For disclaimers see Part 1 . Also check out my blog for updates : http://kennedynorthcutt.wordpress.com/
The small party of Amazons and one tall, black-clad rider reached the outskirts of a smaller field close to the ongoing battle and watched torches bob in the distance. The scene was relatively chaotic. Soldiers on both sides moved in and out of the trees, while others darted along the treeline in seemingly random fashion. Shouts rang out across the clearing, while the sounds of weapons clashing and the roar of thousands somewhere beyond rose in the still night air.
Xena sat atop her black stallion next to Gabrielle's litter, occasionally glancing down to make sure the injured woman was still okay. It had been a relatively uneventful trip back, but one Xena knew was taking a toll on the quiet woman on the litter.
“How're you doing?” Xena asked for the umpteenth time.
“Mm,” Gabrielle responded and then winced when the litter dipped into another rut in the uneven ground. “Been better,” she got out through clenched teeth. “Sol!” She admonished in a louder voice. “Can't you keep from hitting those damned potholes?”
“Sorry, My Queen,” Solari glanced over her shoulder. “It's too dark to see much on this godsforsaken road.”
“Hang in there, Gabrielle. Almost there,” Xena frowned, as she realized they were going to have a real bitch of a time reaching the main encampment with the battle still raging directly in front of them.
“'S not gonna happen, Xe,” Gabrielle's words mirrored Xena's thoughts. “I can hear the fighting from back here. Sounds close and heavy, too.”
Xena glanced at Solari, drew her sword and gave the woman a silent nod.
“You sure?” Solari said almost sub-vocally and pulled her mare to a halt.
Xena dismounted and went to one knee next to the litter, taking Gabrielle's hand in hers and kissing her soundly on the lips. “I'm gonna create a little diversion. ‘Kay? I'll draw them off and get them to chase me. Then the rest of you can skirt around them and make a run for it. I'll meet you in the encampment.” She glanced up at Solari. “Keep her safe and try not to get into too much trouble, Amazon.”
Despite the pain the move caused her, Gabrielle reached up and brushed the bangs away from Xena's face. She then pulled the woman down for another, deeper kiss that left them both breathless and had several throats clearing around them. Tongues danced and breath mingled, as they shared the same air. Xena let her forehead rest lightly against Gabrielle's, as she reveled in the contact and ignored the milling Amazons trying not to look at them.
“Be careful,” Gabrielle whispered. “Don't want this to be all there is. We have so much left to…um…do.”
“Oh, no worries there, love,” Xena gave her a wink. “You just stay out of trouble and keep your escort, here, in line. Until we meet again, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle closed the distance between them again and met Xena's lips in another lingering kiss. “Can't wait.”
Xena returned to the restless stallion's side and launched herself into the saddle with ease. She then spurred him into a fast gallop and sped off toward the treeline. Her mad chase took her into the trees, before she veered off and let out a blood-curdling battle cry that stopped many in their tracks and had many more charging in her direction.
They recognized her immediately and saw that she was alone. Or maybe they just saw an opportunity. Xena wasn't sure. Whatever the case, that was fine by Xena. She wanted to draw them away from the road and lure as many of Draco's men in her direction. The more the better, far as she was concerned.
When she was sure she had a good number of them on her tail, Xena slowed her mount and let them close in, pulling her sword from the sheath at her back in a smooth motion. Then she hopped up onto the saddle, waited for just the right moment and backflipped high into the air with her signature battle cry, twisting a graceful figure eight and landing on her feet in their midst with a feral grin.
“Hello, boys,” she spun a quick circle with her sword extended and took out the ones closest to her with one swipe.
Six men went down in a spray of blood, as Xena's sword pierced through leather and flesh with ease. Her move stunned several more and she quickly dispatched those to Hades' realm, as well. But the rest quickly recovered and charged forward. Xena braced herself for the onslaught and gripped her sword tightly in one hand.
One idiot in a plain leather jerkin came at her with his sword held high, only to find himself disemboweled and flying past her in shocked silence. Xena let him go and blocked a blade aimed for the back of her head. She quickly spun to face the man and blocked another swing, before sensing her opening and burying her own blade up to its hilt in his chest. She used him to push forward into three more men, then swung her blade for their throats and watched all three crumple at her feet. She dropped her human shield and turned toward several more charging toward her.
Xena waited for the bloodlust to surface—to kick in and send her senses into overdrive. But nothing happened. She felt her adrenaline surge, as she met blade after blade and deflected blow after blow. But the rage that usually accompanied her like a shroud into battle didn't surface. If anything, she felt a sense of resigned peace, as her instincts kicked in and she used skills honed over many years to fight off her enemies. It was strange and unsettling and slightly exhilarating, but she didn't have time to ponder the sudden absence of the bloodlust that was once so much a part of her. It just wasn't there.
The clang of steel rang through the air, as her blade blocked another. She then blocked two more to her right. Sensing a triple threat, she danced left and parried a strike, then swung wide and caught one attacker under the chin. Kicking out at another to her right, she spun a quick circle to her left and managed to duck in time to keep her ear from being lopped off. She felt the sting of a blade on her upper arm and immediately turned another quick circle, then sprang over the head of the man sneaking up behind her.
As her feet hit the ground, she rammed the hilt of her sword into the back of that man's head and sent him flying forward into two of the others. She then gutted the fourth and dispatched two more in quick succession. A crossbow bolt flew toward her head out of nowhere and she just managed to catch it. She turned and embedded the bolt into the throat of a guy with stringy long hair trying to grab her. He went down clutching his throat in wide-eyed surprise.
A gigantic brute of a man with an enormous battle ax charged from the treeline with a loud battle cry, as he flexed his massive muscles in a wild show of intimidation. Xena wasn't intimidated in the least. As a matter of fact, she merely sent her own battle cry back at him, as several men moved in around him.
Blood dripped from the double-edge ax he held in one meaty fist and gore covered his armored chest. His reddish-brown hair flew around his head in wild disarray. He looked like one of the untamed barbarians from Gaul or the northern wilds of Britannia. The dull gleam of death shown from beady brown eyes in a face scarred from battle. Xena knew he was one of Draco's hired mercenaries. She also knew he would never see a single dinar from her dead enemy, much less the light of another day—not if she had anything to say about it.
“Draco's dead, you idiot!” She shouted at the top of her lungs in order to be heard above the din of battle surrounding them. “Your patron was burned to a crisp by the God of War!”
It took a moment for her words to sink into his thick skull and another for him to react to those words. His tree-trunk legs suddenly ground to a halt, as he lowered his ax and stared at her in confounded silence. Several of his shorter comrades spread out in line on either side of him, while Xena merely dispatched those who continued their wild charge forward and came within reach of her blade.
Then the big behemoth raised a beefy fist high in the air, let out a wild howl and his men stopped in their tracks, reluctantly returning to stand on either side of him.
“Ye lie, wench!” The big man's jowels actually shook with each gruff word. “Draco promised us good coin ta take the likes o' ye down. Finish ye once and fer all, we will, too.” His heavy accent marked him as a mercenary from Northern Britannia.
Xena casually rested her bloody sword on one black shoulder and smirked. “Dead men tell no tales,” she chuckled at her own joke and then sobered when no one laughed with her. “They don't pay anyone but the boatkeeper, either!” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You're wasting your energy on this fight, Mercenary! Draco promised you good coin to do his dirty work, but he's dead. Don't believe me? Ask Ares. Or just take a trip over to those crosses on the other side of these woods. His body's lying at the base of one of them.”
“Tain't true!” One of the man's comrades—a short bald guy with tattoos all over his face, head and bare arms—stepped forward. “I saw Draco not half a candlemark past. He was chargin' across the battlefield with a whole passel of them Amazons and centaurs on the run, he was.”
“Amazons and centaurs don't run, smart guy,” Xena snarled at Tattoo and then returned her attention to the giant in front of her. “Your friend's a complete moron. Then again, so are you.” She twirled her sword for added effect. “You think your life is worth the measly coin Draco will never pay you?” Xena then pulled a bag of coins from a loop at her belt and held it up for the men to see. “Take this and leave. I might just let you boys live to see another day.” She twirled her sword again and glanced around at the dead around her. “Or you can be gutted like the rest of your sorry mates.” She pointed her blade behind her, returning her attention to the man in front of her. “It's up to you, big boy.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “You would give us coin and let us leave? Just like that?”
“There's a hefty sum here,” she tossed the leather pouch up in the air and caught it. The coins in the pouch jingled loudly. “I'm sure it's more than Draco was offering—not that he's going to ever pay you. But the condition is that you leave Greece and never return. If I see any of you, I'll gut you in an instant, no questions asked.”
Xena knew the ploy was a long-shot. But she also knew it had their attention enough for Solari and the others to slip past without the guys in front of her causing problems. She just hoped there weren't others lying in wait for the Amazon escort.
Her adversary crossed his arms over his massive chest, as Tattoo turned his back on her and mumbled something unintelligible. The two carried on a rather heated discussion made up mostly of grunts, nods and Tattoo waving his arms animatedly. Then they finally seemed to come to an agreement.
“Fine,” the behemoth nodded curtly. “Toss us ta bag and we might jest let ya live, Conqueror bitch!”
Xena chuckled and lifted her chakram from the hook on her belt. She tossed the weapon to her right in one smooth motion and then listened to their laughter.
“Seriously?” Tattoo stood his ground just in front of the rest of the men who held their swords even with his shoulder blades. “That all ye got? Guess Draco wasn't kiddin' when he said you wasn't worth the dung on our boot heels. I think you just lost your little circle thingy, by the by.”
And then they all heard it. The eerily distinctive whine of the chakram as it made its way back toward them. The razor-sharp blade whizzed through the air straight down the line of blades and cut them in two with ease.
Tattoo, who had stepped directly into the chakram's path, had no idea what was happening as he lost his head to the weapon that just continued on its deadly path. As Tattoo's head rolled toward Xena and his body dropped to the ground at the feet of the others, the chakram flew off into the night and disappeared.
Stunned faces suddenly filled with rage, as they met her satisfied grin. She merely glared at them and waited, as that same deadly whine had them all diving to the ground in an instant. She put her booted foot on top of Tattoo's wide-eyed head and caught her chakram with ease.
“Well?” She hooked the weapon back on her hip and crossed her arms over her chest. “What's it gonna be, big boy? You want another taste of what I can do? Or are you willing to take the money and run back home with your tail tucked between your legs?”
The only one brave enough to dare to raise his head enough to look at her, the big guy did just that. “W-we'll take the coin and l-leave, m'lord.”
“Good choice,” she laziliy tossed the bag of coins on top of Tattoo's still body. She then reached down, grabbed the head by an ear and held it at arm's length away from her. “I see any of your ugly mugs in these parts again and you'll suffer the same fate as your friend, here.”
The behemoth glanced at the gruesome expression on his former comrade's lifeless face, then hurried to his feet, stepped forward and swiped the bag of coins from Tattoo's body. He didn't bother counting the bag's contents. He merely looped the bag onto his belt and rested his ax on his shoulder.
“No worries, there, m'lord,” he said with an awkward half-bow. “Ain't worth the coin ta cross paths with the likes of ye again.”
“Just take your money and leave,” Xena waved him off and watched his friends scramble after him into the darkness. She then glanced at the head in her hand, grimaced and tossed it toward the body. “Disgusting. I just wish all these skirmishes could end that easily,” she said, as she wiped her sword on Tatoo's leather jerkin, resheathed it and whistled loudly. Her stallion appeared out of the darkness a moment later. He stopped next to her and then blew out an irritated breath, as he spotted the headless corpse not far away. “Yeah, I know,” she said, as she hopped easily into the saddle and settled him with her knees. “Wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I tossed my chakram their way, but it got the point across better than expected.” She urged him into a trot, leaving the carnage behind her. “Let's catch up to Gabrielle and her Amazons, before something else happens.”
“Hang on, My Queen,” Solari called behind her. “I'm going to speed up the pace and get us out of here as fast as possible.”
Gabrielle shut her eyes tight, clenched her teeth and held on to either side of the litter with a death grip. Every bump and bounce was pure agony, as the litter picked up speed along the now-deserted road. She sent a quick prayer to any of the gods who were listening to watch over Xena and then asked that they all make it out alive. There were certainly no guarantees that the gods even cared what was happening. It sure didn't seem that way.
A jarring dip in the road nearly sent the litter out of control behind Solari's horse. Gabrielle held on for dear life, as Solari slowed her mount enough to keep the litter from overturning.
“Are you okay, back there, My Queen?” Solari asked with concern.
“Still here,” Gabrielle managed through clenched teeth.
“I think we're about to have company,” Margalene suddenly piped up from her place behind the litter.
Men suddenly burst from the trees to their right and charged toward them on foot. The Amazons met the attack from horseback and tried to keep the men away from their queen.
“Here, Gabrielle!” Solari's shout had Gabrielle craning to see the woman. “Take this, just in case!”
A dagger dropped toward her and Gabrielle caught it by the hilt before it could do any damage. Then Solari's horse sidestepped and turned, causing the litter to slide around in a dizzying whirl. Gabrielle could hear the clash of weapons nearly right on top of her and knew Solari was engaged with one of the enemy.
“This isn't going to cut it!” Gabrielle growled.
She pulled herself up until she was in a seated position—just enough so that she could see what was going on around her. Then she watched an attacker appear out of the shadows nearly on top of her. He had a sword raised high overhead and looked ready to bring it right down to cut her in two.
Gabrielle didn't think. She merely reacted. As the attacker came within reach, she moved the dagger into her right hand and slashed with all her might. The small blade was sharp enough to tear through the man's midsection with a spray of warm blood that coated her, just as he brought his blade down toward her. She raised her other arm up to block his strike and was thoroughly surprised when her bracer caught his blade and deflected it.
His momentum carried him right on top of her, as his dead weight crashed into the litter and sent it careening to the side. Gabrielle felt one of the leather thongs holding the litter to Solari's horse break free. Then she was lying sprawled on the ground beneath the weight of her dead attacker.
Gabrielle was barely aware that her name was being shouted somewhere close by. All she knew was that the weight of the man crushing her was more than she could handle. She could barely breathe and her ribs were suddenly on fire with agonizing pain. Then the world around her suddenly went very cold and the darkness closed in.
“She's dead!!! The queen is dead!!!”
Xena heard the shout ahead and kicked her mount into dead run, as she approached the small group of Amazons huddled near a still figure. She barely gave a thought to her own safety, as she launched herself high into the air over the stallion's head and landed in their midst with only her signature battle cry to warn them off her.
Kneeling next to the still figure, Xena put her fingers to the side of Gabrielle's neck and sighed in relief. “She's not dead, you idiot! Her heart's still beating and she's still breathing.”
“Oh,” Margalene breathed a sigh of relief.
“What happened?” Xena looked to Solari.
“We were attacked,” Solari said. “One of the leather thongs holding the litter broke and next thing I know Gabrielle is lying on the ground with a dead body on top of her. We got the body off her, but…”
“Is this hers?” Xena noted the blood on Gabrielle and quickly checked her for injuries.
“I don't think it is,” Solari answered. “The guy on top of her took a dagger to the gut. I think Gabrielle may have done that to him.”
Xena leaned forward and noted Gabrielle's pale complexion and shallow breathing. “We need to get her to Agatha, right away.”
“Why?” Solari asked in concern. “Is she okay?”
“Whatever the guy did to her complicated her condition,” Xena said. “Get the litter fixed now. We don't have any time to lose.”
Without hesitating, Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms and carried her over to where Solari's horse waited. The Amazons quickly went to work repairing the litter and had it back together in no time. Xena then gently laid her unconscious burden on top of the pine bows and covered Gabrielle with a fur.
“Take it easy, Solari,” Xena advised the Amazon, as Solari climbed back into the saddle. “Gabrielle's condition is precarious, at best. We need to get there as fast as we can, but you can't far her too much more. Her body can't take it.”
“I understand,” Solari nodded, as she nudged her mount back onto the road.
They skirted around the fighting enough that they stayed away from most of it. A few stray soldiers tried to intercept them, but Xena merely dispatched them with impatient ease. She wasn't about to let anyone stand in their way. Not with the wrenching worry in her guts that Gabrielle would die before they reached help.
Xena tried to ride next to the litter whenever possible. Each time she returned to the litter's side, she noted the pale gray pallor of the woman who lay as still as death. Gabrielle was getting worse with each passing league and there wasn't a thing any of them could do about it.
At one point, Xena actually saw her brother wave to her from a distance. He was still mounted on his own horse and directing his troops far off in the distance. Xena ignored him as her little party moved past. She wasn't in the mood to make a detour just to get an update on the fighting from the man. He seemed to have things well in hand, anyway. So, she merely threw a quick wave back in his direction and continued on.
When they finally reached the outskirts of the encampment, Xena saw that things were in utter chaos. There were healers and others trying to sort through the wounded and dying. Others merely sat on the sidelines and watched with horror-struck gazes. And still others carried casualties from the battlefield.
It wasn't in Xena's nature to merely let chaos reign. So she immediately went to work getting things organized and triaging the wounded. She sent the walking wounded to one side and the dead to the other, while those who could be saved were sent to the healer tents.
“Get the litter unhitched from your horse, while I take care of this, Solari!” Xena shouted during a break in the action over the din.
Xena's presence seemed to settled things down considerably. Even those who were dying and had been crying out in pain seemed to quiet down considerably. The presence of the Conqueror brought a sense of calm to an otherwise chaotic mess.
But Xena wasn't worried about calm. Her thoughts were on the still woman whose litter was carried over to one of the huts in the Amazon encampment. She had seen Gabrielle regain consciousness just moments ago, but wasn't able to go to her right away. Xena just hoped Agatha was there to take care of the woman.
Drifting in a sea of agony, Gabrielle thought she was already in Tartarus. Her entire body was on fire and she couldn't breathe. Her eyes fluttered open and she found herself bobbing up and down, up and down between two Amazons. That alone should have told her she wasn't in Tartarus. Amazons went to the Land of the Dead, not Hades' realm.
“Still alive,” she groaned. “Urgh.”
“Gabrielle?” Solari's face was suddenly right there above her.
“Mm,” Gabrielle responded, as her bearers set the litter onto a flat surface with as much care as possible.
And then Agatha's face appeared above her. “Hello, Gabrielle.” The older woman smiled tiredly. “What brings you to my…”
“She has broken ribs,” Xena moved into her line of sight. “I think one of them may be at an odd angle. She can't breathe.”
“Ah,” Agatha nodded, as her gnarled fingers began probing Gabrielle's side.
That's when Gabrielle lost it. A scream tore from her throat long and loud, as the two litter bearers held her down at Agatha's silent direction. She didn't even realize Xena was holding her hand, until she felt that familiar squeeze and glanced over to see Xena watching her intently.
“You're killing her!” Xena shouted.
“I'm saving her life!” Agatha countered. “If you don't like the way I do it, leave, Xena!”
And then the hand was gone and the fingers probed deeper until Gabrielle couldn't stand the pain any longer. The darkness closed in again and she just gave in to it without a fight.
The last of the dead were thrown onto a huge pile near an already-burning mound of charred remains. Thousands were dead. Thousands of souls had crossed over into Hades' realm and were on their way to judgment by the God of the Underworld. Charon's coffers would be overflowing with coin, as he griped and grumbled his way from one shore of the River Styx to the other with practiced ease. His gruff cackle could almost be heard on the whisper of breeze that blew across the battlefield.
Xena stood with her hands on her hips and surveyed the still-smoking landscape. Death hung heavily in the air. Blood soaked the ground beneath her feet. She was wearing a simple tunic and leather breeches tucked into her mud and blood-spattered boots. Her hair was slightly damp from the bath she'd taken only half a candlemark before. The dark, silky tresses whipped around her shoulders in the breeze.
“What a waste,” Eponin came up next to her and stood with her hands on her hips. “Shoulda stopped it when Draco—”
“Wasn't going to happen,” Xena cut her off. “Ares is responsible for all this. He wanted a war and got exactly that. Draco was just a tool. His hatred for me was just the conduit Ares used to put his plan in motion.”
Eponin slapped a hand onto Xena's shoulder. “Looked like he had more of a thing for you than hatred, Champ.”
Xena eyed the hand on her shoulder and then glared at the woman attached to it. “Are you suicidal?” She growled.
Eponin pulled her hand away, as if she'd been burned. “Not really. No.”
“Good,” Xena returned her attention to the bonfires blazing in front of her.
The few men who weren't still chasing the last remnants of Draco's army and grinding them into dust were hard at work clearing away the mess—the bodies. The faint sounds of clashing steel could be heard on the faint breeze. The fight was still raging, at least for Draco's few who weren't giving up. Idiots. Xena still couldn't figure out what Draco had promised them that kept them in such a frenzy that they didn't even care that their leader was a pile of ash on the side of a hill.
Such a waste. But it was a waste Xena wasn't willing to discount, either. Her men had to put down the rebellion, once and for all. That was the order she'd given her brother. Not one of Draco's men could be allowed to escape. They did the unthinkable and sided with her enemy. That alone was grounds for execution. So, she just let her men do the job for her. She figured it was better than marching Draco's men to Corinth and throwing them in the dungeon there. Let them die in battle. Let them think they were still fighting for whatever glory or riches Draco had promised them.
The sun was well on its way toward the western horizon, as Xena stood there. Apollo wasn't wasting any time on the close of this day, she mused. Maybe he was just as glad to see it end as Xena was. What a waste, indeed.
“How's Ephiny doing?” Xena's low voice rose over the noise of the crackling fires and the faint whispers of battle. “She getting settled okay?”
“Hangin' in there,” Eponin shrugged. “Pissed that she can't use her hands and everyone is hoverin' over her like a bunch of crazed harpies. Another day and she'll be right back to her old, lovely self, I'm sure.”
Xena chuckled briefly. “At least Agatha was able to save them.”
“Yeah,” Eponin agreed. “Don't know if she'll be able to ever use ‘em again, though. I saw the wounds.” She shuddered. “Who does that to a fellow warrior? Huh? I just don't get it.”
“Romans,” Xena answered matter-of-factly. “It's their way of heaping suffering on those they feel deserve to be punished for their crimes. Death just isn't enough for them.”
“Eph ain't never committed no crime,” Eponin groused.
“No, but Draco saw an opportunity to get back at me through her,” Xena put a hand on the weapons master's shoulder. “Either that or she irked him somehow. Only Ephiny knows that for sure.”
“Don't know,” Eponin glanced at the hand on her shoulder and shrugged. “She won't talk about it.”
“Give her some time, Eponin,” Xena squeezed the woman's shoulder and released it. “She'll come around eventually.”
“And the queen?” Eponin continued. “How come you're not hoverin' over her like a mother hen with an injured chick? Thought you two were inseparable, what with the way you rode back here like your butts were on fire and all.”
Xena's eyes narrowed, as she scanned the distant horizon. “She…um…needed some space.”
Eponin shot the taller woman a quick glance. “Space?”
“Agatha told me to stop hovering, okay?” Xena blew out an exasperated breath. “Said she needed to assess Gabrielle's injuries and do what needed to be done…without me in the way.”
It was Eponin's turn to chuckle. “Huh, never thought I'd see the day.”
Sky-blue eyes glared at Eponin with menace. “And what's that supposed to mean?”
“Hey,” Eponin held her hands up in surrender, “I ain't one to talk here. Ya know?” She lowered her arms and crossed them over her chest again. “We're just a couple of fools in love is all. We're whipped. Cupid shot us both in the ass and there's nothin' we can do about it.”
“Yeah,” Xena agreed, after a long silence spread between them. “Damned ride back here was the longest of my life.” The admission came out barely more than a whisper. “All I wanted to do was heft her up into my arms and hold her close—try to will the pain away. Then I had to take that damned detour. Idiots.” She shook her head and glanced down at the gleaming silver chakram at her hip.
“I know what you mean,” Eponin added. “Watchin' that old woman cauterize Eph's wounds was…” She swallowed over the lump in her throat. “All the blood and gore in the world couldn't make my stomach turn like that it did when I heard her scream. I nearly puked right then and there. I can still hear her muffled screams through the leather strap they shoved in her mouth…” She shook herself and ran a hand down her face. “I love her so much, ya know?”
“I know,” Xena nodded.
The smell of burning flesh and bone swirled around them and Xena took comfort in the memories those fires conjured. This was who she was. This was what she did. She was a warrior with more blood on her hands than the men she had killed—and some of it was still fresh. She watched the orange and gold flames devour the corpses. Then she glanced down at the palms of her hands. They were clean. No blood on them at the moment. There were, however, a few nicks and scratches.
“You okay, Champ?” Eponin's quiet voice pierced the silence. “You seem a little…um…off.”
“I'm fine,” Xena kept her expression neutral. “Just trying to figure out what all this means.”
“I think it means we won and you can go back to bein' the Lord Conqueror and all,” Eponin shrugged. “You still have that place at Corinth, right? Is it a castle or something?”
“A stronghold,” Xena sighed. “Yeah.”
“Well, there ya go,” Eponin added with a wry grin.
“And what if I don't want to go back?” Xena's question came out so soft that Eponin barely heard it.
“Huh? Whatdja say?”
“I said I'm not sure I want to go back to being the Conqueror,” Xena repeated a bit louder.
“Then, what do you want?” Eponin responded after a moment, her gaze meeting Xena's.
“Not sure,” Xena sighed and shook her head.
“I think you want to be out there,” Eponin pointed toward the distant sounds of battle, “moppin' up the mess with the rest of the army. I think Sol and the others were a little anxious to at least get a few kills in before everything's said and done. You shoulda seen ‘em when they arrived. Practically itchin' with restlessness, ‘til Queen Gren told ‘em ta just go.”
Yeah. She did want that. But she also wanted so much more. She wanted Gabrielle more than anything. Just seeing the pain deep in her lover's eyes and etched on her brow was reason enough not to want to finish the battle and clean up the mess. So, why was she standing there talking to Eponin, instead of sitting at her lover's bedside, where she belonged? She was the Conqueror, after all. That had to count for something.
“I'm surprised Solari actually left Gabrielle's side. She was hovering over her like a damned mother hen when we rode in,” Xena commented. “Seeing as how she's now Captain of the Guard and all. Isn't it her job to guard the queen?”
“Blood and death are a lot easier to deal with for an Amazon,” Eponin shrugged. “Not so easy to watch your queen suffer like that. Queen Gren knew it when she ordered Sol to take off. ‘Sides, the queen kinda proved her worth. No one's gonna touch her for a while—least of all any of those yahoos from Velasca's quarter. Sehran'll make sure of it, too.” She chuckled. “Can't believe she changed her tune like that when Gwyn-Taleen started mouthin' off.”
“Gutting a queen,” Xena considered thoughtfully. “I thought that was grounds for immediate execution.”
“Yeah,” Eponin nodded. “But, in this case, Gwyn-Taleen weren't a queen no more. As eldest ruler of the tribes and head of the tribunal, Grenella could strip Gwyn-Taleen's mask from her. She did just that the other day when you presented your case.”
A dark brow shot up. “My case?”
Eponin nodded curtly. “The accusation alone wouldn't have been enough, but Grenella witnessed more than enough to make a quick judgment. Amazons ain't known for their deliberations when it comes to stuff like that. Decision made, punishment meted out. Done deal. We only drag our damned heels on other stuff that seems trivial and unimportant.”
“Mm,” Xena reasoned with a thoughtful nod.
“That's what threw Sol,” Eponin added.
“What?” Xena turned her curious gaze on the shorter weapons master.
“Her maj shoulda killed Sehran during the challenge,” Eponin glanced up at the vivid blue eyes watching her. “She didn't and Sol thought it was a mistake.”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest. “Gabrielle is nothing like your other queens.”
“Got that right,” Eponin blew out a breath. “And then Sehran pulls what she pulled…” She shook her head. “Killing Gwyn-Taleen and defending Queen Gabrielle's honor… Psh! None of us knows what to make of it. I think Queen Gabrielle got to her. Had a one-on-one with her on the way here. Still don't make sense, though.”
Xena patted the woman's shoulder. “Welcome to my world, Amazon.” And then she strode away, leaving Eponin standing there in confounded silence in front of the roaring flames.
Gabrielle felt herself drifting up into consciousness again. She wanted to sink right back down into the darkness, but couldn't will herself to do so. As the world came back to her, she heard distant muffled sounds—horses, voices, wagons. Someone was chopping wood nearby. The steady rhythm kept time with her heartbeat and made her head throb. Pain. Ugh! Everything hurt—right down to her toes.
Keeping her eyes shut, she assessed her injuries. Something was wrapped tightly around her middle and pressed against her aching side. But at least she could breathe again. That was something. Her bleary mind tried to figure out why that was such an accomplishment. And then she remembered the previous night.
Yes, she remembered—broken ribs.
They had arrived close to dawn to find the encampment in utter chaos. The battle still raged not far away and every able-bodied warrior and soldier was off fighting. The only ones left in the encampment were the healers and those helping them, all of them hard at work tending the wounded. Queen Grenella and Agatha were using their well-honed healing skills to do their best, while several others followed their orders.
As soon as they arrived, Xena immediately put some order to the chaos, as others hauled the dying or dead away to be disposed of later. Gabrielle tried to watch her silent lover from her prone position on the litter they brought her in on. Xena was as good a healer as any of the others who tended the wounded—maybe better. She triaged those that were carried in and then went to work on those she knew she could save.
But Gabrielle was in no condition to really care about much at that point. She couldn't breathe and the pain in her side was beyond bearable. Nevertheless, she still remembered bits and pieces—slashes of images that would stick in her mind forever. The blood was the worst. There was so much of it that Gabrielle didn't think the coppery odor would ever leave her nostrils—or her memories. The screams of the dead and dying were also something she would not soon forget.
And then it was her turn. Agatha approached her with her gray head shaking and someone else's blood on her gnarled hands. Gabrielle was glad, at first, to see the old woman. But Agatha started probing her side and she nearly went ballistic.
Gnarled fingers, stronger than they appeared, removed her bandages and dug painfully into her side. Gabrielle tried to hold back the scream that tore from her lips. Tears coarsed down her cheeks and soaked her hair, as the woman continued to dig into her side. Agatha worked with grim determination and didn't say a word. Then a hand took hers and she couldn't help but squeeze as hard as she could.
Xena's voice chided Agatha, who snapped back at her and told her to leave. The hand in Gabrielle's was suddenly gone and she wanted nothing more than to call her lover back to her side. The loss was greater than the pain that ripped through her battered body, as those insistent fingers continued to dig and dig and dig.
Gabrielle finally gave in to the darkness and passed out cold.
That was the last thing she remembered. Her thoughts returned to Xena and she wondered where the woman was. Green eyes finally fluttered open and Gabrielle tried to focus on her surroundings. She could still feel the strange effects of the herbs they'd given her for the pain. She gingerly turned her aching head and realized she was inside a structure. A tent? Then she glanced at the far side and saw a sliver of daylight peeking through. Definitely a tent. And she was alone. Thank the gods for tiny blessings.
Her errant thoughts returned to Xena and she couldn't help but wonder again where the woman was. Had Agatha scared her away? Nothing scared Xena. Why wasn't she there, then? Was she off fighting with the army? Gabrielle could certainly hear the sounds of far-off fighting. Or maybe Xena was still tending the wounded. Yeah, that was probably it.
“Your Majesty,” a dark head peeked inside the tent opening. “Oh, good, you're awake. May I enter?”
“As long as you keep your voice down,” Gabrielle grumbled in a hoarse whisper. She unsuccessfully tried to clear her throat. “I have a headache that could fell a horse and my mouth is dry as parchment.”
“Here, Your Majesty,” Margalene quickly approached the bedside and poured water into a cup. She carefully lifted Gabrielle into a half-prone position and put the cup to the queen's parched lips. “Where is everyone?”
“I was just going to ask you the same thing,” Gabrielle shot back with a pained half-grin. “Everything winding down out there?”
Margalene set the empty cup aside and pulled up a chair. “Getting there,” the brunette answered with a shrug. “The Conqueror ordered the dead burned. More on Draco's side than on ours, from what I hear. The last of Draco's men are still putting up quite a fight, but have retreated southwest of here and into a portion of the forest that wasn't damaged during the initial attack. They keep hiding and ambushing our guys.”
“Any idea of the number of Amazon dead and wounded?” Gabrielle really didn't want to know, but figured there was a reason for the woman's visit that would eventually come out.
“Not yet, My Queen,” Margalene shook her head and absently rubbed an angry red welt on her upper arm from where the rope had kept her hanging from the cross. “We do know that a number of Queen Jezreal's warriors were caught in a surprise ambush, as Draco's army fled to the south. Many were killed and fought bravely before they died. Queen Jezreal is missing, too. No one has seen her since the ambush.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, as the news tugged at her heartstrings. She liked the spunky queen and knew that Jezreal had remained loyal to Grenella and her during the Velasca mess. Gwyn-Taleen and Velasca hadn't been able to turn Jezreal to their skewed world view, at least.
“Did I see centaurs out there when we came in?” Gabrielle knew she had, but wanted to be sure it wasn't some strange herb-induced dream.
“Yes, My Queen,” Margalene replied. “I know that several rulers came to offer their services to the Conqueror. I haven't had the chance to get the whole story, though. It's been a bit…um…chaotic.”
Gabrielle turned her head and looked at the woman. “Spill it, Margalene. What aren't you telling me?”
Margalene's dark eyes widened. “Your Majesty?”
“Why didn't Ephiny come to give me the report herself?” Gabrielle prodded. “Where is she?”
“Oh,” Margalene looked down at the hands in her lap. “She's…um…indisposed, Your Majesty.”
“Indisposed?” Gabrielle shot back. “What's going on, Margalene? Tell me what happened.”
Margalene blew out a breath and met the expectant bloodshot green gaze staring back at her. “She was injured, My Queen.”
“How?” Gabrielle squeaked out. “When? What happened?”
“We…um…” Margalene swallowed hard and looked away again. “We were on a reconnaissance mission. The regent wanted to find out about those crosses—get a better lay of Draco's forces. We were captured.”
Gabrielle waited for the woman to continue. “And?” She prodded when Margalene didn't immediately continue. “What happened then? How did Ephiny get hurt?”
“Um…We were…They put us in a pit,” Margalene continued hesitantly. “We'd just come up with a plan to escape when they came to take us. Draco and his thugs…they…um…”
Gabrielle watched the woman closely and could see how difficult the explanation was for her. “Tell me what happened,” she said with open compassion. “Is Ephiny okay?”
“They hung us all on crosses, Your Majesty,” Margalene choked out. “The bastards put us up on those crosses, like…um…pieces of m-meat. They…um…drove metal spikes through Queen Ephiny's…um…hands and—” She shook her head.
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the words. Just the mere thought of what that must have been like brought tears to her eyes. She glanced at Margalene's hands and noticed they were fine, but she also noticed the red welts on her wrists and arms. She briefly wondered why spikes hadn't been driven into Margalene's hands, then quickly dismissed the notion.
“Anyone else with you guys when it happened?” Gabrielle's voice cracked annoyingly on the words and she tried to clear her throat again.
“Servants from the keep,” Margalene said. “A couple young girls and some others. Queen Ephiny was the only one they…um…used the spikes on. I think she pissed Draco off.”
“Yeah,” Margalene supplied. “Can't believe Draco put those kids on crosses. Bastard!”
“Did he say why?” Gabrielle couldn't quite believe her ears. “Why would Draco do that to kids?”
“Not sure,” Margalene replied with a sad shake of her head. “It was cruel. Scared them to death, especially when Ephiny was nailed to the cross right next to them. They cried the whole time we were up there. But they seem okay now. Queen Eph promised to let them join the tribe when they're old enough to go throught the initiation.”
Gabrielle absently glanced around the tent, her thoughts turning inward. Then she realized she had no idea whose tent it was or why she was the only one in it. The place was sparsely furnished. What furnishings there were, however, were plush and rather expensive. She then realized the bed she was lying on was actually quite comfortable and large enough for two people.
“Where is everyone, anyway?” Gabrielle suddenly asked. “Where's Xena?”
“Oh,” Margalene seemed caught off guard by the question. “Last I saw the Conqueror—”
“I'm right here,” Xena pushed the tent flap aside and entered. Her presence dominated the space and then some, as she eyed the Amazon and tossed a thumb over her shoulder. “Scram.”
Margalene didn't hesitate. She stood up and bowed to the reclining queen, “Your Majesty.” She then turned and averted her gaze from Xena's. “Conqueror,” she muttered as she quickly rushed from the tent.
Xena waited until the Amazon was gone, then turned her attention to Gabrielle.
“Hey,” Xena sat down in the vacant chair and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. Her expression softened. “How're you feeling?”
“Like I got run over by a runaway chariot and four…um…no, make that six huge draft horses,” Gabrielle managed a pained half-grin. “I think those herbs Agatha gave me are finally starting to wear off a little. I'm not feeling as hazy as I was before. But my ribs hurt. Not as bad as last night, though.”
“You were really out of it there for a while,” Xena brushed the bangs away from Gabrielle's eyes. “Thought you'd sleep the rest of the night.”
Gabrielle glanced at the tent flap. “It's night already?”
“Near enough,” Xena replied. “Sun is setting, as we speak.”
“Ah,” Gabrielle couldn't help the yawn that escaped and winced when she felt a slight twinge in her jaw. “Ow.”
Xena ran a fingertip along Gabrielle's bruised jaw. “Took a pretty hard blow there, too.”
“Yeah, among other places,” Gabrielle let her eyes drift shut, as Xena's fingers continued to gently trace her features with feathlight strokes. “I can breathe again. That's something.”
“Yeah,” Xena continued her gentle stroking. “Definitely something. By the way, you broke three ribs and Agatha had to reset one that was cocked at a really bad angle. She said that's why you were in so much pain. That guy probably aggravated your ribs when he fell on top of you.”
“Ah, that's probably true,” Gabrielle admitted with a sad smile. “He was trying to kill me, so I stabbed him with a dagger. Actually,” she considered that for a moment, “I don't think I stabbed him so much as slashed him open.”
“That explains all the blood on you,” Xena cocked a brow. “Any why none of it was yours. Had me worried there for a second or two. The ribs will eventually heal. But they'll be tender for a while. It's gonna take a while before you're doing cartwheels out there with the rest of those crazy women.”
“Couldn't do ‘em before,” Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open, as she turned her gaze on the woman she missed so very much. “But you're right.” She squeezed the hand holding hers. “Missed you.”
“Me, too,” Xena raised Gabrielle's hand and kissed her knuckles. “If Toris hadn't arrived when he did, I don't know what would've happened. I really wanted to go find you. It was making me itch all over to know you'd been injured.”
“Toris?” Gabrielle asked in confusion. “He a friend of yours?”
“My wayward brother,” Xena replied with a wry grin. “We had a falling out when Cortese attacked the village. He hightailed it for the hills and ended up in Athens. Apparently found his way into the hearts of the Athenian council, among others. Go figure. Anyway, he's here now. Brought some nobles and troops with him, too. I put him in charge of the initial charge. Figured a distraction was in order, so I could get Ephiny and her bunch off those damned crosses.” She frowned. “Did you know he put a couple of kids up there, too?”
“Yeah, I heard about that,” Gabrielle just shook her head. “Margalene mentioned the kids were up there with Eph and the rest.”
“Trika and Besine,” Xena smiled sadly. “They're mostly okay. Scared the crap out of them, but they're strong kids. I think they'll eventually get past all this.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Ephiny wants to adopt them into the tribe.”
“Trika and Besine? Why do those names sound familiar?” Gabrielle asked.
“They worked in the kitchens,” Xena replied. “Twins. Trika has a slight lisp and…”
“Besine is mute,” Gabrielle added. “I remember them. I ate at the table with them one night in the common room. It was one of the only meals I shared with the other servants.”
A dark brow quirked, as Xena cocked her head to one side. “You really do remember that whole time, don't you?”
“There are a lot of good memories mixed in with the not so good,” Gabrielle nodded. “I do remember the girls. And I think it would be a great idea to adopt them into the tribe. They certainly don't have a home to return to at Surra.”
“Speaking of,” Xena sobered. “We need to discuss some things when you're up to it.”
Gabrielle's expression turned guarded. “What is there to discuss, Xena? You're not considering putting those girls back into your service, are you? Please don't tell me you still think of them as servants to the Conqueror, especially after what they just went through.”
“No,” Xena shook her head and looked away. “I…um…” She inhaled deeply and let it out slowly as she gathered her thoughts. “I'm seriously considering giving up the whole Conqueror thing.”
A brow shot up into Gabrielle's hairline. “You're what?”
“I don't want to be the Conqueror anymore,” Xena said quickly. “I don't want to rule over all of Greece or have people fawning all over me or hold court or…” She sighed. “I'm tired of carrying all that responsibility solely on my damned shoulders. I'm seriously considering giving it up and changing professions. Maybe I'll join a traveling circus, do some tricks on horseback for a few coins. Or I could become a mercenary for hire. What do you think?”
“You can't be serious, Xena!” Gabrielle shot back. “Who will keep order? Who will make sure the warlords don't rise up and start rampaging through the land again? Who will guard our borders against foreign invaders?”
Xena's tired gaze met Gabrielle's. “I'm only one woman, Gabrielle. I can't do it all and I certainly know my limitations where diplomacy is concerned. No matter how inept he seemed, Draco proved that point and drove it home with blatant clarity. I can't be the savior of Greece when the rest of those idiots out there won't step up and do their part.”
“What about Toris?” Gabrielle put in. “He came through for you. That has to count for something, doesn't it?”
“Toris talked to a few nobles,” Xena added. “That's all. Yes, they came through and joined this fight. But what about the next one? I can't count on them to step forward again. And what about the rest? There are more than a hundred nobles and governors out there overseeing the lands that I am ultimately responsible for. Not a single one of them stepped forward to offer their support in this fight. They all just sat there waiting for someone else to pick up the slack for them.”
“So, appoint new nobles to take their places,” Gabrielle suggested. “You can do that, can't you?”
“Yeah,” Xena shrugged. “Never thought about it before, though. Damned idiot nobles weren't exactly warm and fuzzy about me taking over in the first place.”
“Well,” Gabrielle considered her next words carefully. “Why not do what I did with Ephiny and appoint regents or overseers of those lands? Make them swear fealty to you. It makes sense. Then you will have people you trust to oversee the lands and collect taxes in your name. I guess it would be like you being queen or emperess over everything. Can you do that?”
“I'm the Conqueror, Gabrielle,” Xena smirked. “I can do pretty much anything I want, as long as I have a big enough army to back me up.”
“Well?” Gabrielle gazed fondly at Xena. “You have this army. Is it big enough?”
“Hm, could be,” Xena said. “Yeah, I guess it's time for me to step back up and do what I should have done years ago, huh?”
“The Corinthian calvalry will be there for you,” Gabrielle argued. “And, from what Margalene told me, the centaurs came through and will follow you. Some of the Amazons are even still out there fighting. I'm sure I can convince the other queens to continue to serve as a contingency force, especially now that Velasca, Marena and Gwyn-Taleen are out of the picture.”
“Your Amazons nearly had us all fighting each other,” Xena countered. “That whole Velasca fiasco wasn't exactly reassuring, Gabrielle.”
“No, I guess it wasn't,” Gabrielle conceded the point. “But it all worked out in the end.”
“For the most part,” Xena hesitantly agreed. “The army is still out there chasing down the stragglers. Apparently, Draco's men had orders to fight to the last. They're not giving up and I gave Toris and the others orders to hunt down every last one and kill them all.”
“Oh,” Gabrielle uttered softly.
“Yeah, oh,” Xena affirmed. “Can't have them sneaking up on us and slitting our throats in the night. That just won't cut it—excuse the pun.”
Gabrielle snickered, then sobered. “You really think they'd do that now that Draco's dead?”
“Nah,” Xena shook her head. “But I have no idea what Draco promised them. And I have no way of proving he's dead, so…” She shrugged as she let the words hang there. “Damned Ares and his untimely interruption. I was going to hang Draco on one of those cursed crosses of his. Disembowel him in front of his troops and throw them off their game. Ares beat me to the punch, though. Damn him. Probably had an inkling of what I was going to do and didn't want this war to end so quickly.” She frowned. “It's also better for us to pound them into dust than have a bunch of vengeful jerks on our tails.”
“I guess,” Gabrielle exhaled tiredly. “The Amazons probably think I'm nuts for letting Sehran live, instead of killing her when I had the chance. Solari said so when we were still out there.”
Xena considered that thoughtfully. “I probably would have just killed her. Get it over and done with.” Then her expression softened. “But you're not me.” She brushed the backs of her fingers against Gabrielle's cheek. “You have a good soul, which is saying something.”
Gabrielle put her hand up to the one Xena rested on her cheek. “You're beautiful, Xena—inside and out.”
Blue eyes gazed intently into green.
“Those herbs are still swimming around in that scrambled brain of yours, aren't they?” Xena teased with a wry grin, as she clasped Gabrielle's fingers and rubbed her thumb against them.
“I sure wish you would kiss me now,” Gabrielle's voice pitched low and sultry.
Xena obligingly closed the short distance and gently brushed her lips against Gabrielle's. A jolt of desire shot through both of them at the chaste contact, before Xena deepened the kiss and ran her tongue along even white teeth. Her hands moved to either side of Gabrielle's face and held her steady, as her fingers brushed the silky softness of her hair. Gabrielle's tongue met hers and they savored each other for a long, breathless moment. Xena explored every inch of her lover's mouth, as if for the very first time and Gabrielle responded in kind.
Then the kiss ended on a breathless gasp escaped both of them. Xena backed away just enough that she could look into eyes shining with desire. A smile touched her lips, as she continued to share the air with the woman she loved. And then she noticed that Gabrielle was having a little difficulty breathing.
“That was…um…” Gabrielle held tight to the wrist of one of Xena's arms, as she steadied herself and tried to catch her breath. “Definitely better.”
“Not sure this is such a good idea, though,” Xena's voice was husky with desire. She glanced down at the blanket covering Gabrielle's chest and noticed the bare shoulders moving in a shallow rhythm. “Don't want you passing out on me from a lack of air.”
Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze and realized she wasn't wearing anything other than the bandage wrapped tightly around her broken ribs. The rounded tops of her breasts peeked up over the bandage. And then she had to wonder if she was wearing her customary leather skirt or anything at all. She glanced up to find Xena watching her intently, a small frown creasing her brow. A blush crept up into Gabrielle's cheeks, so she decided a change of subject was in order.
“Whose tent is this, anyway?” Gabrielle asked with a bemused grin. “Yours?”
A dark brow arched. “Why do you say that?”
Gabrielle glanced around at the muted, yet plush furnishings. “Not exactly what the Amazons would have in their quarters.” She quirked her own brow back at Xena. “They're more into skins and leather, feathers and beads—all that. Not real big on velvet and woven hangings.
“Hm,” Xena glanced around and nodded, then returned her gaze to those sparkling green eyes. “Had the Corinthians bring most of it from the palace there. It's not much, but it makes it a bit homier I think. You okay with sharing a tent with me? I could just as easily kick your Amazons…”
“It's fine, Xena,” Gabrielle couldn't help the teasing grin that lit her features. “I'm more than happy to share a tent—and a bed—with you.” Both brows hiked in open invitation. “It's certainly large enough to accommodate both of us.” She patted the blanket next to her.
Just then, there was a rustling outside the tent opening and they could both hear the low murmur of voices. Then a short-cropped head reluctantly appeared just inside the tent opening.
“Beggin' yer pardon, m'lord,” a soldier's gruff voice said, as he kept his eyes averted from the tent's occupants.
“C'mon in, Anthros,” Xena sighed and sat up. “What is it?”
The man entered bearing a tray heaped with covered dishes that elicited enticing aromas. He set the tray on the table nearby and removed the covers with a soldierly flourish.
“Thought ye might enjoy the evenin' meal here in yer tent, rather than out with the men,” he shot a glance at the woman reclining in the Conqueror's bed. “Yer Majesty,” he nodded to Gabrielle. “There's some Amazons waitin' ta see ye.”
Xena crossed the space in two long strides and surveyed the tray of delectable edibles. “Cooks trying to get back in my good graces?” She shot him an appraising glare. “This doesn't look like the normal fare we've been subjected to over the last few weeks.” She lifted a greasy tidbit and popped it in her mouth, savoring the flavors that burst onto her tongue. “Mm, roast venison in mulberry sauce? One of my favorites.”
He nodded. “Amazons sent out several hunting parties and brought back some choice fare—several large bucks, meaty rabbits for a hearty stew, trout from a nearby stream, and some herbs and berries to add a bit of flavor. Surprised us a bit, let me tell ya.”
Xena looked pointedly at Gabrielle. “You up for some stew, Gabrielle?” She then lifted a large steaming bowl for emphasis. “Smells really good.”
“That would be great,” Gabrielle tried to sit up and failed miserably. “Don't think I can eat it lying down, though.”
“Thanks, Anthros, that'll be all,” Xena said as she set the bowl back on the tray and walked over to Gabrielle's bedside. “Oh, and tell the Amazons they can come back later to visit with their queen. She needs to eat and rest first.”
“Aye, m'lord,” he bowed before he pushed the flap aside and exited the tent.
Xena carefully helped Gabrielle into a half-propped position, placing several down-filled pillows behind the woman in the process. She ignored the grunts, muffled groans and hissed exclamations the woman elicited, instead concentrating on getting Gabrielle settled comfortably.
“Better?” Xena finally straightened back up and ruffled the damp bangs on Gabrielle's forehead. She could see the pain in the woman's eyes and knew exactly what it felt like to have broken ribs.
Gabrielle took a moment to catch her breath, as the pain subsided to a dull ache. She hadn't even realized she'd shut her eyes tight, until they fluttered open and caught the look of concern in Xena's eyes.
“I'm okay now,” Gabrielle said through clenched teeth. “Just hurts when I try to move around.”
Xena brushed the tips of her fingers over Gabrielle's face. “I know,” she admitted quietly. “Had some broken ribs a few summers back that took forever to heal. Just give it time, love. They'll be good as new before you know it.”
“Can't wait,” Gabrielle leaned into the gentle touch, let her eyes drift shut and reveled in the feel of Xena's warm fingers on her clammy skin. “Feels so nice.”
Xena continued her gentle stroking for a while longer. She was enjoying the contact as much as Gabrielle apparently was. They had been apart for so long that just sharing the same space was enough for her. Of course, there was so much more she really wanted to do, but that could certainly wait until Gabrielle was stronger.
“You still want some of that stew?” Xena's husky voice finally broke the long silence.
“Mm,” Gabrielle absently nodded. “Hungry.”
“That's a good sign,” Xena got up and crossed to the tray, ladeling some of the fragrant stew into a bowl and returning to the bedside. “You want to feed yourself or…”
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. “Someone comes in here and catches you feeding me like a baby you'll never live it down.”
“More likely it'll be your Amazons,” Xena shrugged and lifted a spoonful of chunky stew to her lips. She blew on it and then fed it to Gabrielle. “They already think I'm nuts, so not a big deal.”
Gabrielle opened her mouth wide and accepted the offering, relishing the savory flavors that tickled her tastebuds. “Mmmm,” she sighed in contentment and chewed the chunks of potatoes, carrots and meat that Xena fed her. “Wha' kinda meat is this again?”
“Rabbit,” Xena answered and then watched sadness flicker in Gabrielle's eyes. “What?”
“Rabbits are really cute,” Gabrielle said. “Except when they're eating the fresh shoots in the garden. That's when mother made Lila and me go out with brooms to chase them away. They're really fast when you're chasing ‘em with something.” Her expression then turned thoughtful. “I had a pet rabbit for while. Kept him in a wire cage in the back of the barn and fed him lettuce and carrots from the garden.”
“He have a name?” Xena asked.
“Jason,” a bemused grin played at the corners of Gabrielle's lips. “He was kind of a golden color and I'd just heard the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. I figured the name fit.” She chewed in thoughtful silence.
“And what happened to Jason the Golden Rabbit?” Xena prodded, when Gabrielle didn't immediately continue.
“Winter hit us pretty hard that year,” Gabrielle shrugged and looked down at the hands in her lap. “Things got tough and…well…” She shrugged again.
“Rabbit stew?” Xena supplied.
Gabrielle nodded sadly. “I didn't know it at the time. Couldn't figure out why Lila was crying and wouldn't eat her stew. It was really delicious and I ate at least two extra helpings. Papa excused himself after only one bowl and went to finish his chores in the barn. He told me to join him when I was done eating. It was one of the few times he invited me to join him for evening chores. Lila and I usually had our own chores to do and had to help mother clear away the dishes after the evening meal.” A single tear slipped from one eye to trail down her cheek. “He showed me the empty cage and said Jason gave his life so our family could have a good meal before the worst of winter set in.”
Xena caught the tear on a finger. “He didn't bother to lie and let you think your rabbit just escaped its cage?”
“Papa wasn't one to lie,” Gabrielle sniffed back any additional tears that might have fallen. Then she lifted her gaze to Xena's and smiled. “He was very blunt when it came time to explain the birds and the bees to Lila and me, too.”
“We had a mare that he bred with a neighbor's stallion one summer,” Gabrielle explained with a shy half-grin. “He caught Lila and me watching the…um…process. Man, that stallion was well hung.” They shared a companionable chuckle. “Anyway, Papa grabbed both of us by the ears and made us watch the whole thing while he explained every agonizing detail. He then talked about what we could expect when he found us both husbands. I was so mortified that I couldn't look him in the eye for an entire moon afterward.”
Xena tried to stifle her amusement behind a hand, but failed miserably.
“Mother was the one who tried to explain sex to me,” Xena turned aside to get her humor under control and set the empty bowl on the side table. She then got up and fixed herself a plate of food, which she then proceeded to share with Gabrielle. “I had no father, so it just fell on her shoulders, like everything else. I didn't have the heart to tell her I wasn't even a virgin by then. I'd already started my monthly cycles a whole year before she got up the nerve to even approach me about sex.”
“You didn't have a father?” Gabrielle turned compassionate eyes on Xena, as she absently chewed the roast venison.
Xena shrugged. “I'm sure I had a father. Everyone does. I just never knew mine. He left us and went off to war when I was a baby. Mom never talked about him. Last we heard, he died. One of his bunkmates passed through Amphipolis one night and told us my father fell from his horse and broke his neck. Not a very heroic way to die, that's for sure.”
Gabrielle reached over and placed a hand on Xena's knee. “I'm sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Xena shrugged again. “Mom did her best at raising us on her own. She also ran the inn for all those years and didn't have a lot of time to spend watching our every move. We mostly grew up learning things the hard way. Toris always tried to push us around, being the oldest and all, but I was much more athletic than he was. His body kind of grew faster than his brain could keep up with. He wasn't real coordinated—still isn't, from what I saw out there on the battlefield, come to think of it. We used to fight a lot. Lyceus was constantly trying to play mediator between us. He was the youngest and always followed me around like a damned puppy.” She smiled wistfully. “I called him my ‘little tagalong'. He hated it, but kept right on following me anyway.”
“Sounds like he adored his big sister and wanted to be just like her,” Gabrielle caught the sadness in Xena's eyes. “Lila wasn't like me at all. She liked boys and wanted nothing more than to find a husband and have lots of babies. I always wanted to leave home and travel around telling stories, have adventures and stuff. I guess I got more than I bargained for.”
“Yeah,” Xena went on. “Anyway, while there was no love lost between Toris and me, Lyceus was another story. I really loved that kid like crazy. I didn't even complain when Mother told me to take him outside to play, because she had work to do and couldn't watch him herself.” She sighed heavily. “When Cortese and his goons raided our village, Lyceus wouldn't go with Mother and the others when they hid in the cellars. He wanted to stand there right beside me and fight, too. I thought I was really something special and promised Mother I would take care of him.” She shook her head. “We got separated during a skirmish outside the village and I didn't even know he'd been mortally wounded. I also didn't know that Toris had run for the woods with a bunch of his cowardly friends. By the time I had a clue what was going on, there were far too few of us to effectively defend the village. It was too late. Cortese burned a bunch of huts, stole most of our livestock and plundered our winter stores. And my little brother died in my arms. When Mother blamed me for Ly's death, I silently vowed to someday return to Amphipolis a warrior and a hero.”
“And then you took off on your own to gather an army,” Gabrielle added.
“Met a lot of interesting people while I was out in the world making a name for myself as a warlord,” Xena continued. “Met an up-and-coming young Roman patrician named Gaius Julius. He's a real piece of work. I hope he rots in Tartarus for everything he did.”
“Why do you say that?” Gabrielle countered. “Did the two of you have a run-in or something?”
“He tried to kill me,” Xena smirked. “I escaped.”
“Have you heard from him since?”
“No, but I kinda think his people are behind some of this crap that's been going on,” Xena sighed. “Pompeii was here when I was captured. Rome is somehow involved. I'm sure of it.”
“What about Ares?” Gabrielle asked skeptically. “I mean, you said yourself that Ares was here and was pulling the strings behind this whole Draco thing.”
“Maybe,” Xena absently gnawed a small bone. “Or maybe I'm just losing my mind. I don't know. Something just doesn't feel right.”
“I don't think you're losing your mind at all, Xena.”
“Hm,” Xena uttered over the food in her mouth. “Or maybe I'm just getting too old for all this crap.”
Gabrielle eyed her lover thoughtfully. “I think you're beautiful and sexy and a great lover.”
Xena chuckled again and playfully chucked Gabrielle under the chin. “Charmer.”
“My champion,” Gabrielle's expression softened.
“Speaking of,” Xena eyed her closely. “What in hades were you thinking when you let that Amazon twerp challenge you for the mask?”
“Thinking?” Gabrielle shot her an innocent look. “Do people actually do that around you?”
“Ahem,” Xena sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. “Don't change the subject, Gabrielle. Besides, you weren't anywhere near me when that happened.”
“Me? Change the subject?”
“Yes, you,” Xena leaned forward until she was nose-to-nose Gabrielle. “And I've seen you artfully change a subject on more than one occasion.”
“Yeah, well, I've been learning from the best,” Gabrielle wiggled her brows a few times. “Have I mentioned lately that I really missed you?” She gingerly lifted a hand to stroke Xena's cheek. “Can we just kiss and forget about everything else going on around us for a while? I don't want to think about anything but us.”
“Mm,” Xena moved to within a hair's breath of Gabrielle's lips and gazed directly into green eyes smoldering with passion. “I guess kissing won't tax you too much.”
“Shh,” Gabrielle let her lips graze Xena's. “Don't tell Agatha or she'll never leave us alone again.”
Xena smiled. “My lips are sealed.”
And then she pressed her lips firmly against Gabrielle's and reveled in the delicious softness that greeted her. She tasted a hint of venison and mulberries on Gabrielle's lips. She then inhaled deeply of Gabrielle's scent and plunged her tongue between invitingly parted lips.
“Kill me!!!” Ephiny screamed for the umpteenth time. “Just do it. Do it. Do it. DO IT!!!”
“Hey!” Eponin shoved the tent flap aside and entered without preamble. “Artemis' left tit, Eph! What is going on in here?”
Ephiny was on a good rant and didn't want to be interrupted, but the weapons master's words pierced through her tantrum and stopped her in her tracks.
“You!” She rounded on Eponin with anger blazing in her hazel eyes.
“Me?” Eponin stopped dead and gazed at the woman who was pointing a bandaged hand accusingly at her. “What'd I do? I just got back. I haven't even had time to clean the blood and gore off me, yet.”
“Good!” Ephiny barked back. “Then you can just take your sword out and run me through. Get it over and done with. End my godsbedamned misery, right here and now!”
A dark brow shot up on Eponin's face, as she set her hands on her hips. “Seriously, Eph? You havin' a melodramatic moment or somethin'? ‘Cause ya sound like a complete nitwit.”
Ephiny rolled her eyes and held her bandaged hands up in front of her. “I am so sick and godsbedamned tired of not being able to use these. What the hades am I supposed to do without my hands? I can't even wipe my own…”
“Whoa there!!!” Eponin held her hands up in an effort to ward off what the regent was about to say. “I get it, ya know? I really do. But it ain't gonna solve anything ta go off half-cocked…”
“I am not half-cocked,” Ephiny got right up in Eponin's face and snarled. “I couldn't be half-damned-cocked if I wanted to. Can't lift anything, including a godsbedamned cup of freakin' ale!”
“Oh,” Eponin glanced at the pitcher on the table and the cup lying on the ground beneath it. “You want some ale?” She grabbed the cup from the ground and poured, then heard a sigh of exasperation behind her and cringed. “Or not.”
Ephiny went over to a leather chair in a corner of the tent and sat down heavily. She knew she was being unfair to Eponin by treating her the way she was, but she just couldn't help it. She was just so tired of relying on other people to do things for her. And not being able to visit with Gabrielle had just been the last straw in an otherwise sucky day.
“Wanna tell me what's really bothering you, Eph?” Eponin was suddenly standing over her with the cup of ale held out in front of her. “You're usually not this testy. You're one of the few people I know who is pretty good at keepin' her head, even in tough situations.”
Ephiny took the cup in both bandaged hands and drank its contents down in several long gulps. She then held the cup back towards Eponin, who silently refilled it for her.
“A few of us went to see the queen,” Ephiny said on a heavy sigh, as she sipped her ale more slowly and watched shadows flicker outside the tent.
“Xena was there,” Ephiny said. “She told us to come back later.”
“How long ago was that?” Eponin prodded.
“Three candlemarks ago,” Ephiny answered with a wry half-grin.
“You think—” Eponin let the sentence hang, trying not to think about Xena and the queen and…um…that.
“Not really, no,” Ephiny shook her head. “I do, however, think Xena is trying to protect her majesty by keeping us away.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“It wasn't Gabrielle who told us to leave,” Ephiny met the expectant brown eyes watching her intently. “I'm her regent, for crying out loud. It's my job to be there and give her a report. But, nooooo, Margalene got the jump on that and then Xena showed up. She kicked Margalene out, and now Xena's guards won't let any of us near the place to see Gabrielle.”
“Maybe her maj just ain't up for visitors right now,” Eponin shrugged. “She was pretty banged up after Agatha got done with her. Man,” she continued, as she rubbed the back of her neck in agitation, “I don't know anyone who could go through what she did and not pass out cold, right from the get-go. You shoulda been there to see what that old codger did to her.” She shivered unconsciously. “Still makes me sick just thinkin' ‘bout it.”
“Focus, Eponin,” Ephiny rounded on her. “We have more important things to take care of than you're queasy stomach.”
“Hey!” Eponin crossed her arms over her chest and harrumphed. “I resent that remark. My stomach ain't queasy.” And then she slapped it to emphasize her point. “I got the constitution of a damned centaur.” She grinned. “But I'm a lot less smelly and a lot better lookin'.”
Ephiny snorted. “Riiiiiight. You just keep thinkin' that and maybe someday you'll actually convince yourself.”
“What? You don't think I'm better lookin' than a stinky centaur?” Eponin groused.
Ephiny stopped her pacing and turned to face the weapons master. “Don't you have better things to do than sit here and aggravate me into wanting to murder you on the spot, Pon?”
Eponin shrugged. “We could have sex.” She wiggled her brows a few times. “Could be kinda fun, considerin' you'd have to come up with some inventive ways not to use your hands.”
Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Do you ever not think about sex?”
“When I'm fighting…”
“Actually,” Eponin stopped and considered thoughtfully. “The two kinda go hand in hand, if you know what I mean.”
Ephiny blew out an exasperated breath. “ Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhh!!!! ”
Eponin just stood there with her arms crossed over her chest and laughed.
Toris sat up straighter in his saddle and tried not to think of the myriad of aches and pains that were traveling through his tired body. His thoughts drifted to the glorious battle that had taken place two nights prior and a small smile tugged at his lips. It had gone exactly as planned. He had swooped down onto the field with the bulk of the army and engaged Draco's men in a heated battle that continued on past the midnight hour. Armored men on both sides fought and died bravely. Blood flowed freely as the screams of the dying intermingled with the battle cries of those who continued onward.
When the centaurs burst onto the scene, many of Draco's men fled in wild-eyed terror like a bunch of cowards, only to be cut down before they could make it beyond the distant line of trees. It was readily apparent that most of Draco's soldiers had never seen the half-man-half-horse creatures of legend—not until that very moment. They would carry their experiences to Charon, as they sailed the River Styx toward Hades' realm. Toris could thank Philemon and Joxer for their part in routing Draco's errant men. They had done well and deserved his thanks and praise for their efforts.
His thoughts turned to the jovial Joxer, Marshall General of Philemon's hoplites. The man didn't seem the warrior type, yet he had fought as bravely and with almost as much skill as any of the others around him. His armor was a mishmash of odds and ends and his double-edged sword seemed unwieldly, yet he managed, just the same. Until that fateful instant.
Toris remembered the feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach as he watched that arrow find its mark in Joxer's eye. The man appeared to barely take notice, until understanding suddenly dawned in his other beady brown eye.
It all happened in less than a heartbeat. One moment Joxer's sword arm was arcing toward an enemy's head and the next he was toppling face-first into the blood-soaked ground. His momentum shoved the arrow right through his skull until it protruded out the other side. He was dead before he even hit the ground. Of that Toris was certain.
Toris barely had time to absorb what had happened to Joxer, before the Amazons swooped in from the north and joined the battle. Their painted bodies and loud battle cries were enough to make even his hair stand on end. It was amazing to watch the warrior women charge onto the field and tear into Draco's men like a pack of crazed wolves. Apparently, word that one of their queens had been hung on a cross was enough to send them into a feeding frenzy of imminent proportions. There was no stopping them, as they tore through Draco's ranks with such ferocity that Toris could only stare in wonder.
But those candlemarks were long behind him, as he guided his steed along the dusty road in the midst of what was once the Conqueror's army. A light breeze blew his shoulder-length hair, as he tipped his face up to the mid-morning sun. His armor still bore the marks of the fight and smelled of sweat, blood and death. But Toris paid it no heed, as he sat up just a bit taller in the saddle.
“General,” Braes voice penetrated his short-lived moment of triumph. “There's still some grumbling among the Conqueror's men.”
“Too bad,” Toris turned his attention to his sister's former general. “Tell them to shut their mouths and follow orders. They're soldiers. Following orders is what they do.”
“Many are still questioning their loyalties, General,” Braes glanced up at the man who vaguely resembled their former leader. “I have to admit, I've had second thoughts myself.”
“You doubt my judgment, Captain Braes?” Toris drew his sword and held the blade tip just below the man's ear. “Because I need to know exactly where your loyalties lie before we continue on with this campaign. I will not have you running back to my lovesick sister with your tail tucked between your legs. She really doesn't need to know that I just borrowed her army for a while.”
“I am loyal to Greece, General,” Braes wisely sidestepped the actual question. “But the Conqueror should know what is going on. Don't you think? After all, she's the one—“
“Ah, ah,” Toris jabbed the point of the blade deeper into Braes' skin, drawing a trickle of blood. “What my sister doesn't know won't hurt her or any of the rest of us. Let her believe we're out here routing the rest of Draco's pathetic troops, rather than headed to Athens where the real action is heating up.”
Braes wisely guided his horse far enough away from Toris that the man's blade was no longer pressed against his skin. What he really wanted to do, however, was drive a dagger into the man's chest and turn tail with the rest of those men still loyal to the Conqueror. How was he supposed to know what would happen when he ordered the army to follow Toris and the others? Hadn't it been the Conqueror herself who had told him she trusted her brother to lead them? Hadn't she told Braes to follow Toris' orders to the letter, because she had put those orders into her brother's hands personally?
“Ah, Philemon!” Toris' voice pulled Braes out of his dark thoughts. “How goes it, my friend and comrade?”
“All goes well, General,” Philemon nodded his light-brown head, as he pulled his mount up on Toris' other side. “Except that I miss General Joxer. May Hades honor him with a place in Elysia for his bravery.”
“I'm sure he already has, my friend,” Toris shifted in his saddle. “Are Sisyphus, Gregor and Cleades and their men still with us?”
“They are, as are the Corinthian cavalrymen,” Philemon nodded. “Do you think we'll have enough to face off against the Romans, General? Maybe we should send edicts throughout the rest of the country and bring more troops in from the outlying regions. It would be an honor to take my army and round up as many as will join our cause.”
“I'm not sure it's that simple, my friend,” Toris shook his head. “If the Roman scum have taken up residence behind the walls of Athens, as well as in the surrounding countryside, then chances are we're in for a very long siege. We both know what that will mean for those who were left behind in Athens. Extra troops won't get there in time, I'm afraid. Things are just too precarious at the moment.”
“You said yourself that Pompeii Magnus is willing to negotiate for the release of Athens and all those in it, including King Lias and my lovely Princess Diana,” Philemon said, his voice catching on the last. “He is even willing to pull his legions out of Greece completely, as long as we…”
“Enough!” Toris cut the man off with an angry snarl, before Philemon could say more. He then glanced at Braes on his other side. His expression softened. “There is far more at stake here than meets the eye, my friend.”
“How many legions are we talking, General Toris?” Braes spoke up. “If there is only the one, then we may have a fighting chance. We can charge into Athens and crush the Romans before they can establish a firm foothold.”
“First things first, Captain,” Toris didn't miss the fact that the man had moved a safe distance away from him. “Why don't you take yourself back to your troops and convince them that what we do is for the good of Greece. Run along, now. I'd hate to have to start rounding up deserters and killing them, just because they think they hold some misguided loyalties to my lovesick sister.”
Toris waited until Braes turned his mount and cantered back to the men marching behind them. He then turned his attention back to Philemon.
“Are you trying to undermine my authority, Philemon?” Toris hissed to the man. “Braes is still one of Xena's closest advisors. So telling him that we're about to give his men—Xena's men—to the Romans for their campaign in Gaul is a sure way to have my sister down on our heads in a damned heartbeat!”
“M-my apologies, General,” Philemon stuttered. “I didn't think…”
“That's precisely why I'm here, Philemon,” Toris cut him off and reined his temper in with a heavy sigh. “Philemon, my friend, your beautiful wife and her father are in grave danger. It is up to us to make sure they do not spend one heartbeat longer than necessary in Pompeii's clutches. Much is riding on our success in bringing the Conqueror's troops to Athens, so Pompeii and his legions can take them to Gaul and free Athens from Rome's stranglehold. Do you understand what is at stake here, my friend? Do you?”
Philemon nodded vigorously. “Y-yes, General. I will do my utmost to make sure the others do, as well. Sisyphus, Gregor and Cleades need to know that much is riding on our success.” He put a fist to his chest in salute and turned his mount around. “I thank the gods for sending you to us, General. You have been a ray of hope in an otherwise dreary situation. Thank you, my friend.”
Toris nodded solemnly to the man, as Philemon rode back to where the other three rulers were. He then returned his attention to the road ahead. Yes, everything was going exactly as planned. Soon he would deliver not only Xena's troops into Pompeii's hands, but the rest of the army, as well. A smirk tugged at the corners of his thin lips.
“I outsmarted you, sister dear,” Toris muttered to himself. “Too bad you're so lost in your newfound love to even know you've been played for a fool.”
He chuckled, as he continued to ride at the head of the army. It had been so easy to convince King Lias, King Gregor, King Cleades and the rest to join him on his quest. After all, he had Pompeii Magnus there in Athens to put on a good show. All it took was a bit of verbal manipulation for the rulers to think that it was in their best interests to join Toris in the campaign against Draco.
Of course, that was just a ruse for Toris to steal all their armies and have not a one of them the wiser. He had been the one to make the deal with Pompeii Magnus. It had all been a set-up from the very start. Draco and Pompeii managed to flush Xena out of her little backwater hole in Surra. It didn't take much to defeat her. Their combined forces were enough to overcome her overblown ego. Pompeii then conscripted her troops as Greek hoplites and sent them on to Caesar, who awaited their arrival in Gaul. But why stop there?
When Pompeii learned that Xena was Toris' sister and that Toris hated his conquering sibling with a passion rooted in deep humiliation, the Roman knew he had the perfect ally in his quest to secure more troops for the campaign in Gaul. It was all so easy. All Toris had to do was agree to be the one who tied everything together. And he was in the final stages of doing just that.
Once Toris delivered the promised troops at the gates of Athens, Pompeii would set him up as Prefect of the Roman province of Greece and overall governor of the land. With Athens as the new seat of power, Toris would have control over all the trade and commerce in that city, as well as in Corinth and the villages along the trade routes. He would also only answer to the Roman Triumverate—Julius Caesar, Pompeii Magnus and Crassus. It was the perfect situation and the best possible way for Toris to prove, once and for all, that he was the better choice for ruler of Greece.
Toris smiled to himself as he sat atop the dapple gray gelding Pompeii presented to him just before his departure from Athens. He knew the plan was working and everything was falling into place. All that remained was his triumphal entry into Athens. Then he could sit back and watch his sister's reputation wither away and die, even if she did not.
Xena lay on her side with Gabrielle spooned in front of her. She could tell it was nearing the noon hour, by the way the sun peeked through a small pinhole in the tent ceiling overhead. Noon. She hadn't felt this lazy in a very long time. But it felt good to just lay there with her lover in her arms.
Gabrielle's even breathing told Xena that she was still soundly asleep. They had both slept until late in the morning, when one of the Amazons silently entered with a tray of food. The woman didn't even glance their way as she set the tray on the table and exited without a backward glance. After eating their meal in relative silence, Xena proceeded to help Gabrielle with a quick bath. The pain was only slightly evident on the blond woman's features, as she soaked in a makeshift tub made from animal hides. The bath did its job, though. Not only was Gabrielle clean, but she was also more relaxed and dropped immediately into a deep sleep afterward.
Xena inhaled the scent of sandlewood that still clung to Gabrielle's hair and body from the soap they'd used to get her clean. She was used to the scent on her own skin, since that's what she normally used. But it fit Gabrielle, too. Xena was content to just lay there with the woman in her arms. It was so nice to just be together after all that had happened.
But then it occurred to her that something was missing. It was far too quiet outside for her tastes. Where was the army? Had it really taken them that long to chase down the remainder of Draco's army? And why wasn't there a contingent of angry Amazons pounding on the tent post outside?
The questions rolled around in her head, but Xena didn't really have the compunction to get up and find the answers. She was perfectly content to just lay there with Gabrielle in her arms. Wasn't she?
“Dinar for your thoughts,” a sleepy voice mumbled beneath Xena's chin.
“You're awake,” Xena said with some surprise.
“You're fidgeting,” Gabrielle said on a small yawn. “'Sides, normal people don't sleep like the dead when there's a war going on around them.” She snuggled deeper into Xena's embrace. “Glad you didn't take off on me, though. ‘S nice to wake up in your arms.”
Xena kissed her way from Gabrielle's bare shoulder to a pink ear. “Mm, I'm glad, too.” A frown marred her brow. “But—”
“But?” Gabrielle turned her head enough to look into concerned blue eyes.
“It's too quiet out there,” Xena said, her eyes on the tent opening. “I should…”
Xena was up and dressing in her leathers and armor before either one could finish the thought. Gabrielle didn't move. She just watched with rapt fascination, as Xena donned the black outfit with ease.
“You think something's happened?” Gabrielle asked, as she eased onto her back and was mildly surprised when her ribs didn't so much as twinge.
“I think something's going on,” Xena finished tying off one arm bracer and went to work on the other. “I don't even hear the fighting anymore.”
“You think they finally finished the job?” Gabrielle gingerly lifted herself up onto her elbows and shifted enough that she could actually sit upright. “Oo, that's definitely better.”
“You okay?” Xena glanced in Gabrielle's direction with a raised eyebrow. “Ribs better today?”
“Much,” Gabrielle answered, as she waited for the world to right itself again and then moved her legs around until her feet were planted firmly on the ground. Then she glanced up at Xena towering over her. “I think your amazing recuperative powers rubbed off on me while we were sleeping together.”
Xena noticed that Gabrielle kept one arm close to her body. She wondered if it was because she was holding the blanket in place or because her ribs were still tender.
“You want me to help you get dressed?” Xena eyed her lover's lack of attire. “I take it you want to come with me and find out what's going on, too.”
“You mean you're not going to order me to stay in bed?” Gabrielle shot Xena a skeptical look.
“Would you follow my orders if I did?” Xena shot back.
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head with a rueful grin. “It's time I got back to doing what I do best.”
“Which is?” Xena asked with a teasing gleam.
“Following you around and causing trouble,” Gabrielle smirked wryly. “Can't let you have all the fun, now, can I?”
Xena offered Gabrielle a hand up. “No, I guess not.”
Gabrielle took the proffered hand and gingerly stood up. It took her a moment to steady herself and straighten up completely, but eventually she was standing on shaky legs. She leaned heavily on Xena for support and was grateful for the tall woman's presence at her side.
“Thanks,” Gabrielle kept her expression completely neutral.
“Oh, don't thank me yet,” Xena felt Gabrielle lean against her and just waited patiently for the woman to get her bearings. “You're the one who has to face Agatha and explain why you're out of bed.”
“Erg,” Gabrielle uttered. “Forgot about her.”
“Yeah,” Xena chuckled. “She came by while you were sleeping and just glared daggers at me as she checked your ribs. Thought she was going to tell me to leave you the hades alone.”
Gabrielle turned her gaze up to Xena's. “Did she?”
“Nope,” Xena answered with a proud grin. “I kinda growled at her, and she left with a shake of her head. I think she was mumbling something about ‘kids these days' as she left.”
Gabrielle felt a blush color her cheeks. “She saw…um…”
Mortified beyond belief that Agatha had caught them naked in bed together, Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. It wasn't like the woman hadn't seen her naked before. She remembered being taken care of by Agatha on more than one occasion. It was just a bit disconcerting to know that Agatha had caught Xena in bed with her.
“Yeah,” Xena smiled. “I wasn't about to jump out of there in nothing but the skin I was born in, at least not with her standing over me. Besides, you were so out of it that the tent could have burst into flames and you would have slept right through it.”
Xena retrieved Gabrielle's Amazon leathers and helped the woman into them. It took them longer than expected, but eventually they were both ready to face whatever was outside their little world.
The sun was shining brightly overhead and the heat was readily apparent, as Xena pushed the tent flap aside and held it open for Gabrielle to step through. There wasn't much going on. The place actually looked deserted. A few Amazons moved around the encampment, but that was it.
“Hey, yer maj!” Eponin's call stopped both of them in their tracks, as the weapons master approached with a jaunty spring in her step. “Good to see ya up and about finally, yer maj.”
“Thanks, Eponin,” Gabrielle tried not to let it appear as if she was leaning too heavily on Xena for support, even though she was. “It's good to be outside.”
“Eph's been beside herself with wanting to get over here to see ya,” Eponin glanced up at Xena and glared. “But she knew that you needed your rest. She'll be glad to know you're up and about.”
“Well,” Gabrielle was oblivious to the silent exchange happening between the two women. “Why don't you lead the way, then? I'd like to talk to Ephiny—maybe get a feel for what's been happening lately.”
“Sure,” Eponin eyed the taller woman, who merely shrugged. “You got any objections, Conqueror?”
“She's your queen,” Xena merely shrugged. “Besides, I'm just her champion right at the moment. The Conqueror is taking a little break until the army returns.” She then glanced around at the deserted encampment. “Speaking of which, you heard anything from Toris or the others?”
Eponin shrugged, as she led the way toward a small cluster of tents on the far side of the main encampment. There was more activity over where the Amazons had set up their camp. Women went about various tasks, while others sat around small campfires and talked in hushed voices. Weapons were cleaned and sharpened, while arrows were being made to replace those that were lost during the battle. It was quite orderly and made Xena twitch.
“We ain't heard nothin',” Eponin said, as she made a beeline for one tent, in particular. “Damned idgets took off after Draco's men like their asses were on fire. Even saw Tyldus and his crew chasin' a bunch of ‘em off into the woods below the southern boundary. Sol and a few others came back late last night, but haven't been very talkative. That's kinda what's got Eph's leathers in a bind. She wants a report, but there ain't no one to give her one. And don't get me started on her hands. She'd love to wrap ‘em around Draco's throat, let me tell ya.”
“Well, that's not going to happen,” Xena remarked, as Eponin ducked her head into the tent, mumbled something unintelligible and then motioned them to enter.
“Yeah, I know,” Eponin said, as she held the flap aside for the two women.
“Hello, Ephiny,” Gabrielle walked over to her regent on shaky limbs and hugged her.
“Hey, yourself,” Ephiny gingerly returned the hug, careful not to squeeze Gabrielle's ribs. “Xena,” she greeted the woman towering behind Gabrielle. “Thanks for bringing her over here, but I could have just as easily come to you.”
Gabrielle stepped away from Ephiny and felt a presence step up behind her. She leaned into Xena's taller form, as she felt the fatigue hit her unexpectedly.
“I think I'd better sit down,” Gabrielle broke the uncomfortable silence that had fallen.
A moment later a chair appeared behind her. She gingerly sat down and only winced once when a twinge in her healing ribs raced up her side. After settling more comfortably in the leather-strapped chair, she finally let out a tired sigh.
Eponin went to a side table and poured several cups of wine from a pitcher. She handed them around, until everyone had some of the spicy Amazon wine. She made sure Ephiny had her cup in both hands and then pulled up a chair for the regent.
“I'm glad to see you're feeling well enough to move around, My Queen,” Ephiny said, as she sat down in a chair across from Gabrielle.
“How are the hands, Eph?” Gabrielle asked, as she watched Ephiny gingerly hold the cup of wine and sip from it two-handed. “Xena told me what happened.”
Ephiny shot a glance at the tall woman in dark leather, before returning her frank attention to the woman in front of her. “Agatha holds out hope that I'll eventually be able to use them again, at least to a certain degree.” She frowned. “Can't say that I'm all that optimistic about it, though. I'm a warrior. My hands are my life.”
“There's more to being an Amazon than fighting, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said. “As my regent…”
“I don't know if that's such a good idea anymore,” Ephiny cut her off impatiently. “My being your regent, I mean.” She finished without meeting Gabrielle's gaze. “Without my hands…”
Gabrielle sat forward and instantly regretted the move, but hid her discomfort as she put a hand on Ephiny's knee.
“Look at me, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said in a tone that brooked no argument. She waited for the hazel eyes to meet hers. “I don't care if you ever get the use of your hands back. I didn't choose you to be my regent because of your skills with a blade, Ephiny. I chose you because we have one very important thing in common.”
“What's that?” Ephiny cocked her head at the sincerity in Gabrielle's gaze.
“We both want what's best for the tribe,” Gabrielle answered after a long moment. “Even if it means we sacrifice our own wellbeing for the greater good of our sisters. That's what family does for family, Ephiny.” She squeezed the regent's knee and then sat back. “All of you are my sisters. And sisters need to stick together.”
Xena noticed the subtle stiffness in Gabrielle's motions, but chose not to comment on it just then. Time enough later to give Gabrielle the chewing she deserved. She knew Gabrielle was hurting. But she also knew her lover had to do this. It was obvious to her that the regent's confidence was shaken.
Hades! Her own damned confidence wasn't exactly at its peak, either. Everything was so shaky for her right then. Xena wasn't sure where the army was and was mentally kicking herself for spending so much time with Gabrielle, rather than out there with her men—wherever ‘out there' was. What exactly was going on? Were they still chasing down Draco's men? Or was something else afoot? A tingling at her nape told her the latter was probably true. Something was definitely wrong.
“You okay, Xena?” Eponin's words suddenly pulled the dour woman out of her reverie.
“Fine,” Xena responded with a little shake. “Just thinking.”
“About what?” Ephiny eyed the woman standing behind Gabrielle with curiosity. “You look like you just ate an unripe lemon.”
“Where the hades is the army?” Xena crossed her arms over her chest.
“No clue,” Eponin shrugged. “Queen Grenella called the Amazons back at daybreak. Sol arrived earlier, but she hasn't said a word since she got here. I'm hopin' the rest show up soon. Not sure I want to send a rescue party out after ‘em—not the way our luck's been with rescue parties.”
“Pon, why don't you take care of that little…um…thing we were talking about earlier,” Ephiny gave the woman a covert signal. “You know the one I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Eponin said. “I'll just…” She shot a thumb over her shoulder before disappearing out the tent opening without another word.
“What's going on Eph?” Gabrielle asked soberly. “What aren't you telling me?”
“We had a straggler stumble into camp late last night,” Ephiny answered after a long silence. “She's one of Jezreal's warriors.”
“Jezreal?” Xena piped up.
“Yes,” Ephiny nodded. “She and her warriors disappeared from the battlefield and no one saw what happened to them.”
“Weren't they assigned to ride with the centaurs?” Gabrielle knew just enough of the battle plan to realize that much. “How could they disappear when they were with the centaurs?”
“Because the centaurs disappeared, too,” Ephiny's expression turned grim.
“What?” Xena stepped around Gabrielle to stand next to her. “Where did the centaurs go?”
“That's what we want to know,” Ephiny said. “So Queen Grenella sent out a patrol at dusk yesterday. They didn't return, either.”
A deep frown furrowed Gabrielle's brow. “Something's not right.”
Xena's brow hiked at the news. “Amazons and centaurs disappearing without a trace. No, there's something definitely wrong with that.”
“When Eliana showed up in camp last night, we were hopeful that our questions would be answered,” Ephiny continued. “But she doesn't remember a damned thing. Barely remembers her damned name. Looks like she was dragged behind a chariot for leagues and left for dead.”
“How did she make it back here, then?” Gabrielle gave Ephiny a confused look.
“Not sure,” Ephiny shrugged. “Agatha's been treating her since she came in. The old woman wouldn't let anyone near Eliana at first, so we had a terrible time trying to question her.”
“Then how do you know she doesn't remember anything?” Xena put in with a suspicious scowl.
“Queen Grenella pulled rank,” Ephiny grinned wryly. “Told Agatha she needed a moment with Eliana and then grilled her as best she could. Got very little out of her, though. Poor woman's brains were so scrambled that she kept mumbling nonsense. Queen Grenella couldn't make sense of any of it.”
Both Xena and Gabrielle considered that in silence. The only thing that either one of them could come up with was that Eliana was one of the missing Amazons from Queen Jezreal's contingent. What did it mean, though?
“Doesn't make sense,” Xena shook her head. “Damned army hasn't checked in since they went chasing after Draco's troops.”
“And then Queen Jezreal and her warriors disappear,” Gabrielle added. “Not to mention an entire centaur legion is gone without a trace.”
“Then a survivor shows up here and can't remember anything?” Ephiny put in with a bewildered frown. “Sounds fishy to me.”
“Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like what all of this means?” Xena shook her head. “Why can't anything be simple?”
It was a puzzle and one that Xena couldn't quite piece together—yet. But she wasn't one to just wait around for answers. It was time to find out for herself what was going on. She turned to Gabrielle.
“I have something I need to take care of,” Xena said to her lover. “Will you be okay here with Ephiny until I get back?”
“Bwa…” Gabrielle didn't have time to say more as Xena turned on her heel and left the tent without another word.
“That was weird,” Ephiny commented, as she saw the tent flap moving aside again. “Ah, ‘bout time you came back.”
“Hey,” Eponin said, as she moved inside with two girls tucked shyly behind her. “Queen Gabrielle, there's two young'uns here to see ya.”
Trika and Besine suddenly moved out from behind Eponin and darted over to Gabrielle, wrapping her in twin hugs. They glanced at Ephiny and smiled, then turned their innocent smiles on Gabrielle.
“Oh,” Trika stumbled back with an apologetic half-smile and pulled her sister with her. “Sorry, Your Majesty. We forgot you're hurt.”
“It's okay,” Gabrielle gave them each a warm smile. “It's really good to see you two again. How are you?”
“We're…” Trika shrugged. “Things were a little scary the other night with those crosses and all that fighting. People were screaming and dying. It was really bad.” Both girls shivered unconsciously and glanced at Ephiny's hands. “Queen Ephiny was really brave, though.” They gave her shy smiles.
“Queen Ephiny is one of the bravest people I know,” Gabrielle confirmed with a nod. “That's why I appointed her as regent of our tribe.”
“I'm glad,” Trika agreed. “I can't wait to be an Amazon warrior like her. Eponin says she's gonna train both of us personally. She's really nice, and she's really funny, too.”
“Yeah, a real kick in the…” Ephiny stopped and cleared her throat when she caught the admonishment in Gabrielle's expression. “So, Pon, did you bring that other…um…well, you know.”
“Hey, girls,” Eponin walked over to the two. “Say goodbye to her maj. You'll see her later and you can tell her all ‘bout everything.”
The girls gingerly hugged Gabrielle, who hugged them back. Then Eponin herded them back out of the tent, leaving Gabrielle and Ephiny alone again. Gabrielle shot her regent a bewildered look.
“Something else I should know about, Eph?” Gabrielle finally asked.
“Yeah,” Ephiny stood up and moved to help Gabrielle do the same. “You might want to come outside for this one, though.”
Gabrielle allowed Ephiny to help her to her feet. She winced and clamped her lips tightly shut when her ribs protested the movement, but otherwise remained stoicly silent. She could tell from Ephiny's sudden change in demeanor that whatever was next wasn't going to be pleasant.
They slowly made their way toward the tent opening and walked outside into the bright sunlight. There were a few birds singing sweetly in the trees and a light breeze still blew. The Amazon encampment was still bustling with activity, as the warrior women went about various chores and tasks that kept them busy.
Gabrielle watched a small group approaching with Eponin in the lead. The weapons master was holding her short sword in front of her and walking in front of someone Gabrielle could barely see.
“Your Majesties,” Eponin bowed formally before Gabrielle, earning raised brows from her.
“Eponin, what's going on?” Gabrielle watched the weapons master straighten and didn't catch sight of the woman standing between two armed guards until Eponin stepped to one side. “Nora?”
“She was in the pit with us in Draco's camp,” Ephiny explained. “Damned woman.”
Gabrielle could see that the woman's face was still slightly swollen and bruised. She looked much the worse for wear than the last time Gabrielle had seen her. Then a shiver raced down her spine when she realized when it was she'd seen Nora last.
“What happened to her?” Gabrielle asked softly, when Nora remained stubbornly silent. “Who did this?”
“I did,” Ephiny raised her chin just a little and eyed the battered woman with undisguised disdain. “She was bragging about her part in what happened to you at the keep.”
Nora's eyes suddenly sparked and she spat at Gabrielle. “Damned little mouse! You shoulda died that night! Thought we killed ye, I did. Sure didn't look like ye was movin' after Bart tossed ye around like a little sack of potatoes.”
Gabrielle felt her guts tighten at the hatred in the woman's words and the bitter memories those words conjured. Vague images of what Nora and her cohort, Bart, had done to her swam before her mind's eye and she faltered slightly. She could almost feel his hands on her again, as she fought helplessly to free herself. Then…Her eyes closed and she was right back there as Bart raped her and Nora egged him on.
“My Queen?” Ephiny steadied Gabrielle when she faltered.
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle shook herself free of the dark memories and squared her shoulders just a little, as her expression hardened. “Why is she here? Why did you bring her before me?”
“Judgment,” Ephiny supplied in a flat tone. “She deserves to be punished for what she did to you, My Queen.”
Gabrielle watched Nora's expression change. The woman was a bully and, true to form, when she realized she was going to pay for her crimes against Gabrielle, her cowardice surfaced. It was almost comical to watch the defiance suddenly shift to fear in the blink of an eye. But Gabrielle could find no humor in the situation.
“W-what?” Nora stuttered, as her eyes darted from one Amazon to the next. “Wh-who are you people? Y-you can't p-punish me. You've no right!” And then the fear turned to anger, as Nora glared daggers at Gabrielle. “Sh-she's the one! Sh-she deserved what she got fer what sh-she did. Tain't right, I tell ya! Unnatural! Her sleepin' with the Conqueror! Tweren't right fer the two of ‘em ta be rollin' ‘round like a couple sex-crazed weasels!” And then a feral grin split Nora's features. “Bart was just teachin' the little mouse a lesson, he was. Showin' her what…”
The rest of the words died on Nora's lips, as Eponin backhanded the woman hard across the face. “Enough! Ya bitch! Ya don't get to speak, unless her majesty asks ya a direct question.”
The guards on either side of the woman tightened their grip, as Nora slumped between them. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to wash her hands of the whole situation, until she noticed the small crowd of Amazons gathering around them and realized many of them had already overheard what was going on.
“What do you want to do with her, My Queen?” Ephiny's voice pierced the silence that had descended over everyone.
Gabrielle surveyed the faces around her. Some of those who had gathered wore curious expressions, while others glared at Nora with undisguised hatred. There were a few from the other tribes who looked on expectantly, as if awaiting the outcome to see if Gabrielle was worthy to lead her tribe.
“Gabrielle?” Ephiny prodded quietly.
“I'm not exactly sure what the protocol is for a situation like this,” Gabrielle said honestly. “I mean, I wasn't an Amazon when Nora did what she did to me. So…” She finished with a shrug.
“Maybe I can help, Queen Gabrielle,” Grenella's voice carried over the gathered crowd, as the way parted to allow her to join the other two queens. “After all,” she continued in a loud voice, “I do have some experience in this sort of thing.”
Chuckles and murmurs drifted through the steadily-increasing number of women gathering around them.
“We would be honored, Queen Grenella,” Ephiny bowed her head in deference to the woman's status as eldest monarch of the tribes. “Your wisdom is greatly appreciated.”
Grenella eyed the regent for a moment. “Are you saying I'm old, Queen Ephiny?”
“Uh…um…” Ephiny stuttered, as her brow furrowed.
“Because it's true,” Grenella winked at both Ephiny and Gabrielle, before turning to face the accused. “What do you have to say for yourself, young woman?”
Nora, who had been staring down at the ground and listening intently to the exchange, raised her eyes to meet the timeless ones staring back at her. “I don't answer to you, old woman.”
Eponin started forward to cuff Nora again, but was stopped by a wave of Grenella's gnarled hand.
“Let her speak,” Grenella's voice softened. “She obviously has a great deal to say.”
“You people have no right!” Nora spat. “I belong only to the Conqueror! Only she has the right to pass judgment on me.”
“She's not here, right now,” Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest. “Xena went to take care of some things.”
“Besides,” Ephiny added, “the Conqueror had nothing to do with what you did to Queen Gabrielle.”
“Oh, didn't she?” Nora's features split into a sardonic grin, as she turned her gaze to meet Gabrielle's. “She left you in charge. You! A little nobody mousey chit not worth the shit on the bottoms of anyone's shoes.”
Gabrielle's expression remained impassive. “Is that why you and Bart did what you did? Or was there something else? Jealousy, perhaps?”
Nora considered her next words carefully, as she glanced around at the women surrounding her. Then she seemed to make a decision and lifted her chin defiantly. “I did what I had to do, knowing what I knew.”
“Which was?” Grenella prodded.
“You people don't know the half of it,” Nora chuckled wryly. “What we did to the little slut you keep calling ‘queen' is nothing compared to what's really going on here.”
“So, tell us,” Gabrielle felt the weariness creeping back in and wanted nothing more than to go back to Xena's tent and collapse on their shared bed. But that wasn't going to happen anytime soon, so she just squared her shoulders and hoped for the best. “Tell us what you know, Nora. Maybe you'll earn some clemency for what you did to me.”
Nora cocked her head and just stared at Gabrielle with open disdain. “I ain't talking to the likes of you, little mouse.”
Eponin didn't even think about what she did next, she just did it. “Stop! Calling her that!” She backhanded Nora so hard that the two guards had a hard time keeping their hold on her. “You will address her as Queen Gabrielle, you worthless scrap of centaur droppings.”
“Eponin!” Three voices chimed in at once—Gabrielle's, Ephiny's and Grenella's.
“That's enough,” Grenella, who was closest to the weapons master, stepped in between Eponin and Nora.
Nora, however, merely chuckled humorlessly, as blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and one nostril. “You think I care anymore what you people do to me? Huh?” Her eyes hardened as she looked directly into Gabrielle's. “I lost everything when I pledged myself to Draco and gave him the information he was looking for.” She spat out a glob of bloody saliva and grinned evilly, as some of it trickled down her chin. “And I would do it all again, if only to see you writhing in agony on that cold stone floor, little mouse.”
Gabrielle felt like she was going to throw up. Her world narrowed to a pinprick in that instant, as she gazed into eyes that held nothing but hatred for her. It was hard for her to imagine anyone hating her as much as Nora did. What had she done?
“Why? What did I ever do to you, Nora?” Gabrielle's voice was stronger than she'd expected. “Why do you hate me so much?”
Nora's laugh was humorless and her expression full of malice. If she could have burned Gabrielle with her gaze, she would not have hesitated. “Because ye were nothing when ye came ta us. She made ye believe ye was better than the rest of us. Ye slept and ate in yer own room downstairs all those weeks and she never did a thing to stop ye. Then she took ye to her bed and gave ye that room near hers. I was her loyal servant for many a year, ‘til ye came along. Then suddenly ye're her favorite little plaything and she can't get enough of bein' ‘round ye. Even when ye interrupted her during that meeting with her advisors—a crime that shoulda resulted in yer immediate execution—ye still escaped scott-free. Then, ta top it all off, she puts ye in charge of us all and rides off ta face Draco? Tweren't right! Tweren't right, I tell ya!”
Gabrielle took a few steps closer to Nora and stood her ground. “You were jealous? That's why you did what you did?”
“Jealous?” Nora struggled against the hold her guards had on her in an attempt to lash out at Gabrielle. “I was hers before ye came along! My loyalties were never in question, but ye changed all that, now, didn't ye?”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. “You fed Draco information that helped him defeat Xena.” It wasn't a question but a statement of fact.
Nora chuckled humorlessly. “Twas the least I could do. His man promised me a place of honor in his household and I jumped at the chance ta show her lordship just what she'd missed. Draco was pleased, he was.”
“What did you tell him?” Gabrielle asked, as she leaned in close enough to smell the blood and sweat leeching from the woman.
Nora's tone lowered conspiratorially. “Anything he wanted to know,” and then she chuckled maniacly. “Told him how many troops her lordship took with her and how many were left behind to guard the keep. Told him the lay of the land and all about ye bein' appointed as overseer.” Her beady eyes met Gabrielle's again. “That's when he suggested I teach you a lesson. Thought it might help the others. Take ‘em down a peg or two.” An evil grin appeared. “Gave him the ledgers, so's he knew exactly what the figures were and how much was in the royal coffers. He was really quite interested to know what Athens was contributing to her lordship and was a tad surprised when there was nothin' on record. Imagine that.”
Gabrielle's brow furrowed even more. “What does Athens have to do with any of this?”
“Oh, don't ye know?” Nora straightened up some and let her smile widen. “'Twas Athens all along.”
Gabrielle reached out, putting a hand on Nora's shoulder and shaking it. “What does Athens have to do with any of this, Nora?”
Nora shook off the hand and craned her neck enough that she was eye-to-eye with Gabrielle. “'Tis where the Romans set up shop, little mouse,” she said in a loud whisper, as a crazed look entered her beady eyes. “They're gatherin' conscripts fer one of them campaigns of theirs. Throwin' the able-bodied onto their ships and sailin' away with ‘em, they are. ‘Twas their plan ta set Draco up as Prefect up north. He just had to get rid of her what was standin' in his way, first. Conqueror never woulda abided that kinda thing. She hates the Romans more'n she hated the warlords what once ruled these parts.”
“Romans?” Gabrielle turned abruptly and nearly groaned aloud, as a sharp pain stabbed up her side. “Ow,” she winced and sucked in a breath, instead. As she let the breath out slowly, her gaze caught Ephiny's concerned expression. “I'm fine.”
“Yeah, I can see that, Your Majesty,” the regent shot back with a wry grin. She grabbed one of the nearby Amazons and pulled her close. “Fetch a chair from the tent for Queen Gabrielle.”
The Amazon quickly disappeared inside the tent and reemerged carrying one of the leather chairs. Ephiny took it from the woman and set it down in front of Gabrielle. She then stood next to it and silently motioned with her curly head.
“My Queen?” Ephiny urged. “Your throne awaits you.”
Gabrielle reluctantly sat down, but shot Ephiny a scowl and muttered, “I'll deal with you later.”
“Promises, promises,” Ephiny added under her breath with a disguised chuckle.
“Are you two done?” Grenella shot them both admonishing scowls of her own. “Because we're kind of in the middle of something here.”
Duly chastised, Gabrielle gingerly sat back in the chair. “I'm done. Are you?” She met Nora's beady gaze staring back at her. “You were saying something about Romans, if I recall. Do you have anything else to add before I pass judgment?”
“Ye're a git if ye think ye'll get anythin' else outta me,” Nora replied with a sardonic half-grin. “Ye don't scare me a bit, little mouse. And neither do yer scantily-clad lackies.”
Gabrielle sighed heavily and glanced at the three women on either side of her. Grenella's expression held a touch of mild bemusement and tolerant acceptance, while both Ephiny and Eponin looked like they wanted to tear Nora limb from limb.
“You always were an imbecile, Nora,” Gabrielle finally said and then met the amused faces staring back at her. “Well?”
“I say we use her for target practice,” Eponin piped in without hesitation. “Our archers need a bit of live practice before I send ‘em out to hunt again. She'd be the perfect query.”
Ephiny just chuckled at the woman's words, as Gabrielle caught Nora's wide-eyed look from the corner of her eye. She would have laughed, if the situation weren't so dire.
“Queen Grenella? Any thoughts?” Gabrielle turned her attention to the elder queen.
“I've a mind to cut that impudent tongue out of her head and send her scavenging,” Grenella tossed in. “But Eponin's suggestion has merit, too.”
“Eh, we could do both,” Eponin added with a wicked grin. “Cut her tongue out and send her scramblin' for the trees. Then sick the archers after her to give chase.”
Gabrielle pictured the scene in her mind's eye and shuddered. “I'm not sure that's what I was looking for.”
“Why not?” Ephiny put in with a smirk. “Damned woman isn't worth the time it would take to gut her like a fish and she's obviously not going to give us anymore useful information, so…”
“All right, all right!” Nora blurted, her eyes still wide with fear. “I'll tell you everything I know. Just, please, don't cut my tongue out or shoot me full of arrows.”
Silence reigned for several heartbeats, as glances were exchanged and a silent understanding passed between the three rulers and the weapons master.
“Okay,” Gabrielle regarded the woman with guarded interest. “Talk.”
Xena returned to her tent in the mostly-deserted encampment. She quickly donned her armor and tucked an array of weapons away on her person. Several gleaming daggers were taken from an oiled leather satchel and slipped into various small sheaths hidden in the leathers she wore. She also pulled her sword from the trunk near one wall and attached the scabbard to the hooks on her back. After shifting the worn leather around until it finally settled into place, she then pulled her chakram from the trunk.
Holding it up to the light streaming in from the tent opening, Xena examined the razor-sharp edge for knicks or dings. There were none. She wasn't surprised. The weapon had been a gift from Ares and was probably forged by Hephestus himself. It was a weapon of the gods. The silver surface of the jewel-encrusted weapon gleamed in the sunlight and cast dancing beams of light around the tent walls as she shifted the weapon in her hand.
After a final turn of the chakram, she hooked it at her waist and stood up. She was ready for battle. Unfortunately, she had no army to follow her. That still irked her and sent an itch of forboding down her spine.
“Toris,” she growled deep in her throat. “I knew he wasn't the changed man he appeared to be.”
She impatiently emerged from the tent and surveyed the mostly-empty encampment. There were a few men near the healers' tents and several drovers and other support personnel over near the supplies. Other than that, there were no soldiers anywhere. She turned a circle and her intense blue gaze settled on the Amazon encampment not far away.
“Hm,” she carefully considered her options, glancing again at the drovers and camp supporters.
Xena knew she couldn't go chasing after her army alone. That was suicidal and she wasn't really all that fond of dying—not with an eternity in Tartarus to look forward to. What she wasn't sure of, however, was if they had deserted voluntarily or if someone had convinced them to abandon her for a seemingly higher purpose.
She figured Toris had something up his sleeve, since her slimy-excuse-for-a-brother was nowhere to be found—and neither were his royal ass-kissing cronies. What were they all up to? And why did they need her army to carry out whatever twisted scheme her brother had cooked up?
Then again, maybe the two incidences were totally unrelated. Maybe Toris and his boys just decided to take a holiday, while her army decided she was no longer worthy of leading them. Xena's face scrunched with that thought. Then she discarded it with a negligible shrug. She was many things, but a lousy leader was not one of them. How else was she able to bring order out of chaos and peace to a land that only knew the ravages of war?
“Damn!” She exclaimed, as she turned toward the Amazon encampment and strode purposely back to where her lover awaited her.
Thoughts of what she and Gabrielle had done together the previous night played through her mind, as she crossed the distance to the Amazons with purposeful strides. The pleasure they shared, despite Gabrielle's injuries, had been quite suprising and very satisfying. There had been no amount of restraint from her enthusiastic lover, even though they had to come up with some inventive positions in order to make things work.
A slight blush colored Xena's tanned cheeks, as she entered the Amazon encampment. She then pulled up short at the crowd gathered outside the tent she left Gabrielle in.
“What's going on?” Xena caught the eye of the shorter Amazon woman to her left.
“Queen Gabrielle is passing judgment,” the woman answered.
Xena didn't wait for additional information. She merely pushed her way through the gathered throng until she reached the inner circle. She stopped dead at the sight that greeted her.
“Justice has been carried out in this matter!” Eponin raised a bloody sword above her head and turned a circle for all to see. “Long live Queen Gabrielle!”
A loud chant of the same words suddenly rose up from the Thracians in the crowd and was taken up by the rest, as Eponin completed her circle and lowered her sword. That's when Xena stepped forward and saw the look of abject horror on Gabrielle's face and her pale-as-death complexion. She also saw the decapitated body of a woman lying at Gabrielle's feet.
“Hey,” Xena gently laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. “You okay?”
Tears swam in green eyes that turned up to meet her gaze. “Not really, no.” Then Gabrielle swallowed several times and looked ready to throw up.
Xena didn't think. She simply reacted by scooping Gabrielle up in her arms and carrying her away from the grizzly scene. All thoughts of her brother and the army disappeared in an instant, as she elbowed her way through the crowd and emerged on the other side. She kept right on going until her long strides had her in front of the tent she shared with Gabrielle. She elbowed the flap aside and ducked in without a backward glance. Once inside, she sat down on the edge of the bed and just held Gabrielle, as the woman suddenly burst into tears. The tears soon turned to wracking sobs that tore from the depths of Gabrielle's very soul.
“Shhh, it's okay,” Xena gently stroked the hair beneath her chin, as she felt fat tear drops plop onto her bare forearm and soak her leathers. “I got ya.”
A quarter candlemark and a bucket of tears later, Gabrielle finally lifted her head and sniffed. “Gods!” She breathed out a heavy sigh and rested her head against Xena's damp leathers. “Sorry ‘bout that. Didn't think I had that many tears in me anymore.”
“No problem,” Xena glanced down at the tear-streaked and puffy face. “Been a hectic couple of days. You certainly deserve a good cry for all that's happened.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle sniffed again, her voice still rough from crying. She blew out an exasperated breath and sat up. “Yeowch! Gods! That hurt.”
“Still tender, huh?” Xena ran her fingers lightly up and down Gabrielle's back.
“Not bad, as long as I don't move wrong,” Gabrielle said, as she sniffed again and looked around for something to wipe her nose with.
“Here,” Xena produced a square of cloth from out of nowhere.
Gabrielle took the cloth and blew her nose, then wiped the residual tears from her cheeks. When she was done, she just sat there staring at nothing in particular.
“Wanna tell me what that was all about out there?” Xena's soft voice seemed to penetrate the haze just enough for the woman to look up at her. “Something about passing judgment?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle wiped her nose again and then just held the cloth in her clasped hands, as Xena brushed the bangs from her forehead and looked at her expectantly. She tried not to think about what happened, but the image of Nora's head being separated from her shoulders right there in front of her was more than she could handle. “Don't know if I can talk about it just yet, though.” She swallowed down a wave of nausea. “Kinda still too fresh. It also brought back what I did to that soldier the other night when we were attacked on the way here.” She shuddered. “I can't believe I killed him—Ugh!”
“You did what you had to do, Gabrielle,” Xena continued her gentle stroking of Gabrielle's back and nodded. “I understand.”
“You do?” Teary green eyes lifted to Xena's.
“Killing isn't something that you just get used to,” Xena said. She watched Gabrielle duck her head. Xena put a hand to Gabrielle's chin and gently lifted it until the woman was looking at her again. “It's nothing to be ashamed of, Gabrielle. But it's also something that takes a little piece of you with it when it happens. Watching Nora lose her head over what she did to you wasn't easy, either.”
“She blamed me for everything,” Gabrielle said in a quiet voice. “Said I was the one who brought all that crap down on myself. I ingratiated myself to you and took what she thought was her place in the household. Appointing me overseer was the last straw. I think that's when she finally snapped.”
A dark brow rose and Xena's expression hardened. “Not true. That woman was a nutball from the moment I sacked her village, after we found out they were harboring a bunch of raiders who were pillaging other villages. Whatever she said was complete nonsense.”
“I know,” Gabrielle shook her head. “I know, but—” She blew out another breath. “I guess I can't help wondering.”
“What?” Xena prodded when Gabrielle didn't continue. She brushed her fingers against Gabrielle's tear-stained cheeks and reveled in the feel of the smooth skin beneath her fingers. “Us?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle answered, as fresh tears sprang to her eyes and tried to impatiently swipe them away before they fell. “Among other things.” She sniffed again. “I think I'm losing myself in all of this violence. I used to know who I was and what I stood for. Now—” She shook her head. “I just don't know anymore.”
Xena gently lifted Gabrielle off her lap and set her down on the edge of the bed. She then got up and poured them both mugs of ale from a pitcher on the table. She knew Gabrielle preferred sweet cider, but figured the woman could use something stronger to get her past what had just happened.
“Here,” Xena handed over one of the mugs and pulled up a chair. She then sat down facing Gabrielle. “First of all, I love you, Gabrielle. I've never met anyone like you in all my hoary years on this earth. You are one of the brightest, most admirable women I've ever met. And you have the heart of a poet, as well as the will of a fierce warrior. You're just not experienced enough a fighter not to let the blood, gore and death affect you.”
“She died because of me,” Gabrielle's voice broke, as another wave of tears tried to emerge. “She said all this stuff and then I passed judgment. I…” She squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the anguish that washed over her again, as her lips quivered and more tears fell.
Xena placed both hands on Gabrielle's bare knees. “Gabrielle, look at me,” she ordered in her most commanding tone and watched the woman's eyes flutter open to meet hers. “Now,” Xena continued when she had Gabrielle's undivided attention, “Nora's death rode solely on her shoulders. She chose to do what she did and knew there might eventually be consequences for her actions. She was responsible for what she did—for the choices she made, no matter her reasons. You did nothing wrong. And that guy who attacked you the other night? He knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to kill you. If you hadn't killed him first, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Understand me? You'd be dead and he would be drinking ale with his buddies, probably laughing about it.”
“Then why do I feel so guilty?” Gabrielle couldn't hold herself upright any longer and just tipped sideways until she was lying on her side. “Why do I feel responsible for killing both of them?”
Xena scooted her chair over until she was eye-to-eye with her lover. “Because you have a pure heart and a good soul, Gabrielle.” She brushed the backs of her fingers along Gabrielle's jaw line and against her cheek. “It's who you are and I'm glad. Please don't ever change, because I love you just the way you are. You're the most precious person I've ever met. Please don't change.”
Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's. “But I've changed so much already.”
Xena couldn't help but smile. “Yeah, you have. But the changes have been really good ones. You've matured in ways that only make me love you more.”
Gabrielle took Xena's hand in hers and kissed the scarred and scraped knuckles. “Thank you,” her voice was quiet and there was a hint of exhaustion in it.
“For being here and being you,” Gabrielle placed another kiss on Xena's hand. Then she noticed something about the woman. “Why are you dressed to kill, so to speak? You're in your armor and look ready to take on the world again. And is that a dagger hilt peeking out of your cleavage?”
Xena cleared her throat and looked away. “Um…yeah. Was on my way over to grab some of your Amazons for a hunting expedition, when…um…let's just say I had to take a little detour.” She blushed when Gabrielle kissed her knuckles again. “What?”
“You are so funny sometimes,” the blond said with a smile.
“Yeah, well,” Xena cleared her throat again and set her expression in her signature stoic mask. “Now that we have that all cleared up. You want to tell me the other stuff that Nora said?”
“She…um…told us some stuff about Romans and Draco and…um…” Her expression turned thoughtful, as she tried to remember exactly what the woman had said before Eponin lopped her head off. “And Athens, too. I think the Romans have taken over Athens and are conscripting troops for some reason or other.”
Xena's eyes widened at Gabrielle's words. “What did you just say?”
“Nora said Draco was part of a plot involving the Romans, who have a base set up in Athens,” Gabrielle explained, as the horror of Nora's execution faded and the woman's words came back to her. “That's why he drew you away from the keep. Apparently, the Romans wanted your army. They put them on ships and sent them somewhere.”
Xena considered that for a long moment, her thoughts awhirl with the possibilies. Draco was in league with Pompeii. That much she knew. It had been Pompeii who had delivered her into Draco's hands. So, that's what happened to her army. They were conscripted and sent…Where?
“Caesar,” Xena growled. “He must be launching another of his imbecilic campaigns. Damned man was always convinced that his destiny lies in taking over the entire world.”
“And he saw you as an obstacle?” Gabrielle added thoughtfully. “You are a beautiful obstacle, Xena.”
“And deadly, too,” Xena grinned wryly. “Probably figured I wouldn't go along with his little plan to enlist Grecian troops into his army. And he was right. If I get my hands on that pompus ass he sent, I'll skin him alive and send his head back to Rome in a damned velvet-lined box.”
“Pompeii?” Gabrielle considered the name thoughtfully. “As in Pompeii Magnus? One of the Triumverate?”
“One and the same,” Xena shot her companion a raised-brow look. “You shepherds sure know more than the rest of us.”
“Traveling bards,” Gabrielle answered with a wry grin. “I listen, remember? I heard last summer that Rome was in the hands of the Triumverate now. Didn't really give it much thought, though. Not something that we shepherds really care all that much about.”
“Yeah,” Xena nodded. “I can imagine. I don't think the Triumverate is the real problem, though. Caesar is the one with his sights set on ultimate power. Always was and always will be. Actually, I'm kind of surprised he's still aligned with Pompeii and Crassus at this stage of the game. Then again, he's probably setting his sights on Britannia and needs the armies of both Pompeii and Crassus to get what he wants there. Gaul, too. I hope Bodicea kicks his ass in Britannia. She'll certainly give him a good run, that's for sure.”
“I've heard of Bodicea, too,” Gabrielle added with a half-grin. “Does she really have curly red hair and tattoos all over her face? They say she paints herself blue for battle and is scarier than Hades' harpies.”
“She is,” Xena said. “Damned scary looking in battle. She has the strength as three men and wields a sword the size of a damned tree trunk. She leads some of the fiercest fighters you'll ever meet and is crafty, too. Romans ever try their hand at taking Britannia they'll be in for a wicked eye-opening they won't soon forget.”
“Hm,” Gabrielle nodded.
Gabrielle was tired and let her eyes drift shut as she lay there. It was quiet outside without the army's presence. Only a few distant sounds of wagons and voices reached her ears. A songbird twittered nearby and she could smell the faint sweet aroma of woodsmoke, even inside the tent.
“So, back to the Romans and Athens,” Xena said. “Anything else Nora said before she lost her head?”
Gabrielle's eyelashes fluttered half open and she glanced up at the woman. “Someone in Athens allied themselves with the Romans. Nora didn't know who it was.”
“Toris,” Xena felt the pieces suddenly click together.
“Your brother?” Gabrielle lifted her head and propped it on a hand. “Xena, he wouldn't…”
“He would, the slimy little bastard,” Xena growled. “I can't believe I fell for all that crap he spewed about changing his ways and wanting what's best for Greece. He's still the same little cowardly weasel he was when we were kids. He's just set his sights a bit higher than when we were kids.”
Xena stood up and began pacing the confines of the tent.
“Xena,” Gabrielle watched the restless woman with concern. “What will he gain by allying himself with the Romans?”
“Power,” Xena stopped her pacing long enough to meet Gabrielle's gaze. “He was never all that athletic or smart, but he was deceitful and loved to manipulate a situation to fit his needs. Even when we were kids, he was always trying to find ways to get the other kids to like him. He hated that I was naturally athletic and could make friends so easily. It always pissed him off and put us at odds. And he's doing it again, the little prick.”
“What do you think the Romans offered him?” Gabrielle asked.
“It's possible they would appoint him governor of Athens, maybe?” Xena shook her head. “I don't know. There's no telling what Pompeii is willing to bargain with these days. It would sure be in Rome's best interests to acquire troops, though. They don't like to waste their own legions on the front lines. They usually reserve that ‘honor',” she mimed quotes, “for foreign troops.”
“So you think the army is on its way to Athens to board Roman ships headed for the campaign Nora mentioned,” Gabrielle confirmed. “Makes more sense than all this other stuff that's been going on. I could never figure out what part Draco was playing in all this. It just didn't make much sense.”
“Divide and conquer,” Xena sighed. “It was one of Caesar's little mantras. He also liked spouting stuff about dividing a woman from her emotions, yadayadayada. Arrogant as the day is long and believes his destiny is all that matters.”
“Sounds like an interesting guy,” Gabrielle snorted. “Glad I've never had the pleasure of meeting him.”
“Oh, if all goes well, you might just get the chance,” Xena's expression took on a gleam of mischief.
Gabrielle's eyes widened slightly. “What are you thinking, Xena?”
“I'm thinking it's time to regroup and call in the reserves,” Xena turned the mischievous gleam on Gabrielle, as a smile played at the corners of her lips. “We have some plans to devise, troops to train and other things to take care of. Then we'll pay a nice little visit to Rome and cause some trouble.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “Yeah, I really think it's time to turn the tables—stop being on the defensive—and give old Julius a taste of his own medicine.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle looked up.
“Hm?” Xena stopped and turned.
“Can we just put all that on hold for a little while and—”
Xena noted the exhaustion and slight pain in Gabrielle's eyes. “Yeah,” she said, as she moved over to the side of the bed and knelt at a level with her lover. “Definitely.”
Gabrielle let out a grateful sigh, as Xena leaned forward and kissed her. Their lips met, tongues danced and the kiss quickly grew heated, before Xena breathlessly pulled back enough to look into green eyes sparkling with desire.
“Just say the word, Gabrielle, and I'll give it all up just to be with you,” Xena suddenly said. “I don't care about Toris or the Romans or Caesar or any of it, as much as I love you.” She reached up and brushed her fingers lightly against Gabrielle's cheek. “You are my life, my love and my reason for being.”
“I just want to be with you, Xena,” Gabrielle replied. “I don't care if we sail the Aegean as a couple of saucy pirates, take on the entire Roman Empire or just sit in a log cabin on the side of a lonely mountain for the rest of our lives. I go where you go, Xena. I'm yours.”
A quirky smile lit Xena's features. “Did we just get married or something?”
Gabrielle snickered. “I think we'd have to do it in front of someone for it to be official.”
Xena gave Gabrielle another peck on the lips. “Wanna make it official?”
A blond brow quirked. “Seriously?”
Xena smiled brightly. “Yeah, seriously,” she shrugged. “What the hades, right? The Amazons are here and we could use a reason to celebrate.”
“Amazons don't need a reason to celebrate, Xena,” Gabrielle deadpanned. “You of all people should know that.”
“Yeah,” Xena continued to smile. “Well, we managed to kick Draco's sorry ass. That alone is a reason to celebrate. Add a joining ceremony to the mix, especially a queen's joining, and it'll make one hades of a party.”
Gabrielle sobered. “You're not the least bit anxious to go after your brother and get the army back before he sells them off to Rome?”
“Oh, we'll deal with that soon enough,” Xena smirked. “Let my snake of a brother think he's won this round, for now. It'll eventually come back to bite him where it hurts.” Her expression turned feral. “Besides, it's time Rome found out just how sharp my claws are. Time for the Conqueror of the Known World to put that reputation to good use.”
“My hero,” Gabrielle reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind Xena's ear. “Mind some company on this little adventure of yours?”
“Counting on it, actually,” Xena grinned. “I'm thinking something grand and really austentatious. Somethin' those weasels in the Roman Senate won't soon forget. Maybe it'll change their minds about their willingness to let Caesar and his cronies run loose. After all, the Conqueror of the Known World showing up whole and hearty in the slime pit that is Rome with a full escort will certainly make them all think twice about what Caesar is really up to.” A grin split her features. “Besides, what better way to put the fear of the gods in those prissy Romans than to march through the city with a scantily-clad, heavily-armed, fully-masked Amazon escort? Having you on my arm dressed in all those beads and feathers and with that mask on will just be the icing on the damned cake. The Roman populace will be shaking in their sandals, even if Caesar isn't a bit intimidated.”
“So, which one of us gets to ride in the queen's litter?” Gabrielle shot Xena a wry half-grin. “It wouldn't take much to put something exotic together that will really have them looking twice.”
A dark brow rose at the possibilities. “We really have some planning to do.”
“Yes, we do,” Gabrielle nodded.
“First things first, though,” Xena said, as she got up, strode to the tent opening and called to someone outside.
One of the few remaining soldiers in the camp rushed over and saluted her. “Yes, Conqueror!”
“I have a job for you, soldier,” she said, as she clapped a hand on the man's armored shoulder and leaned in conspiratorially.
The celebration was in full swing. Leave it to the Amazons to scour the surrounding villages—who would have guessed there were any left standing—for wine, ale, mead, port, hard cidar and enough food to feed, well, an entire army. The alcohol had been flowing freely since sunset and most of the Amazons were already deep in their cups. Drums pounded a steady rhythm, while the scantily-clad dancers gyrated around a huge bonfire set in the middle of the festivities.
It was as big a celebration as the annual harvest festival. A few stragglers had entered the bustling encampment near sunset, having deserted from the army to hightail it back to the Conqueror. Tales were circulating about dead centaurs and Amazons who had refused to join in the march on Athens.
Braes had been the last straggler to return and arrived on horseback just after sunset. His report to Xena sealed the deal against her brother. He confirmed that Toris was behind the disappearance of the army. He and his royal cohorts managed to gather up Draco's remaining forces and were on their way to Athens. Braes told her a story was spread throughout the army that Xena was dead, leaving General Toris solely in charge. But Braes didn't believe a word of it and only stuck around long enough to ferret out enough information to relay to Xena upon his return.
Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to convince more than a hundred or so soldiers to leave the army and return to the encampment with him. Still riding on the high of their victory over Draco's army, the majority were ready to follow Toris into Tartarus against the Roman troops stationed around Athens.
Xena was stretched out with her legs crossed in front of her, as she sat on a padded chair atop a hastily-erected dais. She watched the festivities beneath hooded lids, as Amazons and soldiers from her army mingled together in shared revelry. It was turning into a grand affair and one that she was glad could be put together with such short notice.
A noise to her right had her turning to look up at Gabrielle as she mounted the pine-scented stairs to the dais. The Thracian queen's armed guard were dressed in full regalia as they spread out around the dais and stood at alert attention. Solari and Margalene, officially appointed as the queen's personal bodyguards that afternoon, shadowed Gabrielle as she took a seat in the padded chair next to Xena's. An empty chair to Gabrielle's right and another to Xena's left sat waiting for their respective occupants, who mounted the dais in Gabirelle's wake.
Ephiny took a knee and bowed before her queen, causing silence to fall over the gathering. A moment later, she lifted her head and looked up at Gabrielle with a knowing grin.
“My Queen!” Ephiny's clear voice rose into the still night air. “We ask your blessing on this celebration and await your royal bidding!”
Genella then took the seat next to Xena's, her own personal guards taking up their places behind her chair. A young warrior from her tribe took a knee in front of her and bowed with the same austere reverence.
“My Queen!” The young redhead called. “We ask your blessing on this celebration and await your royal bidding, as well!”
Both queens rose from their makeshift thrones and stood facing the assemblage. Grenella raised her hands high above her head and lifted her eyes to the heavens.
“May the gods bless us as we celebrate this great victory over our enemies!” Her voice rang out over everyone.
“Let the celebration begin!” Gabrielle kept her arms at her sides in deference to her ribs, as her own voice carried over the crowd.
A loud cheer went up and the drums commenced their steady beat, as Xena's soldiers joined the scantily-clad Amazon dancers around the fire. More wood was thrown onto the bonfire, eliciting huge sparks that flew up into the night sky. And the food and drink was consumed with wild abandon.
Ephiny took her seat next to Gabrielle and accepted a goblet of spicy hard cider from one of the young servers. She handed the goblet to Gabrielle and grabbed a mug of port from another server.
“Hey, Xena,” Ephiny glanced over at Xena and raised her mug in salute. “Everything okay so far?”
Xena couldn't pull her gaze from the woman seated next to her. Gabrielle wore her ceremonial garb, complete with colored beads on her supple doe-skin leathers. Several feathers and colored leather thongs were braided into her shoulder-length hair and the queen's mask rested on top of her head. She was a vision to behold.
Gabrielle, in turn, only had eyes for Xena. The Conqueror's leathers had been scrubbed clean and her armor shone to the point it reflected the fires from various torches set around the dais. Her hair was pulled back from her chiseled features and tied with a black leather thong and her boots were polished, as well. But none of that could compare to the love reflected back at her in those cerulean eyes full of wonder.
“Hey, you two,” Grenella piped in with a wry grin. “There's a very good reason the joining ceremony doesn't take place until later in the evening. Make google eyes at each other later. Right now it's time to eat, drink and be merry!”
Gabrielle blushed to her roots and sat back in her chair, while Xena just shot the elder queen a droll look, grasped Gabrielle's hand in hers and took a sip from her mug of port.
“Oh, I plan to make very good use of that goosedown mattress your warriors scrounged up for us, Queen Grenella,” Xena quipped. “Don't you worry about that at all.”
Agatha chose that moment to join the elder queen and chuckled at Xena's words. “Maybe we should just let them get their joining over and done with, sweetheart,” she shot Grenella a knowing look, as she placed a hand on her shoulder. “After all, Xena here isn't getting any younger.”
Gabrielle snickered, as she squeezed Xena's hand in hers. “She got ya there, hon.”
A dark brow shot up as Xena glanced from Gabrielle to Agatha. “What is this? Are you two ganging up on me already?”
“We were doing that back at the keep,” Agatha shot back with a wry smirk. “You just didn't know it.”
“Oh-ho,” Grenella chuckled. “I guess you're definitely outnumbered, Xena.”
Xena glanced out at the men dancing around the bonfire with the Amazons. “And those idiots aren't any help, either.”
“Well, maybe your mother will side with you,” Gabrielle supplied helpfully and watched as three heads turned to her with comical skeptical expressions. “Or not,” she shrugged.
“Face it, Gab,” Ephiny leaned in close enough that only Gabrielle could hear her. “Xena might wear the pants, but you have her wrapped around your little finger.”
“Eph!” Gabrielle hissed and rolled her eyes in exasperation.
“I'm just sayin'.” Ephiny sat back in her chair and sipped her port with a smug grin. “You ready to be a kept woman?”
Gabrielle shot the regent an exasperated look. “Seriously, Eph? What is wrong with you tonight?”
Ephiny snickered over the rim of her mug. “It's so fun to tweak you, Your Majesty. You're just that easy.”
Gabrielle just rolled her eyes and sat back in her own chair. The mask perched on top of her head tipped down over her face and she impatiently reached up to remove it, then realized, too late, her mistake.
“Ooch!” Gabrielle hissed.
“You okay?” Xena turned to find the mask down over Gabrielle's face. “What the…”
“Here, Your Majesty,” Ephiny carefully lifted the head covering off Gabrielle's face. “Let me just put this—“ She hooked it to the back of the chair. “There. That should do it.”
“Thanks, Eph,” Gabrielle sat against the chair back and looked at Xena. “I'm okay. Just keep forgetting about my damned ribs.”
“Still hurt?” Xena leaned close and met Gabirelle's gaze.
“Twinges when I move wrong, mostly,” Gabrielle replied and then stole a kiss with the dark-haired woman. “Can't wait to get the joining ceremony over with and get to our tent. I hear we have a surprise waiting there for us.”
“Besides the bed?” Xena nibbled the lips close to hers.
“Yeah, that bed is really a gods-send,” Gabrielle relished the spicy taste of port on Xena's lips.
“Ahem,” Ephiny, Grenella and Agatha all cleared their throats at the same time.
“Break it up, you two,” Agatha crossed her arms over her ample bosom and glared down at them. “Wait til after the ceremony to get all lovey-dovey with each other, will you please? The rest of us are trying to enjoy the celebration.”
Two candlemarks and a boatload of alcohol later, Xena and Gabrielle stood before the assemblage with an Amazon priestess presiding over their joining. The woman was decked out in an elaborate cape made up mostly of feathers. The woman looked—at least to Xena's eyes—like an oversized chicken.
“Do you, Gabrielle of Potidea, daughter of Herodotus and Hecuba, Queen of the Thracian Amazons, take this woman to be your mate for life?” The woman's voice carried over the rowdy crowd of whooping and hollering Amazons and drunken soldiers, despite the fact she sounded like a timid willow sprite. “Do you give yourself willingly—mind, body and soul? And do you promise to love and keep her, even beyond eternity?”
“I do,” Gabrielle answered with a confident grin, as she faced Xena and looked up into shining blue eyes watching her intently.
“And do you, Xena of Amphipolis, daughter of Cyrene, and Conqueror of the Known World, take this woman to be your mate for life? Do you give yourself willingly—mind, body and soul? And do you promise to love and keep her, even beyond eternity?”
“I most certainly do,” Xena grinned.
“Take each others' hands and share your vows, then,” the priestess said.
“Xena,” Gabrielle said in her clear, singsong voice. “You are the other half of my soul. I love you more than life itself and want nothing more than to share the rest of this life and eternity with you. Where you, I go. I am yours forever.”
A dark brow rose, as a tear came to Xena's eye and she quickly blinked it away. “Gabrielle, you chose me as your champion and I shall ever be champion of your heart, your body and your soul. I need only to share my life, my love and all that is within me with you for all the days of my life. I am yours, now and forevermore.”
“Then, by the gods on Olympus and all the powers in the heavens,” the priestess continued, “I now pronounce these two joined. What the gods bless through this union, let no one put asunder.” She then looked at them with a knowing grin. “You may now seal your union with a kiss.”
Xena gently pulled Gabrielle to her and met her lips in a searing kiss that left them both breathless as loud cheers erupted from the gathered revelers. Shouts of “Here! Here!” rose up from the soldiers, while the Amazons let out louder whoops, hollers and what sounded like bird calls that pierced the night and echoed around them.
Xena held Gabrielle to her, as well-wishers surrounded them and offered congratulations. Gabrielle did most of the acknowledging, until Xena finally leaned down close to her ear.
“You ready to go someplace quiet and spend some time alone?” Xena said in a whisper that only Gabrielle could hear.
“Nothing would make me happier at the moment,” Gabrielle answered.
But before they could make their escape, Ephiny emerged from the crowd with her mug held high overhead.
“To the happy couple!” She shouted above the din.
“To the happy couple!” Came the crowd's enthusiastic response.
“Long live our queen and her champion!” Someone else shouted.
“To a strong Amazon Nation!” Another shout rang out from the crowd.
“And long live the Conqueror and her mate!” One of the soldiers shouted drunkenly, earning him some glares from the Amazons closest to him.
“To Greece!” Another cheer went up and echoed around the crowd.
“You two had better escape while you can,” Ephiny leaned in close to Xena and Gabrielle. “Or you'll never make it to your tent before sunrise.”
Xena needed no further urging. She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and shouldered her way through the gathering until they were on the far side. Once they emerged from the crowd, they made a beeline for the silent army encampment.
A handful of heartbeats later, they stopped in front of their tent. Then Xena released Gabrielle's hand and swept the woman up into her arms with a knowing grin.
“Xena!” Gabrielle quickly wrapped her arms around the tall woman and met a gaze sparkling with mischief. “What in the world are you doing?”
“Carrying my wife over the threshold,” Xena answered matter-of-factly. “I saw one of the villagers do it once and always wanted to give it a try.”
“You goof,” Gabrielle chuckled, as Xena ducked inside the tent and carried her over to their new bed. “Mm, I am so glad we're alone.”
Xena leaned down and stole a quick kiss from the lips only inches from hers. “Me, too, love.”
“You gonna put me down anytime soon?” Gabrielle's eyes sparkled with desire.
“Oh, am I still holding you?” Xena appeared surprised and glanced at the bed. “I thought we were already naked and in each others' arms.”
Gabrielle patted the stiff leather and armor beneath her hands. “Put me down and we will be.”
It didn't take them long to divest each other of their clothing, although there were some brief pauses as they each enjoyed a quick nibble or a brief peck on the lips. Once their clothes were scattered on the tent floor, they climbed beneath the blankets of their new bed.
“Mm,” Gabrielle stretched out and languished in the feel of the soft goosedown beneath her. “I think I could really get used to this.”
“Definitely,” Xena replied, as she pulled her lover into her arms and trailed light kisses from one pink ear, down to her pulse point and along her collar bone. “Beautiful,” she murmured into Gabrielle's cleavage. “Exquisite,” she continued her ministrations until her tongue circled a taut nipple. “Absolutely fantastic.”
“Urngh,” Gabrielle uttered breathlessly as she felt her body ignite under Xena's expert touch. “Gods, Xe!”
Xena's head lifted slightly and a wicked smirk appeared on her lips. “They have nothing to do with this.”
And then those lips were trailing farther down. All thoughts of the outside world vanished in an instant, as Gabrielle felt her own world narrowing to the sensations coursing through her body. Every nerve ending came alive and a low burn quickly ignited in her groin, as Xena moved lower. And then her world exploded into a million pieces, as Xena found her center and took her to the edge of insanity and back again.
And once Gabrielle drifted back to earth with a heavy sigh of contentment, she gave Xena's body the same slow attention that her lover had given hers. Gabrielle used her tongue and lips to drive the taller woman to the brink and then followed her over the edge until they were both consumed in the flames of their shared passion. It was beautiful and magical, like nothing they had experienced before.
Two souls joined as one and the world outside their little haven faded into nothingness as they made love throughout the remainder of the night and into the dawning of a new day.
“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle murmured sleepily, as she lay sprawled on top of her lover, her head resting just under the taller woman's chin, their limbs tangled beneath the covers.
“Love you, too, Gabrielle,” Xena murmured back, as she wrapped her arms around her partner's shoulders and hugged her tight.
“What're we gonna do ‘bout yer brother?”
“Don't know, don't care.”
“Are we goin' back to the village?”
“Sweet dreams, Gabrielle.”
A cock crowed nearby as a sliver of sunlight peeked inside the quiet tent. Two exhausted lovers drifted off into Morpheus' realm, all thoughts of armies, Athens, Romans and war forgotten in the light of the love they shared and the changes that would take them into a brighter future together.
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