See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Caesar leaned over a table spread with maps and studied one, in particular. He then reached a bejeweled hand out and pointed to a spot on the worn parchment.
"Here," he looked up at the dark-haired man standing there in crimson and silver. "I want you to take your legions to Gaul and secure as much of the region as you can, Brutus."
"Gaul, Caesar?" Brutus couldn't hide his surprise.
"Yes, Gaul, Brutus. Did I stutter?"
"No, Caesar," Brutus pressed a fist to his chest. "I just think my skills would be better served right here in Rome."
Caesar straightened and clasped his hands behind his back as he glared at the shorter man. "But I want Gaul, Brutus. Rome needs Gaul to secure the Empire. The Gauls have always been a thorn in the side of Rome's conquest of the northern regions, Brutus. You of all people should know how important this is."
"Yes, Caesar," Brutus bowed his head slightly, but didn't break eye contact with the taller ruler of Rome.
Brutus knew Caesar had his sights set on more than just heading the Triumverate and manipulating the Senate into doing his bidding. Brutus had been Julius Caesar's friend long enough to know the man counted on a much larger destiny. And that destiny was leading to things that Brutus was becoming embroiled deeper in every day.
The Senate was restless. There were whispers and rumors that the winds of change were blowing and not at all in a sweet way. Spies were numorous throughout Rome, as were schemes and intrigue. And one never knew when one might get caught up in a scheme that thrust them onto the wrong side of a much bigger machination.
Brutus' greatest fear was that he would end up on the losing side in the struggle for control of Rome, as Caesar pushed for more territory and treasures to add to Rome's coffers. The Senate, though dominated by old men from old families that had maintained control far longer than any one ruler, was still a power to be reckoned with. And the whispers had only increased when Crassus was mistakenly executed in the Coliseum during one of Caesar's weekly gladiator tournaments.
Those whispered rumors were spreading like wildfire and the news was dark. Caesar was going to declare himself Emperor of all Rome when the Senate reconvened in the fall.
Brutus had already been approached by several powerful men. They wanted information, but, more importantly, they wanted his assurance that Caesar would not succeed in his quest to take control of all of Rome. Caesar was already spreading Rome's legions and its resources too thin. Taxes were high. The poor were starving. One could not travel into the seedier areas of Rome without fearing for one's life.
The grumblings of the Senate were growing louder and bolder. And the people were not happy, despite their weekly fix of blood and death in the Coliseum. Without Crassus, the Triumverate was broken. There was no third party to keep the balance. And the Senate didn't trust Pomeii Magnus anymore than they trusted Julius Caesar.
Brutus glanced at the map of Gaul with trepidation. He knew it would come to this. To refuse Caesar's order would put him openly on the side of those who opposed the ruler's ultimate goal of becoming Emperor of Rome. That would mean a sure death. Crassus was proof of that. Brutus wasn't naïve enough to believe that Crassus had misplaced his signet ring, the one that marked him as a member of the Triumverate. And for Crassus to be mistaken for Gaul's most able military leader, Vercinix, was ludicrous. Crassus looked nothing like the barbarian who had briefly united the armies of Gaul against Caesar's legions.
But that was exactly what happened. And Crassus lost his head over the supposed mistaken identity.
He looked up to find Caesar watching him intently. There was the briefest flash of mistrust in Caesar's dark eyes. Brutus caught the look before Caesar's expression turned guarded.
"Yes, Caesar," Brutus straightened, as he met the speculative gaze staring back at him.
"I'm waiting for your answer," Caesar watched Brutus closely. "Will you take the 4th Legion to Gaul and secure the area in question?"
"Absolutely, Caesar," Brutus replied without hesitation, as his mind whirled with possibilities. "I live only to serve Rome." He pressed his fist to his armor-clad chest again. "To the continued success of Rome."
Caesar's eyes narrowed for the briefest of moments, before he turned away and waved a dismissive hand in Brutus' direction.
"Then prepare for your campaign, Brutus," Caesar said absently. "I expect you to be on your way before the week ends. Good luck, my friend."
"Thank you, Caesar," Brutus saluted the man stiffly, before he turned his back and marched from the room.
Caesar just stood there for a moment and glanced at the map on the table. His gaze stayed on the map for a moment before he looked up.
"Do you think he knows?" A voice behind him made Caesar turn to find Pompeii standing just inside an open doorway, leaning against it.
"That you plan to have him assassinated during his campaign in Gaul?"
Pompeii grabbed a handful of grapes from a marble table, as he descended the marble steps toward Caesar. He veered to a blue velvet chair and plopped down into it with one leg dangling over the arm, as he popped several of the fat, juicy grapes into his mouth and slowly savored their sweetness.
Caesar propped a hip against the side of the table and crossed his arms over his chest. He eyed Pompeii with a mixture of mistrust and speculation.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Caesar said. "Brutus is my friend and one of my closest allies."
"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," Pompeii said, as he reached for a goblet and pitcher, then poured himself a generous portion of wine. He sipped the heady brew. "Nice stuff, Caesar."
"What do you want, Pompeii? I don't remember anyone informing me of a request for an audience."
"Oh, ho!" Pompeii stood up to face Caesar. "I don't remember you ever mentioning a scheme to kill Crassus, but…" He let the statement hang, as he downed his wine. "Am I next, Caesar?" His expression sobered. "Or are you not privy to that information?"
"Careful, Pompeii," Caesar warned. "Tread lightly, my friend."
"I'm sure you say that to all your 'friends'," Pompeii mimed quotes. "But I know better. We haven't been friends for years, Caesar. I'm just one of the privileged few who knows you for the snake you really are. So, when are you going to declare your intentions to the masses?"
"Intentions?" Caesar sauntered to a sideboard and poured himself a goblet of wine from a different container. He then turned toward Pompeii with a smirk on his dark features. "I'm not the only one with intentions, Pompeii. When were you going to tell me about your new house guest? Or were you just going to save that for a more convenient time?"
Pompeii eyed his rival speculatively. "House guest? I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I know who the boy in the cellar of your villa is, Pompeii," Caesar sighed. "So, just drop the act, because I'm not buying it."
Pompeii smiled. "He's a gift, of sorts. A new slave I have yet to break from his wild and unruly ways. Nothing more, Caesar."
"He's Xena's son," he hissed, as his brown eyes flashed with anger. "You don't think she'll come storming in here to get him back? Are you that arrogant, Pompeii? Or just stupid?"
A wry grin split Pompeii's features. "I'm counting on it, Caesar. What better way to get her away from Greece and bring her to us. Then we can deal with her in the Roman way. On our terms and on our turf." He closed the distance between them and went nose-to-nose with a man he had come to think of as more of a nemesis than an ally. "You always say the best way to deal with someone like Xena is to separate her from her emotions. This is the best way, Caesar. Xena the Conqueror can't stand up to Xena the mother. And she won't be thinking rationally if her child is in danger."
"What are you suggesting?" Caesar's brow hiked thoughtfully.
"Put him in the arena when Xena gets here," Pompeii knew he had Caesar's full attention. "Put him in there with those worthless followers of the false prophet, Eli. The lions and tigers can take care of him while Xena watches. Then we can deal with her."
Caesar walked slowly away, as he considered Pompeii's words. His expression was thoughtful as he pondered the man's words. Approaching the arched entryway, Caesar paused with a hand on the marble column next to him, then turned around to face Pompeii.
"There's a vote coming before the Senate," Caesar ducked his chin and watched Pompeii from hooded lashes.
"I want your full support," Caesar continued.
Pompeii looked skeptical.
"There's no way I'm supporting your bid to become emperor, Caesar," Pompeii's eyes narrowed. "So do not ask that of me. With Carassus dead, I control the army. You need me now more than ever."
"I have the support of the people, Pompeii," Caesar said.
"And the good citizens of Rome stand very little chance against the legions of Rome's hardened warriors."
"What do you want, Pompeii?"
"What does any man in my position want, Caesar?"
"Money?Power?" Caesar shrugged. "I don't know. You tell me."
"I want your word that you and your secret assassins will not make any attempts on my life," Pompeii replied with a wry grin. "I want to live my life without having to look over my shoulder at every turn."
"And in exchange, I get your full support?"
"As Emperor you will have full control over the entire empire," Pompeii continued. "I want to be your personal advisor and still maintain control of the legions of Rome. I am, after all, Pompeii the Magnus."
"Yes, you are," Caesar straightened. "Where's the boy?"
Pompeii's smile widenened. "Safe."
"Under heavy guard inside your villa, I suppose," Caesar said. "You haven't answered my question, Pompeii."
"You want my support when the vote comes before the Senate," Pompeii set his empty goblet on the table. "Is that all?"
"In exchange, I will appoint you as my Chief Advisor and announce the appointment before everyone in the Coliseum at the next gladiator games."
"We will deal with her when she arrives," Caesar let the hint of a smirk touch his lips. "I just hope your little scheme doesn't backfire."
"It won't," Pompeii popped one last grape into his mouth, before he marched purposefully from the chamber without a backward glance.
Caesar stood there for another moment looking at the empty space where Pompeii had been. His mind whirled with all that was happening. But he was assured that his destiny lay in becoming Emperor of Rome.
"Hail, Caesar!" A man dressed in the clothing of a commoner saluted from across the room and waited for Caesar to bid him enter.
"Get in here, Dagmos," Caesar unceremoniously waved the man in. "What news from Greece?"
"The trap is set," the stocky Greek bowed before Rome's ruler. "I did as you asked, Great Caesar. Your wishes are being carried out as we speak."
"And the woman?"
"The men I hired will have her here within a fortnight, barring any unexpected weather that might arise during the crossing, Caesar," the man replied.
"When she arrives, take her directly to the ludus of Domitian," Caesar said. "I've already informed him of her impending arrival. I don't want her anywhere near Rome. If the trip doesn't kill her, then Domitian and his gladiators will. If she survives, then I will have her brought to Rome and sent straight to the Coliseum. You will be paid as soon as you deliver her into the hands of Domitian. Understood?"
"Yes, Caesar," the man bowed his balding head and set a fist to his chest.
"Leave me," Caesar dismissed the man with a wave of his hand.
Once Dagmos was gone, Caesar sat down in one of the plush chairs and relaxed for the first time all day. He was satisfied with the day's events, even though he had much left to do. And his plans were working out perfectly. Only a little while longer and all would fall into place, as his ultimate destiny unfolded. He smirked wryly as he finished off the rest of his wine and poured himself another gobletful.
Pompeii may have temporarily gained the upper hand where Xena was concerned. But Caesar knew his own plans in regards to the former Conqueror would trump Pompeii's meager kidnapping and bring Caesar the ultimate glory in the eyes of the populace. All he had to do was wait patiently for those plans to come to fruition, which he knew they would.
Caesar tried to push thoughts of Xena from his mind, as he continued sipping his wine and going over his plans for Brutus and the windbags in the Senate. There was time enough later to bask in the glow of his success where Xena of Greece was concerned. She was of no more concern to him and would be dealt with in due course.
A pall of foreboding hung over the entire palace in Corinth. Night had fallen candlemarks earlier and the gloomy darkness seemed to permeate every nook and cranny. Heavy storm clouds obscured the few stars that had first made their appearance earlier in the eveing and a heavy silence echoed throughout the empty hallways, as servants and guests alike anxiously awaited word from the royal chambers.
Agatha and Cyrene kept a silent vigil in the deserted kitchen with twin cups of hot tea between them on a freshly-scrubbed wooden food preparation table. The evening meal had been cleared away candlemarks ago and everything was scrubbed clean, including the floors, ovens, and walls. Agatha was a tyrant in the kitchens and wanted no filth to taint the food of the Conqueror.
But Xena hadn't eaten a single bite. As a matter of fact, she hadn't touched her food at all.
"Ach!" Agatha got up from her chair. "I'm goin' to find out…"
"No!" Cyrene remained seated, as she picked up her cup and sipped the steaming brew. "Sit down, Aggie. We'll know something, soon enough."
Agatha sat back down with a scowl. "'Tisn't right, Cy. We should be up there helping out, if for no other reason than we're family. Family takes care of its own."
"No," Cyrene shook her head firmly, even though her tone was slightly less stern. "There are enough people up there, right now, Aggie. The Amazons alone are a presence to be reckoned with. Not to mention Xena's men. And there isn't anything we can do until someone sends word."
"Do they know what happened?"
"Not that I'm aware of," Cyrene gave the appearance of being relaxed, when she was really just as anxious as Agatha to know what was going on upstairs.
"We need answers," Agatha slapped a palm on the table and stood up again. "Don't try and stop me, Cy."
"Fine," Cyrene continued to sip her tea. "I'll see you in a quarter candlemark when you get frustrated and come right back down here. And don't say I didn't warn you."
Agatha shuffled from the kitchen with a few mumbled words, as Cyrene just sat there with a knowing grin, shaking her head and sipping her tea. She knew her sister all too well and was under no illusions that Agatha would sit idly by and wait from word from upstairs. The elder sibling was just not one to wait unders such dire circumstances. It wasn't in Agatha's nature.
It wasn't in Cyrene's nature, either. But she'd learned a thing or two about her daughter over the years. One of those things involved not pushing Xena when she was in the middle of something important. And Cyrene wasn't about to go charging up to the royal suite, demanding answers and pushing people around. The Amazons would respect Agatha as one of them. They weren't about to do the same with Cyrene and she knew it.
So, she patiently waited for word. And sipped her chamomile tea while she sat there in the peace and quiet of the empty kitchen.
Things were not so peaceful or quiet up in the hallway outside the royal suite. Actually, they were far from peaceful, even though people were talking in hushed whispers. Speculation about what had actually happened was running rampant.
Ephiny's stern voice brought instant silence that seemed to echo off the walls all around them.
"My queen?" Solari stepped forward in full Amazon warrior paint.
"Why are you all out here in the hallway?" Ephiny glanced around at the myriad of faces watching her expectantly.
"We did not wish to intrude, my queen," Solari replied.
"No," Ephiny shook her head with a tired sigh. "Why aren't you out looking for the person responsible for what happened?"
"Eph," Eponin stepped up next to her. "They scoured the entire woods and didn't find nothin'."
"That's not really true, my queen," Zea, the young horse wrangler stepped forward and then went immediately to a knee.
"It's too crowded in here for you to do that, Zea," Ephiny motioned for the young woman to rise. "Just tell me what you know." She rubbed her eyes to stave off a growing headache.
Zea stood up and glanced around at the expectant faces of the people surrounding her. There were Amazons and soldiers, alike. All of them wanted to know what had happened and why. And they were all completely silent. Not a single person moved.
"Aella," Zea swallowed over a nervous lump in her throat. "She had…"
"Wait," Ephiny held up a staying hand. "Who is Aella?"
"The queen's h-horse, my queen," Zea clarified.
"Gab finally named the beast?" Eponin put in with a surprised half-grin. "Huh."
"Go on, Zea," Ephiny shot Eponin an impatient scowl, as she placed a hand on the youth's shoulder. "You were saying?"
Tears sprang to Zea's dark-brown eyes, as she tried valiantly not to let her emotions get the best of her. She knew they wanted to know what little information she possessed. But the thought of the queen's beautiful mare and what had happened…
"Take your time, kid," Eponin's tone softened as she saw the tears swimming in Zea's eyes. "We know you were the last one to see them before…well, you know." She shrugged.
"Just tell us what you know," Ephiny said.
"I examined Aella when the soldiers finally found her, my queen," Zea swallowed down her tears, as she met Ephiny's steady gaze with one of her own. She was trying valiantly to hold it together and be brave. It wasn't an easy task, under the circumstances. "She…" She swallowed again. "It wasn't Aella's fault, my queen."
"And how do you know this?" Ephiny looked skeptical, as she crossed her arms and waited for a reply.
"Eph," Eponin warned. "Lay off the poor kid, will ya?"
A blond brow shot up into Ephiny's hairline and her hazel eyes hardened as she glared at Eponin. "She was the last one to see the queen before all hades broke loose, Eponin. Why should I lay off of her? For all we know, she could have done something to that horse…"
"Someone shot her with a poisoned crossbow dart!"
All eyes returned to Zea, who was standing there in wide-eyed shock at her outburst.
Ephiny closed in on the horse wrangler with anger flaring in her eyes. "What did you just say?"
"Aella was shot with a poisoned dart, my queen," Zea lowered her eyes and voice. "There was some fletching in the wound when I examined it."
"Poison?" Solari glanced from one Amazon to another.
"Where's the dart?" Eponin was suddenly all business.
"It grazed her haunches," Zea said. "I don't know what happened to it after that. I don't even know where the bowman was hiding."
"How do you know there was only one?" Solari asked.
"And we don't know if the horse was actually the intended victim," Eponin added. "For all we know…"
"Don't go there, Eponin," Ephiny warned. "We have enough problems as it is without throwing needless speculation into the mix."
"I'm just sayin'," Eponin responded with a shrug. "What if…"
Ephiny cut her off with an angry glare. Eponin held her hands up in surrender and backed away a step without another word.
Ephiny sighed. "This isn't getting us anywhere. We need answers."
"If I may, my queen," Zea said.
"Go ahead, Zea," Ephiny urged the young woman to continue. "You have something else to add?"
"Just that we could go back to the woods and retrace Queen Gabrielle's path back to where the bowman might have been hiding," Zea said hopefully. "I know where she started and we know where she ended up. Aella is large enough to have created a fairly obvious trail, so it would just be a matter of backtracking until we can pinpoint where the bowman was hiding."
Murmurs of agreement and nodding heads followed the horse wrangler's suggestion.
"She's right," Solari piped in. "There are definitely enough of us to comb the area and find something that will give us a clue as to who did this."
"We'll help in any way we can," a nondescript soldier in the royal guard stepped forward. "Just lead the way."
"Someone needs to stay here and keep an eye on things," Ephiny piped in.
"Rayna and I volunteer," Margalene pulled her sister Amazon up next to her. "We would be honored."
"And we will keep a detachment of the royal guard here," another of the soldiers added. "No one shall get into the royal chambers on our watch, Amazon."
"Okay," Ephiny nodded. She then faced Rayna and Margalene. "You two stand on either side of those doors and let no one in, unless otherwise advised by me, Eponin, Xena or Braes. Understood?" They both nodded solemnly. "The rest of you head back to the woods and figure out who did this and where they are now. Eponin and I will be in the royal chambers, if you need us."
"We will?" Eponin looked up in surprise. "But…"
"Dismissed!" Ephiny sighed with an exasperated eye roll. She waited for the hallway to clear out, except for the few remaining soldiers stationed at either end of the hall and Rayna and Margalene guarding the doors, before rounding on her mate in frustration. "Really, Eponin? Must you always question everything I say? Gabrielle didn't appoint me as her regent and then make me queen because I have feathers for brains. I swear, sometimes I really wonder about you."
"I was just gonna point out that Xena expressly forbade anyone to enter the royal chambers," Eponin said. "Actually, her exact words were 'Enter under pain of death.'"
"Yeah, I know," Ephiny walked over to a low bench and sat down on it with a tired sigh. "But I'm not leaving."
Eponin sat down next to her. "Okay."
Inside the royal bedchamber things were as quiet as a tomb. A roaring fire blazed in the fireplace and cast eerie shadows on the beige stone walls. A single candle burned and added to the shadows, while a still figure sat hunched in a chair next to the large bed that dominated the center of the room.
"Come on, Gabrielle," Xena's quiet voice pierced the still silence that hung like a heavy shroud over the room.
She raised her head. A single tear slipped from one watery blue eye and rolled down her cheek. Resting her elbow on the mattress next to Gabrielle, Xena brushed the tips of her fingers against a deathly pale cheek. A large bruise covered one side of Gabrielle's face and head. Her lip was split and painfully swollen. Xena had splinted her right wrist when she noticed how swollen the joint was. But those weren't the worst of Gabrielle's injuries.
A white bandage covered a swollen gash just below Gabrielle's hairline on her forehead where she'd hit a low tree branch. She still had yet to regain consciousness and that worried Xena.
"Come back to me, sweetheart," Xena reached for the uninjured hand lying next to her and held it against her lips. "Please come back."
Another tear slipped down her cheek and this time Xena impatiently swiped it away with her fingers. She sniffed loudly and sighed heavily, as she studied the still features of the woman who held her heart.
It had been Zea who had alerted the soldiers to Gabrielle's disappearance. They returned to the barracks at the palace and were talking loudly and boisterously about their practice session with the Conqueror.
Zea overheard their boasting as she passed on her way to the quarters where the Amazons were staying. When she heard them talking about how Xena had taken on more than a dozen of them and come out the victor, she stopped to ask them if Queen Gabrielle showed up in time to see the action.
The men all stopped and looked at her like she'd suddenly sprouted a second head. No, the Amazon queen hadn't been there at all, one of them answered. Thinking he meant Queen Ephiny, Zea had explained that Queen Gabrielle rode out to meet up with the Conqueror earlier.
After conversing with each other for a few moments, the men all came up with the same answer: Queen Gabrielle never showed up. Zea bolted from the barracks, leaving a roomful of stunned soldiers in her wake. She immediately went to find Queen Ephiny and alert her to Queen Gabrielle's disappearance.
At first, Ephiny was furious that Gabrielle rode off on her own like that, but then she managed to curb her temper enough to exercise her leadership skills. Zea, Rayna, Margalene and several others returned to the woods on horseback and were met by the soldiers from the barracks. After a brief argument over who was in charge of the search, Rayna admonished that they were wasting precious time and suggested Zea just lead the way.
A candlemark later while the search was in full swing, Xena showed up in the woods. She found the young horse wrangler and the others, then demanded an explanation. A shout from one of the soldiers, however, had them all rushing over to investigate. What they found turned Xena's stomach and set her heart to racing in alarmed panic.
Gabrielle was sprawled face-down on the ground. Xena immediately knelt next to her mate and gingerly rolled her over. Leaves and twigs mixed with blood were matted in her hair and there was a large gash just below her hairline on her forehead, which Xena could see even in the dim light. The gash was still oozing dark-red blood that slowly trailed down the side of Gabrielle's head.
The Amazons immediately constructed a makeshift litter out of pine bows and sapplings. Gabrielle was then carried back to the palace. The short trip back took longer than expected, since none of the litter bearers wanted to jostle the injured woman. The party reached the gates to the palace in due course and headed straight to the royal chambers without pause.
Once inside the royal bedchamber, the Amazons carefully lifted Gabrielle from the litter to the bed and gingerly propped her against some pillows. Xena then ordered the room cleared out, much to the dismay of the Amazons who grumbled in protest.
But Xena didn't care about them. She didn't care that she might have bruised a few egos. All she cared about was Gabrielle.
A low moan brought Xena's head up and she was instantly alert.
Xena watched Gabrielle's face tense up and her eyes flutter slowly open and instantly close again, as she groaned louder.
"Hey," Xena leaned closer and lightly brushed the backs of her fingers against Gabrielle's cheek. "Come on, Gabrielle." Gabrielle's eyelids flutter again, as she struggled to regain consciousness. "That's it, Gabrielle. Open those beautiful eyes and let me know you're still in there. Come on, love. You can do it. I know you can."
A soft moan escaped parted and swollen lips, as Gabrielle moved her head slightly on the soft pillow. Her breathing quickened slightly and her eyelids fluttered again, but this time they didn't open.
"Hurts," the single word came out barely above a whisper.
"I know, sweetheart," Xena put her face inches from Gabrielle's. "I know it hurts. You hit your head and landed pretty hard. I'm sure it hurts everywhere."
"Head," Gabrielle muttered, as she tried to lift her splinted arm and Xena caught the motion and pushed the arm back down.
"Try not to move around too much, Gabrielle," Xena said in a hushed voice. "You hurt more than your head, sweetheart." She brushed a lock of hair back behind Gabrielle's ear. "You're pretty banged up."
"Aella," Gabrielle murmured through her swollen lips. "Is she…"
Xena swallowed over a lump in her throat. "She…Your horse?" Gabrielle's nod was barely perceptible. "Bruno and Pericles, two of my men, found her." She sighed. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. There was nothing they could do to save her."
Xena watched a single tear slip from Gabrielle's closed eye and slide down her cheek. She gently wiped it away with her thumb.
"She didn't suffer, love," Xena explained. "Bruno made sure her death was swift and painless. He-He said she broke both front legs when she tried to vault a fallen log. It must have happened not too long after you were knocked from her back. They found her only a short distance from where we found you."
Gabrielle nodded and several tears slipped down her cheek to land on the pillow next to her head.
"Please don't cry, Gabrielle," Xena held back the tears swimming in her own eyes. "We'll find you another horse-one just as gentle as…"
"Aella," Gabrielle supplied quietly. "Zea-" She opened her eyes wide and instantly closed them again with a wince. "Ugh! Gods!"
"Shh," Xena lifted Gabrielle's uninjured hand and kissed her skinned knuckles. "Zea's fine. She wasn't with you. You left her behind when you came to find me. Do you remember what happened in the woods, Gabrielle? Do you know what spooked your horse?"
Gabrielle's brow furrowed as she kept her eyes tightly shut and tried to think. "Not…sure," she managed through her swollen lips. "Dark." The furrow deepened for a moment. "Heard…something."
"You heard something? What?" Xena's interest perked up.
"Bushes," Gabrielle managed to open her eyes slightly. "Rustling? Then Aella reared and…" The last came out on a choked whisper, as more tears spilled down her cheeks. "I can't believe she's dead, Xena."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand and kissed her knuckles again. "I know, love. I'm so sorry."
"She was such a good horse," Gabrielle sniffed and winced, letting her eyes drift shut again. "Gods. Why does my head hurt so much? Really hurts."
"You hit your head on a tree branch, sweetheart," Xena gently stroked Gabrielle's cheek. "The impact knocked you off your horse and you landed pretty hard. The impact knocked you unconscious."
Gabrielle opened one eye just wide enough to look at her splinted wrist. "'s broken?"
"I'm not sure," Xena carefully lifted the splinted arm in question. "How does it feel?"
"'s throbbing," Gabrielle replied, as her eye drifted shut. "Lips hurt, too."
"Yeah, you did a number on your beautiful face," Xena let her fingers lightly stroke the uninjured side of Gabrielle's face. "You really need to be more careful, sweetheart."
"No' my fault," the words were slurred, as Gabrielle drifted off. "Tired."
"I'll be right here when you wake up, okay?"
Xena leaned over and kissed Gabrielle's cheek. "Sweet dreams, sweetheart."
"'Nigh', Xe..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off and her breathing deepened.
Xena watched her for several moments to make sure she was okay. Her astute hearing picked up a commotion out in the hallway, so she got up and walked toward the sitting room. As she stepped through the bedchamber doorway, Agatha nearly collided with her in her shuffling haste.
"Whoa!" Xena grabbed the older woman's shoulders to steady her. "That's far enough, Agatha."
"Outta my way, Xena," Agatha tried to push by the imposing woman. "I'm checking on her and you're not stopping me."
"No," Xena stood firm and blocked the bedchamber entrance. "She's asleep."
"Are you sure?" Agatha met Xena's steady gaze. "Maybe she's still unconscious…"
"Yes, I'm sure."
"And how do you know? Head injuries…"
"Because I've been with her the entire time, old woman," Xena leaned against the door jam and crossed her arms over her chest. "She was talking to me right before you barged in."
"Oh," Agatha took a step back, and Xena noticed Ephiny standing silently behind her.
"Eph," Xena acknowledged the Amazon with a nod.
"How is she?" Ephiny's tone held a note of concern.
"She regained consciousness and we talked for a little bit," Xena replied. "She went right to sleep."
"Is she in pain?" Agatha added.
"She slammed her head into a tree branch and fell off her horse," Xena's tone dripped sarcasm. "Of course she's in pain, Agatha."
"Then we'll postpone the celebration," Agatha nodded curtly.
"Is that all you can think of at a time like this?" Xena couldn't believe her ears. "I don't care a wit about a damned celebration. Gabrielle is all I care about."
"Someone has to care about the celebration, Xena," Agatha shot back icily. "You certainly don't take responsibility for the hundreds of people it takes to put an affair of this magnitude together. Not to mention those overstuffed windbags who keep inviting themselves to dine with you, even when you don't show up for a meal that took hours to plan and prepare. You think this place runs itself?"
"I don't…" Xena's eyes flashed with rage, as she blew out an exasperated breath. "You think I don't care, old woman? Is that it? You think I'm callous and shallow, like those sons of bitches who stormed into this place and parked their bejeweled butts at my table? Do you really think so little of me?"
Agatha saw that Xena was gearing up for a full-blown explosive temper tantrum. She knew what that meant, had experienced it on more than one occasion and didn't really want to deal with it, especially not during that late hour. So, she decided to err on the side of caution and let it go. She let her shoulders slump slightly and breathed out a resigned sigh.
"You have other things on your mind, right now, Xena," Agatha said with an understanding nod. "Let the rest of us worry about the celebration. We will take care of everything, while you take care of Gabrielle. Agreed?"
Deflated, Xena merely nodded. She was tired and knew her temper always got the best of her when things weren't going right for her. But she also knew she couldn't take it out on the people closest to her. She glanced from Agatha to Ephiny, both of whom were watching her expectantly.
"Okay," she finally said. "Fine with me. Just don't ever say that I don't care about what goes on around me. I do. I just need to focus on Gabrielle, right now. She's more important than a bunch of windbags who just want a piece of the action. If they get out of hand, let me know and I'll lop a few heads off. Put them in their place."
Ephiny and Agatha both chuckled at the matter-of-fact way Xena said that.
"I had some tea and sweet cakes brought up," Agatha motioned toward the sideboard that held a tray of steaming goodies. "Why don't you take a break and drink some tea-eat something? You haven't eaten since the morning meal, Xena. I'll go in and sit with Gabrielle while you do that. Make sure she's sleeping comfortably and not in any pain."
"She barged right past me, despite my best efforts to stop her, Xena," Ephiny put in with a wry grin. "I'd let her go, if I were you. Then I can fill you in on what I know."
"Fine," Xena moved out of the way and Agatha immediately disappeared into the bedchamber before Xena could change her mind. The tall Conqueror merely breathed out a heavy sigh, as she grabbed a sweet cake and sat down in one of the plush chairs with a leg hanging over one arm. "Talk, Eph."
Ephiny poured them both some tea and added a generous dollop of honey to each steaming cup. She handed one to Xena and sat down across from her. She then looked at the plush furnishings around.
"Nice," Ephiny commented, as she sipped her tea. "Ours aren't nearly this elegant. Is that real gold filigree?"
A dark brow quirked on Xena's features. "You really want to talk about the décor?"
"Not really," Ephiny reluctantly pulled her gaze back to Xena. "Thanks for the swank digs, by the way. Eponin's words, not mine."
Xena let the hint of a smile play at the corner of her lips. "You're welcome," then her expression sobered. "So, what do you know about what happened?"
"I sent a party to comb the woods," Ephiny set her tea on a low table. "They're looking for evidence."
"Someone spooked Gabrielle's horse," Xena added with a nod.
"She heard rustling in the bushes before her horse bolted," Xena explained.
"She told you that?"
"Not in so many words," Xena answered. "But there is no other explanation for what happened. I hand-picked that horse for her. The mare was as docile as a kitten and wouldn't bolt without good reason."
"She was grazed with a poisoned crossbow bolt," Ephiny added. "Zea said she noticed the wound when she examined the mare. Was it really necessary for your men to put her down like that? Gabrielle is going to be devastated."
"Already told her," Xena said. "Besides, both of the mare's legs were broken. Bruno did what he thought best for the poor beast. Put her out of her misery."
"Still…" Ephiny shook her head and stared at the small but cozy fire in the sitting room fireplace.
"Gabrielle will understand," Xena said. "She of all people knows what it's like to lose a beloved one."
Ephiny's snapped to Xena's. "You're talking about her sister?"
"More than just her sister," Xena sighed, as she sipped her tea. "Her mother.Her father. Everyone she held dear."
"And now her horse," Ephiny nodded sagely. "I still wish I knew why she took off without an escort like that. She knows better. Pisses me off, sometimes, when she throws caution to the wind and just takes off like that."
"She's a free spirit," Xena let the hint of a smile show. "It's one of the things I love most about her. She isn't bound by rules and regulations. Gabrielle finds her own way around them."
"Still," Ephiny's brow furrowed in concern. "This time it almost got her killed. And then where would we be?"
"Where you've always been," Xena replied sagely. "You would just step up as queen, like Gabrielle anticipated."
Ephiny watched the blue eyes flash with anger, before Xena's stoic mask dropped right back into place. It didn't take an oracle to see how deeply the Conqueror loved Gabrielle. It was there in the covert looks Xena gave the woman when she thought no one was watching. Besides, Ephiny knew how much time the two spent together while they were in the Amazon village. And most of it had been behind closed doors in the queen's hut.
"I would follow her to the depths of the Underworld without batting an eyelash," Xena replied gravely.
Ephiny believed her. "You really love her that much?"
"I couldn't live without her," Xena said. "She's my entire reason for being, now. If she died…"
Ephiny caught the tears in Xena's eyes before the dark-haired woman turned her head away. She also heard Xena clear her throat and saw her swallow several times.
"Now you understand why I'm so adamant about providing an escort," Ephiny continued in a tone devoid of emotion. "She's not just our queen, Xena. I know how much she means to you-to all of us. Her safety is of my utmost concern. I don't want anything to happen to her, just as you don't."
"You can't keep her locked in a cage, Eph," Xena propped her arm on the back of the chair and rested her head on a closed fist. "She would die in a cage."
"I don't want to lock her in a cage, Xena," Ephiny insisted. "I just want to protect her."
"I would love nothing more than to protect her," Xena sighed. "But having others fight her battles isn't the answer. She's already become an experienced fighter. You can't undo that anymore than you can change her past or redirect a raging river."
"You're comparing Gabrielle to a raging river, now?" Ephiny snickered. "Although, it does have some merit, I must say. She can be rather stubborn and pigheaded when the mood strikes her."
"So can you," Xena shot back with a wry smirk.
"Touche," Ephiny conceded. "Which brings us back to the matter at hand. Someone obviously wants to harm her, Xena. They deliberately aimed a crossbow at her."
Xena sighed again and let her head drop back against the backrest of the chair. Her eyes burned from lack of sleep and she knew the hour was late. It was probably at least a candlemark or two past the mid-night hour. She'd been up before dawn and all she really wanted to do was climb into bed next to Gabrielle and sleep. She let her eyes drift closed, as her mind whirled with the possibilities.
"If they were trying to kill her, then why were they so far off the mark?" Xena said without opening her eyes. "That bolt grazed her horse, Eph. It could have just as easily hit Gabrielle, instead."
"For what purpose?"
"I don't know," Ephiny shrugged. "Maybe a disgruntled citizen wanted to get to you through her?"
"Then why not finish her off when she fell off her horse?" Xena added with a raised brow.
Ephiny thought about that for a moment. "Okay, fine. What do you think is going on?"
"I don't know," Xena said after several moments. "It just doesn't make any sense. There was no way for anyone to know that she would ride into those woods, much less take the path she did. She could have just as easily ridden back here to the palace or gone to the marketplace inside the city gates."
"Maybe there was more than one bowman," Ephiny speculated. "Maybe they covered their bases and the guy in the woods was just their lousiest shot."
"Whatever the case may be," Xena sighed tiredly. "This isn't over. Someone is going to pay for what they did to her. I promise you that. Heads will roll."
Ephiny eyed Xena for a moment. The words were spoken with little enthusiasm or passion, but Ephiny was sure of the conviction behind them. She realized Xena was tired. After all, she'd been on the practice field with her men for most of the morning and the better part of the afternoon, as well. Xena was probably exhausted and wanted to go to bed.
Ephiny glanced toward the bedchamber door. "Where will you sleep tonight?"
Xena's eyes fluttered open, as she turned them on the Amazon. "You worried I might try something with her?"
"No," Ephiny shook her head, looked down and then looked up with a small smile. "But you can't sleep out here. That chair doesn't look at all comfortable, Xena."
"There are other rooms on this floor," Xena said. "I'm sure I can find one with a bed that will suit me for one night."
"Ach!"Came a quiet exclamation from the bedchamber doorway. "That's not necessary and ya very well know it, Xena. Now, get yourself in there with her. She needs you."
Xena didn't hesitate for even a moment. She got up, brushed past Agatha with a knowing grin, then stuck her head back into the sitting room.
"'Night, Eph," Xena said, then kissed Agatha's cheek. "Thank you both for being here."
Then the bedchamber door closed, effectively shutting them out. They merely looked at each other and shrugged, as they let themselves out in silence.
Zea was exhausted and soaked to the bone by the time they returned to the walled city and entered through a door guarded by members of the royal guard who merely nodded at them. A light drizzle had started a few candlemarks earlier and hadn't let up.
The muted light from their torches danced off the walls of the white stone palace and cast eerie shadows across the small courtyard. Zea didn't care. She was too tired to care about anything but the soft cot that awaited her.
They had spent the better part of six candlemarks combing the dark and soggy woods for any sign of the crossbowman who had set his sights on harming Queen Gabrielle. They found very little for their efforts. Not a single crossbow bolt. Not even a bit of fletching.
One of the scouts, Briesse, had pointed out a few telltale signs that someone had been in the bushes where Gabrielle's horse entered the woods. After that, however, there was no evidence that pointed to a specific individual. And there was nothing that said the individual who was in the bushes was even the crossbowman they were looking for.
They did find a small piece of non-descript brown fabric that apparently hadn't been there for very long. Whoever the person in the bushes had bee, they had snagged their clothing on the jagged end of a small branch. It was something, but not enough to point to anyone specific. And for all they knew, it might just as well belong to a hunter out combing the woods for a nice buck to provide food for his family or a farmer who lost his prized pig.
"Are you okay?"
The quiet question brought Zea's head up and she was lost in a pair of gray eyes gone dusky in the muted light. Briesse was watching her curiously. Zea noted the woman wore a single braid from her forehead down the side of her heart-shaped face. There was an eagle's feather hanging behind one ear that was decorated with a number of silver hoops. The rest of her blond hair hung loosely around her bear shoulders. She wasn't much taller than Zea and she had the build of someone used to running long distances.
"Tired," Zea offered a shy, tired smile. "Been a long day and night."
"Yes, it has," Briesse smiled a smile that lit her eyes. She didn't look tired at all. "Can't wait to climb into my cot and sleep the sleep of the dead. Dawn comes pretty early."
"Yes, it does," Zea agreed.
"I wonder how the queen is doing," Briesse mused. "Doesn't seem fair. She survived the war and all the crap with Velasca and her lot, only to come back here and have some idiot take a potshot at her."
"She's a survivor," Zea said with confidence. "She'll pull through this, just like she pulled through the other stuff."
"And what, young wrangler, do you know about our illustrious queen?" Briesse's gray eyes flashed with curiosity and a hint of good-natured teasing. "Are you, by chance, an oracle?"
"No," Zea shook her head and ducked her chin, as she studied the uneven ground beneath her feet. "I just know how she was with Aella. And I've heard the rumors about how she came to us. They say she was raped and left for dead at Surra. She survived that and now she's queen and married to the Conqueror. It takes a really special person to go through something like that and not get down about it all. Don't you think?"
"Hm," Briesse cocked her head and studied the young woman. "You're more than a simple horse wrangler, aren't you, young Zea?"
"I don't know what you mean," Zea shrugged. "All I know is horses are very intelligent animals and very good judges of character."
"And you, my young friend?" Briesse put a hand on Zea's shoulder. "Are you also a good judge of character? Or do you only judge good horse flesh?"
Zea studied the woman who was a few years her senior, yet seemed to have a youthful spring to her step and a positive outlook on life.
"I try not to judge people without getting to know them first," Zea replied with a small smile. "Horses are a different story, though. They are pretty easy to read. What you see is usually what you get with them."
Briesse returned the smile with a warm one of her own. "Not so with people?"
"Not in my experience, no," Zea shook her head.
"And your experiences with people are so vast in the few years you have been on this earth that you can say that with such confidence?" Briesse continued with a knowing grin.
"I'm not as young as you think I am," Zea replied said, as they made it to the communal quarters they shared. "I celebrated twenty-two summers when the spring rains ended."
They stepped into a well-lit common room with several tables and chairs scattered about. There were still several subdued Amazons sitting at a few of the tables. They were obviously awaiting their return, as well as awaiting word from the palace of their queen's condition.
"What say you, sisters?" A young Amazon with curly red hair stood up to greet them. "Did you find anything of interest? Will we be gutting a Corinthian pig in the morning? It would really be fun to hang him from the ramparts of the palace and watch him bleed."
"Sit down, Amarice," Briesse brushed past the redhead. "It's late and I'm too tired to listen to your idle prattle."
The others in the room chuckled, as Amarice sat down with a childish pout. "I'm not a child, Briesse," she huffed. "You should start treating me with the respect I deserve."
"When you earn it, Amarice," Briesse said, as she stopped and turned to face the others in the room. "Well, sisters, we searched for anything that would give us a clue as to the identity of the scum who tried to kill Queen Gabrielle. But, unfortunately, we came up empty. We will resume our search in the light of day tomorrow." She then placed a hand on Zea's shoulder. "And Zea will be right there with us. For now, I bid you all pleasant dreams."
Zea returned the smile Briesse gave her. In the warm light from the torches in sconces around the room, Briesse was the most beautiful woman Zea had ever seen-with the exception of Queen Gabrielle. Briesse's beauty wasn't so much in her striking good looks, however. It emanated from the softness of her features and the ruggedness of her bearing. She was a scout and tracker. She was used to reading the lay of the land. She was tuned in to everything around her and her very being seemed alive with an inner energy that came from her connection with the earth itself.
So when Briesse turned that warm smile on her, Zea felt her heart melt and her very soul seemed to somehow connect with the slightly older woman. Brown eyes met gray and the world just seemed to stop for them in that instant.
At least, Zea thought so.
"To a successful hunt!" Someone shouted and others cheered.
Zea suddenly found a mug of dark amber ale in her hands. She wasn't fond of the heady brew, but suddenly felt a kinship with her sisters that she hadn't felt before.
"To a strong Amazon Nation!" Someone else shouted, as everyone echoed the phrase.
They raised their mugs high into the air in salute and then room fell into a hushed silence.
"Long live the queen," someone said in a quiet tone. A heavy silence followed.
They all then downed their drinks and quickly dispersed. Most of them went to the communal sleeping room, while a few others went outside.
Zea's eyes almost widened in surprise when Briesse leaned in close and whispered, "My cot is in the far corner of the sleep room and separated from the others by a small partition. Would you like to share it with me, young Zea? I would certainly enjoy the company. I'm chilled to the bone from being out in that cold drizzle."
Zea glanced around the room and noticed the place had quickly emptied. And then Briesse brushed her fingers down Zea's bear arm and a shiver of anticipation, as well as a sudden burst of heat, raced up her spine. She looked up into eyes smoldering with desire and her heart nearly jumped into her throat.
"Don't worry," Briesse said on a breathless whisper. "I don't bite. Much." She gave Zea a teasing grin, as her fingers moved to the wrangler's cheek. "So soft-smooth.Beautiful, Zea."
And then warm lips were on hers and it was all Zea could do remain standing. She was grateful for the strong arms that wrapped themselves around her shoulders and pulled her close, as her knees practically gave out and her heartbeat pounded loudly in her ears.
A warm, wet tongue begged entrance with gentle prodding and Zea eagerly parted her lips in heady anticipation. As soon as their tongues met, Zea was lost. Her mind whirled with the sensations that Briesse's touch elicited in her entire body. And the slow burn in her guts quickly ignited into a blazing inferno that dispelled the chill from the rain. She pressed her body closer to the slightly taller woman's and felt Briesse respond in kind.
"Ew! Get a room, you two," Amarice's voice intruded on the moment.
It was like having icy water dumped over their heads. They jumped apart breathlessly and just stared at each other in wide-eyed surprise.
"Come on," Briesse held her hand out to Zea, who took it without hesitation. Then Briesse glared daggers at Amarice. "Aren't you supposed to be in bed, little girl?" Was her parting comment, as she brushed past the redhead with a bemused Zea in tow. "Sweet dreams, Amarice."
Zea silently followed Briesse, as the woman wove her way through the cots occupied by sleeping and not-so-sleepy Amazons. She ignored the few women who curiously watched them pass and concentrated on the hand still holding hers tightly. Her body was still tingling and she wanted nothing more than to finish what they had started-whatever that entailed.
Yes, Zea was an innocent when it came to making love to another woman. Despite her twenty-two summers, she had never felt a connection with another person before. Until that moment. She always felt more connected to horses and other animals than she ever did with human beings. Animals didn't judge the same way humans did. They didn't have emotional attachments and their feelings were limited. If you fed them and kept them warm and safe, animals usually were content. Humans, on the other hand, were much more complicated.
Relationships were complicated, because human beings let their feelings and emotions get in the way. The two always seemed to go hand-in-hand. They were the cornerstone of humanity. They complicated everything. But, without them, life was just terribly boring. Zea knew that first hand.
They reached the small partition and Briesse ducked behind it with Zea still in tow. It wasn't a large space by any stretch of the imagination, but it was cozy. A cot just large enough for two was set against the wall. A single candle sat unlit on a small table, but there was little need for light. Their eyes had already adjusted to the muted glow coming from a lone torch burning on the other side of the room.
"Are you sure about this, Zea?" Briesse turned to face her companion, gently stroking bear arms with calloused hands. "Because if you're not sure…"
Zea pressed a finger against Briesse' lips to quiet her. She then stepped closer and placed her hands on either side of Briesse's slender waist. Pressing her body close, Zea kissed the taller woman and savored the feel of the soft lips against her own.
"I'm sure," Zea said with more confidence than she felt when the kiss ended.
Briesse moved back a step and sat down on the cot, pulling Zea with her. Their lips met again and tongues danced. Passions reignited, as they lay down together and explored a budding relationship that Zea never dreamed possible.
The sun began its ascent in the eastern sky as a young horse wrangler felt her world shift right off its axis. Sights and sounds like nothing she had ever experienced before. Colors brighter than the rainbow after a summer shower.Sensations that could only be described as ethereal. And she experienced it all in the arms of a woman who was as gentle and patient as a teacher, yet as passionate as a powerful wind blowing during a fall storm.
And Zea relished every sweet moment and exquisite touch, as she rode the waves of ecstasy until she fell back to earth in the arms of love. Yes, love. She had known it the instant Briesse put her hand on Zea's shoulder. A white-hot spark of desire had ignited inside her and was only just subsiding in the wake of their blissful lovemaking.
Zea dozed in her warm cocoon. Briesse's even breathing tickled her ear, but Zea was loathe to move and disturb the peace that settled over her like a welcome shroud. She was happy for the first time in her young life. Someone cared. Someone loved her enough to break through the barriers she had erected after her mother passed away and left her to fend for herself in a cold and unforgiving world that she didn't understand.
The Amazons had taken her in with open arms when they learned that she was good with animals. At first, she tended the goats, sheep and a few work horses the Amazons kept for tilling and other heavy labor they themselves couldn't do. When Gabrielle came to them, she introduced them to a whole new world that involved riding the great beasts. Zea finally found her place after that.
She didn't know why, but she had a knack for capturing and taming the beasts that astonished and confounded her sister Amazons. And now she had found someone who appreciated her for more than her strange preclivity for caring for animals. Briesse didn't mind the smell of the horses that permeated her skin. She said so, as they were making love. And it was all Zea could do not to cry out in pleasure as Briesse inhaled deeply as her lips found a particularly sensitive spot just below Zea's ear.
Her body tingled from the recent memories, as Briesse sighed in her sleep and pulled Zea closer. They were spooned together back to front and Zea was enjoying the feel of bear flesh against her own. She just lay there with a smile and half-closed lids. Then her thoughts turned to the previous day's events and a pang of guilt assailed her.
Zea had once harbored a secret crush on the confident, self-assured woman who had unexpectedly fallen into their midst and become their monarch through numerous strange twists of the Fates. Who could have foreseen what would happen to thrust Gabrielle, a battered and beaten slave from the Conqueror's keep at Surra, into the ranks of the great queens of the Amazon Nation?
Was it any wonder that half the Thracian tribe was in love with their beloved monarch? Zea didn't think so. She relished every moment Gabrielle spent with her, as Zea trained the mare the Conqueror had purchased for Gabrielle.
Zea couldn't help but feel a deep sense of loss when she thought of the mare she had helped name only the previous day. Aella was a wonderful horse and Zea already missed her. They had spent many a candlemark together as Zea put the mare through her paces. And Queen Gabrielle had been pleased by the hard work Zea had put into training the beautiful animal.
Zea shifted slightly, as tears sprang to her eyes. She knew there was nothing she could have done to stop what happened, but that didn't assuage her guilt.
"Are you okay?" The sleepy voice asked in concern.
Zea merely nodded, unable to speak for the tears choking her. She snuggled closer to Briesse, who hugged her close and rested her cheek against Zea's ear.
"What is it, dearest Zea?" Briesse placed a kiss on her ear. "Tell me, love."
That single word tugged at Zea's heart like no other and lifted her spirits slightly. She smiled, as she swiped the few tears away that had slipped down her cheeks.
"Just being silly," Zea replied. "Thinking about Queen Gabrielle's horse, actually."
"Ah," Briesse nodded sagely. "I understand you helped name the mare. Is that true?"
Zea nodded. "Her name is Aella, after…"
"One of the great Amazon warriors," Briesse finished for her with a gentle smile. "She was said to have fought alongside Hercules himself."
"My mother used to tell the story a little differently," Zea shrugged. "She said Hercules killed Aella in battle."
"Not so, love," Briesse placed another kiss on the side of Zea's head. "Aella and Hercules were allies in a war against a tribe of ferocious cannibals far to the north. They fought side-by-side against the invaders who nearly wiped out Aella's entire tribe. Hercules saved what was left of the tribe, but Aella lost her life in the battle."
Zea turned her head and gazed into eyes shining with love. It took her a moment to realize that love was directed at her. "You seem to know the story well."
"My grandmother was one of the tribeswomen who survived," Briesse smiled warmly. "She came to the Thracian village shortly after, with a few of the other survivors. My mother loved to share the story with me. I think, in her own way, she was proud of my grandmother for her courage in gathering her sisters to make the long journey south."
"Is Hercules really that old, then?" Zea couldn't believe what Briesse was telling her. "I didn't think he was much older than the Conqueror."
"He is older, but not that old, no," Briesse replied. "He was quite young when he happened upon the battle on that fateful day. But he was already well on his way to becoming the hero he is today. My grandmother passed away shortly after that. It broke my mother's heart, but the woman was quite old and the journey took the last of her strength."
"It doesn't sound like your mother was with your grandmother when it happened," Zea said.
"She wasn't," Briesse nodded. "She was married to my father and living in a small farming village not far from Thrace. My parents were killed a few years later, when raiders set fire to our home and burned the village to the ground. Solari and Eponin showed up looking for survivors. They found me hiding in the woods a few days after it happened. I was a little wild and unruly, by then. Actually, I was just scared. They took me back to the village and I've lived there ever since. That was probably ten winters ago, now."
"I've seen you around, occasionally," Zea admitted. "I just never had the courage to talk to you, before now."
Zea nodded. "You're also pretty intimidating when you're hanging around the other scouts, trackers and hunters."
Briesse chuckled. "We don't bite. And the other sister scouts and trackers are pretty nice, once you get to know them."
"Yeah," Zea turned over to face Briesse and placed a timid hand on her bear hip. She felt the woman respond instantly to her touch and smiled. "I'd rather get to know you, Briesse."
Briesse placed a finger under Zea's chin and tipped her head up, then lightly brushed her lips against them. "Me, too, Zea.Me, too."
They kissed again. This time the kiss was slow and lingering, as they took their time exploring. The sky lightened outside the single window high above and the rain finally stopped, as their mutual passions reignited and they came together in blissful ecstasy.
Continued in Part 6
Return to the Academy