Xena has been Conqueror of the Known World, ruler of Greece and the most feared warrior in all the land, for a number of years. Bored with her duties at the keep at Surra, she takes a side trip to the small village of Potidea, where her entire world changes forever. She meets a feisty young village girl—an orphan storyteller with a heart of gold and the courage to stand up to her. The one person in all of Greece who will surely steal the Conqueror's heart and turn her world upside down is the one who will change her utterly and completely.
Gabrielle's life has never been easy. She watched helplessly as her family's livelihood was stolen by raiders and her father disappeared without a trace. After narrowly escaping slavers who took her friends, she and her sister then watched their mother slowly waste away and die. But little did they know the worst was yet to come. One day, their village was visited by the dreaded Conqueror and nothing could prepare them for the changes to come.
Disclaimers and other stuff: XWP and (most of) its characters belong to MCA/Universal. I didn't create (most of) them and am just borrowing the main ones for a little side trip through an alternate Xenaverse. This storyline is mine. Please don't reproduce or send it somewhere else without permission. Thank you.
Adult content: This story explores relationships between women. Xena is the Conqueror of the Known World, so there's graphic stuff, including violence, rape, murder, pillaging, etc. If you are under 18 or this type of story is illegal where you live or you don't like reading stuff like this fly, fly away and best wishes for a happy, prosperous life.
Violent content: Yes, just to reiterate, there is graphic violence in this story. If you've read anything I've written thus far, you know what you're getting yourself into. If not, well, catch up, people.
eedback is always read and appreciated. It helps to know that I'm not posting this stuff just for the fun of it. Send it, good or bad, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
and you might just get a response. J
They were all trembling. She could smell their fear and it was intoxicating. The tall, dark figure in black leather trimmed in shining gold walked slowly down the line of terrified villagers. Eyes the color of a cloudless summer sky surveyed each face and noted their bent heads. Tattered clothing hung on meager frames, a sure sign that life in the once-thriving village of Potidea was no longer easy or prosperous.
The village hadn't been profitable in years. Raiders had slaughtered or taken most of the sheep, leaving the people to starve and the village itself to fall into disrepair. Slavers had also done their worst to the once-thriving population, taking the young women and selling them to faraway lands. The wool they once produced in abundance was all but gone, and they were forced to scrounge for what little they could find. Many had turned to stealing from other villages. Others just starved to death. Pestilence was prevalent, making Potidea a place to avoid at all costs.
The few villagers who were lined up before her were all that was left of the population. Black smoke billowed up from huts and houses. It was past time to do something about this blot on her otherwise shining realm. And The Conqueror was ready to do what needed to be done. She knew she had to bring those into service who were still able to do a full-day's work. The rest? Well…
A scarred man in red leather, a billowing black cape and polished brass came up next to The Conqueror and slammed a beefy, gloved fist against his armored chest. “My Lord,” he addressed her with his eyes slightly downcast, waiting patiently for her to acknowledge his presence.
“Yesssss, Commander?” Her silky tone belied the irritation she held in check at being addressed during her assessment. “I hope this is important enough to risk losing your head over.”
“Darius and Bruno have returned from their mission, My Lord Conqueror,” the man kept his head bowed and his eyes lowered.
“Were they successful, Commander?” She asked, as cold blue eyes continued to survey the trembling villagers and long strides took her to the end of the line. She stopped and faced him. “Tell me they found the men responsible for all this.”
“They…um…” He couldn't meet her icy gaze. “They found the hideout, but it was deserted. The raiders appear to have abandoned the place several moons past. There was a pen set up near the cave. It was obvious that's where they kept the sheep, but…”
A black leather fist shot out and grabbed him by the throat. “Damn the gods for their interference!!!” She ground out between clenched teeth.
The commander didn't flinch at the sudden outburst or the hand wrapped around his throat. She wasn't actually choking him—yet. When she gave him a hard shove, he stepped out of her reach and stood silently, waiting for the tongue lashing that always accompanied a fit of temper from the tall, dark-haired woman. He was mildly surprised when he was still standing upright after several tense heartbeats. Sparing a quick glance up, he noticed the Conqueror's back was to him.
“I sent both men back out to pick up the trail, but…”
She rounded on him again and he heard, rather than saw or felt, the blow that struck him full in the face. Years of experience had taught him to simply go with the force of the blow and not tense up against it. He felt her fist against his jaw and let his head whip around, as he left his feet and went sailing through the air to land several paces away. He quickly regained his feet in time to see the dark anger invade her icy gaze, before she turned away from him and returned her attention to the pitiful villagers.
“I don't want excuses, Jael,” she hissed. “I expect results. Dismissed!”
He snapped to attention and saluted her with a fist to his chest, despite the fact her back was to him. “Yes, Conqueror!”
She waited until his boot steps receded from her acute hearing, before fully returning her attention to the matter at hand. She realized she was standing in front of two young women—a strange oddity in the village, for sure. Both young women had their heads bowed and were staring intently at the ground at their bare feet.
One head sported a mop of mousy brown hair and topped the other by several finger-widths. The other head sported a shock of strawberry-blond hair, golden hightlights glistening in the bright sunlight. The girls seemed a bit less bedraggled than the other villagers. They were completely out of place in the lineup. What really caught the Conqueror's attention, however, were the clasped hands of the two. They seemed to cling to each other like sisters, yet there was little resemblance between them.
“Look at me,” the Conqueror ordered in a tone that brooked no argument.
Two sets of eyes reluctantly lifted, until both young women were staring up into the face of a goddess. Fear dulled the gray-green eyes of the taller girl. She seemed to look right through the Conqueror from eyes set deeply in features that held no spark of life. Dark circles under the older girl's eyes revealed far more than the sagging clothing and the gaunt features.
“What's your name, girl?” The Conqueror addressed the taller of the two.
“L-Lila,” the girl stammered, as tremors of fear shook her entire body.
Xena drew the sword at her back in one swift motion and ran it through the girl's chest faster than anyone could react. A dark brow rose, as she watched the shock register on the blonde's features from the corner of her eye.
“LILA!!!” The shorter girl cried out, as the bloody sword point protruded from the taller girl's back. “ NOOOOOOOO!!!! ” The cry of anguish sent a shiver of satisfaction through the Conqueror, as she withdrew her blade and watched the taller girl collapse at her feet.
Shocked gray-green eyes rolled back in the brunette's head, as the life left her and she breathed her last. Having followed her sister to the ground, the blond cried in anguish at the sudden brutality of her sister's death. Green eyes the color of the Aegean suddenly shot up and met the icy blue glare of the tall woman standing over her.
“You!!!” The word had barely left parched lips, when the blond sprang up and launched herself at the tall woman. “ MURDERER!!! ”
The Conqueror never flinched, as the smaller woman attacked in a fury of scratching and biting. Fists pounded her armor to little effect, as the blond fireball screamed in outrage. Two sets of strong hands clasped the girl's upper arms, effectively subduing the still-screaming and struggling young woman. Beefy hands dug into the blonde's arms, but she ignored the men and continued her wild tirade.
With purposeful movements, the Conqueror knelt beside the dead woman and wiped her blade on the worn homespun skirt. Then she stood up and resheathed her sword in one swift motion, setting her expression into a tight mask. When she turned to face the two men holding the blond, her temper flared. Without warning, she backhanded the spitfire and watched with satisfaction as the girl's head snapped to the side.
The blow came without warning and sent an explosion of agony through the girl's entire head. She would have gone sprawling, if not for the iron grip of the two men holding her. Her ears rang and she was dazed for a moment, before she realized her assailant was glaring impatiently at her. Sea-green eyes returned the glare, but the blond otherwise remained silent.
“Are you done?” A dark brow rose on the angular features. A single nod was her answer. “Good.” The Conqueror waved a dismissive hand. “Tie her to a horse and bring her to the keep,” she ordered. She then did another quick survey of the others with cold eyes devoid of emotion. “Send the younger women to Corinth. Send the able-bodied men to the mines.” She heard a few choked sobs and simply ignored them. “Kill the rest.”
“Yes, My Lord,” a young, clean-shaven soldier stepped forward and saluted, then waved for the rest of the soldiers to carry out their liege lord's orders.
A collective gasp from the gathered villagers broke the otherwise-tense silence that followed The Conqueror's orders. Some of the villagers held onto each other and cried in anguish when soldiers forcefully dragged them away. Others merely dropped to the ground in boneless heaps, as all hope vanished for them in that instant. The soldiers made quick and efficient work of chaining the young women and men separately, while others corralled the rest in an orderly fashion.
The Conqueror mounted her large, black stallion and quieted the beast with her knees, as she waited for her men to carry out her orders. The smell of smoke drifted on the warm summer breeze, as cries of anguish rang out in the clear blue sky. Her expression remained devoid of emotion, while she sat patiently atop her mount. The beast pranced and stomped a few times, but she quickly reined him in and squeezed a warning for obedience with muscular thighs. When her mount settled, she patted his sleek neck and whispered words of encouragement to him.
Despite their size, horses were, by far, more easily controlled than people. The Conqueror had learned that lesson early on in her experiences. You could break a horse and trust that it would remain loyal to the bitter end. People were another matter altogether, however. One never knew when a person's loyalties would change or why.
Her thoughts turned to the small blond. She needed a new body slave and the girl was certainly attractive enough to fit her needs. A bath and some food to add meat to those small bones, and the girl had promise. But…
The Conqueror's brow furrowed. Could she break the girl of her volatile temper? Did she even want to try? She shook her head slightly. The fire in those sea-green eyes was unique and sent a spark of something through her that she couldn't quite put a finger on. One thing she knew for certain, she didn't want to see those expressive eyes go dull and lifeless. But she also couldn't allow a servant to show any sign of disobedience. Her people knew their place—knew the fear she instilled in them. She used that fear to conquer those weaker than herself. And she used it to manage the world around her with efficiency and order. Brutality was a valuable weapon, when wielded with precision.
“My Lord?” A clean-shaven soldier stood a respectable distance from The Conqueror's powerful war horse.
“Yes, Garth?” She addressed him without looking at him. “What is it now?”
“We're ready to return to the keep, Lord Conqueror,” the man said.
She glanced toward the village and noticed the pile of bodies burning near one of the smoldering huts. The stench of death was in the air, as thick gray smoke billowed up into the cloudless sky. Sighing heavily, she shifted in her saddle and turned her gaze toward the rolling hills in the distance. Yes, it was time to put this business behind her and return home.
“Such a waste,” she muttered, as she tilted her head back enough to let the sun's rays warm her face. “Such a damned waste,” she then returned her attention to Garth.
She noticed how young he appeared in his impeccable armor. His blond hair was cropped short and he wore no beard, unlike the other soldiers in her army. Only her commanders were required to keep their hair and beards well-trimmed. The soldiers could wear their hair in any fashion they chose, just as long as it didn't get in the way of their work. Garth was the only soldier who actually took great pride in his station amidst the Conqueror's ranks. Of course, his attention to detail had also earned him a place of honor as one of her personal aids.
“Let's move out,” she ordered in a cold tone, as she turned her mount and nudged him into a steady walk. “I want to make it back to the keep in time for supper.”
“MOVE OUT!!!” The shout rang out behind her, as she led the army and villagers up the road.
The sounds of horses and foot soldiers, as well as the rattle of chains, rang out behind her. She didn't even glance back to see if her men were following her orders. She knew they were—to the letter. She'd trained them well, earned their trust. Her commanders knew her wishes beyond a shadow of a doubt. But none would be so bold as to issue an order without her express permission. They kept the common soldiers in line and made sure things ran smoothly. But, ultimately, it was the Conqueror who decided what to do and when. She ruled with an iron fist and meted out judgment swiftly and surely. None argued. They valued their heads and their lives too much to do so.
The ride was pure torture. Actually, she wasn't riding as much as dangling stomach-first over the back of a rather jerky four-legged beast of burden. The ground passed beneath her with little variation. Dirt. Hard-packed and bumpy. Her stomach muscles had long gone numb and her face throbbed in time with her heartbeat. Her right eye was nearly swollen shut and fairly useless. But it didn't matter. Not much to see anyway. She'd also tasted the tang of blood on her lip when the Conqueror bitch had backhanded her. Now her lip was swollen, too.
None of it mattered. Life as she had known it was over and her entire family was now gone. She remembered the day her father rode out after the raiders who stole their sheep. He'd been so sure that he would return. Then he hugged his wife, kissed her cheek. After quick hugs to his two daughters, he mounted their nag and rode away at a fast canter. He never returned. Neither did the horse.
Her heart ached to know that her mother gave up hope shortly thereafter. Left with few resources and little food, the three women had tried to make do. After the slavers had taken the younger women, everyone seemed to lose hope.
It had only been by the grace of the gods that she and Lila had avoided that particular fate. Having been on an errand to a neighboring village, they hadn't been anywhere near the village when the slavers poured in and dragged their friends away.
But even with fewer mouths to feed, times were still tough and food was scarce. Their mother took on a few odd jobs as a seamstress, a cook and a laundress. She worked tirelessly to put one meager meal on the table at the end of the day. It still wasn't enough.
Having left them with a hefty mortgage on the family farm, their father couldn't have known what his disappearance would cost them. And cost them it had. The taxes were high and the mortgage was astronomical. They never had enough to meet both taxes and mortgage, much less fill their growling bellies with enough food to stave off the persistent, nagging hunger.
But still they tried. Her mother worked herself to the bone. And then winter came. Still she worked. Trudging into town and returning home late in the evening with a loaf of bread and a cake of cheese. When the coughing sickness came, her mother succumbed to it and the fever that raged through her already-weary body. Yet, still she worked, coughing and wheezing until her lungs finally gave out. She passed away during a snowstorm that lasted three days and nights. Neither girl knew what to do after that.
As the oldest, Gabrielle decided it was her turn to take care of her younger sister. She took a job as a tavern maid and managed to make just enough to keep them fed. But her meager wages weren't enough to pay the taxes or the mortgage on the farm. When the local constable kicked them off the family farm, the girls moved into town and stayed with an elderly woman who needed someone to see to her needs. Lila became the woman's constant companion, while Gabrielle took on extra work around town. They made ends meet and survived, despite the constant strain and dwindling food supplies.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she thought of her sister. Tears ran freely until there were no more tears left for her to shed. Lila was the only link to a world gone horribly wrong. And now that link was severed. She was truly alone. A sob tore through her and another, until she was crying again in earnest. The tears soaked her bangs and fell to the parched ground. The boot steps of a hundred soldiers and her fellow villagers wiped away all traces of the silent tears that fell from one lonely girl whose heart was broken beyond repair.
They reached the walled fortress several candlemarks after sunset. Torches lined the stone wall surrounding the main courtyard, while armed soldiers paced along the wall and kept watch over the place. Two huge wooden doors barred their entrance, but a guard stepped from a small building to one side to greet them. He noticed the imposing figure perched high atop her black stallion and recognized his liege lord immediately.
“Open the gate!” He called in a booming voice that carried over the wooden barrier. Then he snapped to attention and saluted with a fist to his red-armored chest. “Welcome home, Lord Conqueror! The gods shine on us at your safe return!”
She merely nodded as she passed over the threshold and guided her mount to one side. The rest of her men streamed inside the courtyard. The Conqueror crossed a leg over the saddle and slid down with ease. She landed with a slight bounce and stood there, surveying the activity inside the courtyard.
A robust woman in plain homespun emerged through a small side door from the stone keep, wiping her hands on a stained apron as she stepped up next to the taller woman. She tried to tuck a few strands of gray hair back into the bun she wore at the nape of her neck, but soon gave up the effort when her hair just wouldn't cooperate.
“It's about time you returned,” the older woman gently chided without meeting the stern gaze of the woman next to her.
The Conqueror crossed her arms over her armored chest and glared. She glanced at her companion and hid a smirk behind an indifferent mask.
“It took a while to sort through things and decide what to do with everyone. There's nothing left,” the Conqueror said. “I sent the able-bodied men to the salt mines in Pirreus and the women to the keep in Corinth. Didn't want them infecting anyone here until I know what we're dealing with.”
The harried woman sighed deeply in exasperation. “Ye could've put ‘em in the old sheds out back until you had an idea they wouldn't be infecting anyone,” she answered. “We've a need for a few more wash women and some scullery maids. Corinth has enough help ta last ‘em. And without you there ta disrupt things, I'm sure they've got things well in hand.”
A dark brow shot up into equally dark bangs. “Why didn't you tell me that before I left this morning?”
“Ach! As if you'd listen to an old woman,” the older woman rolled her eyes and then let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “Besides, you flew out of here like your leather britches were on fire. I didn't think ta ask where you were headed, much less what you'd be doing all day.”
“I had an itch that needed scratching,” the taller woman reached up and absently scratched the nape of her neck. “So,” she continued in a tone that was all business again, as she placed her hands on her hips and glared at her men. “What's for supper?”
“Didn't know if you'd be returnin' tonight, but I kept some roast venison, potatoes and a few loaves of bread warming in the oven, just in case,” Agatha answered. “Ye can have yer meal in the main hall or in yer rooms. The choice is yers. There's still a few stragglers in the main hall. I think they're enjoyin' yer…um…hospitality a little too much these days. Lord Gregor retired to his rooms with two of the maids and a full bottle of yer finest port earlier this evenin'. Doesn't look like we'll be seein' his sorry ass during the mornin' meal.”
“Have to keep the nobles happy, I suppose.” The Conqueror sighed in exasperation. “Not that they give a rat's ass, though,” she scowled. “Jackasses will probably eat me out of house and home before I get them all to agree to my damned terms.”
“You could just kill them all,” the older woman deadpanned, her tone mildly sarcastic.
The Conqueror seriously considered that for a moment, then shook her head. “Too many of them have armies just waiting to carve this land up at a moment's notice. I kill any of ‘em and we'll have war on our hands in a heartbeat.”
“Too bad,” Agatha tsked. “It would sure make things a sight bit quieter around here. Lord Philemon and that pompous ass, Toxeus, were up until all hours last night and finished off a whole keg of ale all by themselves. Toxeus alone consumed enough to float a barge in his own piss. I'm surprised he didn't pass out in the hallway on his way to his room.”
“Philemon is a stooge and Toxeus is an overbearing ass,” the Conqueor agreed. “I may just remove their heads for sport and watched the others squirm a while. It just might be the thing to silence those idiots from Athens who keep badgering me to allow them a measure of sovereignty. The politics in this place is enough to drive the sanest person mad.”
“Is that why you left at the crack of dawn with a quarter of the army?” Agatha gently inquired. “I sure hope it wasn't my cookin' that drove ye away like a skittish rabbit.”
“I told you I needed a distraction,” the Conqueror answered a bit defensively. “I'm not exactly one of the saner ones here, you know. I had to escape for a few hours—take care of business that didn't involve the spineless whining of a bunch of overstuffed windbags.”
“So you raided a village?” Agatha shot the taller woman an incredulous look.
“No,” the Conqueror answered. “I put a dying village out of its misery. Reorganized it, so to speak. The place was overrun by raiders and slavers who left the villagers to starve to death and suffer from disease. They couldn't pay their taxes and it was high time I took care of the matter, once and for all. Many of them didn't even make it through the winter. Those that did, well…” She lifted a hand and waved it in the air. “The women I sent to Corinth just might be of some use later on. I don't know how many will survive the trip. They all looked like they were on their last leg and didn't care if they lived or died. I took care of those I knew wouldn't make it. Put them out of their misery.”
“And the one on the horse over there?” Agatha finally acknowledged the figure lying over the back of a small gelding tied to a hitching post in front of the stables. “What're ya plannin' on doing with her? Or is she one of the lucky ones who died during the trip?”
The Conqueror strode over to the forgotten woman and quickly untied the rope that kept her face-down on the beast's back. Hands bound tightly behind her back, Gabrielle wasn't ready for the sudden release and toppled headfirst onto the hard ground. She just managed to miss hitting her face and took most of the impact on her left shoulder.
The Conqueror just stood there and stared down at the small woman lying in a heap at her feet. She waited for the woman to stir. When the blond remained motionless, the Conqueror reached down and grasped her by the arm and hauled her to her feet, then had to steady the girl when she wavered.
“Gods on Olympus!” Agatha suddenly shoved forward to get a closer look at the forgotten woman. “What in Tartarus did she do to earn an entire journey strapped belly-down on that sorry nag? Poor child looks half dead.” She pushed the disheveled blond hair away from the young woman's face and gasped. “Sweet Artemis! Is this yer doin'?” She glared up into eyes as cold as an arctic breeze. A tense moment followed until the taller woman finally nodded her head once. “Ach! Xena, yer not one ta lay a hand on a woman, much less one that's barely more than a child. What got into you that you'd knock this one around? Eh?” She didn't wait for a response. “I'll take her tonight and see that she's cared for properly.”
Agatha took hold of the young woman's arm and slowly guided her toward the side door the older woman had appeared from earlier. She didn't miss the limp or the young woman's wince as they walked. The older woman tsked and mumbled all the while, until she had her new charge inside the keep and the door firmly closed behind her.
The Conqueror just stood there in dumbfounded silence for the space of several heartbeats, as she realized her new toy was now in the hands of the one woman in the keep she had no control over. She sighed heavily and patted the neck of the sweaty beast that had carried the blond for the better part of the entire day. Had it really been that hard of a trip, she wondered. It wasn't like she'd set a grueling pace—no, just a steady one. They'd also taken several breaks throughout the course of the day. Not that the girl had been allowed much of a break. Per the Conqueror's orders, the girl had remained tied to the horse's back the entire time.
Conquering the Known World was much easier than dealing with the day-to-day tasks around the enormous keep, the Conqueror decided, as she strode toward the stables to say goodnight to her trusty steed. Time enough later to go head-to-head with the woman who ran the keep and kept everyone in line for her. Time enough later to dwell on a pair of defiant sea-green eyes that she knew would haunt her dreams.
Gabrielle wanted to fight against the iron grip that gripped her already-bruised arm. Everything hurt and she wanted nothing more than to curl up in a ball somewhere and die. Every breath brought spasms of pain to her bruised ribs and her face still throbbed, despite the fact she was on her feet again. Being facedown over a horse for hours had been an experience she didn't ever want to repeat again. She knew she sported a bruise on her left shoulder to match all the other bruises that graced her body.
But she was just too exhausted to fight the woman who dragged her into the warmth of a tidy kitchen twice the size of the house she was raised in. She could do no more than gawk in open awe at the countless tables and ovens and cooking fires, as she was quickly herded through the place. Pots and pans hung from iron hooks in the stone ceiling. The smell of freshly-baked bread hit her nose and caused to stomach to growl loudly. And still the woman dragged her onward.
Her bare feet on the cold stone barely made a sound, as she fought to put one foot in front of the other. She didn't want to collapse and have the woman drag her the rest of the way, which she thought the older woman might just do, given half a chance.
“Where…” Gabrielle panted with the effort to get the question out.
“Shh, no questions,” the woman continued on without pause.
They left the kitchen far behind them, as they descended stone steps that finally ended in a closed door several levels below the main keep. The older woman pulled a large key from the folds of her apron and inserted it into the lock. The door opened easily into a room as black as pitch.
Gabrielle's stomach lurched as she realized the woman intended to lock her away in the bowels of the keep. She tried to pull away, but the older woman was deceptively strong. The grip on her arm tightened painfully, but Gabrielle ignored it and continued struggling frantically.
“Ach! Don't worry, child,” the woman said, as she tucked the key back into the folds of her apron. “I don't intend to lock you away down here. It's just a might bit quieter here than anywhere else in the keep.”
Stopping dead, Gabrielle couldn't believe the woman had nearly read her mind. She stood in the doorway as the woman walked into the room and quickly struck a flint to steel on a taper across the room. The light blazed in the tiny space and Gabrielle felt a moment of relief that quickly turned to wariness.
“I don't want the others to see ye receivin' special treatment,” the older woman waved her inside. “But I think you need a bit of care this night.”
Gabrielle hesitantly stepped inside the cozy room and took in the sparse furnishings. The space was half the size of her room back home. There was a small bed tucked in one corner with fresh linens turned down and waiting. A small table and chair were tucked into the corner opposite the bed. That was all there was in the tiny room.
Gabrielle gingerly sat down on the small bed, grateful to no longer be bound belly-down over the back of a horse. But as she sat there for a few moments, all the small aches and pains she'd been experiencing all day blossomed to life. Her head throbbed to the beat of her heart. Her ribs hurt with each breath. And her shoulder felt like it was on fire. But still she remained completely still and silent in the older woman's presence.
Agatha finally turned to her charge and looked the woman over. So young, she thought, as she pulled the chair up and sat down to face the girl.
“What's yer name, child?” Agatha asked in a gentle tone that she hoped wouldn't scare the girl.
Gabrielle's eyes lifted until she met the kindly woman's gaze. Something in those hazel eyes made her feel as if she could trust the woman, even though she had no reason at all to trust anyone in the place.
“G-Gabrielle,” she answered with difficulty, as her swollen lip pulled slightly with the effort.
“My name's Agatha,” the woman smiled warmly. “I run this place. Well, mostly,” she shrugged and gently pushed Gabrielle's disheveled hair away from her face. “What happened to ye, child?”
Gabrielle shuddered, as she remembered the blow dealt to her after her unexpected attack on the Conqueror. “I deserved it.” She lowered her eyes to the folded hands in her lap and a single tear escaped to land on the rope burns on one wrist. The wounds to both wrists and ankles were raw and they stung, but she ignored them. There were too many aches and pains for her to pay much attention to the slight discomfort the rope burns were causing her.
“We should take care of these,” Agatha took Gabrielle's hands in hers and lifted them enough to look at the raw skin more closely. “Don't need them getting infected over the next few days.”
“They're fine,” Gabrielle pulled her hands away from the woman and tried to scoot toward the wall behind her.
Unfortunately, she merely ended up toppling over onto her side, instead. She landed right on her sore shoulder and groaned loudly. With her eyes shut tight against the pain that ripped through her shoulder, Gabrielle never saw the look of concern that turned to real worry on the older woman's face.
“Land sakes, child,” Agatha was on her feet and heading toward the door in a flurry before Gabrielle could register what the woman was doing. “You stay right there and don't move a muscle. I'll be back before you know I'm gone.”
Gabrielle listened with half an ear as the older woman climbed the stone steps back to the upper level. She was too tired to move and really didn't care if the woman returned or not. She eased onto her back and just lay there for a time. Her sore ribs prevented her from breathing too deeply, so she concentrated on keeping her breathing slow and shallow. It didn't help much, but it gave her something to think about besides the horror of what she'd been through.
A pair of cold blue eyes appeared in her mind's eye and she couldn't help but mentally cringe. The Conqueror. Rumors of the woman who had conquered most of the Known World did not do the actual woman justice. She was much taller and certainly more imposing in her dark leather and golden armor. Midnight black hair framed angular features that could be mistaken for an Olympian goddess. And those piercing blue eyes.
Gabrielle shuddered again, as she imagined those eyes watching her intently. Cold fury blazed in their icy depths and spoke of a hideous soul lurking just below the surface. The woman was a monster. Gabrielle had learned that lesson firsthand, as she watched the Conqueror callously run her sister through. What kind of person could value human life so little that they could mindlessly kill without a second thought?
Mind awhirl with possibilities, Gabrielle didn't hear Agatha reenter her room. Nor did she open her eyes when the woman carried on a conversation with two others in hushed tones. She just didn't care. It didn't matter what happened to her anymore. Who was left to miss her? The world as she'd known it was gone—completely erased in the blink of an eye. There was no one to love her, comfort her or watch over her anymore. She was alone.
It didn't register when a cool cloth touched her face. She didn't feel a pair of calloused hands move gingerly along her body, assessing her injuries with practiced ease. She just drifted in a place beyond rational thought. A low voice said a few words and she heard Agatha respond, but she didn't pay attention to what was said. Nothing mattered for her anymore.
“Bruises mostly,” the Conqueror said, as she finished her examination of the unconscious woman on the bed. “She may have torn something in her shoulder when she fell from the horse. I can't fix that. All I can do is put her arm in a sling and ask you to put her on light duty until it heals.”
“And her face?” Agatha's words were mildly accusing. “She's just a child, Xena. Why?”
Xena sternly met the woman's hazel gaze. “Instinct. Emotion. Battle lust. Call it what you will. She attacked and I reacted.”
“Garth said you didn't strike the blow right away,” Agatha added. “He said you waited. You could have lashed out right then, right there. But you didn't. You waited. Why?”
Xena, the Conqueror of the Known World, bowed her head before the sagely wisdom of a woman twice her age and sighed deeply. She knew what she'd done, and she knew exactly why she'd done it. But to put the reasons to words would mean Agatha and Tiris would see her as less than what she was.
“If I'd lashed out in anger, in retribution, I would have killed her right there on the spot,” Xena finally answered in a voice barely above a whisper, as she looked again on the bruised and battered face of the unconscious woman who had made her feel something—something she hadn't felt in a very long time. “So I let the anger ebb before I hit her.”
“And then left her strung over the back of a horse until her ribs are so bruised that every breath brings her pain and discomfort?” Agatha added scathingly. “Look at her, Xena. She's as young as Lyceus was when he followed you into battle all those years ago. What would your mother say?”
Xena shot to her feet and rounded on the older woman with an angry hiss. She raised an open palm to strike and watched as Agatha merely defiantly stood her ground, waiting for the blow she knew would come. When no blow was dealt, both women sighed in resignation.
“I have to go,” Xena said as she bolted for the door. Pausing in the doorway, but keeping her back to the room, she added, “Take good care of her for me, Agatha.”
“I will, Xena,” the older woman said, even though she could already hear the Conqueror's boots clicking on the floor above her head. She turned her attention to the other woman in the room. “Tiris, help me get these clothes off her. We need to clean her up and make her comfortable.”
She was floating. Drifting. Nothing could touch her. The sun warmed her face and birds chirped nearby. And then she heard her sister's laughter on the cool breeze. The breeze felt so good on her overheated skin. She knew she should seek shelter beneath the branches of a tall oak or risk a painful sunburn on her tender flesh. But she didn't want to move. The ground was so soft where she lay. And there were flowers all around her. Daisies, her favorite.
As she lay there staring up into the cloudless sky, she could imagine herself drifting on the open sea. She could even feel the spray of the ocean on her face. Then the sky turned ugly as large storm clouds closed in and blocked out the sun. The wind shifted and grew colder. She shivered and felt her body protest the slight movement. Her sister's laughter was drowned out by the sudden gale force winds that kicked up, as the clouds burst open and icy rain poured down on her. Then she was immersed in the frigid waters of the ocean and all she wanted to do was sink into their icy depths for good.
“Are ye sure this will help?” Agatha raised concerned hazel eyes to meet the gaze of the woman across the tub from her.
“I'm not sure about anything at this point,” Xena answered, as she returned her attention to the small woman in the cool water. “You say her name is Gabrielle?”
“That's the name she gave me,” Agatha responded. “She has no reason to lie, m'lord.”
“Don't call me that here,” Xena snapped without conscious thought, then added in a gentler tone, “I'm sorry Agatha. It's just…”
“No need to explain, Xena,” Agatha smirked. “The child has us all worried she won't last the night.”
“I'm glad you put her in the room next to yours,” Xena said after several moments of silence.
“Didn't want her left alone,” Agatha said. “And couldn't put her in with the others, straight away. Not a place for an innocent, if ye know what I mean.”
Xena chuckled wryly. “No one is innocent in this place,” she spared a glance at the young face. “Not even her, I'm afraid.”
“She is tonight,” Agatha stated adamantly. “Just look at her.”
Xena looked at the young woman submerged up to her swollen chin in a tub of cool water. Bruises colored Gabrielle's entire cheek where Xena had backhanded her earlier in the day. She almost felt sorry for the girl, except that, by Xena's standards, the girl deserved much more for her insolence. And then there was the fever.
Agatha reached over, brushed damp blond bangs aside and placed her hand on Gabrielle's forehead. “Fever's coming down.”
“Grab the towel,” Xena ordered. “Don't want to keep her in here for too long or it'll just make her worse.”
Xena reached down into the cool water and unceremoniously lifted the naked woman up into her arms. She was wearing a silk robe from Chin and didn't bother to remove it. Water soaked the garment, but Xena didn't mind. She had several others that she could don in its stead. At that moment her first concern was the dripping woman in her arms.
Agatha waited patiently for Xena to put their charge down so she could wrap the towel around the girl. But when Xena merely stood there staring down into the bruised and swollen face, Agatha grew impatient.
“You going to just stand there and gawk?” The older woman chided. “I can't very well wrap her in this with you holding her in your arms like that.”
Xena reluctantly placed the unconscious woman on her feet and held her, while Agatha quickly wrapped the towel around her. They made quick work of their task and Xena soon had the towel-wrapped girl in her arms again. The tall woman carried her charge from the small bathing room down the long hallway and back into the small room next to Agatha's. She laid Gabrielle on the small bed, tucked the covers up to her chin and stepped away.
“Now move so's I can finish doin' what needs to be done,” Agatha ordered, as Xena just stood there in her damp robe.
“She really does look innocent, doesn't she?” The dark-haired woman commented under her breath, as she moved to the other corner of the tiny room.
“Go back to bed, Xena,” Agatha ordered, as she glanced at the wet robe the woman was wearing. “And set your dressing robe where Marlene can find it in the morning. She'll need to have the laundress air it out to dry.” She tsked . “Bernice'll be throwin' a conniption fit that you practically drowned the fine silk.”
Xena glanced down at her robe and up again. “You didn't give me much warning to put something more practical on. You know I don't wear anything to bed. I just happened to have this nearby when you came to get me.”
“Still,” Agatha didn't bother to look up at the woman towering over her. She lifted Gabrielle into one of her arms and gingerly poured small sips of tea into the young woman's mouth.
“Do you need help with that?” Xena moved in behind the older woman.
“Go change, first,” Agatha ordered sternly. “Your wet clothes won't do anything to help her, now, will they?”
Xena was out the door and up the stairs as quickly as her long strides could take her. She made her way to her palatial suite of rooms in less time than it usually took her to navigate through the place. Within moments, she stripped out of the wet garment and donned a soft chemise and a pair of silk breeches. She slipped on a pair of leather sandals, as she glanced toward an enormous floor-to-ceiling window on the outside wall of her bedchamber.
The sky outside was just starting to lighten, as dawn slowly approached. Stars still sparkled in the dark sky, but were fading quickly. Xena mentally calculated the time and figured it was less than a candlemark before sunrise. Agatha had awakened her just after midnight, by her calculations. She'd been up for nearly five hours already. It didn't feel like it.
Xena made her way back towards the stone stairwell that led down to the private servants' quarters reserved for those who earned her respect. She let her mind wander over the events of the past two days, as she slowly descended the steep, narrow staircase.
It hadn't been her intention to destroy Potidea when she'd set out the previous morning. But when she arrived to find the village in such terrible disrepair, she quickly made up her mind to level the place. Her orders were decisive when she had the army spread throughout the village and the surrounding countryside—burn everything to the ground. Destroy it. Wipe it from the land, so others would know what would happen to those who allowed their livelihood to be taken from them.
Xena didn't tolerate laziness from anyone. She certainly didn't tolerate it from an entire village. Potidea wasn't the only village to be razed by her army when she found the villagers unable to defend themselves. Surra was another example. Several of the surrounding villages had learned quickly from that debacle.
Surra had been a monumental mistake that quickly escalated into so much more. Xena hadn't ordered her men to set the place on fire, but they'd done so anyway. Unfortunately, most of the villagers died that fateful night. Too afraid to step foot out of their burning huts, many of them burned alive—all except a handful of girls who were nowhere near the village during the attack.
Those girls were now grown women who lived and worked in the keep at Corinth. Some of them had acclimated to their new surroundings, while others had not. Several had mounted a rebellion not six moons past. The rebels had been rounded up by Xena and her men, then they were summarily executed right down to their gangly, blond mouthy leader.
As Callisto was led to the gallows, she had screamed at the top of her lungs that she would eventually see Xena in Tartarus and torment her for all of eternity. Xena ordered the executioner to remove the woman's tongue before she was hanged. The man did as ordered with quick precision. Crazed eyes stared at Xena, as blood ran down Callisto's chin and pooled at her feet.
And then the executioner's assistant set the hangman's noose firmly in place around the blonde's neck, while the executioner waited patiently to pull the lever for the trap door. The woman's death was instantaneous, as the floor fell out from under her feet and she dropped straight down through the gaping trap door. Her neck broke instantly and she dangled there with sightless eyes gazing at the gathered crowd. Xena then ordered that they leave her there for several days, as an example to all who would oppose her.
The report that reached her after she returned to Surra included a follow-up to Callisto's death. Crows had ravaged the flesh of the body that very night, leaving very little flesh on the still-hanging corpse come morning. The entrails were hanging out and the eyes had been pecked clean. The sight was gruesome beyond imagining and caused many a passerby to lose their breakfast.
Those in the vicinity of the gallows during the course of the day could not help but notice the terrible stench of rot and decay that permeated the place. It was so strong that those in the palace actually complained about it. So, her steward sent a missive to request that they forego her initial orders and send the body out to hang on the outer gate to the city, instead. Xena agreed and sent a missive back with a messenger. It was the last she heard from Corinth on the matter.
Xena was brought out of her musings as she reached the open door and stopped in the threshold. She watched as Agatha gently ran a damp cloth over Gabrielle's fevered brow and listened as the older woman quietly hummed a familiar tune.
“How is she?” Xena asked, as she stepped up behind the seated woman.
“Holding her own,” Agatha said, as she sat up straight and stretched a kink from her back. “I managed to get her to drink enough of the tea to help bring down the fever.”
“Why don't you return to bed for a few candlemarks?” Xena suggested. “I can take over here and Maida can certainly take care of things upstairs until you've had some rest.”
“I think I'll take you up on that offer,” Agatha said as she got up and affectionately patted the taller woman's bare arm. “Wake me if you need me, Xena.”
“I will,” Xena waved the woman away. “Go, before I have to carry you there myself.”
Xena sat down in the vacant seat and waited until Agatha disappeared from sight before taking up the cloth and resuming the woman's ministrations. She wrung the cloth out in a wooden bowl of tepid water and placed it on Gabrielle's forehead. Then she ran the backs of her fingers along the young woman's cheek. The skin beneath her fingers was much cooler than it had been when she'd first been rousted by the elderly housekeeper.
She remembered walking in to find Gabrielle thrashing violently in her delirium. Xena hadn't even given a thought to what she was doing when two strides took her to the small bed and she lifted the girl into her arms. The heat radiating from Gabrielle's body was enough to set alarm bells off in Xena's head.
She placed a palm against the girl's forehead and nearly pulled it away in the same instant. Gabrielle's fever was raging out of control at that point. Xena didn't even wait for Agatha to make any suggestions. She merely picked the girl up and marched her to the bathing chamber down the hall. She then ordered Agatha to rouse several of the slaves and have them fill the tub with tepid water.
Her orders were carried out to the letter and soon the fevered girl was immersed in the tub. Xena smirked to herself as she realized her quick thinking had paid off. Then she noticed a pair of bleary green eyes staring intently at her.
“You're awake,” Xena just managed to keep the surprise from her tone.
“Where am I?” Gabrielle's voice was gravelly and weak. She cleared her throat then grabbed her head and winced in pain. “Ugh!”
“Lie still, Gabrielle,” Xena took the cloth from the girl's head and refreshed it in the water bowl. “You have a fever.”
Those bleary green eyes slowly opened again and met Xena's gaze. “Lila? Where is my sister?” She glanced around the small room, obviously searching for her sibling. “Is she here?”
Xena kept her expression neutral, as she placed the cool cloth back on the girl's forehead. “You need to rest, Gabrielle. You're not well.”
“I don't want to rest,” Gabrielle shot back impatiently. “I want my sister.”
The girl tried to get up and found her movements hampered by something wrapped firmly around her. She struggled slightly and only managed to aggravate her ribs and shoulder.
“Don't do that,” Xena ordered in a tone she often used on errant servants and slaves who misbehaved. The girl stopped her struggling in an instant and stared, wide-eyed, at her. “You'll hurt yourself more than you already have.”
Gabrielle collapsed back against the pillow with a tired sigh. “Hurt?” Confused eyes searched the intense blue gaze staring back at her. “What happened? Where am I?”
“You're at the Conqueror's keep,” Xena evaded.
“The Conqueror?” Gabrielle gasped. “B-but when…How…Why…”
“Relax,” Xena placed a comforting hand on the frightened girl's bare shoulder and gently stroked the soft skin with a calloused thumb. “You're safe.” She could see the open confusion in the girl's features and knew the fever was contributing to her lapse in memory. Xena felt a measure of sympathy for the forlorn girl, something she hadn't felt for anyone in years. It was disconcerting, to say the least. “Close your eyes and rest. Everything will become much clearer when you've had a chance to sleep.”
A small hand snaked out and took Xena's calloused hand. The girl held on tightly to Xena's hand, as her eyes drifted closed.
“Please…stay,” the words were mumbled, as the hand remained firmly gripped in Xena's larger one.
At a loss for what to do, Xena merely sat there and waited for the girl to drift off to sleep. She was more than a little surprised when her heart actually skipped a beat as the girl moved their joined hands down to just above her heart. Xena just sat there and reveled in the feel of the girl's hand entwined with her own. It was one of the first times in her life when she actually felt a connection to another person—and it scared the crap out of her.
When she was sure the girl was fast asleep, Xena extricated her hand from Gabrielle's, wrung the cloth out one last time and placed it back on the fevered brow. Then she quietly stood up and walked to the open doorway. She paused with her hand on the door jam and glanced back at the soundly-sleeping girl. Then she headed up the stairs, taking them two at a time until she was on the main level.
She paused at the top of the stairs and took a deep breath, then let it out slowly in an effort to slow her racing heart. She knew the organ wasn't pounding wildly from her exertions, but because of a certain blond tucked safely in bed, two levels below.
Xena ran a hand through her long, dark hair as she headed down the corridor and ducked through a side door. When she was out in the dawning light of a brand new day, she breathed in deeply of the early-morning air. The smell of horses drew her to the stables, where she found her stallion contentedly munching his morning meal of oats and alfalfa.
Xena opened the stall door and stepped right up to the enormous beast, patting his sleek neck and leaning her forehead against it.
“How're you doing this morning, Ares?” She addressed him by the name she'd given him when she'd purchased him as a small yearling. “You enjoying your breakfast, boy?”
She absently scratched a sensitive spot behind one of his ears, as she continued to lean against him. He tossed his head and snorted, as he continued to munch the grain in the bucket. Xena knew that he wasn't ignoring her, though. His left ear was cocked in her direction and he occasionally stole a covert glance her way.
“I hear ya,” she said, as she gave him one last pat and then left his stall. “See ya later, boy.”
She strode toward the gate that she knew would be open at that time of the morning. There were already several servants and others scampering about in the early hours. Most of them merely spared her a quick glance before continuing on their way. Others were a bit more cheery and greeted her with either waves or smiles. One gruff soldier actually tossed her a quick “Good mornin', m'lord,” before veering towards the barracks and the cot that awaited him.
Xena barely paid them any heed as she strode purposefully out the gate and down the slight incline toward the practice field that awaited her. The sun was just peeking over the distant horizon as she approached the quiet field and started her early-morning routine. Stretching lithe muscles before she began her workout, Xena quickly warmed up with a few maneuvers she'd designed herself. Several back-flips and a few other intricate maneuvers later, Xena was ready to grab her favorite practice sword and run through her morning drills.
By the time she was joined by the soldiers from her army, she had already worked through several drills, killed numerous invisible assailants and run several laps around the entire circumference of the practice field. As her men took up their morning drills, Xena decided she'd had enough. Her long strides carried her to one of the commanders standing idly by at the edge of the clearing.
“Make sure they run through the entire regimen,” Xena ordered to the dark-haired man. “I want them primed and ready, in case we have trouble from Philemon's quarter.”
“Yes, m'lord,” the grisly man responded with a firm nod. “I see ye've already been about it this mornin', Lord Conqueror.”
“Decided to get an early start before I have to face those damned, simpering nobles,” Xena remarked, as she turned to watch her men do their drills. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the man and met his gaze squarely. “I have a lot to take care of today, Jared. I won't have time to come back and spar with any of the men, I'm afraid.”
“They'll be sorely disappointed, Xena,” he responded with a wry chuckle, dropping the pretense of formality. “I still have two of ‘em laid up in the infirmary from the match two days past. But, at least they learned not to drop their guard in your presence. They'll never do it again, thank the gods.” He crossed an arm over his armored chest and propped his other arm on it, stroking the stubble on his chin absently with a gloved hand. “Those lessons always come at a price, but are well worth it.”
“Indeed,” Xena patted his shoulder and turned to walk away. She paused for a moment and then shot over her shoulder. “Have the winner of today's match join me at the head table for the evening meal. I'm sure whoever it is will enjoy some droll conversation with a few of our honored guests.”
Jared chuckled. “Don't think the nobles will appreciate having a common soldier sharing the meal with them.”
Xena smirked, then winked. “I don't really give a rat's ass what those jackasses think,” she said as she walked away.
Jared just continued chuckling as he watched the men with a practiced eye. He knew a few of them who would indeed enjoy sitting at the head table, if for no other reason than to stir up trouble as they consumed the best the Conqueror had to offer. Fare at the head table was by far better than what was served in the barracks—even though barracks fare was not the worst in the land. A hearty venison stew and loaves of rich brown bread or generous servings of roast mutton were usually what was served to the Conqueror's men. There was just far more variety when one had the honor of dining with the Conqueror herself.
The nobility and other guests were treated every night to pheasant, quail, and other delicacies imported from faraway lands. Savory dishes that included rare delights, such as seafood from the coastal regions, raw oysters imported from the Far East and slow-roasted suckling pig wrapped in palm and grape leaves, were just some of the delicacies that often graced the menu. There were also a number of sauces, gravies and broths to tempt the palate.
Wine from the farthest reaches of her domain flowed in abundance in the main hall of the keep, as did ale, mead and spicy hard cider. When special occasions occurred, fresh kegs of port and brandy were tapped and shared by those present. Nothing was too good for the illustrious Conqueror of the Known World.
She slowly drifted up from the bowels of the first dreamless sleep she'd known in ages. It was so quiet in the small hut that she wondered if both Lila and Ngila were out and about. A frown creased her brow when the familiar acrid scent of the cooking fire didn't reach her nose. Eyes still closed, she tried to place the strange, musty odor that was there, instead.
Her eyelashes fluttered open and she found herself staring up, not at the familiar thatching in the ceiling above the bed she shared with her sister, but at stone. Blinking several times to bring her eyes into focus, she gazed up at a ceiling of unfamiliar pinkish stone and then slowly turned her head to survey the rest of her unfamiliar surroundings. This wasn't Ngila's place.
Gabrielle took in the small space surrounding her and the rather small bed she was lying on. The mattress beneath her was relatively comfortable, but definitely not the same one she shared with Lila. For one thing, this one felt much softer and gave a little more than the straw mattress Ngila had provided. The covers were warmer, too. And she was wrapped in something that was much softer than the homespun shift she usually wore to bed.
Gabrielle tried to lift her head off the pillow and found that she could only move her arms. She shifted slightly, but immediately discovered the folly of her actions. She was stiff and sore from head to toe. Any movement brought pain to her left shoulder and her ribs. So, she remained still and just stared silently up at the ceiling, counting the cracks in the mortar and letting her imagination run wild.
She had no idea how much time passed before she heard footsteps descending toward her. And then a smiling woman with warm hazel eyes and a shock of gray hair perched precariously atop her head suddenly breezed into the room in a flurry. The woman pulled up short and clapped her hands together when she saw that Gabrielle was awake.
“Ach! Yer awake, I see!” The woman exclaimed enthusiastically. “I was expecting you to sleep well into tomorrow, child.” The woman sat down in the vacant chair next to the bed and surveyed Gabrielle with warm eyes. “Are ye hungry?” She received a quick nod in reply. “Good. I have one of the girls fixin' ye a tray, as we speak.”
“Where—” Gabrielle's voice broke before she could utter more.
“Yer in the Conqueror's keep at Surra, child,” the woman answered with a knowing smile. “Ye were brought in just last night from yer village.”
“Lila?” Gabrielle managed to clear her parched throat enough to speak. “My sister?”
“No one else was brought in, child,” Agatha said and patted the girl's hand. “But I'm sure she's well on her way to Corinth with the rest of the women. You just rest until Maida brings your tray down.” She stood up and moved toward the door. “Mind, I want to see that tray return to the kitchen without a single crumb on it. Understand?”
Gabrielle merely nodded, as the woman bustled out the door and disappeared back up the stone steps. She heard muffled voices above her and then someone else was descending the stairs towards her. A young woman with red hair pulled back into a thick braid entered the room carrying a large tray heaped with covered dishes. The newcomer set the tray on the small table and shifted the dishes on the tray to better suit her.
“My name's Maida,” the girl turned to Gabrielle with gray eyes twinkling. “I brought ye somethin' ta eat. I hope yer hungry, ‘cause there's heaps of food here. Aggie told me ta just give ye a taste of ev'rythin'. So, that's what I did.”
“It smells wonderful,” Gabrielle said, as she tried to ease herself up into a seated position and failed miserably.
“Here, let me help ye,” Maida offered and soon had Gabrielle propped up against her pillow. “There. Comfy?”
“Yes, thank you,” Gabrielle was a little disconcerted to find that she wasn't wearing clothes. Instead, someone had wrapped her in a fuzzy wrap of some kind. “You don't happen to know where my clothes are, do you?” She asked the young woman. “I think I came here with something on besides this,” she indicated the cloth wrap that hid her breasts from view.
“Not sure, but I can ask Aggie,” Maida answered, as she set a plate of food in Gabrielle's lap. “I think she was with ye most of last night. She said something about ye havin' a fever.”
“Oh, okay,” Gabrielle looked at the food piled on the plate and then met the young woman's intense gaze. “Am I really supposed to eat all this?”
A red brow rose into Maida's frizzy bangs and her freckled features scowled slightly. “Is somethin' wrong with the food?”
“No,” Gabrielle answered quickly, not wanting to offend the woman. “I just haven't seen this much in a really long time.”
Maida's scowl turned into a warm smile. “Ye won't starve here, that's fer sure.” She pushed a stray lock of curly hair behind an ear. “Her lordship believes the best way to keep us happy is to keep us all well-fed and well-rested.”
“Her…lordship?” Gabrielle uttered over a mouthful of fluffy eggs that practically melted in her mouth.
“Our Lord Conqueror,” Maida said, as if her words explained everything. “You know, the woman who single-handedly brought all of Greece under a united banner of peace? I guess some call her Destroyer of Nations, although I really don't agree with that misnomer. She's done more ta unite us all than any of the warlords combined.”
“You sound like you actually like her,” Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears.
Gabrielle had listened raptly to the stories told about the infamous warlord now known simply as The Conqueror. She knew some of the stories were exaggerated. A few portrayed The Conqueror as a wild woman with snakes for hair, like Medusa, and a tongue that could kill with one swift flick. Her sword was a blazing torch that had the power to strike down an entire army with one fell swoop. Gabrielle thought that particular tale was uniquely imaginative, but she didn't believe a single word of it.
But to hear someone say The Conqueror was tantamount to a hero was just too ridiculous. Gabrielle was sure the woman had done a great deal to unite Greece under her tyrannical rule. But she also knew any tyrant was one to be feared, not fawned over.
Maida smiled warmly. “She saved my life.”
“And how many countless lives has she destroyed during her endless reign of terror?” Gabrielle couldn't help the bitter edge in her tone. “My sister and I heard the stories from places like Surra and Corinth and smaller villages that fell beneath her supposed banner of peace.”
“You don't know her like we do,” Maida's expression hardened. “Sure she's brutal and seems cruel to those on the outside, but those of us here know a different side of her that the world will never see.”
“A tyrant is a tyrant,” Gabrielle continued, eating with gusto despite the dark turn of the conversation. “My parents would still be alive if she'd done something about the raiders who came and stole all our sheep, leaving us to starve throughout the long winter. But she seems more interested in feeding her servants and imposing unreasonably high taxes, than she does in protecting her subjects and seeing to their needs.”
“The world is full of hardship, lass,” Maida sat down in the chair and met the most expressive pair of sea-green eyes she'd ever seen. “The cruelty of the gods and their selfish ways knows no bounds. But we don't blame the weapon of their justice for balancing out the scales. It's not up to us to question what the gods ultimately have planned. It's up to us to live, to love and to find some measure of happiness in this cold, cruel world.”
Gabrielle listened with half an ear to the young woman's philosophy lesson. She'd heard the same blather from her mother a year before the raiders came to their village. Chewing a mouthful of eggs and ham, she merely nodded.
“The gods don't control our lives, as long as we don't let them,” Gabrielle finally said, after she'd swallowed down another mouthful. She glanced at Maida and saw the disbelief in her gray eyes. “We give them their power, not the other way around. As long as we continue to worship them, they remain free to continue to use that power for their own selfish ends. If we stop, so do they.” She shrugged, as she filled her mouth again.
“You don't worship the gods?” Maida asked in disbelief. “Why, that's blasphemy!”
“They've never done anything to prove to me they deserve my attention,” Gabrielle continued. “Why should I give them a passing thought, when they don't care if I exist? Do you really think Athena or Artemis or Aphrodite or even Hestia cares about those who worship them? Do you think Hera and Zeus regard us as anything more than simple children they can manipulate whenever they choose? I don't.” She shook her head and set the empty plate aside, downing an entire cup of cold cider in a few quick gulps.
Maida took the empty cup and refilled it, handing it back to the blond. “You never told me your name, lass.”
Gabrielle took the cup and downed its contents again. “Oh, didn't I? I'm sorry. Here we've been sharing some rather deep conversation and you don't even know my name. I guess that's a little rude of me.” She smirked. “I'm Gabrielle.”
“Pleased to meet ye, Gabrielle, I think,” Maida took the cup again and refilled it. “Can't say that the conversation has done much to lift my spirits, but…I guess I can go upstairs and help a bit in the kitchen. That should take care of my heavy thoughts. Always does, I can tell ye.”
“I'm sorry…um…Maida was it?” Gabrielle slowly sipped the contents of her third cup of cider. “I don't usually get into those types of discussions with people I hardly know.” She smiled sadly and met the teasing gleam of the other woman. “I much prefer to tell stories about princes and warriors and adventure.”
“You're a storyteller, are ye?” Maida perked up at that.
“Of sorts,” Gabrielle shrugged. “I used to earn a few extra coin at the tavern during the rare nights we had visitors. They always enjoyed a good yarn with their meal.”
“Oh, we haven't had a decent storyteller pass through here in ages,” Maida became quite excited. “You'll have to share something with us at the evening meal, if yer up to it, that is.” She grabbed the empty plate stood up. “Would you like another plateful of food, Gabrielle? There's still plenty here and Aggie ordered me to see that you ate until your belly was full. Apparently her lordship commented to her on how scrawny you were when she came to sit with you.”
Gabrielle's eyes snapped to the redhead's. “The Conqueror was here?”
“In the flesh,” Maida didn't catch the surprised look, as she handed Gabrielle another heaping plate full of food. “She made sure Aggie put you in this very room, as a matter of fact. Her room is right next door.”
“The Conqueror's room is…”
“No, silly,” Maida chuckled, when she saw the look of wonder on the girl's face. “Aggie's room is next to this one. There's also a bathing chamber down the hall and two other rooms on this lower level. They are private rooms reserved for her lordship's most trusted servants.”
“Her lordship's suite of rooms is on the main level, two levels above this one,” Maida continued. “Hers are the only sleeping quarters on that level. All the guest quarters are on the second floor of the keep. She had it built that way so she wouldn't have to see anyone on her way to her suite of rooms. The Conqueror is a very private person when it comes to having her own space.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle responded around a mouthful of food.
“Her suite takes up most of the southern wing and has a grand view of the hills south of Surra,” Maida elaborated. “She even has a floor-to-ceiling bank of windows that run from the sitting room into her bedchamber. Aggie says it takes three boys the better part of a day to get the windows clean after it rains.”
“You've mentioned Surra twice now,” Gabrielle pointed out. “I thought Surra was razed to the ground back in the early days of the Conqueror's…um…rule.”
“It was,” Maida nodded. “That's why her lordship decided to build the keep here.”
“I thought she had an enormous palace in Corinth,” Gabrielle stabbed a piece of ham and shoved it in her mouth. “Why build so far away from the capitol, when she could very well conduct business from there, instead?”
Maida snorted. “Her lordship is a country girl, at heart,” the redhead responded matter-of-factly. “She wanted a country home and had this one built on the ruins of what she considers one of her gravest travesties.”
A blond brow rose at those words. “Travesty?”
“Surra wasn't destroyed on her orders,” Maida explained. “She wasn't even here when her men raped, pillaged and burned the place to the ground. Her lordship was leagues away, meeting with a prospective ally and bartering for fresh supplies for her men. When she arrived in what was left of the sleepy village, she saw what her men had done and dealt swiftly with those responsible. Six men were tried and crucified the very next day. They were left to the crows, as a reminder to others of what would happen if her orders were ever disobeyed again.”
“You said travesties,” Gabrielle absently chewed on a bite of bread slathered with honey butter. “That implies Surra wasn't the only mistake she made.”
“Ah,” Maida nodded. “There've been others. But those are tales for another time, I'm afraid.” She picked up the empty plate and set it on the tray. “Is there anything else I can get you, Gabrielle? I really need to get back upstairs and finish my chores.”
Gabrielle popped the last bite of bread into her mouth and shook her head. “No,” she said and patted her full stomach. “I've had more than enough to eat. Please tell—Aggie, is it—that I appreciate her kindness.”
Maida lifted the tray and headed for the door. “Ye can tell her yerself when she comes by later.”
Gabrielle watched the redhead saunter from the room with a swish of her rust-colored skirt. She sat back against the pillow and sighed. Her stomach really was very full. It was such a strange feeling that she pinched her arm just to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
A smile played at her lips, as she realized it wasn't a dream. This was real. But a niggling in the back of her mind told her that this reality would eventually come crashing down around her. It was Gabrielle's experience that nothing this good ever lasted for very long.
Xena sat in bored silence, as the last complaint was read by her court steward, Traecus. The man wore a tunic of dark purple velvet that was belted at his waist. He was fairly average in every way and older than dirt. Deep wrinkles etched his face and gave him a craggy appearance, much like the mountains of the Peloponnese. A black velvet cap sat jauntily on top of his gray head and covered a bald spot that Xena knew lay beneath. He only wore the hat during court sessions, when he was required to read the charges or complaints that were brought before the Lord Conqueror.
Xena was getting anxious for the proceedings to end. She wanted nothing more than to change out of the elaborate outfit she wore and put on something less garish. The headpiece alone was hotter than Hades and heavier than ten stone. It was damned uncomfortable, as was the heavy brocade gown in dark red she wore. Tiny gold threads were interwoven into the heavy fabric and the clasps were of black ivory imported from Chin. The collar was edged in rare black ermine and was quite soft. But the fur itself was driving Xena crazy as it scratched her neck. She was sweating and hadn't moved in hours. Go figure.
“Yeah, yeah, get on with it, Traceus,” Xena ground out between clenched teeth. She took a sip from her goblet and felt the lukewarm wine slide down her parched throat. It didn't help. “Give me the bare bones of this one, so I can pass judgment and be done with it.”
Traceus cleared his throat, as he scanned through the rest of the scroll in his hands. He finally lifted his dark eyes and droned on in his monotonous tones. His summary was brief, but Xena was beyond caring. She heard very little of what he said, as her mind wandered. She glanced up at the window set high above and noticed the sun was at its xenith. And then she realized Traceus had finished speaking and was waiting silently for her to pass judgment.
Xena glanced around at the expectant faces in the throne room and sighed. Time to cut this short and get on with other things.
“Who are the parties involved?” She looked to the small crowd of farmers standing just inside the wooden railing that separated the court from the gallery of onlookers. There was also a balcony high above, but those people had left long ago. Xena didn't blame them. The day was too nice to waste on petty complaints and boring judgments. “Step forward and give me the nitty gritty.”
One man stepped forward from the rest. He wore plain homespun in tans and browns. His tunic was belted at the waist with a simple leather strap and he twisted a homespun hat in his hands.
“M'lord,” he addressed her with a respectful bow. “We,” he glanced behind him at the other men and then returned his attention to her. “We come here seeking restitution for land that was stolen from us.”
“Oh?” Xena set an elbow on one of the chair arms and rested her chin in her hand. “Where is the land located?”
“Just outside the village of Perrius,” the man answered. “Two hundred acres were taken by the warlord known as Draco. He said it was payment for services rendered to the crown.”
A low growl emerged from Xena's throat at the mention of the man. “Draco has set up shop in Perrius, has he?”
The farmer barely heard the low growl, as he gained confidence that his liege lord would take it upon herself to rectify the situation. “Yes, m'lord. We humbly ask that you send some men back with us to order Draco to return the land to its rightful owners.”
Xena considered her options for several moments. She didn't like it that Draco was so flagrantly defying her edicts concerning warlords in Greece. She had spent the better part of her reign eliminating those who would oppose her. Unfortunately, Draco was wily and had managed to evade her, thus far. But she wasn't about to send men off on a wild goose chase, either.
“No,” Xena answered with a swift shake of her head. “My men are far too valuable to go traipsing off after a lowly thief.” She stood up and stepped down the three stone steps until she was on the same level as the men. Her headdress made her an imposing figure, indeed. That was the point of the elaborate piece. She placed her hands firmly on her hips and glared down her nose at the commoners. “Do you have a militia?”
The man wavered a little under the intense glare. “Uh, no, m'lord, we do not.”
Xena shot one of her advisors a silent signal and then returned her attention to the man. “Return to Perrius and gather together thirty of your most able-bodied men. Then send them back here in a week's time. They will train with my soldiers and learn what they need to know in order to provide a proper defense against thugs like Draco.”
“Y-yes, m'lord,” the man bowed graciously. “Thank you, my liege.”
Xena turned away and then turned back. “Oh, and just so we're clear…” The man waited for her to continue and almost cowered as a deadly gleam entered her eyes. “If your men don't show up by the end of the week, I'll send a detachment of my men to Perrius. Believe me when I say you'll lose more than a few lousy acres of worthless land.” The last was said with a dangerous hiss.
“Y-yes, m-my l-liege,” the man stammered, as he quickly backed away with several demure bows of his dark head.
Xena mounted the throne and, with a flourish, sat back down. “That's it for today, people,” she said in a soft voice that carried in the tense silence.
The place emptied out in less time than it took to empty a corral of horses, as people scrambled through the main doors and out into the bright sunlight. Xena watched them leave and only let the small smile of triumph lift the corners of her lips when she was sure they were all gone.
“You look like you're enjoyin' yourself,” Agatha said, as she cleared away the flagon of wine and Xena's goblet, setting them on a small tray.
“Not really,” Xena sighed and sank a little deeper into the velvet throne. “I hate these tedious sessions. Makes me want to grab someone and rip their head off.” The last was said with a frustrated growl, as she bolted to her feet and headed toward the hidden side door behind her throne.
“And where are you going in such a hurry?” Agatha called to the departing woman.
“Since when do I answer to anyone around here?” Xena snapped as she stopped with her hand on the door latch. “Last I checked, I'm The Conqueror and answer only to myself.”
“Ach!” Agatha shook her head and followed the taller woman. “Yer actin' a might bit strange this day. Somethin' botherin' ya, Xena?”
Xena opened the door and waved the woman through in front of her. She followed with a swish of brocade skirts that reminded her she needed to change her clothes.
“I have a little detour I need to take,” Xena said, as she strode purposefully down the corridor that led to her rooms. As she walked, she quickly removed the head piece and shook out her hair. “Damned thing,” she grumbled.
She would change into something far less formal and take a detour down to the lower level to visit a certain someone that she knew had awakened and eaten her fair share of the meal Agatha had prepared for her. Xena's step was light as she anticipated seeing the girl again.
“Do you want me to send a tray to your room?” Agatha called. “Or would you prefer I send it down to Gabrielle's? I can certainly put enough food together for the two of you.”
Xena merely waved, as she practically skipped down the deserted corridor. She was on a mission and didn't really care if she ate or not. It was enough to see a pair of green eyes and finally hear the young girl talk again.
Agatha merely shook her head at the woman's playful antics. It was the first time in a very long time that she had caught Xena with even the hint of a smile on her otherwise stoic features. She didn't have to guess at the reason behind the woman's strange change of mood. She knew it had something to do with a certain blond, green-eyed newcomer. Agatha just hoped the girl didn't do or say anything that threw Xena into one of her dark moods.
Gabrielle was bored to tears. No one had visited her since Maida had left several candlemarks ago. Now, all she could do was lay there in the silence and stare up at the ceiling. And the ceiling no longer held any interest for her. She had already traced a number of imaginary beings with her eyes, until she grew tired of that game.
So, she closed her eyes and listened. She could hear noises drifting down to her from somewhere upstairs. She wondered what was going on above her and could only imagine that life was bustling with activity. Gabrielle had never been one to just lie around and let others do the work she was more than capable of doing herself. She was tempted to sit up and try to get out of bed. But each time she moved, her shoulder and ribs protested.
Her thoughts turned to her current situation. She was in the Conqueror's keep at Surra. That much she knew. But everything else was a bit fuzzy. She vaguely remembered the ordeal that brought her to this place. Images of a tall, imposing woman on horseback played through her mind. She also remembered the smoke billowing up from the many huts that were set ablaze by the Conqueror's soldiers. The rest was a confused jumble of scattered images that made little sense.
“Knock, knock,” a voice penetrated Gabrielle's light doze.
She opened her eyes and met a pair of blue eyes in one of the most beautiful faces she had ever seen. Dark hair was pulled back at the sides. The rest hung to the woman's shoulders. The stranger smiled warmly, revealing perfect teeth. Her eyes sparkled, even in the dim light from the single candle. And her features fairly glowed. She wore a creamy tunic that seemed to flow with every movement and a pair of black leather pants tucked into a pair of black boots that hugged muscular calves.
“How are you feeling?” Xena inquired, as she sat down on the edge of the small bed, rather than on the uncomfortable wooden chair.
“Okay,” Gabrielle answered hesitantly, not quite sure who the woman was. She glanced down at the towel still wrapped around her chest. “My shoulder is a little sore and my ribs hurt a little, but other than that…” She shrugged and winced when pain shot through her shoulder.
Xena was happy to see that the girl was half-propped up against the small pillow. She made a mental note to have Agatha bring more pillows, then noticed the girl fidgeting with the towel that peeked out above the covers she had pulled up beneath her arms.
“I'll have Agatha find you something suitable for you to wear,” Xena said. She got up and crossed the room in two strides, stopping in the doorway and glancing behind her for a moment.
“Please don't go,” Gabrielle managed enough courage to finally speak. “I…”
Green eyes met blue.
“Yes?” The woman's silken tones were a balm to Gabrielle's frazzled nerves. A dark brow rose in silent inquiry.
“I'm really bored,” Gabrielle finally admitted. “You don't know what it's like to just lay here for candlemarks on end with no one to talk to.”
Xena was actually surprised by the admission. “Oh, I can well imagine,” she smiled again and returned to sit on the edge of the bed.
Gabrielle gingerly gathered her legs in closer to give the woman more room. “Oh?”
“I've actually had my share of injuries,” Xena admitted easily, as she scooted across the bed until her back was leaning against the wall. Her long legs hung over the edge, but she didn't care. It was nice to just sit for a while in the company of the girl. “A few of them even laid me up for a time.” She lifted the hem of her tunic and revealed a long scar that ran from her ribs around to her back. “This one had me in bed for nearly a full moon. Drove me stir crazy. I'm not used to being immobile for that long. I think the servants were actually drawing lots so they woudn't have to bring me my meals. The only one who stood by me was Agatha.”
“She's nice,” Gabrielle added with a warm smile. “I like her.”
“And me?” Xena blurted without thinking, then anxiously awaited the girl's response.
“I don't really know you, do I?” Gabrielle responded shyly. “We've only just met.”
Xena extended a hand. “Name's Xena.”
“Gabrielle,” she said, as she merely looked at the proffered hand with an apology in her eyes.
“Oh,” Xena realized too late that she'd extended her hand toward the girl unthinkingly. “I guess that particular greeting will have to wait until your shoulder heals.” She dropped the hand to a muscular thigh.
“So, what do you do here in the Conqueror's keep?” Gabrielle asked innocently. “Do you work with the horses?”
“What makes you say that?” Xena couldn't figure out if the girl was playing with her or not.
“You smell like leather and horses,” Gabrielle tilted her head slightly to the side and regarded the beautiful woman. “And a hint of cedar.”
Xena lifted her tunic to her nose and sniffed. “Well, imagine that. I guess I've never really given that much thought.” She met the curious gaze. “Yes, I work with horses,” she said, not caring that she wasn't actually telling the whole truth. “I also help train the soldiers.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Are you in the army, then?”
Xena saw the distasteful look on the girl's features. “No, not really. I just help train the men—ready them for battle, that kind of thing. I believe in teaching them the basics of battle survival. The rest they have to learn on their own.”
“I don't see the point in people killing each other,” Gabrielle said softly. “War just seems so pointless.”
“It's sometimes necessary in order to bring a measure of peace and order to the land,” Xena added. “Tyrants and warlords don't often respond to negotiations, unless there is some violence involved.”
“Have you ever fought in a battle?” Gabrielle searched Xena's face, as the woman thought seriously about the question. “Have you ever killed anyone?”
“I have,” Xena answered honestly.
“Fought or killed?” Gabrielle prodded.
Xena met the scrutinizing gaze. “Both.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat. “Was it…”
“I really don't want to talk about such morose things, Gabrielle,” Xena cut the girl off before she could say more. “So, tell me your story.”
“I'd rather not talk about it,” Gabrielle lowered her eyes and stared at the folded hands in her lap. But then she realized the woman was waiting patiently for her to elaborate. She felt comfortable enough in the woman's presence to do just that. “My story is fairly incidental, anyway. My parents owned a farm near Potidea. My father rode away one day to chase after some raiders who stole our sheep. He never returned. I was betrothed to a village boy who was conscripted into the Conqueror's army two winters past. I haven't seen him since he left. My mother passed away last winter, leaving my sister and me to fend for ourselves. We tried to keep the family farm, but couldn't. So, we moved into town and lived with an old woman by the name of Ngila. The Conqueror showed up yesterday and burned the entire village to the ground.” Teary eyes met Xena's gaze. “I don't know if my sister is alive or dead. I asked Agatha if she knew anything. She didn't. But she did say she'd check into Lila's whereabouts.”
Xena merely nodded, unsure why the girl couldn't remember the exact events from the previous day. But she didn't want to dredge up those painful moments, anymore than she wanted to tell the girl who she really was.
“So, you were betrothed?” Xena decided on a fairly benign topic, instead. “Aren't you a little young to get married?”
Gabrielle smirked. “How old do you think I am?”
“Fourteen, maybe?” Xena was a little disconcerted when the girl actually burst out laughing. “What?”
Gabrielle wrapped her right arm around her sore ribs as her laughter continued. “Oh, gods!” She finally managed, when the laughter subsided into fitful chuckles. “Why is it everyone thinks I'm just some innocent little kid fresh out of nappies?”
“'Cause you look really young?” Xena responded seriously.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle wiped a few tears from her eyes. “I get that a lot.”
“So, how old are you?”
“I'll be eighteen in the fall,” Gabrielle answered matter-of-factly and watched her companion's reaction. She wasn't disappointed and nearly burst into another fit of laughter at the wide blue eyes staring back at her incredulously. “No joke.”
“And your…um…your sister?” Xena quickly recovered her composure.
“I'm the oldest,” Gabrielle smirked. “That's why I was betrothed to Perdicus. We were to be married after my next birthday.”
“You were okay with marrying him?” Xena couldn't meet the girl's—young woman's, she mentally corrected—gaze.
“Perdicus is a good man,” Gabrielle shrugged her right shoulder only, consciously aware of the painful throbbing in the left one. “We were friends during childhood. He always listened to my stories, and I didn't laugh when he tried to protect my honor. The other kids were always picking on me for being…different. I guess I wasn't quite as girly as the rest of the girls. I liked climbing trees, playing warlords and raiders…I was even pretty good at kick the pigskin.” Her expression turned wistful. “But my favorite pastime was making up stories and telling them to the younger kids…”
“Would you still marry him, if you could?” Xena prodded.
“Probably not,” Gabrielle absently picked at the blanket in her lap. “The betrothal was mutually beneficial to both my parents and his. But…” She let the thought trail off.
“Did you love him?” Xena added.
“Not really, no,” Gabrielle answered honestly. “I might have been relatively happy as his wife. He's handsome, with dark hair and dreamy brown eyes. Our children would have been passably fair. But I really don't know if I could ever love him. He's just not…” She shook her head. “Besides, I think he was killed in battle or something. Why else would he never attempt to contact us again?”
“Why, indeed?” Xena answered quietly, knowing the exact reason and not willing to share.
Xena had instituted a policy in her army that no soldier was to contact their hometown—ever. The rule was designed to keep the men focused, keep their loyalties on the other men in their platoons. Having her soldiers send and receive messages from home all the time would be a distraction. She wanted them focused. Not pining for something they couldn't have. Besides, there were some who never made it past the first few weeks of training.
“Do you like stories?”
The question took Xena completely by surprise and nearly sent her toppling over the edge of the bed when she whipped her head around to meet a pair of curious green eyes. She didn't miss the smirk that appeared on Gabrielle's face at the obviously comical look she was receiving.
“Do I like stories?” Xena repeated, as she composed herself. “Who doesn't?” She shifted positions a bit towards the young woman in order to keep from sliding off the bed. “I guess if you'd grown up in my home village I would have been the one to protect you against the bullies.”
Gabrielle didn't miss the sparkle of amusement or the small smile that lit Xena's features and made her even more beautiful than she already was. “Um…that's…um…”
“Cat got your tongue?” Xena teased.
“I…uh…” Gabrielle shook her head to clear it and waited several heartbeats for the fluttering butterflies in her stomach to settle down. “That's one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.”
A dark brow shot up at those words. “Seriously?”
Gabrielle ducked her head and concentrated on the thread she was picking at in her lap. “Yeah,” she answered quietly. “I'm not exactly…” She let the words trail off.
“What?” Xena gently prodded.
Gabrielle tried to take a deep breath, but winced when her stomach muscles and ribs protested. “Oof! Gotta stop doing that.”
A large hand snaked out and gently took one of hers. Xena's palm felt rough in Gabrielle's, but she didn't care. The contact was enough to send her heartbeat into overdrive and the butterflies in her stomach transforming into giant bats. Her breathing quickened, as she met Xena's intense gaze.
“You're very beautiful, Gabrielle,” Xena said the words so softly that Gabrielle almost missed them with the blood pounding in her ears.
“I am?” The blond couldn't keep the wonder from her words.
A dazzling smile split Xena's features and lit her eyes with a warm glow that warmed Gabrielle to the very core. Her mind was suddenly a jumble of confused thoughts and emotions that left her completely tongue-tied. She had no idea how to respond to the woman's words, much less to the warmth that was flowing through her.
Xena studied her young companion closely, trying to decide if Gabrielle was serious or if she really was that naïve. A large purple bruise was forming on one side of the blonde's face and her hair was in wild disarray, but, other than that, she really was beautiful.
“You really don't know, do you?” Xena asked in wonder.
Gabrielle shook her head. “I'm short—rather plain. I'm nothing like my sister, Lila. She's taller than me, has beautiful wavy brown hair and curves in all the right places.” She glanced down at her chest. “The boys were always ogling her…um…assets.” She looked up and met Xena's gaze with a shy smile. “I'm not as well-endowed as Lila. I was also never interested in the more domestic aspects of life, like cooking, sewing and having babies.” The last was said with a distasteful scowl. “Lila's hips are wider and built for childbirth—at least that's what Mother always said.”
Xena scooted closer and took both hands in hers. “Well, I think you're beautiful.”
Gabrielle swallowed over the lump in her throat and felt her cheeks go warm with a sudden blush. “You do?”
Xena nodded and reached up to tuck a lock of hair behind Gabrielle's ear. “I don't say anything I don't mean, Gabrielle.”
They were lost in the moment, in each other, for the space of several heartbeats. They just studied each other in wonder. It was a special moment in which two lost souls suddenly found the connection they'd been searching for.
But the moment was short-lived. A loud throat clearing at the open door brought both women out of their silent reverie, like a bucket of cold water poured over their heads. Xena jumped back and resumed her place at the end of the bed, as she turned to glare at the intruder.
“Ladies, ” Agatha wasn't a bit intimidated by the look she received from the dark-haired woman, as she bustled into the room with a large tray and set it on the small table. “Thought you would like to take your evening meal down here, m—” She turned in time to catch the quick shake of the dark head and the warning glare in blue eyes.
“M-my, you're looking much better than you looked this mornin', child,” Agatha recovered quickly and turned her attention to Gabrielle. “I've enough food here to feed an army,” she chuckled. “Maida reported that you ate two heaping platefuls earlier. I expect nothing less this time around, child.” A quick glance at the imposing figure sitting casually on the end of the bed told her Xena was making herself right at home with the girl. “There's also enough for you, too,” she let a gray brow lift in inquiry and didn't miss the fact that Xena still held one of Gabrielle's hands.
“Shall I inform Traecus that you won't be dining in the main hall this evening?” Agatha shot Xena a pointed look.
“Yes, thank you,” Xena replied casually. “And send my apologies to our Lord Conqueror, too,” she looked pointedly at the woman. “I hope she won't be too terribly disappointed that I'm not there to enjoy the meal with her this evening.”
Both brows shot up into the older woman's hairline at the coded message. “I…” Agatha quickly turned away and concentrated on removing covers from the dishes on the tray to hide how flustered she was. “All right,” she nodded once, as she regained her composure. “Are there any additional…um…Is there anything else you require, Xena?”
“No,” she answered. “The food looks delicious. I'm sure we'll be fine.”
Gabrielle silently watched the strange interplay between the two women. She could sense that there was more going on than either woman was willing to reveal, but Gabrielle couldn't quite put a finger on what it was. She was usually so good at reading people, but it was hard to do so with these two women. They seemed to be sharing some kind of secret code or something. There was definitely more there than met the eye.
“Well, I'll leave you to it then,” Agatha said as she quickly exited the room and climbed the stairs back up to the main level.
“Strange,” Gabrielle muttered.
“What was that?” Xena met the confused gaze watching her intently.
“Nothing,” Gabrielle lowered her eyes and shook her head.
“I've known Agatha for a long time,” Xena commented, as she slid from the bed and started piling food onto two plates. “She has her moments.”
“She's very nice,” Gabrielle studied the tall woman from beneath hooded lids. “She and Maida have been very kind.”
“You say that like it surprises you,” Xena glanced from the plate she held to the slightly bowed blond head.
Gabrielle shrugged her good shoulder. “I'm not exactly sure what to expect here.” She looked up and caught something in the tall woman's eyes that brought her up short. It was there only a split-second, but it sent a shiver of dread through her, just the same. “I—” She shook her head and swallowed the lump in her throat. “Can I tell you something?”
Xena shrugged casually, as she moved to the side of the bed and put the heaping plate of food down in front of the reclining woman. “You can tell me anything, Gabrielle.” She smiled warmly. “I'm just a lowly horse trainer, after all.” She had no idea what the young woman was about to say, but felt her stomach plummet with dread.
“I—I'm a little confused,” Gabrielle confided. “I mean, I guess I don't know what I'm doing here.”
A dark brow shot up, as Xena paused while fixing her own plate. She thought about the role she was playing and tried to decide what a horse trainer would say to that. “I assume you're here to work in the keep, like the rest of us.”
Xena finished heaping food on her plate and returned to her place on the end of the bed. She sat down with one leg up on the bed and the other planted on the floor. She figured it gave the smaller woman enough space to stretch her legs out, so she could balance the plate on her thighs.
“Yeah, I guess,” Gabrielle dug into her meal with gusto. “I just…I guess something Maida said doesn't quite make sense to me.”
“What did Maida say?” Xena asked, as she wracked her brain to match the name with one of the many faces of servants in the keep.
“She said this room is one of the private rooms reserved for the Conqueror's most trusted servants,” Gabrielle said.
“And?” Xena prodded when Gabrielle wasn't more forthcoming.
“And she doesn't know a thing about me,” Gabrielle finished around a mouthful of food. “The Conqueror, I mean. Why would she put me here? And where are the rest of the women from Potidea? Are they here? Or did The Conqueror send them somewhere else?”
Xena realized what Gabrielle was asking and wracked her brain for a reasonable explanation. Why had she singled out this one young woman out of all the rest? It didn't make sense, which was probably why Gabrielle was so confused. It was just as confusing for Xena, and she was supposed to be the one with all the answers.
After all, wasn't she Conqueror of the Known World? Hadn't she brought peace to most of Greece over the years of her reign? Intellect certainly played a large role in everything she did. But was it her intelligence that had her singling out one peasant girl out of the hundreds she'd run across in her vast experiences? Or was there more to it?
“Um…” Gabrielle cleared her throat to get her companion's attention. “Xena?”
“Hm?” Xena looked up to find Gabrielle watching her curiously. Or was that embarrassment in the sea-green eyes? “I'm sorry, did you say something?”
“Not really, but…” Gabrielle was on her second mug of cider, when she realized she had a rather immediate problem. “Um…I…uh…”
“Just come out with it, Gabrielle,” Xena impatiently waited for the woman to muster enough courage to speak. “It's not like I'm gonna bite your head off or anything. Just tell me.”
“Well,” Gabrielle felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment at what she was about to say. “I…uh…There's…um…I haven't used the…um…you know…since yesterday and…um…I really need to go…um…” She met Xena's confused gaze and tried to convey the urgency of her situation through her eyes.
“Ohhhhh,” sudden realization finally hit home. “You need to use the…er…”
“Exactly,” Gabrielle sighed in relief.
“Well, there's a commode in the bathing room down the hall,” Xena explained, matter-of-factly. “Do you need help getting there?”
“What's a commode?” Gabrielle gave her a blank stare.
“Chamber pot?” Xena supplied. “We don't actually use those here—too messy. So, I…” She coughed over her slip and hoped Gabrielle didn't hear it. “Er, rather, the Conqueror had commodes installed throughout the keep, in the soldiers' barracks and several other places. She's…um…quite innovative when it comes to that kind of thing. Her extensive travels helped her see the practicality of providing proper facilities—not to mention the benefits of hygiene.”
Gabrielle was really only half listening to Xena prattle on. Her bladder was screaming to be relieved and all she could think about was how she was actually going to get down the hall, much less out of bed. She threw off the covers and noticed the towel still wrapped around her. Frowning down at her attire, she decided her need to pee far outweighed her need for modesty.
She managed to hike the towel up high enough to free her legs, despite the shooting pain in her shoulder. As she swung her legs over the side of the bed, she looked up to see Xena towering over her. The tall woman didn't wait for a response and merely scooped her up in one swift motion, carrying her from the room and down the hall in several long strides. They were soon standing in the doorway of a rather small closet-type space.
“Here you go,” Xena said, as she set Gabrielle on her bare feet. “Don't hesitate to ask for help.”
Gabrielle just managed to steady herself, as she suddenly found herself standing on legs she hadn't used since the previous morning. She couldn't quite figure out why her legs were so weak and simply chalked it up to the fever someone had mentioned.
She stepped inside the small space and closed the door, then realized she had no idea how to proceed from there. The room was completely alien to her. She opened the door a crack and peeked outside, relieved to find Xena still standing just on the other side.
“Um…I'm not exactly sure…uh…”
Xena kept her expression neutral as she heard the hesitancy in the woman's speech. “Just sit down on that round seat and do your business, Gabrielle,” she explained. “There should also be something there to clean yourself with when you're done.”
Gabrielle surveyed the tiny space and noted a raised platform with what appeared to be a seat with a hole in the center. She assumed that was the commode. There was also a small pile of neatly-folded cloths stacked on a small shelf within reach. She could only assume that was the “clean yourself with” part of Xena's explanation. So, without further ado, she dropped the towel and took care of business.
When she was finished, however, she realized she had another problem. The towel was on the floor and she really couldn't reach all the way down to pick it up—especially since her stomach muscles and ribs were throbbing and she was painfully aware of the injury to her shoulder.
“Ugh!” She groaned in frustration. “What do I do now?”
“What was that?” Xena called from the other side of the door. “Are you okay in there, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes in consternation at this latest development. She silently chided herself for not thinking of the problem sooner—before she let the makeshift garment drop into a puddle at her feet. She sat back down on the seat of the commode and leaned forward to reach the towel, but quickly learned the folly of that move when she almost tipped headfirst onto the cold stone floor.
“Oh, gods, can this get any worse?” She muttered, as she managed to right herself just in time.
“I'm coming in,” Xena warned, right before she gingerly pushed the door open and slapped a hand over her eyes.
“Xena!” Gabrielle exclaimed in surprise, as she wrapped her arms around herself, only to find that the tall woman wasn't even looking at her.
“Just tell me what you need me to do,” Xena said, keeping her hand tightly over her eyes.
“Can you reach down, grab the cloth at your feet and hand it to me?” Gabrielle instructed, her cheeks coloring in abject mortification at the turn of events.
“No problem,” Xena replied, as she gingerly waved her free hand towards the ground and kept the other firmly planted over her eyes. It only took a moment for her fingers to find the discarded garment, which she grabbed and held at arm's length in front of her. “Here you go!” She said in triumph.
“What in blazes is going on here?” Agatha's startled exclamation had Xena spinning around in a flash, as she quickly flung her arms out to block Agatha's view.
“Nothing,” Xena shot back, as she kept her body firmly planted in the doorway to the small closet. “Just helping Gabrielle with…urm…She had to…uh…well, you know.”
Agatha almost burst out laughing at the taller woman's sudden inability to finish a simple sentence. But she managed to keep her humor in check, rather than embarrass either woman.
“Are you all right in there, child?” The older woman called out.
“I am now,” Gabrielle's voice was slightly muffled by the taller woman's presence in the doorway. “You can move, now, Xena. I'm mostly decent again.”
A gray brow shot up, as Agatha met Xena's gaze. “Are you going to tell her or shall I?” She silently mouthed the words.
Xena shook her head and shot the woman a warning glare, then stepped to the side to allow Gabrielle to exit the tiny room. Without warning, Xena scooped the smaller woman up in her arms and looked pointedly at Agatha.
“Oo, my hero,” Gabrielle shot Xena a teasing grin.
“Would you please excuse us?” Xena politely addressed the older woman still blocking her path. “Gabrielle needs her rest.”
Agatha reluctantly moved aside and just shook her head at the Conqueror's playful antics. It warmed her heart to see Xena so smitten with the small girl. But it also worried her deeply that Gabrielle would eventually learn the truth of who Xena really was.
Would the girl still appreciate Xena when she learned the dark truth behind the playful person striding confidently back up the corridor? Or would Gabrielle break the fragile heart that knew little about love and a great deal about bloodshed and death? She didn't want to contemplate what any of it might mean for the rest of them, so she merely went about her toilette and readied for bed.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle said, as Xena gently placed her back in bed and tucked her in. “You really didn't have to go to so much trouble. I probably would have eventually figured out the whole commode thing on my own.”
Xena moved a step back and bowed chivalrously over one arm. “'Twas my pleasure,” she said, as her eyes returned to Gabrielle's. “I only live to serve.”
Gabrielle snorted. “You're so funny, Xena,” she giggled.
Xena sat down in the chair, after turning it around so she could lean on the backrest. “Would you mind if I asked you to tell me a bedtime story?”
Gabrielle studied the angular features for a moment, trying to gauge if Xena was serious or if she was merely playing with her. “You really want to hear a story?”
“Absolutely,” Xena answered with a nod of certainty. “We horse trainers do love a good yarn. Speaking of which, do you have any stories that involve horses?”
Gabrielle snickered. “A story about a horse? Or a story involving horses?”
Xena scrunched up her face thoughtfully. “Doesn't really matter, I guess.”
“Okaaaaay,” Gabrielle wracked her brain for a good story that involved a horse or horses. “Well,” she continued when one particular story came to mind. “Have you heard the tale of the horse that was given as a gift to the Trojans?”
Xena hadn't merely heard the story, she'd lived it. It was her army that had chased the cowardly Trojans back to their fortress. And it was her idea to build the enormous wooden horse that housed a number of her men. Her strategy had been a sound one and they'd triumphed that day.
She knew every detail of the wily deception, right down to the actual height of the wheeled horse, but decided to keep her lips sealed. She wanted to hear the tale from her companion and hoped that she wouldn't be disappointed. So, she merely shook her head and rested her chin on her folded arms.
“The war against Troy was particularly brutal for the armies of Greece,” Gabrielle jumped right into the tale and let it flow from her lips with the ease and passion born of one who enjoyed spinning a good yarn.
She wove just enough detail into the story to allow her audience to experience every heart-stopping moment, while also painting a picture of valor and heroics that brought the main characters to life. Her words were like a flowing river that meandered through twists and turns with relative ease. She paused during key points in the story to add a touch of dramatic effect and let her voice crescendo when the action intensified, until she fairly soared with into the climactic ending and slowly descended back to earth.
Xena was riveted from the very start. She'd heard countless bards during her extensive travels, but none possessed half the talent and passion that her diminutive companion did. Gabrielle's words flowed so effortlessly—so seamlessly—that she was soon lost in vivid memories of that triumphant moment. She heard the cheers of her men when they defeated the Trojans within the very walls of their own fortress and threw the gates wide to allow the rest of the army full access. Her heart soared with pride once again when she realized she had played an integral part in the sound defeat of the Trojan forces.
“…and that's how a few brave men outsmarted the mighty Trojan army and brought peace to a land ravaged by war,” Gabrielle's last words were followed by enthusiastic applause.
Both Xena and Gabrielle looked up to find Agatha and two men standing in the doorway. The men's eyes suddenly widened when they caught sight of Xena staring back at them. They disappeared instantly, leaving Agatha to wipe a tear from her eye on the sleeve of her nightgown.
“That was a spectacular tale, Gabrielle,” the older woman beamed. “I've never heard anything like it in all my years.”
Xena suddenly stood up and slowly backed toward the doorway. “Yes, a tale worthy of a true bard,” she said, as she ducked out without another word.
Gabrielle raised confused eyes to Agatha, who still stood in the doorway. “Did I say something wrong?”
“Ach! No, child,” Agatha said, as she quickly gathered up the dishes, set them on the tray and carried it to the door. She managed to close the door most of the way, as she left. “Get a good night's rest, child,” she called, as she climbed the stairs. “Tomorrow promises to be a busy day, especially for you.”
Gabrielle sat there for a little while longer, not sure how to take the quick escape Xena made from her room only moments ago. She wasn't sure what to make of Xena. So many confusing thoughts and feelings seemed to plague her at once when they were together that she had no idea how to sort it all out.
The butterflies in her stomach were still there. At least they weren't fluttering around like bats at that moment. That was a good thing, she reasoned. If only she could figure out why they were there in the first place.
She blew out the candle next to the bed and slid down until she was lying on her back in the inky darkness. Emotions she'd never experienced before whirled around inside her, as she closed her eyes in anticipation of a good night's sleep. Slowly drifting down into Morpheus' realm, a pair of expressive blue eyes in the face of a goddess danced through her mind and brought a warm smile to her lips.
“Ye want to tell me what's going on?” Agatha addressed the seated figure, as she bustled into the kitchen with the tray of dishes.
Xena took another bite of her apple and silently chewed, as she sat there with her boots propped up on one of the walnut cutting tables. The kitchen was deserted, with only a few embers still burning where the three cooking fires usually roared during the course of the day. A kettle dangled over one pile of embers and whistled softly.
Agatha set the tray in the wash room and returned to sit across from the brooding woman. She sat there in patient silence, knowing Xena would eventually speak when the mood suited her. She was used to the ruler's dark moods and didn't let them bother her—much.
“She told me a story,” Xena finally said when she'd eaten the apple down to nothing but the core. She tossed what remained toward one of the slop buckets across the room and barely gave it a passing glance when it found its mark. “The campaign against the Trojans.”
“So?” Agatha shrugged, as she tried to get a bead on Xena's true feelings. “The tale sounded fine from what I heard. She got most of the details right, at least. A lot more than I can say for that idiot who came through here last and tried to tell the same tale. I'm surprised you let him leave with his head intact, frankly. The sot wasn't worth the coin you threw his way.”
Xena's gaze met hers. “Gabrielle's the best bard I've ever heard.”
That got a raised brow look. “The best?” Agatha was a bit surprised by the high praise, considering Xena only gave a compliment when it was absolutely deserved.
“She's gifted,” Xena added. “She doesn't tell a story as much as she weaves it in such a way that you're actually right there in the middle of the action. You smell the acrid odor of wood-smoke burning and feel the flames on your skin. Her description of our little gift to the Trojans was so accurate, I actually felt like I was inside the thing with my men, instead of sitting on that hill that overlooked the fortress. I could hear them breathing and feel the sweat running down my back as the Trojans inspected that behemoth we tricked them with.” She shuddered. “But there was one thing she got completely wrong.”
“Which was?” Agatha prodded when Xena's brow furrowed.
“I wasn't there,” Xena slammed a fist onto the table and startled the woman across from her. “I know we won. I know it was a miracle of strategic proportions that defies anything the world has ever seen. We were outnumbered and we had no way of penetrating their defenses. We needed a decisive victory—a way to beat them at their own game. It wasn't about Paris or Menelaus or even Helen anymore. It was a matter of honor—Greek honor. We needed that victory to pull together into one cohesive unit.”
“You used the war to unite the armies under one banner,” Agatha nodded sagely. “That was the victory that transformed you from just one of the many bloodthirsty warlords into our Lord Conqueror.”
“That was when I dropped the whole Destroyer of Nations monogram,” Xena added. “I didn't want to be a destroyer anymore. I wanted much, much more for Greece. I returned here and swept the riffraff from this land like so many lazy rats. I cleaned house from Athens all the way to the Peloponnese and left no stone unturned. The war with Troy was only the beginning. It was the stepping stone that allowed me to bring order out of chaos.”
“So?” Agatha cocked a brow at the woman. “Didn't Gabrielle paint you as the conquering hero in her tale?”
“Worse,” Xena's expression darkened. “She didn't mention me at all. She mentioned the romance between Helen and Paris, but mostly she talked about that damnable wooden horse. It was as if I never existed or had any part of what really happened.”
It was all Agatha could do not to let out even the slightest snicker. She watched the expression of a petulant child's cross Xena's features for a split second, before she replaced it with her usual stoic mask. Xena wasn't angry about being left out of Gabrielle's story, as much as she was hurt that the bard neglected to mention her. So, Agatha decided to do the only thing she could think to do—change the subject completely.
“Tell me why she calls you by your given name,” Agatha said.
“I can count on two fingers the number of people in this world who are allowed to use your given name, Xena,” Agatha raised two fingers for emphasis. She pointed at one, “Me,” and then two others, “a few of your commanders and your mother.” She then let a fourth finger join the others. “Now there's Gabrielle.” Her gaze met Xena's. “Does she know you're our Lord Conqueror?”
Xena looked away and her expression mirrored that of a child caught with her hand in the cookie tin. “I like her,” she muttered under her breath.
“What was that? I didn't hear you,” Agatha put a hand to her ear.
“I said,” Xena said in her normal tone. “I like her.”
“Ahhh,” Agatha smiled. “You're taken with the girl, eh?”
Xena blew out an exasperated sigh. “I don't want her to see me as a monster.”
“So you lied to her,” Agatha pointed out. “And what happens when she discovers the truth? What then?”
“I…” Xena shook her head. “By then I hope we'll have become…” She shrugged. “I don't know.”
“Don't lie to her, Xena,” Agatha's tone grew serious. “Nothing good comes from lying, especially to someone you care about.”
Xena slammed her fist on the table again. “I don't want her to hate me!” She hissed.
“Oh, Xena,” Agatha's expression softened. “She will hate you if you aren't honest with her. She already thinks you're responsible for everything bad that's happened in her life, including the deaths of her parents and her sister. What do you think she'll do when she finds out you lied to her about who you really are? Take it from an old woman, lying never softened even the smallest blow.”
With that said, Agatha got up from her chair and walked around to Xena's side of the table. She placed a kiss on top of the dark head and affectionately patted Xena's shoulder.
“Sweet dreams, m'lord,” the older woman said, as she made her way towards the stairs that led down to her small room.
“Good night, Aggie,” Xena just sat there for a while longer, as she absorbed the woman's sage advice.
She thought long and hard about the time she'd spent with Gabrielle. The young woman was nothing like the women she usually dealt with. There was an innocent quality about Gabrielle that tugged at Xena's heart strings and sent her protective instincts into overdrive.
It was frightening and exhilarating all at once. To think that someone who was supposed to be a servant—Xena could not bring herself to think of Gabrielle as a slave—could touch her heart in such a way was completely out of her realm of understanding. It was unthinkable. Yet that's exactly what Gabrielle had done in the space of only two short days.
“I'm nuts,” Xena muttered to herself, as she let her boots drop back to the stone floor. “That's all there is to it. I've finally gone completely nuts and it's all her fault. She's the straw that broke the camel's back—my damned back.” She glanced around the silent kitchen. “And now I'm talking to myself. That just confirms it. I really am nuts.”
Her long strides carried her from the kitchen and had her safely in her rooms in no time. Once inside, she stripped off her clothing on her way to her bedchamber, leaving a trail of discarded articles all the way to the side of her enormous bed. The covers were pulled back on the side she usually slept on, revealing the blood red silk sheets beneath an equally blood red coverlet. She didn't bother to do anything more than extinguish the single candle burning on the nightstand, after which she burrowed facedown beneath the cool sheets.
But sleep did not immediately come to her. Her mind wandered over the day's events and especially her time with a certain blond. She kept replaying their playful conversations, as well as the tale Gabrielle shared. Xena muttered into her pillow that she would rectify the situation with the bard's omission, then realized doing so would prove difficult without revealing her part in the actual events.
She slammed a fist into her pillow in frustration. Telling Gabrielle that she was The Conqueror wasn't yet an option. Xena wanted nothing more than to cultivate a friendship with the young woman without having The Conqueror looming in the shadows.
“Why can't anything ever be easy?” She muttered into her pillow.
She shifted until she was lying on her back. With an arm thrown over her forehead she just lay there staring up at the dark ceiling above. Faint starlight filtered in through the enormous windows that took up one entire wall. Otherwise, it was a moonless night and her room was cast in deep shadow. Still, sleep did not come easily.
Shutting her eyes tightly against the images swirling in her mind's eye, Xena sighed deeply and tried not to think about a pair of beautiful green eyes in a face that put Aphrodite's looks to shame. As far as Xena was concerned, Aphrodite couldn't hold a candle to Gabrielle in looks or in personality. Of course, Xena hadn't met the illustrious Goddess of Love, so there really was no comparison in her eyes.
“This really isn't helping,” Xena ground out in frustration, as she flipped back onto her stomach and buried her face in her pillow.
She lay like that for a long time until she finally drifted down into a restless sleep plagued by dreams of angry love goddesses and cherubic little winged Gabrielles and bows and arrows.
A tap on her shoulder brought her out of a dreamless sleep. Rather than open her eyes, she merely groaned and burrowed deeper into the covers.
“Rise and shine, lass,” the familiar voice penetrated her hazy half-sleep. “Come on, Gabrielle. Time to get up and face the day.” The covers were unceremoniously pulled away, leaving a chilly draft in their wake—a chilly draft that didn't go away. “Well, good thing I brought ye somethin' ta wear. Ye certainly can't go upstairs in that get up.”
A bleary green eye popped open and peered into the face of…What was the woman's name again? Marta? Magda? No, Maida. Gabrielle wracked her fuzzy brain for exactly where she was, as Maida tossed some clothing her way.
“Come on, lass,” Maida prodded. “Time ta start earnin' yer keep.”
Gabrielle pushed up onto an elbow and instantly realized why she was so cold. She wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing and the cloth that had been wrapped around her naked body was now tangled in the bed sheets at the foot of the bed. She quickly grabbed the clothing Maida had tossed her way and held it to her chest.
“Could you…” she let the question hang, as she motioned for the redhead to turn around.
“Oh, fer cryin' out loud, Gabrielle,” Maida huffed, as she turned her back anyway. “It's not like I haven't seen a naked body before.”
Gabrielle didn't say anything, as she quickly donned the serviceable skirt and blouse that she soon discovered were a little big on her smaller frame. Her shoulder wasn't aching as much as it had the day before. It was just stiff from disuse. And her ribs and stomach muscles seemed much better, too.
“Okay,” Gabrielle said, as she stood up and faced the redhead's turned back. “You can turn around now, Maida.”
The redhead spun to face her shorter companion and noticed the frumpy fit to the clothing she'd provided. “Not the best look on ye, I'm afraid,” she said, turning Gabrielle in a circle for closer inspection. “But it'll have to do for now. The hair, though. That I can fix.”
She produced a brush from the folds of her apron and started in on the mass of tangles. When she had ordered Gabrielle's hair to her satisfaction, she pulled the sides back and secured them with a leather thong, leaving the rest to hang loosely down Gabrielle's back. When she was finished, she turned the smaller woman around to face her again.
“Hm,” she studied the large purple bruise on the side of Gabrielle's face, placing her hand on the blonde's chin and tilting her face a bit. “That's a nasty bruise, Gabrielle. What happened?”
Gabrielle pulled away and lowered her eyes. She still didn't quite remember all of it, but that blow had haunted her dreams. She raised a hand to her cheek and gingerly touched the spot with her fingers, wincing when she touched her cheekbone.
“Courtesy of your precious Conqueror,” Gabrielle groused without meeting the inquiring gray eyes.
“What in blazes did you do to deserve that?” Maida just stood there with her hands on her hips and scowled.
Green eyes ignited with anger. “She killed my SISTER!! ” The words barely left her lips before the full impact of what she said hit her full in the chest.
Gabrielle gasped and doubled over, as if she'd been punched in the stomach. A keening wail tore from her lips as her legs gave out and she crumpled to the floor in a heap. She never heard Maida's quickly-receding footsteps, as the woman raced back upstairs as fast as her legs could carry her. And Gabrielle barely registered the hands that lifted her up and set her on the bed. She was curled into a tight ball and wanted nothing more than to close the world out completely. But the same image kept replaying in her mind's eye.
Lila stood before the imposing woman dressed in black leather one instant, and then Gabrielle watched in horror as she was run through with the blade of a sword. The bloody blade emerged from Lila's back, as her sister stared in open-mouthed shock at nothing.
Gabrielle could only stare in shock, as she watched the life quickly drain from her sister's body. The memories were so clear, so vivid, that Gabrielle could even smell the tang of blood in the air and feel her stomach plummet with the realization that her sister—her only remaining family—was dead.
“Gabrielle,” someone placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Come on, Gabrielle. The time for mourning is long past, child.”
Gabrielle shook her head and continued to sob. “Go away!” She ground out between clenched teeth. “Just go away!”
“I can't do that, child,” Agatha said. “You're part of The Conqueror's household now. There's nothin' to do for it but go on with life and honor your loved ones in your heart.”
Tearful green eyes snapped up to glare at the older woman. “She killed my SISTER!!! ” Gabrielle repeated with an angry snarl. “What kind of monster kills so c-callously, so…so…” She shook her head, tears flying in every direction. “I have no family left now! Don't you understand? I have nothing!!! She might as well come down here and just kill me, too. I have nothing left to live for—nothing.” She grabbed the discarded towel and buried her face in it, as great sobs of anguish wracked her small frame.
Agatha's gaze met Maida's, as she gave the younger woman a silent signal. Maida quickly ran back upstairs for the second time that morning. Agatha sat down on the bed next to the grieving young woman and just rubbed Gabrielle's back. She knew where Maida was headed—knew the mission she'd sent the maid on. It was just a matter of time before Maida returned with the source of Gabrielle's torment in tow.
A loud knock on the door brought Xena awake in an instant. She raised her sleep-tousled head and squinted as early-morning sunlight streamed into the room from the large bank of windows to her right. She was still lying on her stomach and realized she hadn't moved once during the night. That was new, she mused.
Another loud knock had her on her feet and donning the maroon dressing robe at the foot of her bed in another instant.
“Just a damned second! I'm coming,” she barked, as she closed the distance to the bedchamber door in several long strides. She yanked the door open and came face-to-face with her steward. “Traecus,” she greeted the man with a scowl, as she padded back into her bedchamber and plopped down on the edge of the mattress at the foot of the bed. Running a hand through her disheveled hair, she continued, “This better be good. You woke me from a dead sleep.” She glanced at the windows and realized it was much later than she'd have guessed. “What time is it, anyway?”
“My lord,” the man stepped austerely through the doorway and dipped his head in a show of respect. “My sincerest apologies for waking you, majesty, but you're needed for a rather…um…pressing emergency.”
His craggy features barely changed, as he delivered his cryptic message. Xena stared at him, attempting to read his expression until she finally just gave up trying. She'd made a game of trying to read the man over the years he'd been with her and was still unable to do so. His expressions were limited to droll, stoic and raised-browed droll stoicism. He never cracked a smile, never raised his voice in anger. He was a model of complete composure at all times. She liked that, but sometimes wondered if the man ever let down his guard, even for a split second. If he did, she'd never seen it.
“Emergency?” Xena inquired with a skeptical glare. “Is the keep under attack? Because I don't hear the sounds of blades clashing and none of my men came bursting in here to raise the alarm.” She crossed her arms over her chest and waited for his explanation.
“Er,” he actually had the grace to lower his eyes from her intense scrutiny. “Maida said Agatha is with the girl. She said you would understand what that means?” He folded his hands in front of him and stood there in stoic silence.
Alarm bells of another kind went off in Xena's head at the implication of those words. Gabrielle. Thoughts of the young woman whirled around in her head, as she quickly threw off her dressing gown and donned the clothes she had haphazardly discarded the night before.
She found everything draped over the back of a chair, which wasn't where she'd left it. That meant that one of the maids had silently entered the room and tidied up without her knowledge. The thought would have set off her paranoia, if she didn't trust Agatha's judgment completely. The woman was a blood hound when it came to weeding out the untrustworthy from Xena's personal staff.
Xena happened to glance toward the doorway and noticed Traecus was no longer there. The man was slipperier than a ghost and an expert at coming and going without a sound. It was one thing she liked about him. No mess, no fuss. Just results.
She was completely dressed and descending the stairs in less time than it took most of her men to do their daily oblations. On her way through the kitchen, she grabbed a small brown roll and earned several surprised glances from the busy servants. She ripped off a piece with her teeth and chewed, as she descended the stairs two at a time.
The first thing she noticed as she hit the landing, was a strange mewling that reminded her of an animal in pain. As she stepped inside the room, she stopped dead and stared at Agatha. The woman was trying her best to comfort a small ball of humanity on the bed. At Xena's arrival, however, the older woman glanced up and met her surprised gaze. There was sadness and a measure of sympathy in Agatha's eyes that touched a deep chord in Xena's heart.
“She remembers,” Agatha uttered softly. “I can't get her to stop.” She rubbed the young woman's back one last time and then stood up. “Maybe you can do better than me.” She didn't wait for a reply as she brushed past the imposing woman who stood stock still in the doorway. “I don't know if she knows yet who you are,” the words were uttered softly behind Xena and she felt an encouraging pat on her shoulder, then heard the older woman's hasty retreat.
Xena just stood there for several long moments. She didn't know what to do. Strawberry blond hair peeked out from a clothed lump that shuddered and shook with silent sobs. And then the mewling sound pierced the silence and Xena was sitting on the edge of the bed in an instant.
Unsure of how to proceed, Xena's hand hovered just above the sobbing woman's shoulder. Another keening wail tore from the young woman's throat and pierced the silence. Xena's hand gently dropped onto the shaking shoulder and rubbed small circles.
“Gabrielle?” Xena said in a gentle tone, as she lightly squeezed the bony shoulder. Her eyes took in the oversized clothing and she made a mental note to ask Agatha about it later. “Gabrielle, come on.” She squeezed the shoulder a bit more firmly and pulled a little, trying to get Gabrielle to acknowledge her. “You need to stop this carrying on, Gabrielle,” she said in a firmer tone. “You're scaring everyone, including me.”
A loud sniffle greeted her words. Xena moved the hair away from Gabrielle's face and noticed the teary green eyes staring blankly at nothing.
“She's…gone,” the words were whispered so softly that even Xena's acute hearing barely picked them up. Another sniff followed and more tears slid from Gabrielle's eyes.
“Who?” Xena asked, as she gently stroked Gabrielle's cheek below the purple bruise.
“Lila,” Gabrielle's voice squeaked slightly, as another sob followed the single word.
“Your sister?” Xena clarified.
A tentative nod was her answer, as the tears continued to soak the cloth Gabrielle had her face buried in.
“Were you close?” Xena continued, trying to breach the wall of grief the woman had erected.
When more sobs wracked the young woman's small frame, Xena decided to take matters into her own hands. She unceremoniously lifted Gabrielle into her arms and held her close to her chest. The blond head burrowed into the silk covering Xena's chest and surprisingly strong arms wrapped around her waist. Xena waited for Gabrielle to find a comfortable spot and then wrapped her own arms around the woman. She let the woman cry for another quarter candlemark, before she'd had enough.
Pushing Gabrielle up into a seated position, Xena gave the teary-eyed woman a stern look. “Stop,” she ordered in her best command voice, then gentled her expression to soften the blow. “You need to stop carrying on like this or you'll make yourself sick.”
Gabrielle sniffed and tried to wipe the tears from her cheeks. All she ended up doing, however, was smeared tears and dirt until her face was streaked with both. “Sorry,” she said, as hiccups followed.
Xena grabbed the discarded cloth left over from Gabrielle's fever and dipped it in the bowl of water still sitting on the nightstand. She gingerly wiped the tears and grime away, careful not to press on the bruised area on Gabrielle's right cheek.
“Better?” She asked, as she finished her ministrations.
“Yes,” Gabrielle ducked her head, unable to meet those curious blue eyes. “Thank you.”
“Don't mention it,” Xena shrugged, as she tossed the cloth back into the bowl with perfect precision.
Gabrielle sat up a little straighter, even though she didn't quite vacate the lap she was perched on. She glanced at the white shirt and noticed the large wet stain there. “I got you all wet.”
Xena glanced down at her shirt. “No big deal,” she picked at the tear stained, pulling it away from her skin so it had a chance to dry. “At least it's not blood,” she gave the spot a final tug and glanced up. She almost missed the wide-eyed look her companion shot her, before Gabrielle quickly looked away. “Sorry, I didn't mean that like it sounded.”
“It's…it's okay,” Gabrielle stifled the sob that threatened to send her into another fit of tears. She sniffed loudly, instead.
“Here,” Xena reached out, grabbed the towel and put it up to her companion's nose. “Blow,” she ordered in no uncertain terms. “Again,” she added when Gabrielle did as ordered. “Better?” A silent nod was her answer. “Good.” Xena shifted Gabrielle until her feet were on the floor, then helped her to her feet. “Time to put all this crying away, for now. It's a beautiful day and we both have work to do.”
Gabrielle adjusted her skirt and righted her hair. “I'm sorry if I pulled you away from something important,” Gabrielle kept her eyes on the floor at her feet as she spoke. “I don't want you to get into trouble because of me.”
Gabrielle's words tugged at Xena's heartstrings. She reached out, placed her fingers under Gabrielle's chin and lifted it until their eyes met. “I won't get into trouble, Gabrielle. You don't need to worry about that. I'm just glad I was here for you when you needed me.” She suddenly realized what she was saying and snapped her mouth shut.
Gabrielle felt drawn to the taller woman and couldn't seem to help herself, as she moved back into the woman's arms. She felt the strong arms wrap around her in a comforting hug, as she held on for dear life. In the back of her mind, Gabrielle realized they fit perfectly together, as if they were made for each other. Xena's chin rested on top of Gabrielle's head, as the shorter woman leaned in even closer, until their entire bodies were practically melded together.
“I wish we could stay like this forever,” Gabrielle muttered into Xena's chest. “It feels so right.”
“Gabrielle,” Xena pulled back enough to give them both a little distance. “There's something…um…”
Gabrielle searched Xena's features, as the taller woman seemed to struggle with what she was trying to say. “What is it, Xena?”
Xena ran a hand through her hair and blew out a frustrated breath, as she broke contact with the smaller woman. Gabrielle's mere presence was playing havoc with more than just her senses. The smaller woman seemed to stir feelings—deeply hidden feelings—that Xena hadn't explored in a really long time.
“Gabrielle,” Xena held up a staying hand as Gabrielle started to move closer again. “Just…Please…” She couldn't keep the unexpected pleading from her voice, as she migrated towards the open door. “I can't…We can't…” She swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat. “You don't know what you're doing.” She finally managed to complete a coherent thought. “This can't happen. I won't let it happen. No way.”
“Why not?” Gabrielle said in a small voice full of pain and disappointment. “Xena?” She watched the retreating woman as Xena backed out the doorway. “I know it's not normal, but…”
“Normal?” Xena stopped halfway out the door. “You don't know the half of it, Gabrielle. You've no idea what you're getting yourself into.” She shook her head. “You don't even know me.”
Gabrielle closed the distance between them. “My heart knows you, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “And hearts don't lie.”
Xena stepped into the hallway and backed right into the stone wall on the other side. “It doesn't matter what your heart is telling you,” Xena said, as she scooted over to the stairs. “I'm not the person you think I am.” And with that she hurried up the stairs and out of sight.
Gabrielle just stood there in the doorway for a few moments, trying to calm her racing heart and come to terms with all that had happened already that day. She remembered everything. The memories were so painful that she consciously pushed them to the very back of her mind.
There was time enough later to dwell on everything that had happened to her in such a short time. Had it only been two days since that monster took Lila from her? Had it only been two days since her home was burned to the ground and everyone she knew was gone?
Squaring her shoulders and wincing slightly when her left one protested the movement, Gabrielle made up her mind to face whatever fate awaited her. She mounted the stairs, tentatively at first, and then with more confidence. The sounds of bustling activity greeted her, as she emerged from the staircase into another hallway. She glanced one way and then the other, then decided to follow the enticing aroma of food.
“Ahhh!!!” Agatha raised flour-covered arms in the air in greeting, as Gabrielle peeked her head inside the noisy kitchen. “You finally made it, child!” The woman engulfed a surprised Gabrielle in a brief hug, then stepped back to look her over from head to toe. “Maida!!!”
“Yes, Aggie,” Maida appeared at the woman's shoulder and smiled warmly at Gabrielle.
“Ach!” The older woman exclaimed with a startled jump. “Just don't stand there gawking at the child. Get her somethin' to eat. There's work to be done.” She tempered her words with a quick wink in Gabrielle's direction. “Eat quickly, child. I have just the job for you today.”
A bowl of steaming porridge with a glob of butter and some brown sugar was handed to her by a beaming Maida, who waved her over to a small table beneath an even smaller window.
“Ye can eat yer breakfast over there, out of the way,” Maida said with a sly wink. “Give ye a chance ta get yer bearings before we put ye to work.”
Gabrielle carried the bowl to the table and sat down. She quickly downed the tasty treat and followed it up with a large mug of fresh milk that Maida silently set in front of her. She watched the bustling activity around her in open amazement, wondering how the many servants managed to keep from running into each other. Two young boys manned the spits over the cooking fires and steadily turned the meat with practiced ease. Grease from the roasting meat mixed with the sweat on their faces, giving them a strange, otherworldly glow.
There were several women her age who were working tirelessly in a number of different activities. Some stirred enormous steaming pots set over open flames, while others kneaded small loaves of dough for bread, rolls and baguettes. Several were sitting at the big tables with mounds of fresh vegetables piled in front of them and were quietly talking amongst themselves as they peeled and sliced. They wore relaxed smiles and even chuckled occasionally.
Agatha seemed to be the one in charge of everything and bustled about, issuing orders and waving her arms animatedly. She barely sat still for a moment, before someone approached to ask a question, and then she was off and running again.
Several men hauled wooden boxes overflowing with squawking chickens, fresh vegetables, bread and other items and still no one ran into each other. It was like a well-choreographed dance that played out in front of her. Before she knew it, Gabrielle had finished the last bite of her breakfast.
“Ye ready?” Maida was right there the instant Gabrielle set her mug back down on the table. “I'm the lucky one who gets to show ye around the place and get ye acquainted with what goes on here. Come on, let's get to it before Aggie gets her knickers in a twist and starts yelling at us both.”
Gabrielle glanced at her empty bowl and mug as she stood up. “Do these go somewhere?”
“Bring ‘em with,” Maida called over her shoulder, as she started walking away.
Gabrielle quickly gathered up the dishes and followed the redhead, who ducked around a corner of the kitchen and disappeared from site. As Gabrielle turned the corner, she nearly collided with a young man carrying three large boxes piled in front of his face.
“Oh, excuse me,” Gabrielle quickly jumped out of the way.
“Sorry,” he called over his shoulder, as he barreled on by her. “Gotta get these to Aggie before she boxes my ears for making her wait.”
Startled out of her reverie, Gabrielle quickly hurried after Maida, who was impatiently waiting for her on the far side of the vast room.
“Set the dishes in here,” the redhead pointed at a large wash tub full of soapy water. “Trika and Besine will see to them when they're finished with their other chores.”
Gabrielle set the dishes in the wash bucket and followed Maida, into another section of the kitchen. Eyes full of wonder at all the plucked chickens and other poultry hanging from the ceiling by giant hooks, she almost missed the young man sitting in one corner. He was surrounded by plucked chickens, mounds of feathers and dead birds that had yet to be plucked and still sported their colorful plumage.
“That's Nick,” Maida hurried through the room without pause. She plucked several stray feathers from her hair and tossed them away, as she ducked through another doorway. “I don't think I have to explain his job here.”
“This place is enormous,” Gabrielle commented, as they passed through yet another room, this one full of crates, barrels and boxes of dry goods. “Is there anything other than the kitchens on this level?”
Maida shot a smirk over her shoulder. “Kitchens, main hall, throne room, steward's office and our Lord Conqueror's quarters.”
Gabrielle couldn't stop the anger that arose at the mere mention of the monster she now served. She wondered if she would ever have any dealings with the woman, then shrugged it off. The likelihood that the Conqueror would even acknowledge someone from her lowly upbringing was slim to none.
They ducked through one last doorway and Maida came to a sudden stop. Gabrielle barely kept from plowing into the woman, as Maida spun to face her.
“This is where you'll be working today,” the redhead gave her an apologetic half-smile. “I know it isn't the most glamorous job in the keep, but it has to be done.”
Green eyes scanned the huge piles of unpeeled potatoes, carrots, turnips and other vegetables, before Gabrielle met Maida's expectant gaze. “Exactly what am I going to be doing in here?”
Maida indicated a bucket filled with water and picked up a small knife. She handed the knife, handle first, to Gabrielle. “Wash, peel and sort,” she said, as Gabrielle took the small blade. “There's a well just outside that door and baskets in the other room that you can fill with the finished items. Someone will come to fetch you for the evening meal. Help yourself to as much water as you need. You'll find a ladle next to the well that you can fill for that purpose.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Thank you, Maida,” she said with a shy smile. “For yesterday, too. I really enjoyed the time you spent with me.”
Maida took Gabrielle's free hand in hers. “It's good to have friends around here, Gabrielle. I'm just glad I can now count you as one of them.”
Before Gabrielle could respond, Maida left her to her work. Turning a quick circle, she spotted a small stool tucked in one corner of the room and set it in front of the pile of potatoes as tall as she was.
As she sat down to work, she spared a brief moment in wonder at all the food that was being prepared there. It fairly amazed her to see so much bounty in one place. There was enough food to feed the people of Potidea for years. Yet they'd all gone hungry more often than not. She and Lila had gone many a night without food in their bellies.
Her mood sobered, as she realized whose food she was preparing. She tried not to think about the woman who had changed her life forever. Conqueror of the Known World. The title said it all. And conquer she had. Potidea didn't stand a chance against the army of men who marched in and torched everything. A tear slid down one cheek unnoticed, as Gabrielle practically scrubbed the peel off the large potato in her hand.
Candlemarks passed, as she let the monotony of her task lull her into a routine and soon she was looking at neat baskets full of clean and peeled vegetables. The potato mound and most of the carrots were done. She hadn't yet started on the onions and really wasn't looking forward to those. Her hands were blistered and raw, especially her right hand that she held the knife in.
Gabrielle imagined where the sun was in the sky at that moment, as she tossed another peeled and trimmed carrot into a nearly-full basket. Her shoulder ached unmercifully from the strain of hunching on the small stool. Her back also hurt from lugging bucket after bucket of water in and out the small door on the other side of the room she was in. Those were the moments she savored, when she could stand next to the well for a moment and bask in the warm sunshine, even if only for a few stolen moments.
Gabrielle felt the chill of the stone seeping into her very bones and longed to be out in the sun just one last time that day. She picked up the bucket of dirty water and stumbled toward the door. As she reached the door, she collided with a body that plowed right into her. Gabrielle couldn't keep hold of the bucket and dropped it on the floor at her feet, splashing dirty water on her already-grungy skirt.
“Watchit, ya clumsy oaf!” A mousy blond, with hips as wide as the doorway, shouted. “What's the matter with ya? Are ya blind? And look at my hem! Ya spilled yer slop on it!”
Gabrielle just kept her head down, as she reached down to pick up the bucket. But the woman wasn't to be deterred. She gave Gabrielle's injured shoulder a hard shove that elicited a cry of pain from the smaller woman.
“Look at me when I'm talkin' to ya, little girl,” the woman badgered her.
“I-I'm sorry,” Gabrielle forgot the bucket and held her throbbing shoulder, instead.
The woman crossed her arms over her ample bosom and just glared. “I've a mind ta teach ya a lesson ya won't soon forget, little girl,” the woman shoved Gabrielle into the stone wall behind her hard enough to elicit another cry of pain. “Never seen ya around here before. Ya must be new.”
“Please,” Gabrielle said in a soft voice and couldn't help the tears that slid down her cheeks. A sharp pain now shot through her shoulder and she bit her lip to keep from crying out again. Her eyes met the woman's and she knew she was dealing with a bully. “I don't want any trouble. Just let me finish working and I won't get in your way. I promise.”
The woman uncrossed her arms and set her hands on her wide hips, taking a step toward Gabrielle. She leaned in close, as if to speak, but approaching footsteps on the stone floor behind her had her beating a hasty retreat. Gabrielle watched the woman duck through a small side door just before Maida came hurrying through the door from the main kitchens.
One look at Gabrielle's tear-streaked face and the pain in the smaller woman's eyes brought Maida up short. “Gabrielle?” The woman was by her side in an instant. “What happened? Are you all right? Are you hurt?” She glanced down at the bucket that the other woman had kicked over and back up into Gabrielle's eyes. “Tell me what's going on.”
Gabrielle mustered her courage and breathed out a shaky breath. The confrontation with the other woman had brought back so many painful memories that she just didn't know how to deal with it all. But, more than that, her shoulder was screaming in agony. She didn't know what the woman had actually done to her, but something definitely wasn't right.
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle got out between clenched teeth and tried not to move her injured shoulder. “I just dropped the bucket. I guess I'm just a little tired is all—clumsy.”
Maida reached down and picked up the bucket, setting it back inside the small room behind Gabrielle. “Well, that's not so bad. I came to fetch you for the evening meal,” she said, as she put a hand in the small of Gabrielle's back and guided her toward the main kitchen. “Truth be told, I saw Nora heading this way and realized we'd left you back here all by yourself. I thought maybe she was coming to find you and cause trouble.”
“Nora?” Gabrielle played dumb, as the searing pain in her shoulder slowly tapered down to a dull, painful and incessant throbbing.
“Yeah,” Maida snorted. “Mousy brown hair, beady black eyes and hips as wide as a pickle barrel turned on its side.” She snickered. “Believe me, if ye'd run into her ye'd know it. She's a troublemaker and loves to pick on people who are smaller than she is. A bully, through and through, she is. Ye'd do best to steer clear of the likes of her, let me tell ye.”
They moved fairly quickly through the maze of rooms they'd navigated just that morning, until they were once again in the main kitchen. The warmth from the ovens and fires hit Gabrielle like a warm blanket, until she realized they weren't stopping there. She kept her left arm tucked firmly against her side and gritted her teeth against the throbbing pain, as they passed through another maze of corridors and out into the open air of early evening.
Torches burned in iron sconces high above and lit their way along a stone path towards another building. Maida opened a heavy wooden door and motioned for Gabrielle to proceed her. Maida pulled the heavy door closed behind her and took the lead again. They moved down another corridor and emerged in a large open room.
Gabrielle pulled up short when she realized she was in an eating hall full of people. The place was rather noisy, as food was passed between two long tables filled with people in a variety of serviceable peasant wear. Men sat at one table, while the women occupied the other. Everyone seemed to be in good humor as they shared the evening meal.
Maida found space enough for the two of them at the women's table and motioned for Gabrielle to sit. They just happened to be on the end of the table, so Gabrielle sat on the very end with her shoulder away from Maida. She didn't want the woman to accidently bump her during the meal. There was time enough later to bask in her misery.
She looked up and found two pairs of curious blue eyes staring at her from across the table. Two toe-headed girls smiled warmly at her and Gabrielle returned the smiles with a warm one of her own.
“I'm Gabrielle,” she said in greeting and waited for the girls to tell her their names. When all they did was giggle and exchange glances, Gabrielle couldn't help but chuckle at their antics.
“Trika, Besine, don't be rude,” Maida chided the girls and earned twin pouts of apology. “They came to the castle when they were little girls,” Maida explained to Gabrielle. “But they're hard workers and do a fair share of the menial work around the kitchens, including the dishes.”
“We like it here,” one toe-headed girl with a slight lisp said. “I'm Trika and she's Besine. It's hard to tell us apart, but I'm sure Gabrielle will learn the difference between us soon enough.” She gave the woman in question a shy smile and shoveled a generous spoonful of stew into her mouth.
Besine elbowed her sister in the ribs and earned an elbow in return.
“Besine thinks you're pretty,” Trika interpreted her sister's silent message perfectly.
Gabrielle glanced at Maida for an explanation, as the woman handed her a bowl full of steaming stew. Huge chunks of potatoes, carrots and meat sat in a brown sauce that smelled divine. Gabrielle's mouth was watering in anticipation of her first bite. Her stomach growled loudly and she ducked her head in embarrassment.
“They're twins, if you haven't noticed,” Maida said with a teasing gleam. “Identical in every way, except one. Besine was born a mute. She can hear everything that's said, but she can't speak a word. Their mother couldn't feed them anymore, so she brought them here to work for their keep. They were ten when they came to us.”
“We'll be thirteen this coming winter,” Trika piped up proudly. “Our Lord Conqueror promised us a grand birthday celebration just before Solstice.”
“The Conqueror always has a grand birthday celebration before Solstice,” Maida added. “That's when our Lord Conqueror celebrates her birthday.”
“Yes, but this year she said she would let us sit with her at the head table,” Trika added and smiled at her silent twin. “We've never gotten the chance to sit at the head table before.”
Maida snorted. “No one but our Lord Conqueror and her honored guests are allowed to sit at the head table.”
“Well, you just wait and see,” Trika said, with only a bit less enthusiasm than before. She and her sister finished their meal with their heads together, as they carried on a one-sided conversation and ate their stew.
Maida just shrugged as she cut a thick slice of brown bread and handed it to Gabrielle. She also passed her a jar filled to overflowing with warm butter.
Gabrielle glanced longingly at the jar of creamy butter, but couldn't figure out a way to spread it on her bread without moving her left arm. The pain had subsided to a dull ache that was more manageable than it was earlier, but she still didn't want to risk moving the arm, just the same. The sharp pain she'd experienced when Nora had pushed her into the wall had been so intense that she'd almost blacked out from it. She certainly didn't want that to happen again, especially not in a room full of people she didn't know.
“Is something wrong?” Maida's question penetrated her reverie and brought her back to the task at hand.
“No, why?” Gabrielle answered with a firm shake of her head.
“Because you look like a child who was just denied her favorite sweet,” Maida smirked. “Lighten up, will ya? The day's work is done and now we get to relax for a while, before we all head off to our beds and start all over again in the mornin'.”
Gabrielle dug into her stew with gusto and dipped her bread into the spicy brown sauce, rather than slather it in butter. She quickly finished off her first bowl and asked Maida to fill it again. As she slowly ate her second helping, she listened to the scattered conversation around the room and watched as men and women alike shared some down time together. When the men had eaten their fill, several of them pulled long pipes from their tunics and lit them, enjoying another pint or two of mead while they smoked and talked among themselves.
It wasn't long before music filled the room, when someone produced a lyre and someone else a small drum. The tables were moved and stacked against one wall, while the benches lined the other three. Dancers were soon spinning jauntily around the open space, as the music continued and people clapped to the steady beat of the small drum.
Gabrielle watched from one of the benches, as Maida joined a group of female dancers and swung around the floor to the jaunty song. The lyre and drum were soon joined by a small piper, who trilled a merry tune and had the entire gathering on its feet and clapping. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to kick up her heels and join the dancers, but decided against it. Besides, she wouldn't have been able to do the arm grabs that the women were doing, as they spun around the floor with enthusiasm.
Someone sat down beside her. She glanced over and realized it was the young man from the poultry room smiling next to her. She returned his smile, but waved him off when he offered to take her arm and escort her to the floor to dance.
“I really can't—Nick is it?” She received a quick nod and saw that his expression mirrored his disappointment. “I'm sorry, but I'm very tired tonight.” She explained, hoping he would do more than nod. He didn't. “My name is Gabrielle, by the way.” He just continued to smile and nod, so she returned her attention to the dancers.
The song finally ended and Maida returned to Gabrielle. She was winded from her exertions and plopped down right next to the smaller woman. She then draped an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders and completely missed the pain that flashed in the smaller woman's eyes.
“That…was…fun!” Maida panted and squeezed her smaller companion's shoulder, pulling it toward her without noticing the tears that sprang to Gabrielle's eyes. “You should come out on the floor for the next song, lass! Let your hair down and have some fun.”
It was all Gabrielle could do not to scream out in agony when Maida grabbed her shoulder. The pain was so intense that she sucked in a breath and held it until she saw stars. She let the breath out slowly, but that did nothing to ease the stabbing agony in her shoulder. Her only saving grace was when Maida jumped up at the next song and resumed dancing with the rest of the revelers.
Gabrielle didn't wait for her friend's return. She merely bolted for what she hoped was the exit. She found herself in a deserted hallway that was completely unfamiliar. She let the door close and then just stood there leaning against the wall behind her, as she let the tears course down her cheeks. She held her arm against her body, but that did nothing to stop the pain. It was excruciating and she could barely stand it anymore. She let herself sink down until she was seated on the hard, cold stone floor. And still she cried silently.
She felt so forlorn and alone, as the tears continued to coarse down her cheeks. She had no idea how to get back to the kitchens, much less if she was still supposed to sleep in the room she had slept in the previous night. The room was a private one and not for a simple servant like her. But she also had no idea where the common sleeping quarters were.
As the tears finally subsided, Gabrielle looked up and down the narrow corridor. She glanced at one of the torches and noticed that it fluttered a bit. She decided to try to find her way outside, at least. Maybe then she could find her way back to the kitchens. It took a great deal of effort for her to regain her feet. Holding her arm against her body with her good hand, Gabrielle made her way down the corridor.
She passed several closed doors, but none appeared to lead outside. A slight turn to the left revealed a wider corridor and several windows. The windows were set high up on a wall, so she had no way of looking out. But she eventually came to a door in the same wall and realized it must lead outside.
Gabrielle was relieved to find that it actually was an outside door. She stepped out into the cool night air and inhaled deeply. She could smell horses, which she hadn't smelled when she and Maida had crossed from the keep into the building she was now leaving. She peered around the side of the building and saw that the stables were directly across from her.
A tired smile lit her features, as she realized the stables were where Xena worked. Gabrielle wracked her brain to remember if she'd seen the dark-haired woman during the meal and realized she hadn't. She thought maybe Xena was working late and decided to check and see.
She crossed the wide dirt road by the light of a few strategically placed torches and pushed the stable door open just wide enough for her to slip through. The place was much warmer than her small work room at the keep. She heard several snorts and one low whinny, as she saw several equine heads pop up in unison. Each stall was separated by a half-wall, so the horses could see each other. And there was golden hay everywhere. A ladder next to her caught her attention. She looked up and noticed a hayloft above her, as she walked farther into the quiet building.
The horses were contentedly munching their evening meal and soon didn't give her a passing glance. She silently walked from one end of the building to the other, but found no one there except the horses. One stall was set apart from the rest and housed a rather large black stallion that Gabrielle remembered vividly. He was the same horse the Conqueror rode when she arrived in Potidea that fateful day.
Gabrielle walked over to the stall and rested her good arm on top of the half-wall. She studied the sleek black coat and polished black hooves of the giant beast, as he munched a flake of green alfalfa. He lifted his head and turned one dark eye toward her, seemingly studying her for a long moment, before he slowly made his way over to her.
He snorted softly, approached the low wall and then put his head near hers. She put her hand near his nose and let him familiarize himself with her scent. When he pressed his nose closer to her, she reached up and scratched behind his ears.
“You're a good boy, aren't you? Yes, you are,” she said, as she gave the ear she could reach a good scratch and then caressed his warm cheek. She leaned her head against his and reveled in the connection she felt to the huge beast. “You're also very handsome. Do you know that?” He snorted out a warm breath. “You're nothing like her, are you?” He nibbled at her hair and nuzzled her arm affectionately. “No, you're a good boy.” He nodded his head and then slowly sauntered over to finish his evening meal. “You have a nice, warm bed there, boy. I wonder—”
Sensing that he would never knowingly hurt her and still reveling in that connection, Gabrielle slipped into his stall and lay down in one corner. He barely glanced her way, as she curled up in a ball and fell fast asleep in the dry, warm straw. She wasn't even aware when he finished his meal and gingerly lay down next to her, sensing her need for added warmth and instinctively providing what she needed.
Xena was sick and tired of the noise, the constant peacocking of the nobles and others who thought they could impress her with their lofty speeches and their endless blathering. She ducked away from the evening meal as quickly as Traecus would allow. After changing into her everyday clothes, she decided a long ride in the crisp evening air was in order.
She strode the short to the distance to the stables and only paused for a moment when she heard the music and revelry coming from the servants' quarters. Her thoughts turned to a certain short blond with green eyes and she wondered if Gabrielle was enjoying the nightly revelry that capped off an otherwise hard day's work for the servants who took care of the keep. She'd thought to ask Agatha how Gabrielle was getting along.
As a matter of fact, she'd tried to do that a number of times during the course of the day. But each time she headed toward the kitchens to find the older woman, one of her advisors caught her and needed her for something. The menial tasks they piled on her kept her busy, until she finally had to head to her rooms to change for dinner. When it was time for the evening meal, she'd almost made her excuses so she could finally get the report she actually cared about.
But, alas, the arrival of one of the outlying dignitaries and his retinue squashed that plan before it could come to fruition. She eventually found herself sitting next to the blowhard for far longer than was truly necessary. He drank more than his share of her finest port and rambled on and on about the troops she needed to send with him. Apparently, his own militia was incapable of taking care of a band of raiders who were robbing and pillaging the outlying villages.
At the first opportunity, Xena found the moment she'd been waiting for and slipped silently away. She didn't even think he noticed her absence. When she spared a brief glance back over her shoulder, she noticed he had turned his conversation on one of the sniveling nobles she couldn't stand. She passed through her hidden door with a smug smile on her lips and made it to her rooms without seeing anyone in the private hallway she often used.
Xena entered the stables and was greeted by a cacophony of whinnies and snorts—the sweetest sound she'd heard all day, she mused. All the horses lifted their heads and eyed her curiously, before they settled again.
“Glad to see you, too,” Xena called to them, as she strode toward her destination.
The first thing she noticed when she approached the stall that was strategically set apart from the rest was that she could only see the top of her horse's head. That was strange and brought a chill of foreboding. She crossed the remaining distance in three quick strides and peered over the stall wall—only to stare in silent shock at the sight that greeted her.
Her horse wasn't ill or injured. He was sitting next to a small sleeping figure that Xena recognized immediately. She looked at her horse in confusion.
“What the—” She blurted and got a loud snort in response. “What are you doing down there, boy?” For answer, he tossed his head and then turned it, as if to point his nose to the young woman curled up against his side. “Yeah, I see her there. What I want to know is why you let her fall asleep in there with you? Huh? You don't like anyone but me. You bite the stable boys and kick anyone who tries to approach you—everyone but me.”
She cautiously opened the stall gate and moved inside, careful not to startle him. He was a fully-trained warhorse, for crying out loud. He wasn't a pet. It irked her that the small woman could so easily win him over in such a short time. What had Gabrielle done to earn his trust enough that he would let her sleep inside his stall? And the mere idea that he would lay down next to her, as if watching over her, well…
Xena produced an apple from beneath her tunic and gave it to him. While he munched, she moved to Gabrielle's side and tried to roust the sleeping woman. Gabrielle didn't move. So, Xena shook Gabrielle's shoulder a bit more enthusiastically. She didn't quite get the reaction she was shooting for.
Gabrielle shot upright with a scream of pain so loud that it startled the warhorse behind her. The big black darted to his feet and moved to the other side of his stall, while Xena just knelt there in stunned silence.
“By the gods!” Gabrielle exclaimed. She grabbed her injured shoulder and just sat there holding it for a time, as she rocked back and forth in an effort to get the searing pain under control.
“What is it?” Xena finally found her voice again, as she noticed silent tears coursing down the woman's cheeks. “What did I do?”
Gabrielle shook her head and tried to speak, but couldn't get past the pain. She wanted to curl back into a ball and escape again, but the woman staring expectantly at her was watching her expectantly.
“Talk to me, Gabrielle,” Xena tried to grab for the woman's arms and steady her, but Gabrielle quickly scooted away before she could touch her.
The wide-eyed look and the skittish movements were almost like those of an injured animal, Xena realized. There was obviously something wrong.
“Please…” Gabrielle hissed. “Don't…”
Xena sat there, wracking her brain for what could be causing the woman such excruciating pain. Then it dawned on her.
“Your shoulder?” Xena finally asked. “Is that what's bothering you?” A quick nod of the blond head was her answer. “Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't know it was bothering you again.” She looked into Gabrielle's eyes and saw the blinding pain reflected in their green depths. “It's that bad?”
Gabrielle nodded again, as she bit down hard on her lip to keep from crying out. She could feel the pain easing just enough that it wasn't turning her stomach anymore. But it still felt like a red-hot poker was jabbing into her shoulder. She felt icy beads of sweat break out on her brow and tried to calm her erratic breathing and still her racing heart. But nothing seemed to work.
“Did you aggravate it while you were working today?” Xena prodded, trying to get Gabrielle's mind off the pain.
Gabrielle shook her head.
“So, it was fine while you were working in the kitchens?”
A single nod.
“Then how did you aggravate it?” Xena prodded. “What happened?”
“I…um…fell,” Gabrielle lied. “I spilled some water on the floor, didn't see it and…slipped.”
Xena wasn't buying the story, especially since Gabrielle wouldn't meet her gaze. “You fell,” she stated flatly.
“Yes,” Gabrielle said, then muttered, “I'm just clumsy like that.”
“I don't buy it,” Xena shot back with an angry glare. “Who are you protecting, Gabrielle? Who did this to you?”
“No one,” Gabrielle shook her head adamantly. “I fell. It's as simple as that, Xena.”
Xena just sighed in resignation when she realized Gabrielle wasn't going to say any more. “We need to get you back to the keep, so I can take a look at your shoulder and see if there's something I can do for it. Agatha might also have some healing herbs that will dull the pain and help you sleep. Do you think you can walk, at least?”
“I think so,” Gabrielle replied, as Xena put a hand under her good arm and helped her to her feet.
The taller woman guided the shorter out of the stables and into the silence of the evening. They walked around the side of the servant's quarters and continued on until they reached the imposing keep.
“Can I ask you something?” Xena broke the silence. “And I want a straight answer.”
“Go ahead,” Gabrielle said.
“What were you doing sleeping in the stall with the Conqueror's horse?”
“He's nice. I trust him,” Gabrielle answered and then turned her head to look at the taller woman. “He's a lot like you. The same dark coloring hides a warm and caring soul beneath.”
Xena thought about that for a moment, as they neared a small door. Her soul certainly wasn't warm and there were only a handful of people she actually cared about. If anything, her dark hair only added another layer to the darkness in her soul.
“That still doesn't explain why you were sleeping in the stables,” Xena prodded, as she opened the door and held it for Gabrielle to enter.
Gabrielle stepped inside the dim interior and felt the warmth wrap around her like a welcome friend. She glanced around the deserted place and noticed how clean and orderly it was. Had it been like this when she and Maida had passed through only a few candlemarks ago? She didn't really remember.
“Stay here. I'll be right back,” Xena said and ducked down a narrow hallway.
Gabrielle went over to the small table in the corner where she'd eaten breakfast—had it only been that morning? Holding her arm securely to her side, she gingerly sat down to await Xena's return. A glance out the small window showed her very little. It was dark outside and the window wasn't exactly spotless. A torch burned somewhere nearby, casting flickering light on the window and throwing everything else in shadow.
She compared that to her life. There were some light spots that flickered in her life—Agatha, Maida, Xena and now the Conqueror's big black horse. They all seemed to care enough about her to be there when she needed them. But the darkness almost overshadowed the light. Nora. The Conqueror. Her sister's death. Her beating at The Conqueror's hand. Her injured shoulder. Potidea. The loss of her home. Her parents' deaths. Perdicus. All of it weighed so heavily on her heart that it nearly overshadowed the few stolen moments of happiness she'd experienced.
Footsteps on the worn stone brought Gabrielle's attention back to the matter at hand. She didn't know what Xena planned to do for her shoulder and hoped it wouldn't hurt more than the throbbing appendage already did. She noticed that the fingers on her left hand had gone numb and she wondered if it had something to do with the pain in her shoulder. She hoped not.
Xena and Agatha arrived in the kitchen a moment later. The older woman was dressed in her night clothes and appeared to have been sleeping. Gabrielle noticed that she was a bit bleary-eyed and her hair hung down her back in a single braid. Agatha also carried a small pile of folded cloths that she set down on one of the chopping tables.
“Come over here, Gabrielle,” Xena ordered, as Agatha moved to one of the cooking fires, stirred it with a poker, added a few pieces of wood until it blazed back to life and disappeared with one of the cast-iron kettles.
Gabrielle walked over to stand in front of Xena. The taller woman grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her up onto the table before she could protest. She couldn't help the cry of pain that the movement elicited and merely gritted her teeth until it subsided. She didn't even realize she'd closed her eyes, until she opened them and found Xena's concerned features studying her own.
“Still want to protect the person who did this?” Xena growled in a menacing tone that sent a shiver down Gabrielle's back. “I know you didn't slip and fall, Gabrielle.”
In answer, Gabrielle merely looked away. She was relieved when Agatha came bustling back into the room with the kettle and some small packages in her arms. The imposing dark-haired woman turned her attention away from Gabrielle and walked over to the older woman.
“I'm going to need to reset her shoulder,” Xena said quietly, as she approached Agatha. “I think whoever did this may have dislocated it.” Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who was silently listening to the exchange. “I also don't think it was one of the men.”
A gray brow rose in question. “Why do you say that?”
“Because she isn't lying unconscious where the attack occurred,” Xena stated. “Whoever it was wasn't strong enough to completely pull the arm from the socket.”
“Ah,” Agatha nodded, as she added a combination of herbs to a cup from the various packages she set on the table next to Gabrielle. She glanced up from her work and met Gabrielle's gaze and could see the pain in the young woman's eyes. “Don't worry, child. We have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.” She shot the taller woman a wry half-smile. “Don't we?”
Xena watched closely to see which herbs Agatha was using. She knew a great deal about herbs, too. They both did. Agatha's experience was mostly from her vast years as a cook for one of the defeated warlords, while Xena's came from her years as the leader of an army. Both roles were equally important, but their approaches were vastly different, sometimes.
“Are you sure you want to put so much of that one in her tea?” Xena commented, as Agatha added more crushed poppy to the cup. “I need her fairly lucid when I set her shoulder. And did I see you add valerian and periwinkle to the cup?”
Agatha put her hands on her hips and glared at the taller woman. “Are ye questioning my knowledge of the herbal remedies?”
Xena caught the glare out of the corner of her eye and kept her expression neutral. “No ma'am.”
“Ach!!! As if,” Agatha scoffed, as she walked over to the kettle, lifted it off its hook and carried it to the table. She poured the steaming water into the cup and stirred. “When ye've lived as long as I have, ye pick up a few things.” She winked at Gabrielle and handed her the steaming tea. “Let that steep for a few minutes before ye drink it, child. Then make sure ye finish it to the last drop.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Gabrielle smirked, as she used Xena's teasing response.
Agatha glanced from one woman to the other and just shook her head. “I can see ye two are peas in a pod,” she huffed in feigned exasperation. “Thought I had my hands full enough with just you,” she pointed a wrinkled finger at Xena's chest. “Now ye had to throw this one into the mix? What? Ye didn't think I had enough to take care of already in my old age? I practically run this entire keep single-handedly and don't have quite enough responsibility already?”
“Oh, please,” Xena snorted with a soft chuckle. “This place is so efficient that it practically runs itself. There isn't a servant here who isn't scared that you'll bite their head off if they don't do their jobs. You may have them fooled, old woman, but I know you for who you really are. And I'm not so easily taken in by your bravado and bluster. I know you have a soft spot for taking in strays,” she winked at Gabrielle. “You always did, which is why you stayed here all these years. I think you also have a thing for lost causes.”
Agatha playfully slapped the tall woman's arm and Xena feigned an injury to the appendage, as she shot Gabrielle a covert smirk. Gabrielle simply watched the interplay between the two women in rapt fascination.
Their playful banter was so familiar that it reminded her of how she and Lila used to interact together. They loved teasing each other unmercifully and did so whenever they found themselves doing menial tasks together. She missed that and was happy just to be a silent observer to it.
“So?” Xena turned her full attention on Gabrielle. “What do you think?”
“Uh…” Gabrielle looked from one woman to the other for some clue as to what Xena was asking. She hadn't been completely tuned into the conversation and was a bit of a loss for a snappy comeback. “What do I think about what?”
“Agatha,” Xena replied with a raised-brow look. “Shall we keep her around for a while longer? Or should we ask our illustrious Lord Conqueror to send her out to pasture with the other nags?”
“I really don't think…” Gabrielle ducked her head and lowered her eyes, unable to meet the teasing gleams of either woman.
“You're a scamp, ye are,” Agatha slapped Xena's arm again.
“Ouch!” Xena grabbed her arm and feigned further injury. “Watch it, old woman. You know I have the Conqueror's ear. One little whisper and you'll be scrubbing pots and pans for the rest of your days.”
“Bite your tongue, young lady,” Agatha huffed. “We both know our Lord Conqueror has absolutely no interest in the domestic workings of this place. She's more interested in matters of state and clearing the land of those who would oppose her, than she is in who washes the pots and pans.”
“Heads have rolled for far less,” Xena muttered under her breath, as a low growl escaped before she could catch herself and hold it back.
When she looked up, two sets of eyes were watching her—one in triumph and the other in open confusion. She realized what she'd just said and tried to hide the slip behind a conciliatory half-smirk. Agatha wasn't fooled by the slight outburst. But Gabrielle looked as if she'd just seen a ghost.
“Stop scaring the poor child, Xena,” Agatha chided with a soft chuckle. “Impersonating our Lord Conqueror isn't any way to settle her down before we have to fix that shoulder of hers.”
Xena gave the older woman a grateful look, as she met Gabrielle's searching gaze. “Sorry,” she said with a shrug. “It's become a little side project of mine, lately.” She raised a brow at Agatha. “Most of the men in the army certainly get a kick out of it. Some even go along with it and pretend that I really am her, just so they can laugh about it later during the evening meal.” She crossed to the other side of the kitchen and came back with a small leather strap in her hand. “I've even had a few servants bow to me occasionally, because they think I'm her.” Her gaze met Gabrielle's. “It seems that our Lord Conqueror and I share some rather…um…similar traits.”
Agatha turned her back and couldn't help the snort that escaped unbidden. She took the kettle back to the fire and set it on its hook, muttering all the way. Her words were too low for Gabrielle to hear what she said, Xena's acute hearing picked up every word.
“You…You and the Conqueror…” Gabrielle couldn't finish the thought. It was just too painful to think that one of her new friends and her greatest enemy shared anything in common.
“Same eye and hair color,” Xena nodded firmly. “But that's where the similarities end.” She ignored the second snort that came from the general direction of a certain gray-haired woman puttering near a blazing hearth. “I'm a lot better looking, if I do say so myself.” Xena smirked, and just rolled her eyes when another snort greeted her words.
“And certainly much more modest,” Agatha said as she returned to the table. “Although,” she added without looking at either woman. “I think you've been known to match her in temper, from time to time. Didn't I hear tell that ye had quite the outburst just the other day? What was it that prompted that little incident? Hm?”
Xena gritted her teeth, as she hid a sudden flare of the aforementioned temper behind a mask of indifference. “Yes, well, we can't all be as even tempered as you are, now can we?” Her words dripped sarcasm, as her eyes flashed with a teasing gleam. “Aggie, here, is one of the few people I know who remains completely calm and composed, even when the entire world comes crashing down around her.” Xena smirked triumphantly, as her eyes dared the older woman to top that.
“Scamp,” Agatha muttered under her breath.
“Takes one to know one,” Xena returned with a wry grin.
The older woman exhaled slowly, as she let the verbal banter go for the moment. Once she had her composure back, she turned her attention to the woman sitting on the table. She could see that Gabrielle was not one to hide her thoughts and feelings well, as evidenced by the look of utter confusion on the woman's face. She would have to teach the child how to put away what she was thinking and feeling, so others didn't have the chance to use those vulnerabilities against her. But that was a lesson for another time. Right at that moment they had a task to take care of and one that Agatha was not looking forward to.
“It's time to take care of that shoulder,” Agatha sobered. “The tea should be ready. Go ahead and drink it all down, child.”
Gabrielle lifted the still-steaming brew to her lips and wasn't quite prepared for the bitter smell that wafted up from it. She winced and held the cup away from her the instant the odor hit her nose.
“Ugh!” She exclaimed. “It smells awful. I can't drink that.”
Xena grabbed the cup, spared a brief eye roll for Agatha, then carried the cup across the room. When she returned, she handed the cup back to Gabrielle, who hesitantly took it.
“Don't smell, just drink,” Xena ordered in her best commanding voice. “If you don't finish it all, I'll have no choice but to hold your nose and pour it down your throat.”
“Xena!” Agatha shot the taller woman a chiding glare.
Xena didn't acknowledge the woman, as she kept her eyes on Gabrielle's. “Just drink it down.”
Gabrielle swallowed and stared down at the cup in her hand. The brew was a deep brown with small dark flecks floating in the bottom of the cup. The smell didn't seem as bad as it had before, but it still wasn't pleasant. She took a deep breath and held it, then held the cup to her lips and drank it down without stopping. When she finished the last drop and the black flecks started sliding toward her mouth, she held the cup away from her and scrunched her face.
“Blaaaach!!!” She exclaimed, as the bitter aftertaste sat on her tongue like a scratchy blanket.
“Tastes nasty, but does the trick,” Xena commented, as she took the cup and set it on the table. “Now, here's what we're going to do,” she handed Gabrielle the leather strap. “Put that between your teeth and bite down hard. Understand?” A nod greeted her words, as Gabrielle did what she was told. “Agatha is going to hold onto you, while I pull your left arm until it goes back in the socket where it belongs.”
Eyes wide in fear, Gabrielle had to stop herself from jumping off the table and bolting for the nearest exit. “I…” She swallowed down a wave of nausea that washed over her in that moment. “It's going to hurt…”
“Yes, it is,” Xena nodded. “I won't lie. It's going to hurt like nothing you've ever felt before. But when I'm done, that sharp pain in your shoulder will be gone and you'll be able to feel your fingers again,” she watched Gabrielle's eyes widen even more at the words that hit the mark. “You have a pinched nerve, Gabrielle. That's why your fingers are numb and why that sharp pain shoots through your shoulder whenever you move your arm.”
“I've seen this kind of injury a thousand times,” Xena cut her off. “Just bite down on that leather strap and don't fight against me when I start pulling on your arm. And if you feel yourself sinking into unconsciousness, don't fight that either. It's okay to pass out. I've had men twice your size pass out on me within heartbeats of doing this exact thing. Agatha won't let you fall and neither will I. You just have to trust us.” She met Gabrielle's scared gaze with a stern glare. “Do you trust me?”
Gabrielle didn't hesitate and nodded. She then lifted the strap and bit down as hard as she could on the distasteful leather. She felt, rather than saw, Agatha wrap strong arms around her chest, effectively immobilizing her right arm. Eye shut tight in anticipation of the pain she knew was coming, she also felt Xena take her hand in one of hers and put a hand against her shoulder.
Nothing could prepare Gabrielle for what happened next, though. It truly was like nothing she had ever experienced before in her entire life. Xena's movements were swift and precise, as she yanked hard on Gabrielle's arm.
A scream of agony tore from Gabrielle's throat and her eyes opened wide instantly, as she felt the white-hot agony radiate up and down her arm. She tried not to fight against Xena's ministrations, but her body seemed to have a mind of its own. She bit down so hard on the strap in her mouth that she felt her teeth pierce through the hard leather. And then her vision narrowed to a pinprick and she gave into the welcome oblivion that washed over her.
Xena didn't need to see the blond head flop forward to know that Gabrielle was unconscious. She knew the exact instant that Gabrielle passed out, because it was also the same instant that the shoulder suddenly shifted right back into place with a resounding pop. When she was sure the joint was back where it belonged, she glanced up and met Agatha's sad eyes.
“I got it,” she sighed, as she held Gabrielle's arm firmly against her side. “You can let go and help me immobilize her arm with those wraps I asked you to bring with you.”
“Land's sakes!” Agatha breathed out the breath she'd been holding, as she gently eased her hold on the unconscious woman in her arms enough to grab one of the folded wraps and hand it to Xena. “I've never heard a scream so loud in all my years,” her eyes met Xena's. “Not even when we had to set your leg that time you were pinned beneath your horse. If I never live to hear that again, it'll be much too soon.”
Xena stuck a finger in her ear and shook it a bit. “Tell me about it. She certainly has quite the lungs on her,” she added with a smirk, as she carefully went about wrapping Gabrielle's upper arm against her body.
She passed the wrap to Agatha, who lifted the other arm and passed the wrap under Gabrielle's armpit, then handed it back to Xena. They continued until they had Gabrielle's left arm completely immobilized against her chest. When they were done, they surveyed their work and nodded.
“She isn't going to be doing much with her arm all wrapped like that,” Agatha commented with a shake of her head.
“Well, I guess you'll just have to find something else for her to do that only requires the use of one arm,” Xena shrugged.
A gray brow rose, as Agatha glared at the taller woman. “And what might that be?”
“I don't know,” Xena shrugged again, as she gently lifted the unconscious woman into her arms and held her. “What did you have her doing today?”
“She was cleaning and peeling vegetables all day,” Agatha replied. “It's a job that requires both hands, by the by.”
“And not one that requires much imagination,” Xena scowled. “What other jobs are there around here that don't require the use of both hands?” Xena shot the woman a teasing smirk. “Not that I'm really interested in the domesticate aspects of things, mind you. My mind is more geared to matters of state and ridding the land of the occasional snake that crops up.”
“Scamp,” Agatha muttered, as she led the way toward the stairs that descended toward the lower level.
“Yeah, well, you know you love me,” Xena tossed back with a teasing smirk. “Who else would put up with your constant sniping and incessant gossip? I guess that's what family is for.”
Agatha stopped dead at the top of the stairs and nearly had Xena colliding into her. “Is that what we are?”
“What?” Xena asked innocently.
Xena hefted the young woman a little higher in her arms. “Can we continue this discussion later? Despite her size, she's actually much heavier than she looks.”
They descended the stairs in silence. When they reached the bottom landing, Agatha moved into the room they had placed Gabrielle in before. Xena, however, paused in the doorway.
“I thought she was too heavy for ye,” Agatha looked at Xena in question when the woman didn't immediately move farther.
“Someone needs to stay with her tonight—make sure she's okay and doesn't accidently roll over on her arm,” Xena said as she took in the narrow bed and the small chair she knew was far too uncomfortable for either of them to spend time in during the entire night. “Neither of us is going to get a wink of sleep if we put her in here.”
“So,” Agatha stared at Xena with an arched brow. “What do you suggest? Maida has a bed for her in with the other girls, but…”
“No,” Xena hurriedly interrupted. “I'm thinking…Maybe with the tea you're giving her…um…we can go ahead and put her in…well…”
“Just spit it out, Xena,” Agatha harrumphed impatiently. “I'm not getting any younger and I have to be up before the crack of dawn to make sure a certain ruler I know has something to eat before she takes off on her morning torture ritual.”
Xena just turned away and mounted the stairs again. She was halfway up when she heard the sounds of footsteps on the stairs behind her.
“Wait, Xena,” Agatha's voice called behind her. “Where are you taking that poor child?” She continued to mutter as she hurried as fast as her old legs could carry her. “Please don't tell me you're actually considering putting her in your bed.”
“And why not?” Xena called over her shoulder, as she reached the top of the stairs and continued down the narrow corridor to her suite.
“Have ye completely taken leave of yer damned senses?” Agatha's outburst was only tempered by the realization that sound carried in the stone keep. “Xena, you can't put her there,” Agatha hissed in a loud whisper. “The instant she wakes up she'll know where she is. You'll blow your cover, for sure.”
“Not if we keep feeding her that herbal remedy you gave her,” Xena said as she turned the last corner and came to a set of imposing double doors. “Two of those herbs in low doses are enough to keep her asleep for the entire night. Add the third and she'll be out for most of tomorrow, too.”
Two guards in red and black leather snapped instantly to attention. One opened a door for her without being prompted. She barely gave her guards a nod, as she passed through with Agatha close on her heels. She missed the questioning glances exchanged by the two men, as the door closed firmly behind her.
“Xena, you're insane if you think for one minute that the child won't have the slightest clue as to where she is when she finally…”
“She'll never know,” Xena shot back, as her long strides took them directly to her bedchamber. “Besides, she won't be here long enough to ask questions. I'll have her in the room downstairs before she has a chance to wake up, much less realize she's in the Conqueror's austere domain.”
Agatha quickly pulled the covers down on the opposite side of the bed from where Xena usually slept. She knew Xena's preferences and figured the woman would eventually need to sleep, as well. As Xena placed her unconscious burden between the silk sheets, she glanced at Gabrielle's clothes and realized it wouldn't do to have her sleep all night in such grungy attire.
“Help me remove her clothing,” Xena said, as she quickly removed the wrap around Gabrielle's body.
They made quick work of stripping the unconscious woman of her clothing, which Xena unceremoniously tossed in Agatha's direction. Once the clothes were off, Xena then set about immobilizing Gabrielle's arm with the wrap again. When she was done, Agatha pulled the covers up to the unconscious woman's chin and they both stepped back to review their handiwork.
“I'll go fetch the herbs and kettle, so you can brew more tea for her during the night,” Agatha said, as she hurriedly bustled out of the room.
After Agatha was gone, Xena sat down on the edge of the bed and brushed a lock of Gabrielle's hair back from her face. She stared at the innocent looking young woman for a little while and wondered who would want to hurt her. Gabrielle wasn't the kind of person who would knowingly instigate a fight, which meant that the other person was the instigator. She pondered that for a moment, as she waited for Agatha to return.
“Here we are!” Agatha's voice carried into the bedchamber before she came bustling in with a tray in her hands. “Thought you could use a bit of tea yourself. You know, to help you sleep.”
A dark brow shot up in question. “Oh?”
“Ach! I didn't spike it, if that's what yer thinkin',” Agatha set the tray on a table and hung the kettle on a hook inside the fireplace. “It's just a bit of chamomile and mint to help ye sleep.” She glanced at a small pot on the tray. “And I brought the honey for you both,” she smirked, setting the pot on the nightstand next to the cup they'd used for Gabrielle earlier. “I think it might help convince her that the tea's not all that bad.”
“Did you see her face after she drank that last batch?” Xena shot the woman an incredulous look. “I don't think anything will convince her that stuff is actually palatable. It smells like a wet rat and probably tastes much worse.”
“Nonsense,” Agatha chided. “It just has an earthy aroma that takes a little getting used to.”
“Horse manure takes getting used to,” Xena scoffed. “Even pig slop takes some getting used to. That stuff?” Xena pointed to the cup full of herbs. “I wouldn't feed it to my worst enemy.”
“It worked, didn't it?” Agatha stopped with her hands on her hips and glared at the woman. “She hasn't made a peep since ye set her shoulder.”
“She passed out,” Xena drolly replied.
“Yes, but she hasn't stirred since,” Agatha added with a satisfied nod. “That's good enough for me. And on that note, I'll be headin' off ta bed.” She glanced at the bank of windows. “Dawn's just approaching and these old bones need a bit of rest before I start another day.”
“Sweet dreams, Agatha,” Xena called to the woman's retreating back. “See you in the morning.”
“I'll send Maida in to check on ye both in the mornin',” Agatha's voice slowly receded and silence descended over the room.
As Xena sipped the tea Agatha left for her, she glanced at Gabrielle one last time, then adjusted the covers a bit. She finished her tea in record time and frowned at the empty cup when a strange flavor lingered on the back of her tongue. But she just shrugged it off when she realized she'd never really tasted the stuff without honey before.
She then got up and began readying herself for bed. As she stripped out of her everyday wear, she glanced again at the small figure sleeping peacefully in the huge bed. She also wondered if some sleeping attire wasn't in order, just in case she had to get up in the middle of the night, for whatever reason.
Making up her mind not to worry about what she did or did not wear, Xena tossed a dressing gown on the end of the bed and slipped naked beneath the cool sheets on her side of the bed. The last thought she had before she drifted off into a dreamless sleep was that she hoped Gabrielle slept soundly through the night, so she didn't have to get up during the coldest hours to pad around the room in the nude.
Continued in Part 2
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