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This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read another story.
The Journey With No End
She disembarked from the boat and moved to stand in the shadows surveying four men loading wagons, three guards standing at ease and a black dog threading its way in between boxes and barrels to stand directly in front of her. The dog's black rubber nose twitched to the left and right, that one sniff taking all of the Warrior in.
Playfully the Warrior traced the outline of the dog's ears with her fingers. The dog shook her hand off, started to move away from the docks, and looked expectantly back at the Warrior. But sounds from the docks drew the Warrior's attention away.
The dog whined so softly that the Warrior had to look back. Brown eyes held hers with a fierce determination, but the Warrior was just as determined to get on one of the wagons leaving for the city. She reached into the pouch hanging at her side and offered the dog the remaining bread and cheese. The dog ignored the food and blocked the Warrior's path. The Warrior smiled, somersaulted over the dog, landed hard on the back end of the wagon and not wanting to be seen nestled down between the crates. Glancing back she was surprised to see the dog following.
The wagon creaked and groaned its way past guards, past gates, past trouble into the center of Ephesus. Merchants were busy hawking their wares, travelers were bustling along the dusty streets and about a dozen soldiers were moving in and through the crowds with no apparent destination other than causing their presence to be known.
It looked safe enough, but keeping a low profile seemed the better course of action. She inconspicuously slid out of the wagon and entered a side-street. The Warrior was shocked to see so many eyes turn to follow her every move and as she was wondering why, the Warrior realized that everyone on the street was male¾ there were no women.
Six soldiers in blue and yellow robes turned onto the street. Unconsciously she slipped into fighting pose¾ hands at ease, ready to strike or draw her sword. So much for entering Ephesus quietly, she thought. A low growl drew her attention. It was the black dog. "What do you want girl?"
The dog ran down an alley, stopped, spun around to look at her and barked very softly. "You want me to follow you?" The dog barked again, waited until she had moved into the alley and then started to run, pausing briefly only to make sure that the Warrior was following. She was, both out of curiosity and the fact that the soldiers had begun to head directly towards her.
They reached the end of the alley. The only way out was over a wooden fence. As the Warrior was about to vault over the barrier, her leather tunic was yanked ¾ the dog was holding a corner in her mouth. The brown eyes were calm as if the dog was saying, trust me. "All right, we'll do it your way. Where do we go from here?"
The dog reared up to stand with her front paws braced against a side-wall and barked once. The wall dissolved into a mist and the dog slipped through. The Warrior followed her into a small room, lit by a small oil lamp sitting on a small brass table.
An old woman sat on a mound of pillows. She looked impossibly old, but her gray eyes were lively and smiled warmly at the Warrior. The old woman patted the pillows inviting both the dog and the Warrior to sit.
The dog moved quickly to the woman's side. The Warrior stood watching.
"You have no need to stand on formality here, Warrior Princess. I am a friend and will help you."
The Warrior's mouth slid into a rueful smile, "Forgive me if I seem rude, but I don't know you. So how could you possibly know what I'm doing in Ephesus?"
The dog growled. "Be patient Dar, she's right. The Warrior Princess has traveled a long way and she is in a room with an old woman and dog who know more about her then she would care that they did." The gray eyes locked onto the blue ones. "I am Tabriz. The dog is Dar. You are Xena, the Warrior Princess. You have a friend, Gabrielle, a bard. Am I warm?" The old one laughed at the Warrior, who stood trying to feign indifference. "Oh do sit down Xena, certainly you don't fear the likes of us?"
There was nothing to do. The Warrior sat.
"Now for the interesting part of your tale. Six, perhaps seven weeks ago, your friend Gabrielle entered a bard's competition in Athens and disappeared. You blame yourself because you didn't accompany her."
The knowledge made the Warrior uncomfortable, she steeled her voice to mask the fear and anger,
"How do you know this?"
"Because I am not who I appear to be." Banging echoed dimly in the room. "That is the guards conducting a search for you. We have to get you out sooner than expected."
Tabriz turned to the dog, "Dar, I know we are cutting it close, but we have no choice and it's almost midday. Guide her safely my friend, I will be at the oasis by midnight."
Xena watched the old woman leave and then shifted her gaze to the dog. Nothing made much sense, but if Tabriz could help save Gabrielle then she was willing to play along. "Well, what do we do now?" If she didn't know better, Xena could have sworn that the dog smiled.
Dar moved to the wall that was next to the alley. The Warrior put her hand out and once again found herself cutting through a mist to stand outside. Two guards searching the alley saw her.
She sighed. Some days nothing went easily and this was going to be one of those days. The blue eyes widened, the lips parted to reveal white teeth and a playful smile. While her body played femme fatale, her mind discerned the strengths and weaknesses of each man.
One of the soldiers moved to stand within arms reach and addressed her. "Either you are a fool or new to Ephesus, but that won't protect you from the Caliph's laws." The man was just about to step forward and have his arm broken, when a voice from behind the soldiers commanded, "Hold!"
The soldiers turned around. Xena tried to look beyond them to see who approached. A man dressed in black robes trimmed with gold walked up to them. His face was half-shielded by the kafiah that covered his head. "Well..." the stranger asked.
One of the soldier's bowed his head. "M'lord you know the laws, she is alone on the streets."
"She is with me." The stranger turned to look at the Warrior. Two dark brown eyes greeted her with laughter.
"I believe you M'lord, but who are you?"
The stranger's brown eyes never moved from her face as he reached beneath his robes to pull out a rolled parchment. "Here are my papers. I am Sulamon ibn Rashid, the Caliph's advisor. I apologize for the woman, but she is a newly purchased concubine." Rashid kept watching her to see how she reacted. "A comely barbarian, don't you agree? I assure you that this won't happen again. Will it Philomena?"
The blue eyes were amused. Rashid gently pulled the Warrior close, swept off his outer black robe and draped it over her shoulders. He pulled her closer yet and before she could protest, he covered her mouth with his. Just as she was about to smash her fist into his stomach, Rashid whispered, "Play along, Princess, both our lives depend upon it."
The Warrior took a step back. Her eyes must have been threatening violence, because Rashid dipped his head as if to acknowledge the threat and reached carefully for her hand. He led the Warrior past the soldiers to the street where a young boy held the reins of two horses.
As the Warrior started to mount the horse, she spoke softly so that only Rashid could hear, "You enjoying this, Rashid?"
He laughed, deeply. "It has its moments, my Princess. Now come we have miles to cover."
They rode out of Ephesus. Within a mile or two there was nothing but desert. Many hours later, with the stars twinkling above them, they reached a small oasis. Rashid dismounted, looked hard into the blackness surrounding them, nodded as if satisfied that they weren't followed and beckoned the Warrior down.
Suddenly the Warrior remembered the kiss. "No dinner, Rashid? You take a woman out, kiss her, the least you can do is buy her dinner." She grabbed Rashid by the shoulder, turned him around to face her and was about to poke him in the neck for the nerve pinch, when Rashid spun quickly just beyond her reach.
"Impatience, Princess does not suit you."
"Nor does gaming suit you, Rashid. My friend is in danger and I've no time for this."
"I know, Princess. I was down at the docks to meet your ship, I tried..."
The Warrior did not waste words, she grabbed and lifted him into the air. He offered no resistance, and looking into his brown eyes the Warrior was surprised to see that he was not afraid.
"I know you are worried about your friend, confused by me, hungry and when you get down to it, cranky, but is this really necessary? I don't have much time left, so please put me down. The soldiers might have found out that I'm not the Caliph's advisor and then they will pursue us. We need to take cover. I will tell you everything shortly."
He made sense, she lowered him to the ground. "Who are you?"
"First, let us be safe, Princess." Rashid walked over to the small pool that formed the heart of the oasis. A large rock taller than a horse and about an arms span in width rose up near the shore. Walking into the pool to stand before the rock, Rashid said, "In the name of the Jinn, Zaynab, obey my command and open."
The center of the rock dissolved. Rashid motioned her to come closer. The Warrior looked into the shadows and saw what looked like stairs heading down below the ground. She walked into the rock to stand next to Rashid.
"In the name of the Jinn, Zaynab, obey my command and close."
The opening became solid again. "Come, Princess, follow me down." Rashid lit a torch that stood near the opening. They walked down some forty to fifty steps until they entered a small chamber.
"Lights!" commanded Rashid. The room exploded into brilliance. It was a magnificent room. The Warrior quickly took in the rich carpets lining the floors, the tapestries and mosaics that adorned the walls and thought of Gabrielle describing the scene in a story.
"Please sit, Princess. I will arrange for our food and then we will talk about Gabrielle and why I need your help."
On hearing Gabrielle's name the Warrior snapped. She drew her sword and bore down on him. "How do you know about Gabrielle? And who in Hades are you?" The point of her sword pressed in on Rashid's neck drawing a drop of blood and still there was no fear in those brown eyes.
"It seems, Princess that every time we meet you want to fight, but not tonight. I'm tired and running out of time. Put down your sword."
She complied not wanting to take advantage of an unarmed man. Then the Warrior charged barehanded. He stood his ground until the Warrior made contact and as soon as contact was initiated, Rashid started to fall backwards. While falling he held onto her hands using the Warrior's own momentum to carry her up and over him. As soon as she realized what was happening, the Warrior tucked and rolled through the fall. She stood and faced Rashid a bit more warily and respectfully.
Yelling her war cry the Warrior leapt into the air and in mid-somersault grabbed her chakrum. She had hoped that her actions would surprise him, but he matched her speed and as she landed, Rashid reached out gently to touch her. It was just enough to throw the Warrior off balance and she fell to the floor. Furious, she jumped up, moved towards Rashid, grabbed his robe and hung on. As each tried to find an opening for a throw, they both crashed to the floor. The Warrior recovered first and scrambled up to sit on top of Rashid, pinning his arms to the floor.
Rashid looked over the Warrior's shoulder and said softly, "No Zaynab do not interfere."
The Warrior chanced a glance backwards to see a green skinned...demon is the only word she could think of and yet the creature who stood at her back was not a demon. She drew a deep breath.
"Are you feeling better? A bit less tense from your exercise?"
"Why don't you simply answer me? Who are you?"
"I am Daryabar. We fought at Colossus. One of the few times you lost a battle, if I remember correctly."
Xena's eyes narrowed as her mind raced backward to remember the battle. "I remember fighting a Spartan legion led by Camilla. It was not her day. I had her down, but another warrior, a woman, helmeted and in full armor came to her aid. That warrior beat me back and might have taken my life, but Camilla said..."
Daryabar interrupted, "...Daryabar don't. You would be killing for revenge and that is not the warrior's way."
"Yes she said that." Xena paused not liking where her thoughts were leading, "The one called Daryabar took my sword, picked up Camilla and told me that I had much to learn about being a warrior. But that warrior was a woman."
Daryabar slid out from under her. "And so am I." She pulled the kafiah off her head and shook her short brown hair loose. "That was Cam's last battle. No_you did not kill her, but in losing to you she realized that her days as a warrior were over. We became traders, most recently traveling with the caravans between Ephesus and Cathay." She paused, "It was a wonderful life, but fate intervened. Camilla died two and half years ago. From an illness. Can you believe it? After 20 years of soldiering, an illness took her. And what's worse is that I couldn't help ¾ couldn't do a damn thing ¾ prayers, sacrifices, vows ¾ nothing. Nothing helped. She died in my arms making me promise to love again."
Daryabar studied the Warrior's face then continued. "If there is one thing I've learned, Princess, it's that I am powerless to change certain things."
"I don't believe that."
"No right now you probably don't." Daryabar paused, a wistful look crossing her eyes as she allowed herself to remember believing in other things. A smile turned up one corner of her mouth, "Perhaps your life will be different. In the meantime, know that I mean you no harm. You are safe here. Now I will attend to dinner."
A gong sounded in the distance. "Good, Zaynab has brought Tabriz back. I have run out of time, Princess. I will see you later."
"Why didn't you tell me that you worked with Tabriz?"
"I thought you knew. No matter. She comes and I must go."
Daryabar stood and walked past Tabriz with a simple nod as greeting. Tabriz crossed over to where the Warrior sat. The Warrior watching her movements swore that Tabriz's feet never touched the floor. The old one sat and smiled at her.
"You've given poor Daryabar a tough time. She said you would be difficult, but neither of us truly knew what to expect. After all watching someone from a distance is not the same as being there, is it?"
"I'm afraid my dealings with gods and magic has been rather limited. I don't know what you are talking about."
"Then I will show you." Tabriz snapped her fingers and no sooner had the sound finished its echo in the room, than a crystal ball the size of a small melon, appeared to float just above her outstretched hand. Tabriz touched it with her index finger and the ball seemed to attach itself to that point. As Tabriz lowered her hand to the table, the ball followed. "Come closer," she directed Xena. "Dim," she commanded the lights. The room was shrouded in grayness.
Within the crystal a bright white mist sparkled. It began to swirl around faster and faster until the mist took on solid form. It was Gabrielle¾ dressed in flowing silken pants, bare midriff, low cut bodice and silken scarves that were draped over her shoulders. Xena thought she looked beautiful. Near her sat a good looking middle aged man propped up by pillows. Tabriz waved her hand over the crystal ball and for the first time in weeks Xena heard Gabrielle's voice.
"You want to make me your wife...Okay...good, that's good." Gabrielle was clearly nervous. She backed into a low table, quickly recovered her poise and said, "But what's a wedding night without a few stories. Did you know that I was a bard back in Athens. Bard¾ storyteller. Let me tell you about my friend, the Warrior Princess..."
"Gabrielle is safe. Now let me show you how evil came to Ephesus." As Tabriz finished speaking, the black dog came into the room and sat down between Tabriz and Xena.
"Once upon a time, Warrior Princess, this land was unlike any other. Oh I'm not a dreamer, there were good and evil Gods, good and evil Jinni, good and evil Caliphs and men, but good always managed to triumph in the end ¾ until Farouz." Tabriz waved her hand over the crystal ball. A man of no distinguishing features floated eerily in the swirling mists.
"Farouz ¾ what can I say about Farouz? No one, not even I know for certain his origin, though it is rumored he comes from the East. But then again, all mystery is said to originate in the East. What we know about Farouz is that he appeared one day in the court of Sardis and quickly managed to win the admiration of the Caliph."
The crystal ball now displayed a man of about thirty-five. Xena recognized him as the man who had been sitting with Gabrielle. But this time, a beautiful dark haired woman was by his side. They strolled in a garden filled with pomegranates, roses and poppies. Though she could not hear their words it was clear from their intimacy that they were deeply in love.
"The man is Sardis, Caliph of this land. The woman, his bride Yarim. Their love was legendary throughout the land. Even a cynic like myself who has seen much over time, was moved by their devotion to one another. They had been married ten years when Farouz showed up. Soon afterward Yarim was accused of infidelity. In this country, Warrior Princess, if a woman is accused of infidelity, let alone caught in the act, the penalty is death."
The images in the crystal ball shifted to show Yarim's public execution.
"What the Caliph did not know, nor for that matter did anyone else, was that Farouz had arranged for Yarim's accusation. He was no longer content with being a Vizier so he set in motion a plan that would eliminate the Caliph and leave his hands clean.
"The Caliph was lonely and at the same time loathe to trust women. Farouz played him well. He convinced Sardis that the only way to prevent such a betrayal was to never allow it to begin. Almost every night for the past six months Farouz has procured a woman for the Caliph to wed. Each morning before the woman can dream of being duplicitous she is beheaded. I can not tell you the number of women who have died.
"The law of the land is simple ¾ any unattached female of marriageable age is brought to the palace. That is why you were chased in Ephesus and that is why your friend was taken. Thankfully she is clever. By telling Sardis tales every night she has captivated him and managed to stay alive for four weeks. This is unprecedented.
"You grow tired, but bear with an old woman just a bit longer, my tale is almost done. Two years ago, maybe more, on a starry night much like tonight, Daryabar arrived at this oasis. She carried the ashes of her lover. It was her last stop before boarding a ship bound for Sparta. But round about midnight an old woman stumbled into camp and close on her heels four armed men on horseback. Without hesitation Daryabar unsheathed her sword and dispatched the four quite easily.
"Yes, Warrior Princess, she saved my life and without asking any questions told me that I was welcome to spend the night ¾ she would protect me. You have no idea what that meant to me. Not in all the years that I have been on this planet has a mortal ever offered to do something for me without expecting something back in return.
"Then Farouz arrived to take me back. But on this sacred ground he could not touch or harm me. So he turned his anger on Daryabar and cursed her. From midday till midnight she is human ¾ from midnight till midday she wears the appearance of this dog you see before you.
"You are wondering why Farouz would want an old woman like Tabriz. All is not as it appears, Warrior Princess. Here besides you sits a very old Jinn.
"One night long ago, I fell asleep under the stars, blissfully lost in a haze of too much wine and music. Farouz travelling at night looking for victims to feed upon came upon me sleeping. Unaware, I shape shifted. He realized I was a Jinn and stole my soul. We Jinn place our souls in protective devices. Mine was in an oil lamp. When a mortal controls the lamp, I am compelled to grant him or her three wishes. Farouz woke me and ordered me to come with him to the palace of Sardis.
"His power and ambition were increasing, I was afraid to stay even if it meant my death by leaving my soul behind. I slipped away with Zaynab's help and found sanctuary here, though without the lamp to protect me, I am as mortal as you and without powers.
"This is my tale Warrior. For two years Daryabar and I have searched and waited for someone like you. And now Kismet has brought you here. We need your help and will help you in return."
Xena looked once more in the crystal ball. Gabrielle was walking around the room. She was radiant and oblivious to everything but the story she was weaving for the Caliph. Indeed looking at the two of them, Xena wondered who was really the captive and who was the captor.
That night Xena dreamt of storming the palace. But as Gabrielle and Xena sailed off from Ephesus, Tabriz was dying and the dog Daryabar was by her side licking her hand. She woke with a start and wondered how things had managed to get so complicated? Gabrielle was kidnapped ¾ that was easy, she had dealt with that before. And in terms of finding the lamp, well that too was manageable, but this curse thing ¾ she knew nothing about curses.
The next day Daryabar and Tabriz were deep in conversation when the Warrior walked in. Tabriz's eyes twinkled a greeting, while Daryabar's deep brown eyes were more studious as if she were sizing the Warrior up.
The three spent days talking, eating, arguing trying to develop a strategy that would rescue Gabrielle, find the lamp and find a way to lift the curse on Daryabar. By the time they learned that Farouz had left Sargon, Sardis' capital city, to tour the surrounding cities and farms they had several plans in place. The time had come for Daryabar and the Warrior to set out across the desert.
Two days of travel. Two days of blistering heat and two nights of searing cold. The Warrior looked up at the darkening sky wishing she were home. The reds blending into orange and purple were beautiful, but looked painted by some mad God. Gabrielle would know how to capture it exactly, but the Warrior was tired. She had not slept well the night before and Daryabar had woken her shortly after sunrise. Fortunately they had arrived at a small oasis with a pool and decided to camp there for the night.
The Warrior glanced longingly at the pool, but before she could sink into the cool waters, she needed to take care of the horse. She had just unbridled and removed the saddle when a sound caught her attention. The Warrior looked over to Daryabar, and saw that she too had heard the noise. Daryabar signalled the Warrior to stay down and move to the left. The Warrior did so and started to crawl up the incline of a small dune. Just as she was about to peek over the crest, her instincts warned her to stop. A half second later two men came charging over the dune's top, their swords raised ready to surprise her and Daryabar, and were startled themselves to find her waiting. They were dead within seconds of reaching her. She turned back and saw that Daryabar was surrounded by five men.
The Warrior exuberantly shouted her war cry, leaped and somersaulted into the air simply for the sheer pleasure of it. As she landed she started to fight one of the men and called to Daryabar. Daryabar risked a quick look. The Warrior motioned with her free arm. Slowly the two warriors danced their adversaries around until the Warrior and Daryabar stood back to back.
"Need any help?"
"From you, Princess? I think not. I've beaten you once before remember."
Two men fell.
The Warrior heard the sound of horses. "I think reinforcements have arrived."
Daryabar grunted as she parried one sword and thrust her blade past another into the belly of the sword's owner. "Make that six more men."
"I didn't think you had taken the time to arrange entertainment. You are proving to be a better tour guide than I had imagined. Perhaps I'll sign up for your next excursion."
"I'll give you a good price. Now if we dispatch two more of these thieves the rest should scurry back into whatever cave they crawled out from."
"I think you're right ¾ they seem to be leaving even as we speak. Nice neighborhood, Daryabar."
The surviving bandits slipped away, disappearing into the dunes as quickly and silently as they had come. The trail of blood and weapons left behind were the only evidence that they had been there.
The Warrior and Daryabar relaxed their stance to lean back to back against one another. Each surveyed the scene and listened carefully, but it was over. They turned and checked each other over to make sure that the blood splattering clothing and skin was not from a wound. Almost at the same moment their eyes locked. There was respect and...
"You've changed your fighting style, Princess. It suits you well."
"And age seems to have had little effect on your fighting style."
Daryabar snorted. "I shall take that as a complement." She reached out gently to wipe blood from the Warrior's cheek. As her fingertips made contact with the Warrior's skin, she felt the Warrior move ever so subtly. Daryabar hesitated, retracted her hand, turned and said, "Why don't we clean up in the pool."
The Warrior nodded absently, she was trying to figure out why she had reacted to Daryabar's touch so strongly.
Night had fallen, there was no pool to be seen, but the flat dark surface filled with a thousand points of light reflecting the stars had to be water. She dove in not bothering to shed her clothes. Moments later she heard the sound of Daryabar entering the water. The Warrior dove back under to look up through the water at the stars. It was amazing. She came up for air and noticed a dark shadow standing across the way. She couldn't really see Daryabar, but her mind imagined Daryabar disrobing and bathing. And thinking of that, and Daryabar's strength and grace she found herself remembering the kiss. The kiss and the warmth that it had generated in her belly. And as she remembered, the warmth spread up from her belly to her throat.
She was so lost in the moment that when Daryabar swam next to her and spoke, she actually needed to catch her breath before daring to respond.
"Here Princess, thought you might like some soap, its easier to use than sand."
The Warrior managed to grunt out a polite yes and thanks.
Daryabar seemed to hesitate, then said, "I guess I'll go tend the fire. See you for dinner."
Xena's eyes followed the shadow move toward the shore, bend down and then get lost against the blackness of the dunes. She knew what this feeling was, she knew what it meant to have that hot flame spread from her belly to heart, she knew all right, but... She was getting cold in the water and rushed to finish bathing. Okay, she admitted, maybe it wasn't the cold, maybe it was the fire and those deep brown eyes.
Daryabar was sitting by the flames watching embers flicker and die in the night sky. She turned to observe Xena who was still shaking the water out of her long black hair. Daryabar grabbed a cloth and was about to walk over and help dry Xena's hair, when she stopped herself abruptly. She hadn't been with a woman since Camilla's death two years ago. She hadn't even been attracted until now.
Xena was staring into the fire, apparently lost in thought. Daryabar sighed ¾ a long wistful sigh. "Thinking of Gabrielle?"
Xena looked up quickly. She had been thinking of Daryabar, not Gabrielle. There was that damn warmth in her belly again. "Not really...but its hard not to worry. We've been inseparable for the past couple of years." The blue eyes suddenly twinkled, "Except of course, when she gets into trouble or gets kidnapped or..." She laughed. It was good to laugh, she hadn't done so since leaving for Ephesus.
"I know the feeling well. Cam also had a knack for getting us into jams. You're shivering, here." Daryabar grabbed a blanket and draped it over Xena's shoulders, her fingers lightly brushing Xena's skin..
"I'm okay," Xena said brusquely, her flesh burning where Daryabar's fingers had grazed.
"All right then, why don't you set the tent up and I'll cook us some dinner."
"Sounds like a plan. Daryabar, wait..." Xena searched the brown eyes for a moment, changed her mind and asked, "What about the curse? There must be a way to break it, isn't there?
"I don't know, Princess, this may be one of those things I am powerless to change. For now we'll concentrate on your friend, the lamp and then perhaps..."
Xena interrupted her, "Are you always so noble?"
Daryabar took a deep breath, "No more than you, Princess. No more than you. Pitch the tent, I'll make dinner and hopefully the sandstorm that is brewing will hold off."
Xena stayed for a moment longer by the fire. Her hand reached up to gently trace the area where Daryabar's fingers had been. She forced herself to concentrate on setting up the tent, but her eyes kept drifting to where Daryabar sat cooking the meal.
Later that night the wind started to fling sand at the sides of the tent, sounding first like a gentle rain and then becoming stronger like the rat-tat-tat of a drum. Xena sensed movement in the tent and woke to see the black dog circling near the flap covering the tent's opening. Finally, the dog settled down, head draped across her front paws. Xena got up and sat near Dar. She laid a hand on her back and stayed there until Dar had fallen asleep.
By mid-afternoon, the two warriors were sitting on horseback surveying the city and palace of Sardis. The city of Sargon was not as large as Ephesus but it was beautiful. The palace was tucked up in the northern quadrant of the city surrounded by meticulously designed and manicured
gardens. The remaining three quadrants were easily distinguished as market, army barracks, and civilian lodgings. All were surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers.
"It would be easy to take this city. Look how few armaments and men there are."
"It would be easy, Princess, if this were an ordinary city. Farouz guards this city with his magic even when he is not present. Look carefully at the city's walls."
The Warrior focused her attention on the parapets above the palace. Only four soldiers walked the perimeter. She stared more carefully. "Daryabar, I see four men who look a little like Zaynab did that first night, but that's probably from a hangover not magic."
Daryabar laughed. "You can really see that far from here? Ah the advantages of youth." The Warrior's eyes asked the question. "I need this myself." She pulled a metal tube out from her robe and handed it to her. "I picked this up on my travels. Look through the end of the tube. Close one eye its easier."
The Warrior bit back her surprise as she saw the city with amazing clarity as well as what appeared to be a curtain of flickering light rising up from the ground outside the city to tower above the walls. "What is it?"
"A magical field of some sort. I have yet to see it work, but I have been told that a man was burnt to death when he attempted to cross that field at night." Daryabar looked up at the setting sun.
"We may as well camp here for the night, no need to stir up trouble with me disappearing for a good part of the day."
"Good idea. I'll pitch the tent."
They both dismounted and went about the business of setting up camp.
The sun was still in the sky when the moon popped up over the horizon and the two stationed thus in the sky reminded Xena of an old song¾ a song of love and yearning. Her voice soared out over the desert sands. As she sang of the two lovers she became acutely aware of Daryabar and stopped. Realizing that she had come to a crashing halt, she blushed, got angry with herself for blushing and turned to face Daryabar ready to snap if she had noticed.
But Daryabar as if sensing her confusion, stayed with the obvious. "You have a beautiful voice, Princess. Is there anything you don't do well?"
The Warrior rubbed her eyes, fearing that she would cry. "Too many to even recount, Daryabar."
Daryabar sighed. "Our way of life is hard, Princess. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but I also can't imagine living any other way."
"True enough. But I was a warlord." the blue eyes narrowed, the muscles along the jaw line twitched, "I was ruthless. That girl in the palace saved me. Anything good or noble about me begins with Gabrielle. Do you understand?"
Daryabar stared off at the rising moon wondering what it was that Xena was struggling with. "I understand. Camilla saved my soul. She taught me much about honor, wisdom, the warrior's way, and more importantly about love. When you and I first met on that battlefield I would have gutted you and done so without any thought, but Camilla...well, you know she stayed my hand. Over time, Princess, I learned that guilt is at best a momentary feeling and what is needed is right action. From what I've heard and seen, you've been doing that for quite some time."
"But I'm always poised on the edge of the abyss, always ready to slip back."
"No, Xena. You were close to slipping when I led you to the oasis¾ but you didn't, even though Gabrielle's life was at risk. You've changed, you're still changing¾ you won't go back. I know."
Daryabar suspected that Xena's struggles had nothing to do with her past and everything to do with her present. And while she wanted to ease that struggle and hold Xena within her arms, she knew that this was not the time. "Please, Princess, will you finish that song?"
Xena sang until the moon chased the sun from the heavens.
The guard at the gate was thinking about Minah and how he might sneak into the palace to see her that evening, not about his job. Yet as he looked over the throng of people moving into the city, he saw an old woman, hair white, eyes white, bent over by years, buffeted by some travelers fall to the ground. He ran over to help her.
"Come this way, Mother. You must have dropped your staff. Here take my arm, I will guide you. Its tough enough keeping one's feet when one can see. Where are you bound?"
"To the palace. I am Serina the fortune teller and I've come to tell the future of the Caliph's Intended."
He laughed. "It doesn't take a fortune teller to see her future, Mother. They all end up the same way and besides I don't know how you would get in."
Serina's body sagged. "The Intended was my last hope, I thought if the Caliph's young bride heard my message, well, others would want to as well."
The guard couldn't resist her, "I tell you what, you tell the cook that her daughter and I are kismet and I'll help you get in. The cook's daughter, my fiance, also works in the palace, she'll take you to the Intended. Now take my arm, I can't be gone long."
"Wait, my dog ¾ I dropped the rope when I was jostled."
"A dog, ah this black one, here, I've got the rope, let's go."
The cook's daughter begged the old woman to speak with her mother. The old woman grabbed the girl's hand and told the cook that her daughter would have a long and happy life with a young soldier. The cook and her daughter shrieked with laughter. Then the girl led the old woman and dog through a maze of corridors until they came to the Intended's quarters.
The old woman instructed the dog to guide her forward. The black dog looked back to watch the cook's daughter leave and then ran as if the hound of Hades was chasing them pulling the old woman helplessly along.
"Dar! Stop! I can't see with this stuff in my eyes. Dar, please, stop!"
The dog stopped in front of a young woman seated by a fountain. "Who are you? Oh what a sweet dog." The young woman knelt down to pet the dog and without losing a breath continued her questions, "What can I do for you? Did Sardis or Farouz send you? Where are my manners, please sit down. What's it like outside..."
The old woman cut her off. "Gabrielle!" There was a mixture of delight and impatience in the voice.
"How do you know my name ¾ you sound just like...Wait, Xena! Xena is that you?" She began to laugh and cry, "Oh Gods I'm saved. I'm saved. How are we getting out? I don't have my stuff, but that won't matter. Great disguise Xena, really great disguise, I wouldn't have recognized ..."
Xena shook her head, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Gabrielle ¾ slow down. Its good to see you too." Gabrielle had grabbed her around the waist and was hugging her fiercely. "Hold on for a second, everything is going to be okay." Xena rubbed her eyes until the blue was again visible. She looked Gabrielle over to make sure she was all right and then looked at Dar who was staring patiently back at her.
"Gabrielle, I don't have much time ¾ so please, hold your questions and don't interrupt until I finish. I'm glad you are safe. The dog is a friend. A woman named Daryabar who was cursed by Farouz. He has also stolen a lamp that houses a Jinn's soul. We need to find this lamp, get it back to the Jinn and get you out of here. But you can't leave until we find the lamp."
While listening and wanting to interrupt every other word, Gabrielle kept silent, letting her eyes and mouth widen to show her astonishment. Dar growled.
"No, Dar, she's OK, just stunned. She's the talker, I'm the quiet but deadly one."
Xena turned back to the open mouthed Gabrielle, "Gabrielle can you draw me a map of the castle?"
"Sure. But don't you think Farouz would carry the lamp with him?" Gabrielle wasn't thrilled with the idea of being left behind.
"Yes but we need to make sure. I know you don't want to stay here, but I need you to." Xena put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and consciously softened her voice. "Will you be all right?"
Gabrielle relaxed as she realized that Xena was not just trying to protect her. She looked into the blue eyes that were filled with concern, pressed Xena's arm firmly and answered, "I'll be fine. Why don't you tell me the plan."
At the camp Xena sat under the lone tree at the oasis and studied the map Gabrielle had drawn. Getting into Farouz's room wasn't a problem, the problem was the timing. That's what worried her. But then timing was always an issue in a campaign or in life. Her thoughts drifted to Daryabar. Her thoughts seemed to be on Daryabar a lot these days and actually more than just her thoughts. She felt the warmth spread across her belly and smiled.
"A smile, Princess ¾ oops, didn't mean to startle you." Xena was not only startled but had actually drawn her weapon to defend herself. She scowled and shook her head in an effort to cover her embarrassment.
"What?" she demanded coolly, the warmth spreading up to her chest, threatening to consume her heart.
Daryabar scratched her head wondering how to proceed. Xena was clearly pre-occupied. "I was just commenting on your smile...Gabrielle will be fine. Your plan is good. She and Tabriz will be safe." Xena picked up her sword and began to clean it. "Xena, I'm not good with silence. What's wrong?"
Now Xena stood and began to pace. Daryabar waited. Finally Xena spoke.
"And what about you?"
"What about me?"
Xena's eyes narrowed and the muscles in her cheek tightened. "You know damn well what I'm talking about Daryabar and you've been avoiding speaking about it for days."
"You're angry because we haven't talked about the curse?"
"What would you have me say Princess? That I'm not really fond of bones or that I detest the flees that feed off of me when I'm a dog. Or that I hate the fact that I have no control over my life. What would you have me do, bay at the moon during those few precious hours when I'm mortal. Is that it? Or perhaps, you would prefer a philosophical discussion, in which case I would tell you about kismet. Destiny. And I would tell you that just as I was destined to be cursed I was destined to meet you." Xena snorted and started to walk away, "Do you think for one minute, for one precious minute Princess that I have not tried to break the curse? I nearly went mad the first year trying and if not for Tabriz, I would have killed myself. I do not avoid it, I live it every moment.
"And you know the curse isn't what's bothering you. Be honest, Princess, why are you really upset?"
Xena whirled around to face Daryabar. She pushed Daryabar in the shoulder, hard enough so that Daryabar had to step backwards to keep her balance.
"You want to talk about avoidance, Xena." Daryabar met the next assault by gently, but firmly deflecting the blow. "Go ahead Xena, take your best shot ¾ hit me."
Xena recoiled as if stung. "No ¾ I...Daryabar..." She turned, started to jog to one of the horses, did a running mount and took off.
Daryabar knew not to follow.
The first star of the evening was twinkling when Xena rode back into camp. Daryabar sitting by the fire watched Xena dismount, tether the horse and walk over to her. Xena stood, first looking into the fire as if drawing courage from the flames, then the blue eyes finally met Daryabar's.
Daryabar's heart quickened at the intensity of Xena's gaze and she felt vulnerable in a way she had long forgotten. Never taking her eyes away from Daryabar, Xena walked over and knelt down beside her.
"I've lost too many people, Daryabar. Far too many people and I can't bear the thought of losing you. We both know that life is precious and short so I won't wait until tomorrow or the next day to say or do something, because there may not be a tomorrow. I can't even begin to tell you what I'm feeling, because I don't understand it myself, I only know I'm on fire when you're near me and feel empty and lost when you're away. I need you."
Daryabar started to stand. Xena stayed her movement by holding her in place. "You're trembling, Daryabar." Then ever so gently, she slipped one hand behind Daryabar's head, while the other traced the line along Daryabar's jaw to her lips. Xena let the warmth in her belly consume her heart and they kissed.
During a pause for air, Daryabar pulled slowly away and said, "I've wanted to kiss you since first setting eyes on you in Ephesus."
Xena stood, taking Daryabar's hand, leading her to the tent with a wry smile on her face. "You did kiss me in Ephesus, but maybe as you said earlier today ¾ it's kismet. Now as the stars are my witness, Daryabar there is only one language I wish to hear spoken tonight."
Daryabar laughed and pulling Xena back into the circle of her embrace, she kissed her, truly, madly and deeply.
She didn't remember falling asleep, but the warm breath and cold nose against her arm startled her. Before reacting with a sudden movement that might hurt the owner of the cold nose, Xena slowly opened her eyes and smiled into the brown ones boring into her. Seeing that she was finally awake, Dar playfully and quickly snatched the blanket away.
Xena responded in kind and rolled up from the pillows to quickly tackle the dog before Dar could react. "I owe you one Dar." She then proceeded to tickle the dog's belly. Dar wriggled, squirmed and tried to worm her way out, but had no success.
Dar growled softly. "So you admit defeat. Good." Xena stood, smiling again. Dar rose up as well and growled again at Xena. "All right, I get it, you want to leave. Do we have time for breakfast or is this another one of your quick stops?" The dog's eyes might have twinkled, but then Xena could never be sure. Dar left the tent.
"Daryabar!" Xena followed her outside. A caravan, some fifty people strong, was moving onto the oasis. Xena went over to the head man and asked if she might join the caravan for the rest of the journey to the city of Sardis. She said that her husband, Hassan the Trader, would be joining them about mid-day.
On the way back to the tent Xena prepared as she always did before a campaign, she mentally went through each stage of the assault. However, instead of seeing each step of the plan acted out, she saw Daryabar's neck, shoulders and breasts and then she remembered the salty taste and the musky... The sooner this was over she thought, the sooner she could hold Daryabar again.
It was a simple plan. Around five o'clock in the afternoon, the caravan entered the city. The inns along Market Street welcomed the travelers and merchants. Hassan the trader and his wife Fatimah, not only took rooms, but stayed in them ¾ even during the dinner hour. The next day after the mid-day meal, the couple were greeted with smiles and congratulations on their newly wedded status. The couple had the good sense to blush, thank the well wishers and not correct them.
By three in the afternoon, Hassan the Trader and his wife went with three crates of merchandise to the palace. The crates held gifts for the Caliph and the Intended. While Hassan was invited to join the men discussing business with the Caliph, Fatimah was to wait patiently in the antechamber outside the court.
Around sunset, Hassan came out to tell Fatimah that he was going to dine with the Caliph, she would take her meal with the Intended. Fatimah was escorted by the guards to the Intended's quarters. The Intended was seated on pillows, madly writing on parchment. Fatimah waited until the servants had departed.
"Some things never change do they, Gabrielle?"
"Xena? I thought I was having dinner with some trader's wife named Fatimah."
"Where is Daryabar?
"With the Caliph. She is Hassan the trader and I am the trader's wife. What news have you of Farouz?"
"Sardis wasn't sure where he was ¾ Xena he could come back at any time. Shouldn't we wait until we are certain where he is?"
"No Gabrielle ¾ the sooner this is finished, the better for all of us. Why don't you order food, we still need to eat and it will establish an alibi for you."
"Okay and over dinner you can tell me about Daryabar."
Xena distracted by images of Daryabar was absent mindedly smiling and staring at a plate on the table. Gabrielle couldn't help but notice, "Hey, want to share what's making you so happy?"
The blue eyes sobered up and gently held Gabrielle's questioning green eyes. "I do. But not now. I need to focus. Did you manage to make that rope?"
"Yes." Gabrielle left the room and came back with armloads of linen knotted together. "What is this for?"
"Since we can't leave the room by the door, we're going up on the roof."
"What about the guards?"
"There are only two walking the perimeter at night. If we time this right, you and I should be able to cross the roof in the darkness without being seen."
"You mean I'm going ¾ what about Daryabar?"
"She is also establishing an alibi. Great job with the linen. Now perhaps you'll appreciate why I like to practice using anything at hand as a weapon."
"You are the only person I know who would try to justify using a fry pan as a weapon."
They both laughed and sat down to eat.
Two hours later as Fatima and the Intended were sitting down for mint tea, a gong sounded and the Caliph's personal guard burst into the room. With swords drawn, the men raced through the inner chamber and the outer courtyard. The gong sounded again. This time the Caliph entered followed by Hassan and if Fatima guessed correctly, Farouz, the Vizier.
The Caliph rushed over to Gabrielle. "My apologies Gabrielle for bursting in on you like this, but the guards saw someone up on the roof. Thankfully, Farouz arrived with the Royal Guard. They are searching the rest of the palace now. You haven't heard anything, have you?"
Gabrielle's hand fluttered up to her heart and quickly she forced it back down to her side. "Everything is fine, Sardis. Fatima and I have been having a wonderful dinner."
Fatima rose and drew the men's attention away from the Intended. "M'lord, she bowed, "the Intended is a gifted story-teller, it is difficult not to get thoroughly wrapped up in her stories. I have never laughed and cried so hard in my life."
Farouz spoke, "I have heard much about these stories, Intended. No one else has managed to enchant the Caliph for more than a day, let alone nine weeks. You must be extraordinary. I look forward to hearing a tale. Perhaps on your wedding night?" Farouz paused letting the implication sink in and then turned gracefully to Fatima. "And you must be Hassan's bride. Lucky man."
Farouz reached for her hand and as he brought it up to his lips, his eyes widened as they focussed on the ruby ring.
Fatima smiled. The bait had been taken. "No, M'lord, Vizier. It is I who am lucky. She walked over to Hassan, placed her two palms on his already reddening face and kissed him. Still blushing, Hassan gently pulled away from Fatima, scowled at her and then turned to the men.
"Forgive me, Caliph, Vizier, we are newly married and you know how women are. By your leave, we will retire to the inn."
The Caliph stared at them for a moment, and in that moment, all the love and sorrow he had experienced crossed his eyes like sun light flickering on and off under a cloudy sky. "Please take your leave and enjoy the rest of the evening. Farouz, you may leave as well, I shall relax with Gabrielle."
Not long after, Fatima and Hassan returned to the Inn. As soon as they were behind closed doors, Daryabar spun Xena around and kissed her.
"Xena! Please don't take such chances, especially with Farouz around."
"I can't seem to resist kissing you."
"I seem to have the same problem. How did it go?"
Xena smiled. "As soon as it was dark enough to cover our movements, Gabrielle and I scaled the wall up to the roof. We slipped into Farouz's rooms and searched for hiding spaces, locked chests, false doors, false floors ¾ there was nothing. He carries the lamp."
The brown eyes studied the vulnerable face turned toward her. "What?"
"What will you do if we can't lift the curse?"
"Do? I don't know, Princess, I don't know.
"I wish this was over already."
"So do I, Princess...but at least Gabrielle is safe. We have a few hours before midnight and the next phase. Come here, I need you in my arms."
Serina, the fortune-teller, sat with the beggars, homeless and ill against the wall of the Inn. The snorts, snores and other restless sounds of her companions kept her alert. She was aware of his approach before the sound of his footsteps reached her ears and before the dog's growl warned her that he was near. She sensed the hunger and desperation that clung to him like old smoke that has seeped beneath a fabric to stain and smell no matter how many times the material is cleaned.
She waited and timed it perfectly. "What is the Vizier seeking this evening?"
Coal black eyes sought out the speaker. They widened as they focussed on the rheumy, milky- white ones.
"Ah...the Vizier seeks a woman. A young woman ¾ no ¾ you don't want her ¾ you want what she has. Is this not true, Vizier?"
"Truth is always relative old woman. What is your name?"
"I am called Serina."
"What will the truth cost me, Serina?"
"Cost is always relative, Vizier. But in this case you may think in terms of what it may save you."
"Save me?" The black eyes studied her carefully.
"You are dying, Vizier, is this not true?"
Farouz roughly hauled the old woman to a standing position. "Careful what you say next old woman or you may die."
"Steady, Farouz. I have information that will help you."
"Certainly if I know that you are dying and can only be saved by stealing a person's life force, don't you think I may have some information to help you?"
Farouz didn't know what to think, but he was amazed at what the old woman knew. "What will it cost me?"
"A bit of information and a trinket. I stumbled across a Jinn who did not like my predictions, so he took my sight in revenge."
"What do you expect me to do?"
"Tell me how to rid myself of the curse."
"I can't lift the curse. No one can save for the person who damned you. Of course, if the Jinn dies, the curse dies, unless you kill the Jinn, then the curse is eternal, no matter how many lifetimes you may go through. Now what else do you want?"
"Since it seems I am damned for this life, give me the lamp you carry. The Jinn will die rather than serve you, but she may help me to live out my life in comfort."
Serina did not see Farouz's hand move unconsciously to the left side of his robe. His eyes narrowed as he studied the old woman. A slow smile eased across his face. It was easy to make a bargain, especially when he knew he could always track her down again. "All right, old woman, take the lamp, but I warn you, if your information does not match its value, you will wish the Jinn had killed you rather than have taken your eyes."
Farouz stepped back as the old woman straightened up to what must have been her full height. Her fingers splayed out across the lamp and her lips moved silently in what he assumed was a prayer of thanks. Her head tilted to the left as if she were listening to something.
"Today, Vizier, you met a young couple who brought wondrous gifts for the Caliph. When you saw these splendid gifts you wondered where the trader had gotten them. Then you met the trader's wife and noticed the ruby ring. You felt power emanating from the ring. Your heart beat faster and your excitement kept steady pace with your heart. You wanted to rip the ring from her finger and the tale from her throat, but you couldn't, at least not in front of witnesses. And now you prowl the streets waiting to sneak into their room."
She paused as if listening to a sound in the wind. She nodded as if in agreement with whoever she was communing. "You are right, the ring is a Jinn's as are the rest of the gifts. Do not confront the couple here, Farouz or the location of the treasure dies with them. Follow them when they leave, for they journey to their hiding place to replenish their stores. I am sure that you will be able to trade with them, or convince them to trade with you."
"So they do have a Jinn's soul. I have waited a long time for this opportunity. You have given me more than I hoped for, old woman. With a Jinn's soul I will be free for at least two to three hundred years. Here take these as well." So saying he handed her some gold dinars, looked at the Inn, then turned and quickly walked back the way he had come.
When he was out of sight, Dar growled and moved to stand next to Xena. "I think that went well, Dar. Now we've got to get the lamp to Tabriz and leave for Samarcan as soon as we can. Let's go."
Xena waited for Minah, the cook's daughter outside the city below the hill where she and Daryabar had first scouted the city's armament. She eased up the side of the embankment, Dar crouching by her side to look as well. A detail, some fifty soldiers strong galloped into the city. Soon after their arrival the gates of the city closed. It was not a good sign.
Sounds of feet stumbling behind them, caused Dar to take off in one direction while Xena stayed low to the ground and drew her sword. Moments later, Minah's voice called out softly, "Fatimah!"
Without realizing she had been tense, Xena sighed in relief. She waited until the girl was closer, then quietly spoke her name, "Minah. I'm over here."
Minah and someone else moved nearer. Dar growled once, the signal that all was clear, no one had followed Minah. Xena stood up out of the cover of the shadows and saw Minah standing with her young soldier. She smiled.
"M'lady, Farouk and I are here at your disposal. The Intended and the Caliph asked us to help. We do so willingly. Tell us what to do and we will begin. Farouz has shut down the city looking for you and your husband. They will begin to search outside soon enough and we should be away before we are seen and asked too many questions."
"Then Gabrielle¾ " seeing the confusion on Minah's face, Xena amended her questions, "the Intended is all right?"
"Oh yes M'lady. She and the Caliph are fine.
Xena stared at the young couple. "I won't ask more questions. Here is the map Farouk. Look it over well and if you have questions ask me now. Minah, hide this package well and tell no one about it. Give it to no one but Tabriz. She will take care of you both once you reach the oasis. Tell her that Daryabar and I head for the falls this night. Can you remember that?"
"And you Farouk?" She stared intently at the young soldier studying the map, who held her gaze steadily as she questioned him, "Do you understand the map well enough to get there within a few days?"
"Yes, Lady. I am familiar with that part of the country and know of several places to hide if we need to."
"Good. Take my horses and get going."
Xena watched the couple take off into the darkness of the desert. "Protect them," she whispered to who ever was listening. She whistled to Dar, who rubbed against her legs and started off in the direction of their supplies laying on the ground. Dar sank her teeth into a rolled up carpet. "I know Dar, give me a chance, let me unroll the rug and we'll get moving. I can't wait to put leagues between us and Farouz."
She cut the bindings laced around the rug and unrolled it. It was perhaps four feet by six feet. She piled their few belongings onto the rug and called over for Dar. The dog waited until she was sitting down then hunkered down, fore arms on Xena's lap and rear legs on the carpet. Xena paused remembering Tabriz's instructions. "Command the rug simply by telling it where you want to go."
Magic, she frowned. She would be glad when this journey was through and she was done with magic. "Take us to Saluk's falls," she commanded.
Gently, slowly the rug began to rise. The motion reminded Xena of her brother scooping her up and cradling her when she had nightmares as a toddler. Then the rug began circling, as if seeking in the wind for the scent of the falls. Finally, it settled in a direction and took off.
The sky started to fill with crimson clouds and small pockets of blue, which surprised her because she didn't remember falling asleep and had no sense that they had travelled so many hours. The rug decelerated and she chanced a look over the side. She saw the falls in the middle of mountains about a mile away.
They landed a distance from the falls just in case Farouz was watching. She packed up their goods, bundled them together and slung them onto her back. She looked up at the mountains. Even from a distance Xena was haunted by their starkness. The rocks were rough, craggy and looked broken, as if a Titan had smashed rock against rock leaving this jagged vista behind. As the sun light danced across the surface, the reddish brown was jarred by ribbons of green.
She and Dar set off down the hill, descending until miraculously just as Tabriz had promised they found the stream. There was no path, no indication that a mortal had walked the land for hundreds of years, but here they walked, she and dog to draw Farouz into the trap. Yet one more stop on the way to Samarcan.
Xena couldn't help but think of Samarcan and why Tabriz and Daryabar were intent on drawing Farouz there. One patch of desert or mountain seemed just as good as another and they had certainly passed through plenty of desert and passed over enough mountains. Hades, this journey to the falls served only one purpose, she thought, to lure Farouz as far away as possible from Minah, Farouk and the lamp. The only problem that remained was the curse. As if sensing that Xena was thinking of her Dar paused, looked back, wagged her tail once in greeting and then put her nose down again to sniff the trail.
Daryabar. Xena softly sang her name. Daryabar was in her life, her life was good and at Samarcan, Daryabar would be made whole. But how Xena wasn't sure, not even after she had asked Daryabar about it.
"Samarcan ¾ hmmm. There are many legends of Samarcan, Xena. About the great Caliphs and the mighty jinn ¾ about the traders and travelers who told tales and lies and drank much wine ¾ about lovers' trysts under moon drenched skies and rogue bandits whose hearts were forever changed by the wind's sighs, but who knows what the truth is.
"But you want to know why we draw Farouz there, well it was said that a mighty battle was fought there. A battle between mortal and immortal, a battle so ferocious and consuming that a god took pity on the tortured earth and decreed a peace upon the land. For a thousand and one years the land is free from magic and the power of sorcerers and jinn.
Whether this is true or not, Xena, I don't know. But Tabriz told me that Samarcan is a point in the world where outside forces simply don't work. That Samarcan is a place of change ¾ of destiny. That no one who walks into Samarcan ever walks out the same. No one.
So where else should we lead a man of ambition and greed but to the very place where he has no power or control. And because he is out of control and much driven by ambition, he will come to Samarcan not believing the tales, only believing his need."
A falcon screeching menacingly above them snapped her out of her thoughts. She whirled sword in hand and watched the bird circle three times before it turned back in the direction of Sargon. She did not believe in coincidence, she knew the bird was somehow connected to Farouz. The sigh that escaped her lips caused the dog to lean into her legs and lick her hands. "Everything is find, Dar. I just wish we could stop playing cat and mouse."
Not long after the dog's head snapped up she heard the sound as well ¾ rushing water. They had found the waterfall and within minutes stood in front of a pool of blue grey water whose source cascaded down from about a hundred feet above them. The dog and woman charged into the pool to cool off and clean up.
Two arms cinched about Xena's waist. "Miss me?" Daryabar kissed her before giving her a chance to speak.
She pulled Daryabar close and let her lips and hands speak in a more direct way. Daryabar leaned back into the embrace of Xena's arms. Her eyes swept back and forth over Xena's face as if mapping every detail.
"What's wrong, Daryabar?"
"You saw the falcon. Farouz comes."
The blue eyes darkened, the muscles along her jaw tightened and she shook her head no as she brushed off the reply.
"What do you mean, no, Princess?"
"Something else is bothering you. The plan has always been to bring Farouz here and then journey to Samarcan. That hasn't changed, so what's bothering you?"
"I've been thinking about the Oracle's prophecy."
A sigh escaped Xena's lips. She had gone to the Oracle at Delphi to seek help when she learned that Gabrielle had been kidnapped. The Oracle had given a typical Oracle response, "Go Warrior Princess. Go to Ephesus in Persia where you are a seeking a woman and a woman is seeking you. You love this woman and this woman loves you. Your time together is now, your time together will be then. But first you must embrace the journey with no end."
"Daryabar, you know that people dedicate their entire lives to interpreting the Oracle ¾ we can't be sure of what she meant."
"Xena, she spoke of an immediate present and some time in the future, but not of the time in between ¾ the time connecting the two."
"I should never have told you about the prophecy."
"Why not? I'm not afraid of death, Xena. Its losing you I'm afraid of."
Xena pulled Daryabar close. "I don't understand why you refuse to let me kill Farouz?"
"He is a sorcerer, Xena. Not all powerful, but powerful enough to have killed everyone who has gone against him. That's why we go to Samarcan, he can be handled there."
"I won't give you up, not to the gods, Farouz or..."
"Xena, if only you could control it, but we don't have that power you and I, we only have this moment. This one right now. " Daryabar took Xena by the hand and led her to the shore where they sank down to the sand and made love over and over again.
By the time Farouz walked into their camp, Hassan and Fatimah were eating their evening meal. Both of them sat as he approached and while their eyes looked at him, they scouted the area making sure that no one else had come along.
Hassan stood and spoke first, "Vizier. You have travelled far. Please sit."
"Thank you, Hassan."
"Do you need our assistance, Vizier? Can we provide you with something to eat or drink?"
Fatimah rose, filled a cup with drink and brought it to the Vizier. As she served him, his eyes focussed only on the ruby ring.
"I have sought you out as I am interested in the gifts you gave to the Caliph. And this ring that your wife wears. I would know more about them. Perhaps we could trade."
"We are traders, Vizier, so everything is of interest and value to us. As for the goods you mention, we travel between Ephesus and Cathay all the time. I'm not sure..."
"Do not take me for a fool, Hassan. The gifts you gave to the Caliph stunk of magic and your wife's ring once belonged to a Jinn."
"If what you say is true why should we trade with you?"
Farouz raised his arm, turned towards the pool, and pointed to the mountain side. He closed his eyes, moved his lips and a bolt of blue light sprang from his extended fingertip to crash into the mountain. Where the light touched, the mountain ceased to exist. There was no debris, no fragments of rock, simply a hole in the side of the mountain.
Farouz turned back to the couple and was surprised to see that they were not afraid.
Hassan spoke first. "You will win nothing by violence, Farouz."
"I will take the ring from your wife's hand and be done with you."
"The ring!" Fatimah laughed derisively. "You want the ring?" She eased the ring from her finger and tossed it to him. "Take it. But you will not find what you seek if we are dead."
He caught the ring, looked carefully at it and stared at her. "So I have been told. All right, here." He threw the ring back. His eyes searched them like a hungry dog. "I tell you what. You show me where this cache of yours is and I'll let you live."
"What guarantee do we have that you'll keep your end of the bargain?"
"Then we can't tell you."
Farouz stood up and quickly circled the fire to stand across from them. "Enough. I tire of these games." He stared from one to the other and turned towards Fatimah.
Xena slipped easily into fighting pose and readied herself for his attack. Farouz made a slight motion with his hand and Xena saw a flash of metal. She pulled her chakrum free and at the same time saw Daryabar moving to stand in front of her. "NO! Daryabar, NO!", she screamed. But it was too late, the blade had found its mark.
Xena ran for what felt like an eternity to Daryabar who crumpled ever so slowly to the ground. This could not be happening, she told herself, but the knife sticking out of Daryabar's shoulder was a sickening reality. She had never felt so helpless.
Gently Xena pulled the blade from Daryabar's shoulder. It did not seem a mortal wound, but Daryabar's coloring and breathing were all wrong. She sniffed the blade. Her throat and stomach tightened, the blade was poisoned. In a rage, she whirled to kill Farouz.
"Kill me Fatimah and you will never get the antidote for the poison.
She managed to slow her breathing and then forced the blood lust back into the dark corner of her soul. "Antidote?" Her voice was like steel.
"A guarantee to make sure that you lead me to the Jinn's cache."
"How do I know you have an antidote?"
He laughed. "You are not in control here, Fatimah. I am. Submit to the forces of kismet. Now I suggest you take Hassan to the Jinn's cache quickly. The poison will kill him in about 8 hours."
Xena bent down to bind Daryabar's wound. When she looked up again, Farouz had left. She looked down at Daryabar and found the two brown eyes hungrily taking her in. She couldn't help but notice that behind the twinkle there was an incredible shadow of pain.
"You had to be noble, didn't you?" Xena reached out to rearrange a lock of brown hair.
"Ah so you should be lying here instead of me, is that it?"
The blue eyes darkened and glared. "Listen to me Daryabar, as soon as that son of Hera is inside Samarcan he's dead."
Daryabar's firmly grabbed Xena's arms. "Princess ¾ No! You can't! Magic won't work in Samarcan and at the same time violence is abhorred. Anyone committing an act of violence within the city is destroyed. The city will take care of Farouz. It will be our job to make sure that once he is inside, he doesn't get out. Promise me you won't try to kill or hurt him in anyway." She waited watching Xena struggle with her own demons. "Promise me."
The blue eyes stared at Daryabar with a haunted look.
"A long time ago I was in the land of the Chin. A woman I met there told me that what we don't learn we are doomed to repeat. She also told me that to conquer others is to have power, to conquer ourselves is to know the way. I've not been able to do that, Daryabar, not for her or myself. I don't know if I can do it for you."
"You knew Loa Ma." Daryabar looked up at the stars for a bit. "You will do your best Xena, that is all any of us can do."
Xena nodded. She helped Daryabar onto the rug and holding her close, said, "Samarcan."
Hope is a dream made real by belief and action. Xena couldn't help but hope and she couldn't help but hope that somehow everything would change at Samarcan.
The rug landed close to the city sitting in the middle of seven small hills. From even this short distance, Samarcan did not look like much.
During the ride, Daryabar had changed into the black dog. Xena cradled the dog in her arms and started towards the city. It was surrounded by a massive granite wall that looked as if it had been hewn from the ground itself. Looking up past the wall, the city's interior followed the slope of the hill up to a large domed building. White objects looking like large sculptures dotted the hill side. As she and Dar moved closer, she saw that the sculptures were actually buildings. A road snaked through the center of the city, twisting, turning, inching its way up the hill to the dome.
Xena stood before the massive metal gates of the city and absently fingered the ruby ring on her hand. The ring was from Samarcan, it would open and close the gates. She rubbed the surface of the ring's stone. The metal gates swung open. She and Dar walked through the gates. It was a city of dreams, of hopes, of ghosts and memories, but not of people. Xena was surprised to find the city empty and she would have willingly left but for one thing, Daryabar was now human.
"It worked! You're human."
"This is Samarcan, Princess, magic does not work here. Watch." Daryabar walked back through the gate and instantly became the black dog again. The dog re-entered the city and Daryabar stood by Xena's side. "The curse is not lifted, merely abated within Samarcan. But that is why we are here Xena, so that when Farouz walks through those gates, he will be powerless."
"How does that help you?"
"It helps us all. Now come, Tabriz said that we should go to the temple. And Xena, remember Tabriz's warning, no violence, even if it means our death."
They followed the road through the city to the top of the hill and the temple. The top of the temple was an immense dome covered with blue, white, green and gold tiles. Geometric patterns gracefully arced out from a solid gold center. Columns rose up to reach these patterns and form multiple arches that created openings to the interior. She advanced within.
The temple was circular and it was cooler inside. But what surprised her was that the temple radiated light from six stained glass windows. Four were positioned on the walls at the four points of the compass. The fifth was hovering overhead forming the top of the dome, while the sixth lay directly below it on the floor. The rest of the floor was covered with rugs.
They walked back outside and surveyed the city. The screech of a bird drew their attention. A white bird circled outside the city walls once, and then with an abrupt change of direction the bird headed directly for the city. As it reached the air space directly above the walls, it screeched again, though this time in pain, as it bounced back hard after hitting something invisible above the wall.
They looked at one another and knew ¾ Farouz. Xena started back down the hill, while Daryabar stayed at the temple. In just a little while it would all be over, Xena thought. She kept off the main road and made her way down to the gates. Looking back up the road she saw a man walking up the road. Farouz had taken the bait and was inside. She turned towards the gates and rubbed the ring. They closed gently. Farouz was now locked inside.
She entered the temple and found Farouz. Her hand reached immediately for her sword, but she remembered the warning and forced her hand down. "Farouz," she called.
He turned slowly to observe her. "You no longer look like a trader's wife, Fatimah, but rather a warrior." He sighed. "Warrior," he paused and looked at her in recognition, "the Warrior Princess, I should have known it was you. Over a hundred years ago, I knew our paths would cross, and did everything I could to keep us from meeting. I had hoped that by kidnapping the Bard I would keep you distracted. Ah well...the next time an astrologer tells me to beware of a Warrior Princess I will not tempt fate by bringing her so close."
"Where is the antidote?"
"Where is the treasure?"
"The antidote first, Farouz."
He laughed ¾ a harsh, bitter sound. She knew then that there was no antidote and that Daryabar was going to die. How long would it take to bury her chakrum in his heart she wondered, or perhaps the neck pinch or... She drew her sword and held his gaze.
At that moment Daryabar entered the hall behind Farouz. Seeing the movement of Xena's eyes, Farouz took a step back to see what she was looking at.
"Ah, the other Warrior, the one I cursed. Is it mid-day already or have you managed to somehow break the curse?"
Daryabar ignored Farouz. She studied Xena. "Princess." The sound was a whisper, an invitation."
Xena looked over at Daryabar. While every instinct, every desire screamed at her to kill Farouz, Xena stopped. The loving brown eyes held her. Slowly, she breathed in and out and again pushed the blood lust back into its cage. She smiled at Daryabar, sheathed her sword and turned to face Farouz.
"Isn't this wonderful. I was planning on killing you both anyway. Now is as good a time as any." He began to mutter incantations and moved his hands rhythmically through the air, his hand motions keeping pace with his words.
As he finished speaking the incantation, Farouz drew back one of his arms as if he was going to throw something at Xena. The arm snapped forward and a jagged bolt of lighting erupted from his fingertips. But as the lighting crossed the space to Xena, it diffused into a rainbow of colored light that lazily cascaded to form a pool of harmless sparks at her feet. Farouz didn't understand what had happened. His left cheek began to twitch and a small bead of sweat ran down his back.
Laughter rang out in the temple. "This is Samarcan, Farouz. Had you been on better terms with the Jinn, then you would know that magic does not work here." Daryabar approached him smiling ¾ a feral smile.
Farouz's face was now drenched in sweat. "Samarcan?"
"Last time I checked it was. I guess that's why your curse isn't working on me."
"Samarcan is a myth."
"Then explain what just happened and why you are beginning to age."
In the space of time that it took for Farouz to realize he was in danger, he ran his hand through his hair and was shocked when clumps of it came out in his fingers. Farouz roared, realizing he had been duped and ran from the temple.
Xena ran to Daryabar who slumped to floor. She grabbed several rugs together to make a bed for her. While Xena rebound the wound, which had started seeping, Daryabar opened her eyes.
"Doesn't look good does it, Princess."
"This was your plan ¾ to trap him in the city? What kind of plan was this?"
Daryabar couldn't hold the intensity of her gaze. "Xena, Farouz is trapped in the city. Because of that he will die and never hurt anyone again. It wasn't my intention to get wounded. Tabriz and I hoped that with his death the curse would end and I would be free."
"That's not a plan."
"It was a plan and a good one, it just wasn't your plan. Besides given the circumstances you wouldn't have done any differently."
Xena stood up abruptly and pulled her sword. "I'll make that son of Hera help us."
"I love it when you slip into Warrior mode, Princess," Daryabar stood up and pulled her close, "but you can't use violence in Samarcan any more than you can use magic."
"I'm not going to sit here and watch you die. I would rather die trying to help you than simply accept this."
Daryabar placed her palms on either side of Xena's face. The brown eyes stared ever so gently into the tearing blue ones. "This is one of those times when you're going to have to accept what we've been dealt, Princess. If there were a way for us to be together, if there were a God to bribe, a Jinn to con, a bargain to be struck with anyone, I would do it. But your dying with me isn't one of those options ¾ your destiny still lies ahead of you. Besides who else will save Gabrielle or protect the innocent from evil?"
"I really hate it when you're noble." Xena stood up and began to pace. Daryabar stood and gathered Xena up in the circle of her arms. The blue eyes were defiant and vulnerable. "I can't say good-by to you."
"You don't have to. I'll always be with you. When the day seems overlong, when the world seems too small, when Gabrielle sends you on yet another adventure, I'll be there. Every time you gaze into a fire, swim in a starlit pool, sing a song or think of me, I'll be there. It was kismet that brought us together ¾ it will be kismet that will bring us back together. If not this life, than another. I will look for you Princess, down all the years until I hold you once more in the circle of my arms."
Daryabar's face was flush and her skin clammy. She sagged in Xena's arms and Xena gently lowered her to the ground.
"What am I going to do Daryabar? Who ever guards this temple, what ever god finds refuge here, I call on you for help."
The four stained glass windows on the perimeter of the temple started to emit light and the light focussed directly into the center of the temple. A voice, evoking memories she had never experienced and emotions she wanted to lose herself in spoke and yet she knew that what ever it was she heard, was not said in words.
"Welcome ring bearer to Samarcan. What do you ask of the temple's guardian?"
"I would save my friend."
"She does not need saving, ring bearer."
"She is dying."
"What is truly alive never dies."
"Riddles! Why do you all speak in riddles?"
"I can not answer that question."
"Well tell me of Gabrielle and Tabriz."
The two stained glass windows in the temple's center exploded into a full spectrum of color that shot back and forth between the panes of glass. Slowly the colors took on shape and substance and Xena saw Gabrielle and Tabriz standing outside the gate. She was tempted to rub the ring and open the gates, but she knew to ask before acting.
"Show me Farouz."
The guardian displayed a man, ravaged by both time and action, his skin sagging and pocked, his eyes dim, his bones bent almost collapsing. He knelt by the metal gates, a flimsy, frail fist banging on the doors, begging in a whisper for mercy.
"This is impossible. If I open the gates, Farouz will live and Daryabar's only chance of living is to let Tabriz in." She bent down and with a feather like touch swept back a strand of brown hair that had fallen across Daryabar's cheek. "I love you, Daryabar and I have to let you die. May the gods forgive me, I only hope you will forgive me."
Daryabar's eyes fluttered open. "I thought I heard voices ¾ is Farouz back?"
"No he dies by the gate. You heard the guardian of the temple and me talking.
"What of Tabriz and Gabrielle?"
"They wait outside the gate. I'm sorry."
Daryabar's brown eyes widened, "Oh my poor Princess. But you do the right thing, you keep the gates closed. Thank you, Xena."
"Guardian can you do nothing to ease her pain, to ease her dying?"
"I cannot change what is or what was, but I can show you what will be. Watch and listen. In the center of the temple images of Xena and Daryabar took shape. Almost instantly the images flowed into images of other people and different times.
"Over the next thousand or so of your years, you will both live and die many times. In some of these lives you will meet and in some you will not. But in one lifetime, many centuries down the road, Xena, your name will be known throughout the world and in that time period, you two shall meet, love and be together again."
Xena watched mutely as two women met and recognized each other. "Is that..."
"Those two women are you and Daryabar but a in thousand years or so of your time."
Daryabar closed her eyes and sighed. "It is enough Princess, it is enough."
Xena gently took one of Daryabar's hands and started to sing. It was a song of love. She sang until Daryabar died.
The Warrior and Bard stood silently surveying the lands below Sparta. They watched the movement of the cloud's shadows dancing across the tall grass. Then the Warrior looked at the Bard, nodded and gently opened Daryabar's urn as the Bard opened Camilla's. The Warrior began to sing ¾ it was a song of love. As the afternoon wind darted through the grass, the Warrior and Bard turned the urns over so that the ashes mingled with the wind and dust.
"I've brought you both home. But know this Daryabar I won't mourn for you. I will look for you, in the clouds, in the wind, in my dreams and down all the days of this life and the next until you hold me once again."
The Warrior began to sing. It was a song of love, acceptance and hope. She continued to sing until she and the Bard left the valley.
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