you mark me twice Callisto, don't try for a third or I'll kill you."
"We'll see about that little girl." Callisto growled, getting to her feet.
Calmly, Raven pivoted back. "This disguise is working better than you think Callisto. Remember I am not sweet Gabrielle. I kill for a living, and while I have yet to kill an employer... you are defiantly pushing me. I will do your plan your way. But don't for a moment think you can bully me the way you do Theodorus or the rest of your men. I'll work for you until this is over, but you don't own me. Unlike you, I'm used to working alone. Killing in a thick forest without an army to back me up. You however, while tactically brilliant, are a warlord- not an assassin. Don't taunt me, show some respect and we'll get along fine."
Callisto considered the words, sounding so foreign coming from Gabrielle's face. Raven had a point, Callisto granted that. "Very well, Raven, friends." Sheathing her sword she closed the distance between them. "So I take it you're ready to make the switch?"
"Not quite." Raven replied. "There are still a few things I think I should practice." To Callisto's amazement she had shifted into Gabrielle's voice. The phrasing, cadence, tone of her speech, it had the gentle warm quality of the bard. "I was wondering Callisto," Raven/Gabrielle said with a light laugh, "how well can you impersonate Xena?"
"Well enough." Callisto replied with the flat tone of the Warrior Princess.
"Good." Raven/Gabrielle said as a sultry smile eased across her face. Easing a gentle hand behind the warrior's neck she drew Callisto in and covered startled lips with her own. Breaking the passionate kiss Callisto's eyes sparkled with desire.
"I'm so glad I decided to be friends." She murmured, drawing the assassin down to the forest floor.
Raven monitored herself with the attention to detail of a perfectionist. What was clearly fun and games to the warrior was of life saving import to the assassin. Focusing, she was able to clearly see Callisto as Xena. "Not too much muscle," she told herself as she straddled the warrior, trailing teasing kisses down the exposed line of throat. Forceful hands tugged at her top; Raven gently captured Callisto's hands in her own and after transferring both wrists to her left hand, pinned them above the warrior's head on the forest floor. "Not so fast Callisto," she breathed, "I'm the one who needs to practice, not you."
Callisto sighed with delight as Raven loosened the straps on her armor with her free hand. Not taking her lips from the warrior's skin she deftly removed the pieces of leather and chain mail. "Slower, Raven- tempo's off," she chided herself as she eased her body between Callisto's legs.
Recalling the intimate details from Xena and Gabrielle's numerous occasions of love making, Raven concentrated on the subtle nuances of body language. "Hair over the right shoulder while kissing her breasts, shift to the left side as you trail down the abdomen. Bite at the hip bone and collar bone, little conversation, keep phrases short." In her mind, Raven could imagine Xena's responses. Starting slow enough would have the warrior arching her back against the ground offering the bard luscious breasts. Raven wiggled out of her skirt, while teasing and tasting the fullness of the warrior's breasts. Resting her thigh between the apex of Callisto's legs she slowly rose and moved her thigh against warm wetness as she returned to capture the warrior's hungry mouth.
After several slight rocking motions of the assassin's thigh Callisto was panting heavily. "Gods yeeessssss," she groaned, wrapping her fingers into strawberry blond hair. For a time Callisto completely forgot that this was not Gabrielle. "So this is what it's like to be Xena," she thought. "Enjoying the pleasures of this flesh at any given whim. I'm so glad I won't be killing her, right away." Callisto rolled her eyes back as Gabrielle's warm soft tongue made it's first forays into her center, lapping at her wetness, feasting slowly. Callisto pictured Xena watching such a display. Her bard willingly feasting on another. The warlord's pulse shot up at the idea. Xena's pain, the torment of watching the betrayal. The very idea sent Callisto to the precipice of climax. She could feel Gabrielle holding her there, not letting her back down, not sending her over the edge. After a blissful eternity of the bard's tongue working miracles between her legs, she was sent over that edge with such force Callisto had neither the will nor the means to stifle her cry of release.
Before Callisto could bring her breathing back to normal, Raven gracefully stood, feet still planted between the warrior's calves. Looking down at Callisto's blissful smile, she allowed herself a moment of professional pride. "Thanks," Raven said simply, stepping away from the warrior and picking up a water skin. "I think I've got the hang of it."
"You certainly do." Callisto agreed.
"I'm going to the stream to clean up- don't follow me."
"But what about you?" Callisto asked, with a seductive smile easing across her features.
"Thanks, but no." Raven replied politely. "This wasn't about sex you fool," she thought to herself as she walked to the stream, "this is about survival: Mine."
Callisto laid back on the forest floor, smiled up at the trees letting out a light laugh. She felt very spoiled and was enjoying every moment of it. This was a bad time to remember that she couldn't let the assassin live. Still, at the moment she felt too good to let even that dampen her mood.
Beatrice paced back and forth, agitated. The alcove around the well was deserted save for herself and the Oracle, which only served to heighten her stress.
"Please love, you're exhausting me." Daphne remarked mildly from where she sat on a bench across from the well.
"I told her how important this was," Beatrice complained, "I don't know why she wouldn't come."
"They'll be here, Beatrice. Now, please, sit."
Beatrice turned with a retort then changed her mind. "How much longer, then?" She asked.
"Sometimes love I say things, not because I've seen it, but because I assume it." Daphne couldn't help but smile at her lover's look of frustration. "I don't understand why you get so consumed by this. I'm the one living with the vision after all."
Now it was the slave's turn to smile. Taking a seat on the bench next to the Oracle, she took her hand affectionately. "So you don't have to live with the vision and worry about it. Trust me Daphne, if I wasn't uptight about her absence, I suspect you would be."
Daphne shrugged, "I suppose you're right. You said she was with a warrior?"
"Yes, a big one. Beautiful, but not very friendly looking. Not that they ever are. Most definitely the eagle."
"Did you catch her name?"
Beatrice began to shake her head when a rich voice cut in.
"The name's Xena."
Both women turned to see the Warrior Princess calmly leaning against the water well. Arms crossed confidently across her chest, one leg folded against the stone well.
"Xena! I had no idea," Beatrice gasped.
Both women stood, but only Daphne crossed the short distance to face the warrior. "I'm Daphne." She said simply, noting Xena's look of controlled amazement.
Xena couldn't help but stare. The oracle's resemblance to Gabrielle was remarkable, aside from her clothing which was more affluent, the two could have been twins. "Is Gabrielle here?" Daphne asked after Xena had studied her for several moments.
"Perhaps." Xena replied evenly, a thin smile easing across her face. "I thought we'd talk first." Casually the warrior noted the ends of Daphne's strawberry blond hair. With a small sense of relief, she noticed that it was not freshly cut.
"I see." Daphne replied without offense. "Keeping her from harm's way. It seems I should suspect no less from the reformed Warrior Princess. I trust that the recent stories I've heard do mean you've altered course somewhat, and are not just on a vacation from blood lust?" Xena shrugged noncommittally. She knew the oracle was not deliberately trying to bait her. Unlike Gabrielle, Daphne did not seem too adept at small talk. "Very well," the oracle continued, looking intently at Xena. "You have doubts about me, I can see it. Let's have it, I'd like to know what I can say or do to assure you that Gabrielle's safety is also foremost on my mind. Any suggestions?"
"You're the Oracle."
"I can't believe you!" Beatrice blurted, "she's here at great personal risk..."
"Beatrice, please." Daphne implored. "I'll handle this, love."
"What does she mean 'great personal risk'?" Xena asked, an eyebrow arching.
Daphne shrugged, "I rarely leave the temple because the majority of my prophecies involve death. For some odd reason people think intimidating the messenger eradicates the message. A lot of people are reluctant to meet Hades' sister Celesta." Suddenly she smiled warmly, the simple act transforming her face, causing the air to catch in the warrior's throat, despite her reservations. She so looked like her Gabrielle. "Most but not all of my prophecies involve Celesta," Daphne continued. "I had a vision several months ago about King Gregor, or rather his son Gabriel." Daphne could see recognition in the warrior's eyes of the baby she and Gabrielle had saved. "In time he will marry and his wife will have a daughter. To honor his namesake, they will name the baby Xena. By the time Gabriel is grown he will have heard many stories about the bard he is named after and her warrior companion. His daughter will become the first female ruler of Gregor's kingdom, and do you know what she will be called Warrior Princess?" Daphne laughed, a light lyrical sound, "Xena, Queen of Hearts, because she will be so adored by her people."
"Oh, how sweet."
Daphne turned to the voice coming from a dark alcove off to her side. "Gabrielle?" She inquired gently.
Xena frowned and also turned her attention to the bard slipping from the shelter of darkness. Slowly she approached and stood toe to toe with the Oracle of Minos. "Unbelievable." She breathed and reached out a tentative hand to the oracle's face. Daphne didn't move, but let the bard touch her. A glance to Xena revealed the warrior's hand resting on her chakram. "Did you really see that in a vision?" Gabrielle asked, stepping around the oracle, studying her from all sides.
"Yes Gabrielle, I did." Daphne replied, "but for it to happen, you need to stay safe and make sure there are stories of you and Xena for the future King Gabriel to pass down."
"Perhaps you could elaborate a little on your vision?" Xena asked in a measured voice. "The unpleasant one."
"Very well, Xena, I'll explain what I can. My visions are usually steeped in symbolism, like most prophecy. I saw three women linked together as if parts of a three sided mirror. I've no doubt now that I am one, Gabrielle is another and someone else, a dangerous someone else, is the third. There is another woman I can't place. I see her as a vulture. Someone who sits and watches, pulling the strings from behind. The dark part of the mirror, the raven, kills the light part of the mirror, Gabrielle who I see as a sparrow. The champion of the fallen lightness, with a dark past of her own, who I can only assume is you Xena, will battle to avenge Gabrielle's death. You will win that fight, but when you do all else will be lost. I suspect you will return to the road of blood and Ares will stand in triumph as you press forward, leaving carnage in your wake."
Xena was quiet for a long moment. When she finally spoke it was to ask, "How do you fit in?"
Daphne shrugged. "I don't play much of a role other than seeing the vision play out. An attempt will be made on my life which will only serve to lure you to the trap set by the vulture and the raven. However I think if I play a larger role, it will completely offset the balance and void the prophecy."
"But what if you are the dark one?" Gabrielle asked, "this could be part of your plan to gain our trust then kill me."
Xena looked at Gabrielle a bit surprised. Granted, that had been a concern of her's, she was just surprised to hear the bard voice it.
Daphne nodded, "That is true. I suppose this will all hinge on whether you trust me or not. Search your feelings Gabrielle, am I the one you need to fear?"
Xena watched with clear blue eyes as the two women studied each other. A glance revealed Beatrice doing the same. Finally the bard nodded. "I trust her Xena. She isn't the one who wants to hurt me." With a sigh the slave started breathing again, and Xena realized she'd held her own breath as well.
"What do you propose?" The warrior asked.
After a quick glance to her slave, the oracle answered. "I think Gabrielle and I should switch places."
"No!" Beatrice pleaded, "Daphne, you can't. The danger, you could..."
Daphne turned with gentle eyes and approached her lover. She spoke softly but her words were for the warrior and bard as well as her slave. "Love, I think this has to be. I couldn't be in any better care than that of Xena. Besides, you're not going to go on a bloody rampage should something happen to me."
"You've known this all along?" Beatrice asked, her voice quietly accusing.
Daphne looked away. "Not exactly, but it is all falling into place now, after seeing Gabrielle and realizing the eagle in question is Xena."
Tears were beginning to well up in her eyes as Beatrice continued, "you've told me you've seen my death. Daphne, have you seen yours?"
"How can I answer that Beatrice? I've seen my death many times. Had you not happened in my life, I'd be dead already. I see my death as an old woman, I also see it now. I'm an Oracle Beatrice. Every time I understand a strand of fate, the warp and weft of life's tapestry changes as does my place in it. The answer to your question is yes, this may be my end, but it might not." Daphne glanced over at Xena. "I trust Xena with my life, as I trust you with Gabrielle's."
"What do you think, Xena?" Gabrielle asked as Daphne gently held her softly sobbing lover.
"I think she's right Gabrielle. You trust her, if what she's said is the truth, then you would be safer in the temple than with me." Xena answered absently, strangely absorbed by the sight of the oracle and her lover. Something seemed right about the decision that had been reached, she could almost feel the approval of the Fates. It also added an amount of gravity to the situation that was uncomfortable. She turned to Gabrielle, her azure eyes intense, taking in every feature of the bard. "Gabrielle," Xena said her name as tenderly as she could, "you've never shied away from a fight and it isn't that I think you incapable of handling this one, but I think you should do as Daphne suggests. I love you more than I've ever loved anything, and I want you to be safe." Xena lowered her voice even further, "I also think Beatrice is going to need your help, whatever the outcome."
Gabrielle nodded, taking the warrior's hands in her own. "I know Xena. And for once I agree with you."
Breaking away from their embrace, but still with a protective arm draped around her slave's shoulders Daphne walked back to the well. "I don't know what type of attempt will be made on the Oracle's life, but it will be a ruse. I think intended to lure you into the city."
Xena nodded. "What is the chance that our meeting has already voided this prophecy?"
Daphne shook her head. "Until I have another vision with the same or similar symbols I've no way of knowing. Anything is possible. For all I know the darkness could have been struck dead by lightning or highway robbers last night and all of this is pointless."
"Somehow I don't think we'll be that lucky." Gabrielle interjected.
Daphne grinned, "I agree. Still, the real drawback to prophecy in general is the uncertainty of it all. But I'd rather be prepared for the worst even as we hope for the best."
"When will you make the switch?" Beatrice asked sullenly.
"I'd say tonight." Xena replied. "I don't think you should risk another meeting out here." the warrior gripped the slave's forearm with a strong hand. "I'll protect her with my life Beatrice. Nothing will happen to her."
Beatrice nodded. "If it were anyone but you Xena, I'd refuse."
The four separated again for a moment of quiet good-byes. Beatrice started crying again, and Daphne forced a face of bravery that she did not entirely feel. Gabrielle let several silent moments go by before she finally spoke.
"Xena." She said gently, "I know you're uncomfortable. You're torn between wanting me safe, and wanting me with you." Xena looked up into the green eyes that could read her so well. Gabrielle continued, "I'm torn too. I honestly can't think of a safer place to be than in the protection of your arms. But this is right, you and I both feel it. I'm glad you've got the confidence in me now to... protect myself as well as someone else."
"It's not just that Gabrielle." Xena interjected. "I meant what I said. I love you more than anything. Yes I know you can take care of yourself, in many ways better than I can. You're not a little girl any more. Not that I ever really thought you were..."
"Even when I acted like it?"
Xena grinned, the crooked smile that made the bard beam with love. "You were just being endearing." She replied, drawing Gabrielle into a tight embrace.
"I love you Xena." Gabrielle murmured into Xena's chest, as she felt the powerful heart hammer under the leather. She lifted her head to receive her warrior's kiss, and reluctantly broke away.
A quick survey of the alcoves around the well and the two streets leading to the well revealed them all deserted. With a curt nod from the warrior, bard and oracle began to undress.
"What happens if I'm called upon for some Oracle type duty?" Gabrielle asked, minutes later looking down at her new outfit.
"Don't worry." Daphne replied, adjusting the strings on Gabrielle's green top. "Beatrice will help you with anything that should come up. She knows my job better than I do." Picking up the Amazon fighting staff she added, "What's the stick for?"
Xena gently took it from her. "It's a staff, and I don't think you'll be needing it." She smiled at Gabrielle's giggle. "We'll be staying a short distance from the city. We'll be easy to find after the failed... attempt. If nothing happens in three days, Beatrice and I will meet back here to discuss our options. Agreed?"
All three women nodded, "I should have another vision by then if there's been a change." Daphne nodded. After another quiet goodbye both pairs of women departed the village.
That night Xena smiled into her soup. They were camping again, in the outskirts of the Minos fields. Both women were uncomfortable with small talk and without words had agreed to accept it. Daphne was amazed by everything she saw; it was clear she had never been out of the city. Still, it was Xena who was surprised when the oracle presented a fresh picked bouquet of herbs to flavor their soup. "Just because I don't seen them in the wild, does not mean I don't recognize them from the kitchen," had been the oracle's dry reply.
With the unspoken concern that someone might be watching them, Daphne kept her comments about her life minimal and vague. "I do so love to watch the stars come out." She said as the sun hid behind the horizon. "We've a balcony... back home... where I'd sit in the evenings and watch the show."
"I've always been impressed by their variation." Xena said, finishing the last of her soup. "I mean at a first glance they all seem like little white points of light, but when you look, really look, they're different shades of reds and yellows as well."
"I didn't think warriors spent much time star gazing," Daphne said with a smile.
"I've been doing more of it recently," Xena replied quietly, a tad embarrassed.
"I know," Daphne said, her voice gentle, "love does that to you." Xena snapped her eyes up causing an even wider smile to grace the oracle's lips. "Don't worry, Xena. I promise not to tell her."
"Very funny Gabrielle." Xena grumbled, causing more smiles and laughter.
"Okay, lets go over this again. I cause a quiet distraction by the river. We assume Xena comes alone, letting Gabrielle sleep. You knock out the bard and take her..."
"Yes and you take her place. What is the problem Raven?" Callisto ranted impatiently.
"The problem is the assume part and the fact that a distraction by the river may get my clothes wet and will make it almost impossible to get to the campsite before the warrior. You can't simply feign sleep after running one hundred yards."
"Fine! Then what?"
Raven took a deep breath. She needed to find some way to handle the madwoman and soon, or decide to kill her and get it over with. Absently, she looked at the ground and her eyes fell on the map of the area Callisto had brought. A stand of trees near the entrance to the city held her attention. A plan began to take shape.
"Wow, would you look at this place?" Gabrielle breathed as Beatrice lead the bard into the temple of Artemis. A small anteroom opened up into the main chamber of the temple. Mosaics and graceful statuary were softly lit by the light from hundreds of candles. They were alone, a fact for which Gabrielle was supremely grateful. "Will I have to do anything here?" She asked quietly as they neared the towering statue of the virgin goddess.
Beatrice shook her head. "No. Daphne consults with the temple priestesses every morning but that happens in a chamber that joins our house to the temple. This way." Leading the bard by the hand they passed through a curtain behind the marble goddess. Through a doorway and down a narrow hall, another door opened into a comfortable room. There was a small fireplace, a low table, two couches and several piles of soft cushions on the floor. "This is where you'll meet with the high priestess of the temple tomorrow morning. She'll ask you how you're feeling and if anything of any import is going on at the temple she'll let you know. Don't feel compelled to give her grand prophecies, Daphne is highly irregular in that department."
Gabrielle nodded, taking it all in. Passing through the next door her breath caught in her throat. Obviously the main room of a private residence, it was elegant but not opulent. Her eyes traveled across the main room slowly. Large windows at the back let in the last of the day's light, and several candles were lit throughout the room making it light, but cozy. Every where the bards eyes landed there was something. A book, scroll, vase, pillow, or statue. The overall effect was cluttered, but charmingly so. "This is so strange." Gabrielle whispered. "I've never seen this place in my life, but it feels so comfortable."
Beatrice sighed, "I'm not surprised Gabrielle. Daphne did the decorating. It's her personality you see surrounding you. While she isn't much for idle conversation, she has other ways of putting people at ease." Gabrielle absently nodded and was about to step further into the room when a gentle hand restrained her. "If you don't mind, it's our custom to take our shoes off before entering. Don't worry, the floor is quite warm."
Gabrielle did as she was asked and slipped her boots off, putting them on a stand in the doorway obviously meant for that purpose. To her surprise the stone floor was comfortably warm, as were the eclectic rugs that carpeted the floor. Beatrice followed her into the room and answered her silent question. "Water flows from a nearby hot spring under the floor on it's way to her father's palace. In the summer we keep the place cool by diverting the water away from here."
"What's it like," Gabrielle asked, "living with an oracle?" A moment later she blushed. The question seemingly came from nowhere, and she remembered that Daphne might be a painful subject for the salve at the moment. To her surprise Beatrice smiled warmly.
"Speaking to someone else who lives with an entity larger than life, I think you know Gabrielle. But to answer your question, Daphne isn't an oracle all of the time. She isn't all knowing, or always right. Sometimes she's rather thick headed and stubborn." Gabrielle nodded in agreement, Xena could be like that too. "But there is no denying that she is different. She has more insight, a quicker grasp of things. Often I feel... well, mundane and ordinary." Gabrielle nodded again, she knew that feeling too. "Once I asked her why there even were Oracles. Daphne told me that Oracles are the Fate's way of keeping the Gods honest. Since the Gods cheat, Fate gives special insight to some to compensate and maintain a balance."
Gabrielle strolled around the room considering the slave's words. Distracted by an unusual set of stones on the shelf she didn't realize she was speaking until the question was out. By then it was too late. "Why does she have a slave? I mean, she doesn't seem like the type."
Quickly looking at the woman studying her, Gabrielle felt a hundred shades of embarrassment at once. "I'm sorry Beatrice, I didn't..."
"It's okay, really." Beatrice had stepped behind a low counter to the side of the room and began to prepare some tea. "Technically I'm not really a slave. Daphne burned the papers years ago. But the fact is, her father King Minos III, like all of the kings before him endorses the practice. Daphne has argued that it isn't morally or economically right but she won't be in much of a position to make changes until she takes the throne." If she lives that long, Beatrice thought bitterly. "People are slow to change their views and they won't change at all unless pushed, but she has little leverage at the moment. Still, she is not opposed to framing unrelated, unpleasant prophecy in the context of the evils of slavery and some people are worried, but not enough."
Beatrice made her way back around the counter and handed the bard a steaming cup of tea. Gabrielle inhaled the steam cautiously, eyes brightening in the process. "What is this? It smells wonderful."
"An odd concoction of herbs that until now only Daphne could tolerate. I think it tastes like swamp water, but apparently I'm in the minority."
Beatrice showed Gabrielle the rest of the house. They sat together for a time on the balcony watching the stars come out, then returned to the main room. After a brief argument involving who got to sleep on the couch, Beatrice retired to bed. Gabrielle sat up for several hours reading through the writings of someone so different, yet so like herself. "I wonder what Xena is doing right now?" She thought as she absently pulled another scroll from the shelf. She could almost envision a somewhat awkward warrior princess trying to reassure an untalkative "bard". At the same time Gabrielle pondered the slave's words. She and Daphne were so much alike, yet Beatrice spoke of Daphne's intellectual quickness and sharp wit with something akin to awe. As if looking at a painting from the back she began to see how she saw Xena, and realized that within her there was something Xena might have found equally as impressive. With a bashful smile on her lips at the thought she turned her attention to the scroll.
"I don't remember much of my birth. I suppose I should be grateful, I'm afraid if I did I'd be claustrophobic or something. I do remember a bit about the womb though. It was dark. Dark and crowded. Dark, crowded but warm. Quite nice actually. There were two of us. I think I was born first, but as I said I can't remember. I realize now that the woman I've known as mother wasn't really so. Mother, I imagine was a girl who got herself into a whole heap of trouble with the King of Minos. Or maybe she was a slave, I simply don't know. Anyway I suspect mother wanted a child very badly so father took one, me, and gave me to her to raise. The other woman kept the other. I don't know what ever happened to her. Perhaps she had an easier time of it, I don't know. I suspect someday I'll meet her again. Life has a funny way of completing cycles.
"Still, people often talk about having someone so like them yet completely unrelated out there. I wonder if that is the case for me too? Is there someone, in a village somewhere with my eyes and my face living a different life? Is she a mother? A crafts woman? Perhaps she seeks a life of adventure? Sometimes I think my life is one of adventure. Many nights I go to sleep honestly doubting I'll ever wake up, often hoping I won't. But then the headaches subside and I'm given another chance to leave some kind of impression on the world around me. What greater adventure could there be than to live one's life to the fullest? Ah, I know, to live one's life with someone else to the fullest, that'd have to be it. I think there is an innate redeeming quality to lives lived in tandem. Left to their own devices, isolation tends to bring out the worst in people, while companionship somehow encourages us to be our better selves. But some people, who live alone and isolated ripple with the support of community and others, while some blissfully partnered are completely alone. I must be missing something."
Gabrielle put the scroll down. What an odd way of writing she thought. Unedited thoughts, written candidly. Intimate and personal, but not quite a private journal. Clearly these words were intended to be read by others. Gabrielle noticed a date at the bottom of the scroll. Her eyes went wide checking to make sure she read it accurately. No mistake. According to the date listed, if Daphne was the author, she couldn't have been more than ten at the time she wrote it. Selecting another scroll even farther down in the stack, Gabrielle opened it and read. Events of a child's day were dutifully recorded by the child, nothing unusual. She picked up more of the same until she picked one that discussed nightmares. Gabrielle read out loud.
"Last nights dream was terrible. It was funny because there were only women it. But it wasn't terrible because of that, that part was rather nice. Except for the mean ones. And there were several of those. Two women wore funny outfits; like walking tack shops. Leather and shiny stuff. One was bad, the other sort of bad, but not really. Or not right then, it was hard to tell. They were all grown. No one like me, but several women looked like me, one of them bad as well. The bad thing was, everybody died. One woman, her arms tied up above her head was impaled by a big spear, another had her head cut off and the third, the bad one was killed by one of the tack shop women. It was sad because the tack shop woman had a way to save two of the women, right at her fingertips. But she didn't know it. I hate dreams about death, I wish they would stop."
Slowly Gabrielle put down the scroll and picked up her tea. After a couple of thoughtful sips she put the mug down and carefully put the scrolls back. Something was nagging at her, only she wasn't sure exactly what it was. "If Daphne saw all of this before," she muttered to herself, "there should be some clue as to how to end it." With a grimace she noticed that her back was stiff. She stood, frowning at the loud crunch from her back and walked around the room. With a disappointed sigh she remembered that she left the scroll case with Daphne's portrait in her bag on Argo's saddle. There was nothing to be done about it. She'd have to return the portrait when all of this was over. Again she was drawn to the shelf with unusual rocks. Many of them were egg shaped, made of different minerals. Some she recognized, most were foreign to her.
On another shelf all alone, was an ornate scroll case. Giving in to temptation, she eased it from it's perch and opened the end. After carefully unrolling it's contents she studied the complex diagrams pictured. Clearly a work of scientific study, the diagrams illustrated a series of angles and projections. Daphne seemed to have many interests. With a shrug, Gabrielle carefully returned the scroll to it's case and placed it back on it's shelf. After pouring herself another cup of tea, she returned to the desk. Not the least bit sleepy, she decided to read another scroll.
"You're up early."
Gabrielle jumped at the cheerful voice that greeted her from the bedroom doorway. Shaking her head in disbelief she quickly counted the number of scrolls on the desk. There were seven.
"Have you been up long?" Beatrice asked as she made her way to the kitchen.
"Ah, I got to reading, and forgot to go to bed." Gabrielle replied, embarrassed.
Beatrice smiled, unsurprised. "Probably the tea. Or maybe because it's a strange house?" She continued among the clatter of dishes, "I quit reading Daphne's writings a long time ago. For some reason every one I picked up somehow seemed to pertain to me. It was too unsettling."
"I know what you mean." Gabrielle murmured quietly.
"Well," Beatrice continued, "why don't you have a bath, if you'd like one. I'll have something for you to eat when you're done. It's still a couple of hours before you're to meet with the high priestess."
Gabrielle felt relaxed and oddly refreshed after her bath. The light breakfast Beatrice had prepared for her was one of the best she'd ever eaten, she decided as she finished the last of her eggs and fruit. When it was time the two adjourned to the anteroom right outside the main door.
"Ursa, the priestess will come in and sit. Offer her some tea, she's already eaten though so don't offer food. If she accepts the tea, and she usually does, I'll go get it. When I'm gone she may ask if you've had any visions. Just tell her no. If she looks disappointed don't be surprised, and take no offense. That's just the way she is." Gabrielle nodded. "She may talk a bit about temple news. Perhaps ask your advice on something or other." Beatrice studied Gabrielle carefully and patted her arm affectionately. "Answer however you'd like. I'm sure you'll do fine."
Before Gabrielle could respond the door opened. She sat, trying to appear as calm as possible as a lone figure entered the room. The High Priestess of the temple of Artemis was thin, dressed in a shroud with her face covered. Her eyes quickly scanned the room when they came to rest on Gabrielle, the bard's breath caught in her throat.
"Callisto." Gabrielle said, matter-of-factly, when she could speak.
"Why my dear Oracle, you are good." Callisto replied smoothly, removing the shroud covering her head.
"It's what I do." Gabrielle said simply.
"Get up. You're coming with me."
"You can't be serious." Beatrice blurted, standing in between Callisto and Gabrielle. "Daphne doesn't leave the... ugh."
"Oh, I'm dead serious." Callisto said as she watched the slaves body fall to the ground. Instantly Gabrielle was over her, checking for a pulse. Callisto had kicked her full in the chest, knocking out the wind and breaking several ribs in the process. If she'd drawn her sword, Gabrielle was certain the slave would be dead. As it was, she was only unconscious.
"Are we ready my dear?" Callisto asked sweetly, slowly drawing her sword, after removing the last of her ceremonial shroud. Petrified Gabrielle nodded mutely and stood. She walked past Callisto as indicated and distantly heard the whoosh of the sword hilt as it came down, connecting with the base of her skull turning her world to darkness.
"It's about time, where in Hades were you?" Raven asked, annoyed as Callisto sauntered into the clearing of trees.
"I had to pick up a package. I'm here now. Where's our diversion?"
"A few people have come by, but not many. Didn't want the blood to dry now did I?" Raven asked sarcastically. "Look, we don't have much time. Xena and Gabrielle will be here soon." Her patience with the enigmatic psychotic was growing thin. Before Callisto could respond, physically or otherwise Raven cocked her head. Her sensitive hearing picked up the sounds of a horse and wagon. At her signal Callisto shrank into the trees as Raven stepped onto the nearby road. Raven laid down in the road, folding one leg to her side. Sure enough a horse drawn cart came walking around the bend in the road. A woman and man were seated in the front, both exclaiming as they saw the prone figure.
"Nestor stop! She looks hurt."
Eyes partly closed Raven saw the big man approach. When he was in range her hands shot up boxing his ears. He screamed in pain and surprise, a moment later he was silent, his neck broken. Raven rolled the body off of her as she heard the screams of the woman in the cart suddenly silence. Standing, Raven saw Callisto in the front seat of the cart, the woman impaled on her sword. Callisto got down from the cart and proceeded to walk around to the open back end. Abruptly standing up in the straw an adolescent female stood holding a pitchfork. Shaking with terror she held the crude weapon menacingly at Callisto.
"Take our money, but let me and my brother go." The girl stammered. Callisto glanced, and there partly buried in the straw was a whimpering child.
"Take it!" the girl repeated, then stopped. Looking oddly surprised she slowly sank to the straw. Callisto saw the knife point protrude from her neck, just below the chin. As the girl fell forward Callisto saw the rest of the dagger imbedded to the hilt in the girl's neck. Expertly thrown. The wound didn't bleed very much, and the girl's death had been instant. With a glance she looked over at Raven.
"I'm so glad you don't have qualms about killing children." She said.
"Children die like everyone else." Raven replied without emotion. "Now get on with it and be quick about it." Callisto shrugged and hopped up into the cart approaching the crying child. Face down, mostly buried in straw, hiding his face with small hands. Callisto hefted her sword and with one swift stroke severed the boy's head from his body.
"Okay," Callisto said hoping down from the cart. "What now?"
"Now," Raven replied, surveying the trees, "we move this cart over there. We don't have much time so we'll have to set up the bodies quickly. You'll have to do what I tell you. I can't afford to get bloody."
Callisto nodded and, taking the horse by the bridle, proceeded to lead it into the stand of trees.
Daphne woke with a start to the sound of stone grating on metal. Surprised at first by the canopy of sky and branches above her, she quickly remembered where, and who she was. Sitting, she stretched her arms and smiled at Xena who was sitting on the other side of a small fire, legs crossed, sharpening her sword. Daphne was impressed. Always graceful, precise in her movements. Simply magnificent.
Xena noticed her staring and asked, "What?"
Daphne smiled. "You're completely at ease with who you are."
Xena shrugged. "Sometimes."
"I don't mean your past, I mean your present. Many people with less baggage than you have trouble accepting themselves. But you have. You know who you are and what you're about. You're honest with yourself Xena, that is unusual... and refreshing." Daphne twisted where she sat, popping several bones in her back into place. The hard ground had taken its toll on the pampered oracle. Still, if she was physically uncomfortable, she seemed to Xena energized by the newness of the experience.
Xena ran the sharpening stone along the edge of the blade several more times, thinking. "I don't have time to play games with myself. I've too much to do, to atone for. Knowing who I am and accepting it is... practical." She finally said.
Daphne laughed. "Far be it for me to accuse you of being deep just for the fun of it."
Xena grimaced. "And you know who you are?"
Daphne smiled. "Sometimes." After a moments reflection she continued. "Yes warrior, I know who I am, and what I am. While I've no dark past to struggle against, there is the future that chooses to look over my shoulder from time to time. I don't relish knowing when and how people will die, especially when there is nothing I can do about it. I see, and try to figure out how it all fits together. You my friend are able to act, for good or ill, leaving deep footprints on the planet."
"Is that what this is about?" Xena asked, sheathing her sword and checking the stew pot she had set near the fire to warm. "Your opportunity to act?"
Daphne twisted her head from side to side, grimacing at the stiff protest of her neck muscles. "I suppose. But this is not something I took on lightly. I don't have a death wish, but I do know there are things more important in life than my survival. I'm acting here because I have the opportunity, yes. And because I have a duty to do so as well. I think any... practical person would agree that the old Xena is not something we want to see unleashed on the country side."
"The 'old Xena' isn't coming back!" Xena said fiercely. She turned away, seething. She could feel it, the anger that always churned within her. It was closer to the surface now. It always was in battle, and this was a battle. A battle to keep Gabrielle safe. Gabrielle. Just thinking about the bard brought a sense of calm to her otherwise raging soul. Xena was constantly amazed at the degree Gabrielle was able to read her and provide comfort and joy to a reformed warlord in need of healing and happiness.
"And what if you killed her?" Daphne asked, breaking into her reverie. Xena looked up, eyes dark and dangerous, furious at the intrusion into her thoughts. "That is why I'm here." Daphne added softly.
The two women broke their fast in silence, Xena still mulling over Daphne's unusual manner. She spoke lightly enough, but all of her words seemed to land on Xena like heavy boulders. For her part, Daphne was absorbed in the experience. It was all so new. The discomfort, the vastness of the countryside and the magnitude of what was at stake. She knew that this could be the last day of her life, and while she wasn't happy about it, she was at peace.
After breaking camp Xena finished saddling Argo. "Would you like to walk or ride?" She asked nodding to the horse.
"Ride? On that?" Daphne exclaimed, stunned.
"She isn't a that, she is a she. Argo to be specific." Xena replied patiently and she effortlessly mounted the animal.
"But she's huge," Daphne protested.
"Alright, up you go." Xena smiled holding out her hand. "So like Gabrielle," she thought.
Daphne sat rigidly behind the warrior, afraid to look down. Afraid to look anywhere but at the dark mane of Xena's hair that was directly in front of her face. She was certain that by the days end she would have aching muscles in places where she didn't even know she had muscles. She tried putting her hands on her thighs, but was sure she'd fall off when the huge animal took it's first step.
"Your arms go here." Xena explained patiently as she put the oracle's arms around her waist. "Hold on to me, I'm not going anywhere."
Daphne nodded as she complied. "Hey! Your armor's cold."
"Not for long." Xena replied, grinning to herself as she urged Argo into an easy walk.
"Uh, where are we going?" Daphne asked when her fear subsided enough to allow speech.
"Originally we were heading to Crios. There is a beach there that you wanted to see. I don't think it would make sense to hang around and look like I'm waiting for something, so we are going to proceed with our original plans."
"We weren't going through Minos?" Daphne asked, surprised.
"No. I avoid cities that trade in slaves whenever possible. We were getting supplies in that village. That was as close to Minos as we were going to get."
"I understand." Daphne replied quietly.
They had ridden most of the day when something caught the warrior's eye. Something strange glinted in the nearby stand of trees, in the forest not far from the city's entrance. She signaled Argo to stop and peered into the trees with keen eyes. A lone wagon sat motionless among the trees without an animal to pull it. Two figures stood near the wagon but their movements were odd. Urging Argo to the edge of the forest, Xena eased Daphne off the war horse's back. "Stay here."
Approaching cautiously Xena scanned the surrounding forest. It was quiet, the usual chirps and movements of small animals strangely absent. Her eyes studied the ground. The cart had been pulled into the forest by a horse, a rather large one from the looks of the prints, and it was being led by someone in boots. When she got closer her eyes narrowed in anger at the sight. A man stood by the cart, his movements jerky, clearly dead. His weight was supported by thin ropes that had been threaded through his body in several places and tied to the branches of trees above him. A rope around his neck held his head aloft and ropes had been run through each hand as well as each thigh. At the other end of the cart a woman was made an equally macabre puppet. She peered into the cart, azure eyes flaring in fury at the carnage. Putting her anger aside she studied the still corpses looking for a sign as to who or what was responsible for the massacre. A young boy, head severed, most likely by a sword not an axe. The adolescent female killed by a dagger through the back of the neck, it was still protruding from her throat, expertly thrown.
Carefully taking a step back, Xena studied the forest floor. She could see where the horse had been unhitched from the cart and lead away. Hard to believe this gruesome scene was the result of a simple horse theft. Xena noticed two different sets of footprints around the hanging figures. One was the same boots that led the cart into the forest, the second, somewhat smaller made by lighter grade boots. She listened again. Whoever did this couldn't be too far away, the rhythmic dripping of blood as the heavy drops splashed on the ground proved it. With a calloused hand she touched the cheek of the female figure. She wasn't warm but she wasn't as cold as might be expected. The skin was still too responsive, these people couldn't have been dead for more than an hour. Glad Daphne was not here to see the carnage, Xena decided to return to the oracle. The city guards would have to be notified, and the warrior would feel better with the oracle in her line of vision.
Daphne watched Xena ride off. Horse and warrior moved as one, the grace in their movements hypnotic. "Beautiful, isn't she?" A voice said from the tree above her. Before Daphne had a chance to look up, a figure dropped out of the tree and landed lightly in front of her. "And once again the irritating blond is left behind."
"Hades! Callisto, must you make a production out of everything?" Another voice said from behind Daphne. There was something in the tone of the voice, something familiar.
"Sister," Daphne whispered to herself as she heard rather than felt the impact of sword pommel on the back of her head. She slumped to the ground feeling an odd sense of connection to her assailant.
"She could have yelled." Raven hissed as she stood over her fallen twin. "And that would have undone everything."
Callisto looked skyward, clearly ignoring the reproach.
"At least help me get her on the horse." Raven fumed, stooping to pick up an arm.
The two women positioned the unconscious oracle onto the back of the pack horse, securing the front arms around the animal's neck. "Alright, bring Xena to me this time tomorrow." Callisto said as she prepared to mount the animal behind the prone figure.
"Not so fast Callisto." Raven said quietly, restraining her with a hand on her arm. When the warlord looked at her questioningly the assassin pointed in the direction the warrior had gone. "Xena will be back soon, too soon for you to get away without another distraction."
"And?" Callisto urged.
"You need to knock me out. If Gabrielle is injured, Xena won't leave her to chase after who ever killed that family. Hit me here," Raven pointed to the side of her head above and behind her right ear, "hard as you can to knock me out. But try not to do any permanent damage."
"With pleasure," Callisto said cheerfully and drawing back her armored hand, backhanded Raven with armored knuckles. Raven spun from the impact and fell into a heap on the forest floor.
Beatrice woke to a searing pain in her abdomen. She opened her eyes and gingerly touched her middle, gasping at the pain that she caused. She took several shallow breaths and looked around the room. As she feared, the bard was no where in sight. Gasping in pain she got to her knees then to her feet. Standing, she felt a bit better. "Xena," she thought to herself, "I've got to tell Xena." She started for the door then stopped. She wouldn't get outside the city gates the way she felt at the moment. She briefly thought of going to Daphne's father, the King, then thought better of it. Daphne hated consulting her father on anything, especially things he wouldn't understand. Like switching places with the Warrior Princess' companion and heading out of the city without so much as telling him. Heads would surely roll for that. Heading back to the bedroom Beatrice cried out at the pain from opening her dresser drawer. Taking several more shallow breaths she carefully rummaged through the drawer. Selecting a long piece of material, the extra lining from her winter cloak, she wrapped it around herself tightly. While her ribs still hurt, the support provided by the binding eased her pain a little.
Next she headed to the kitchen and in a small bowl began to quickly mix herbs. She put half of her mixture in a pouch and tied it to her waist, the rest she added water to make a thick paste. She spooned it into her mouth and after grimacing at the bitter taste, swallowed. That would dull the pain further, for awhile at least. Finally, as quickly as she dared, she left the temple and headed to the city gates and beyond, in search of Xena.
Raven could feel herself regain consciousness and proceeded with caution. She could feel strong warm hands gently touching the sides of her face, applying a cool moist cloth to her forehead. She was grateful for the soothing distraction from her searing headache. Before attempting to move her eyes, she listened. A slight clink of metal on leather, "this is Xena alright." Knowing that, she allowed her eyes to flutter.
"Daphne, can you hear me?" Xena asked gently.
"Daphne?" Raven thought, "who in Hades is Daphne?" Her body still relaxed Raven sank back into herself. She didn't know any Daphne. "A pet name for the bard perhaps?" She didn't think so, Xena had never used the name before. Granted there were plenty of endearments the amorous couple used for each other, but Raven was sure those words couldn't really be spelled. "Have you ever seen the Oracle of Minos?" Callisto's words surfaced in her mind. "There is someone else who is going to join my little party. Once I have her and the brat I'll be ready to properly entertain Xena." Raven began to suspect what Callisto had in mind. "I had to pick up a package." "That must be it," Raven was certain. Daphne must be the Oracle of Minos. "But if that was the case, and the oracle was with Xena..." she let the thought go. "Why would the oracle be with Xena?" She wondered. "Oracles see the future," she reasoned. Suddenly she began to feel uneasy. If the Oracle knew Gabrielle was in danger, and warned the warrior ahead of time... for the first time in a long while Raven was very afraid. "Think fast Raven," she warned herself, "you've got to pull it together one more time."
"Come on Daphne, wake up. You can do it." Xena urged. She touched her neck again, the pulse was strong, but there was no denying the seriousness of the blow she had taken. Again the eyes started to flutter then open.
"Welcome back." Xena smiled.
"My head... what happened?" Raven croaked.
"I was hoping you could tell me."
"I was, ah, standing here where you left me. And something came charging at me from there." Raven weakly raised her hand to point in the direction of the carnage. "I tried to see, but before I knew it something moved past me and... ouch!"
"Don't try to touch it." Xena warned, pulling the assassin's hand from where she tried to touch her wound. "You've taken a bad blow to the head, but I think you'll live."
Raven tried to nod but gave up, grimacing in pain. "Nice touch," she told herself. "Who are you?" She asked quietly.
"Me?" Xena asked in surprise.
"Have we met?"
"I guess that blow is worse than I thought, sometimes it's hard to tell with head wounds. Yes, you know me. My name is Xena and we met last night. Do you know who you are?" Xena asked, looking with concern into the assassin's eyes.
"Well you called me Daphne, so I guess that's a hint. I'm from Minos?"
"Yes," Xena confirmed, "you live near the temple of Artemis."
Raven couldn't hide a smile of satisfaction, but played it off as a joke, "some oracle. I never saw it coming."
Xena brought the waterskin to the assassin's lips. "Drink. Beatrice will have my head if you get dehydrated."
"Of course." Raven replied, trying hard not to sweat. "I can see faces, Xena, but I can't seem to put names to them.
Xena nodded. She'd seen that type of injury before. And from where the blow was located, it was entirely possible.
"It's okay. I suspect your memory will return in time. Try to rest, but don't sleep. I need you to stay awake." From her vantage point Xena had a clear view of the road, and they were far enough away from the carnage to keep it from the oracle's view. This was as good a place to stop as any. A quick survey of the area around the fallen oracle revealed heavy hoofprints heading back to the road. She would catch up with the butcher as soon as the oracle was safe.
Removing a blanket from Argo's saddle, Xena eased the injured woman to a sitting position and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. "Drink some more water," she urged, helping the assassin with the water skin. Something about murder scene didn't make sense. She'd checked the cart, a small satchel of money was nestled in a full basket of food. Nothing seemed missing. "Murder without purpose?" It just didn't add up. Xena considered returning to the gristly scene to cut down the corpses then thought better of it. The city guard would surely want to do an investigation. Besides, she didn't want to risk letting the oracle out of her sight if indeed the killer was nearby. "Might that have been the murder attempt?" she wondered and shook her head. If that blow was meant to kill it was misplaced.
Xena gazed absently up the road. She was missing something, she could feel it. Six murders. Were they related? Someone is playing with you Xena, and you know it. Smoothly the warrior's mind began to calculate possible scenarios. Staging and strategy, the meat and potatoes of military combat. She started with what she knew. The couple in the village, both necks cleanly broken; similar to the man in the forest. The female didn't fit the pattern; the sword strike to the abdomen was messy in comparison. The female adolescent was also unusual. A dagger had been used, but the strike was clean and again to the neck. And the boy. Xena forced back the anger welling within her. Blind rage was of no use at the moment. There was a time for rage and when that time came she vowed to satisfy it, but until then she needed to keep her mind clear.
Xena looked up at the clear sky. Dusk was approaching, soon the sky would be filled with brilliant oranges and reds. Xena was not particularly fond of sunrises or sunsets. She enjoyed the pre dawn sky- the indigo that faded to passionate blue. Sunsets were too much the color of blood, and blood was something she'd seen too much of today. "Too much of period," she thought.
In her warlord days Xena loved sunsets. The coming of night that would make any villager with an ounce of sense fear for his life. How she had been consumed by it: the power, the challenge, basking in fear like the warmth of a burned village. She knew she'd spilt enough blood to fill a river. Those that died by her sword and chakram as well as those that had died by her order made up her own personal Styx where her name was Death. Had she not put a stop to the madness would she still be capable of the atrocities she'd seen today. "I'd like to think not, but I might just be flattering myself." She shook her head sadly. "What would make someone do this? How can a heart be more cold than that of Xena, the Warrior Princess?"
"You're awfully quiet." A voice cut in to her thoughts, focusing Xena's attention to the present.
"I'm sorry Daphne, I was just thinking. Are you feeling any better?"
"My head doesn't hurt as much but my memory is still muddled."
"That will pass in time." Xena replied with more certainty than she felt. Some head injuries were permanent, and that one had potential. "I'll start a fire, you should eat something."
Raven nodded. "If I'm careful, I may even survive this," she thought. Relieved that the warrior was so consumed with her own dark thoughts to give her much notice, Raven let her eyes wander to the road. She followed the line of dirt as it disappeared into the distance towards the city of Minos. Her eyes narrowed at the vague shapes like smoke off in the distance. After a few moments of study, her stomach began to sink and her head began to throb anew. Someone was coming.
Beatrice began to cry tears of delight as the form of Xena standing by the road came into view. Barely conscious, she managed to bring her horse to a halt, falling from the saddle and into the warrior in the process. Xena could tell from the pallor of her skin that something was very wrong.
"Beatrice, what's wrong?" Xena asked as she quickly carried the slave to the fire and set her down next to Raven.
Struggling to focus, she replied, "Gab...Gabri..."
"Gabrielle," Xena urged, "What's happened to Gabrielle?"
Taking a couple of breaths the slave tried again, "taken... from the temple. She said... Callisto."
Xena's eyes narrowed in fury. "Who said 'Callisto', Beatrice? Did Gabrielle say it?" The slave nodded, then winced in pain as she grabbed her side. "Did Callisto do this?" Xena asked as she began to peel away the material bound around the slaves ribcage.
After pausing for another slight nod, Xena continued her examination. "What did you take?" She asked noticing the shallow pulse and temperature of the woman's skin. It was cold and damp to the touch.
With feeble fingers Beatrice tugged at the pouch at her side. Xena freed it from the slave's belt and inspected the contents. "Good thinking, she said crisply. Is this about how much you took?"
When Beatrice nodded again, Xena handed the pouch to Raven. "Mix up a little of this in that bowl," she said pointing. "Add a little water, then hand it to me."
Casually, Raven smelled the pouch as it was handed to her. Henbane, nightshade, some comfry and stinging nettle. "Interesting combination," Raven thought and got up to retrieve the bowl from where it sat by the supplies. A quick glance assured her that Xena's focus was on the slave. A small bouquet of cooking herbs sat next to the bowel. Carefully selecting several, she added them to a small amount of the herb mixture from the pouch.
"Did I use enough?" Raven asked as she handed the pouch back to the warrior. Xena glanced at the remaining herbs and nodded. Still keeping the bowl from the warrior's sight she added water and mixed. "Here," she said when she finished, handing over the bowl. "Remember, she's your lover," the assassin reminded herself. "You'll be alright." Raven added, as she gently took Beatrice's hand as Xena steadied her while she drank.
As if seeing her lover for the first time Beatrice looked puzzled. "Are you alright?" The slave asked, unsure as to why she voiced the question. The oracle looked fine to her.
"I took a blow to the head, I've lost some memory, but I'm fine." Raven smiled, in what she hoped was a familiar gesture.
"That must be it." Beatrice mumbled, feeling very sleepy.
"Rest now, I won't let anything happen to you." Beatrice looked into hard green eyes, trying very hard to be gentle and against her better judgement, drifted off to sleep.
Xena watched the exchange, her own thoughts distracted. She now had two injured charges, four corpses in need of burial and justice, and a name to attach to the whole mess. Callisto. Gabrielle was missing, assumed to be in the clutches of the madwoman. Oddly, that gave Xena a measure of comfort. "Callisto won't hurt Gabrielle without me there to witness it. She should be safe for now." Still, the number of bodies she'd seen in the last twenty-four hours was cause for concern. Murder wasn't out of character for the psychotic warrior, not hardly, but something about the six slain villagers was.
As she waited for dawn Xena worked through every combination of events she could think of. The end results did not narrow down the possibilities to her satisfaction.
"If Callisto and Daphne are in league with each other it would explain getting Gabrielle away from me to easily capture. But that doesn't fit, Gabrielle trusts Daphne. Gabrielle could be wrong? That doesn't fit either, she usually isn't- about people anyway.
"If Callisto planned to kill Gabrielle all along why did she bother to capture her? So, I have to watch. So where is the ruse? Daphne's head injury? Doesn't fit. If Daphne seen that she would not have suggested switching places. Still the non lethal attack was on the oracle. Could Daphne be mistaken in her ability to counter the future?"
Xena glanced around the campsite then closed her eyes. How many times had she won an easy victory by out thinking her opponent? Still, there had been a few battles where she had to rely on swift decisions and instinct because she had failed to outsmart her opponent ahead of time. As a warlord she'd been unbeatable. But she wasn't a war lord any more. "Or am I? Commit only enough forces necessary to win but not enough to divulge your strength. Life is not cheap but death is inetivable. Find out what it is they want and use that against them. Know your enemy."
Xena opened her eyes once more scanning the perimeter of the fire. Daphne and Beatrice slept side by side. The fire was burning low but warm so Xena left it. She closed her eyes again and went over everything she knew about Callisto.
Part 3 -(End)
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