Daphne awoke shivering uncontrollably. She felt warm arms encircle her, gently rocking, providing some comfort. "Beatrice?" she murmured, trying to open her eyes.
"No, it's Gabrielle." Gabrielle replied. "You were having some kind of nightmare. I didn't want to wake you, I've heard you're not supposed to do that. When it happens to Xena I just hold her and she usually quiets down."
Daphne opened her eyes to the dreary gray of a stone cell. The room was perhaps ten feet wide and twenty feet long, with iron bars across the length. A larger viewing area was on the other side of the iron bars. The only furniture in the room were several dilapidated palettes and a bucket of brackish water. The smell of mildew and rot permeated everything. The only light came from two torches on the wall outside the iron bars, another six feet away, well out of reach.
"I've read about dungeons surely, but this is the first time I've been in one."
Gabrielle smiled, "I've been in a few, and this one is damper than most. I think we're near the coast, but I'm not sure."
Daphne nodded, wincing at the pain the movement caused.
"Try to be still," Gabrielle urged, "for awhile at least, it'll take a while for you to get your bearings."
"How long have I been here? There was a woman..."
The bard nodded, "that was Callisto. Xena's arch-nemesis. The most evil person I've ever had the displeasure to meet. She gave you that smack on the back of the head, then I think she drugged you. You've been asleep for hours."
Daphne shook her head carefully. "She might have drugged me but she didn't hit me. I think Callisto is about to become the second most vile person you've ever met."
"The darkness you spoke of?"
"Yes, I think she's my twin sister. Gabrielle, she looks like us."
As the words sank in a chilling thought occurred to the bard. "Wait a minute. You were with Xena, what happened to her?"
"Oh, isn't that sweet." Callisto taunted as she stepped into view, her boots making surprisingly little sound on the stone floor outside the cell. "The look alikes are getting to know each other. And dressed like twins to boot."
At that moment Daphne noticed that Gabrielle was indeed wearing her customary outfit. "I was wearing this when I woke up." Gabrielle answered her silent question.
"You've got me Callisto, why not let her go?" The oracle asked, looking at the mad warrior with a neutral expression.
"That" Callisto interjected, nodding at Gabrielle "is Daphne, the famed Oracle of Minos. Daphne, meet Gabrielle: Warrior Slut or Bard Brat, take your pick."
"Charmed," Gabrielle said keeping her voice neutral. Maybe Callisto confusing them could somehow work to their advantage.
"The oracle is here for the same reason you are, dear Gabrielle. Xena has such a fondness for your face I thought I'd let her have more of it. Lets see if she loves you enough to realize who you really are, and save you and not someone else from certain death." Callisto gently ran her fingers across the iron bars as she contemplated her prisoners.
"Don't get too comfy kids." she added leaving the room, "you're going to get another roommate."
When the warrior was gone Daphne spoke in hushed tones, uncertain of their privacy. "Xena wasn't with me when I was captured. There was something up the road that she wanted to check out. I think she's fine."
"So if this twin of your's took your place, Xena would think she's you?" Gabrielle reasoned, mostly to herself, "But your twin will think Xena is expecting me." The bard paced back and forth counting off points on her fingers. "Well I don't think she'll be successful in any case. That could help us. For now I think it best if Callisto has us mixed up."
"I agree, but how were you captured? How is Beatrice?" Daphne asked, tugging on the bards skirt to keep her from pacing.
Gabrielle sat down and gently took the oracle's hands. "I'm sorry Daphne, she was hurt. Callisto came in dressed as the High Priestess, Beatrice tried to protect me. I checked her pulse before I was knocked out, it was strong. She was kicked in the chest."
"She'll make it." Daphne sighed, relieved. "I don't suppose there is any way out?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "That's usually the first thing I check for. And no, there isn't. No windows, nothing but stone and iron bars we're stuck. I did see Callisto working on something earlier though." The bard pointed beyond the iron bars across the stone floor to the wall on the opposite side. "See those holes in the stone wall, in between the torches? I think there is a room beyond there with something mechanical. Callisto thought I was asleep and she went back there, I guess there is a door around the corner."
"What a bizarre pattern..."
"Wha-?" Gabrielle followed the oracle's line of vision and noticed that there was indeed an unusual patterning of stone on the wall across from them as well as the stone floor up to the point that it met the iron bars of their cage. The floor on their side had the usual rough hewn look of unfinished stone.
"Of course," Daphne muttered, "the battle, it's going to take place here. Xena will have to choose who to save, something about that patterning, I think I've seen this room before. It's a trap."
Xena's eyes flew open with a start. Dawn was still a couple of hours off, she'd dozed longer than she'd expected. She glanced over at Beatrice, noting the rhythmic breathing of heavy sleep. Daphne was missing; there was no second body next to the slave. Xena listened intently as she scanned the dark shadows of the campsite. The oracle was nowhere to be seen. Getting silently to her feet Xena looked at the empty blankets next to the unconscious slave. She followed footprints from the blanket to the tree where Gabrielle's staff had been resting. It was gone. The tracks then headed out down a game trail and abruptly stopped. Xena retraced the footprints back to the campsite. She glanced at Argo; the horse was sleeping peacefully. Her eyes fell down to Argo's saddle and she noticed her bullwhip was missing. On a hunch she returned to where the prints ended on the game trail and looked up. Sure enough, well within the reach of her whip was a sturdy branch.
"Beatrice, Beatrice! Wake up!" Xena frowned as the slave woman groaned and slipped again into unconsciousness. Gently she lifted an eyelid, and rechecked the woman's pulse. "Blast it." She muttered. Finding the bowl from the previous evening she tasted the herb residue, spitting out the strong brew instantly. Rummaging through her saddle bags, Xena found the pouch she was looking for, breaking off a chunk of the strong black tea she returned to the fire, thoughts focused on getting the slave awake and fast.
Xena didn't have to wait too long. The aroma of the strong drink was almost enough to rouse the woman from the arms of Morpheus, once she'd managed to drink several sips, she began to wake up. "What happened?" She asked groggily. I could hear you but I couldn't wake up."
"You were drugged." Xena supplied, "Daphne did something to the pain killer you made. It made you sleep longer than you should have."
With a start Beatrice looked around the campsite. "Where is..."
"Daphne is gone Beatrice. Any idea of where, or why?" Xena kept her voice even. The implication was not lost on the slave.
"Xena, I don't think that was Daphne."
"Well it sure as Zeus wasn't Gabrielle."
Both women looked at each other for a moment. "The other one?" Xena whispered to herself.
"That has to be it." Beatrice agreed. "I can't believe there are three of them, but that must have been the dark one."
"We've got to pick up her trail. Can you travel?"
Beatrice nodded with more certainty than she felt. Now was not the time to worry about discomfort. Whoever that woman was she was out there, and most likely on her way to join forces with the vulture... Callisto.
Returning to the game trail Xena leapt into the tree. She climbed to the branch she suspected the fake Daphne had used the whip on to climb the tree. Sure enough there were signs on the bark. Xena leapt from one branch to another looking for signs of human passage. Beatrice scouted on the forest floor leading Argo. "What about here?" Xena called down from her latest perch.
Xena had traveled for some distance in the trees, and now the branches were further apart; less accessible.
"No... wait, yes I think this is a print." Beatrice called back up.
With a graceful flip, Xena leaped from the tree and landed lightly next to the slave intently studying the forest floor. "Good work Beatrice," Xena smiled, "we've got her now. She's got several hours on us, but we've got Argo."
Beatrice smiled weakly, two broken ribs and the memory of a horses gait left her feeling nauseous.
Raven marched up to the heavy wood door of Callisto's retreat pausing only to dispatch another guard. She'd killed five already, and that hadn't even begun to take the edge off of her rage. The psycho bitch had played her as a pawn and Raven was furious with herself for allowing it to happen. Once inside the heavy door she eased into the shadows, following the stone hallway. Another guard was encountered and disposed of. Quickly Raven checked her hands and smiled to herself. She had still avoided getting herself bloodied. After checking several rooms and not finding the psychotic warrior she tried another heavy door at the end of an adjacent hall. It opened into a large room separated by iron bars. About two thirds of the room was on one side of the bars, one third on the other. She was standing in the two thirds with the doorway. Behind the bars, looking surprised, were Daphne and Gabrielle. Raven stopped in her tracks, mesmerized.
"I don't suppose you're here to get us out?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
"No." Raven answered, "Gabrielle?"
"No, Daphne." Gabrielle answered.
"You sound like Gabrielle." Raven replied, more sure of herself.
"Well she isn't, I'm Gabrielle." Daphne insisted.
Raven shrugged; stupid games. "Okay so you're Gabrielle. I'm sure you're all too familiar with this cute little scar on the inside of Xena's right thigh." Daphne shrugged noncommittally. "Wrong." Raven continued, "she doesn't have one. I don't care which one of you wants to play whom, but don't think for a second that you're fooling me." She was about to head out the door when she thought better of it. "Still," she said in Gabrielle's voice, "if you're going to play the bard, you might as well do it right."
Gabrielle gasped in spite of herself. It was so unreal, as if she were watching a twin, identical in every way. Except that this was a murderous assassin. "How do you do that?" Gabrielle asked awed.
"It's easy." Raven continued in Gabrielle's voice. "When you carry on a conversation your voice has an easy rhythm. Unless you get animated about something," Raven slipped into Gabrielle's voice in 'story mode'. With theatrical passion she swept around the room. "Shall I tell you about the time Xena and I fought the Titans?"
"Oh stop it Raven." Daphne commanded, "we get your point."
"Aren't we the mind-reader. How do you know my name?"
"I am an oracle, am I not?" Daphne asked, arching a wry eyebrow. "I'm also your sister, obviously a twin."
"What about her?" Raven asked nodding back at the bard.
"Sadly, not a family relation, but given the choice I'd much rather be related to her."
"I'll bet you would."
"Callisto is playing you for a fool Raven, I hope you know that." Daphne continued.
"Callisto's games are soon going to come to an abrupt halt."
"I don't see how you got mixed up with her in the first place." Gabrielle muttered, more to herself than anyone else.
"It's simple Gabrielle," Raven supplied as she strolled further into the room to stand in front of the bard, "I kill people. It's what I do. I was originally hired to eliminate you. Only your blond friend decided to keep changing the plan until it became doomed to failure."
"But how can you kill? In cold blood?" Gabrielle demanded, eyes burning with anger.
"Don't get high and mighty with me, brat." Raven shot back, "you belong to Xena, destroyer of nations. How many did she kill, in cold blood. And before you go saying that killing in battle changes everything, don't bother. I don't push people up against a wall where they have to fight, see their death coming a mile away and feel the fear creep into their soul. No, I kill people instantly, before they even know I'm there. I think it's more humane. Besides-oh-wielder of the quarter staff, how much permanent brain damage do you think you've caused? Killing is wrong but maiming is not?" Raven cocked her head at the speechless bard. "No, dear Gabrielle, I don't think we're quite as different as you might like to think."
"Oh yes you are." Daphne countered, noting the bard's distress. "The only reason you kill Raven is because you can. You're too numb to feel anything, especially your own conscience. Whatever it was that detached your soul from your body, fight it. Fight it and do something decent, help us."
Raven slowly walked the few feet to stand in front of her sister. She looked into the face beyond the bars so much like her own, and so different. She could see the reflection of her eyes in those of her sister. She could have been a statue for all the emotion given away there. "If a tree is struck by lightning, sister mine, it may live, but it is forever changed. It might sprout new branches, provide shade with it's boughs of leaves but it is still scorched to it's core. Everything and everyone dies Daphne. I was destroyed a long, long time ago..."
"Oh isn't this touching." Callisto said stepping through the doorway opposite the assassin. "A family reunion. I, of course, would love to have a family reunion, only Xena killed my family." She briefly glared at Daphne, still thinking she was Gabrielle, then returned her attention to Raven. "You're early dear. I take it you changed your mind about our plans? Or did you bring Xena with you?"
"This was over before it ever began Callisto. If their death is what you truly seek, kill them now and be done with it. Else, let them go and run as far and as fast as you can." Raven calmly noted the hand crossbow the mad woman held, cocked and pointed at her chest.
"What are you talking about? Couldn't you convince her you were the brat?" Callisto asked intrigued, but keeping a careful eye on the assassin.
"I'm saying that Xena has known something was amiss all along. If it had been a matter of replacing the brat we'd be fine, but the bard and oracle had already switched places before I even got there."
Callisto looked with new appreciation at her captives in the cage. "I'm impressed girls," she said with a smile. "But it makes no difference. The outcome will be the same." With that, while still looking at Gabrielle and Daphne, she pulled the trigger on the crossbow. A dart shot out, speeding toward the assassin.
Raven deftly caught the bolt in her hand before it hit, then opened her hand quickly as if burned. She gazed in fascination at the tiny pinpricks of blood now visible on her palm. "I thought you might be able to catch that," Callisto explained, "so I set several needles perpendicular to the dart shaft. Pleasant dreams, dear." Raven struggled against the approaching darkness, but it was to no use. The crossbow bolt clattered to the stone floor seconds before Raven. "Now that was simple." Callisto continued conversationally as she loaded another bolt into the small crossbow. "Let's see if this is just as easy." Taking aim she pointed the weapon at Daphne and fired. Before she could move the tiny dart found it's mark and imbedded itself in her arm. Reloading she aimed at Gabrielle and fired. The bard however managed to duck and roll before being hit. The bolt skipped harmlessly across the stone floor. "Shit." Callisto muttered. "Fine brat, we'll do this the hard way." Taking a key from inside the top of her boot she opened the heavy barred door leading into the cell. As Gabrielle dove for the dart, the only weapon now in the cell, Callisto leaped into the air, tucked into a tight spin and landed at the dart just as the bard reached it.
"Not so fast little one." Callisto said cheerily as her foot came down on the bard's hand before she could reach the dart, "you don't want to spoil Xena's surprise now do you?"
Gabrielle yelped in pain as her fingers were stomped on, and tried to back away from the mad woman as Callisto picked up the dart and threw it out of the cell. Approaching ominously, Callisto backed Gabrielle against the wall, several feet from where the barred door stood open. "Don't even think about it." Callisto hissed and closed the distance between them. She was mildly surprised as the bard's fist flew out and connected with her face. As Gabrielle lunged for the door, Callisto caught her around the waist and pulled her back. Roughly throwing the bard against the stone wall, Callisto leaned in with all her strength, her breath warm against the bard's mouth. "That was a very stupid thing to do Gabrielle." Callisto whispered. "Don't think for a second you and Xena won't pay for that." With that she covered the bard's mouth with her own and while forcing her tongue over the lips of the struggling bard, kneed her soundly in the abdomen.
Gabrielle sank to the floor, gasping for air, abdomen cramping from the force of the blow. The last thing she saw was Callisto's boot as it connected solidly with the side of her face.
A short distance from the main gate of the fortress Xena eased Beatrice from Argo's saddle. While the salve had fared better than expected on the big horse, she was far from well. After finding a safe, secluded place for the injured woman to hide, continued on to the fortress alone.
Cautiously Xena dismounted from Argo's saddle. She slapped the mare's rump sending her off into the trees beyond the perimeter of the fortress grounds. She'd have to travel the rest of the way to the enclosure on foot. She'd silently walked a short distance and was surprised she'd not yet encountered any guards. As she passed the open barn she glanced in and found her reason. One guard lay in a pile of straw impaled on a pitchfork, another sat motionless several feet away, neck broken. A third guard lay just outside the door to the fortress, his hand still clutching the knife in his throat. Xena shook her head at the grim evidence of the assassin's passing and eased through the partially open door. Two more guards lay motionless just inside. Faces twisted in the grimace of death stared out of sightless eyes. After noting their presence Xena averted her eyes, concentrating instead on the hallway as she moved deeper into the fortress.
Her boots silent on the hard flagstones she stole deeper into Callisto's lair. Several rooms were open but empty. At one point upon hearing voices she stole into a dark alcove silent as death until the guards passed. They grumbled about their detail of removing the bodies from the entrance and keeping an eye out for the warrior princess. Xena dared not hope that Callisto would not be ready for her.
In time she found the stairs that descended into darkness illuminated by a sputtering torch. She listened for several long moments before descending the stairs. Reaching the bottom she stepped beyond the open door. Her heart leapt into her throat at the sight that greeted her. Straw was scattered all over the floor, obscuring the random pattern of the flagstones. To one side of the room was an enclosure, iron bars separating her from the occupants on the other side. Side by side, three women, all looking like Gabrielle were restrained. On the left one hung suspended by manacles attached to her wrists, arms painfully bound over head, her feet inches off of the stone floor. In the middle the second knelt on the floor, her wrists bound to the sides of a chopping block, neck bound to its surface. Attached to the wall a mighty battle-axe was supported by a precariously thin rope. Finally the last, this one with a large bruise on the side of her face, was bound hands and feet to the flagstone wall in a spread eagle position. All three figures appeared unconscious.
"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered softly.
Slowly all three women opened their eyes. "Xena?" the two on each end replied in unison. Xena blinked and looked from one woman to the other, unable to tell which was her bard.
"I'm Daphne." The figure in the middle stated, "that should narrow it down a bit." The oracle struggled against the manacles holding her arms to the chopping block, trying to turn her head to look at the woman next to her. "This is Callisto's idea of a sick joke, or revenge. The wall behind you is rigged somehow with traps..."
Xena nodded, her mind racing past the oracle's words, "do you know which is Gabrielle?" She asked.
"Xena, it's me." The one on the left said quietly. "Just tell me how I can convince you."
Xena tore her eyes from Daphne to the manacled woman hanging from the ceiling. The voice was so like Gabrielle.
"Don't fall for it," the woman on the far right cautioned, "she's been watching us and no doubt has heard my stories of our adventures. If you ask her something it had better be something known only by... well, you get the picture."
Xena looked at the woman pinned to the wall. Again the comment as well as voice was just like Gabrielle. At the sound of stone sliding against stone, Xena spun around, her attention directed to a panel that had opened high up on the back wall.
"Isn't this quaint?" Callisto asked cheerfully, from her perch in the wall behind Xena, looking down into the room below. "Xena and the irritating blonds, but one of them is a bad blond. Which one shall she save?"
"The only irritating blond here Callisto is you." Xena replied smoothly. "What makes you think I won't save all three of them?"
Callisto smiled a feral smile, eyes narrowing slightly. "Because good Xena does not have that kind of time." At a hand signal from the mad warrior two more panels slid aside. Revealed, in each corner of the back wall a heavy crossbow was mounted, cocked with a flaming bolt aimed at the straw that littered the floor. "Fire isn't your only concern Xena." Callisto taunted. "Behind this wall several arrows are loaded and aimed at the Gabrielle on the left. The fire will surely burn through the rope holding the axe over the Gabrielle in the middle and a rather large spear is aimed at the Gabrielle on the right. I'm afraid your chakram will be of little use- it can't slice through stone after all." She was about to duck back behind the wall when she added, "you surely could save one Xena, maybe even two- but you will not be able to save all three. Even if you did. That third one will most likely kill you."
"Your quarrel is with me Callisto, not Gabrielle. Show some backbone and fight me!" Xena demanded, eyes shining with barely controlled rage.
Callisto laughed, at first a happy sound that quickly lost all traces of humor. "My dear Xena. I don't have a quarrel with you. No, my warrior princess, I simply want to destroy you. I could kill you, but what would that get me? You'd only be dead. No, this way with your heart and soul a crispy pile of ashes, like my family, you will be destroyed." With a smile that lit up her whole face she added a cheery "bye-bye," before leaving. The stone slammed back with a thud, the mad woman gone.
Xena turned back around, eyes scanning the occupants of the cage. Suddenly an idea came to her. "Gabrielle," she called. Two sets of eyes snapped up, riveted on her. "You stayed at Daphne's last night. What does the place look like?" Xena nodded at the oracle.
Gabrielle sighed in relief. "It's really cluttered, but in a nice way. I stayed up all night reading scrolls that she'd written which were stacked on a shelf by her desk. She doesn't wear shoes inside, the place is heated from piped water below from a near by hot spring."
Daphne tried to nod emphatically, although her movements were hampered by the collar around her neck, binding her to the chopping block. "That's Gabrielle."
Xena nodded. Carefully studying the positioning of the three bodies. If she threw her chakram to free Gabrielle, she could see where the weapon would strike stone then angle back to free Raven. If she threw it to free Daphne the disc would strike stone and angle back up to release the axe. She was not sure the oracle could move out of the way in time. Callisto had been careful enough in positioning the bodies to render Xena's most powerful weapon useless. "Do you know how I get into the room behind me? I've got to stop the arrows."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No Xena, there isn't time for that." She tried to look at Daphne, wincing in pain as she moved her head. "I read something you wrote, a dream you had as a child, it was about his. You said 'the warrior had a way to save two of the women, right at her fingertips but she didn't know it.' In your dream Daphne, we all died. What is it Xena has to do to change that?"
Daphne closed her eyes trying to be calm. "Fingertips, fingertips," she muttered trying to remember the dream she'd had as a child. Xena glanced up to the burning arrows then back to the cell. The cold eyes of Raven caught hers and she found herself transfixed by such a cold expression on what was ordinarily such a warm face. "It's right in front of her... face" Daphne continued opening her eyes wide. She noticed Xena looking at Raven through the barred door of the cage. "It's the lock Xena, you should be able to break the lock. Then you can help us from the inside."
"It's a slide out mechanism," Raven offered. "Take your breast dagger and put the point of the blade at the top of the key hole. Then take the clasp that holds up your breast plate, put it in the hole below and shove the tumbler to the side, pull down hard and the lock will open."
"Why are you helping us?" Gabrielle asked as Xena followed the assassin's directions.
"Because I have no intention of dying in here, Gabrielle."
The lock snapping open Xena's eyes again found those of the assassin. "That's exactly what you're going to do, Raven." She said evenly, "I saw some of your handiwork in the forest and the village. Getting you out of here is the last of my concerns."
"We shall see." Raven said quietly.
Once inside the cage Xena hurried to the part of the cell where Gabrielle was pinned. With a swift strike of her sword she broke the manacles that bound her friends hands and feet. She tumbled to the floor just as the twang of a bowstring could be heard from beyond the wall. Several arrows sped to the wall just occupied by the bard and clattered onto the stone floor. Xena quickly grabbed the battle axe hung precariously over Daphne's head and threw it just as another thwap sounded. Letting it fly it connected with the spear heading toward Raven, knocking it from it's path to her abdomen. Just then each fiery arrow was released from it's bow setting the straw outside the cage ablaze. Xena nodded to Gabrielle, "Try to put that out, I'll free Daphne."
Gabrielle headed to the door of the cage, an instant later clawing at the legs wrapped around her neck, gasping for air. Xena looked up with a start at the movement. The assassin's legs had not been bound, they'd been hanging loose several inches from the cell floor. As Gabrielle had tried to pass the woman she had caught the bard around the neck in a vice-like scissors hold. "Get me down now Xena, or I break her neck. I think you know I can, and will."
"Oh I know it all right." Xena said calmly as she finished freeing Daphne. One eye on the spreading fire and the other on the assassin, she approached cautiously. "What do you want me to do?" Xena asked.
"Break the manacles the same way you broke Gabrielle's. Don't cut the chain from the ceiling- just break the cuffs. Use your sword and if you think for an instant that you can kill me before I can snap her neck, you'd be wrong." Xena nodded, knowing the killer before her was not boasting. With a smooth strike of her sword, she freed the woman who fell to the floor bringing the bard down with her. Xena waited for a heartbeat as Gabrielle quickly rolled from the assassin's grasp.
"Gabrielle, Daphne out now!" Xena shouted as she moved her body between that of the killer and the other women. Both women hurried out the door as Raven's hand closed on the shaft of the battle-axe on the floor by her side. The flames continued to spread, now burning the straw inside the cell as smoke began to fill the room. Rolling to her knees Raven swung upwards with the axe, grazing the bronze of Xena's breastplate. Moving back reflexively, sword at the ready the warrior parried and prepared for the next move by the assassin. It was almost impossible not to see the surreal battle as combat with a hate filled Gabrielle. Xena focused her thoughts, remembering that this was not the bard but a demented murderer.
Noting a patch of burning straw in the periphery of her vision, Raven kicked the smoldering mass into the face of the warrior. Xena turned her face, sword still guarding her body but her other arm shielding her eyes from the flying embers. Raven dropped the axe and with a graceful leap flipped over the head of the warrior.
"NO!" Gabrielle screamed as Raven hooked an arm around the warrior's neck, the other hand moving to the side of her head to break Xena's neck. Raven glanced in the bard's direction, for a moment almost thinking she heard her own voice. Xena smoothly reversed her grip on her sword and with a mighty shove to the side moved out of the way as she plunged her weapon into the assassin's mid section. Raven relaxed her grip on the warrior's neck as she looked down in disbelief at the sword protruding from her below her ribs, her blood spilling on the straw strewn floor. Standing next to Daphne and Gabrielle, Raven noticed another figure in the stone room, this one holding a candle. It was Celesta, Hades' sister and she was about to die.
Xena held on to her sword as Raven fell back to the floor, the scent of burning straw filling her fading senses. She could feel the blood begin to fill her lungs and realized she'd be dead soon. After a glance at the growing fire, she realized she would however, not be dead soon enough. Resigned to her fate she looked up at the warrior towering over her. "I would not have let Gabrielle suffer. I have made few suffer." Her voice was hopeful, "Speed me to my destiny in Tartarus Xena."
Xena was about to turn away when Raven added, "Finish it Xena," her expression pleading. "Please." Eyes burning from the smoke as well as something else, Xena took two steps to stand at Raven's side. With a spin of her sword, holding it high over head, she plunged it straight down into the heart of the assassin. Raven's eyes opened wide in surprise then darkened. "Thank you," she whispered with her dying breath. Xena stood eyes riveted on the gruesome sight at her feet, unable to shake the feeling that she'd killed Gabrielle.
"Xena, lets go. It's over!" The sound of her bard's voice drew the warrior from her paralysis. She quickly followed Gabrielle and Daphne from the dungeon. The guards remaining in the fortress were too distracted to pay much attention to the three women leaving. Some were running to fetch water to put out the fire below, others trying to determine if Callisto had in fact left, and if so, what their orders then were. Others were grabbing what valuables they could and fleeing the scene. Despite the chaos, it was necessary for Xena to dispatch several guards as the trio made their way to the grounds outside the fortress. After several attempts to question guards, Xena was certain that Callisto had indeed left her lair, as far and as fast as she could.
Raven opened her eyes to the dimly lit chamber. The vaulted ceiling above her seemed impossibly high, dominated by massive chandeliers that held dozens of candles as thick as her arm. The rich smells of wood, stone and wax permeated her senses as she lowered her gaze and looked around. Huge embroidered tapestries hung on the walls to either side of her and there, at the far end of the massive chamber, a man dressed in black sat upon an ebony throne.
"Welcome Raven," he said when she made eye contact.
She walked the length of the throne room to stand before the man in black, her booted feet making no sound on the stone floor. Looking at herself she was surprised to find that she was no longer dressed in Gabrielle's clothing. Rather she wore what she felt most comfortable in; supple black leather pants, sturdy boots, black leather shirt and wool cloak. Instinctively she touched the shirt where it covered her heart. Through the leather she could clearly feel the wound that killed her. "Hades." She said, looking up at the man on the throne. He nodded, regarding her with eyes that were surprisingly kind.
"That's right Raven, you're dead. Not the first woman Xena has sent to Charon's boat, but certainly the most troubling. I've not been looking forward to our meeting." Hades spoke in a quiet voice his grim duty weighing heavily upon him.
"Funny," Raven replied with a shrug, "I'd have thought my case would be rather straightforward. I believe it's called eternity in Tartarus isn't it?"
Hades smiled a small smile and stood, descending the dais that held his throne, "Trust me, if it were that simple you would not be in my audience chamber. Would you please come with me?" He asked, beginning to walk back the way Raven had come.
The two stepped outside the castle into a huge garden. A variety of wild flowers were in bloom making the air sweetly fragrant. Raven accompanied Hades as he walked by a still pond beneath the boughs of a huge willow tree.
"Is this the Elysian Fields?" Raven asked amazed by the serenity of the place.
Hades chuckled to himself. "No Raven, the Fields are quite far from here. This garden is mine and I've spent a lot of time here trying to decide what to do with you." She was about to respond and he held up his hand silencing her. "The fact is Raven that even as the monster who created you dwells in Tartarus, you yourself have 52 deaths weighing against your soul. Not only those 52 deaths, but the 330 lives disrupted by your actions and the 20 people who simply will never exist because of you. The murder of Thanos does not count against you, since I consider that self defense." Raven shuddered at the mention of It's given name. "Of the 52 people you dispatched from earth, thirty eight ended up in Tarterus anyway. I compliment you on choosing your clients wisely. However, of the fourteen innocents you've killed, six of them were in the past week. I'm rather angry about that."
"That's understandable," Raven agreed.
"I'm fascinated Raven," Hades said, looking down at the woman who walked by his side. "I've had people like you pass through my house, and the first words out of their mouth when they opened their eyes was about how their deeds were not their fault. How others had destroyed them, leaving them to act out of desperation. Even Thanos wailed about the treatment he had received from his mother.Yet I've known that you would not utter a single word to absolve yourself of responsibility. Why?"
Raven gazed into the pond for a moment realizing with a start just how rare were the occasions in life that she saw her own reflection. "Why lie to a god?" She asked. "I always knew that the childhood I endured was not my fault, or of my doing. I suppose that understanding made it more tolerable in the sense that I did not follow the tragic example of my brother. But I knew of pain, and often would have welcomed the chance to cross the Styx and have it all end. When you become impervious to the touches that hurt, words that impale and emotions that destroy you also become deaf to the sounds of love and numb to the sensation of comfort." She looked up, unflinching from the gaze of the god that studied her. "I considered my options Hades, and chose not to feel rather than to hurt. I am prepared to exist in the ramifications of my choice now."
Hades shook his head sadly, "Raven, you were eight years old when you made that choice. You are prepared to endure eternity based on the choices made by an eight year old that at the time were necessary for her survival?"
Raven shrugged her shoulders, "it's a little late to change my mind now, isn't it? I'm twenty-one Hades. In the past ten years I've ended the lives of 52 people. Had I been desperate for an alternative path, wouldn't ten years have been long enough to find it?"
Looking off into the distance Hades sighed. "I don't think so Raven, apparently not in your case. That is why I find your death so untimely. Frankly, I think in time you might have changed."
"Why?" Raven asked, "because Xena did?"
Hades smiled. "In part, yes. Make no mistake, the change Xena has wrought in her own life is hard one. She still struggles with it, but slowly is getting better. If you would have asked me years ago if I thought she could do it, I would have said no, she was so tightly bound to Ares. You on the other hand, were bound to nothing. It should have been easier for you."
He shook his head and continued to walk. "But what's done is done and you are dead. Now it is my responsibility to see to it that you endure the afterlife you deserve. It appears that you should endure the standard assignments. You will live each of the lives you ended for good or ill. You will meet with each person whose life you effected, and endure with them the result of your actions. You will also experience the twenty lives you negated from the realm of possibility. Finally there are personal matters you will attend to."
The color drained from Raven's face as she considered her fate. It took a moment for Hade's words to sink in. "Personal matters?" she asked.
"Yes. For starters, your brother Adonis has been in Tartarus for the past eleven years. He holds himself responsible for what you became. Convinced that taking his own life left you no alternative, his exists in a self-imposed prison. Your first task is to decide with him if this is just."
"Of course it isn't." Raven replied immediately, "let him go."
"That is an easy answer Raven, but does he not have a point? If he had lived, would not the two of you been of some comfort for each other?" Hades asked. Raven looked down at the soft grass of the garden, unable to meet the god's gaze. "Raven, eternity is going to be harder, more difficult and more painful than anything you could possibly imagine. Because you did not feel in life, you will now need to go back, reopen every wound, reexamine every decision and come to an understanding of why everything happened. Your brother is only the beginning. The two of you may decide he belongs here, or in the Fields. That journey of discovery may take years."
"I guess that's why this is called eternity." Raven quipped dryly.
Hades nodded. "When that is decided there is the matter of your mother..."
"She's dead?" Raven asked stunned.
"Yes she is." Hades replied, his gaze intent on an unusual flower. "Same method as your brother, after discovering the murdered remains of Thanos. Her own choices became more than she could bear."
"What do you mean choices?" Raven demanded, "she knew nothing."
Hades smiled sadly. "Not knowing and choosing not to see are two different things. You will discover with her which it is."
Raven nodded, with each task set before her eternity seemed to stretch out farther and farther. "And after?" She asked, her voice barely a whisper.
"Your father, who is in the Elysian Fields, has watched your life. The Fields are little comfort to him, so great is grief over what such an innocent child became." Hades gazed up at the branches of the great willow and to the gray swirling sky beyond.
"But what comfort can I provide him?" Raven asked, realizing that each task before her was more daunting than the last.
"That is for the two of you to discover." Hades replied and began to walk back to his castle, motioning for Raven to join him.
"Is there more?" Raven asked, afraid of the answer.
"One more," Hades said, his voice soft, "Thanos."
"What do you mean Thanos?" Raven demanded, stopping where she stood and angrily turning to face the god.
"He is in Tartarus for a reason Raven. He has watched you grow and become what you are. He has endured all he did to you, from your perspective. Endured every kill you ever made from your point of view as well as that of the victim. He has felt the torment of your brother and your mother. Among many other things, he will have to endure your wrath, as you will have to endure the wrath of those you've harmed. You may torture him, talk to him, try to understand him or not. It is up to you. While you might think that an easy task now, it will be a bit more complicated when your own journey is underway."
God and woman entered the castle; it looked different to Raven. Instead of the grand audience chamber they were in the longest stone hallway she had ever seen. Doors lined each wall far off into the distance. Hades was silent for a moment as they walked.
"Is the journey ever over Hades?" Raven asked, unsettled by the silence.
"It takes a day to live a day Raven. But it can take years to fully understand that day. Yes, this journey has an end. Some reach it more quickly than others, but compared to the time frame you're used to, eternity is an apt description."
Raven nodded, determined to accept her fate as Hades stopped outside a heavy door. "This is your first door. Your brother. Once you open it, you take the first step toward your redemption and begin your torture." Raven reached for the handle, already missing the god's kind nature. A black gloved hand stopped her as he turned to look into her eyes, and her soul. "You will see me from time to time Raven, no one exists in my realm alone. At times you will be thankful for my company, other times curse it. I've no doubt that you will also experience moments of comfort. However few, there are lives you've touched for good. To a little boy named Max you are a hero, you will always have his mother's gratitude. Perhaps they will think of you from time to time." He smiled briefly and nodded to the door. "Good luck Raven, I hope you rediscover Alandra."
"I hope so too," she whispered as she opened the heavy door and stepped into the darkness beyond. With a final gaze from the kindest eyes she'd ever seen she turned to face her demons letting the door close silently behind her.
The exodus from Callisto's lair was a silent one. After rejoining with Beatrice the four women continued on to the walled city of Minos. Travel was slow. Gabrielle and Daphne were in little condition to journey after their treatment by Callisto, and Beatrice was still nursing broken ribs. With all four women on foot, what should have taken one day took three. They encountered city guards early on and Xena gave detailed instructions to the massacre in the forest, explaining who the killer was and where the bodies could be found. Gabrielle had hoped that knowing that four innocent people were finally put to rest would ease the warrior's mood, but it only made the silences more ominous. As if picking up on the darkness around her, Daphne was beset with visions so intense they left her physically ill. Xena and Gabrielle were of little help, and even Beatrice seemed at a loss of what to do for her love. Slowly though, as the miles away from the fortress increased, Daphne recovered.
It was not until the second day that the oracle began to speak about her visions. Working with Beatrice she began to make some sense of the images that had left her reeling. But her vision was not the only worry plaguing the oracle. The silence and isolation between warrior and bard weighed heavily on the fall air. Xena said little, her brooding much more intense than usual. The usually gregarious bard was also quiet, silenced by the darkness of the warrior's mood.
Making camp the second night, Daphne finally asked Gabrielle what was wrong once the warrior was out of sight. "I don't know." Gabrielle replied, choking back a sob. "She's never been this bad before, even when we first met. She's just gone into herself and shut the door." Gabrielle took Daphne's hand grateful for the support, "I know I need to talk to her, force the issue. But now isn't the time. I'll know when."
Daphne nodded, she knew Gabrielle was right. Beatrice joined the two women, trying in vain to get Daphne to eat. "I just can't. Strange for me I know." The oracle smiled grimly, "maybe when we get home, but not now."
"What did you see that was so upsetting?" Gabrielle asked, then averted her gaze. "That is, if you don't mind my asking."
Daphne laughed, the first such sound heard by any of the women in a long time. "Gabrielle, after what we've been through... I don't think you could ask anything of me I wouldn't gladly answer." She shrugged her shoulders composing her thoughts. "As for my vision. Well, a few things became clear and it's a hard thing to accept. Raven and I are, were twins. I saw it all, our birth, separation, everything. Our father was a farmer, indeed the father she knew until he was killed in a farming accident. Resources were scarce, and it was a bad winter. My father, the King, offered to take one of the babies.
His wife, my mother, had been unable to conceive. Ravens parents decided to sacrifice one of the children, send it into a life they doubted would be as nurturing as the home they could provide. That was me. The irony of thinking of Raven, Alandra, as she was named, as the protected child makes me sick."
"You can't blame yourself for the life she had." Beatrice chided the oracle gently.
"No I can't." Daphne agreed, "but I can feel quite sick about it. Were it not for a simple twist of fate, I might be the one in Tartarus now, examining a lifetime of transgressions one by one."
"You've seen her?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh yes I've seen her." Daphne confirmed, "as I'm sure I'll see her from time to time for the rest of my life. I never knew that person, yet I can't let her go through Tartarus alone. Something binds us together."
"But there is more to it than that?" Beatrice asked. "You're sick from knowing more than the fate of your twin."
Daphne nodded, noting that Xena had returned to their camp. "I have to confront my father. I have lived a lifetime on the assumption that I knew who he was. I suppose I always knew my mother was not my birth mother but I was always certain that my father sired me. He should have told me. I've just found out I had an older brother as well, another casualty of the brutality that created Raven. As much as we disagree, I know my father loves me. You don't keep that kind of information from people you love. He has a lot of explaining to do and I do not look forward to that conversation." Daphne met Xena's eyes as she spoke and held the radiant blue for a long moment. For a moment she thought she saw the warrior's expression soften, but only for an instant.
Xena stared gloomily into the fire. She desperately longed for the two things she could not have: time and solitude. She could feel the old rage so close to the surface, held back by only the sheer force of her will. What she knew and what she felt had never been so opposed. Again without warning the image flashed into her mind. Gabrielle on the end of her sword, blood spilling over the warrior's hands. "It was Raven," Xena screamed to herself, "Raven." But the dark thoughts continued. If all three women had been gagged, would she have been able to spot the killer? Xena glanced at Gabrielle then stalked off again into the woods. "I might have lost her," she brooded, "I might have killed her." As the night before, she would not sleep. She well knew what nightmares would haunt her slumber, and feared the person she might be upon waking.
The rest of the journey to Minos was uneventful. Beatrice and Daphne escorted Xena and Gabrielle to their home but did not join them inside. "We're going to talk to my father right now, before I loose my nerve. I doubt we'll be home until tomorrow morning, if then. Please make yourselves at home. We'd like to say good-bye before you leave the city."
Xena nodded. They were right, Gabrielle was in no condition to travel, she'd already done enough of that without proper rest. She would tolerate Minos for the day or so of recuperation they were offered.
Gabrielle strolled into the living room drying her hair with a large towel. She found Xena where she'd left her, sitting on the balcony, watching the stars. "Xena, come take a bath." She urged, joining the warrior.
"Later." Xena replied, not looking at her.
"No, Xena. Now." Gabrielle moved to block he warrior's vision. "You smell like smoke, the fire. It's bothering me."
Xena looked at Gabrielle as if she'd been burned. "I'm sorry Gabrielle, I wasn't thinking."
Bard followed warrior to the bathing tub. After shrugging out of her leathers Xena climbed into the tub oblivious to the solace of steaming water. Gabrielle shook her head and picked up Xena's clothes putting them into a small tub of soapy water she'd prepared for the purpose. She cleaned the leather garment then rubbed it with a special compound, finally putting it next to her own clothes to dry. When she turned back she noticed Xena hadn't moved.
"Xena, what are you thinking?" she demanded, moving once again into the warrior's line of sight.
"It's nothing Gabrielle." Xena tried to smile, "I'm fine."
"Don't tell me it's nothing. I know you better than anyone, and for the past two days you've been a complete stranger."
"I can't explain it Gabrielle, let it go." Xena's voice rose in response to Gabrielle's elevated tone. Her words "let it go" were laced with unmistakable warning.
"Can't or won't Xena? Which is it?" Gabrielle shot back angrily. Xena tried to get out of the tub, but Gabrielle pushed her back roughly into the water. "Don't shut me out Xena, not now, especially not now."
"You can't understand Gabrielle," Xena countered, her voice almost pleading.
"Not unless you let me try." She replied softly.
Xena took a deep breath, the oracle's words filling her ears: "He has a lot of explaining to do and I do not look forward to that conversation." "Gabrielle," Xena began, trying to calm the racing of her pulse, "I see it constantly. The blood, your face, me killing you. I close my eyes and it's there, you falling off of my sword..."
"Xena," Gabrielle replied patiently, "you didn't kill me."
"But it looked like I did. She looked just like you, and I remember my rage, the times I've lost control. Gabrielle I could hurt you." Xena shook her head disgusted with herself. "Knowing that makes me sick."
"Xena." Gabrielle tried again, more forcefully this time. "I have to live with that memory too. Your sword sticking out of someone who looked just like me. But it wasn't me. I also have to live with the memory of someone who looked just like me a moment away from ending your life. How do you think that makes me feel?" She demanded.
Xena smiled, "Gabrielle, you could never hurt me."
"Sometimes I've wanted to." Gabrielle replied with a small smile. "Xena I know your rage, I've seen it, been hurt by it, but I'm still here. I know you will never kill me. I trust you completely with my life, with my love. If you can't trust me to make that type of choice, we've got a big problem here. I don't want you trying to protect me from your darkness. Let me do that, I'm better at it then you are."
"Is that so?" Xena asked, with half hearted sarcasm.
"Xena, many are the nights I've stayed up with you, holding you through the nightmares. I've been doing it for over a year. When you have those dreams Xena, you talk. You talk about things you've done and the things you've seen. I've never heard the same story twice, so I hope that means someday we'll get through them all."
The color drained from the warrior's face as she listened to Gabrielle's confession. "What are you saying?" she asked, her voice a dangerous whisper.
"I'm saying," Gabrielle explained, gently touching Xena's cheek with her finger, "that before we ever became lovers, I'd gotten to know Xena the Warlord. I love all of you Xena, all of you. If I can believe that you won't hurt me, then why can't you? I've been with your darkness and I'm not afraid. Show a little back bone and stand up to it yourself."
With that Gabrielle gracefully stood and left Xena alone. The warrior stared after her for a few moments the conversation slowly sinking in. "She knows?" the warrior whispered aloud. Then, from a combination of embarrassment, rage and fear, silent tears fell unheeded from the warrior's eyes, spilling off graceful cheeks and splashing into steaming bath water.
Some time later, dressed for bed Xena silently walked into the living room. Gabrielle sat, mug of tea in hand, absently watching the fire she'd built in the fire place. It wasn't until Xena had moved fully into the room that Gabrielle noticed her presence. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry." Xena said quietly.
"Sorry for what?" the bard asked puzzled.
"For not trusting you enough to share my fear."
Gabrielle smiled warmly at her lover, her warrior. "Xena, I don't expect you to do that. It isn't in your nature. I do however expect you to be a little more forthcoming when I try to drag it out of you."
Xena smiled, emotional exhaustion evident in her features. "Why didn't you tell me about sitting with me... talking to..."
"Warlord Xena?" Gabrielle offered as Xena joined her on the couch.
Xena nodded, blue eyes searching the bard's face for answers.
Gabrielle shrugged, "I didn't see any reason to. I knew it would embarrass you, make you self-conscious. Anyway, I consider them private conversations between me and the warlord. Still, I don't see why you didn't figure it out yourself. All those mornings I had a hard time getting up, what,- you think I just like to sleep? Besides, on the rare occasion that you feel like talking, who am I to say no?"
Xena shook her head roughly pulling the bard into a warm embrace. "Is there anything else going on while I'm unconscious that I should know about?"
Gabrielle thought a minute, "I guess that's between me and your unconscious, isn't it?" Xena laughed, the first time she had in a long while and held Gabrielle tightly. They were quiet for long moments, each lost in her own thoughts, but comforted by the company of the other. "This is going to bother you for a long time, isn't it?" Gabrielle finally asked.
"Yeah Gabrielle, it is, even knowing that it wasn't you. I would have preferred not to have killed Raven. I think Daphne would have preferred it too." Xena spoke softly into Gabrielle's hair enjoying the sensation of the wet strands against her face.
"Yes, but she knows as well as I that you didn't have any choice. How many broken necks have we seen in the last week? You were almost killed Xena, and I find that more disturbing. She was a professional killer Xena. I've still got bruises on my neck..." Gabrielle shook her head trying to ward off the returning dark thoughts. "Look, can we talk about something else?"
Xena smiled. As usual her bard had a point. She was tired, physically and emotionally. It was time that both of them tried to put this down and let it go. It would take some time but they had to start moving on. "Bruises you say?" Xena asked, her voice a throaty whisper as she nuzzled the bard's neck, placing gentle kisses on the soft flesh.
Gabrielle trembled, her body responding to the sound of the warrior's voice. She tilted her head back, exposing the graceful line of her throat. "Yeah, several," she whispered. "I'm sure they're quite serious and in need of immediate attention."
"Uh huh." Xena murmured into the bard's ear, nibbling on the delicate lobe. "Maybe I can do something to distract you from the pain?"
"That sounds good." Gabrielle agreed as Xena's hands began explorations of their own.
With a smile full of promise for the things to come, Xena lifted Gabrielle from the couch and carried her to the cozy bedroom. As she gently released her into the soft cushions, the bards face frowned with an unasked question. "What is it?" Xena asked as she settled herself on top of the bard's body.
Gabrielle glanced away afraid to meet the warrior's gaze. "Before you got there, I spoke to Raven. She started talking like me and it was so eerie. I mean I had a hard time convincing myself it wasn't me. If Callisto's plan had worked and she had replaced me... do you think you..." She left the question hanging, trying to do battle with tears that threatened to fall.
"Would I be able to tell?" Xena asked gently. Gabrielle nodded, Xena sighed and rested her head on the bard's breast, thinking.
"I don't know Gabrielle." She finally answered looking into green eyes once more. "Just talking to her, I might have been fooled at first. She seemed to know what she was doing. But after awhile? I doubt it,- certainly not after touching her." Xena shrugged hoping that it was answer enough.
"How can you be so sure?"
Xena gazed into the face of her lover as she gently played with strands of strawberry blond hair. "Gabrielle, something happens when you're near, when you touch me. I feel my body respond. There has been some kind of connection between us since the day we first met. It isn't just your face or your voice that sends my heart to racing, it's something indefinable." Xena thought a minute more, then shook her head. "Or maybe it is. Maybe it's your face, your voice, your eyes, your hair, the way you smell, taste, feel and are that makes me respond the way that I do. Someone might be able to duplicate parts of it,- but no one would be able to replicate all of it. Gabrielle, you are absolutely unique."
Gabrielle looked back up at Xena, profound sadness evident in her face. "But Xena, I couldn't tell the difference between Meg and you."
Xena laughed, remembering the ordeal. "You suspected something was wrong right away. Besides, if we'd been lovers then, don't you think you would have known?"
"Well, she did have the hots for Joxer." Gabrielle agreed as Xena trailed light kisses across the length of her collarbone.
"My point exactly." Xena said nibbling the bard's breasts through the fabric of the shift.
"So you're absolutely certain about who I am?" Gabrielle asked, finding coherent thought difficult.
Xena gently cupped a breast with each hand, pressing her face between and inhaling the fragrance of the bard's clean skin. "Gabrielle, I'm absolutely certain of it."
With growing insistence Xena caressed the writhing bard beneath her. Passion flared like fire in their veins as they struggled out of clothes for the delicious feel of skin against skin. Xena tried to take her time, to put reassurance and love into gestures without words; feeling confident in the former and inadequate in the latter. But Gabrielle would have none of it. With moans of delight and the judicious placement of her hands and mouth, she drove the warrior past tenderness to wanton desire. Xena did not have much time to feast on the bard's breasts before the hands reaching for her thighs became insistent. Xena looked up from what she was doing and was startled by the fire in Gabrielle's eyes. They burned with hungry passion. Xena did not have time to react before a ravenous mouth attached itself to her breast, teasing and tasting her with abandon.
Gabrielle shifted her attention to the warrior's other breast as she positioned Xena over her hips. With her hands and her body she urged the warrior princess forward, delighting in the wet trail left across her abdomen and chest as she complied. When Xena was where she wanted, she released the ravaged nipple and began her descent as she scooted under the warrior's upright body. She smiled as she reached her goal, beneath the apex of the warrior's legs. With hands and arms strong from months of mastering the staff, she held Xena tight as she pressed her mouth to the warrior's center. Gabrielle's insistence had Xena soaked before she even touched her. She used the warrior's readiness to her advantage as she quickly brought her the brink then backed off, slowing the pace of her tongue to gentle explorations. Xena groaned in pleasure and frustration as she gripped the bed's headboard for support, glancing down to the crown of red gold hair beneath her, green eyes locked onto her own. Often, that sight alone was enough to send her over. But Gabrielle was cautious, she knew the warrior's body well and continued to bring her to the edge then pull her back. Finally when Xena's hips bucked out of control, the warrior's body covered in a thin sheen of sweat, Gabrielle again drove her forward. This time holding her at the edge for a blissful moment before sending her beyond with the full force of her passion. There were things Gabrielle knew only she could do for her warrior. By taking Xena to her places of utmost vulnerability then sending her beyond on a wave of climax, she felt reassured that the warrior did indeed knew who she was.
"Gods Gabrielle," Xena panted as she struggled to stay conscious. It took several moments before she could move, freeing the bard trapped beneath her. Slowly Gabrielle withdrew her tongue from Xena's center, placing a gentle kiss on dark curls before rolling the warrior over to nestle on her stomach. Xena touched her mane of strawberry blond hair absently as she struggled to find words. Gabrielle didn't need words however, the powerful beating of the warrior's heart told her all she needed to know.
"I love you." Xena whispered when she could finally talk.
Gabrielle smiled as she shifted her body to peer into impossibly blue eyes. "I love you Xena." She said, and giggled as she saw the tranquil blue ignite with passion once more.
Daphne and Beatrice escorted Xena and Gabrielle to the gates of the city. "So your father took it well?" Gabrielle asked, delighting in the feel of warm leather against her arm as it rested around Xena's waist.
Oracle and slave walked next to her, holding hands as Daphne answered. "Took it well? I don't know. He took it, and that is all I was really hoping for."
"He'll brood about it for a few months then decide he'll talk about it." Beatrice interjected.
"Sounds like someone I know." Gabrielle observed, reaching up with her free hand to caress the one wrapped lovingly around her shoulders.
"She must be talking about you." Xena said to Argo, who walked patiently beside her.
"Will you be going after Callisto?" Daphne asked as they neared the city gates.
Xena nodded. "She has crimes she needs to answer for, especially here in Minos. It might take a while, but we'll find her."
"Just remember warrior, that finding and holding are two different things." Daphne smiled, clearly debating how much to say. "Take some free advice from an oracle, your paths will cross with Callisto's again, soon enough. For now I'd recommend taking that trip to the beach where you were headed to in the first place. I hear the shells are lovely this time of year."
Xena smiled considering the thought. "What about you Daphne, plan to do some traveling?"
Beatrice nodded her head emphatically. "Yes, when my ribs are better. We figure that as long as she says she's Gabrielle,- no one will bother her."
"You'd be surprised." Gabrielle observed. "Still, if Xena gets on my nerves, I might drop in, fill in as oracle for awhile."
"You just do that, Gabrielle." Daphne said with a smile. Outside the gate, the four women exchanged hugs good-bye, then Xena and Gabrielle continued on away from the city.
"What are you laughing at?" Gabrielle asked, noting Xena's satisfied smirk.
"I was just thinking, 'Oracle Gabrielle,' it has an... interesting ring to it."
"Well it's nice to know I have options." Gabrielle smugly replied.
Xena nodded good naturedly. "Options." She considered the word. "I hear Daphne's cooking is wonderful, I guess I have options too?"
"Not in the slightest Xena." Gabrielle replied seriously. "Come to think of it, I bet the job of oracle is overrated anyway."
"Most likely," Xena agreed through her smile.
"So where to?" Gabrielle asked when they reached a divide in the road. "We back track to catch up with Callisto's trail or go west to the beach?"
Xena considered her options, smiling broadly she headed west. "I know better than to argue with a red head."
Return to Bat Morda