See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
They were on the outskirts of Corinth and everything seemed in order. The army was doing drills on the practice field and was much larger than it had been before they departed. Xena marveled at the efficiency and discipline she saw from atop Ares' sleek back. Several units were marching in perfect synchronization, while others were sparring and still others were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. She could also tell which troops were brand new and still wet behind the ears. Those were the ones being put through the more rigorous paces by the seasoned warriors.
The joining ceremony and subsequent transfer of power to Ephiny had been a fairly subdued and somewhat confusing affair. Gabrielle had officiated at the ceremony and the priestess had blessed the union of regent and weapons master. Then Gabrielle had unceremoniously-much to Ephiny'schagrine-turned the queen's mask over to the curly-haired blond and named her as the new queen in her stead. Needless to say, it came as a complete shock to most of the Thracian Amazons gathered there. Others were merely grateful to have a "true" Amazon in possession of the queen's mask, once again.
Xena knew Gabrielle was glad not to be in charge of the Amazons anymore. She watched a new spring enter Gabrielle's step immediately following the transfer of power. And Xena was more than a little surprised when Gabrielle actually danced at the celebration. Gabrielle ususally shied away from anything like that, especially in public. Then again, Xena had never seen Gabrielle drink like that before, either.
And the hangover Gabrielle suffered the next morning put a crimp in their travel plans. But Xena didn't mind the delay. The extra day with the Amazons gave her a chance to make amends. It also gave Gabrielle a chance to oversee her last official council meeting, in which she officially documented the transfer of the queen's mask to Ephiny.
"A dinar for your thoughts," the quiet words brought Xena out of her reverie, as a warm palm pressed against her thigh.
Xena glanced over to find Gabrielle watching her curiously.
"Just going over a few things in my head," Xena replied with an easy smile. "A lot's happened in the last few days."
"Yeah," Gabrielle nudged her mare a bit to get her to keep pace with Xena's stallion. She then glanced back at the Amazon escort following in their wake. "I can't believe Eph won the argument and insisted on another escort. I really thought giving up the queen's mask would get me off the hook." She frowned.
Xena tried unsuccessfully to hide a grin. "Yeah, she sure got you with the whole 'once a queen, always a queen' bit."
"I think you're enjoying this a little too much, my lord," Gabrielle scrunched her nose.
Xena feigned shock and pointed at her own chest. "Me?"
Gabrielle gave Xena an exasperated eye roll. "I also think you're enjoying the title they bestowed on you at Eph and Eponin's joining. Supreme Overlord.Pfft!Just a hairsbreath away from goddess, if you ask me. I have no idea why I didn't see that one coming."
"Makes two of us," Xena's expression turned guarded. "Amazons tend to shy away from anything short of complete independence. They're just not the sheepy, follow-the-flock type of people one might expect out of a bunch of women." Sarcasm dripped from every word. "And they don't take orders or direction well. I wonder why that is." Her expression turned thoughtful, before she shrugged. "Ah well, I guess we learned a lesson in that little skirmish with Draco. Damned Amazons were scattered all over the place doing only the gods knew what." She then turned a satisfied grin on Gabrielle. "But I have to admit, being their Supreme Overlord is turning out to be more fun than I thought it would be. Did you see the look on Eponin's face when she had to get down on all fours and put her face in the dirt before me? Can't put a price on something like that. I'd still like to know where the idea came from, though. Ephiny refuses to tell me, even when I invoke Supreme Overlord privilege."
"She won't tell me, either," Gabrielle added. She then shot a quick glance over her shoulder again. "Can't believe she actually came with us…again. I really thought she and Eponin would stay in the village and enjoy their time together."
"Stop talking about us like we're not here, Gabrielle!" Ephiny called.
Her words were followed by chuckles from the warriors decked out in full Amazon regalia, who, up to that point, had remained stoicly silent during the entire trip. The weapons master was sitting straight and tall in the saddle-at least as tall as she could. Her own leathers were brand new and there were several new feathers in her dark hair. One of those feathers marked her as queen's consort and had been put there by Ephiny during the ceremony.
"You wanted to come, Ephiny!" Gabrielle called without turning around. "I'm not the one who insisted! And I most certainly did not ask for an escort!"
"You're still our queen, no matter how much you try to weasel your way out of wearing the mask!" Ephiny shot back with a bemused smirk. "The only way to get out of that honor and privilege is to die. And since the Supreme Overlord, there, is also your champion, I don't see that happening anytime soon."
"Ugh!" Gabrielle gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut, much to Xena's amusement. "Laugh it up, My Lord Conqueror. You didn't hear them talking about their plans for the upcoming coronation and subsequent celebration afterwards."
Xena's head snapped around as she stared wide-eyed at Gabrielle. "Another one?Seriously? Ugh! I don't think I've recovered from the last one."
"Ephiny sent three scouts ahead to inform Agatha this morning," Gabrielle smirked at the pitiful look Xena gave her. "Or maybe they were merely warning her. I'm not really sure. Eph is being especially tight-lipped about the whole thing."
"Oh, for the love of…" Xena watched as several troops on horseback exited the city gates and headed their way. "Great. Here comes another escort."
"We need another escort like I need another hole in my head," Gabrielle groused, as she prodded her mount into a canter and Xena did the same.
The gates of the city loomed in the distance, as they were joined by more than twenty seasoned cavalrymen. The lead rider was none other than the general of Xena's army. He rode tall and proud in a new uniform of dark maroon trimmed in silver. The dappled gray stallion he rode was nearly as big as Ares, but was much more restless than Xena's war horse. Braes held up a hand as he approached the group and halted his men just in front of them.
"My Lord Conqueror!" He put a fist to the silver wolf's head engraved in the crimson armor he wore over his maroon surcoat and bowed his bald head to Xena. "We are honored by your return, Your Majesty."
Xena set her expression into her signature stoic mask. "General," she acknowledged him with a nod. "All is well at the palace?"
"It is, my lord," he met her gaze with an unreadable expression. Then he looked at Gabrielle and the hint of a smile touched his lips. "Your Grace. 'Tis good to see you looking well. Your journey was a successful one, I trust?"
"We got a few things ironed out," Gabrielle replied with an easy smile. "Unfortunately…"
"Hey, Braes!"Eponin called with a smile of greeting and a quick wave, as she nudged her mare forward. "Surprised to see us?"
"Hello, my friend," he grinned genuinely, as he glanced from the Conqueror to the retinue behind her. "Not really. No."
"We can't seem to get rid of them," Gabrielle piped in with a frown.
"Hey!" Ephiny nudged her own mount forward until she was even with Xena and Gabrielle. She then scowled at Gabrielle who merely narrowed her eyes at her. "We resemble that remark, your majesty. But we don't appreciate having it pointed out at every turn, though."
"Get over yourself, Eph," Gabrielle replied with an exasperated eye roll.
"Well," Braes rested his crossed and bracered forearms on his saddle bow. "Agatha was informed of your approach and she had rooms set aside for all of you."
"Rooms?" Gabrielle's interest perked up. "Does that mean things are…"
"Well in hand, your grace," Braes finished for her. "The kitchens are spotless and have been running smoothly for more than a fortnight. Meals have improved exponentially. We had wild boar roated over a spit with a very nice huckleberry sauce and tiny potatoes for our meal last evening, matter of fact. And all the bedchambers of the palace have been scrubbed, whitewashed and repaired. A number of rooms had rotted floors that had to be replaced." He waved a hand. "I'll let Agatha fill you in on the particulars."
"And my-our-chambers?"Xena glanced at Gabrielle.
"In perfect order, Majesty," he replied with a curt nod. "The royal chambers were the first to be cleared of debris and scrubbed clean, per Agatha's strict orders. She had six crews working night and day to set things right in the entire place. And the royal chambers took top priority with two of those crews. She was in there for the better part of an entire week. I'm a little surprised that she made time to put an entire staff of servants in place while you were away. She even found a new seneschal to oversee things."
"I see," Xena let her eyes roam over the landscape beyond. "Will I like him? Or am I going to be bashing his skull in before sunset?"
"He's okay," Braes moved his mount and fell into line next to the women. "You just might appreciate his straightforward, no-nonsense demeanor. He hails from a small fishing village on the coast and served as the magistrate's man. He's still feeling his way around the palace. Apparently, it's much bigger than the villa he oversaw."
"Anyone ever find out where Elestan wandered off to?" Xena continued to absently scan the countryside, as the walls of Corinth loomed closer. "I'd really like to have the smith clap him in irons, so I can use a little persuasion on him and find out what the hades happened while I was away during all those years."
"No one has seen or heard from him or claims to know anything about his disappearance, Majesty," Braes replied. "And if anyone knows something, they're not coming forward with the information. I think they're afraid you might…er…well, you know." He finished by slicing a finger across his throat. "Can't blame the citizens for being terrified of you, Majesty. Your reputation alone is enough to put the fear of the gods in them."
Xena kept her expression neutral. Inwardly, however, she cringed. She knew the general populace feared her-and not just in Corinth. Peasants, villagers and townsfolk alike feared The Conqueror. She had spent years cultivating that fear and molding it in those she considered as lesser humans than herself. But, lately…
"I really hate that," Xena muttered sub-vocally.
No one else caught the words, except Gabrielle, whose mount was shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip with Xena's. A blond brow rose on her sun-kissed features, but she remained silent. She wasn't about to question Xena's half-uttered statement in front of the general.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle pulled her mount to a halt.
"Yes, my queen," Ephiny bowed her head to Gabrielle as she pulled up next to her.
"Oh, for the love of…Stop that," Gabrielle growled. "Or I'll send you all back to the village."
"Yes, my…" Ephiny caught the death glare Gabrielle gave her and clamped her lips shut.
"I'm sending the escort on ahead to the palace," Gabrielle kept her eyes narrowed at the woman, as if daring Ephiny to argue. "Go with them and make sure everything is in order."
"Your maj?"Eponin put in and almost fell out of her saddle when Gabrielle turned the glare on her. "Er…right. Gotcha.Will do."
"Good answer," Gabrielle turned her mount and kicked the mare into a trot. She caught up to Xena easily and fell in beside her.
Gabrielle waited for the Amazons to thunder past before meeting Xena's expectant gaze.
"Wanna tell me what has their asses on fire to reach the city gates?" Xena commented.
Gabrielle looked past Braes and gave him a silent signal with her eyes. His widened, as he quickly understood.
"We'll ride ahead and…er…make sure things are secured for your arrival, Your Majesty," Braes kicked his mount into a fast canter before Xena could respond.
She turned a questioning gaze on Gabrielle. "Okay, spill it, Gabrielle. What gives?"
"Nothing," Gabrielle shrugged, as she rested her crossed forearms on her saddle bow. "Just thought it might be nice to have some alone time before we're bombarded with matters of state and all that."
"You heard my comment," Xena shot her a raised-browed look.
"Yes," Gabrielle let the hint of a grin touch her lips.
"I thought you might need time to get yourself composed into your Conqueror persona," Gabrielle said. "You've been off-really off-lately, Xena. I know things haven't been going your way for quite some time, but that doesn't mean you should give up and stop being you."
"Who says I'm not being me?" Xena didn't meet the gaze staring back at her. Instead, she looked out over the sun-dappled landscape and caught the gleam of the city gates beyond. "The Conqueror isn't exactly the sum total of who I am, Gabrielle. Maybe I'm finally coming to terms with the me that is the real me-putting the past behind me and moving forward."
"No, you're not," Gabrielle agreed. "You may not be Conqueror of the Known World, anymore, but you're also not a pushover. And, lately, well…"
"You think I'm letting people push me around?" There was hurt both the tone and the eyes staring back at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat. "I think you're letting your recent failures get you down, Xena," Gabrielle stated. "You've been carrying that around for a while, now-maybe ever since before the skirmish with Draco?"
"Please, Gabrielle, don't hold back," Xena snorted sardonically. "Tell me what you really think."
"I think I love you?" Gabrielle grinned sheepishly.
Xena narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle, who bumped Xena's leg with her own.
"My horse seems to love you, too," Gabrielle commented, as she patted the chestnut mare's neck.
"You really need to give that horse of yours a name," Xena let the hint of a smile show. "Can't keep calling her 'your horse' all the time, now, can we?"
"Oh, I don't know," Gabrielle nudged the mare into a slow and lazy walk. "Seems to suit her more than any other name I've tried to come up with. I certainly don't want to name her after one of the gods."
"Nice," Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh the abuse. Why don't you call her Majestic? Or Brownie?"
Gabrielle snorted. "Kind of a big leap from Majestic to Brownie, don't you think?"
"Well, she sure doesn't look like a Bruno," Xena teased. "But I wouldn't put it past her to bully Ares when we get to the stables."
"Your horse is a pushover, Xena," Gabrielle shot her a knowing look. "Kinda like his mistress."
Xena's eyes narrowed again. "Oh, you think so, huh?"
"I know so," Gabrielle replied with confidence and then batted her lashes at Xena. She then nudged her horse closer to Xena's, placed a hand on the leather-clad thigh and squeezed. "Especially in bed."
Xena glanced sidelong at Gabrielle, who smiled demurely from behind lowered lashes.
"Not fair, Gabrielle."
"All is fair in love and war, my lord."
And then she kicked her mount into an all-out gallop, leaving Xena behind with a bemused expression.
"So, does this constitute the former or the latter?" She quietly asked her horse, who merely tossed his dark head. "Yeah, I thought so."
Xena then kicked her own mount into a gallop in an effort to close the distance between herself and Gabrielle. The walls of Corinth loomed closer and the sky was a cerulean blue with puffy white clouds gliding slowly by. A few wary birds lifted their voices in song and the clatter of carts and grew louder as Xena quickly closed the distance between them. It wasn't long before the two were neck-and-neck, much to Gabrielle's dismay. But all she did was laugh at Xena's antics, when the dark-haired woman hopped to her feet on her horse's back and stood upright with her arms stretched out to her sides and her head thrown back in triumph.
When she let out a high-pitched battle cry, did an effortless forward flip with a mid-air twist and landed with perfect precision astride the horse's back, people stopped to stare and gawk. She bowed over her horse's arched neck when several guards on the wall roared their approval and whistled loudly. A stiff breeze whipped several new standards with a gray wolf emblazoned on a deep maroon field and trimmed in silver atop the wall.
Her men or Agatha or someone familiar with her expectations had placed them there for all to see. Corinth was definitely hers. She just needed to inspect everything and add her own little personal touches. Then she could call it home.
It was no longer a place, Xena realized as she glanced over at the woman riding next to her. Home was now a person-specifically, the one next to her. With shoulder-length, braided reddish-blond hair gleaming with golden highlights, Gabrielle was a vision to behold. And Xena's heart swelled to near-bursting when she watched the once-timid young woman who now rode confidently next to her.
And then Gabrielle turned her head and graced her with a dazzling smile that quickly turned into a playful chuckle.
"You did that on purpose, my lord," Gabrielle's soft words tickled her ears and sent shivers of longing down her entire length. "Show off."
Oh, yeah. This was definitely home for her. And she was looking forward to seeing her quarters-their quarters. What had Agatha ordered done with the place in their absence? Would it meet her expectations? Would it need to at this point?
Xena glanced at her riding companion again and caught a smoldering look in the sea-green eyes gazing back at her. Did any of it matter? Not really. A roll in the hay loft of the royal stables would suit her just fine, as long as Gabrielle was right there in her arms. In that moment, nothing else mattered.
Gabrielle inhaled deeply of the fresh aromas of hay and horses as they halted in front of the stables. There was also a hint of leather, but she had been smelling that for weeks and didn't want to think about it anymore.
Actually, all she really wanted was a nice, hot bath to rid her body of the thick layer of dust that covered her from head to toe. They hadn't had time to stop near any of the streams or pools on the way. Not even to quickly rinse off the grime from a day's travels.
Gabrielle dismounted stiffly and handed the reins over to a waiting groom dressed in dark purple livery. She waited for her legs to remember how to hold her weight again, before turning to face Xena, who had already handed her horse over to another groom and was stretching out the kinks from their ride.
"Well, what?" A blond brow rose on her sunkissed features, as she marveled at the way the sun haloed Xena's head and set off a few lighter brow highlights the Amazons had given her. She just smiled stupidly at the sight.
"Anything look different to you?" Xena wasn't even looking at her. She was scanning the inner courtyard with a critical eye. "Something is definitely different around here. I just can't seem to put my finger on it."
"It's clean," Gabrielle deadpanned. "Much cleaner than it was the last time we were here. I wonder what they did with that dung heap that smelled so gods-awful."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and inhaled deeply again. She let the fresh smells clear away the dust of their travels from her nostrils, as a faint hint of roses wafted on the breeze and she caught a hint of something else in the air.
She exhaled slowly and felt her world settle, just a bit. It was nice to be-home? Her eyes drifted open and she glanced around the quiet inner courtyard. Maybe it would eventually be her new home. It just didn't quite feel like it, yet.
"And the people?"Xena said absently.
Gabrielle exhaled sharply. "They weren't cheering our return, if that's what you're asking?"
"They weren't throwing rotten fruits and vegetables, either," Xena scoffed. "That's something. They were, however, watching you intently."
"They were staring at our escort," Gabrielle corrected her. "I suppose seeing scantily-clad Amazons in full regalia doesn't happen every day in this city."
Xena snorted. "Apparently, not."
"Ach! So there ye are!"
"I told you they would be along shortly. Xena! Gabrielle!"
Xena and Gabrielle both looked at each other in wide-eyed trepidation, before turning toward the familiar voices that greeted them.
"Mother?"Xena turned in time for her mother to wrap her arms around her in a welcome hug. "What are you doing here?" She returned the hug.
"I came as soon as word reached Amphipolis that you were headed here to Corinth," Cyrene stepped back and looked Xena over with a critical eye. She then turned to Gabrielle and enveloped her in a warm hug. "Hello, Gabrielle. How are you?"
"Fine, Cyrene," Gabrielle returned the hug. "You?"
"Never better," Cyrene stepped out of the way so Agatha could hug the two women.
Cyrene smiled as Agatha stepped back.
"Good to have ye home, yer majesties," Agatha planted her hands on her hips with a slight frown on her weathered features. "Now," she continued sternly. "What in the name of all the gods were ye thinkin' bringin' those…those…"
"Amazons?" Gabrielle supplied with a playful half-grin.
"I thought ye'd leave 'em in their village, where they belong?" Agatha's frown deepened.
"Oh, Aggie," Cyrene took her sister's arm in hers. "Leave the girls alone, for goodness sake. They just got home. Give them a chance to at least step inside the palace door before you nag them about their choice of an escort. They haven't even seen their new quarters, yet. And I'm sure they're famished after the long, hot journey."
"Ah, yes, the royal chambers," Aggie nodded sagely. "Took us the better part of a fortnight to get that part of the palace in order, let me tell ye. Twern't easy ta clear out all the debris. I still get shivers when I think of all those spiders and mice we came across while we were hauling everything out and burnin' it behind the practice field."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged worried looks.
"I hate-really, really hate-spiders," Xena shuddered involuntarily.
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and graced Xena with an incredulous look. "Spiders?Really, Xena?"
"Ever since she was a child," Cyrene chuckled. "If a spider crawled across the floor or dropped from the ceiling, Xena would quickly duck behind my skirts and beg me to get rid of it. It took her forever to fall asleep at night, because she would just lay there staring up at the ceiling until all hours."
Agatha chuckled at the eye roll and exasperated sigh Xena elicited.
"Mother," Xena groaned. "I was-what?-four? Five, maybe?"
Gabrielle tried not to laugh at the childish look of chagrin on Xena's face and failed miserably.
"What?" Xena glared at her, which only made Gabrielle laugh that much harder. "Like you didn't just exclaim something about mice?" She waved her hands in front of her and did a little freakish dance.
"Did I?" Gabrielle was suddenly all innocence. "I really don't remember."
"Oh, you two," Cyrene rolled her eyes as she turned and headed off toward the white stone walls of the palace. "Dinner is almost ready," she called over her shoulder.
"Yep," Agatha turned to follow her younger sister. "Thought ye might enjoy something that weren't charred beyond recognition."
Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her close. "Come on, your majesty. Don't want to miss out on a decent meal that actually has some taste to it. I'm starving."
"Me, too," Gabrielle replied with a smile of anticipation. And then her stomach growled loud enough for Xena to hear. "What?"
"I haven't eaten anything except a handful of nuts and berries since we started out this morning, Xena," Gabrielle huffed. "That pace you and Eph set didn't leave much room for a proper midday meal."
"Good thing Aggie cooks for an army, then," Xena snickered and got a slap against her leather-clad stomach for it. "Hey! What the-"
"You, so, deserved that," Gabrielle replied with a smirk.
They ducked through a newly-constructed side door and paused in the dim hallway long enough to allow their eyes to adjust to the gloom. Xena took the opportunity to pull Gabrielle against her and plant a smoldering kiss on inviting warm lips. The kiss deepened and their tongues danced until Gabrielle pulled back enough to grace Xena with a bemused smile.
"Welcome home, your majesty," Xena cut her off with a knowing grin.
And then she kissed Gabrielle again. This time they took their time and reveled in the shared heat that ignited between them, as their bodies pressed closer and their hands explored familiar territory. Lips seared a fiery path along Gabrielle's jaw line and down her neck. She shuddered in response, as her body instantly responded to Xena's touch.
"Are you two coming?"
They jumped apart, stood against opposite walls and looked like a couple of kids caught with their hands in a cookie jar. The interruption doused the flames of desire burning between them as effectively as having icy river water dumped over their heads.
"She's your mother," Gabrielle grumbled, as she closed the distance between them again, ducked her head and rested it against the leather-clad chest in front of her.
"Yes, she is," Xena agreed with a resigned sigh, as she wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and rested her chin on top of Gabrielle's head. "We'll be there, shortly!" She called loudly.
Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head, as she hugged Xena back. "Welcome home, your majesty."
They both chuckled, as Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and steered them into the palace interior.
"Nice digs," Eponin did a slow circle in the middle of the guest suite she was sharing with Ephiny. "This is really swank."
"Swank?"Ephiny stopped in the doorway of the bedchamber and leaned against the frame with her arms crossed over her chest. "Where in the world did that come from? Is it even a word?"
"Kids," Eponin shrugged. "You wouldn't believe the things they come up with these days. Half of it don't make any sense."
"And yet you seem to be catching onto their lingo, just fine," Ephiny closed the distance between them. "But it seems a little strange to hear swank coming from these lips." She then pressed her lips against Eponin's. "Want to try out the bed?"
"Is it as swank as this room?" Eponin chuckled.
Ephiny grabbed Eponin by the hand and dragged her into the bedchamber. They both stopped dead. Eponin just stood there with her mouth agape, as she stared in awe at the elaborate bed in front of them. Heavy burgundy draperies were pulled back and secured with gold ties. The bed itself stood taller than both their waists and was covered in a deep burgundy cover edged in gold. A mound of pillows were piled on it added to the bed's imposing height.
"Does this answer your question?" Ephiny turned a seductive smile on the weapons master. She then yanked her over to the bed. "Beats our digs back at the village, now, doesn't it?"
"Yes, yes it does. Makes our bed at home look like an old crate with tattered rags."
They collapsed onto the mattress and looked at each other in surprise.
"Artie's left tit!"
Their expressions went from amazement to mutual satisfaction to smoldering desire in the space of a few heartbeats. They lay there together and just stared into each other's eyes for several heartbeats-enjoyng the plush mattress and reveling in their love.
"I really like this bed," Ephiny smiled, warmly. "You think we can smuggle it back to the village with us?"
"Not sure it goes with my leathers," Eponin glanced down at her top. "The colors kinda clash, matter of fact."
"Oh, you…" Ephiny closed the distance between them and smashed her lips against Eponin's in a searing kiss. She then pulled back hesitantly. "Maybe we should head down to the main hall for the evening meal. Agatha was very adamant that we not show up late."
"The woman is a tyrant," Eponin scoffed, as she moved in and lightly brushed her lips against the skin just above Ephiny's leather top.
"Yes, she is," Ephiny sighed, as she ran her fingers through Eponin's dark hair and pulled her closer. "But I really don't want to talk about her, right now."
"Mm, me either."
"Then let's not talk at all. 'kay?"
"I hear and obey, my queen."
Clothing was quickly discarded and their bodies came together in a writhing dance as old as time. It wasn't long before their bodies were slick with sweat and the cries of their lovemaking permeated the stillness around them. Flesh to flesh. They moved together as one. Mouths tasted. Lips explored. Hands moved along sweat-slickened curves and valleys until fingers teased wet folds and quickly gained entrance.
Ephiny writhed against her lover, as Eponin moved with her in that most ancient of rhythms. Their breasts brushed and taut nipples rubbed tantalizingly against each other, driving Ephiny to the point of no return. She felt the pressure building to a fever pitch and grabbed Eponin's shoulders in a vice-like grip. Pulling her closer, Ephiny drove her hands into the dark tresses that framed Eponin's face and pulled their mouths together. Her tongue dove into Eponin's mouth and she cried out her release, as the first waves of the maelstrom of violent shudders rocked her entire body.
Her body arched even further into Eponin's as her legs wrapped around the woman. Eponin continued to ride the waves of Ephiny's release until she felt the tension building in her own body.
"Sweet Artemis!"Eponin panted breathlessly, as Ephiny's hands moved to cup her bare buttocks.
And then their positions were suddenly reversed and Ephiny was smiling down at her with passion-glazed eyes. Ephiny's hands shifted and found her wet folds and Eponin lost all track of space and time. The world around her suddenly narrowed to just the two of them. Nothing else existed. Her body responded instantly to Ephiny's touch. Warm lips and a wet tongue trailed a fiery path down her neck, along her collarbone, between her breasts…
Teeth latched onto a taut nipple and Eponin couldn't help the cry of pure pleasure that exploded from her lips. The tension was out of control and she knew her release was close. Her body responded to every touch, every tantalizing stroke, every lick and kiss. She was a bowstring strung too tightly and wordlessly begged for release.
And that release came suddenly and with such force that it ripped through her like a violent explosion and sent her over the edge into complete oblivion.
"Eponin?"Ephiny's alarmed tone was the first thing that Eponin was aware of as she returned to consciousness.
The next thing she noticed was the gentle stroking of her cheek and the breath against her skin.
"Yeah," Eponin uttered quietly.
"Are you okay?"
Ephiny chuckled. "Are you sure?"
Ephiny rested her cheek against her lover's. "Can you say anything besides yeah?"
"Uh-uh," Eponin responded with a slight shake of her head, as her breathing slowly returned to normal.
"You want me to go find a healer?"
Eponin managed to open her eyes and was a little surprised to have Ephiny's face inches from her own. Concerned hazel eyes stared into hers, before a small smile tugged at lips swollen and bruised from their lovemaking. She didn't know how she did it, but she managed to lift her hands and brush her fingertips against Ephiny's lips.
"Are you okay?" Eponin's voice was a little hoarse and she cleared it. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
Ephiny snickered. "You're asking me? I think I'm the one who should ask you that question. You passed out on me and were out for nearly a quarter candlemark, Pon." She brushed her own fingertips against Eponin's swollen lips. "I thought I killed you."
"Not possible," Eponin smiled timidly. "I just…" She swallowed and let her eyes roam over the beauty she couldn't quite fathom was right there in front of her. "Gods, you're a gorgeous woman, Eph. I am the luckiest damned woman in the world, right now, to be sharing this with you."
Ephiny answered with a gentle kiss and slowly traced the tip of her tongue over the outline of Eponin's lips. When those lips parted, their tongues met timidly.
"You sure you're okay?" Ephiny lifted her head slightly and looked into glassy dark eyes still filled with smoldering passion.
"Better'n okay," Eponin ran her hands down the bare back of the body covering hers. When her hands reached the twin mounds of soft flesh that resided lower, she gently kneaded and felt Ephiny press closer. "I'm perfect. This is perfect. You are perfect, Eph."
She pressed her lips against Ephiny's and the kiss quickly deepened, re-igniting their mutual passions and pulling them back down into a world where nothing else existed but their love.
"Well, that was…um…interesting," Gabrielle commented absently as she rubbed her temple and winced slightly.
The headache had started about halfway through the evening meal. She wasn't sure what brought it on or why it was now pounding incessantly behind her eyes and down her neck. It could have been the raucous revelry in the main hall. Or it could have been the tension she could sense throughout the room, despite the seemingly relaxed atmosphere.
Several lords from surrounding lands had arrived unexpectedly before the evening meal and waited expectantly for an invitation to dine with the infamous Conqueror. Xena obliged them, much to Gabrielle's dismay.
True to form, Agatha had prepared a meal fit for an army. Actually, the meal had been fit for the Ruler of the Known World. And there was more than enough to feed the pack of lordly wolves that arrived unannounced.
Gabrielle glanced over at the silent figure in deep crimson silk who was climbing the stairs next to her. Xena had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the entire evening. She appeared to be brooding over something. And she hadn't argued with the men who had basically strong-armed their way into her midst.
Xena hadn't given them more than a passing glance all evening, actually. She had appeared to listen attentively when they bowled their way into the newly redecorated throne room. She merely held up a staying hand to Braes to stop him from ordering his men to decapitate the lot of them.
Their leader, a tall, skinny man with short-cropped dark hair, a pointed gotee on his prominent chin and a thin mustache gracing pasty features, introduced himself as Lord Varagas with a courtly bow and a flourish of his bejeweled hand. Xena had merely rolled her eyes at the flamboyant display. Then he opened his mouth and Gabrielle actually cringed. His nasally voice droned on, as he explained in detail the reason for his presence at Corinth.
Gabrielle listened to his entire speech, despite the fact that his tone was condescending and hauty. She couldn't stand his nasal drawl, either. But she listened, nevertheless. She had glanced over at Xena several times during Varagas' speech and noted the glassy look the woman was sporting. Xena wasn't listening. Had probably stopped listening after the first few words.
And Gabrielle had heard every word and gleaned the meaning behind much of what he said. The lords with him merely nodded. Not a one of them spoke as Varagas continued to drone on in his nasal drawl.
Gabrielle could tell by the tone that Varagas and the others wanted more than a reduction in their taxes. They were out for a bigger piece of the pie and were trying to weasel their way into Xena's good graces. Gabrielle could see it and hoped that Xena had heard enough to get it, too.
"The meal was great," Xena commented absently, as they reached the upper landing and headed to their suite. "Agatha outdid herself, again."
"She did," Gabrielle replied. "There was enough food there to feed the entire city for a week."
"I had the leftovers sent over to the local orphanage," Xena opened the door to their suite and ushered Gabrielle inside. "I'm sure the kids'll get a kick outta all that fancy food."
"You did?" Gabrielle stopped and turned to face Xena with a smile. "That was very thoughtful of you, my lord." She moved in for a hug and wasn't a bit disappointed when Xena's lips met hers. "Nice."
"I can be," Xena shrugged.
"No, I meant…oh, never mind," Gabrielle shook her head and stepped back. "What did you think of Varagas and his cronies?"
"Windbags," Xena walked to their bedchamber and quickly divested herself of her gown, replacing it with a soft robe. She returned to the sitting room and found Gabrielle standing near the window with her back to her. "What was your take, Gabrielle?"
There was a pregnant pause, as Gabrielle continued to stare out the window at the darkness beyond. She didn't hear Xena walk up behind her and didn't move when warm, strong hands caressed her shoulders.
"Well, I'll tell ya what I think," Xena continued, as she kneaded the taught muscles beneath her hands. "If you want me to." A dark brow shot up when Gabrielle didn't take the bait and remained silent and distant. "Okay, spill it, Gabrielle. What gives?"
"I could ask you the same question, Xena," Gabrielle said after another long pause.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Xena stopped and glared at Gabrielle's reflection. "Are we back to that, again? I thought we finished that discussion before we entered the city gates."
Gabrielle turned to fully face the tall woman she had vowed to spend the rest of her life with. She studied the angular features and blue eyes sparkling in the firelight. Reaching up with one hand, she brushed her fingertips against Xena's cheek and watched the features soften instantly, as Xena's eyes fluttered shut.
"The celebration is in three days," Gabrielle said. "Is an announcement in order?"
"Announcement?"Xena's brow furrowed, as she tried to recall if she was missing something important.
"Rome?" Gabrielle watched her closely. "Are we still going to Rome, Xena?"
Xena blew out an exasperated breath. "For cryin' out loud, Gabrielle, we just got back." It was her turn to stare out the window at the darkness beyond.
"Yes, we did," Gabrielle replied. "But this was just supposed to be a stopping point. Or is it? I really want to know, Xena. Are we staying here? Or are we going to Rome to find your son?"
Xena turned away and strode toward a chair covered in deep-purple velvet. It clashed with the rest of the décor, but it was comfortable and Xena wasn't arguing with comfort. She plopped down on it and tilted her head back, blowing out a frustrated breath.
Gabrielle remained by the window and crossed her arms over her chest as she continued watching the woman she loved more than life itself. Right at that moment, however, Xena was pushing her patience to the limit.
"I don't know," Xena practically groaned.
Gabrielle walked over, sat on Xena's lap and wrapped both arms around her neck. "Why don't you know? Hm?"
"What if Pompeii took Solon to Rome as part of some twisted scheme to lure me there and kill me?" Xena refused to make eye contact.
"So?" Gabrielle shrugged. "We'll just show up and thwart his plans. Go steal your son right from under his nose."
"We don't even know exactly where Pompeii is holding Solon," Xena added. "Rome is a big place. He could be anywhere."
"Or he could be in the most obvious place."
Xena was skeptical. "I seriously doubt Pompeii would march my son into Rome and dump him in Caesar's lap, Gabrielle. Those two are only allies when the circumstances suit their mutual interests."
"And you don't think Caesar knows Pompeii has your son?"
Xena's brow quirked thoughtfully. "Okay, good point. Any other bright ideas, my beautiful, sexy wife?" She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's waist and pulled her close.
A smoldering kiss followed. Warm lips met and tongues explored as the kiss deepened and became more heated. They both put every emotion they were feeling into the kiss and finally hesitantly broke apart. They were both breathless, as they shared the same air and hovered only a hairsbreath apart.
"Ideas?" Gabrielle breathed into the silence. "What were we just talking about again?"
Xena easily stood up and hefted Gabrielle in her arms, carrying her to the bedchamber and gently depositing her in the middle of their new bed.
"Methinks you are overdressed, my queen," Xena quickly lifted the heavy brocade gown over Gabrielle's head and tossed it aside. "Mm, better," she eyed the simple cotton shift with a touch of lace Gabrielle wore underneath, before ducking her head and sampling the exposed flesh.
"You're a little overdressed yourself, my lord," Gabrielle said breathlessly, as she pulled the tie that held Xena's robe closed. The robe opened to reveal an enticing display of muscular flesh beneath. "Okay, not so much."
The remainder of their clothing was quickly tossed aside as flesh met flesh and they spent the rest of their evening together without thoughts of Rome, Xena's son, court intrigues or anything else, for that matter. All that mattered was the pleasure they shared and the exquisite delite that came from their lovemaking.
Eventually, they were both content to fall asleep in each other's arms, as the sky outside their window slowly turned from black dotted with tiny pinpricks of light to a slightly lighter shade of dark-gray. Storm clouds completely obscured the sun that eventually rose, as the two women slept peacefully and remained undisturbed.
Gabrielle sat propped against the trunk of a tall elm tree in the welcome shade. She wore a simple loose-fitting linen shirt open at the collar with a tan leather vest and a pair of dark breeches that hugged her legs. She didn't want to wear a gown outside and her Amazon leathers just didn't seem appropriate. Besides, she wanted some alone time and knew her leathers would attract unwanted attention. With her hair pulled back in a French braid and knee-high leather boots, she just looked like any other villager enjoying the late-summer day.
In the field a few paces away, Zea, the young Amazon horse wrangler who had traveled with the escort from the village, worked Gabrielle's mare in a circle on a taught lead line. The nameless chestnut mare tossed her head and snorted, as Zea cracked a short whip and urged the mare to pick up her pace.
With one leg bent at the knee and her arm resting on it, Gabrielle gazed fondly at the circling mare. She was a beautiful animal with nearly perfect conformation. Her sleek lines and long stride gave her a smooth gait that Gabrielle appreciated, especially during a long day in the saddle. Everything about the mare tugged at Gabrielle's heartstrings, but she just couldn't bring herself to give the animal a name.
And she had no idea why.
The mare was being particularly playful and occasionally skittish after being cooped up for the past two days. She had started her workout by kicking, bucking and attempting to bolt on more than one occasion. But Zea's firm grip on the lead kept the mare from getting too carried away, as they continued their circle in the bright mid-afternoon sunlight.
"Zea!" Gabrielle called.
"Yes, my queen?" Zea responded without taking her dark eyes off the mare.
"What name would you give her if you could?" Gabrielle leaned forward and crossed both arms on her knee.
"My queen?"Zea shot a quick glance at Gabrielle, before immediately returning her attention to the task at hand.
"She needs a name, Zea," Gabrielle stood up and approached the pair. "We can't keep calling her The Queen's Mare or whatever else everyone is calling her."
Sensing her owner's approach, the chestnut mare slowed her pace and her ears pricked toward Gabrielle, who stopped a safe distance away. Gabrielle stood there with her arms crossed over her chest, as the bright sunlight danced in the blond braid and a slight breeze blew.
"She does need a name, my queen," Zea dropped the whip and walked toward the mare. "Whoa, girl." She reached up and patted the sleek neck. "I just don't think it is my place to offer any suggestions. She belongs to you, my queen."
Gabrielle approached the mare on the other side and pulled a crisp red apple from a pocket. The mare eagerly devoured the treat, as Gabrielle stroked her nose and scratched behind her ears.
"I'm asking," Gabrielle moved to stand in front of the mare's nose and was nudged in the chest for another treat. She smiled and let the mare nibble her fingers, then looked at the young Amazon expectanly. "I can't seem to come up with anything that might fit her. So, here's your chance to impress me, Zea." Gabrielle cocked her head and gave the young woman an anticipatory half-smile.
Zea thought about it for a moment, as she continued to stroke the mare's neck. "If she were mine, I'd name her Aella," she replied tentatively. "It means 'storm wind' or 'whirlwind' and is a very noble name among our sisters."
"She was an Amazon warrior supposedly killed by Hercules," Gabrielle replied with a nod. "I don't believe the myth, but I read the story of Aella's heroism in battle when I first stayed in the village. She was very brave and somewhat impetuous."
"My mother used to tell me the story when I was a child," Zea smiled shyly. "It was my favorite. I wanted to be just like Aella when I grew up. But I'm better with horses than I am with a weapon. That's what Eponin says, anyway."
"I wanted to be a famous traveling bard. It was my fondest dream and one I shared with my sister. Lila always scoffed at it. She said I was just being silly," Gabrielle chuckled wryly as a wistful smile tugged at her features. "She died without ever realizing her dreams. And here I am the queen of a tribe of Amazons, a warrior of sorts and joined to one of the most powerful women in the known world. I didn't become a famous bard, but there's still time for that, I suppose." She turned her attention to the mare, took her face in both hands and looked her in the eye. "Aella?" The mare stared back at her for a moment and then tossed her head and snorted. "Okay, then, Aella it is." She ran her hand from the mare's forelock to her nose, then produced another apple which the mare gobbled up in one bite.
"I'm really glad she has a name, now, my queen," Zea scratched behind the mare's ear closest to her, as a faint smile played at the corners of her lips. "Calling her 'horse' was getting old. She is too beautiful for such a mundane name. Aella suits her."
"Do you think she's ready for a good run?" Gabrielle eyed the mare's bare back and then the bridle that was lying in the grass a few paces away. "I'd really like to go see what Xena's doing."
"Yes, of course, my queen," Zea quickly grabbed the bridle and switched it out for the halter. She adjusted the straps and buckles to fit the mare's head. "I'm sorry that I didn't think to bring a saddle with me. I had no idea you would want to go for a ride."
Gabrielle hesitated only a moment, before grabbing a handful of mane and pulling herself up onto Aella's back. Zea immediately handed her the reins and she settled comfortably.
"No worries, Zea," Gabrielle smiled down at the young Amazon. "I think I can handle a short ride without a saddle."
"Yes, my queen," Zea backed away a few steps with her head bowed.
"Thank you, Zea," Gabrielle said and smiled when the woman's head snapped up in surprise.
"Thanks to you, Aella is no longer the queen's horse-without-a-name," Gabrielle's smile widened.
Gabrielle nudged the mare into a fast trot and then into a canter with her knees, just like Xena had taught her. They crossed the field in a few strides and Gabrielle reveled in the freedom of being on horseback. Once they were beyond the field, Gabrielle turned the mare onto a dusty road. The hard-packed dirt road wound through a stand of trees that eventually emerged onto the practice field where she knew Xena was working with the men. A broad smile graced her suntanned features as she gave the mare her head and let the wind whip her loose-fitting shirt. It was open at the collar in deference to the warmth of the day, and she enjoyed the feel of the wind against her body and the power of the horse beneath her.
Gabrielle was happy. She was happy to be at the palace in Corinth, instead of in a drafty rustic hut in the Amazon village. She was happy to have a beautiful bed in a plush suite of rooms that she shared with Xena. Their furnishings in the palace were a far cry from what she was used to lately. Even the keep at Surra hadn't been nearly as nice as the palace there in Corinth.
She was beyond happy to be sharing her life with Xena.
Their lovemaking the previous night had started out playful and immediately turned passionate as their mutual desire ignited. Those first orgasmic moments together were so base, so carnal, in their intensity that Gabrielle actually left angry, red claw marks on Xena's shoulder blades. She apologized, but Xena only smiled.
Once their initial ardor was sated and they both floated back to earth on a gentle cloud of Elesian bliss, they explored each other lazily. It was so wonderful to exchange gentle kisses, soft touches and feather-light caresses. They tasted. They teased. They basked in the glory of the love they shared. And they didn't fall asleep until dawn. It was beautiful. Sensual.Exhilarating.Exhausting. And Gabrielle was happy.
Her thoughts turned to the impending coronation celebration scheduled for that very evening. It was gearing up to be a really big affair and one that was sending an army of rabid butterlies churning in her guts. That was why she ducked away from the palace and ended up in that field where Zea was working Aella. That was why she was riding away from the city and heading toward the only solace she knew-Xena.
They entered the woods and Gabrielle slowed Aella to an easy trot. She felt the peace and quiet of the woods close in around her and savored the shade the trees provided. It was cooler within the woods and she could hear a small brook bubbling nearby.
Gabrielle patted Aella's neck and smiled when the mare's ears flicked. "So, do you really like your new name, Aella?"
The horse snorted and tossed her head.
"Okay," Gabrielle chuckled. "I'll take that as a yes, then."
Suddenly the mare's ears pricked and she shied a few steps. Gabrielle reined her in and tightened her knees.
"What is it, girl?" Gabrielle looked around the woods and could see nothing amiss.
Aella tossed her head again and let out a high-pitched whinny. She danced and side-stepped despite Gabrielle's efforts to rein her in. Changing tactics, Gabrielle pulled her into a tight circle in order to get her under control.
"Settle down, Aella," Gabrielle patted the mare's neck in an effort to calm her.
Gabrielle would only vaguely remember what happened next. There was rustling in some bushes nearby and then she heard the whine of something. Suddenly Aella let out a piercing scream and it was all Gabrielle could do to hang on for dear life. The mare reared and then bolted into the trees.
Gabrielle lost her grip on the reins. She leaned forward and frantically grabbed for the reins that dangled just out of reach, but couldn't quite grab either of them. Branches and twigs slapped against her face and arms, as the mare continued her headlong flight.
"Whoa!" Gabrielle shouted. "Whoa, girl!"
The mare appeared not to hear her, as she continued on into a denser part of the woods that Gabrielle was not familiar with. Gabrielle leaned out farther and made another frantic attempt to grab at least one of the reins, but Aella veered away from a tree and it was all Gabrielle could do to hold on for dear life.
"Aella!" Gabrielle shouted again. "Whoa, girl!"
The mare veered again and then vaulted over a fallen log. But the ground on the other side was uneven and the mare stumbled. That didn't stop her headlong flight, however. She merely bolted again.
Gabrielle was so intent on trying to remain on the mare's back that she didn't see the low-hanging tree branch until it was too late. Her eyes widened in surprise a heartbeat before her forehead connected with the thick branch. Head snapping back on impact, Gabrielle toppled off Aella's back and landed in a heap on the hard ground. Stars and pain exploded throughout her entire body, as darkness quickly closed in and she lost consciousness.
The frightened mare continued on through the quiet woods without a backward glance, completely unaware that her mistress was no longer seated on her back.
Continued in Part 5
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