Revision Statement: In revising My Lord I have tried to add more narrative to improve the character development. If the editorial quality is not up to my usual standard, the reason is because my editor, Cath, did not review the changes. Thus, direct all criticism my way.
Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices
Acknowledgements: My gratitude to Cath for her extensive edits and comments. Also, a great thanks to Tana for her insightful discussion of the Conqueror genre, in addition to her faithful encouragement.
Comments: Comments always encouraged and appreciated.
Subtext: This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are under 18 or if it is illegal for you to read this text please do not continue.
The characters and events in My Lord are continued in the stories My Lord: Solstice and My Lord: By the Fates.
The banquet hall was filled with members of the Court. An abundant harvest brought them together to celebrate. Food and drink were served generously as the evening progressed. This was a night free of politics although political intrigue always ran in the Court's undercurrent of human thought and emotion. All took place under the watchful eye of the Conqueror, Xena of Amphipolis. The Conqueror sat centered at the head table dressed in a white embroidered shirt and black leather pants. She was a tall beauty with long black hair; intense blue eyes and a brilliant smile that had the power to both charm and disarm. To her right sat Jared, her trusted General of the Royal Guards. He was a handsome man, near a generation older than the Conqueror. A few fingers taller than the Conqueror, he wore his hair short. Trails of gray around his temples and interspersed in his well-trimmed beard gave him a distinguished appearance. His eyes were a deep brown. They promised more warmth than one might expect for a seasoned warrior. To the Conqueror's left sat Paulos, General of her Fourth Army, a somewhat less trusted but equally capable military mind. Paulos was a scruffy man with a laugh that tended to be too loud. He reminded the Conqueror of the Norse warriors she had met when traveling the far north.
Paulos tapped his wine cup absentmindedly. "Your Majesty, I see you have graced the palace with new beauty."
The Conqueror turned to her general and then followed his eyes until they fell upon the subject referenced. Indeed, the new slave had a gentle beauty. The Conqueror estimated the girl to be just shy of sixteen hands tall from head to toe, and nineteen or twenty summers old. The Conqueror smiled to herself for the equestrian measure, testament that she felt more comfortable with her horses than people. Returning her thoughts to the slave, she admired the girl's long, blond hair, which draped down her soft, lightly tanned complexion. The slave carried the posture of someone new to the palace. Her movement was clumsy, indecisive. She was learning how to serve. That was obvious. The slave's posture was one of an arrested, if not defeated, spirit. Her hands shook as she poured the wine. The Conqueror strove for a healthy level of fear. It was necessary to control the realm. She was, however, disturbed by the overall impression made by this slave. She made a mental note to discuss her observation with Targon, her administrator.
She gave her general an easy response. "I'm glad you appreciate the aesthetics of the palace."
Paulos laughed. "I confess I take little notice of the work of your artisans. My appreciation is limited to the flesh and blood in the palace. A girl like her could provide a man comfort during a cold night like tonight promises to be."
"I will provide you with all the blankets you desire, General. As for my slaves, my rules have not changed."
"I visit you always with the hope that one day you will make an exception."
"The exception may provide you pleasure but I cannot say the same for the slave you choose." The Conqueror cordially slapped the General on the arm. "You are a handsome rogue. I would think you could easily seduce a wench. And if not, there is always coin in your pouch to pay a fair price for services."
Paulos bantered with equal good humor. "But who wants a wench when he can have a jewel?"
"The jewels become wenches or worse if I lift my protection." The Conqueror sobered. "It will not be done."
"And so I return to the south disappointed once again."
The Conqueror's rule followed a clear philosophy. "The justice of the realm is greater than any one man."
"True, Your Majesty." Paulos offered his own insight. "But, it is not greater than one specific woman."
"Because it is my justice to exercise until someone takes the right from me."
"I humbly bow to you." The General's appreciation was sincere. "You have brought peace and prosperity to Greece. I fought beside you and have never been disappointed."
The Conqueror raised her cup to the General. "Take care, Paulos. Flattery disgusts me."
"That is why I only speak the truth."
The Conqueror smiled. "Fine man. Now tell me more about the state of the southern provinces."
The Conqueror had excused herself from the banquet early. Though the gathering was a far more pleasant affair than the majority of her state events, her desire for a different, more productive diversion took her elsewhere. Seeking free movement, she changed into a less formal shirt and pantaloons. With sword in hand Xena spent two candlemarks completing a series of drills designed to sharpen her focus and maintain her dexterity. It was her sword and her strategic mind that had earned her the realm. Keeping the realm required that neither be compromised.
Xena wiped her face and neck of perspiration. She felt better for the exercise. She had eaten little at the banquet and now found herself to be hungry. Taking a concealed corridor from her private sparring chamber to a stairwell, she made her way to the kitchens. There she spied the same slave that had garnered her attention at the banquet -- hard at work scrubbing the floor.
The slave held the floor brush with both her hands, moving it back and forth. Her stroke forward stopped at the sight of two black-booted feet in front of her. She looked up to see the Conqueror. Visibly shaken, the slave rose to her feet.
She kept her eyes low. "My Lord, how may I serve you?"
Xena observed the girl. "I came down for something to eat. Cheese and bread will do."
"Yes, My Lord." The girl nodded. Her attempt to take a step caused her to become dizzy. She raised her hand to her head.
Xena watched her. Unbeknownst to the slave, Xena extended her hand, offering support. "Hey."
The girl fell toward Xena. Xena stepped up and caught the girl in her arms, setting her gently on the floor. She was surprised by how light the slave felt. Laying on her back the slave took Xena by the hand. Her gaze caught and held that of the Conqueror's. "I'm sorry."
Xena examined the girl's body. Unsatisfied, she pulled the girl's shirt out of her skirt. She ran her hand on the cool skin, feeling bone and muscle. Reaching over to a water bucket, the Conqueror threw it against a wall. It shattered into pieces, the sound melding with the Conqueror's call to her chief cook.
The flustered cook arrived, soon followed by two Royal Guardsmen.
"Makia!" Xena demanded. "When did the realm start starving its slaves?"
The cook wrung her hands in fear. "Your Majesty, the girl is new to us. She came as she is."
"And you chose to remedy the matter by having her scrubbing floors in the middle of the night?"
"Punishment for serving Your Majesty poorly."
Xena did not recall the incident. "How so?"
Makia offered, "I heard your comment that her hands shook as she served."
Xena's found Makia's reasoning inadequate. "If I want my slaves punished I will say so." She looked back to the fragile slave. "Where does she sleep?"
"In the commons with the others, Your Majesty."
Xena picked the girl up, cradling her. Making a decision, she carried her out of the kitchen to the infirmary. "Follow me!"
Makia stepped behind trying not to think of the price that would be exacted from her to compensate for the Conqueror's anger.
Reaching the infirmary the Conqueror kicked the door open. "Dalius! Get in here, now!" She placed the girl gently on a cot.
The elder healer struggled to clear his mind from sleep's hold as he entered. His attending assistant withdrew to a corner of the room seeking what was nothing more than a precarious sense of safety.
The Conqueror ordered. "See to her!" She then turned to Makia, her anger unabated. "Did you think working her to death would please me?"
The cook kept her eyes low. "No, Your Majesty. That was not my intention."
The Conqueror was determined to learn her servant's motivation. "Makia, I know you. You didn't do this because of what I said. What were you thinking?"
Makia tried to scapegoat. "She's a trouble maker. She was telling stories, distracting the other slaves."
The Conqueror looked at the innocent in disbelief. "Stories of dissension?"
Makia did not want the girl killed. Her conscious getting the best of her, she told the truth. "No, Your Majesty. Simple stories of adventure."
"She must be good to draw the staff from their work."
"You misunderstand, Your Majesty. The girl worked as she told the stories, as did those who listened."
Confused, the Conqueror continued her interrogation. "Why then the punishment?"
Makia was hesitant in her explanation. "She did not ask permission."
"I see." The Conqueror paused in thought. "Should I treat you as you have treated her?"
Makia was knowledgeable of the Conqueror's unique methods of instruction. She dreaded her sentence. "Your Majesty?"
"I doubt the girl realize she needed to ask permission. You punished without mercy. "
Makia fell to her knees. "Forgive me, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror assessed the cook. She was not accustomed to having Makia on her knees before her. The image made her uncomfortable. The cook had long been a favorite, an early benefactor of the Conqueror's shield. Makia's good fortune was due in part to her resemblance in age and body to the Conqueror's mother.
The Conqueror bent down to Makia and spoke in a soft voice. "The girl does not strike me as someone who intentionally undermined your authority. I wish I could say the same thing about you. You have served me well for many years. This is the first time you have disappointed me. Make sure it is the last or I will."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you." The cook's nervous voice was a mere whisper.
The Conqueror stood up. She spoke to the healer. "I want a daily report." She returned her attention to Makia and offered the aging woman a hand to rise. "What is the girl's name?"
Relieved to receive the Conqueror's courtesy, Makia stood. "Gabrielle, Your Majesty."
Targon was a man of moderate height and sandy brown hair. His skin reluctantly hung from his bones as if in defiance to its fate of having been bound to a frail body. Targon had a keen organizational mind and a minor cowardly streak that made him an ideal candidate to manage the government's more tedious affairs. Xena considered him a capable administrator of the palace. Where others took their role as a means of securing additional funds through favoritism, he quickly came to understand that a big purse did him little good in Tartarus, where the Conqueror had sent previous administrators who had not taken her prohibition of corruption to heart.
Sitting at her desk, the Conqueror completed her morning instructions. "…and I want a full report on this new slave. Where did she come from? What are her skills? The usual."
The palace network had informed Targon of the previous evening's events. "Gabrielle, Your Majesty."
"Anything else, Your Majesty?"
"No…. Yes." Xena leaned back in her chair. "Targon, I want a review of how the slaves are orientated to the law of the realm. Make sure they know what they have to gain as well as what they have to lose."
"It will be done." The administrator gave a minor bow. "With your permission…"
The Conqueror dismissed Targon with a wave of her hand. She stood and walked to the balcony seeking the cool breeze upon her skin. The air was easier to breathe outside of the palace than within its walls. Her realm included the lands as far as the eye could see and beyond. Though Sovereign she recognized four constituents. The first and most important was her army, led by the elite Royal Guard. The second, which few guessed, was her servants and slaves. She needed their loyalty. They often learned of dissension before her spies did. Their desire for good treatment and stability was key to her household strategy. The third constituency was the members of her Court. She reconciled herself to the fact that her Court was the greatest internal threat to the realm. She considered their close proximity problematic, yet it was a problem she could only manage, not resolve. And finally, there were the people of the land: the farmers, craft workers, artisans, merchants, and to her disdain, the priests and priestesses. To some extent all feared her. She could only hope that the day would come when that fear crossed the realm's borders to Rome and Persia. Only then would she know peace. Until that day she could not rest.
Jared entered. "My Liege."
Xena kept her back to the General. "What news?"
"Caesar marches toward the northern borders."
The Conqueror turned slowly. "Does he? Jared, what do you make of it?"
"Intimidation." The General understood strategy nearly as well as the Conqueror. "He would be a fool to challenge with winter only a moon away."
"You would think. Caesar is not a fool, but he is arrogant." Xena returned to her desk. She opened a map. She pointed to the geography as she outlined her tactics. "I want the Fifth Army mobilized to guard the western port cities. Caesar might take to the sea instead of the foothills counting that Greece will be too slow to keep up with his ships."
"He does not know Greece." Jared stated knowingly. His reference was not of the realm but who led the realm.
The Conqueror was determined not to repeat her painful history with Caesar. "You're right, Jared. He only thinks he knows Greece."
Jared shifted his weight. "My Liege, may I speak freely?"
Xena noted the General's unconscious gesture, one that marked his anxiousness. She chose to ease the stress of the moment with a bit of humor. "Take care, Jared. I haven't killed anyone in days. I may make sport of you."
Jared renewed a vow given long ago. "You own my life. I have nothing left to lose."
The Conqueror grew serious. "What is it, General?"
"Lord Castan has been meeting privately with Lord Gaugan, Stasis and Vacaou. They take note that you have not been as fierce in Court as you once have been. They see the change as a sign of weakness."
The Conqueror sensed the danger in their idle speculations. "Men have tripped onto my sword for less challenging professions."."
"Yes, My Liege."
"No more, Jared." Xena stepped behind her chair placing her hands on its back. "Damn to Tartarus! It was easier when we fought Cortese and the other pitiful warlords roaming the countryside. They were crude and honest in their deceit. They didn't try to hide the fact that I couldn't trust them. Now I deal with issues of diplomacy and backroom intrigues and I can barely keep down my breakfast because they disgust me so." She paused thoughtfully. "Castan is taking the lead. I'm surprised it's not Vacaou."
"Maybe it is," Jared surmised.
"A low profile is not a bad thing, especially if you are testing the strength of your position. Let them think they are skilled in treachery. Let them be the cause of their own downfall."
"It shouldn't take long."
"It depends on Caesar." Xena took measure of the competing forces. "The good nobles will wait for Greece to be distracted."
Jared suspected a broader conspiracy. "Could they be with Rome?"
"I doubt it. They hate the Latins almost as much as I do. We will stand back and see how greedy they become." Xena sat down. "Jared. I think it may be necessary for Greece to conscript twenty percent of each Lord's militia to safeguard the realm from this new Roman aggression."
The General smiled. "Aye. I would agree."
"Choose the men yourself - loyal, brave, skilled -- in that order. We can teach those who haven't learned to be a soldier to Greece. Have the orders scribed by tomorrow morning."
"As you command. Anything else, My Liege?"
"No. I'll see you this evening."
The General made his way to the door. Xena called out his name. He turned to her.
"Good work." She offered a rare complement.
Jared stood tall. "Thank you, My Liege."
The sun that warmed her face disappeared. She opened her eyes to the Conqueror.
"How are you feeling?" The Sovereign was gentle.
Gabrielle sat up. She answered shyly. "Better, My Lord."
The Sovereign shared the encouraging diagnosis. "Dalius tells me all you needed was food and rest."
The slave affirmed with a hint of defiance. "For my body, yes My Lord."
Xena caught the qualification. "What more do you need?"
Gabrielle's courage faltered. She looked down.
"You won't look at me. Should I consider your behavior a sign of disrespect, fear or something else?"
Gabrielle steadied her self-doubt, returning her gaze to the monarch. "Freedom, My Lord. I need my freedom."
Xena could not recall the last slave to be so direct with her. "Has Targon spoken to you?"
"Yes." Gabrielle had received a thorough briefing.
"And you understand that freedom is yours to earn?"
Gabrielle's mien remained unimpressed. "Yes."
Xena argued reasonably, "I only ask that you repay your debt."
The slave faulted the Sovereign's logic. "If you had outlawed slavery I would never have been taken."
Xena wondered if that were true. "How long have you been a slave?"
"I've owned Greece for three years. I will take responsibility for what I've done and I will know Tartarus for it, but I will not be held accountable for what those before me did to you or to anyone else."
Gabrielle was not easily convinced. "You can stop it."
It was a complex world and few had the vision to see it as such. There was a part of Xena that had the gift of instructing others. She chose to mentor at unexpected times to unexpected recipients. On this day, her exchange with the slave bore greater interest than the majority of her Court dialogues. She chose to indulge herself further and to try to impress upon the youth an appreciation for the true political realities of the slave trade. "Unless it is prodded by the sword, change comes slowly. If I free all the slaves in Greece, the nobles will rebel. Greece will not fall to its enemies. It will collapse within itself. I will not allow either to happen."
Knowing this might be her one and only interview with the Conqueror, the young slave held fast to her campaign. "Then don't allow any new slaves."
"Citizens of the realm cannot be enslaved." Xena recited the law.
"All slaves." Gabrielle challenged.
Xena understood how wide a stoke the slave would brush in repainting the landscape. "And affect trade? Become a safe haven for all foreign born. Greece's allies would not approve."
Gabrielle remained silent.
"There are reasons. There always are. What you must learn is not only what those reasons are but also what stands behind them. It is easy to say ‘free the slaves.' It is not as easy to do." Xena wanted to give the girl a modicum of hope. "In three years, if you serve me well, you will have your freedom. In those three years you will be well fed, clothed and housed. At the end of your labors you will receive a sum of coin to begin a life away from the realm, if you so choose."
The final qualifier surprised Gabrielle. "Why wouldn't I leave?"
"Ask Targon, Makia and all those who have been with me for more than their indenture. I cannot speak for them."
"Why are you telling me this?"
Xena was thoughtful. "I speak to every new slave serving my household. You have a choice to make. Contrary to what others believe, the quality of your life here will be more a function of who you are than who I am."
Gabrielle was incredulous. "So, I shouldn't fear you?"
"Only if you wrong me. If you do you will have every reason to fear me. But then it will be too late because you will be dead." The Conqueror's voice sharpened, "Have I made myself clear?"
The Conqueror intensified her gaze upon the slave.
Gabrielle felt a rising unease; her fragile courage escaped her. "My Lord."
Satisfied, Xena nodded. "Very well."
The Conqueror responded to the knock at her door. "Enter."
Gabrielle waited until the guard opened the door for her. She carried the breakfast tray to the table. Makia had given her detailed instructions on how to set the plates. She removed the bread, cheese, fruit and tea while the Conqueror continued working at her desk.
She dared to interrupt the Sovereign. "My Lord?"
The Conqueror gave the girl her complete attention. "Yes?"
I did not mean to be disrespectful when we spoke in the infirmary.
You spoke your mind. For that you have my respect.
Gabrielle learned the household held the Conqueror in high regard. "The other slaves and the servants speak well of you. They say you are an honorable mistress."
Xena deflected the complement. "The Fates have brought you to me. Let us hope it is to our mutual benefit."
"I have been told I should be grateful that you purchased me."
The Conqueror leaned back. "I didn't choose you. Targon handles the household administration. Anyway, a 'thank you' is the last thing I expect from you." The Conqueror got to her feet. "Don't let other's think for you. You must rely on your own judgment."
"I have, My Lord."
"Are you sure you know enough to judge me?"
Gabrielle hesitated at the notion. "It is not that I judge you."
"Of course you meant to judge me. Otherwise, you wouldn't have thought to speak to the household staff."
"I meant no offense."
"I am not offended. Only an idiot would go about life not judging their place in it and you don't strike me as an idiot."
Gabrielle's pride would not allow her to respond to the backhanded complement.
The Conqueror reflected upon her judgment of the slave. Gabrielle was indeed no idiot. The Conqueror suspected that within the shell of the girl lay an intelligent mind. If she was the gifted storyteller Makia described her to be, Gabrielle was capable of using words. To be able to use words was to be able to consciously weave thoughts, observations and feelings into a coherent whole. Where the Conqueror used words to lead, to negotiate, and to manipulate, a storyteller uses words to create a fiction that becomes as real to the listener as the air they breathed, equally unseen, yet vital.
"Don't judge too quickly. I live in many worlds." The Conqueror swept the room with her hand. "Outside of this haven you would see a different side of me."
Gabrielle looked down.
Xena indulged her curiosity. "Tell me what you are thinking."
Gabrielle raised her gaze. Xena could not decipher what lay behind the girl's gentle green eyes.
The younger woman spoke with disarming forthrightness. "Why are you determined to deny your kindness?"
For a moment the two women shared a private, unexpected intimacy that shook the Conqueror to her very core. Her pitiless response was directed more toward herself than the slave. "We live in dangerous times. The horror of the world may soon knock on my door again. You must be prepared when that happens or the very sight of what will come will crush you. If that happens you will be no good to yourself and you will certainly be no good to me."
Though her residence at the palace had quickly expanded Gabrielle's understanding of the world, there was still much for her to learn. "Are your enemies so terrible?"
"Yes. And I am more terrible than all of them combined." Xena hated the turn of the conversation. "Do you have anything else you wish to say to me?"
The slave understood their interview had reached its end. "No, My Lord."
"Then be on your way."
"Yes, My Lord." Gabrielle bowed and made her way to the door. Reaching it, she looked back. The Conqueror had returned to her desk. Gabrielle felt saddened. Unexpectedly, her sorrow was more for the Conqueror than for herself.
"Lyceus!" Xena awoke from the nightmare completely soaked in perspiration. She combed her hair with her hands as she left her bed and removed her sleeping shift. Seeking a respite from the suffocating enclosure of her suite, she donned a black robe and took the hidden corridor at the back of her bedchamber to a narrow stairwell that led to a turret. She found herself not to be alone. Gabrielle stood leaning against the stone ledge looking up at the sky. The image was comforting.
The Conqueror observed, her voice devoid of the tension that brought her to the place. "It's a beautiful night."
Frightened by the unexpected interruption, Gabrielle turned abruptly. Upon recognizing the Conqueror, her fear was tempered. "I'm sorry. I'll go."
Xena extended her hand. "You haven't been dismissed."
Gabrielle arrested her motion and tried to do the same with her beating heart. She lowered her eyes.
"Were you doing something wrong?" The Conqueror inquired easily. "I pride myself in knowing the laws of Greece and I don't recall forbidding stargazing."
"No, My Lord."
"Relax girl." Xena cocked her head to the side, offering a small smile. "Now, what brings you up here?"
Gabrielle caught Xena's smile and released an easy sigh. She moved back toward the ledge looking out into the night. "It's beautiful…the sky… and it's fresh. Downstairs it can get stuffy….and it's quiet here. I can think."
"And what do you think about?"
"My life…" Gabrielle's heart brightened, "My stories."
"Makia mentioned you were a storyteller." The Conqueror mused, "Maybe one day you will tell me a story."
The young bard responded formally. "If it is your bidding, My Lord."
Disappointed, the Conqueror's words slipped from her tongue unchecked. "Is that why you tell stories, because you are told to?"
Gabrielle did not catch the Conqueror's intonation as critical. She spoke freely. "No, My Lord. They come to me. They are a part of me. There must be a reason for them."
The Conqueror's dark disposition was infected by the girl's light. "What reason do you think that would be?"
"Stories can teach and entertain…. even when they are sad."
"That is true." The Conqueror stepped closer though she ensured she maintained a non-intimating distance between them. "I'm more interested in how telling stories makes you feel?"
"Feel, My Lord?"
"You do feel, don't you?"
Gabrielle sobered. "Sometimes I try not to."
The Conqueror believed she scribed her darkness upon others. "Like right now?"
"No, My Lord."
The girl turned away. The part of Xena that was the Conqueror chose not to take the act as an affront. She walked to Gabrielle's side intent on the girl's expression, visible by the light of the half moon.
Gabrielle entered a remote place within her. "A slave loses all rights, even her right to her body."
The Conqueror's anger surged though her voice remained steady. "Has anyone touched you since you arrived?"
The girl shook her head.
Xena vowed, "As long as you are here you won't be used against your will in such a way. The punishment for violating my staff is death."
The girl did not hide her surprise. "You don't…"
"Rape?" Xena knew how others corrupted her reputation. "No girl, I don't. I don't have to. There are plenty of men and women who would willingly enter my bed. It's true what they say. Power is an aphrodisiac." Xena gentled her voice. "Someday, if you haven't already, you will know a tender hand and the feelings will be far different."
Shamed, Gabrielle grieved, "Who would have me?"
Xena's heart opened to the girl. "You might be surprised."
Gabrielle found nothing but sincerity in the Conqueror's countenance. "Thank you, My Lord."
"What have I done now?"
The slave held the Conqueror's gaze, feeling a safety that had long eluded her. "It's what you haven't done."
Xena was saddened by the remark. To be complimented for not being a rapist was befitting an animal. She knew she had only herself to blame. "I'll leave you to your quiet night."
Gabrielle bid warmly, "Sleep well, My Lord."
The Conqueror measured the young woman. She did not see a slave. "You too, girl."
Gabrielle was called to Makia's quarters. Somewhat unnerved, she reminded herself that Makia's severity had eased during the fortnight of her residence.
The cook greeted her tartly, "Well, it's about time you make an appearance."
"I was helping…" Gabrielle tried to account for herself.
"I know what you were doing," Makia cut her short. "Here. This is for you." She offered Gabrielle a dress. Gabrielle remained where she stood. The elder gentled. "Come on. Take it. You'll need it tonight."
"Yes." Makia exaggerated her exasperation with humorous effect causing Gabrielle to smile. "You will be serving at the banquet."
Gabrielle took the dress and raised it up by the shoulders. "It's beautiful."
"It is nice, isn't it?" With false gruffness, Makia confessed. "I chose it for you, so I am not in the mind to listen to any complaints."
Makia found Gabrielle's gratitude disproportionate to her seemingly reluctant kindness. "Go try it on. If it needs alterations I'll have the seamstress complete them. Can't have you looking out of sorts in front of the Conqueror."
Gabrielle began to take her leave, pausing at the threshold. "Makia. The dress is lovely."
Makia watched as the girl left her room. The Conqueror was right. Gabrielle never intended to challenge the cook's authority. It was difficult for the old woman to find a way to make amends. She hoped that this small gesture would right her previous wrong.
Gabrielle moved from table to table, serving wine. The clamor for more drink was constant and somewhat disorientating. Her greatest ordeal was serving the tables of men, void of wives or betrothed. The Conqueror's rules were clear. The servers were not to be touched, but in a room as great as the banquet hall, and with a number of cups of wine drunk, the men's confidence grew and they took liberties, some calculated, others careless. As a result, hands slipped up her backside and upon her breast as she poured the wine. She ignored the violation, focusing on her task. She knew not a drop was to be spilled no matter how abused she might be.
Though an empty serving jar meant a trip back to the wine reserves, Gabrielle took comfort in the momentary break away from the revelry. A commanding voice stopped her from descending the cellar steps.
"Girl! Give me wine."
Gabrielle turned to a handsome young man, tall with well-trimmed red hair. He wore an earring in his right ear, a tan loose fit shirt with a crest embroidered at the heart, brown pantaloon and tall brown boots. She judged him a member of a noble house.
Gabrielle replied respectfully. "Sir, I am out of wine, but will soon return.
The man would not be put off. "Come here!"
Gabrielle stood uncertain.
He took a step forward. "Put down that jar and come here, I say!"
"Do you know who I am?"
"No Sir, I do not."
The man leaned down. His breath was bitter with wine. "I will tell you. I am Ridel, heir of Lord Gaugan. Do you know who Lord Gaugan is?"
"I have heard his name spoken of, Sir."
"My father is Lord of the southern provinces. We are a rich and noble family. We take what we want, when we want, Conqueror or no Conqueror. I want you and I want you now."
Gabrielle stepped back. Ridel grabbed her arm.
"Oh no, girl. You are coming with me."
"No Sir, please don't."
"Please? You have manners for a slut. Let's see what else you know."
Gabrielle struggled, but Ridel was strong -- too strong for her to break free.
"Pretty wench." He grabbed her dress at the neck and ripped down, exposing Gabrielle's wrapped breast.
"Damn, why do women wear so many clothes?" He laughed. "Oh well, makes the taking all the more a challenge. I like challenges. Hey, girl. Are you going to be a challenge?" With that said he spun her away from the open hallway to stand partially hidden behind an archway. He forced her against the wall, taking her mouth with his lips in a brutal kiss.
Gabrielle tried to push him off. She gasped. Her heart raced. Her hands curled into fists as her desperation mounted. She had not known this level of violence since entering the Conqueror's household. She had hoped that the Conqueror's rules would protect her. She now knew she was wrong to do so.
"Ugh!" Ridel stopped his assault. He leaned back. Gabrielle could see that his eyes had glazed. Confused, she ceased her resistance. He fell to his knees. Only then did Gabrielle see the knife in his back, positioned in the heart. She looked forward. The Conqueror stood twenty paces away. By her side stood Jared and two Royal Guardsmen.
The Conqueror stepped forward. Stopping in front of Ridel's lifeless body she kicked him to the floor. She shouted back to Jared. "Tell Gaugan I've killed his bastard son!"
She looked to the girl who stood exposed, all modesty stolen from her; her face tearstained, her eyes still reflecting shock. The Conqueror turned and walked away.
She painfully whispered as she brushed pass Jared. "Cover her up."
Jared removed his cape and wrapped it around Gabrielle. He directed Leah, a servant girl standing nearby, to take Gabrielle to Makia. He then ordered the two guards to pick up Ridel's body and to follow him. The son of Gaugan was carried into the center of the banquet hall and laid before all the guests. Jared announced an early conclusion to the banquet and counseled the devastated Lord to take his son home.
Makia noted the eerie silence and lack of movement from the upper floor. Something had happened. Her instincts told her that whatever it was had happened quickly and that it was not good. She waited for the next servant to return. She never waited long for news.
Gabrielle entered with Leah by her side. Makia recognized General Jared's cape. Gabrielle would not have had it if she were in the wrong. She could see that the girl trembled in spite of the warmth of the room.
Makia directed, "Leah, get back to work."
Leah gave Gabrielle a protective look before returning up the stairs to the banquet hall.
The cook went to Gabrielle. The girl averted her eyes. The cook raised her hand slowly placing her fingertips on Gabrielle's chin, guiding Gabrielle to face her. She spoke tenderly. "Who did this to you?"
"Ridel…" The girl had difficulty speaking. "Lord Gaugan's son."
"Is he dead?"
Makia assumed Gabrielle's protector. "General Jared?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Yes." Gabrielle whispered.
"There is nothing for you to fear," the cook assured. "You have done nothing wrong."
Gabrielle had come to want the Conqueror's favorable regard. "What if she thinks differently?"
Makia placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Believe me when I tell you she doesn't."
Gabrielle surrendered to the stress and crunched her body small like an infant. Makia took the girl into her arms. "There now." She allowed Gabrielle to cry for a few moments before gently pulling back. "Go lie down. I'll have General Jared's cape returned to him in the morning. You will serve the Conqueror breakfast as always."
"But…" Gabrielle began to plea.
Makia interrupted with an uncompromising sternness. "No, girl. There is no hiding from her. You will face the Conqueror and then move on with the new day."
According to her usual schedule, Gabrielle entered the kitchen. She held the General's cape over her arm.
The older woman had been waiting for her. "Fold the cape and place it on the table and then bring me a tray."
Makia studied the girl closely. "Did you sleep?"
"A little," Gabrielle murmured.
"Be brave, girl."
Gabrielle waited silently as Makia set the Conqueror's meal of an assortment of foods and a mug of tea. She wanted to believe her mistress would still welcome her.
Done with her task the cook placed her callused hand on the younger woman's cheek. "Gabrielle, in this one thing I know the Conqueror will not let you down. Now, go on with you."
Gabrielle left the kitchen. She made a brief detour on her way to the Conqueror's suite.
Gabrielle found the Conqueror sitting at her desk. General Jared and Stephen, a Captain of the Royal Guard stood before her. The General turned and offered Gabrielle a smile.
The Conqueror kept her eyes focused on Stephen. She had chosen this occasion to give Stephen added responsibilities. He had distinguished himself in the field alongside her and Jared during the campaign to win Greece. The Conqueror valued his strategic mind and patient disposition. For that reason she kept Stephen, with his chiseled body, gray eyes and shoulder length blond hair out of her bed. To bed him would eliminate his chances for a future commission to higher rank. None of her most trusted officers ever knew the Conqueror carnally.
The Conqueror was her pithy self. "Rebellions have happened for lesser reasons. I'd rather this one happen sooner than later. Jared, we will have to decide on succession. The southern provinces are rich. This is a good opportunity to break the holdings into smaller pieces. Have Paulos draw up his recommendations. Add your own to the list."
"Or, you could keep the spoils," Jared offered.
"I didn't kill Ridel for profit." Maintaining a neutral tone, the Conqueror did not betray how distasteful the thought was to her. "You, on the other hand, are free to make a claim."
"I have all I need."
The Conqueror teased. "You peasant."
Jared gave a pompous bow. "Coming from you, My Liege, I will consider recognition of my peasantry a compliment."
Xena laughed lightly. "Stephen, your General is a shrewd man with words. I recommend you listen to him closely and learn."
Stephen smiled. "I have noted his wit, My Liege."
"It isn't enough to be witty. You have to be smart, right Jared?"
"My Lord." Gabrielle's voice was a delicate interruption.
Xena had no choice but to acknowledge the girl. "Yes."
Gabrielle remained at a distance. "Is there anything else you need this morning?"
Xena could not name the expression upon Gabrielle's face. There was a hint of pain, as well as longing. She wished she could offer the girl a balm and she might have tried had Jared and Stephen not been present. "Not today."
Gabrielle bowed and exited the room.
The Conqueror directed her question to Jared. "How was she after I left?"
Jared had been touched by the young slave's apprehension. "Shaken. She feared you might think she did something wrong."
Xena's eyes traveled to the closed door. "Being desired is not a crime."
Having dismissed Jared and Stephen, Xena went to the table to breakfast. She found a flower upon her plate. She picked up the flower and breathed in the sweet scent. With a smile she spoke her thought aloud. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, you are bold, as well as beautiful."
Longing for solitude, Gabrielle walked up the stairs to the turret. She crossed the threshold unaware that she was in the company of another.
"Another night of stargazing?" A sonorous feminine voice displaced the silence.
Startled, Gabrielle whirled around to face the source of the question. The Conqueror stood easily before her.
"My Lord." Uncomfortable with the Sovereign's proximity, Gabrielle shuffled a step back.
Xena looked up to the sky. She spoke gently. "Some people think the stars are diamonds placed in the sky by the Gods and that like a slow turning top their positions change with the seasons. What do you think?"
Taken outside her immediate concern, Gabrielle thought about the question for a moment. "Maybe we are the ones moving and the stars remain still."
"One theory is as good as the other," Xena answered easily.
Gabrielle looked up to the sky sharing the awe they seemed to inspire in the Sovereign. "There is so much about the world I do not understand."
"I don't know if we are meant to have the answers to our questions." Xena had learned to concentrate on the pragmatic more than the ethereal. "I think the best we can do is observe and learn the patterns and what's behind the patterns."
Gabrielle was intrigued by the philosophy. She spoke, forgetting it was the Conqueror who entertained her. "What do you mean?"
Xena turned her gaze to the young slave. "When we plant, fish, or hunt, what we do and how we do it aren't necessarily because we know the reason the world is as it is. We don't know why when we water a plant, it grows or why when we lay a particular kind of hook a trout is apt to bite or why when we follow a track and lay a trap we're likely to capture a rabbit. And yet, if we try enough, through trial and error we come to know that doing what we do will give us the results we desire."
"It's the same with people. They have certain motivations. Why? I don't know and I really don't care. Knowing their patterns is enough to get me what I want."
Gabrielle was uncomfortable with the Conqueror's conclusion. "I don't think we are meant to be so cold."
Xena walked to the turret ledge and looked out into the night. "I don't mean to discount the possibility of the unexpected. That is what makes life a challenge."
The slave did not like what she heard. "Is it a sport to you?"
Xena cast her gaze to Gabrielle. "No girl, it's not a sport. A sport has set rules. There are no rules in life that cannot be broken."
Gabrielle took a step forward. "But there are."
Xena knew better. "There are laws of nature, but other than that, the laws created by humanity give a false sense of security. For example, there is a law in Greece that the Conqueror's household will be respected. And yet, at a banquet hosted by me no less, a man chose to break the law, under the false assumption that there would be no consequences."
The mention of her assault gave Gabrielle pause. Her confidence waned. "My Lord, are you angry with me?"
"You? Why would I be angry with you?" Xena smiled. "It is you who provided a surprise and made my day interesting."
"How, My Lord?"
Xena folded her arms before her. "Why, I asked myself, would my slave give me a flower?"
Gabrielle blushed. "I meant no disrespect."
"I know that girl." Xena lowered her voice. She tried not to seduce the slave, preferring a less calculated approach to earning the girl's confession. "Tell me now, what did you mean by it?"
The slave found her reasoning difficult to explain. "It was the only way I could think of thanking you without overstepping my bounds."
"What bounds are those?"
"The rules I have been taught in how to properly serve you."
"Rules that cannot be broken?"
Gabrielle recalled the explicit warnings she received from both Targon and Makia. "I do not wish to experience the consequences of taking a liberty, My Lord."
Xena mined for a hint of the slave's willfulness. "Can you imagine a reason important enough to risk the consequence?"
Gabrielle answered truthfully. "There may someday be a reason. Right now, I cannot think of one."
Xena was more than satisfied. Again, she felt engaged by Gabrielle. The slave was startlingly open in expressing her thoughts. Only a few in Xena's life braved such conversations. "Fair enough."
They both fell silent. Xena turned, once again facing the night as she leaned against the ledge.
Gabrielle was uncertain of what was expected of her. "My Lord, would you prefer to be alone?"
Xena's voice carried a note of unguarded sorrow. "I am always alone, girl. It doesn't matter whether I am in the company of others or not."
Gabrielle could only wonder what manner of woman lived underneath the façade of the Conqueror. She looked out in the same direction as the Conqueror, curious as to what the other woman found of interest. There was only the darkness, interrupted by lights emanating from the houses and buildings that composed the city. As time passed, Gabrielle relaxed and redirected her gaze as her interest dictated. Soon her mind quieted and she felt at peace.
Xena had lost track of time. She could not say how long she and the girl had shared the turret in silence. She regretted that there were scrolls resting on her desk in need of her attention.
She spoke gently so not to upset the slave. "Girl."
Gabrielle's answer was equally hushed. "Yes, My Lord."
Still leaning against the ledge, Xena considered the slave. The young woman intrigued her. Xena encouraged future conversations. "When we are alone you may approach me with your questions or requests. As long as you speak truthfully, the only consequence will be that you will hear an equally truthful answer."
"Thank you, My Lord." Gabrielle did not recognize the rare permission.
Xena straightened up, her stature once again reflecting the aura of the Conqueror. "Thank you, girl, for sharing a bit of the evening with me."
Gabrielle watched as the Conqueror left her. Again, she wondered. What manner of a woman was her mistress?
Gabrielle stepped to the front of the Conqueror's desk after setting breakfast. She had debated for days whether to approach her mistress. She decided the risk was worth taking if only to gauge the sincerity of the Conqueror's previous words to her.
The Conqueror did not look up from the scroll she was reading. "Yes."
"I have a request." Gabrielle was grateful to be spared the Conqueror's piercing gaze.
"And what request is that?"
"I wish to learn to defend myself." Having made her petition Gabrielle waited for a reaction.
Xena set the scroll aside as she raised her eyes and studied the girl. "The palace of the Conqueror is not necessarily a safe place to be, is it?"
Gabrielle did not respond. She feared that whether she agreed or disagreed, she risked offending her mistress.
Xena could not begin to guess what weapon the slave would wish to wheel. "What do you wish to learn?"
Gabrielle had not thought her idea completely through. "I was hoping you would have a suggestion."
Xena assessed the girl. "I would start you with the staff."
"Not a sword?"
"You need to build your upper body strength and dexterity. The staff will do that. Later, you might be strong enough to handle a sword." Xena's questioning eyes pierced the girl. "But, do you want to draw blood, girl?"
Gabrielle was unwavering,"I do not want to ever be taken against my will again."
Xena needed to be sure. "And you are willing to kill to prevent that?"
"Yes, My Lord."
"I will ask Jared to assign you a tutor." Xena leaned back in her chair. "You will learn a skill I had not imagined for you. Unfortunately, I agree, it is one you should have."
"Thank you, My Lord."
Gabrielle gave the Sovereign a minor bow and left the chamber. Each step taken was under the Conqueror's observance.
Jared aired his frustrations. "We are at a standstill. Except for a few scouting excursions, Caesar's troops remain on their side of the borders."
Xena understood what her General was feeling. She was not, however, willing to act solely to release the pent up energy that had contaminated the reasoning of her men.
She affirmed her decision. "We will hold our positions. Let Dymas know that if I learn that even one of his soldiers calls out a bloody curse to a Roman across the border, I will have both the soldier and him drawn and quartered. The Romans will not taunt Greece to play children's games of dare. It is not time for war."
Given the opportunity Jared was apt to shout a curse against the Romans. He withheld his disappointment. "Yes, My Liege."
"Like it our not Ares will soon have the pleasure of walking across a bloody battlefield. For now, I want an updated inventory of our weapons as well as an accounting of the staffing of our support services." Xena responded to Jared's radiating anxiousness. "And let's give the men a diversion that will begin to warm their blood for combat. Draw up three war game scenarios for the infantry and cavalry, and schedule a contest of skills for our archers and crossbow men and any other sport that might amuse them that does not required their swords to be unsheathed. They tend to get overzealous and right now what is more important to me is an army with all its limbs in tact."
Jared approved of the exercise. "Will you judge the contests?"
"As always, I will observe with interest."
"Maybe the Conqueror will compete alongside her men?" Jared invited with rising enthusiasm.
Xena saw no reason to dominate the contest. "Jared, they should be given a chance to claim a prize. What fun is it when there is no hope of winning?"
The General knew his men and his Sovereign well. "There is no greater incentive than to try and best one's leader."
Xena smiled in appreciation to what she knew to be true. "Archery and staff, then."
Jared was pleased. "I look forward to the lessons you will teach."
A related thought came to Xena. "Jared, how are Gabrielle's weapon lessons coming along?"
"Very well." Jared had developed affection for the girl. "She is a determined lass. She gets stronger by the day. Her instincts are good and she understands strategy once taught."
"Any problem finding someone to teach her?"
"I have plenty of volunteers," Jared chuckled. "The list keeps growing."
Xena laughed. "The men do not seem to be in want of motivation."
"They truly like her, My Liege." Gabrielle had enchanted the most hard-crusted Guardsman. "Instead of using feminine wiles, she shows sincere gratitude, and rewards the men with her stories."
"Then she is a good storyteller?" Xena imagined listening to the bard.
"I find myself well entertained when I take the time to listen. I recommend Gabrielle without reservation."
"I will keep that in mind." To her surprise the prospect of indulging in the bard's storytelling was more enticing than participating in the war games.
Targon entered the Conqueror's rooms carrying a scroll. The warmth emanating from the fireplace was insufficient to ease the chill in his soul.
"Your Majesty, I have received a report regarding the fate of the peasants of Poteidaia."
The Conqueror noted Targon's sullen humor. She spoke without betraying her rising apprehension. "Gabrielle's sister?"
"It is believed that she was among a particular group of women taken by Draco. I have a complete accounting." He offered the scroll to the Conqueror in order to preclude further questions.
Xena understood the rare gesture. "That will be all."
Targon was grateful that the Conqueror had chosen to take pity upon him. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
Xena waited until her administrator closed the door behind him. She stared at the scroll wondering what nightmare was going to be revealed to her. Draco was a butcher and she rested easily with the memory of ending his life with her sword. She released the tie that held the scroll and unrolled the parchment. Black ink letters conveyed an objective description of how Draco offered all but a few of the women of Poteidaia to his men as a reward for their latest conquest, bolstering their loyalty by foregoing the sum of money he could have gotten for the women by selling them to slavers. The men each had their turn in raping the women and after their turns were taken, they went back for more. They went back again and again, until the bodies lay lifeless. There was no burial pyre. They were left exposed upon the ground. Their flesh was grossly ripped to pieces by scavengers, until there was nothing left to be claimed. The scroll listed all the women believed taken. Xena's hands trembled as a lone tear fell upon the parchment, blurring the third name - Lila, daughter of Herodotus and Hecuba. Unable to contain her rage she stood up and with the cry of a wounded wolf she threw the scroll into the fire.
It was late in the evening when Gabrielle walked down the palace hall leading to the Conqueror's private suite. No reason was given for her summons. To her knowledge she had not done anything that might have displeased her mistress. Still, she could not free herself from her fear, a fear not easily justified given the Conqueror's constancy in treating her with kindness. Gabrielle sighed as she turned the corner, recognizing the young guard who stood outside the Conqueror's door.
Trevor was the Conqueror's personal guard. Twenty-five summers old, clean-shaven, he wore his light red hair cut to his ears. He had joined the Conqueror early during the siege of Corinth. The Conqueror had measured him as strong of heart and sincere in his desire to see a better Greece. She personally trained him in weaponry. During the passing years his lanky body filled out, the added strength making him a more than able fighter.
"Gabrielle." Trevor greeted the pretty slave warmly.
Gabrielle related, "I was told the Conqueror wanted to see me."
"She's expecting you. Go right in." Trevor reached out and opened the door for her.
Gabrielle took what comfort she could from Trevor's easy disposition. She entered and scanned the room. The Conqueror sat near the fireplace in one of two tall back chairs. Gabrielle approached slowly, hoping to be acknowledged. Finding herself no more than two paces from her mistress she stopped and waited. The Conqueror remained a still and silent figure to the slave.
As she had been trained, Gabrielle announced herself. "My Lord."
Xena stared at the fire. To Xena fire exemplified life. Flames rose and fell. In spite of her musings to Gabrielle to the contrary, ultimately there was nothing certain; all was but one variation or another of the nature of fire. It danced, it smothered, it warmed and it burned. There was both beauty and terror in its colors. It could be fed or starved but never annihilated. The potential for renewal by unintentional spark of metal against stone or by Zeus' fickle aim of a thunderbolt remained. And when humanity walked through an inferno, the fire did not care whether souls were foul or pure. Fire unmercifully consumed its victims without discrimination.
Xena had sworn Targon to secrecy. Young Gabrielle would feel an injury, but it would be an injury less cruel than the complete truth.
Xena stood up and offered the girl a mask devoid of emotion "Your village was raided by Draco."
The statement surprised Gabrielle. She affirmed it. "Yes, My Lord."
"You and a small group of women were separated from the others."
"That is when you last saw you sister."
Gabrielle felt a rising dread. She spoke in a fearful whisper. "Yes."
Xena stepped forward, standing directly opposite the girl. "I have learned that Lila of Poteidaia died of a fever soon after she was taken captive."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No… She can't be gone. She's the only family I've…"
Xena gently placed her hands on Gabrielle's arms. "Your sister knows peace."
Gabrielle's pain surged. She twisted her body back and forth freeing herself from Xena's touch. "No!"
Xena despised the feeling of helplessness that overtook her. "I'm sorry."
"No you're not! You're just like the rest of those murderers!" Gabrielle swung her fist against Xena's chest once and then again. The Conqueror did not defend herself against the assault.
Having heard a disturbance, Trevor opened the door to the Conqueror's rooms and peered in. He saw Gabrielle collapsed onto the floor beside the Conqueror's feet. The Conqueror heard the intrusion and looked over to the guard. With a slight movement of her head she signaled for him to leave. Troubled by the scene, he hesitated. The Conqueror held her position. Unable to find reason or courage to interfere, he stepped back into the hall and closed the door.
Gabrielle's sorrow carried her to a void, empty and dark. She hugged herself and rocked back and forth as she cried freely.
Xena looked down at the girl. She could not blame Gabrielle for the violence of her words or her fist. She knew how it felt to lose a beloved sibling. Xena knelt and wordlessly took the girl into her arms. Gabrielle did not fight her.
With time, Gabrielle's tears subsided and she drifted into a fitful sleep. Xena could not remember the last time she had held another as she now held the girl. Though her heart broke for Gabrielle, their closeness brought a remarkable calm. She shifted her body seeking leverage and lifted Gabrielle up. The girl now cradled in her arms seemed terribly fragile. Xena walked to the door and knocked a foot against it. Trevor opened the door, surprised for the second time that night with what he saw.
Xena whispered. "Come with me."
The guard accompanied the Conqueror to Gabrielle's quarters. Understanding his task without being asked, he opened the door and stepped aside, watching as the Conqueror gently place Gabrielle onto a bed, covering her with two heavy blankets. The Conqueror stood beside the bed. She was reluctant to leave. After a few moments she turned and exited the room. Trevor followed, closing the door.
Xena's voice remained muted. "Have Makia see to Gabrielle. Tell her that Gabrielle should be allowed to rest." Xena's gaze went to the closed door. "Today I learned that Gabrielle's sister was dead."
Trevor's eyes traveled from the Conqueror, to the door and back to the Conqueror. He now understood what had transpired between the two women. Contrary to his fear, Gabrielle had not been abused. He felt a rising admiration for the Conqueror. He would share what he witnessed with the rest of the Royal Guard.
"I am sorry to hear of Gabrielle's loss, My Liege."
Xena felt the sincerity behind the young guard's words. She nodded and walked back to her rooms, feeling her own inconsolable sadness as she did.
Jared entered the Conqueror's suite without being announced. Xena stood on the balcony. The General went to her.
Xena had been observing the heightened activity. She looked over her shoulder. "What news?"
The General reported, "Gaugan moves against Greece."
Xena turned to Jared. "Who rides with him?"
Xena walked over to her desk. She had already laid a map of southern Greece upon it. "Damage report."
Jared followed to the desk. "He has taken the port of Pílos and three nearby villages."
"What has Paulos done about it?"
"He marches from Sparta."
Xena appraised the threat methodically. "Any signs of a sea invasion?"
Jared was equally proficient. "No. We have no reason to believe he is collaborating with Rome."
"Then what is Gaugan thinking?"
"He isn't. He is an angry man."
"Angry? And because he is angry he is going to sacrifice the lives of his remaining family and his militia? If Gaugan survives, he will be grieving for eternity." Xena sat down. "These are bitter days, Jared."
Jared saw an uncommon observable grief overtake Xena. "Are you thinking of the lass?"
Xena cocked her head. Jared presumed more than even she was willing to admit to herself. "The girl lost a sister to fever. That does not compare with what we will face in the next fortnight. Prepare to march south. I am in the mood for a fight."
The following day, with the break of dawn over the horizon, the Conqueror led the Royal Guard out of the gates of Corinth toward Tripolis. From the window of her room Gabrielle watched the procession. She had not seen the Conqueror since learning of her sister's death. Makia informed her that she was to be given time to mourn. Gabrielle wished she could have spoken to the Conqueror before her departure although she was uncertain of what she would have said to her mistress.
The servants and slaves of the palace did their best to keep to their routines. Only the tasks specific to the Conqueror were suspended. Makia allowed those under her charge additional time for leisure. She assured all that when the Conqueror returned victorious they would be hard pressed to provide the service demanded by the inevitable surge of Court activity.
Gabrielle's talent as a storyteller was in greater demand both by her peers and the First Army soldiers who remained stationed in the city. Her tone changed as she weaved tales of war. She knew many of the men of the Royal Guard and longed to see their safe return. The triumphs felt less glorious and the defeats more horrific. When she described a hero, the thought of the Conqueror hovered in her mind.
It had been more than a moon when the palace received word that the Conqueror was marching back to Corinth. The battle against Gaugan was swift and decisive. Geldpac, a seasoned member of the Royal Guard, sent to Corinth in advance of the Conqueror's forces, sat on top of one of the larger tables in the palace kitchen. Men and women of the household anxious to hear what had happened in the south surrounded him. He did not relish the telling. The Conqueror's actions epitomized the worst brutality he had ever witnessed. No mercy was shown. Gaugan had eluded her, but not the members of his family. All adult males were crucified. The women and children accustomed to luxury were left destitute. It was rumored that she bedded a number of the collaborators of either sex who were hopeful that if they pleasured the Conqueror, the Conqueror would be dissuaded from sentencing them to death. It did not matter. In the morning their heads, along with those of all the other collaborators captured the previous day, were severed and placed on stakes.
Gabrielle sat silently beside Makia. She noted how Makia shook her head in despair. "What is it?"
Makia lamented, "The Conqueror is lost once again."
"What do you mean?"
"You don't know, Gabrielle, how she can be. You haven't seen how her heart becomes black with hatred."
Gabrielle thought differently. "I saw her kill Gaugan's son."
Makia shook her head. "That was nothing but child's play. Geldpac is describing a bane that we have not seen for some time, but always knew could return without warning. The only blessing I see here is that we have been warned. When the Conqueror returns, take care how you present yourself to her. She will be different, and if you make a mistake no one will be able to help you."
The warning was stunning. "Can she be so terrible?"
The cook covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "Trust me, she can."
For the fortnight since her return, the Conqueror kept to herself when not in Court. Each day Gabrielle served the Conqueror's breakfast tray. Whether the Conqueror was working at her desk or standing at the balcony looking out to the awaking city, not a word was spoken.
On this day Gabrielle noted that a dagger rested on the Conqueror's desk. As the Conqueror sat reading she stroked the black carved handle of the dagger with her left thumb. The unceasing gesture gave Gabrielle the impression that the Conqueror was waiting to have a reason to use it.
"My Lord?" Gabrielle wagered her life that the dagger was not meant for her.
Xena looked up from her desk.
"Are you all right, My Lord?"
Xena was remote. "Why do you ask?"
Gabrielle hesitated. She had difficulty finding the words that would convey her concerns and justify the interruption. "You seem changed."
A part of Xena wanted to lash out at the girl. Seeing the girl's genuine concern caused her to turn her violent emotion inward to be harnessed by her formidable will. It was not the Conqueror's voice that betrayed her inner struggle. It was her words. "War is hard on the soul."
Gabrielle wanted to allay the Sovereign's pain. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Xena responded softly, "Go on now with your tasks."
"Yes, My Lord." Reluctantly, Gabrielle turned to leave the chamber.
Xena reflected that the girl had been the only one to ask. Not even Jared or Targon would dare broach the subject of her smothering rage.
Gabrielle had meant to leave. She had intended to wait for a time when the Conqueror was more accessible. She realized that there was no knowing whether such a time would ever come. "My Lord."
Xena gave the girl her regard and waited.
Gabrielle held her serving tray close to her body, a makeshift shield. "I owe you an apology."
"For what?" Xena was puzzled by the girl's regret.
"I was wrong to say what I said to you when you told me of my sister's death."
That evening seemed a lifetime ago to Xena. "No harm done."
"I am truly sorry." Gabrielle's apology was heartfelt.
Xena held the young woman's gaze. "I believe you."
"Thank you, My Lord." Gabrielle felt the grace of forgiveness.
Gabrielle's departure left Xena alone in the suite. At each of two corners of the room before her, Xena saw a visage of herself, one the woman who she had become as she left Corinth, the Conqueror, the darkness of a warrior consumed by bloodlust, who walked a line near madness, less human, more an animal that could never be sated in its desire to not only lead but dominate the pack. At the other corner, Xena of Amphilpolis, the naïve idealist who cherished her brother Lyceus, loved her mother and tolerated her weaker, older sibling, Toris. In truth, she was neither. That begged the question, 'who was she?' She could not answer the question with any certainty. More importantly she debated a second question, 'who did she want to be?' An answer did come to her but she judged it improbable and could not entertain it for more than a moment.
Targon remained standing before the Conqueror's desk. He had seven scrolls precariously balanced in his arms.
The Conqueror was impatient to be rid of him and all the administrative concerns he brought her. "Is there anything else in those scrolls of yours in need of my attention?"
"Your Majesty, has General Jared spoken to you about Gabrielle?"
Xena's interest had been stirred "What about Gabrielle?"
"When not performing her household duties, she has been spending much of her time at the infirmary telling stories to the wounded men. They look forward to her visits. Dalius has commented that she has improved morale."
Targon's nervousness did not go unnoticed. Xena listened carefully, anticipating her administrator's question.
He continued. "General Jared suggested that Gabrielle's household duties be lessened by a few candlemarks each day to allow her to spend more time with the wounded men."
Xena was amused and somewhat confused. "Targon, you manage my household for me. That is why you are in my service. Why come to me with this?"
"We?" The Conqueror knit her brow.
The administrator reaffirmed his coconspirators. "I, Dalius and General Jared wanted to make sure that you would agree to having Gabrielle's time spent storytelling."
"Why wouldn't I?"
Targon tried to present an inoffensive logic. "We thought you might expect a member of your household to be more practically occupied."
Xena chose to grant the well-meaning administrator relief. "I consider my men's morale worthy of my resources. It seems we are in agreement."
"Yes, Your Majesty." For the first time that morning Targon smiled.
Xena inquired, "Has anyone spoken to Gabrielle about this grand scheme the three of you have dreamed up?"
"No, Your Majesty." Targon confessed, "Given the possibility that you would want her work to remain unchanged, we did not wish to raise Gabrielle's expectations only to later disappoint her."
"That was quite sensitive of you." Xena was enjoying herself. Suspecting that the girl might insist on continuing both her old and new duties, Xena chose to ensure that the slave's assignments did not mount. "I expect that you will acquire another slave to complete Gabrielle's former duties."
"Immediately, Your Majesty." Targon was now confident he had earned the Sovereign's approval.
"And Targon, I would have no objection if you ask Gabrielle which of her current duties she would prefer to keep."
"It will be done."
"Very well." Xena dismissed him. "I will see you after mid-day meal."
Targon bowed and left the room.
Xena wondered who would bring her breakfast the next morning. Would Gabrielle choose to continue her daily task of serving the Conqueror breakfast?
Xena stood outside her balcony watching the sun break over the horizon. As happened every day at this time, she heard the door to her suite open.
"Good morning, My Lord."
Xena smiled. She had the answer to her question. Gabrielle chose to continue to serve her. The knowledge gave Xena pleasure. She could hear in the tone of the girl's voice a new lightness. Wanting to confirm her observation she censored her expression and turned to the slave. Gabrielle wore an open smile as she held the breakfast tray.
"Good morning to you, girl."
Though the Conqueror's countenance remained stoic, Gabrielle could see the return of a glimmer in her mistress' haunting blue eyes that had been absent since her return to Corinth.
"My Lord, I want to thank you for letting me tell my stories."
Xena stepped over to the girl and took the tray out of her hands. "It was General Jared's idea. Thank him."
Gabrielle, shaken by the Conqueror's unsolicited assistance, recovered her wits. "I have, My Lord."
Xena placed the tray on the table, taking the mug of tea it held in hand before stepping sufficiently aside to give Gabrielle space to finish the task of setting breakfast. Gabrielle approached and quietly set the breakfast plates and decanter.
Xena enjoyed having the girl near her. She had come to think of Gabrielle as part of her daily life. The girl brought calm to the room. Xena felt soothed in the presence of someone without fear or pretense towards her.
Done with her task, Gabrielle offered, "Is there anything else you need, My Lord?"
Xena felt a tug to the girl. The tender feelings had been long dormant. The Conqueror in her knew that if she acted upon her feelings she would lose the very thing she had grown to value. She wanted to give something in return to the girl but found it difficult to do so without compromising her position as Gabrielle's mistress.
"How many dresses do you have, girl?"
"Two, My Lord." Not wanting to misrepresent her wardrobe, Gabrielle added, "And a skirt and two blouses I wear for my harder work."
Xena observed plainly, "It would do the men good if you presented yourself attractively."
Gabrielle was stricken by the Conqueror's observation. "My Lord, I beg your pardon if my appearance displeases you."
Xena witnessed the change in Gabrielle for what it was and regretted having thoughtlessly stripped the girl of her dignity.
She gentled her voice. "You misunderstand me. You are naturally beautiful and it is the clothes the realm has provided that do a disservice to you. If you have no objection, I will direct Makia to have you fitted with a few new dresses suitable for a storyteller of the realm."
Gabrielle brightened. "That is very generous of you, My Lord."
The Conqueror heard the laughter while standing in the middle of the courtyard with Jared. She turned her attention to its source, the infirmary.
"It sounds as if more than the ill and injured are with our storyteller."
Jared was pleased to report. "The Guardsmen have taken to visiting their brothers with more regularity. Their midday meal is a good time to visit without compromising their duties."
Xena began to walk towards the building. Jared walked beside her.
"So, morale is good."
"Gabrielle seems happier."
"I would wager she is."
Xena was intent on protecting the young slave. "I hold you equally responsible with Targon and Dalius for her well-being. If you have any suspicion that she is being worn down again by her duties I expect you to remedy the problem. And, for the sake of morale, the remedy will not be the withdrawal of her storytelling."
Jared smiled. "Understood, My Liege."
Xena quipped. "Take that smile off your face Jared, or risk that the Conqueror may get careless next time we spar."
Jared's smile only broadened. "I would not want that to happen, My Liege."
Xena slapped her General playfully in the gut.
Jared observed. "I have learned that if I stand by the hitching post I can hear Gabrielle's voice well enough to enjoy her stories. She cannot see me, so I don't have to worry that she'll be intimidated by my presence."
"Jared, you can't intimidate a puppy."
"But you can, My Liege."
They stopped by the hitching post. The Conqueror scanned the courtyard with a grim look. She leaned against the hitching post keeping her sights toward the activity before her. Her ear was trained upon Gabrielle's beguiling voice behind her. It would not be the last time the Conqueror chose to meet with the General during midday meal, nor was it the last time their meeting took them to the hitching post.
Gabrielle stood in front of her wardrobe taking measure of each of her five dresses. The latest additions were tailored with precision to her form. She had been given an opportunity to choose the fabric and to comment on the patterns. Never had she owned clothes as fine.
She reflected upon the time that had passed since being purchased for the Conqueror's household. Her life had gradually changed for the better. Three moons had passed since she and Leah had been moved to a shared room. She had been relieved to be spared the far less private commons.
Leah was a fair roommate. A couple summers older than Gabrielle, Leah had developed a cynical perspective on life. Gabrielle could not blame her. And yet, Gabrielle grew tired of Leah's complaints of life in the palace. Equal in height to Gabrielle with brown hair, almond eyes, a small upturned nose and sharply defined checks, Leah used her beauty to seduce the male servants and slaves, always seeking a favor in return. By unspoken agreement, Leah kept her escapades outside of their room.
Gabrielle had regained her strength. The Conqueror had been truthful. In the Conqueror's household she was well fed, clothed and housed. Though she worked from morning to night, her duties varied in difficulty. This was true for all the slaves. No one slave was overworked to the expense of another. The household was equitably managed with little distinction between slaves. Servants enjoyed greater benefits. They worked less hours, were given more generous allowances, more comfortable sleeping quarters and were free to roam without first reporting their destinations and expected time of return to an overseer.
Gabrielle noted that Makia was a relentless taskmaster to all new additions to the household, slave and servant alike. She also noted that once the new members of the household proved their worth, Makia allowed far more latitude.
During the past moon Gabrielle enjoyed the added pleasure of being a companion to the wounded men. In addition to her storytelling, she had performed minor nursing duties. Dalius encourage her desire to give comfort. The men's gratitude was unbounded. She had earned the admiration of the Royal Guard and in spite of her on-going weapons training they were constant in providing her an escort whenever she went to market or wished to explore the city. Gabrielle felt it ironic that she felt safest among the most lethal fighting force in Greece, if not the known world.
"What dress will you wear?" Leah entered their room.
"I never thought I would ever have the problem of having to decide among so many dresses."
"We are lucky to have the Conqueror's favor."
"Is that what we have?"
"I would say so. We are pretty and she likes pretty." Leah curtsied flirtatiously.
The insinuation troubled Gabrielle. "Has she ever touched you?"
"No." Leah laughed at the preposterous thought.
"You don't seem…worried."
"Why should I?" Leah waved her hand and dropped in a chair. "The Conqueror doesn't take slaves to her bed. If only she did I might find myself completely free of the work I do. But, I don't complain. All I have to do is serve the hateful murderer her evening wine with a smile. That is a small price to pay for the comfort it brings me."
Gabrielle knew Leah had an equal opportunity to serve the Conqueror in the evenings as she had in the mornings. "Does she ever talk to you?"
"Talk? I've never heard her do anything but give orders." Leah's low esteem of their mistress was never more apparent. "She doesn't know how to talk like a real person."
Gabrielle returned her attention to her dresses.
"I would wear the green. It goes well with your eyes." Leah suggested with sincere appreciation for Gabrielle's beauty.
"Do you think?"
Leah laughed. "Don't you realize half the men in the Guard are in love with you?"
"They are not," Gabrielle protested.
"Yes they are! Gabrielle, you have something they want. It is about time you learn that you can use your beauty to your advantage."
The thought of using sex for favors was abhorrent to the abused slave. "I don't want to be that way."
"Don't be a fool." Leah was derisive. "Or is it that you think yourself too good?"
"Leah, I want love," Gabrielle confided.
Leah found Gabrielle's naiveté intolerable. Her passions rose. "Gabrielle, we are slaves. Slaves! How can you even imagine that we are meant for love?"
"We won't be slaves forever. You only have a year before you are freed."
"And you have more than two years before the Conqueror will let you go. You can't count on the future. Anything can happen. Look at what Lord Gaugan did. One of these days someone is going to kill the Conqueror and it won't matter what her house rules are. We will be slaves until the day we die."
"I believe in…" Gabrielle paused. She took a steadying breath. "I believe the Conqueror won't be easily killed."
Leah kept to her pessimism. "I hope you're right."
Gabrielle did not want to continue the conversation. "Tonight should be a good night."
Leah struck a cautionary note. "This is the Conqueror's favorite banquet of the year, just her and the Royal Guard. Watch out when they start challenging each other to one contest or another. They are no better than a bunch of drunken children."
The banquet was well underway when a soldier from the First Army bid permission to enter. A message was given to Jared who relayed it privately to Xena. The Conqueror waved the soldier in. He turned and summoned two guards standing out of sight. They dragged Gaugan into the center of room.
The Conqueror stood up from her chair and walked around the long head table. With each step she took her countenance became more menacing. The room quickly quieted. The two soldiers held their prisoner in a standing position, securing Gaugan's arms behind his back.
The Conqueror stood in front of the rebel. "You cost Greece the lives of many young men."
Gaugan decried. "You killed my son!"
The Conqueror was unmoved. "Only because you failed to teach him to respect the realm. Every life has a value. He thought himself above others."
"You dare to say this to me? You who crucify and lay heads on spikes?" The former noble spat on the Conqueror.
She wiped her face with her sleeve. "You knew the consequences of opposing me. Their blood is on your hands, not mine."
Gaugan cursed, "You'll burn in Tartarus."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"I pray to the Gods you'll have a slow and painful death."
"Lead the way, Gaugan." The Conqueror stepped forward and plunged a dagger into his stomach and then cut up slowly, inch-by-inch, as the soldiers held him in place. The Conqueror moved the dagger back down then shifted the blade to the left cutting the flesh further. She twisted the dagger in a half-circle then cut to the right. Gaugan screamed in agony. The Conqueror pulled the dagger out.
"Where else should I cut you Gaugan? If I cut out your tongue will you scream more or less?"
The horror of the scene left the slave stunned. A broken decanter of wine, released unconsciously from her hands, was scattered at Gabrielle's feet.
The room had fallen into a palpable silence. The crash of the decanter echoed against the walls and into the Conqueror's ear. The Conqueror searched the room until she found the source of the disturbance. The girl was standing to the side, half hidden by a pillar. Xena walked over to Gabrielle, the bloodied dagger firmly in her hand. At arm's length Gabrielle stepped back in fear. A soldier stood up behind her and placed his hand on her shoulder, whether to stay her or to comfort her, she did not know which.
Xena's gaze pierced the girl. Xena saw Gabrielle's fear and disgust. The girl had now received her first true glimpse of the Conqueror. She obviously did not like what she saw. Xena was surprised to find she had no words for the girl. There was nothing to say. At times like these, actions counted more than words. She turned back to Gaugan. With a nod of her head the two soldiers stood him as upright as possible. With one quick flick of her wrist the dagger pierced Gaugan's heart. He slumped dead. His death was not as slow as the Conqueror originally intended. Without looking back to Gabrielle, Xena called out to the soldier.
"Anton, take the girl out of here."
Though the senior guard remained unseen by the Conqueror, Anton bowed. "Yes, My Liege." He squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder gently, and then guided her back to the kitchen.
Anton and Gabrielle entered the kitchen. Makia's saw the ashen girl. "What happened?"
Gabrielle's tears fell freely. The nausea she felt triggered a wrench. She moved quickly to a corner where an empty wash bucket lay and vomited. She continued to heave dryly after the contents of her stomach had been emptied.
Anton discretely reported the banquet events to Makia while the chief cook continued to orchestrate the food preparation and service. The older woman wanted to console the younger, but could not afford the time. She took a wet cloth and leaned down to Gabrielle, handing it to her. "Take care of yourself and we'll talk later."
Gabrielle gratefully took the cloth and wiped her face. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I would worry about you if watching a man butchered didn't make you sick."
Gabrielle shifted her body so she lay against the wall. "Why did she do it?"
"She had no choice." Anton stepped up. "Gaugan was responsible for the death of twenty-two Guardsmen, men we considered our brothers. What the Conqueror did to Gaugan was only what he would have done to her."
"It doesn't make it right."
"It is right." The Guardsman respectfully disagreed. "What it isn't is easy to watch."
Gabrielle stood up, continuing to use the wall for support. "Are you all like her?"
Anton considered the question. "If you mean the Guardsmen, I would say no. But we do aspire to be worthy of the Conqueror's regard."
"I don't understand you."
"And I hope the day never comes that you do, because to understand us you must see what we have seen and I don't wish that on anyone."
The horror thrust upon her was overwhelming Gabrielle. "Why don't you walk away?"
Anton was bound to his sworn brothers. They shared different, yet in terms of their effect similar experiences. "Because we have memories. We can't forget, and the truth is we don't want to. As long as the Conqueror rules, warlords no longer hold our villages hostage, people of Greece are no longer added to the slave rolls, and there is plenty enough to eat. Gaugan would have destroyed the realm."
Gabrielle turned away and walked to her room. Exhausted, she lay in her bed, falling asleep in her clothes. Her thought of the Conqueror's butchery was countered by her assessment of the life the Conqueror had given her. There was no reconciling the two.
For three consecutive days Gabrielle served the Conqueror's breakfast in an empty room. Though tempted, Gabrielle hadn't the courage to seek the Conqueror out by trespassing into her bedchamber. Other servants had caught glimpses of their mistress. Throughout the palace an air of caution dominated.
Gabrielle sought out the Conqueror. She walked up the palace stairs onto the turret. The Conqueror stood alone, leaning against the ledge, as was her habit. Uncertain whether Gabrielle sought solitude or her company, Xena decided to give the girl an opportunity to leave unacknowledged. She could hear Gabrielle's steady breathing. The girl had stayed.
Xena raised her gaze from the horizon to the sky. "The clouds claim the sky. You can only see a few stars tonight."
"My Lord, may I speak freely?" Gabrielle had practiced her speech.
"You may." Xena did not alter her stance.
"I have a request. I have spoken to Dalius. With your permission I would like to apprentice with him."
Xena could not help but wonder if Gabrielle's request was motivated in part by a desire not to directly serve her anymore. Xena would have little reason to see the girl at the infirmary. She closed her eyes and recalled all that she knew and observed in Gabrielle. She took full measure of the girl and found little to fault. The request, though unexpected, was reasonable.
"A healer. It will be a good skill for you to have when you leave my service, better than washing floors and serving breakfast trays, although you could always be a bard… You have my permission. I will tell Targon."
"Thank you, My Lord."
Gabrielle waited for the Conqueror to either continue the conversation or dismiss her. There was only silence between them. Gabrielle turned to leave.
A thought came to her. "My Lord."
Xena turned and found the girl with her eyes.
"I will continue to serve your breakfast before beginning my day at the infirmary."
Gabrielle saw a hint of a smile pass across the Conqueror's countenance.
"Then I will see you tomorrow."
"Yes, My Lord." With that said, Gabrielle left the turret.
Targon entered the infirmary. Gabrielle stitched a Royal Guardsman's wounded cheek as Trevor stood watching.
Gabrielle humored the Guardsman. "Endres, you'll have a brilliant scar to impress the women with."
Trevor added, "And if you bribe your brothers of the Guard well enough we won't tell them how you tripped over your own feet when the Conqueror swung her sword at you."
Gabrielle stilled. "The Conqueror did this?"
"Endres can thank the Gods he was sparring with the Conqueror and not one of us less skilled. She pulled her stroke to avoid taking off his head."
Gabrielle cut the thread.
Endres turned to Gabrielle and smiled. "For once Miss, Trevor isn't lying. I was doubly lucky that the Conqueror was in a good mood. She said nothing 'bout my clumsiness and actually offered her hand to help me up."
Gabrielle placed a bandage over Endres' wound. "Maybe she thought the cut was enough to teach you a lesson."
"Hasn't stopped her in the past from booting one of us from here to the stables. Wouldn't you say, Trevor?"
"I would," Trevor replied.
"If you are done with this guard, Miss, I would like to see you." Targon's voice interrupted the exchange.
Endres and Trevor sobered
"I will be right with you, Sir." Gabrielle finished with the bandage. "Now keep the wound clean. I don't want to see it infected."
Endres was grateful. "Yes Miss, and thank you."
Gabrielle offered the Guardsman a gentle smile. "You're welcome."
She approached Targon. "How may I help you, Sir?"
"Come with me." He spoke briskly.
Targon turned and began to walk to the palace. Gabrielle accompanied him in silence. Gabrielle noted that they were making their way toward the Conqueror's suite. She readied herself for an interview with her mistress. When summoned, she had yet to find the confidence to face the Conqueror free of the notion that she would be disciplined, though for what grievance she never knew.
To Gabrielle's surprise, Targon turned down a side corridor. He stopped in front of a door and removed a key from his pocket. He spoke as he opened the door.
"You are now a Healer's Apprentice and as such you must be available to serve at any time of day or night. This means that you may need to rest when others are working. For this reason you have been given a private room."
Targon stepped back to allow Gabrielle to enter and inspect her new quarters. The room was larger than the one she shared with Leah. It had a window that opened to the main courtyard, a view she was familiar with because of the Conqueror's habit of watching the sunrise from her suite. There was a large bed against the west wall and a desk against the south wall. There was a chair at the desk and a larger sitting chair to one side. A small table held a pitcher and washbasin. Finally, there was a large wardrobe standing against the north wall.
"Miss Gabrielle, is the room to your satisfaction?"
Having scanned the space, Gabrielle turned to him. "Yes, Sir. It is wonderful."
Targon extended his hand. "Here is the key."
Gabrielle reached out and took it in her possession.
"I recommend that for your own safety that you lock the door at night."
"I will." The key weighed heavily in her hand, a tangible artifact of the unexpected changes in her life.
The administrator instructed. "You may move your things when time allows."
"Thank you, Sir."
"You're welcome." Targon left the room personally disapproving the Conqueror's decision.
Three of the male servants sat comfortably at a far kitchen table. It was mid-afternoon and they were enjoying their free time between meal services. The kitchen was a haven for the servants. Makia tolerated their boisterous speech. It was often, in such moments of ease, that information was thoughtlessly revealed.
"I wager a dinar."
"You don't have a dinar!" Mansel countered.
"Leave it be, Pathas. There is no winning here." Landis tried to mediate.
Pathas insisted. "She will make her choice by the full moon."
Landis laughed. "You count on lunar madness."
Mansel offered his assessment. "She is spent. I say a fortnight after."
Gabrielle had entered the kitchen and silently observed the exchange between the servers sitting at one of the larger tables. She went to Leah who was cutting vegetables. "What are they wagering on?"
Leah was indifferent. "The Conqueror's next bedmate."
Mansel called out. "Gabrielle! You see the Conqueror every morning. Has she asked for two portions, yet?"
Gabrielle responded with irritation. "I wouldn't tell you even if she had."
Mansel goaded. "Don't say you are trying to protect her reputation. You are too late for that!" All the men laughed.
Pathas was like a dog with a bone. "I tell you Lord Boyet comes from the northern provinces. He has a handsome son. I say it will be him."
Landis disagreed. "You are wrong. She has had him and she never goes back to the same stock."
Gabrielle walked over to Makia who worked over a kettle.
"Here girl, take a taste and tell me what you think." Makia offered her a spoonful of stew.
Gabrielle blew on it to cool before taking a bit of meat and vegetables into her mouth. "It's good. I like the spicing you've used."
Pathas' voice carried. "Who would dare deny her?"
Mandis countered. "Who would want to?"
The laughter continued.
Gabrielle inquired, "Makia, why talk about who the Conqueror takes to her bed?"
The cook was blunt. "Because if she is not killing, she is bedding."
"That was not true when I first came here."
Makia wished the Conqueror had remained so. "It was a rare quiet time for her. Remember Gabrielle, the southern fighting brought out the wolf in her. It does not go back to sleep easily."
Gabrielle was offended for her mistress. "Why do you call her a wolf?"
Makia had followed one of the Conqueror's campaigns in the field and later walked through the haunting aftermath. "Because she is not just a hunter. She is a predator. She is smart in her tracking and merciless in the attack. When she is sated she moves on, never looking back."
"But wolves mate for life, don't they?" Gabrielle replied.
The Conqueror's empty room disappointed Gabrielle. Leah had, with a healthy dose of sarcasm, complained being roused from sleep to serve the Conqueror's evening wine the night before. The Conqueror had returned to Corinth after traveling to the west. Given the order to serve the Conqueror's breakfast at mid-morning, Gabrielle had anticipated seeing her mistress. Having set the table, she had no choice but to leave and return to her duties at the infirmary. As she reached the door she heard the Conqueror's greeting.
"There you are. Good morning, girl."
Gabrielle turned back. "Good morning, My Lord."
The Conqueror was dressed in a simple, white robe. Her tan skin had deepened to a rich bronze. Her hair fell easily down her shoulders with a hint of wildness. She moved casually toward the table that held her breakfast. The impression was new to Gabrielle. If she had not known better, she would have said the Conqueror was happy.
"How have you been this fortnight?"
"Well, and you, My Lord?"
"It was good to leave Corinth and get out to the open land." Xena picked up a slice of sweet bread. "I must admit I did miss Makia's cooking."
Gabrielle found the Conqueror's easy banter engaging.
The Conqueror continued. "How are your studies?"
"I have a great deal to learn."
"Yes, you do. Are you pleased with your choice?"
"Very much, My Lord."
"It helps the men forget the pain."
The Conqueror raised the mug of tea to her lips and took a slip. "To be able to forget one's pain, if only for a moment, is a great gift. The realm is lucky to have you."
Gabrielle blushed. "Thank you, My Lord."
Xena smiled. She was in a remarkably good mood and she knew seeing the girl again was one reason why.
The young slave had no reason to stay though she wanted to. "Is there anything else, My Lord?"
Xena gave the girl her complete regard. "One night while I was away I stood alone and I looked up and saw a shooting star race across the night sky. I thought of you. I wanted you to see what I had seen."
Gabrielle lost all inhibition. She spoke enthusiastically. "I did, My Lord. It happened," Gabrielle paused for a moment to recollect. "It happened the fourth night after you left. I was up at the turret."
Xena thought back to the night. "It was the fourth night." Her voice shifted to concern. "What brought you to the turret? Isn't your room quiet enough?"
Gabrielle hesitated. "I was feeling… I feel less alone when I'm there."
"It is something we have in common." Xena took another sip of her tea. "You better go before Dalius starts looking for you."
"Yes, My Lord." Gabrielle gave her mistress a minor bow.
Gabrielle was struck by how Xena kept her eyes gently upon her. "My Lord, it is good to have you back."
Xena's smile broadened. "It's good to see you, too."
Gabrielle was completely infected with the Conqueror's good humor. She left the room with a light step.
Gabrielle woke with difficulty. She was feeling weak and somewhat feverish. A breathing sickness had struck a number of the Guardsmen and she suspected she might have been infected. She debated whether to tell Dalius of her illness. She rationalized that she was not very ill and that the men she cared for needed her more than she needed to remain in bed.
Gabrielle dressed. She began her day as she had come to begin every day of her life. She walked to the kitchens to collect the Conqueror's breakfast. As she did, Gabrielle wondered how she would find the Conqueror. She had observed that the Conqueror had grown sullen in the passing days. To her disappointment, their brief conversations fell victim to her mistress' ill humor.
Entering the Conqueror's suite, Gabrielle was surprised to find her mistress sitting near the fire. "Good morning, My Lord."
Xena broke herself free from a stupor. "Is it?" She looked over to Gabrielle and then to the balcony. Getting up to her feet she cursed with little passion. "Damn it to Tartarus."
Gabrielle's concern overruled her better judgment. "You did not sleep?"
"No, I did not sleep!" Xena directed her irritation toward the slave.
Gabrielle felt her transgression. "I beg your pardon, My Lord."
Xena checked her agitation. "No girl, it's all right."
Xena approached. Gabrielle exercised all her self-control to hold the breakfast tray steady as Xena reached out and lifted a mug of tea from the tray. Relieved that no punishment was forthcoming, Gabrielle went to the dining table and set the breakfast plates.
Xena sipped her tea as she watched the girl complete her task. Gabrielle returned her attention to her mistress. For a moment the two women stood silent. Gabrielle's expression engaged Xena. She marveled at the girl's openness. No one looked at her the way the girl did.
"What are you thinking?" Xena's voice was easy.
Gabrielle blushed. "Nothing, My Lord."
Xena chastised. "Girl, there is only to be truth between us. You have the right to keep your thoughts to yourself. If you do not wish to share them, say so. I'd rather hear you say that to me than to lie."
Gabrielle did not want to disappoint her mistress with another evasion or a denial. She chose the truth. "I believed you were happy when you returned from your recent trip to the west. It seems that happiness has left you. My Lord, what makes you happy?"
Xena was dumbfounded by the question. She considered the girl with genuine awe. "You would be surprised."
"I might understand."
Xena yearned for an uncomplicated life. "Simple things."
Gabrielle wondered why the Conqueror's command was not all that was required. "Can't you have them here in Corinth?"
"It's harder here."
"What is, My Lord?"
In her memory Xena revisited her recent excursion outside of the palace gates. "Well, for one, I can't hunt a stag on the city streets."
Gabrielle knew the surrounding environs had much to offer. "But, isn't your nearby land rich with deer?"
"Then what prevents you from enjoying what you have?"
The answer to Gabrielle's question was too painful to dwell upon. Xena chose humor and quipped. "So you say I should indulge myself and go hunting?"
Gabrielle found herself in the unexpected role of granting her Sovereign permission. "If it gives you pleasure."
Xena studied the girl. She hated the fact that there was a part of her that suspected Gabrielle's motives. "I have a realm to rule. There is little time for leisure."
Gabrielle spoke of her own liberty. "Dalius and Makia grants us time for ourselves."
Xena found Gabrielle's argument ironic. "You compare me to my slaves?"
Uncomfortable, Gabrielle looked down.
Xena was curious. "What gives you pleasure?"
Gabrielle had never known luxury. In Draco's custody she came to desire even less than she enjoyed in her father's house. "Like you, simple things, My Lord."
Xena smiled. "Such as…"
Gabrielle looked up and held the Conqueror's gaze. "Much of what you've given me. I spend time with people who are kind and good. I have my stories. I am learning new things and what I learn is useful to others. When I wish to be alone, I can be. I even have a place to go to at night to see the stars."
"There must be more."
Gabrielle knew she could not confess the pleasure it gave her to serve her mistress. There was no explaining that being recognized by the Conqueror made her feel uniquely present in the world and not just one of an indiscriminate mass of humanity.
Gabrielle's shyness renewed. "My family was poor. My sister and I entertained each other. I enjoyed walking the countryside, exploring new places. Sometimes my father would take us to a nearby village. I enjoyed the travel. The sense of freedom it gave me."
Xena encouraged Gabrielle's revelations. "So, you did not feel free even at home?"
Gabrielle's life was comparable to any peasant girl of her time. "I was my father's daughter and did as he bid. I have never been free to do my own bidding."
"The day will come." Xena promised.
"I will be grateful when it does, My Lord."
Gabrielle had taken Xena to a life long left in her past. It was in some ways a life similar to the girl's.
"When I was growing up I spent time with my younger brother, Lyceus. I remember how it felt for us to go exploring together. When we were older, we went hunting and fishing, bringing back our catch to my mother who prepared it for the guests in her inn. You are right. It is a special kind of freedom that is not easy to come by."
Gabrielle recognized a rare spark of life in her Sovereign. "My Lord, with all due respect, if I had the power to give myself that freedom, even if only for a few candlemarks, nothing would stop me from taking it."
Xena walked to the balcony. There was only one way for her to quell her doubt. "I think it is a good day to go hunting."
Jared had been surprised by Xena's invitation. They hunted together when traveling in the field. To do so while in Corinth was rare. It had been a successful day. Two does lost their lives to their arrows.
The sun was nearing the horizon. Xena reined Argo to a halt. She leaned forward against her saddle horn and looked toward the city. A young slave dominated her thoughts. Jared had noted Xena's contemplative mood. He rode his stallion to her side.
"What is it, My Liege?"
Xena kept her eyes forward. "Jared, if from the time we leave here to the time we reach the city we are not ambushed, I will learn something I did not know before this day began."
Jared was confused. It had been a peaceful day. Not once had he felt a threat. "I don't understand."
Xena shifted her gaze to her companion. "I didn't want to tell you. I was afraid I would ruin this outing for you, as well as for me, but the idea to go hunting was not mine and I wasn't sure if I was being set up for a trap."
The General knew it was not like Xena to expose herself so nakedly to a threat. "Why then did we go without backup?"
The truth gave Xena pause. "Because learning the truth was more important to me than either my life, or I'm sorry to say, yours."
Jared could not fault Xena. He understood how hard it was for her to allow anyone into her life. "You now have someone else you can trust."
"It seems so." She reached out and placed her hand on Jared's arm. "There are so few of you."
Dalius observed Gabrielle's pallor and lack of focus. Concerned and unconvinced by her argument otherwise, he pronounced her ill and sent her to her room to rest. Gabrielle had slept a few candlemarks when she was awakened by a knock on her door. Trevor relayed a message that she was to report to the Conqueror in a candlemark. After thanking the Guardsman, Gabrielle lay back in bed. Grateful that she felt somewhat renewed, she still hoped that whatever the Conqueror asked of her would require a short interview.
Trevor opened the Conqueror's suite door allowing Gabrielle to enter. The Conqueror sat at her desk reading. She looked up, pleased to see the girl.
Gabrielle approached. "Good evening, My Lord."
"How may I help you?"
Xena stood up and walked round her desk making her way toward the dining table. "I wanted to thank you. It was a good day for a hunt. Makia has cooked venison steaks from the game I brought back."
Only then did Gabrielle note that the table was laid out with two place settings and a fine meal.
Xena leaned against her dining chair. "I hope you're hungry."
The meaning behind Xena's words escaped Gabrielle. "Not very, My Lord. There will be more for the others tonight."
Xena stood in charmed disbelief. She would have laughed at the girl if Gabrielle had not worn such a serious expression upon her face.
Xena chose a direct invitation. "Will you dine with me?"
"My Lord?" Gabrielle stood confused.
"The hunt was your doing." Xena swept her hand across the table. "You can't expect me to eat this feast all by myself."
Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena's hand.
The slave responded without forethought. Refusing the Conqueror's invitation was not an option. "Yes, My Lord. Thank you."
"Good." Xena pulled the chair beside her own for the girl.
Gabrielle approached, still bewildered by the Conqueror's gesture. She looked up to her mistress relishing her courtesy. She sat down and waited for the Conqueror to seat herself.
Xena could see that the girl was at a loss. Slaves were given no protocol for eating with their ruler. She reached for a plate.
"Let me serve you."
"Have you a preference? Meat, vegetables, yams, bread?"
Gabrielle scanned the food. "Yes, please."
Xena laughed. "How hungry did you say you were?"
Gabrielle smiled for the first time in the evening. "Small portions, My Lord."
"Small portions, then." Xena confirmed.
Xena served Gabrielle modestly and then served herself a generous plate.
They ate quietly. Xena knew that if there were to be a conversation, it would be for her to lead it.
"You've told me a little about your life in Poteidaia. There must be more to tell about you and your family."
Gabrielle replied softly. "They are all gone."
Xena empathized. "It isn't easy to speak of those you've lost. I'm not one to talk about my family, either." She placed a bit of meat in her mouth. She offered Gabrielle a gentle smile. "Would you be my bard tonight and tell me a story?"
Gabrielle brightened. "Yes, My Lord. What kind of story would you like to hear?"
"What are my choices?"
"Heroic tales, a romance, something funny…"
"Funny." Xena was near drunk in Gabrielle's delight. "This is not a night for serious thinking. I want to laugh."
Gabrielle entertained the Conqueror for the next two candlemarks. Xena allowed herself to journey along with the characters Gabrielle painted with her well-chosen words. She enjoyed watching Gabrielle as much as she enjoyed the tales told. Gabrielle relaxed before her eyes, losing her reserve, transformed from the Conqueror's slave to a free-spirited bard.
Gabrielle completed her third tale of the evening, a romantic comedy of mistaken identity. It was both sweet and funny.
Xena sat comfortably in her chair. "Well done."
Gabrielle had never felt more flattered. "Thank you." She leaned back in her chair with a sigh.
Xena shifted forward. "You look tired."
Gabrielle confessed. "I am, a little."
"We cannot have that." Xena stood up signaling an end to the evening. "For the next two mornings you will be able to get some extra sleep. I will not need you to serve my breakfast. I am drilling my Guardsmen in the field." Xena laughed gently. "What gives me pleasure make them weary."
Gabrielle followed the Conqueror to the door wondering if she owed the Guardsmen an apology for encouraging their mistress to seek her happiness.
Xena opened the door for the girl. "Good night."
Gabrielle offered her deeply felt gratitude. "Thank you for the evening, My Lord."
"It is I who thank you. Sleep well." Xena offered the girl a minor bow.
"I will, My Lord."
Gabrielle stepped out. She turned round watching the door close.
"I hope you had a pleasant evening, Miss." Trevor offered.
"It was." Gabrielle was enchanted. "Tomorrow I may ask you whether it was real or just a dream."
The Guardsman was amused by the young slaves countenance. "I will assure you it was not a dream."
Gabrielle smiled. "Good night, Trevor."
"Good night, Miss." Trevor watched as Gabrielle walked slowly to her room. He could not recall in the years he had served the Conqueror, an evening such as this where the guest did not leave with a haphazard appearance, evidence that the encounter with the Conqueror had not been limited solely to conversation. For the girl's sake, he was happy to see that she had been the exception.
Xena returned from the field at sunset. She was pleased with the Guardsmen's performance during the two days of drills. She also felt better for being free of her government's administration. Riding back to Corinth, she made a resolution to leave the confines of the palace walls more often.
Coming from her bath, Xena noted that her breakfast had been placed on the dining table. The setting was different than what she was accustomed to seeing and the timing was indeed earlier than usual.
The guard stepped in. "Yes, My Liege."
The Conqueror was not to be trifled with. "Who brought my breakfast?"
"Leah, My Liege."
"Get Targon," she demanded.
The guard stepped out. Xena continued to ready for the day. She did not touch her food. Targon knocked.
Targon had been warned of the Conqueror's ill humor. "Your Majesty, has Leah done something to displease you?"
The Conqueror wasted no words. "Why didn't Gabrielle serve me this morning?"
The administrator explained. "She's ill."
The Sovereign's mien immediately altered from suspicion to concern. "What's wrong with her?"
"Dalius said she has a high fever and her lungs are heavy making it difficult for her to breathe."
Xena was troubled by the diagnosis. "Is she in her room?"
"No, Your Majesty. She is in the infirmary."
Xena found that a screen had been placed between Gabrielle and the infirmed soldiers, granting her privacy. The girl was pale, wet in her own perspiration. Xena touched Gabrielle's forehead and found it dangerously hot. "Dalius! What have you done for her?"
The elder reported gravely. "Herbs for the fever, but as you can see they have had little effect."
Gabrielle opened her eyes. She was not as surprised as she thought she should be to see the Conqueror at her side. The Conqueror's presence both comforted and frightened her. She reached out her hand. The Conqueror took it. Gabrielle's parched throat made it difficult to speak. She was certain the Conqueror would be truthful where Dalius was evasive. "Am I going to die?"
Xena responded with unfelt calm. "You're very sick."
Gabrielle nodded. Having learned of a number of deaths in the passing days from her same illness, she interpreted the Conqueror's words as a death sentence. She held the Conqueror in her vision until the pull of sleep closed her eyes.
Xena held to their mesmerizing link. The girl was not the only one who needed to keep their connection. Xena took to her feet as Gabrielle drifted to sleep. "Dalius, let me see your medicines."
The healer referred to a few jars among many resting on a nearby tabletop. "I gave her these, Your Majesty."
Xena could find no fault with what the healer prescribed. She knew other combinations. She took three different jars in hand and handed them to Dalius. "Take these."
Dalius held the jars and waited further instruction. Xena went back to Gabrielle wrapping a blanket carefully around her body and then lifted her up into her arms. "Follow me."
Xena carried Gabrielle to her suite. "Prepare a cold bath." The healer did so as Xena laid Gabrielle on her bed. She stripped the girl of her clothes.
Gabrielle awoke confused. "What are you doing?" she challenged weakly.
Xena stopped and leaned over the slave. She spoke softly. "Trust me."
Gabrielle assessed the Conqueror in a way she never had done before. "I do."
"Good." Xena wrapped Gabrielle in the blanket and carried her to the bath chamber. The large tub was three-quarters full. "Dalius, take the blanket." He did so. Xena lowered Gabrielle into the water. The shock caused the girl to seize, requiring Xena to forcibly hold her down.
Gabrielle pleaded. "No! Let me out. It's cold. Please!"
Xena reached out and in a quick motion pinched two nerve points on the girl's neck causing Gabrielle to lose consciousness. The healer watched in silence, impressed that the Conqueror had not hurt the slave. After a half candlemark, Xena lifted Gabrielle from the bath, carefully drying her before carrying her back to the bed. Xena covered Gabrielle with two heavy wool blankets.
In the bedchamber Dalius was brewing tea according to the Conqueror's instructions. Before calling for the tea, Xena struck the girl's nerve points. Gabrielle slowly regained consciousness.
Xena placed her palm over Gabrielle's brow. "Better."
"Your Majesty." Dalius handed a mug of tea to the Conqueror.
She placed her arm behind Gabrielle's shoulder to raise the girl up. "Drink this."
Gabrielle looked from the mug to the Conqueror then back to the mug. She lowered her mouth to the rim and drank what she could.
"Good girl." Xena encouraged. With the tea consumed, Xena laid Gabrielle back down. "Sleep now." It was the gentlest command Gabrielle had received from the Conqueror and she easily complied.
Two days passed. During that time, the Conqueror slept on a couch within her suite. She arranged for Dalius to visit Gabrielle regularly and ensured that all of Gabrielle's needs were taken care of. It was evening and the Conqueror sat at Gabrielle's bedside.
"Please, My Lord, I'm much better. I'm a burden to you."
With an unaccustomed sense of shyness the Sovereign placed her hand on Gabrielle's blanketed leg. "When we are alone you may call me Xena."
Gabrielle insisted. "There must be something I can do."
Xena would not risk the girl's life by rushing her convalescence. "Remember that people die from your illness. I'd rather Hades not claim you, yet."
"I'll have Dalius bring medical scrolls for you to study," Xena willingly compromised. "And if you wish, I will arrange for a quill, ink and a few blank scrolls so you can write your stories."
Gabrielle was taken by surprise. "Write my stories?"
Xena smiled. "I know you can read and write."
"Yes, My Lord." Gabrielle admitted with a tinge of new wonder, "I never thought of writing my stories."
"Well, now you that you have thought about it, what say you?"
"I would like that." Gabrielle felt herself once again in her Sovereign's debt. "Thank you. It is very kind of you."
"You're welcome." Xena was heartened by what little happiness she could give the girl.
Xena went to a chair beside the fireplace. Gabrielle soon learned that the Conqueror spent most of her nights in that chair either reading or watching the fire. Though she wondered why the Conqueror had not arranged for her to be moved to her own room, she did not voice the thought. Her placement in the Conqueror's suite had afforded her an opportunity to watch the intimate life of the ruler of Greece. What was most remarkable to Gabrielle was how ordinary the Conqueror's days seemed to her. Mornings were spent on government business. Midday, the Conqueror worked with the Royal Guard. Late afternoons were devoted to Court. The Conqueror entertained, but took little pleasure in society. Her preference for quiet evenings was apparent.
The following evening Xena sat on the bear rug that lay in front of the fireplace. Gabrielle, wrapped in a white robe, approached.
Xena questioned the girl with a tinge of sternness. "What do you think you are doing?"
"It's warmer here. Unless you'd rather be alone."
"Do you need a blanket?"
Gabrielle sat on a chair across from Xena. "I'm fine, really."
Xena continued attentively. "Hungry?"
Xena teased. "You have definitely regained your appetite."
Gabrielle took advantage of the Sovereign's bright mood. "May I ask you a question?"
The slave had long wondered the cause of her good fortune. "Why have you been so good to me?"
Xena grew serious. "I hurt those who try to hurt me and I help those who are loyal to me. There are few who are truly loyal."
Gabrielle's question remained unanswered. "But what have I ever done to earn your favor?"
Xena was not one to dwell on her beneficence. She rarely justified herself. Given Gabrielle's sincere inquiry, Xena felt obligated to meet her promise to always answer Gabrielle's questions honestly. "I've come to know the person that you are. I've had plenty of opportunities to watch you give freely of yourself. You see goodness in people. You give others reason to smile and hope when there is little reason to do so. And, you do all this without challenging the realm."
"But…" Gabrielle hesitated.
Gabrielle looked down.
Xena promised. "Speak the truth. No harm will come to you."
Gabrielle raised her gaze. "I don't agree with the violence. I don't agree with the laws that restrict free speech and assembly. I wish you would show more mercy."
"I know." Acknowledging the extraordinary contrast between her violence and the girl's pacifism, Xena's self-reproach found easy footing. "Still you don't treat me like an animal and I'm grateful for that."
It was this calculated aspect of the Sovereign that Gabrielle struggled to understand. "How can you be so…. cold?"
The Conqueror accepted the realities of her chosen life. "It is a necessity if I am to survive."
"What kind of life can you have when you have to always protect yourself from your enemies… when you don't allow yourself to have friends."
"As I said, my goal is to survive. I have resigned myself to the fact that I deserve nothing more."
The void of human compassion broke Gabrielle's heart. "But even your slaves have more."
The irony of her life was once again acutely apparent. Xena observed, "If my slaves have more than I do then I am a better mistress than I am given credit for."
"It isn't right."
"You seek justice. We have no inherent right to justice." Xena's soul bore the scars the Fates cut in her. The Fates are far too fickle to grant humanity that gift."
Gabrielle was in the presence of one of the most powerful individuals on earth. If anyone could change the world it was her Sovereign. "You have the power to create a just Greece."
"Everyone has their own definition of justice. You have yours. I have mine. I am Greece so my justice prevails."
"For how long?" Gabrielle was only beginning to understand that Xena's vision was of an arbitrary world. What she understood for certain was that the quality of her life depended on Xena's reign.
Xena was dispassionate. "Until I am defeated by someone who is stronger or smarter than I am."
"I can't imagine who that would be."
Xena's smile was genuine. "Thank you."
Gabrielle leaned forward. "Xena, without compassion there is no wisdom."
Xena heard her name spoken from the girl's lips for the first time. The intimacy of it was stunning. It felt right to her. She wanted to hear Gabrielle speak her name again.
Gabrielle visibly shivered. Xena reached for a blanket lying on the couch behind her.
"Here." She went up to a knee and wrapped the blanket around Gabrielle's shoulders. "You would teach me about wisdom?"
"If I could." Gabrielle considered the Conqueror's gesture in step with the small comforts she had offered her throughout her infirmity.
Xena stayed near Gabrielle, wanting the feel of being close to the woman. "Some few rare souls teach solely by example."
"I don't know about that, but I do know that you can have friendship…love."
Xena reached out gently caressing Gabrielle's cheek with her hand. "Can I, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was taken unawares by the tenderness in Xena's countenance. She had never heard Xena call her by name. There was no demand in her words. It was a sincere solicitation and yet, Gabrielle was fearful. Gabrielle leaned back breaking the tactile connection.
Xena could not only see but she could feel Gabrielle's fear. She felt a profound loss. For a moment she had allowed her hope to surface. She had harbored the hope of a different reaction from the girl. She became painfully aware that she could not draw the girl to her without command or force. As she returned to her original position on the floor, Xena's hand fell to her side where it could do no further harm.
Gabrielle was unable to meet the Conqueror's gaze. "My Lord, may I be excused? I wish to return to my room tonight."
Gabrielle's renewed use of Xena's title resounded as a curse to Xena's ear. The Conqueror showed no emotion. "Of course."
"Thank you, My Lord." Gabrielle stood.
Xena redirected her gaze to the fire. She listened to every sound marking Gabrielle's progress as she dressed and then exited the suite.
It was mid-morning when Targon knocked on Gabrielle's door and announced himself, requesting permission to enter. Gabrielle called out from her bed for him to proceed.
"Good morning, Miss. I hope I haven't disturbed you."
"I was awake, Sir."
Targon was amicable. "The Conqueror informed me that it might be a few more days before you are strong enough to return to light duty."
Gabrielle nodded. Gabrielle had one of her questions answered. She was certain that whatever brought Targon to her was a result of the Conqueror's bidding.
"Dalius will continue to care for you until you are better."
Targon gestured to a chair. "May I sit down?"
The administrator placed Gabrielle's desk chair by her bed and then sat down. He retrieved a scroll from a satchel that hung over his shoulder. He handed the scroll to Gabrielle. "This is for you, Miss."
Gabrielle took the scroll and held it in her hand fearfully speculating what it meant to her.
"Please read it, Miss." Targon encourage gently.
Gabrielle opened the scroll and proceeded to read the order. At the bottom it held the Conqueror's signature and seal.
She looked up to Targon. "I don't understand."
"You will serve the Conqueror for only one more year."
Targon explained with impartial efficiency. "The Conqueror's order is clear. You are near your first anniversary of service to the realm. She has reclassified you from slave to indentured servant and commuted your length of service from three years to two in recognition of your more valuable skills as a healer's assistant to the Royal Guard."
Gabrielle felt undeserving. "But it's because of her that I'm learning the healing arts."
"Gabrielle," Targon purposely used the girl's name for emphasis, "I have known the Conqueror for many years. She does not give easily. When she does she is sincere. Accept the gift. That is all she asks of you."
"But last night, I…." Gabrielle would not recount her refusal of Xena's affection. "I didn't expect this from her."
"She can surprise. The Conqueror is not the predictable woman some people believe her to be."
"When did she decide?"
Targon reported. "I learned of her decision this morning."
Gabrielle glided her fingertips upon the parchment. "I will be free in a year." Gabrielle spoke to herself more than to the administrator.
"Yes, Miss." The administrator had one more task to complete. "The Conqueror has also changed your duties."
Gabrielle's fear took hold. "How?"
"You shall no longer need to serve the Conqueror breakfast. You may report directly to Dalius every morning. This will allow you to rest more. No one wishes to see you fall ill again."
"This was her idea, too, wasn't it?" The latter consequence of her refusal was more easily understood.
Targon gave his mistress due credit. "I believe so."
Gabrielle leaned her head back against her bed's headboard and closed her eyes. She tried to rein in her emotions.
Targon witnessed the fall of a tear. "Is something wrong?"
Gabrielle shook her head gently. "I'm just tired."
The administrator placed a comforting hand on the girl's arm. "Rest."
Gabrielle opened her eyes to the man. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Miss."
Targon left Gabrielle to her thoughts. Gabrielle held the scroll close to her. It was the one thing she could do to feel the presence of the Conqueror. She felt that no matter what the Conqueror's intentions, her exile from the Conqueror's mornings was a greater punishment than she could bear.
A fortnight passed in which Gabrielle did not have cause to speak to Xena. She recovered completely from her illness and returned to her duties in the infirmary. To her knowledge, all who had learned of the Conqueror's actions toward her concluded that she had indeed earned the Conqueror's favor. With little coaxing, Gabrielle convinced Leah to allow her to deliver the Conqueror's evening wine.
Trevor announced. "Your evening wine, My Liege."
Xena sat in a tall back chair facing the fire. "Fine."
Trevor quietly directed Gabrielle. "Leave it on the table where the Conqueror is sitting." He closed the door.
The servant did as instructed keeping herself a pace behind her Lord. "Xena."
Xena closed her eyes upon hearing the girl's voice. "Yes, Gabrielle."
"Thank you. I can not tell you what my freedom means to me."
Xena would not accept the young woman's gratitude. "I've given you nothing. You have and will continue to earn it."
Gabrielle was determined in her mission. "May I approach?"
"I think it would be better if you stay where you are."
Gabrielle confessed. "I didn't expect you to touch me."
"It was an unfortunate presumption on my part. I am sorry for it." Xena's hands closed around the chair arms.
Gabrielle had searched her heart. She was ready to give herself to her Lord. "I'm not."
Xena stood up and turned her servant. "Do you know what you are saying to me?"
The young woman mined her courage. "If you will have me, I willingly give myself to you."
Xena could not erase the memory of her rejection. "Why?"
Gabrielle remained silent.
"Gabrielle, you owe me nothing. Tell me the truth. Why are you doing this?"
"Because I love you." Spoken, the truth of her love was unassailable.
Xena doubted the veracity of the declaration. "You love the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle stepped forward. "I love Xena of Amphipolis."
"You cannot have one without the other."
Gabrielle was steadfast. "I accept that."
"You will be seen as my whore." Xena would not allow Gabrielle to make her decision naively.
The young servant dropped her head.
"But you won't be. Not to me, if that makes a difference."
Gabrielle raised her eyes. "It does."
Xena approached the girl. Lifting Gabrielle's chin with her finger. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, don't let it be said that I didn't try to warn you. The day will come when you will regret this decision."
Gabrielle took another step closing the space between them. Xena had her answer. She leaned forward and gently kissed Gabrielle. Gabrielle, in turn, opened herself to Xena, her hands carefully embracing the woman who would be her lover.
END OF PART ONE
Xena exercised her greatest patience. Taking Gabrielle to her bed with a fluid exchange of kisses and caresses as she stripped Gabrielle of her garments. She encouraged Gabrielle to undress her, placing the young woman's hands on the buttons and ties of her own clothes.
She laid over Gabrielle exploring the soft, yet surprisingly strong body. When she began to stroke Gabrielle intimately, the young woman's breath caught. Remembering Gabrielle's past, Xena kept a steady, reassuring gaze upon her. "It's all right."
Gabrielle reached up and cupped Xena's cheek with her hand. The warrior smiled. "That's right."
Another stroke and Gabrielle arched her back, closing her eyes at the sensation; a painful pleasure overwhelmed her senses. Gabrielle kept her hand upon Xena's cheek needing to maintain the connection. Xena turned her head to place a kiss upon Gabrielle's open palm. Gabrielle felt the tension within her near a breaking point. She opened her eyes and held Xena's unceasing regard. Xena was an anchor to what was safe and good. Gabrielle whispered Xena's name hoarsely, and then she cried out. An orgasm coursed through her body. Xena continued her tender strokes until Gabrielle raised her upper body taking the Conqueror into an embrace. Gabrielle's body continued to shudder. Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle supporting her.
The young woman's trust had been complete and Xena knew it was only because of that trust that she had been able to take Gabrielle to climax. Gabrielle held to her, trembling. Xena recognized the moisture she felt upon her skin to be Gabrielle's tears. Left wanting for words, Xena lowered Gabrielle down, guiding the young woman to rest upon her shoulder. It was there that Gabrielle fell asleep and, in time, it was there that Xena slept.
Xena awoke to an empty bed. In quick reflex she sat up and scanned the room. She saw Gabrielle dressing nearby.
"Where are you going?"
Gabrielle continued to dress, shyly turning her back to her Lord. "Dalius is expecting me."
Xena settled herself in the bed. "You want nothing of your daily work to change?"
"With your permission."
"You don't want anyone to know that you have been with me?" Asking the question hurt Xena more than she imagined possible.
Gabrielle was realistic; the palace network would expose her. "People already know that I didn't return to the kitchen last night."
"But you don't want me to recognize you in any formal way?"
Finished with her ties, Gabrielle turned to her Lord. "You can summon me whenever you need me."
Xena was confused. "Did I hurt you last night?"
Gabrielle approached. "No."
Xena tensed as her pride sought succor. "Did I disappoint you in any way?"
"No…No…" Gabrielle's emotion rose as she countered the misconception. Her voice then softened. "You were wonderful to me."
"I don't understand you." Xena voiced her uncensored thought.
Gabrielle looked around as if seeing the specter of critical nobles and their ladies in Court. "I thought it would be less complicated for you if the Court continued to think of me as one of your many servants."
Xena held Gabrielle's gaze. "You know you are more than a servant to me, don't you?"
Gabrielle's certainty was tenuous. "Yes, I do."
Xena was not convinced. "We need to talk more about this."
"As you wish." Gabrielle acquiesced.
"Gabrielle." Xena got out of bed. Conceding to Gabrielle's modesty, she wrapped a robe around herself. Xena walked to the hidden corridor and opened the entrance. "Take this corridor to the back stairs. At the first landing turn right. The corridor will lead to what appears to be a dead end. Pull the metal ring on the wall. A passage to your room will open. Once in your room pull the sister ring on the wall and the passage will close. My guards change at midnight. Even if Trevor informed his relief of your presence my Guardsmen will be discrete. No one will know that you were with me last night. And in the future, you can use this passage and avoid roaming eyes. I believe that is how you prefer our arrangement."
"Yes, thank you."
"Come to me tonight, a candlemark after dinner is served."
Xena watched as Gabrielle disappeared from her suite. She thought she should be pleased by Gabrielle's request for discretion. Instead, she was left to wonder if Gabrielle was ashamed of herself or of the Conqueror.
Gabrielle announced her presence with a light knock. Xena opened the entrance. "Come in."
A quick study of Gabrielle bared the young woman's uncertainty. Xena attempted to ease the tension.
"We'll sit by the fire."
Gabrielle waited for Xena to lead. Xena offered Gabrielle her hand. The servant shyly took it and allowed herself to be guided. A short table held an assortment of fruit and two cups filled with wine. Xena sat down on the rug. "Please join me."
Gabrielle sat opposite her Lord. She recognized the thoughtfulness of the setting. If Xena was actively seducing her, the effort was appreciated.
Xena opened the conversation. "How was your day?"
Gabrielle was surprised by the ordinariness of the question. "Good. Only one new injury. Cantus. He got a cut in this thigh while drilling. I told him a story while I stitched the wound. It went well."
Xena predicted. "You are going to be an accomplished healer, as well as bard."
Gabrielle returned the favor and inquired after her Lord's day.
Xena reported the greatest concern of the realm. "Caesar has been victorious in Gaul. He may soon be turning his sight back to Greece."
Gabrielle took note of the tension that marked Xena's brow. "How long before he comes?"
"I'm not sure. Depends on the number of casualties he suffered and how long it will take to replenish his army. I have spies hunting for information."
"It's inevitable." Xena took a cup of wine and offered it to her companion. "Try it. It's a very good vintage."
Gabrielle took the cup. With a nod of her head she referred to the cup. "You don't have to do this."
Xena understood neither the remark nor the gesture. "Do what?"
"Is that how…" Xena stood up. Her agitation radiated from her body. "Damn it to Tartarus." She stepped away, pausing in the middle space between the fireplace and her bed. She struggled to order her thoughts.
"Gabrielle, we are in my private rooms. No one knows you are with me. Not because I command it but because you requested it. I do not hide what you are to me." Xena turned and faced Gabrielle squarely. "I will not lie to you. I have wanted you for some time. You have moved me in a way no one ever has. No matter my desire I will have you only with your consent, without subterfuge. I give you leave to come to me or not. Last night…last night was very sweet for me and I welcome more nights like it. I have tried to respect you and be tender to you. You say you want nothing from me, but it is obvious that if all I offer you is the woman that I am it is not enough. Tell me where I have failed and I will do what I can to remedy it."
Gabrielle placed her wine cup on the table and stood up. Xena's declaration humbled her. "You haven't failed me. You have been generous beyond my imagination."
Xena was at a loss. "Then what is it that keeps you away?"
Gabrielle's wounded heart sought reassurance. "Do you care for me, even a little?"
"What?" The warrior was dumbfounded.
"Could you tell me?" Gabrielle expressed her need shyly. "Just sometimes…so I don't feel so alone."
"You want the words? I've given you my body. I've given you…" Xena stopped herself from completing the sentiment.
Gabrielle understood she had made a grave mistake in questioning Xena's intentions. "I should go."
Trembling in her rage, Xena extended her arm, pointing to Gabrielle. "No! Don't you leave me!"
Gabrielle stilled as she watched the Conqueror rein in her emotion. The Conqueror calmed her rapid breathing. She dropped her arm, defeated. "Do what you must. You are my servant, but I never have and never will own you."
Gabrielle took a step forward. "I'm sorry. I don't know how free I am allowed to be with you. I don't know what it means to share your bed or how I'm supposed to behave. I don't know what you expect from me. I do want to please you."
Xena spoke with sincerity. "I want to be able to trust you. I want you to trust me. I want to believe that I will never knowingly hurt you. I want to share quiet, private time with you. I want to believe that you welcome my touch. And, I want the opportunity to earn your regard. That is what would please me."
Gabrielle stepped forward. "Thank you for the words."
Xena turned away. She was spent. "Gabrielle, I'm tired. Another night then?"
Gabrielle would not be turned away easily. "May I sleep beside you?"
Xena scrutinized the young woman seeking a hint of artifice. Satisfied none was present, she went to a clothes chest and removed two simple, white sleep shirts. She offered Gabrielle one of them. "You can sleep in this."
Relieved, Gabrielle accepted the garment. "Thank you."
Xena entered the bath to change, allowing Gabrielle her privacy. When she returned to the room Gabrielle stood near the fire, her clothes carefully folded on the couch beside her. Xena walked directly to her bed and slipped underneath the covers, lying on her side, her back to Gabrielle. It was only then that Gabrielle walked to the other side of the bed. She hoped for an invitation. None was forthcoming. It was hard to believe that only a day had passed since their first gentle intimacy. With renewed conviction, she raised the bedcover and moved toward her Lord until she was sitting beside her. Gabrielle placed her hand on the Xena's shoulder. She was careful in choosing how she addressed the woman.
"Last night you promised to teach me all that I need to know to be with you."
Xena remembered her effort to allay Gabrielle's insecurities. "I will."
"Tell me now. How does a servant seduce her mistress?"
Xena lay on her back to better see her bed partner. "Why would a servant want to seduce her mistress?"
Gabrielle gently placed her hand over Xena's. "Because the mistress had just the previous night given the servant a sweet night of pleasure. The mistress had been respectful to the servant, treating her as an equal. At no time had the mistress been less than gentle and the servant could see what great effort the mistress took to be so…. I welcome more nights with you, but before I can have even one more I must have your consent."
Xena entwined their hands. "You can play at seduction, Gabrielle, but know that it is not needed. You must only speak an honest word and I will give you what you desire."
Gabrielle believed Xena. She also believed that what Xena promised might very well go beyond receipt of physical pleasures. It was a stunning revelation. Not one she would pursue in the moment, but one she would consider later, in solitude. Gabrielle decided that a kiss was better than words. Her kiss was well received.
As much as Xena cherished being with Gabrielle, their time together remained limited to occasional evenings. Xena did her best to visit the infirmary. It was during those visits that she and Gabrielle agreed to meet. Together they spent quiet candlemarks in front of the fireplace and in bed. In their bed, Gabrielle not only ignited the Conqueror's passion but also inspired Xena's tenderness. It was in their bed that Xena felt herself meld into a whole being, free of the fragmentation that often cast a shadow over her soul.
Gabrielle grew more comfortable with her. The young woman was still a mystery to Xena. Xena did not doubt that Gabrielle wanted to be with her and yet there remained a distance between them that she did not know how to transcend. She knew the responsibility for the distance lay equally in each of their hands.
Xena held a wine jar. "More?"
"No, thank you."
Xena set the jar aside and propped herself against the couch. Gabrielle, in turn, rested against Xena's chest as they lay in front of the fireplace. The bearskin on the floor insulated them from the cool stone. Gabrielle shifted so to rest her ear upon Xena's heart. She was comforted by the strong beat.
They would be separated while Xena traveled south to inspect the provinces formerly under Lord Gaugan. With Gaugan's death, Xena learned that he was not as reasonable in his treatment of the peasantry as she would have wanted. She was intent on ensuring that those granted holdings either met or exceeded her standard.
"I will miss you," Gabrielle confessed.
Xena gently guided Gabrielle's chin upward, giving her a tender kiss.
Gabrielle asked wistfully. "Are you sure you don't need a healer during the trip?"
Xena smiled. "I thought you didn't want to bring attention to our arrangement. It will only take one word from you to have you join me."
"No, you're right. I'll spend my time studying the new scrolls Dalius gave me. The realm has an excellent medical library." Gabrielle did not hide her smile. "Dalius tells me it grows by the day. Seems the Conqueror's interest in medicine has been aroused."
"I have always been interested in healing. And, I demand the best care for the people of Greece. Do you fault me?"
"Not at all." Gabrielle kissed Xena lightly and then reset herself. "I'm glad Greece is quiet. You should try to enjoy yourself while you're gone."
Xena cautioned. "Things are not always as they seem."
"Is there a problem?"
"There are always problems. The only thing that changes is their visibility and intensity."
Gabrielle's hand unconsciously gripped Xena's shirt. "Should I worry?"
"About me?" Xena was unaccustomed to having anyone openly express concern for her well-being. She quipped. "No. Greece is doing well. That usually means fewer people want to kill me."
Gabrielle remained silent. Xena looked down and studied the still figure.
"You didn't find any humor in what I said, did you?"
"No, I didn't."
"I'm used to laughing at death. It's part of being a warrior."
Serving the Guardsmen had given Gabrielle new insight. "Warriors do have their own code."
"It's true we have a code we live by. Unfortunately, not all warriors live by the same code."
Gabrielle looked up. "Does that code include who you kill and who you let live?"
Xena was taken aback by the question. It was the Conqueror who answered. "Yes, it does."
"What was your code when you conquered Greece?"
Xena had followed a precise strategy. "I went after the warlords first. I focused on the most brutal."
"Yes. I killed him myself."
Xena waited for Gabrielle to consider her role in avenging Lila's death.
Gabrielle continued to question. "After the warlords what did you do?"
"By then I had a formidable army. Many of the warlords had agreed to join me."
"Did you make an offer to Draco?"
Xena held Gabrielle's gaze. She was unapologetic. "Yes, I did."
Gabrielle had difficulty comprehending Xena's logic. "You would have accepted him in your army?"
Xena did her best to explain. "Part of the warrior code is to allow those you seek to conquer an opportunity to surrender. I could have exiled Draco, but he would have been more dangerous to me if I had. It's smarter to have your enemies close to you where you can keep an eye on them. At the end, it didn't matter. He refused."
Gabrielle lay back against Xena. Satisfied that the younger woman had no immediate question, Xena continued her explanation.
"I then had two major challenges. One was to take Corinth. The other was Rome."
"Why not Persia?" Gabrielle thought the lands to the east an equal threat.
"They were too busy fighting among themselves. Like me, King Okal had yet to solidify his rule."
Gabrielle weighed the adversaries. "Which was more important to you, Corinth or Rome?"
"Corinth. I wasn't going to repeat my mistake with Rome and I needed Corinth to establish the whole of Greece as my realm."
"Caesar betrayed you." Gabrielle remembered the stories told of Xena and Caesar's brief alliance.
"Yes. I was young and naïve." Xena shook her head, the memory of her younger self still difficult. "I believed he loved me. My reward was the cross and two broken legs. It took a long time for me to heal. I had to start over. I will never let anyone that close to me again."
Gabrielle felt a press in her heart. She focused on Xena's story. "You won Corinth."
"Yes. It was a terrible siege. I closed all routes to the city and waited Bevan out. The bastard was willing to see all his people die of starvation and disease instead of surrendering. I smuggled a few men and women who were loyal to me into the city and had them spread the word that the citizenry would be given safe passage if they left voluntarily. All it took was bribing a few guards every night. Night by night a train of people left the city. In the beginning I accepted only women and children, then the older, sick and injured men. Finally, I granted safe passage to all able-bodied men."
"You held their wives and children hostage?"
"Not at all. My code doesn't allow harming the innocent. They are always first to safety. It strikes me that in some ways they were the bravest. They came to me like sheep going to slaughter. They held to a glimmer of hope that I would be true to my word. Their gamble was well rewarded.
"The men were the last for another reason. The women and children were less visible to Bevan. I could empty Corinth without him being the wiser."
Gabrielle tried to imagine the stealth emptying of a city as large as Corinth. "He didn't figure it out?"
"He did and went into a rage." Xena remembered how quickly her army reacted, attempting to blunt the tragedy. "He started murdering his own people. He left me no choice but to attack. I had the advantage that many of the remaining men in Corinth were willing to fight with me. They knew they were fighting not only for themselves, but for their families."
Much of Xena's history was never spoken of or recorded. Gabrielle wondered most how the rare few individuals that could claim a personal relationship with the Conqueror had entered her circle. "Was General Jared with you?"
Xena tightened her hold upon Gabrielle. "From the day Cortese attacked my village…"
"Yes. Jared was with me from Amphipolis to the first days of my alliance with Caesar. He was against anything to do with Rome. We went our separate ways on good terms. After Caesar's betrayal I traveled east. When I returned to Greece, he found me. We've been together ever since."
Gabrielle had enough information to weave a fine tale. She expected that with time she would learn enough about Xena to allow the veil that separated the Conqueror from the people of Greece to be lifted. She wondered why no storyteller had done so before. "I've never heard a bard tell your story."
"Because it isn't meant to be told."
Gabrielle raised herself up. "Why not? Wouldn't it help people understand you and appreciate what you've accomplished?"
Xena was unimpressed by the proposal. This was not the first time it had been suggested. "The people of Greece shouldn't dwell on history. They should care about their lives today and whether they have hope for a decent life in the future for themselves and their children."
"You are a hero."
Xena was adamant. "No, Gabrielle. I'm not. I've done things I am not proud of. Things I will never be able to atone for. I don't want any child to look up to me as a hero. I'd rather they think me a butcher. It's closer to the truth."
Xena knew the day would come for her to share her history with Gabrielle. Not all the stories were told. Xena would never share with Gabrielle all the atrocities by her hand. This first telling was necessary to undermine any romantic notions the young woman might have of her.
Gabrielle returned to her place against Xena. Gabrielle's silence was enlightening. Xena was relieved she would be leaving in the morning. It would give the young woman time to consider what she learned and to decide whether she still wanted to take the lonely walk down the back corridor between their rooms. They sat quietly for a half candlemark before Gabrielle stirred.
"I'd like to get some fresh air."
Xena offered gently. "Do you want company?"
Gabrielle longed for her privacy. "Do you mind if I say no?"
"I will always accept the truth from you," Xena assured. "Go on."
Gabrielle sat up and met Xena's eyes. "Thank you."
She stood and went to the hidden corridor. Xena knew Gabrielle would go up to the turret. What she did not know was whether Gabrielle would want to come back to her. She called out Gabrielle's name. Gabrielle turned to her.
"Remember, you owe me nothing. If you prefer your own bed tonight, I will understand."
"Yes, My …" Gabrielle stopped herself.
Xena felt a cold hand crush her heart. She turned back to the fire retreating from what she judged to be a much-deserved rejection.
Gabrielle understood what she had inadvertently done. She could not recall her words. They came to her from the deepest recesses of her soul. Though the impact was unintentional, the words were true and truth was the only demand Xena made upon her.
Gabrielle climbed the stairs to the turret. She stood looking out to the city trying to imagine the siege. There was no stilling her thoughts. She heard Xena's voice recounting the story over and over again. She was left to wonder if the woman she loved existed or was merely a fabrication created by her selective recognition of Xena of Amphipolis, Conqueror of Greece.
Given Xena's comportment as she left the suite, Gabrielle doubted she would be welcomed back. For this night, she chose not to impose any further upon Xena's hospitality.
Two candlemarks passed before Xena retired to her bed. She fought every desire to seek Gabrielle out. She had made the young woman a promise to give her the choice of if and when to come to her. On this night, Xena needed Gabrielle beside her. On this night, Xena fell to sleep in the painful void left by Gabrielle's absence.
Stephen waited for the Conqueror and Jared to reach the center of the courtyard. Gabrielle had stepped out of the infirmary as a congregation of men and women greeted the Conqueror's return.
"Welcome back, Your Majesty." Stephen recognized Jared. "General."
Xena and Jared dismounted.
"Thank you, Captain. I read your last report with interest."
"You were right in your suspicion."
Xena was impatient. "Let's not prolong this affair. Bring out the prisoners."
Stephen raised his hand signally the awaiting Guardsmen. They dragged four men out from the dungeon and stood them in line before the Conqueror.
Three of the men were strangers to Gabrielle. She was shocked to see that the fourth was Talas, a young Guardsman, no more than a boy. She moved forward to see and hear better.
The Conqueror stepped to each prisoner taking in his demeanor. There was not one who didn't radiate fear. She spoke first to the three men from outside the realm.
"Spies of Caesar, what have you to say in your defense?" She waited. "Nothing? The penalty for crimes against the realm is crucifixion. Take them away."
The Guardsmen removed the Roman spies as they whimpered and cried for mercy. She then turned her attention to Talas. The courtyard had filled with Guardsmen. The Conqueror projected her voice so all would hear her.
"Talas, you betrayed Greece and your brothers. What price purchased your loyalty?"
Talas had no defense. He fell to his knees. "Have mercy, My Liege."
"What mercy does a traitor deserve?"
"I made a mistake, My Liege. Please, I will do whatever you demand to earn your trust again."
The Conqueror was unmoved by the traitor's plea. "You cannot earn my trust. It is given only once. It is never given a second time."
Talas was desperate. "Let me go to Caesar with false information. I can be of use to you."
Gabrielle had a kernel of hope that Xena might spare the foolish young man. She took a step closer.
Xena's eye caught movement behind Talas. She looked over to see who disturbed what was otherwise a uniform stand of attention. Gabrielle met her gaze and shook her head, a sign begging Xena to not take Talas' life. The Conqueror scanned the courtyard studying the faces of her Guardsmen. They expected Talas to receive a torturous death befitting a traitor. That she would kill Talas was never in question. How Talas would die was decided in the moment.
Xena went down to one knee in front of the prisoner. She whispered in his ear. "Talas, I hate you for leaving me no choice but to kill you. However, I will grant you one mercy and that is that you will feel no pain. Give Hades my regards."
In one uninterrupted motion, with her left hand Xena pinched a nerve in Talas' neck numbing his body while with her right hand she stabbed him in the heart. The Guardsman slumped forward leaning against Xena as death claimed his soul. She pitied him and took him by the shoulders, laying him down. When Xena looked up she saw the faces of her Royal Guard. She was uncertain whether their disdain was for Talas or given her merciful execution of the traitor, for her. Standing, she spied Gabrielle walking toward the infirmary.
"Jared, take care of this."
The General stepped forward. "Yes, My Liege."
Xena followed Gabrielle. Only a few paces from the young woman, Xena called out her name. Gabrielle stopped, keeping her back to the Conqueror. Xena came about the woman, facing her. "I'm sorry you saw that."
Gabrielle was vehement. "But you're not sorry you did it."
"I did what had to be done." Xena placed a comforting hand on Gabrielle's arm.
Gabrielle recoiled. "Please, don't."
Xena retracted her hand as if it were the hot iron Gabrielle seemed to experience it to be. Xena stood silent. Gabrielle caught the effect of her action as well as her words.
"May I return to the men I still can help?"
Xena nodded and stepped aside. Gabrielle walked past her, keeping her eyes forward.
Xena and Jared stood at the Conqueror's desk, studying a map of Greece and its border countries.
Jared looked across the desk to Xena. "Caesar is not waiting for the spring thaw."
Xena analyzed her troop placements. "He is an arrogant son of a Bacchae."
"Do you want to call the Fifth Army?"
"No. Caesar is counting that my pride will overrule my better judgment. He is going for bragging rights. I'm sure he already has a scroll written to the Senate boasting that he marches in Greece. Let him march."
"I want Dymas to make a respectable showing in the north. He'll position the Second Army coming from a western route. Caesar will expect Regan to march the Fifth Army from the Ionian coast, inland to fortify our western front. Regan will march, leaving a small contingent. That will give Caesar's spies something to talk about. Of the marching troops, I want all but one company to bivouac no more than two days travel from their original positions down the coast, here, here and here." Xena pointed to the position as she spoke. "Caesar will commit to the sea, and when he does, Regan's men will fire our catapults until the Roman fleet is settled at the bottom of the sea. The remaining company will march to create a western front against Caesar. They will have to be the best the Fifth Army has to offer.
"I want Kasen to position two companies on each side of this range to create an eastern front. We will march the Royal Guard and one company of the First Army northeast holding the southern front while Dymas circles his men ‘round, blocking Caesar's retreat."
One army remained unaccounted for. Jared inquired, "And Paulos?"
"Paulos will cool his heels in the south. The Fourth Army has to be prepared to reinforce either the Ionian coast or Corinth." Xena held her General's regard. "What say you, Jared?"
Jared acknowledged, "It will be a good fight."
Xena placed her hand on Jared's shoulder. "Now you have a decision to make. Either march with me or rule Greece in my absence."
Jared had only one place in life. "I march with you, My Liege."
"Good." Xena smiled. "Name your most trusted Lieutenant from the Royal Guard to stay here in charge of the remainder of the First Army. The government of Greece marches with me. We leave in three days."
Dalius had received his orders. He directed his assistants to a variety of tasks without explanation. He noted Gabriele's sober mood, a mood he had expected would have been lightened with the Conqueror's return, but instead had grown ever more grave.
He went to her with the pretense of securing a jar of herbs. "You've been quiet. Is something wrong?"
"No." Gabrielle deflected his concern. "I'm a little tired."
Dalius observed. "It's not like the Conqueror not to visit. How long has it been…a fortnight since her return?
Given the subject, Gabrielle welcomed the opportunity to break her silence. "Have you seen her at all?"
"Yes. I gave her a report two days ago. She was more herself than ever."
Gabrielle did not like the sound of it. "What do you mean?"
Dalius was familiar with the Conqueror's military demeanor. "She's hard. It was impossible to know what she was thinking, but thinking she was. I'm sure Caesar has her concerned. She is leading the Royal Guards and the First Army north. I don't look forward to returning to the battlefield."
The military campaign was news to Gabrielle. "What will we need to get ready?"
"We?" Dalius shook his head. "Gabrielle, you're not coming with us."
"Why not?" She demanded.
The elder healer was confused. "By the Conqueror's orders. I thought you knew."
"No, I didn't know. Doesn't she think I'm good enough?"
"She knows you are skilled," Dalius assured. "By her request, my reports always include a specific accounting of your progress. She is a skilled healer in her own right. I have modified your apprenticeship following her guidance."
Gabrielle was silent.
"Gabrielle, you can ask Targon if he believes differently, but I would wager that he would agree with me when I say that the Conqueror has…affection for you. I don't believe she wants you to see the brutality men inflict upon men in war. More so, I believe the Conqueror wishes to keep you from harm's way."
Gabrielle petitioned. "Dalius, will you speak to her? Tell her I want to go with you."
"I will not." The header valued his hide. "The Conqueror has made her feelings clear. I will not challenge her. Gabrielle, don't be angry but I must confess that I agree with her. The battlefield will give you nightmares."
Xena heard the soft knock at the hidden corridor. She did not trust her senses and waited. Again, she heard it. This time she embraced the possibility of what the sound promised. She looked through a watch hole before opening the door. Her expectations heartened at the sight of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle apologized for the interruption. "I hope I didn't disturb you."
Xena was welcoming. "Come in."
Gabrielle entered, remaining an arm's length from her Lord." She had resolved to be direct in her approach. "I have a request."
"What is it, Gabrielle?"
"I want to be a healer to the army when it leaves for the north."
Xena turned away and walked to the balcony.
Gabrielle followed. "I know all the arguments for staying. I know I will see terrible things and I know I may be hurt or killed. The men in the Royal Guard are my friends. I want to help them. I want to help Greece."
Xena was thoughtful. All her arguments against Gabrielle joining the campaign had been acknowledged and set aside by the young healer. "I will tell Dalius to include you in his plans."
Gabrielle was uncertain how to address Xena. She could not assume any allowable intimacy. "No, My Lord."
Xena turned around angry. "I granted your request. Why do you insist on being so distant?"
Xena's anger did not repel Gabrielle. Understanding that its source was their estrangement; Xena's emotion drew Gabrielle to her. Gabrielle ran to Xena, embracing her. The shock of Gabrielle's body forced Xena to step back. She held to Gabrielle as if her life depended on the young woman.
"Do you come back to me freely?"
Gabrielle remained buried in Xena's embrace. "Yes." She left unspoken the words 'My Lord.'
Jared and Targon stood at the Conqueror's desk. They observed the Conqueror, each seeking a clue to her reception of the unorthodox petition she held in her hand. Xena rolled the scroll closed. "Jared. Is this your doing?"
"No, My Liege. I only agreed to present the petition to you."
"So many marks. I didn't realize half my Royal Guard is still illiterate."
Jared was a willing advocate for his men. "Their hearts are true."
Xena unrolled the scroll and signed it with a flourish. She closed it again and handed it to her administrator. "Targon, place this petition in the royal archives."
Targon took the petition. "With pleasure, Your Majesty."
Jared was not finished with his task. "My Liege, the men request that you impart the honor."
"You are the General of the Royal Guard."
Jared responded in kind. "And you are their Sovereign."
Xena judged the request with an appreciative heart. "I assume they will want to be present."
The General encouraged. "It will be good for morale."
"Morale? Have my Royal Guard become a bunch of puppies?" A gleam entered Xena's eye. "I think before our march against Caesar a Royal inspection is in order. Round the men up, now."
Jared was pleased. "Yes, My Liege."
Flustered, Dalius entered the infirmary. "May the Gods have mercy on all of us."
Gabrielle stopped rolling bandages. "What's wrong?"
"The Conqueror is inspecting the Royal Guard."
"Is that bad?"
"We won't have an empty cot by the time she's through with them."
They both turned to the sound of an approaching contingent. The Conqueror entered the infirmary. She stepped in followed by Jared. Her escort remained outside. To Dalius' credit the infirmary was immaculate. She spied a bucket near Gabrielle with blood-soaked bandages. Xena walked to it and kicked it with her toe.
"Dalius, are you looking to create an epidemic with these soiled bandages?"
The healer accounted for them. "Gabrielle just changed the soldier's dressing, Your Majesty."
The Conqueror turned to the apprentice. "Is that true?"
Gabrielle bowed. "Yes, My Lord."
The Conqueror gave Gabrielle a private wink before she commanded. "Step outside." She glared at Dalius. "You too, I want you as a witness."
Dalius attempted to impede what he believed would be an injustice. "Your Majesty. Please. Gabrielle has done nothing wrong."
"Your protest only reaffirms what must be done." The Conqueror spoke in her most menacing voice. "Now… step outside."
The Royal Guard waited in formation.
"Follow me, girl. Dalius, you stay where you are."
Xena called to Jared. "General!"
Jared handed Xena a small wooden box.
Xena's eyes scanned the Royal Guard. "Let it be known that what I am about to do is in response to a petition marked," the Conqueror could not help but allow a tinge of sarcasm with the last word, "by every member of the Royal Guard and certified by General Jared." The Conqueror directed her attention solely upon Gabrielle. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, in recognition of your services both as a healer and a storyteller to the men of this garrison, and with your consent, you will be hereby inducted into the Royal Guard. The brotherhood…" The Conqueror spoke under her breath, "With more than one uncle, right Jared?" She returned to her full voice, "The brotherhood swears to honor and protect you as one of their own. Do you accept this honor?"
Gabrielle scanned the men seeing familiar faces, many grinning -- an act that would normally not be tolerated by the Conqueror.
She smiled, "I do, My Lord."
The Conqueror opened the box and removed a chain and small gold and silver medallion. Impressed upon the medallion was the Conqueror's seal consisting of a sword and chakram with the letter 'X' cutting across them. The Conqueror handed the empty box to Jared and then placed the chain around Gabrielle's neck.
"On this day, Gabrielle of Poteidaia has become a member of the Royal Guard and as such is under my personal protection. Men. You have a new sister. What say you?"
The men raised their swords and cheered.
Xena leaned down and whispered in her lover's ear. "Well done, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle responded softly. "Thank you, My Lord."
The order to halt went down the line of soldiers to the healer's wagon. Dalius pulled the reins arresting the horses' steady progress.
He sighed. "Good. I could use a break."
"I know how to lead a wagon," Gabrielle offered.
"Then you will have the reins after we eat."
Gabrielle smiled, happy to be of use.
The Conqueror rode beside the wagon. "Dalius, unless she has pressing duties, I wish to borrow your assistant."
The elder allowed, "Gabrielle has no duties that cannot wait, Your Majesty."
"My Lord." Gabrielle sought the Conqueror's regard.
"I promised to tell the men a story over our midday meal."
Xena offered a compromise. "I think they'll bear the loss well if you give them two stories tonight. I leave the decision up to you."
Gabrielle wondered what she was agreeing to. "May I ask what plans you have for me?"
Xena was evasive. "You must trust me that I have your best interest in mind."
Gabrielle turned to her mentor. "Dalius, will you tell the men the stories will need to wait until this evening?"
"Of course." It was Dalius' incorrect understanding that Gabrielle had no true choice.
The Conqueror reached out to the healer's apprentice. "Give me your arm."
"I'm riding with you?"
"You can hold on to me." Xena smiled. "I rarely fall off."
Gabrielle stood up and reached out, extending her leg as she did. The motion was easier than she anticipated. Gabrielle settled behind her Lord.
"You all right back there?"
"I think so."
"Good girl." Xena covered Gabrielle's hands with one of her own. With a press of her knees she signaled Argo forward.
They rode to a small lake. Xena dismounted then reached up to Gabrielle. "Come on."
Gabrielle slipped into Xena's awaiting arms.
Xena encouraged. "Take a look around."
Gabrielle walked to the lakeshore while Xena retrieved a saddlebag, a wineskin and a blanket. Gabrielle turned to her Lord as Xena laid the blanket on the ground and began to remove an assortment of foods from the saddlebag.
She offered. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Come." Xena invited.
Gabrielle knelt beside Xena. "I don't know what to say."
"You can tell Dalius we went searching for herbs. There's actually a rich patch not too far from here. We'll stop on our way and bring proof."
"Gabrielle, I want nothing from you but the pleasure of your company."
Gabrielle placed her hand over Xena's. "May I choose the pleasure my company gives you?" She leaned forward and gave Xena a gentle kiss.
Xena allowed Gabrielle to claim her. Breaking the kiss, Xena leaned back on her heels. She was pleased with Gabrielle's growing confidence. "You may choose, but I set one term. You must never forget that giving me intimate pleasure is always a choice and never an obligation."
Gabrielle assured. "You have made that perfectly clear to me."
"Then I trust that on this day whatever you choose for me is in my best interest."
The young servant smiled. "On this day, My Lord, what I have chosen for you is equally in my best interest."
Two candlemarks later Gabrielle took a position of rest, laying her back against a tree. Xena came to her.
"Here." Gabrielle offered her Lord her lap as a pillow.
Xena accepted the invitation, stretching her body on the soft grass.
Gabrielle took measure of Apollo's progress across the sky. "When do we need to get back?"
Xena closed her eyes. "Jared has his orders. We'll meet him later."
Gabrielle placed her arm over Xena. "I've missed you."
"You've seen me every day since we left Corinth."
"It's not the same." Gabrielle spoke shyly, not wanting to reveal her rising loneliness. "There is always someone with you."
"If I invite you into my tent it will take only a candlemark for all of Greece to know that you give me more than a healer's care."
"And what will Greece say when it learns you took me away from the march for a handful of candlemarks?"
Xena sat up abruptly and turned to the girl. "Let's go."
Gabrielle took hold of Xena's arm. "No!"
"What did you say to me?" The Conqueror snapped.
Gabrielle spoke in a softer tone. "No, My Lord." She removed her hand from her mistress. "Your men will believe we increased our store of medicinal herbs and that I served your meal. They will believe it because I will tell them so and because both facts are true."
Xena countered in a moderated voice. "They will speculate about the truth left unspoken."
"Not if I comb my hair and straighten my clothes."
Gabrielle's whimsy caught Xena by surprise. She laughed wholeheartedly.
Gabrielle coaxed with a smile. "Please, lie down."
Xena complied. "There won't be many more opportunities for us to get away. The closer we are to Caesar's army the closer we need to keep ranks."
Xena closed her eyes anew. She chastised herself for her sharp tone in addition to her error in judgment. Gabrielle was right to believe that their arrangement might have been compromised. Xena recognized the selfishness of continuing to seek the young woman out and accepting her favor. She had bedmates for a variety of reasons. There were those who she enjoyed seducing merely as a conquest, those to whom a liaison was politically expedient, those who made no secret that they wanted to taste her notorious passions and she felt obliged to allow them to do so. There were those who sought out a favor, be it a position of power or a gift from the treasury and, not to be forgotten, there were the pitiful prisoners, the traitors seeking a means to avoid execution. It was the latter, those who offered themselves to her for no other reason than to live, those who degraded themselves at her feet as a means to appease, to somehow mitigate their vulnerability, that in turn, infected her, leaving Xena with a residue of humiliation upon her skin.
Never had she had a bedmate such as Gabrielle. The young woman had made only two requests of her that might have value, small as it was, to another -- to learn to defend herself and to apprentice as a healer. What Xena had given Gabrielle by her own initiative was equally inconsequential -- a room of her own and a forgiven year of servitude.
Gabrielle was still in her household, still subject to the Conqueror's rule. There was no forgetting that she was Gabrielle's lord and mistress. There was no denying that as much as Xena assured Gabrielle that she had rights in their arrangements, specifically the right to consent, Xena continued to withhold the one thing Gabrielle had unequivocally stated she needed -- her freedom. Xena deliberately refused to relinquish her right to be Gabrielle's Sovereign.
Xena rarely allowed herself to think of Gabrielle in such terms. She had broken her own rule of never being with a slave or servant, a rule set to prevent all the questions, all the accusations that now crossed her mind. Being with Gabrielle was one more act that condemned her to Tartarus. Lyceus, were he alive, would be the first to testify against her. Were she to meet her brother on the other side, Xena would not be able to look him in the eye. She had become like their worst enemies. She bought and sold the precious freedom of another human being.
Gabrielle noted a change in Xena's countenance. She stroked Xena's brow. "What's wrong?"
"If it helps you can talk to me. I may not understand your battle strategies, but I can try."
Xena opened her eyes. "I don't want to teach you the art of war."
Gabrielle needed to be recognized for who she was. "We both know I'm not an innocent."
Xena spoke sadly, "No you're not. Why should I add to the crime?"
"You're not. Knowledge is a weapon that can be used in self-defense. It doesn't always have to be used to conquer."
"Still trying to teach wisdom to the Conqueror?" Xena shifted. She rose and leaned on an elbow, enjoying a full view of her lover.
Gabrielle feared she over-stepped her bounds. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I can't argue with the truth. I only wish I had known more when I was younger."
"Would it have changed things?"
Xena mused, "Maybe."
"Before the battle with Cortese, my brother Lyceus and I went for a walk. We didn't say much of anything to each other. We didn't have to. I was ready to lose my life. What I wasn't ready for was to lose him. He was beautiful. He had curly blond hair and a smile that made you smile in return in spite of your worst moods. He had a good soul." Xena paused, a gentle smile rose with the memory. "Sometimes, you remind me of him. I would trade everything I have, the power, the wealth, to have him back."
Gabrielle was intrigued. "Even your freedom?"
"Not then. That's where Lyceus and I were the same. His freedom had no price, including his own life. Given a second chance he would have changed nothing. He had nothing to be ashamed of."
"Given a second chance what would you change?"
"There are no second chances." Xena sobered. "The past is in the past. All I can hope to do is to never repeat my mistakes."
Gabrielle sensed a door open in Xena. She approached by her own accord, seeking an invitation to cross the carefully guarded threshold. "How do you stop… how do you stop yourself from repeating your mistakes?"
"I never let myself forget the people I've hurt."
"But then the past is not in the past. It's always with you."
Xena judged the choice differently. "Some people live in the past and can never move on. If it was a painful past, they wallow in the hurt. If it was idyllic, no matter how brief, they escape into their dreams. Either way they never allow for the newness of life to touch them. Others take the past forward with them, and if the Fates are kind to them, they learn from experience and do better in their life. I try to be the second type of person, although I admit my success in being so is limited."
Gabrielle had her own perspective. "Dreams can make the intolerable, tolerable."
"For a time, yes." Xena took Gabrielle's hand. "I would expect you to say so. You are a storyteller. You take others with you to places they have never been to and introduce them to people they have never met. Most of the time neither the places nor the people ever existed, but it doesn't matter. Those who listen to your stories want the escape. I won't argue that it is good for all of us to indulge in an escape from time to time. That doesn't change the fact that we should never try to deny the present. We must always come back to the truth."
"The truth is often painful." Gabrielle observed.
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand gently. "In the end, denying the truth is even more painful."
Gabrielle had chosen to take a break from the jostling of the healer's wagon and walk. General Jared rode beside her. He had come to consider the girl his ward.
"Good day, lass."
"Good morning, General."
He dismounted. Taking up his stallion's reins, he walked beside Gabrielle. "I know the Conqueror is high on protocol, but between you and me, I would prefer it if you called me by my given name."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, Jared."
He grinned broadly. "Finally! A bard speaks my name."
Gabrielle spoke easily. "I'm sure there are stories of your life worth telling."
"Don't know about that, lass. All that I have done is second to the Conqueror."
"You've known the Conqueror for a long time."
Jared responded proudly. "Yes, I have."
Gabrielle looked down the road. "Amphipolis, your village, is near here, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is." Jared held fond memories of his birth home.
"I know she had a brother, Lyceus."
"He was the younger." Jared accounted for both of Xena's siblings. "The Conqueror has an older brother, Toris."
"Where is he?"
"Britannia." The older brother's name left a bitter taste on Jared's tongue. "Toris wasn't an honorable man. He used the fact that he was brother to the Conqueror to extort protection money. Even Cyrene found it hard to object when the Conqueror suggested he find a home away from Greece."
"Cyrene?" Gabrielle had not heard the name before.
"The Conqueror's mother."
"What kind of woman was she?"
"Is. Cyrene still runs the inn in Amphipolis." Jared warmly recalled the handsome, spirited innkeeper. "She's a good woman. She was hard on the Conqueror. Disowned her when Lyceus was killed."
Gabrielle now understood why, other than Lyceus, Xena reframed from speaking of her family. "Was she right to?"
"I say no. The Conqueror was young. Younger than you by five or six winters. She needed a guiding hand and Cyrene was the only one she trusted."
Gabrielle was surprised. "She didn't trust you?"
"What could I say to her to ease her pain?" Jared felt the sorrow of those days. "I advised her on military strategy. Soon, I had nothing to teach her and she had much to teach me. She is brilliant, Gabrielle. Few give her credit for her mind. They only see her sword."
The young healer trusted the General with a confession. "I still don't understand how she could have done the things she's done… the things she continues to do."
Jared paused. So too did Gabrielle. He placed his hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle, has she punished anyone unfairly? Ask yourself, given her position and the trials she faces, what other choice does she have?"
"She believes she can't be seen as weak." Gabrielle was honest. "I disagree with what she calls weakness."
Jared defended his Sovereign. "In a better world, a world without the Gaugans and Caesars, you would be right. But that is not the world she rules in."
"So she goes down to their level."
"No, she doesn't." Jared was forceful in his argument. "Greece has prospered. The taxes are higher than either you or she may want, but only because we need soldiers to keep Greece from the Romans and Persians. She demands tribute from the vassal nations, but only enough to keep their leashes short. When one part of Greece struggles, the treasury is opened to take care of the people in need."
"She kills." Gabrielle voiced her most troubling observation.
"Yes, that she does. You've been training in staff and short sword. Are you any different?"
"I asked to be trained to protect myself." Gabrielle countered.
Jared's rebuttal was uncompromising. "The Conqueror protects Greece."
"Why do you say Greece?" Gabrielle challenged. "We both know that when we say Greece we mean the Conqueror."
"Because Greece is nothing without the Conqueror?"
"What is the Conqueror without Greece?"
Jared gentled, "I think she would be a freewoman."
Gabrielle paused, reflecting on her own previous observation that in some ways Xena had less than the slaves that served her.
"Why… why doesn't she take her riches and leave? Why doesn't she claim her freedom?"
Jared spoke of the source of his love for Xena. "Because the Conqueror is an honorable woman. The day came when her destiny and Greece's became one and the same. She won't abandon Greece to warlords or foreign nations."
"Until the day she dies…" Gabrielle felt a profound wave of sadness.
"I don't think she expects to live very long." Jared tried to lighten the conversation. "I have a good fifteen winters over her. Have you noticed that the snow has left its color on my hair?"
"I try to remind her that a longer life can be had, but then she and I both know that I've lived as long as I have because she's stepped up and saved my sorry life more times than I can count. Who will step up and save her life?"
"You." Gabrielle placed her hand on Jared's arm.
"If Ares wills it. But I can't be by her side all the time. Those who hate her most are those that disagree with her policies… policies that have brought a better life to Greece."
Gabrielle released her hold on the General. She began to walk. "They are imperfect policies."
"She has ruled Greece for four winters. Creating a better Greece takes time."
"She said that." Gabrielle recalled.
"She's right." Jared affirmed.
Gabrielle noted a gradual change in the Conqueror. It was difficult for her to gauge the cause. She had never been with the Conqueror during war. She could only rely on the stories she heard from others. She did not discount Makia's warning that their mistress would change, always changed, in the face of battle. Gabrielle knew by what she heard the wounded soldiers tell that Greece had never been more threatened.
The infirmary was camped a safe distance from the battlefront. Two of Dalius' assistants triaged the wounded near the battle. Dalius, Gabrielle, and two other assistants provided care in the infirmary.
The Conqueror and her generals remained in the field day and night. The news from the front -- at first troublesome -- improved with the passing days. Casualties lessened as the Conqueror's strategy fell into place. Caesar found himself surrounded without hope of a second front. Greece had effectively prevented the Roman fleet from landing. The few ships that survived the onslaught of Grecian catapults turned their sails back to Rome.
But the news from Corinth was sobering. The Court was restless. The Conqueror was right to be concerned that her rule would face an internal challenge while she was focused on Rome. She had to balance the need to be patient in her play of Caesar with an equal need to end the conflict and reassert her rule over the realm.
Gabrielle's previous experience did not prepare her for the carnage that passed before her eyes - severed limbs and wounds that cut deep and exposed organ, muscle and bone. She worked with Dalius, learning more with each victim of war, doing the best that she could to save lives and, when nothing could be done, to ease pain and keep a dying soldier company while he crossed to the other side.
Caesar had begun a retreat, focusing his forces to create a wedge to break through Greece's Second Army's line. The Conqueror had a choice. She could fortify the front and continue the bloodshed or she could offer Caesar safe passage for a reasonable tribute. The wealth was incidental. More important, the compact would guarantee that no more sons of Greece would die. And, as proposed, the compact would demoralize the surviving soldiers of Rome, instilling an infection of spirit that the Conqueror judged a greater threat to Caesar than the loss of more men.
Mounted, the Conqueror and Jared surveyed the battlefield. All was quiet. At center of their vision Stephen and an escort met with representatives of Rome. Stephen turned his mare and galloped back to the Conqueror's position.
Stephen saluted. "My Liege."
"What says Rome?"
"Rome accepts the terms set by Greece for safe passage, with one exception. Rome will relinquish its weapons, but not its armor."
"Stephen, inform Rome that Greece accepts the terms of disengagement." The Conqueror turned to her general. "Jared, get word to Dymas that Caesar will break his word to Greece and that he better be damned well ready for a battle."
Jared inquired, "What do you suspect?"
"Caesar must have a cache of weapons on the retreat route. Rome is too weak to break Greece, but not so weak that it can't take down the Second Army. If Rome succeeds, our victory will be hollow. The last battle of a war is often the one that stays in memory and is recounted."
Dymas had his men positioned on each side of the retreat route. His scouts had failed to find the suspected cache of Roman weapons. He trusted the Conqueror's instincts. She knew Caesar better than anyone alive. If she said Rome was intent on triggering a slaughter, he was ready to oblige.
Grecian forces shadowed Caesar's retreat. The Conqueror, Royal Guards and First Army marched north preventing a direct attack. Kasen led the Third Army maintaining the eastern front while Regan maintained the western.
Any military leader facing the forces of Greece would have to be either suicidal or delusional in his arrogance to break the compact. The Conqueror was certain that it was for that very reason Caesar would act. He once again counted on the Conqueror's pride, believing that she would claim victory early --before all the fighting was done.
The Roman troops were a half-day march from the border. Caesar ordered a synchronized attack against Dymas' forces that earned both the Conqueror's admiration and wrath. Caesar had a company of soldiers waiting in the hills on each side of the retreat route. Fragmented in size, they had eluded detection from Greece's advance scouts. Each Roman carried his own weapon, as well as weapons to arm two more men. Dymas, whose greatest concern was an attack from across the northern border, found his men trapped.
Greece responded swiftly. Regan and Kasen's forces charged their respective battle lines. The Conqueror tasted the bile of her hatred for Caesar. She wished she had been wrong, yet nothing was more predictable that Caesar's pride.
Greece fought passionately for its sons. Unable to deny the collapse of his triple front, Caesar called a legitimate retreat. All men of Rome fled to the border. The Generals pulled back their forces, allowing Rome to cross the border unimpeded. They concurred with the Conqueror. There had been more than enough death to keep Charon's boat full for days.
Jared led the Royal Guard and First Army south to the base camp. By the Conqueror's orders they would rest for a handful of days before returning to Corinth. Her generals were directed to set camp at strategically determined locations and then to report to her quarters for a full review.
The Conqueror remained on the battlefield with a small burial detail. She dismounted, walking the bloodstained valley. She could taste the metallic tang of blood upon her tongue. The air carried the stench of burning flesh. By her order, all Roman corpses were burned in a lone pyre. To have them left to scavengers was to risk disease. The men of Greece were placed on individual pyres. They died with honor and deserved to be freed to the other side in honor, not in an anonymous mass of flesh. Their names were recorded to ensure families were notified and given a proper stipend.
Xena walked the field, allowing the images of death and destruction to sear themselves into her soul. She could not escape the nightmare of war. It had scarred her during the battle against Cortese. Nothing could heal the wound. Time only added to the injury. She took no consolation from the fact that the death count could have been worse. She led a near flawless campaign. Greece did not fall to Rome. Greece remained free by the sword and the strategy of Ares' Chosen.
Once again she had abandoned the most human part of her, the best of her, allowing the animal inside her to wreak death against anyone who came near her sword. She tempted the Fates as she walked in the open land. An assassin's arrow could easily take her life if she chose not to catch it. It would not be a completely unwelcome fate -- to never again be a part of war, to never again take a life, to never again feel her inconsolable grief.
Advance word had reached camp. Greece triumphed. Gabrielle sighed in relief. Waiting for the Conqueror's return would now be easier.
She stepped out from the infirmary as the troops, led by Jared, returned. Her fear renewed when she did not see the Conqueror. She sought out the General.
The General has missed the girl. "Yes, lass."
"Was the Conqueror hurt?"
"No, lass. Not more than a few cuts."
Gabrielle searched around her. "Then where is she?"
"On the battlefield, lass." Jared touched her arm reassuringly. "She is the first on and the last off."
"But it's over."
"For now. Gabrielle, it was worse than Tartarus out there." Jared's gaze shifted toward the field. "War makes a man…it makes a man do inhuman things. No one feels it more than Ares' Chosen. She needs time to come back to the world she shares with you."
The personal reference was unexpected. "I don't know what you mean."
Jared found and held Gabrielle's gaze. "About what war does to a person, or that those closest to our Sovereign know that she holds you in special regard?"
Gabrielle looked down.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of. You have been good for her."
"I'm not ashamed." Gabrielle whispered.
Jared promised knowingly. "Someday she'll come around and invite you into her rooms by the front entrance instead of the back steps."
Gabrielle looked up. She steeled. "That was my decision."
"Was it now?" Jared could not have been more surprised.
"I thought it would be easier for her."
For the first time in their acquaintance Jared showed anger toward the girl. "Lass, she is our Sovereign. She is Greece. What does it mean when a servant chooses not to be seen with her? You have brought her down in a way no one else has been able to. You've made her less than you."
Gabrielle was dismayed by Jared's accusation. "No… Xena would never…"
"Think about it. Think hard, Gabrielle."
"Jared, I don't know."
The General took a calming breath. "It may be for the better."
Now it was Gabrielle who showed her passion. "Why do you say that?"
Jared was brutally honest. "Because when she comes back I know you will not like what you will see."
Xena rode into camp. Dismounting, she handed Argo's reins to an awaiting groom. She walked across the camp's center yard. Sensing that she was being observed she paused, scanning her surroundings. She stilled at the sight of Gabrielle standing outside of the infirmary tent. It had been over a fortnight since they had seen each other. Xena knew the sight she presented. She was all dirt, blood and scatterings of flesh and bone. She broke free from Gabrielle's searching stare and continued to her tent.
Gabrielle watched as Xena disappeared behind the canvas. Xena had warned her that she was a different woman in war. Touched by Xena's haunted gaze, Gabrielle was not sure that was true.
Xena leaned against her map table. She surrendered to her fatigue. She wanted to wash, to clean away the film of death on her body before taking to her bed. Her precious solitude was interrupted by a call.
Trevor entered. "My Liege, will you see Gabrielle?"
The guard stepped aside. Gabrielle entered with a pitcher of water and a basin. Over her shoulder hung a satchel; within it, her healing supplies. She set the satchel on a nearby bench and approached silently. She placed the basin beside Xena and poured the water into it. She removed a cut of cloth from the satchel and soaked it in the basin.
The young healer raised her eyes to Xena who had been intently watching her. She placed her hand on Xena's arm and began to wash, slowly revealing the tanned skin beneath the dark cakes of dirt and blood. Gabrielle washed Xena's arms and hands then went down to one knee and cleaned Xena's legs. Gabrielle returned to her feet and stood before Xena. She carefully reached up and wiped Xena's forehead, gently cleaning downward until the warrior's face and neck were freed from the remnants of the battle.
Gabrielle gave a gentle direction. "If you undress, I'll clean your leathers and armor."
Xena reached up and undid a catch in her armor. Gabrielle assisted in removing Xena's greaves and gauntlets. Her armor off, Xena stepped aside to where her spare clothes lay. She exchanged her leathers for a clean shift. Holding the leathers in hand she extended them to her caretaker.
"Gabrielle, give Persi my things. He will see that they are taken care of. They need to be repaired as well as cleaned."
Gabrielle took possession of the garment. "May I come to you later, after you've rested?"
Xena's seething energy merited caution. "That is not a good idea."
Xena's fragile composure broke. "Gabrielle, no!"
Gabrielle was adamant. "You may not need me, but I need…I need you. By the Gods, don't set me aside now."
Xena willed herself to a still countenance. "I didn't want you to come."
"But I did. I'm here. I'm yours."
"Are you?" Xena took measure of the young woman. "Are you mine?"
"Yes, by my honor." Gabrielle vowed, "No more back doors. Xena, I don't care about the risk. I want to stand beside you. It would make me proud."
Xena's better judgment warred with her profound need. "I will be the death of you."
Gabrielle surrendered to her destiny. "Let the Fates decide."
Gabrielle returned to her duties while Xena rested. It was late in the evening when Dalius excused her. She returned to the Conqueror's tent. Seeing Trevor standing guard put her at ease.
"Good evening, Trevor."
"Good evening, Miss."
"Would you ask the Conqueror if she will see me?"
The Guardsman respectfully conveyed his new instructions. "The Conqueror gave the order after you left this afternoon that you no longer have to be announced. You may enter and leave her quarters freely."
Gabrielle understood that the change was her own doing.
"Do you know if she is still resting?"
"I'm not sure, Miss. She had food brought in about two candlemarks ago. No one has come to her since that time."
"Thank you, Trevor."
"You're welcome, Miss."
Gabrielle entered. An oil lamp shone, casting a muted light about the tent. Xena slept in her bed. Gabrielle noted from the food remnants on a table that Xena had eaten. She stripped all but her underclothes and slipped into Xena's bed. Xena lay on her side, her back to Gabrielle. Gabrielle gently molded her body to Xena's, seeking out the simple comfort of being near her Lord. It was not long before she drifted to sleep.
Gabrielle responded to the kiss upon her lips. The kiss deepened, stirring her awake. The kiss left her. She felt a bite upon her neck. It provoked a moan from the back of her throat. She felt the weight of another's body over her. She felt a press against her groin. The kiss returned, opening her mouth, a tongue exploring within.
The Conqueror released the kiss and pushed herself up, holding Gabrielle in her vision. Gabrielle opened her eyes, seeing the untamed expression of the Conqueror. She was familiar with the notorious stories of the Conqueror's insatiable lust after a battle. Gabrielle now had reason to fear who the Conqueror became when intoxicated by her battle lust. She had reason to fear what the Conqueror would demand from her bedmate.
Gabrielle had gone into the Conqueror's bed naively. She was now faced with a decision. She could withhold consent. If she did, she risked that the Conqueror would find a willing substitute. Or, she could face this truth of the woman she loved and pray to the Gods that she could endure what the Conqueror chose to do with her.
Until this moment, Gabrielle never feared that her lover would be other than gentle in their bed. Gabrielle knew she had erred in believing she shared the bed with Xena and thus what took place between them reflected a melding of their individual sensibilities. She was in the Conqueror's bed where all that mattered was the Conqueror's insatiable physical hunger.
The Conqueror paused, giving the young woman a moment for understanding. "Are you mine?"
Gabrielle's eyes darted back and forth; her mind struggled to be equal to the moment. As much as she feared the Conqueror's rejection, Gabrielle was unwilling to sacrifice her dignity.
She spoke breathlessly. "No violence in our bed. Promise me."
The Conqueror heard the term of engagement. She had never before accepted restriction in her bed. She wanted Gabrielle and understood that to have her a line could not be crossed. The Conqueror spoke in a cool voice. "What you experience as violence, I may not. I won't take you unwillingly. Say no to me and I will stop. You have my word."
Gabrielle was determined to accept the consequences of her choice. "Then yes, I am yours."
The Conqueror did not hesitate to claim Gabrielle. Her pleasure was in the taking. She showed no gentleness. She teased, she captured, she roughly coaxed. She brought the younger woman to climax again and again. The Conqueror took Gabrielle beyond thought.
Gabrielle was in the dominion of the instinctual. Her body responded to pure sensation. She was utterly without control. As the night progressed, her body transcended physical exhaustion, as it had never done before.
The Conqueror would not allow Gabrielle to reciprocate. The night proceeded without a word. There was no recognition that it was Gabrielle who was with her. Gabrielle felt she could have been anyone. She felt a profound emptiness because of that truth.
Replete, the Conqueror shifted to sleep on her side. Spent, physically unhurt, emotionally in tatters, Gabrielle could not accept the sight of the Conqueror's turned back. Gabrielle lay on her side facing the opposite direction. Silent tears fell down her face until she yielded to the pull of Morpheus.
Xena awoke as she lay on her back. She felt better. The edge that threatened to cut and bleed anyone who came near her had been dulled without violence. She turned to look over to Gabrielle. The younger woman slept in an isolated space on the bed; her body crouched inward like a wounded child. Xena's awareness of what they had shared brought an uncommon sympathy. Contemplating Gabrielle's unusual placement, Xena wondered if it was by choice. Or, had Gabrielle felt exiled? She was accustomed to waking to Gabrielle sleeping in her arms with easy abandon. It was in their bed that Xena first came to understand and to fulfill Gabrielle's need to be held. With time, the affection Xena showed Gabrielle passed beyond their bed to other shared moments.
Xena needed to bridge the space and feel Gabrielle's body close to her. The span of hands that separated them could have easily been a day's journey. Xena turned to her side and moved her body to form a protective shell over Gabrielle. Feeling Xena's touch, Gabrielle jerked.
Xena gently placed her hand over Gabrielle's and whispered. "Rest now."
Gabrielle gathered her thoughts. She relented to her chosen fate and spoke softly. "Do you want me?"
Xena heard the words that offered to give again. She also heard the voice of surrender and not desire. She pulled Gabrielle close to her. "I want to sleep with you in my arms."
Gabrielle's sorrow drove her words. "I don't know if I can ever give myself again to you like I did last night."
Xena stilled at the admission. "Did I hurt you?"
Gabrielle kept her place. Comforted by Xena's touch, she sourced her courage and spoke honestly. "I can't bear the loneliness."
"What do you mean?"
"You weren't with me. I could have been anyone."
"You're wrong." Xena assured. "There wasn't a moment that passed between us that I didn't know it was you who was with me."
Gabrielle found it difficult to believe her. "You said nothing to me."
"I've rarely spoken when I've been with you. Words get in the way."
"In the past, your words have showed me the way. I felt lost."
Xena heard the hurt in Gabrielle's voice. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"There is so much I don't understand. You have more experience than I do. I try to learn, but some things are harder for me than others."
Confused, Xena sought to defend herself from her own self-indictment. "You gave me your consent."
Gabrielle turned to her lover. "Xena, you did nothing wrong. I didn't really know what I was consenting to."
"You could have stopped me with a word."
Gabrielle reached out and touched Xena's cheek. "Part of me didn't want to stop you."
"But part of you did," Xena affirmed.
In the state of her consuming battle lust Xena had set aside her knowledge of Gabrielle's troubled history. She would not repeat the error. "I can find my release with someone else."
Gabrielle remained silent.
Xena regretted her offer. "Have you nothing to say?"
Gabrielle acknowledged the limits of their relationship. "I have no right to ask for your fidelity."
"Gabrielle." Xena raised her lover's hand in her own. "I will make you a promise. There will be no one else in my bed as long as you and I keep our arrangement."
Gabrielle needed to know what price came with Xena's promise. "Will you expect more nights like last night from me?"
Xena would not pretend otherwise. "There will be times like last night that I will want you unceasingly. You have the right to consent or not. If you consent, I further promise there will never be violence, I will cease at your request, and I will speak your name to reassure you that I am with you and no one else."
"What if I don't consent?"
"Ever?" The prospect troubled Xena.
Xena gave her lover what she believed Gabrielle needed from her, an explicit consent to terms that anticipated Gabrielle's future refusal. "I will find a way to cope without bedding someone else."
"What if you need the violence?"
"I won't." Fearing rejection, Xena waited for a response.
Gabrielle took solace in Xena's sincerity. On this day she had been gifted with Xena's sworn fidelity. She would have never dared to ask for the promise. Freely given, Gabrielle received Xena's promise with a painfully overwhelming love. Gabrielle begged, "Hold me."
Xena enveloped Gabrielle in her arms. "I've got you."
At the Conqueror's tent, Jared was informed that the Conqueror was not alone. He, in turn, went to Dalius and told him not to expect Gabrielle until later in the day. He spent the morning managing camp operations, taking it upon himself to host the arriving generals.
The Generals sat together in the mess tent for mid-day meal. Kasen was Jared's contemporary. Though larger in size, in all other appearance he could have been taken to be Jared's brother. A strong man who had grown out of the need to prove himself, Kasen valued his position and worked hard to legitimately keep what he gained. Dymas was the Conqueror's age. A man who preferred a battle-axe over a sword, he lusted for a good battle. At times impudent, only the Conqueror had the strength of character to rein in his less commendable behaviors. Regan was equal in experience to Dymas but far exceeded his comrade in maturity. A man who began his career as a sailor, he was grateful for a garrison adjacent to the sea.
The Conqueror entered. "Generals!"
The men stood. Xena called for a mug of tea and sat down. The Generals returned to their seats. Xena asked for reports. Each leader recounted the battle from their point of view, the losses experienced, the losses inflicted, the expected and the unexpected.
Xena measured each man. "You and your soldiers have reason to be proud. You all honored Greece and I thank you for it."
There was a visible relaxation around the table.
"Dymas. Kasen. I want to double our usual troop deployment on the borders. With that exception Greece will return its armies to its garrisons.
Regan spoke. "My Liege, before we return to the west, my men would welcome a Royal inspection."
Kasen added. "I would request the same honor, My Liege."
The balance of the Generals echoed their colleagues.
Xena leaned her chair back on its two back legs. "Jared will set the inspection schedule. I will also visit your infirmaries to speak to the wounded." Returning her chair back to its four legs she asked with a broad smile. "Now, what say you to toasting our victory?"
"It's never too early in the day for a toast, My Liege." Kasen answered for all.
"Good! Then a toast we will have." Xena called for drinks, happy to celebrate with men of valor.
It was late in the evening when Xena entered her camp's infirmary.
Dalius greeted her. "Good evening, Your Majesty."
"Dalius, how goes it?"
"Well, Your Majesty."
"I expect we will stay here for a few extra days. How is our store of medicines?"
"Sufficient to take the men back to Corinth with a fortnight to spare."
"Good." Xena scanned the room. "I don't see Gabrielle."
"I sent her to the back to rest."
"Thank you, Dalius." Xena walked to where a screen isolated three cots for Dalius and his assistants. Gabrielle slept on one. The other two lay empty.
Xena knelt beside her lover. Her heart ached for the young woman. Having taken so much from her the previous night and made aware of the consequences this morning, she felt a need to offer Gabrielle the tenderness the younger woman yearned for. Xena gently called Gabrielle's name, coaxing her from sleep. Gabrielle opened her eyes to Xena.
"Hey." Xena offered Gabrielle a concerned smile.
Gabrielle's fatigue resounded in her simple response. "Hi."
"Would you prefer to sleep here or with me?"
Xena took Gabrielle in her arms and lifted her up.
Gabrielle protested halfheartedly. "I can walk."
Xena kissed her on the forehead. "Go back to sleep."
Cradled in Xena's arms, Gabrielle ceased all thought of resisting.
Xena carried Gabrielle through the infirmary, across the camp courtyard to her tent. Standing guard, Trevor observed the Conqueror approach. He was no longer surprised to see the Conqueror's open demonstrations of care for the young healer. He held the tent canvas aside.
Xena slipped inside. "Thank you, Trevor."
"You're welcome, My Liege." The guard closed the canvas, pleased by the continuing evidence that the Royal Guard's adopted sister had captured the Conqueror's heart.
For the next three days Xena traveled to her armies' camps, completing a thorough inspection of each. She overlooked minor grievances, focusing on praising the soldiers' skill and courage. She returned late in the evening to her tent. Gabrielle sat up in their bed.
Xena was in a fine mood. "It's been a good day."
"All is well?"
"All is very well." Xena was dressed in black leather pants and a gambeson. She released the waist belt of her baldric, removing it and her scabbard and sword. "How are you?"
Xena threw herself enthusiastically beside Gabrielle. "Don't worry, I'll change into my shift in a little while." She looked down to her clothes. "Can't imagine these studs would be comfortable against your skin."
Gabrielle went to her knees beside Xena. Her serious countenance did not escape her lover.
"Is something wrong?"
Gabrielle's uncertainty had churned within her during the passing days. "Are you angry with me?"
Xena went up on one elbow. "What on earth for?"
"Because of what I said to you the morning after the war was won."
Xena paused in thought, seeking the specific reference. "No, Gabrielle. I'm not angry. You had every right to tell me how you felt. I'm grateful you did."
The younger woman hesitated in naming her evidence otherwise. "You haven't touched me since."
"I've held you every night. Isn't that what you want, to be more than my bedmate?"
Gabrielle remained silent. She cast her eyes down.
Xena sat up and took Gabrielle's hand. "Tell me. What do you want from me?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Must I beg you?"
The thought of Xena begging was incomprehensible to Gabrielle. She raised her gaze to Xena. "I want you to be with me the way you were the first time we were together."
Xena cupped Gabrielle's cheek with her hand. "Being gentle with you gives me great pleasure."
"Yes." Xena's strong voice carried her declaration through to Gabrielle's fearful heart.
Xena leaned forward and offered Gabrielle the gentlest kiss she was capable of. Gabrielle responded shyly. Xena offered a second kiss. Again, she was received shyly. Their evening continued with gentle physical intimacies, accompanied by Xena's spoken words naming Gabrielle, seeking permission, offering assurance, guiding Gabrielle to her.
Xena and Jared made their way to where Stephen and a small hunting party prepared to leave camp.
Xena tried one final time to convince her general. "You sure you don't want to join us?"
"Next time, My Liege. I prefer a day of rest."
Xena teased. "Jared, what is becoming of you?"
"It is your doing for keeping me alive long enough to feel the ache in my joints."
"We have a fine young healer who can recommend a liniment for such things. I can attest that it brings relief."
Jared laughed. "I doubt I will warrant the same care she gives you."
Xena stopped cold.
Jared was a good step ahead before he realized he walked alone. He turned to Xena, catching the impenetrable mask that fell across her face. He was struck with how Xena had taken his careless words. He did not hesitate. He stepped directly in front of her.
Jared spoke quietly. "Xena, hear me. I meant no offense to the lass. I spoke freely because there is no question of her virtue. I am at one with all the men of your Guard. We have only respect for Gabrielle. She is good and honorable and deserves nothing less than the best life has to offer."
Xena trembled with arrested rage. "If ever a man speaks ill of Gabrielle…"
"There will be nothing for you to do because any man who hurts the lass by word or hand will die by the brotherhood's sword."
The honorable love of the brotherhood for the young healer had long been a given. Xena's anger was diffused. "Jared, the war took its toll on her. Her heart is tender and bruises easily."
The General had been impressed by Gabrielle's comportment during and after the battle. "She's strong."
"When she has to be. I want her to be free of worry…if only for a little while."
"Go and have your hunt." Jared vouchsafed his ward's well-being. "Gabrielle is in safe hands."
Xena was grateful that Jared had come to take responsibility for the young healer. "Thank you, my friend."
Jared placed his hand on Xena's shoulder, a rare gesture that only he had earned the right to do. He motioned with his chin. "I believe the lass wishes to speak to you."
Xena followed his gaze. Gabrielle stood outside the infirmary.
Xena went to her with a quick step. "Healer."
Xena spoke so only Gabrielle could hear her. "I should be back by nightfall."
Gabrielle reflected the intimate tone. "Be safe."
Xena smiled. "I might come back with a scratch just so you will care for it."
"I promise you care whether you return with or without injury."
Xena found herself feeling particularly mischievous. "Will you do me a favor?"
"Jared is complaining of aches and pains. Have fun with him and call him an old man."
Gabrielle smiled. "Isn't that mean, My Lord?"
"Isn't it the truth, healer?"
"You are showing an incorrigible side of yourself."
"I think it's about time."
Xena was pleased. It seemed a long time had passed since she saw Gabrielle so animated.
"I have a second favor."
"I don't know, My Lord. I am becoming wary of you in your present mood."
Xena gentled. "I know it is selfish of me, but will you be my bard tonight?"
Gabrielle stilled. She felt a wall that stood between them collapse. Her answer was heartfelt. "Yes, Xena. I will."
"Good. Until tonight then." Xena took Gabrielle's hand and squeezed it gently refraining from publicly stealing the kiss she longed to give.
Gabrielle kept an observant eye upon her lover. Xena had the respect of her armies. Gabrielle had heard the reasons why many times. Only now did she understand. A leader had to be wise, strong of spirit, decisive and never ask more from others than she was willing to give. Because of her superior mind and skills, Xena gave more than anyone under her command. As Anton had explained, all in the Royal Guard aspired to be worthy of her leadership.
Gabrielle had seen glimpses of the toll ruling Greece had upon her Lord. What rewards Xena received were few. Today Xena was happy. The Conqueror had been set aside. Gabrielle wished she could freeze this moment when the refrain of human history paused. There was no war to fight, Xena's armies stood proud, Greece prospered and her government was secure. It was only with these fragile achievements in place that Xena could grant herself a hunt in good company and an evening of storytelling.
Xena told Gabrielle that her happiness came though simple pleasures. Watching Xena ride off with a wave and stunning smile, Gabrielle knew that it was true. It seemed so easy and yet, for Xena so terribly difficult to have. Looking forward to the evening, Gabrielle prayed that the Gods would bestow upon Xena the grace of peace.
It was dusk and the hunting party had begun their return to camp through an area of dense forest. Xena raised her hand. Stephen and the other five Guardsmen reined in their horses. Danger was imminent. Xena could feel a ribbon of men forming around them. She made a fist and held it steady. The Guardsmen readied. Scanning the area there was only one clear escape route. She had no doubt that a heavier contingent of raiders lay on the path. She opened her fist and dropped her palm down making a quarter motion to the right.
An arrow cut across the expanse aimed directly at her heart. She could chose death and allow the arrow to hit its target or choose life and catch it. It was not a good day to die. She had Gabrielle waiting for her and Xena was determined not to disappoint her lover. Xena cried out as she caught the arrow. The hunting party rode left. Whatever line of resistance waited for them they would challenge it as one force. If they were to survive the ambush, it was because they did not question but obeyed.
Xena led, riding low, making herself a lesser target. They were outnumbered. Xena's advantage was that she and her men had mounts and the raiders before her did not. She heard a man cry out. Looking back she saw that Stephen had taken an arrow in the shoulder. She turned Argo shouting orders for the men to ride on. She unsheathed her sword and steadied for the fight.
She was engaged by four foot soldiers as three men on horseback attacked unexpectedly from the left flank. The thick ground cover made it difficult to maneuver Argo. The foot soldiers retreated out of the horsemen's path. Xena stood up in her stirrups. She swung her sword with a crisp motion cutting the throat of one rider and severing the arm of a second below the elbow.
A foot soldier moved forward. He thrust a short sword up from his position into Xena's side. The wound was deep and painful. Aware that she was in trouble, Xena removed a dagger from her belt and flung it into the foot soldier's throat. She parried the remaining horseman's sword, twisting it out of his hands. She plunged her sword into the man's chest. He fell backwards as she cleared her sword from his flesh.
Compelled by Xena's command, Argo raced away. Xena felt blood seeping from her wound. She reined Argo toward a path at right angle to where she believed her men had escaped. She would split the threatening forces. Though doing so might not make a difference whether she lived or died, it might help her men survive.
Luck was with Xena. Behind her she heard the sounds of chaos. There were no calls for pursuit. Argo carried her mistress at a steady pace. Xena drifted in and out of consciousness, clinging to the saddle horn for support. Ahead, Xena spied two large boulders rising to Argo's height. Side-by-side they created a niche of moderate shelter.
Xena whispered to the mare. "Argo, stop."
Argo held her position.
Argo went down to her front knees.
"Good girl." Xena threw a blanket, one of her saddlebags and a water skin down to the ground. She then slipped her body off the steed and crawled into the niche.
Argo came to Xena nuzzling her.
Xena spoke wistfully. "Hey, girl. Not how I planned to end the day."
Xena opened her saddlebag and removed a cloth. She placed it against her wound and pressed down, trying to stop the flow of blood. Her joke to Gabrielle was no longer funny. This was a high price to pay to receive the younger woman's care. Following the sunset, the forest quickly disappeared into the black of night. Xena closed her eyes. She knew that unless she was found soon she would bleed to death. She also knew by her keen ear that there was no one near, either friend or foe.
Her hand rested on her saddlebag, taking comfort from the feel of soft leather against her fingertips. Her gaze found and held to her second saddlebag, still hanging on Argo's saddle. Within it was her most priceless bequest - Gabrielle's freedom. She had written, signed and sealed the order of freedom before leaving Corinth. She carried the scroll with her throughout the campaign against Caesar. Whatever the consequences of her death might be, it would not include Gabrielle being forced back into the hands of a slaver.
Xena felt a rising shame. She knew that she was the one who did a disservice to Gabrielle. Gabrielle remained her indentured servant because Xena feared that, if free, Gabrielle would choose to leave Corinth. Xena heard Jared's assessment of Gabrielle anew. 'She is good and honorable and deserves nothing less than the best life has to offer.'
Having woken that morning with Gabrielle in her arms Xena had felt worthy of the honor of being the self-appointed guardian of Gabrielle's vulnerable spirit. After their tender night of pleasure, Xena was both humbled and heartened. She admired the courage of the younger woman who trembled in her arms -- courage she measured greater than her own.
Xena retraced the events that brought them to the previous night. She had been impressed by Gabrielle's brave heart during their first intimacy. Their first time, she strove to ease Gabrielle's memory of abuse in the hands of others. Gabrielle had trusted Xena not to do her harm and opened herself freely to Xena's touch. Xena judged what they had shared the previous night went beyond that initial trust. Gabrielle had opened herself up a second time to Xena, someone who had thoughtlessly caused her injury. Xena had to ease the pain of what Gabrielle experienced as her indifference, and near betrayal of trust. She was grateful for the invitation to return to Gabrielle, an invitation that she could have never given another woman or man because she never gave second chances, never risked a second harm.
It was a battle and not an accident that delayed the Conqueror. Jared felt the truth in his bones. He organized two search parties and relayed word to the other generals to hold their positions. Having sent for Gabrielle, he wondered who's will, hers or his, would prevail.
Gabrielle entered Jared's tent unannounced. "Take me with you."
Jared put down the map he was studying. "No."
"Someone may be hurt. You'll need a healer."
"You forget the Conqueror is a capable healer."
Gabrielle stepped up. "What if she's hurt and can't take care of herself?"
Jared relented, but only to a point. "I'll take Dalius."
"I can protect myself. I've been taught by the best."
"The Conqueror is the best."
"Well, I'm not worried about having to go up against her."
Jared trumped Gabrielle's argument. "I promised her that no harm would come to you."
Gabrielle would not be denied. "Then keep me by your side."
Jared took Gabrielle by the shoulders. "Listen to me, lass. Listen good! In battle obedience is absolute. If I take you with me, you must trust me and do as I say. No hesitation, just follow orders. Give me your word."
Gabrielle accepted Jared's authority, understanding that his love for Xena, and she had come to suspect, his love for her, spurred his actions. "I promise."
"Then get yourself a mount."
Jared watched as the young woman disappeared behind the tent canvas. He found reason to smile. No debate with the determined bard could be considered a fair contest. He would grant Gabrielle any request that did not infringe upon his oath to the Conqueror.
The search party had been traveling for three candlemarks when Stephen and the five Guardsmen of the hunting party came into their view. Gabrielle followed Jared, as he rode forward to meet them.
Not seeing the Conqueror, the General was impatient. "Captain. Report."
Stephen gave Jared a complete account of the attack.
"How's your wound?"
"Not too bad."
"Gabrielle will stitch you up. We'll set camp here for the night."
Jared rode back to the main contingent to direct operations.
Gabrielle received a message to report to Jared after she finished caring for the wounded. She approached the General who was meeting with three of his men. Gabrielle waited for Jared to recognize her presence.
The General placed his hand on her back and led her away. "This way."
Gabrielle felt a rising trepidation. "You wanted to see me?"
"How is Stephen?"
"Good. His armor slowed down the arrow. It didn't go very deep."
Jared steadied himself. "Lass, the Conqueror is injured. I would say she's hurt bad."
Gabrielle stopped. "Stephen didn't say…"
"He didn't have to. The Conqueror would have doubled back and found her men. If she didn't it's because she couldn't. Be ready for the worst."
"What are you going to do?"
Jared outlined his plan. "At dawn we are going to split up into three groups. It will be dangerous. Our smaller numbers will make us vulnerable."
"Would the Conqueror do this?"
"If it was me out there," Jared looked out into the distance, "she would use her blasted sixth sense and walk right up to me. None of us are the Conqueror so we'll do it the hard way."
Longing for privacy, Gabrielle placed her bedroll at the edge of the circle of men. She fell into a fitful sleep. At dawn Jared knelt beside Gabrielle and gently woke her.
"It's time, lass."
"Are you all right?"
Gabrielle confessed, "I miss her."
Jared took her hand. "I know. She's a rough diamond, isn't she?"
"What will this do to her?"
"What do you mean?"
Gabrielle shared her fear. "When she fought Gaugan she came back to Corinth…different. What will getting hurt do to her?"
"I don't know how she'll be, lass. I never do."
"But you seem to understand her better than most."
"Maybe I do. There is good reason for it." Jared treasured his memories of young Xena's and Lyceus' escapades during their carefree childhood. He also harbored the unresolved grief of a helpless witness to one life ended and another forever shattered. "Remember, I knew Xena when she was but a girl living in Amphipolis."
"I wish I had known her then."
Jared's thoughts returned to the present. "You do know that part of her. It's the part of her that is easy with the world, that laughs and cries."
Gabrielle admitted, "I've never seen Xena cry."
Jared did not hold the memory of Xena's tears well. "It's been a long time…when she found Lyceus dead in the battlefield she cried her heart out." Jared patted Gabrielle's hand. "It's easier for her to laugh and she has a good laugh, doesn't she?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Yes, she does."
Jared looked up to the sky taking measure of the day. "Let's go find her."
The search party traveled silently.
Gabrielle spoke softly. "Jared, if we don't call out for her, how will she know it's us and not the raiders?"
"She'll know. We have to listen for her signal."
"What signal is that?"
"A hawk's call."
Tree branches rustled around them.
"Damn to Tartarus!" Jared cursed as a man fell onto him from a tree overhang. A swift elbow to his assailant's head knocked the man to the ground.
Men seemed to rain from the sky. Gabrielle released her staff from its saddle binding. She countered an on-coming raider's sword. The impact shook her in the saddle.
Jared rode beside Gabrielle's horse and slapped it in the rump. "Get out of here!" he ordered.
The mare bolted. A short-swordsman swung his blade across the mare's body cutting its chest from side to side. The horse reared in shock, fell back to all fours and galloped out of the chaos.
Gabrielle held on to the saddle. Her horsemanship was insufficient to regain control. She crouched low avoiding tree branches that would dismount her. It was a half-candlemark before the mare slowed on her own. Gabrielle's nerves steadied. She reined the mare to a complete stop and dismounted. She sighed as she felt the ground underneath her feet. With staff in hand she walked to the front of the mare.
"By the Gods," she breathed out as her gaze moved from the bloody wound to the mare's glazed eyes. Gabrielle knew she could do nothing to save the animal's life. She went to its side and un-strapped the saddle, removing the burden from the mare's back. She then removed its bridle.
"I'm sorry, girl." Gabrielle stroked the mare's forehead in sympathy.
Gabrielle looked about. She had no idea where she was. She bent down to one knee and retrieved her saddlebag, water skin, healer's supplies and bedroll. She estimated she had a candlemark of light before darkness would force her to set up camp. She began her hike back to where she hoped to find Jared.
Gabrielle saw a patch of pale yellow to her right. She swallowed and held still, attentive to every sound and sight. The patch moved. Gabrielle walked toward it. With each step her hopes rose. She smiled at the familiar sight of Argo. She looked about -- counting that Xena would be nearby. Spying the boulders she approached. She was ten paces away when she recognized Xena's form on the ground. Gabrielle ran to her, dropping to her knees. "Xena."
Xena released her ready sword from her hand. She spoke with a hoarse voice. "Gabrielle. Where's Jared?"
"We were searching for you when we were attacked. I got separated from the others. They can't be too far away." Gabrielle scanned Xena's body. "Where are you hurt?"
Xena's strength had completely escaped her. "Doesn't matter. You can't help me."
"Let me try."
"The bleeding stopped." Xena offered a wry smile. "I don't think I have any blood left to bleed."
Gabrielle raised the water skin to Xena's lips. "Here. Drink some water."
Xena opened her mouth. Though her thirst was unquenchable, nausea prevented her from taking more than a few sips.
"Thank you. You should go."
Gabrielle was firm. "I won't leave you."
"The forest is filled with raiders. Get out. If they catch you, you won't want to be alive after they're done with you."
The former slave was dispassionate. "It won't be the first time."
Xena's anger flared. "Not because of me. Never because of me."
"Nothing is going to happen to me." Gabrielle tried to placate.
Xena knew she had little time. By the grace of the Fates she would be able to close her life by personally giving Gabrielle the freedom she coveted. "Gabrielle, in Argo's saddlebag there's a scroll. It grants you your freedom. I should have given it to you before this."
"It wouldn't have made a difference."
"I don't want you hurt. Take my coin. Start living."
"What do you think I've been doing?" Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "You've given me my life back."
"No, Gabrielle. That's where you're wrong. I've only taken from you. I can't give you what you want from me."
"You're wrong. I have everything I have ever wanted."
Xena knew how best to strike a blow against Gabrielle's constancy. She regretted the necessity of doing so. "I can't love you the way you deserve to be loved."
Gabrielle sat back on her heels. "Are you telling me you don't…"
"Please…" Xena drew her tender emotions inward. "There is nothing more you can do for me. Leave me the blanket and water skin. Take Argo. Go."
Gabrielle paused in their argument. Xena watched the subdued young woman closely.
"I know you never said the words. I wanted to believe…"
"I'm sorry." Xena's tone conveyed a desired end to their conversation.
Gabrielle desperately countered. "I never asked for your love."
"Good." Xena was resolute. "Because you will never have it."
Gabrielle held Xena's gaze. She challenged Xena to betray the truth. Gabrielle waited. Xena did not flinch. The Conqueror tried to stare Gabrielle down to nothing.
Gabrielle stood up and walked to Argo. She tied her things to the saddle. She took up the mare's reins and placed her foot in a stirrup. In one uninterrupted motion she mounted. Gabrielle turned back to take a final look at the Conqueror. There was much still to be said between them. It would wait.
"I'll bring Jared to you."
Xena's gaze followed Gabrielle as she rode away. Xena felt both proud and frustrated by Gabrielle's defiance. The many candlemarks that had passed in waiting gave Xena an opportunity to take account of her life. Gabrielle did not belong in it. Xena lived by a code driven by the truth. In the lonely hours of the night she resigned herself to the fact that she had turned her back on a ruling truth. No one was safe beside her. No one she loved ever survived unless she kept them at a distance. The only exception was Jared, and he was one of the most capable warriors she had ever known. Gabrielle was no Jared. To continue to pursue Gabrielle, to welcome her love, was to condemn her to death or a fate worse than death. Xena would suffer in Tartarus for eternity. Gabrielle would not be the reason why. No more innocents would die because of her.
Gabrielle rode. The terrain was unfamiliar. She realized she was not on the same path that brought her from the ambush to Xena. Her doubt of finding Jared or the other Royal Guardsmen was great. Looking to her far left it seemed as if the trees cleared. She turned Argo toward the perceived clearing hoping that leaving the forest would give her a better sense of her location. Riding out as the sun cut below the horizon she saw a village. It was new to her.
The village was of moderate size. Its buildings were well kept. Men and women walked about easily. A few children played. Gabrielle called out to a young man leaving the smithy.
"Excuse me. What village is this?"
Finding Gabrielle attractive, the young man smiled. "Amphipolis, Miss."
Gabrielle thanked the Gods. "Do you know the innkeeper?"
"Cyrene? Yes, I do. Why do you ask?"
"Could you tell me where' I could find the inn?"
"Just down that road. Can't miss it."
Gabrielle entered the inn. It was bustling with the evening meal service. She went to a serving girl. "Please. I need to speak to the innkeeper?"
The girl pointed. "She's there, going into the kitchen."
Gabrielle caught a glimpse of the older woman. Of considerably less stature than her daughter, she did share Xena's dark flowing hair. Gabrielle entered the kitchen.
The innkeeper called out to her from the fireplace. "Are you lost?"
Gabrielle drew near. "My name is Gabrielle. I need to talk to you privately. It's important."
The innkeeper scrutinized the young woman. "Over here."
The two walked outside.
With an inn full of hungry customers, Cyrene had little patience for formalities. "Now what have you to say to me?"
Gabrielle was equally impatient. "Xena is hurt. She needs a healer. I'm afraid she's dying."
The innkeeper steeled. Her daughter was never spoken of in her presence. "Why tell me this?"
Gabrielle noted the resemblance in manner between mother and daughter. "Because you're her mother. Will you lose another child to death?"
Cyrene was short, "What do you know of what I've lost?"
"I know Xena still grieves Lyceus. I can't imagine how much more his death hurt you."
"Why isn't her army helping her?"
Gabrielle recognized a minor hint of concern. "She went hunting with a small group of her men and they were attacked by raiders. She held the raiders back while her men escaped. The Royal Guard went searching for her. I went with them because I'm a healer's apprentice. Raiders attacked us and I got separated. I found her hurt and went looking for help. I made the mistake of leading her horse in the wrong direction. I would have taken her with me but she hasn't the strength to ride. Please, if she dies it will be my fault."
The passionate young woman intrigued the innkeeper. "And who are you to her?"
Cyrene was incredulous. "Xena has no friends."
"You're wrong. There are men and women who would die for her. I'm one of them…. If you won't help me, then tell me where I can find a healer. I also need to get a message to her army."
The innkeeper said nothing.
"Fine." Gabrielle could not afford to waste any more time. "I'll do what I need to do without your help."
"You're wasting your time. No one in Amphipolis will help the Conqueror."
"Then I'll go back to her." Gabrielle wiped an errant tear from her eye. "I don't want her to die alone. She doesn't deserve that."
Cyrene's sought to satisfy her curiosity. "Did she lead the fight against Caesar?"
Gabrielle's hope renewed. "Yes."
Cyrene looked away to the horizon and spoke her quiet thought. "She is still leading young men to their deaths."
Gabrielle was angered by what she heard as a common and unjust accusation. "She is fighting for the good of Greece!"
Gabrielle's forceful defense caused Cyrene to refocused upon the young healer. "Was General Jared with her?"
The mother made her decision. "Gabrielle, wait. We will need to bring Xena here without anyone knowing. There are plenty of men and women who would be tempted to take a knife to her if they knew she was injured. And, for the same reason, you cannot trust anyone here to take a message to her army. If Jared is the same man I used to know he will not stop until he finds her. We need to wait until the village sleeps. I have a wagon we can use to bring her back to the inn."
"How long do you want to wait?" Gabrielle understood the reason for the delay; still she did not like it.
"Two candlemarks. In the meantime you can help prepare a room for her and get some food for yourself. It promises to be a long night and you will need your strength."
Gabrielle reconciled herself to the wait, grateful for the promised assistance. "Thank you."
They traveled by moonlight until they reached the forest. The dense canopy caused Gabrielle to light a torch. She led, riding upon Argo. Cyrene drove a wagon behind her. Gabrielle caught sight of the two large boulders.
She felt a rising sense of urgency. She dismounted. She paused upon seeing Xena's still body.
"Xena…" Gabrielle placed her hand to Xena's neck seeking a pulse. She placed her ear to Xena's heart.
Cyrene approached with dread. "Is she?"
Cyrene went to her knees. She studied her child. "Daughter, what has come of you?"
Gabrielle warned. "We need to hurry."
Xena was ensconced in a moderately sized room at the far end of the inn's second floor. There was access to it through the back steps allowing Gabrielle and Cyrene to move up and down unobserved. Two days had passed. Xena remained unconscious. Gabrielle had stripped Xena of her armor and leathers and washed her body. The intimate act moved Gabrielle to tears as she noted new cuts and bruises beside old battle scars. Gabrielle cleaned the deepest wounds carefully before stitching them closed. Gabrielle and Cyrene said little to each other.
Gabrielle smiled. "Hey."
Xena blinked. She looked around trying to make sense of where she was.
Xena made a motion to move. Gabrielle held her shoulders down.
"Don't try to move."
"You came back." Xena spoke with difficulty.
Gabrielle smiled. "I said I would."
Xena heard movement. Someone had risen from a chair. Gabrielle retreated, allowing the other person access. Cyrene came into Xena's focus.
Xena's heart staggered. "Mother."
Cyrene took Xena's hand. "Yes, daughter. You gave us quite a scare. You've been asleep for over two days."
Xena was catapulted to a different time. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
"Be still." Cyrene soothed. "You must get well. We will talk later."
Xena held her mother's gaze. It had been too long since she felt her mother's compassion. She wished she did not have to consider the practical.
"Who knows I'm here?"
"Just Gabrielle and I. Amphipolis has little affection for the Conqueror. We didn't want to take any unnecessary risks."
"I need to go. I'll only cause you trouble."
"This is my inn and you are my child. Don't worry. Just rest and let your young healer friend take care of you." Cyrene patted Xena's hand. "She's done quite a good job of it. I think you would be impressed."
"I don't doubt it." Xena turned her head searching for Gabrielle.
"Close your eyes. We'll be here when you wake up."
Xena was not ready for sleep. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle stepped behind Cyrene. "I'm here, Xena."
"I broke my code. I'm sorry." Xena's eyes closed as she fell back asleep, her fatigue claiming her.
Cyrene looked back and forth between the two women. "What did she mean?"
Perplexed, Gabrielle confessed, "I'm not sure."
Jared led a contingent of the Royal Guard into Amphipolis. "Check the stables."
The General dismounted and walked toward the inn. Cyrene stepped outside to meet him. Jared paused taking in the handsome woman. He greeted her graciously. "Cyrene, I hope you are well."
The innkeeper minced no words. "Jared. It's not like you to come here."
"I have my reasons."
Jared conceded he would have no better luck at deception with the formidable woman as he had with her daughter. "Have you seen Xena?"
Cyrene looked over to the stables. "Her horse is well and with time so will she."
"Where is she?"
"In good hands."
Jared had no patience for further courtesy. He was blunt in his demand. "I want to see her."
"She was bloodied from head to toe. She had a large blade wound in her side. She lost so much blood she lost consciousness and would not have wakened if Zeus himself struck his lighting bolts at her feet." Cyrene laid an accusation at the General's feet. "Where were you when this was done to her?"
Jared clenched his jaw. "Following her orders."
"You are still loyal to her in spite of everything."
"Xena has reasons for the choices she's made. I don't always agree with her, but she has never done anything so grievous to make me renounce my allegiance to her."
Cyrene remained unmoved.
Jared knew the woman well. He knew she needed assurance, not so much because she doubted him, but because she feared she would err a second time during a crucial crossroad in her daughter's life. "Cyrene, Xena has saved my life countless times. Not once have I returned the favor though I wish I could prove myself to her by doing so."
Cyrene relented. "She is inside. The young healer Gabrielle has been taking care of her."
"Will you lead the way?"
The innkeeper was not done with the former villager. "Until this moment no one else in Amphipolis knew she was here. Pay your debt to her and keep her safe."
"Upon my honor, Cyrene."
"Upon your life, Jared." Cyrene's words carried the weight of a mother who refused to lose a second child. "You will have to face me if you have spoken anything less than the truth."
Cyrene led Jared into Xena's room. Gabrielle sat by her bedside. She smiled upon seeing the General.
"Why am I not surprised to see you here?" He placed his hand affectionately upon Gabrielle's shoulder. "How is she?"
Gabrielle called for a more learned healer to judge. "She needs Dalius."
"I'll see to it." Jared shifted his concern to his ward. "How are you?"
What Gabrielle needed was corroboration of Xena's well-being from the man who knew Xena best. "She will get better?"
Jared leaned over and studied Xena's pallor before turning back to Gabrielle. He chose not to share his concerns. "Yes, lass, she will. We'll talk later. Let me see to Dalius and setting up security."
Gabrielle was pulled from her sleep by a familiar voice. She opened her eyes to the light of one lone candle and the moonlight shining through the window. Xena was agitated in her sleep. She repeated the word "No." as she turned her head from side to side.
Gabrielle got out of bed. She went to a nearby basin and wet a cloth.
"No!" Xena bolted to an upright position. Gabrielle dropped the cloth and placed her hands on Xena's shoulders to steady her.
"Xena. It's all right. You're having a bad dream."
Xena focused on Gabrielle's calming voice. "Gabrielle?"
"I'm here. Please, lie down. You'll tear your stitches."
The warrior was firmly in the grasp of a nightmare. "Too much death…too much."
Gabrielle reached for the dropped cloth. Taking it in hand, she wiped Xena's face.
"Xena, remember the lake you took me to? Remember how the sun shined on our faces and how the wind blew gently through your hair? And how quiet it was? How peaceful? Hold to that feeling. Rest there. In peace." Gabrielle stroked Xena's brow. "Rest."
"How is she?"
Gabrielle turned her gaze to the door. Cyrene stood at the threshold. Gabrielle wondered how long the innkeeper had been there. "She had a nightmare. It usually only takes her a little while to calm afterwards."
Cyrene's gaze rested upon her troubled daughter. "She's had them before?"
"Yes, often enough."
"She told you this?"
"No…when I'm with her… She doesn't remember or if she does she never said anything to me."
Cyrene tried to make sense of Gabrielle's explanation. "When you are with her? In her bed?"
Only by Cyrene's question did Gabrielle realize how open she had been. She did not shy away from the truth. "Yes."
"Gabrielle. Who are you to her?"
Gabrielle shifted her regard to her Lord. "I don't know. Not really."
The devoted care the young healer gave Xena took new meaning. "Who is she to you?"
Gabrielle took Xena's hand. She whispered. "I love her."
Cyrene sat down on the edge of Gabrielle's bed. "How does a healer come to be in the Conqueror's bed?"
Gabrielle kept her eyes upon Xena as she shared her history. "I was brought to Corinth as a slave. Targon, her administrator, purchased me to serve the Conqueror's household. I was nearly starved and had been abused by the slavers. Xena saw me in service and ordered that I be cared for. She kept me safe. I'm a bit of a storyteller. The staff enjoyed them enough that Jared asked me to entertain the wounded soldiers after Gaugan's revolt. Because I wanted to do more for the men than tell stories, I asked Xena permission to apprentice with Dalius. She agreed. While working in the infirmary there was a sickness and I was not immune to it. When Xena learned that I had fallen ill she took me into her rooms and cared for me. It was then that I learned that she held me in her regard."
Cyrene reached a conclusion consistent with Xena's reputation. "She took you to her bed."
"No." Gabrielle answered Cyrene candidly, "I pulled away from her. She had been very gentle, but because of what had been done to me before entering her household, the thought of being with anyone frightened me. With time I realized that I did want to be with her and that I trusted her to not hurt me."
"How long have you been with her?"
"I entered the Conqueror's household a year and a half ago. We have known each other intimately for a number of moons."
"So, she has been good to you."
"Yes. I wish I understood her better." Gabrielle looked down at her never more vulnerable Lord.
Cyrene contemplated the woman who lay on the bed. "As a child, Xena had a mind of her own. She could outdo the boys, including her older brother Toris, and she had little interest in being with the girls. She never felt she belonged. Her one constant playmate was Lyceus. He worshipped her. Nothing Xena did was wrong. And Xena protected him." Cyrene did not hide the pride in her voice. "The Gods help anyone who tried to hurt Lyceus."
Gabrielle touched upon the defining moment of Xena's life. "When he died?"
"I blamed her." Cyrene sobered. "All the people of Amphipolis who lost sons, brothers and husbands did. She was left alone to deal with the pain. Instead of compassion, she learned distrust and hatred. The people of Amphipolis… I must take responsibility for creating the Conqueror."
"I don't believe she blames you."
"It would have been better if she had turned her pain and anger against me than against the world."
"I'm sorry." Cyrene's sorrow swept aside any disfavor Gabrielle might have once felt for the woman.
Cyrene got up. "She seems to be resting well. You should try to get some sleep, too."
Xena awoke to Dalius' touch upon her brow. She looked about. "Where's Gabrielle?"
The healer accounted for his apprentice. "With your mother getting something to eat."
"Waiting for your orders, Your Majesty."
Xena was determined to continue her course of righting a past wrong. "Get Jared… Dalius, I only want to see him. No one else including you."
Dalius felt a rising sense of dread though he could not reason why. "Yes, Your Majesty."
Dalius found Jared, Cyrene and Gabrielle at a table in the center of the inn. Gabrielle stood up upon seeing him. Dalius raised his hand to stay her and the General, who too had gone to his feet.
"The Conqueror has awakened." He directed himself to Jared. "General, she's asked to see you."
Jared moved forward, followed by Gabrielle. Dalius calls out Gabrielle's name. "The Conqueror will see only the General."
Jared looked back to his stricken ward. He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Always business first with her. It won't be long."
Dalius was not so confident.
Xena took inventory of her body. Her hand glided down her side. She swept away her blanket and looked at the bandages. She moved her body to the left, feeling the tightness of her stitches. She leaned back and stretched her legs. Her muscles welcomed the exercise. She was lucky that she had only one near mortal wound. Whoever led the raiders would regret the arrogance of his men. If they had kept their focus she would now be in Tartarus.
Jared entered Xena's room. He felt a great relief in seeing her awake.
"It's unfair Xena. Cyrene is blaming me for your latest scratch."
"Mother always liked you, Jared." Xena offered no sympathy. "Get use to it."
Jared smiled. "It's good to see you."
"Same here." Xena needed to assess the state of the realm. "What do we know?"
"We got our hands on one of the raiding parties. It was all planned. Take you out here in the field while Vacaou moves his force toward Corinth."
The Conqueror heard enough. "Jared, help me up."
"I will not let that coward claim my throne."
"I'm sure I know what Dalius said. By the time we reach Corinth, I'll be as good as new."
The General anticipated, "Will you challenge Vacaou?"
"If it saves more bloodshed, yes." The Conqueror's fire was burning bright. "Do you doubt that I can cut the bastard down?"
"I will never doubt you."
"You're a good man. Now, my friend, help me up." Xena extended her arm.
Jared held Xena standing with an arm around her waist.
Xena gave her next order with a casualness that disguised her conflicted soul. "There is one more thing. I've granted Gabrielle her freedom. Give her a double stipend, a horse, and tell her she is free to take whatever supplies she needs in addition to her personal belongings."
Jared stilled. "She is leaving?"
Xena closed the discussion. "She is no longer a member of my household."
Jared waited until he was alone with Gabrielle and Cyrene in the inn dining room. He handed Gabrielle a pouch filled with coin.
"This is for you. By order of the Conqueror you are to also have a horse, your belongings and whatever other supplies you need to begin a new life as a freewoman."
Dismayed, Gabrielle looked down at the heavy weight in her hands. "Xena wants me to leave? What have I done wrong?"
Feeling helpless, seeking support, Jared glimpsed over Gabrielle's shoulder to where Cyrene stood. Cyrene's gaze was far from encouraging.
He answered Gabrielle as best as he could. "You've done nothing wrong. The Conqueror has kept her word and granted you your freedom."
"Did she say she wanted me to stay?"
Jared was curt, hoping to cut short Gabrielle's objections. "No."
Gabrielle was willing to renounce her new status. "What if I don't want my freedom?"
Jared took Gabrielle by her shoulders. "You are free, Gabrielle."
"Others have stayed and served her. Why can't I?"
"She said you are no longer a member of her household."
"There must be a place for me somewhere…" Gabrielle pleaded, tears falling freely down her cheek.
Cyrene stepped up. "Gabrielle told me she is a member of the Royal Guard. Jared, as general you must have some authority or are you just a lap dog?"
Jared stiffened at Cyrene's characterization. His resolved was effectively shattered. "Lass, you are still a member of my command. I can arrange an escort to the eastern provinces where General Kasen leads the Third Army. His garrison can always use a healer. And you won't be totally among strangers. You know a number of men in the company of the Royal Guard jointly stationed there."
Gabrielle understood Jared could not offer her a place in Corinth. "Why is she doing this? I don't understand."
"Neither do I. This is not like the Conqueror I know."
Gabrielle turned to Cyrene. Cyrene offered. "Maybe it's because with you she's not the Conqueror."
Xena sat is a chair in her room. She looked out into the clear night keeping company with the stars.
She responded to a knock on the door. "Come."
Cyrene entered. "Daughter, may I come in?"
"Jared tells me that you are determined to leave tomorrow."
Xena was dispassionate. "I have an assassin to deal with."
Xena immediately regretted the wounds of war she carried back into Amphipolis. "Mother, I'm sorry. I didn't want you to see me like this."
"It wasn't your choice, was it? To think my daughter had to be near death for her to be brought to me." Cyrene paused to calm her emotions. "I sent you away. Our separation is my doing."
Xena broached their greatest sorrow. "Lyceus…
"I don't blame you for Lyceus' death. Not anymore." Cyrene sat beside her daughter. "I'm sorry I didn't try to help you grieve him. I denied you and for that I will never forgive myself."
"You loved him."
"And I love you."
Xena felt a press in her heart.
Cyrene placed her hand over her daughter's. "Will you come back to Amphipolis for a visit?"
"If I'm welcomed."
"You are." Cyrene affirmed.
Xena offered her mother a slight smile. "I'll be back."
Cyrene leaned back in her chair. "Daughter, there is something else, someone else I want to talk to you about."
Xena had hoped to avoid a confrontation. "Gabrielle?"
"You have every reason in the world not to trust others. But, I believe you are wrong to deny her."
"What has she said to you?"
"It's not what she said. I've watched her care for you. She fought to save your life. Xena, she loves you."
Xena granted, "I know she does."
Cyrene continued to persuade. "The only thing that will make her happy is to be with you. Don't send her away."
Xena noted the obvious. "Gabrielle and I are very different."
"Yes, in some ways you are. That might be why you should have her in your life."
"She's a freewoman."
Cyrene chastised. "Not free enough to ride to Corinth with you."
Xena attempted to justify herself. "Court would not be kind to her."
"Don't underestimate her. She's won over your Royal Guard."
"Because she is one with them. They come from the same peasant stock."
"Like you." Cyrene correctly observed.
"Yes, like me. But that isn't Court. The nobles will see me in Tartarus. They have little or no honor. Greed is their mother's milk. They will target Gabrielle in order to get to me. It's not the first time that's happen."
"You are the Conqueror. Make that reputation count for something."
"Reputation?" Xena could not help but smile.
Cyrene responded dryly. "Well deserved, I'm told."
Xena spoke frankly. "My reputation didn't stop Caesar or Vacaou from challenging Greece. It doesn't stop attempts upon my life and if she stands with me, it won't stop Gabrielle from meeting Hades before she turns another summer."
"You deserve to be loved. Lyceus was right to stand by you. So is Gabrielle."
Xena was firm. "I won't change my mind."
"Don't think, Xena. You can always find reasons to walk away. Let yourself feel."
"I do feel, Mother. Believe me. If I had no heart I wouldn't think twice about Gabrielle." Xena turned her gaze to the stars. "Leaving her has not been an easy decision."
Cyrene squeezed Xena's hand, recapturing her daughter's attention. "You do love her then?"
"I have never spoken those words to her."
"Your silence doesn't change the truth."
"The truth?" Xena's heart was breaking. "The truth is that for a brief moment in time the Fates allowed me to believe that I could turn my back on the bitterness of life and know bliss. A traitorous Lord and the cold blade of his henchman proved me wrong. The truth is that I've hurt Gabrielle and I will regret the harm I've done her until the day I die."
Cyrene stood up and leaned over to her daughter. She kissed Xena on the cheek. "You are too noble for your own good."
"I love you, Mother." Xena was eternally grateful for the chance to once again express her love.
"Stay another day. Greece will wait."
Cyrene addressed what she believed was a contributing factor to her daughter's impatience. "Gabrielle leaves in the morning. You will not see her, and you and I can visit."
Xena knew an additional day of rest would do her good. "All right. One day."
"Thank you. Now get some sleep." Cyrene looked out the window. "The stars will still be in the sky tomorrow."
Xena did not give voice to her thought. 'But will I be alive to see them?'
A fortnight had passed since the Conqueror returned to Corinth and taken Vacaou down in a fight of honor. Retaking her throne had been a remarkably simple affair. The Conqueror could have marched all her forces to Corinth and made it an easy slaughter, but she refused to place Greece in a vulnerable position to foreign invasion. With the Conqueror's Royal Guard and First Army standing behind her as witness, Vacaou met her in the battlefield. His militia stood arrogantly with him, imagining they would soon take the highly coveted position of the Guardsmen. The terms of engagement were simple - winner takes all. The loser lost her or his life, and forfeited the lives of their immediate family. The Conqueror's victory was assured by the terms. No harm would come to Cyrene.
Vacaou, an excellent fighter in his own right, misjudged the Conqueror's ability to heal. She was not in the mood for game playing and Vacaou died within ten strikes of their blades. The Conqueror took him to his knees and removed his head. Afterwards, she turned her back on Vacaou's militia and walked over to where Jared waited. Her order was simple. "Disarm and exile." Jared knew that Vacaou's men were alive only because Xena had her fill of death that day.
Corinth was at peace, though it was an unnerving peace. The people at the upper echelons feared the Conqueror's wrath. Many had done little or nothing to protest Vacaou's attempt to overthrow the government. The nobles experienced the Conqueror's disdain by her disregard of Court. She spent much of her time in her private suite recovering from both the physical and emotional toll of Caesar and Vacaou.
Jared entered the Conqueror's meeting chamber. Xena stood at the balcony looking out into the night. He was struck by the lonely image.
"Yes, my friend."
"I can find her, bring her back to you."
Xena was realistic. "For how long? Caesar will rebuild his army and then he will come again. And, if not Caesar there will be someone else."
Jared advocated for his ward. "She's not afraid."
"She should be."
"The lass loves you."
Xena never doubted Gabrielle's love. Gabrielle's heart was an unbounded vessel of which she had been the grateful beneficiary. She wished Gabrielle a more worthy recipient of her love. There were many willing to be so chosen. "Gabrielle will love again."
"But will you?"
Xena turned to Jared. "One of us has to make the hard decisions."
Jared noted that Xena did not argue with his statement. "I've been with you from the beginning. It's time you forgive yourself."
Xena was more concerned with vouchsafing the present and the future. "No more innocents will die because of me."
"It's a dangerous world. Did you ever think she may be safer with you than without you?"
"No, Jared. No one is safe with me."
The General knew better. "I argue differently."
Xena smiled. "Thank you…. But, no." She went to her desk and poured two small cups of port. She handed one cup to Jared and kept the second for herself. "I do ask one thing, although I don't think it's necessary."
"What is that?"
"Keep her safe."
"I have done my best." Jared was relieved to have Xena's explicit permission.
"I can't ask anything more of you."
Jared could not help but try one last time. "If you change your mind…."
Xena drank the port in a quick swallow. "I won't."
END of PART TWO
Riding boldly, the Conqueror led a contingent into the Third Army's garrison. She dismounted in one easy motion.
"Of all the idiotic things…" Xena indulged in a little playful ribbing.
"My Liege." Jared dismounted, attempting to keep pace with the Conqueror.
"Don't say a word, Jared. Not one word."
"Please, My Liege."
"Are you asking to be hurt?"
General Kasen approached. He welcomed the Conqueror. "Your Majesty."
Xena did not hide her smile. "General, how are things?"
"Well, Your Majesty." The General noted the gash on the Conqueror's upper arm. His discomfort was obvious. "You're bleeding."
"That's very perceptive of you. Where's your healer?"
Kasen looked over to Jared, pleading for unspoken assistance. Still relishing her trump of Jared, Xena did not catch the exchange.
Jared attempted to intercede. "My Liege."
Xena turned to him. "I will kill you, Jared. I swear to Ares I will."
Jared was sober. "The healer, My Liege."
Xena's good humor slipped away. She warily studied the man before her. "You didn't?"
"It was by her request."
"A garrison at the eastern border? That is your idea of keeping her safe?"
Kasen tried to assuage the Conqueror's criticism. "Your Majesty, Gabrielle's safety has been a priority of all the men, both the Royal Guard and the Third army."
Xena was livid. "Shut-up Kasen, that's unless you want to follow Jared to the grave."
"My Lord." Gabrielle's gentle voice interrupted the exchange. "Allow me to care for your wound."
The Conqueror's gaze shifted to the young woman. She was silenced by the request. Gabrielle was aware that it was now the Conqueror who was uncomfortable. She chose to redirect the attention of those present. She bowed slightly. "General Jared, it is good to see you, Sir."
Jared appreciated Gabrielle's ease in managing the moment. "You are looking well, lass."
"I am. This has been a good station for me. General Kasen has made sure that all my needs have been met."
Kasen said nothing though his gratitude for Gabrielle's praise was large. He knew that the young healer was the only one in a position to diffuse the Conqueror's anger.
Jared continued the banter, buying time. "Almost didn't recognize you. You've cut your hair."
Gabrielle swept a self-conscious hand through her tresses, now cut back in wisps that ceased at her neck. "It's easier to take care of this way."
"It becomes you." Jared complemented.
"Thank you, Sir." Gabrielle redirected her attention to Xena. "I beg your pardon, My Lord. May I show you to the infirmary?"
Xena found her voice. "Lead on, girl."
"Yes, My Lord."
Gabrielle walked ahead of Xena, guiding her to a small building near the soldiers' barracks.
Jared watched them leave. "Kasen, we are two lucky men."
Upon entering the infirmary, Gabrielle directed Xena to a chair. "Please, sit here."
Xena complied wordlessly, keeping her eyes forward. Gabrielle poured water into a basin and approached. Sitting beside Xena, she washed the cut.
"The wound is deep. It will need a few stitches."
"I was not told that you were coming."
"You mean warned." Xena looked up briefly then turned her gaze to her hands resting on her lap. "I'm visiting the provinces. This detour was unexpected. The closer we got near here the more distracted Jared got. I thought he swallowed his tongue. Now I know why."
Gabrielle maintained a cordial address. "How did this happen?"
"We were hunting and a stag was not as dead as Jared thought it was. It unexpectedly rose to escape. Jared was in its way. I cut its throat. Jared accidentally cut me. It was all very stupid."
"The unexpected can be painful."
"Yes, I'm sorry to say it can."
Gabrielle set the basin aside and got up to retrieve a needle and thread. She returned, sitting once again beside Xena. "You defeated Vacaou."
"Greece has had seven moons of peace." Xena shook her head. "Greece defeats one threat only to prepare for another. It never ends."
"There has been some trouble near the border."
"So, I've learned." Xena shared, "I may have reason to visit here again."
Gabrielle understood that no matter Jared or Kasen's wishes, she ultimately served at the pleasure of the Conqueror. "If my presence is not desired, I will leave."
Xena refused the selfless offer. "Gabrielle, I will not drive you from your home. We will be here for only the night. I will do my best not to cause you any discomfort."
"Thank you, My Lord."
Gabrielle began to stitch Xena's wound. Xena bore the pricks of pain easily. She harbored a different pain that cried to be addressed.
"You say you are happy?"
Gabrielle was guarded. "I have reason to be grateful. I have many brothers."
Xena could not help but ask. "Any that you love?"
Gabrielle paused in her stitching. She composed her answer carefully. "There is one who I have become close to. He has told me that he loves me."
The thought of Gabrielle moving on with her life, finding love helped Xena cope with her loss. "Good. You should have love."
"Yes, My Lord."
"We are alone, Gabrielle. You don't have to be formal with me."
"My Lord, I believe it is best if I am always formal with you."
"As you wish."
Xena fell silent. Gabrielle completed the stitches. She dressed the wound, wrapping a bandage around Xena's arm.
"Is the bandage comfortable?"
Xena moved her arm to test it. "Yes. It will do. Thank you."
Xena got to her feet and walked to the threshold of the infirmary. She stopped and looked back. "Gabrielle, I wish you every happiness."
Gabrielle watched in silence as Xena stepped away.
Xena proceeded toward the center courtyard where Jared waited.
"Jared, we leave in the morning."
"So soon, My Liege?"
Xena stifled Jared's optimism. "A soldier has earned Gabrielle's favor. Find out who he is. Make sure he's an honorable man."
"Do you wish a report?"
"No, I don't even want to know his name." Xena offered her friend a wry smile. "I may accidentally kill him if I do."
Jared responded in kind. "That won't prevent me from doing you the favor."
Xena swept away her renewed loneliness and offered Jared an appreciative slap on the arm. "She looks good, doesn't she?"
"A sight for sore eyes."
"Her weapons training has made a mark on her. She's strong and nimble."
"Kasen assures me that the lass can take care of herself. The men are fond of her. She has many tutors."
"I'm not surprised." Xena took a cleansing breath. "Now tell me what reports have we from the borders?"
Jared offered a concise summation. "The raiding parties don't seem to have rhyme or reason. They pillage and run."
Xena had exchanged correspondence with her counterpart. "King Okal swears he is not a part of this. Any indication otherwise?"
"No, maybe someone is hoping to provoke a war between Greece and Persia."
Xena observed, "When it come to power, triangles are dangerous things. There is always the fear that two will join against the third and if not that, there is the chance of focusing completely on one and losing sight of the other. It fuels paranoia.
"I think its time we break open the triangle and make things more interesting. I'll contact Lao Ma and ask her to make her presence known on her southern border. That should keep Okal honest. It may also motivate him to grant my request that he improve his border patrols.
"Redouble our spies in Rome. I want to know all of Caesar's troop movements as well as what is happening in the Senate. Kasen will need to step up his patrols. We will offer the local merchants an escort while they travel between villages. Villagers are welcomed to take advantage of the escorts for safe passage. Send messages to Generals Paulos, Regan and Dymas. I want them in Corinth by the fortnight. We will show our forces without tipping our hand. Greece will do what it must to stop a new war."
Though held throughout the night in the arms of a man who freely declared his love for her, Gabrielle spent the passing candlemarks with her thoughts solely upon a woman who refused to admit love for anyone. Unable to quell her need to learn more than what she was able to ascertain from her encounter with her Lord, Gabrielle sought out the General.
The Conqueror's contingent gathered at the center courtyard as they prepared to leave.
"Good morning, lass."
Gabrielle did not hesitate. "I need to know. Was she very angry?"
"No, she was just surprised to see you."
"How has she been?"
"Walk with me." Jared guided Gabrielle away from the congregating men. "The battle with Vacaou took a lot out of her. But, as you can see with your own eyes, she's mended well."
Gabrielle knew how best to assess Xena's mindset. "How is she with others?"
Jared responded freely. "She is spending more time by herself. She's a little more patient. Heads don't roll as quickly as they use to."
"Is she at peace?"
"I wish that day would come, but I don't believe Xena will ever know peace. Too much has happened."
Gabrielle was left to question their past. "There were times when we were together that I believed she was happy."
"She was." Jared assured. "I could see the change. Someday she may have that again."
Gabrielle paused and looked squarely at her companion. "Jared, is there anyone in her life?"
Jared held Gabrielle in his regard. He could be nothing less than honest. "In her bed? A few have come and gone. In her life? No."
Gabrielle remained silent.
Jared whispered. "I'm told you have a suitor."
"Yes, I do." Gabrielle began to walk again.
Jared kept pace. "Inis seems like a fine young man. Is he good to you?"
"He loves me." Gabrielle gazed toward the breaking dawn. "I thought I could grow to love him." She turned to Jared. "Why do we love who we do?"
"I don't know. That is a question only Aphrodite can answer."
"I hoped Xena would grow to love me. I know now you cannot will yourself to love. No matter how much you may want to." Gabrielle left unspoken the companion thought that neither could she will herself not to love.
Jared would not betray the Conqueror's confidence. He remained silent as they circled back to the camp. The General placed his hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "We leave in a candlemark. I hope next time you and I can have a longer visit."
Gabrielle covered his hand with her own. "Please take care of yourself and Xena."
Jared vowed. "I will, lass."
The Conqueror and the Royal Guard traveled from Corinth to the east. For the past two moons the raiders' continued to cross the border from Persia. Relations with King Okal were strained at best. Kasen had done a commendable job but the Third Army alone could not cover all the territory. Collateral damage had been minimized; still, the lack of security was intolerable to Greece.
Xena tried not to think about the fact that she would be seeing Gabrielle again. She focused on her goals of neutralizing the raiders, diffusing the rising political discord and returning to Corinth as quickly as possible. Given that her sleep was restless at best, she chose to drive her men through the night in order to arrive at the garrison by mid-day. The sooner she saw Gabrielle, the sooner she could defuse her mounting unease and move on with the task at hand.
It was a candlemark past dawn when the Conqueror and the Royal Guard crossed paths with a company of soldiers in the process of breaking camp. The soldiers were new to the Conqueror's army, recruited by Lieutenant Osric for the purpose of reinforcing the east. Osric, a former Captain in the Fourth Army, had recently received his commission in Corinth. He was one of General Paulos' favorites. The Conqueror never judged the quality of an officer by the recommendation of one. She made a point of making them earn their accolades under the leadership of all her generals. She was displeased to see that they had not yet reached their destination.
Osric, on horseback, greeted the Conqueror. "Good morning, My Liege."
"Lieutenant, why aren't you at General Kasen's garrison?"
"We were delayed by raiders, My Liege."
"Two. We lost a third man due to an incident."
The Conqueror was troubled by the loss of life. "What kind of incident?"
Osric explained indifferently. "He was killed by a woman who claimed he tried to rape her."
The Conqueror did not like either the nature of the incident of Osric's attitude. "When did you and your men find time for a diversion?"
"We didn't, My Liege. She was traveling from a local village to the garrison. We invited her and her escort to join us."
"Escort?" Xena's unease deepened.
Osric continued, "Two men of the Royal Guard."
Jared shifted in his saddle. It did not go unnoticed by the Conqueror.
Xena encouraged the Lieutenant, her voice low and calculated. "Go on."
Osric took no notice of the rising tension in both the Conqueror and Jared. "Your Guardsmen vouched for her, said she was employed as a healer by General Kasen."
"You did not believe them?"
The Lieutenant smiled. "I believe they protected her to secure her favor for themselves."
Xena had heard enough. "Where is she?"
"We have her under arrest. I would have exercised the appropriate field justice, but the Guardsmen claimed she was under your protection and insisted that only you could proclaim her sentence. I thought if she and the Guardsmen were stupid enough to falsely name you, she should have the benefit of your unique justice."
Xena dismounted and walked into the camp. She paused, scanning its inhabitants. Osric and Jared dismounted and followed behind her.
"Show me." Xena demanded.
Osric pointed. "That tent, My Liege."
Xena looked toward the direction in which he pointed. Standing outside the tent was one of Osric's men. Sitting against a nearby tree, their sights fixed to the tent were the two Royal Guards.
"She is a beguiling woman." Osric observed, "Your Guardsmen can't seem to keep their eyes off her."
Xena backhanded Osric across the face. Without looking at the effect of her strike she made her way toward the tent. From a quick step she entered a run.
Jared glared at the Lieutenant. "You better pray to the Gods that no harm has come to the girl, because if there has, I will cut you down myself."
Upon seeing the Conqueror approach, the two Guardsmen, Brogan and Hamish, immediately stood at attention. The Conqueror pushed aside Osric's guard and entered the tent. Brogan and Hamish took their rightful positions outside the entrance, displacing their rival.
Gabrielle heard the tent canvas swept aside. She could see a tall, dark figure approach. Her eyes had difficulty adjusting to the light. She heard her name spoken by the one voice she longed for. She felt herself taken into an embrace. She took in the familiar strong, sweet musk scent of her Lord.
Xena had difficulty maintaining a steady voice. "Are you hurt?"
Gabrielle shook her head. She could no longer arrest her tears.
"You're safe now. I'm taking you out of here." Xena gently released Gabrielle. She captured the younger woman's gaze. "If you feel strong enough to ride, we'll be at Kasen's garrison in four candlemarks."
Gabrielle wiped away her tears. "I want to go."
"Can you stand?"
"Then let's get out of here." The Conqueror helped Gabrielle up. She supported the younger woman by wrapping her arm around Gabrielle's waist.
Outside of the tent, the Conqueror gave her orders. "Get the horses. We're leaving, now!"
The Guardsmen did not hesitate to carry out the command. Jared approached.
Xena reassured him. "She's all right. I want to be at the garrison by mid-day."
Jared looked back to the disgraced officer standing with three Guardsmen at his side. "What about Osric?"
Xena's hate filled eyes caught sight of him. "He lives for now. Brogan and Hamish are coming with us. Leave an escort for Osric. I wouldn't want him to get lost. Send a messenger to Kasen. I want my quarters ready by the time we arrive."
"Yes, My Liege."
Upon reaching Argo, Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "Ride with me. If only for the first candlemark."
Xena mounted Argo and then guided Gabrielle onto the saddle in front of her.
They rode for a half candlemark in silence. Xena held Gabrielle firmly to her. Gabrielle's emotions slowly settled.
She looked back to Xena. "Please don't hurt Osric. He's not a member of the Royal Guard. He didn't know who I was."
Xena had no sympathy for the soldier. "Gabrielle, Osric's lack of discipline led to one of his men attacking you. He then discounted the word and honor of two of my Royal Guard and in my presence, with his own tongue, he showed a lack of respect for a woman of Greece. He will learn that there are consequences for his poor judgment and his arrogance."
Gabrielle insisted. "I don't want anyone else to die because of me."
The fact that Gabrielle had killed struck Xena for the first time. "You killed in self-defense. That pig of a soldier forfeited his life the moment he laid his hands on you."
Osric had made a point of describing the intricacies of a military tribunal to Gabrielle. She dreaded the prospect of having to defend herself a second time. "Will I stand trial?"
"No, justice has been served."
Gabrielle leaned back against Xena, relaxing for the first time in days.
Xena was intent of assessing Gabrielle's escort. She questioned easily, not betraying the fact that the Guardsmen's careers depended on Gabrielle's answers. "Did Brogan and Hamish serve you well?"
"Yes." Gabrielle was grateful for their care. "They did everything they could to stop Osric."
"Why weren't they with you when you were attacked?"
"Curan." Gabrielle shivered at the memory of him. "The man's name was Curan. He and I went for a walk to gather firewood. There was no reason to believe he would try to hurt me."
"How did you kill him?"
Gabrielle bowed her head.
Xena mined her knowledge of Gabrielle's training and owned weaponry. The young healer normally carried neither her short sword nor her staff. "A knife?"
Xena grieved. She hated the price exacted by the Fates for Gabrielle to secure her life. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle sighed deeply. She spoke in an anguished whisper. "How can you stand having blood on your hands?"
The Conqueror stiffened. "It never really washes off, does it?"
Gabrielle concurred. "No, it doesn't."
They rode together for the better of a candlemark before Gabrielle felt ready to ride separately. Xena ensured that either she or Jared traveled beside Gabrielle throughout the balance of their journey.
The messenger had given General Kasen a thorough briefing. He began to mentally list whom he would name to replace Osric as Lieutenant. Osric's career, if not his life, was at its end. Both the Conqueror and Gabrielle's quarters were made ready. He ensured that any sleeping arrangements chosen by them would be accommodated in comfort.
The Conqueror's contingent was a half-candlemark from the garrison when an advance party was dispatched to request that a bath be prepared.
Xena dismounted and silently helped Gabrielle to her feet from her own mount.
Kasen greeted the party. "My Liege. Gabrielle, I regret that a Fourth Army soldier proved unworthy of his commission."
Xena allowed Kasen's blatant effort to disown responsibility for the episode to go without comment. "I want Osric demoted to a foot soldier and sent back to the Fourth Army. Name his successor and see to it that you reexamine every man Osric recruited. I do not trust that my standard has been upheld. Those that pass your inspection require a proper orientation."
Kasen was happy to send Osric back to Paulos. "It will be done."
Xena led Gabrielle forward. "I don't want us to be disturbed."
"Yes, My Liege."
Within the Conqueror's quarters, a table had been set, resplendent with food and drink. The bath steamed in the far corner partially concealed behind a screen.
Xena was cordial. "Why don't you wash up? I asked for a change of your clothes and your robe to be brought from your quarters."
"Thank you." Gabrielle's gratitude was sincere although the circumstances she found herself in made her circumspect.
She walked behind the screen, grateful to have her privacy. The events of the day had been overwhelming. The relief of being released from Osric's custody was supplanted by the conflicting emotions she felt in finding herself once again in Xena's embrace. She felt safe riding with the Conqueror; certain no harm could be done to her. She felt Xena's compassion as gentle words were exchanged. She also felt her passion for Xena. Three-quarters of a year had passed since their last intimacy and still, Gabrielle could not deny that Xena moved her deeply.
She had her choice of suitors at the garrison. Inis was handsome; he wore his dark hair tied back. Six summers older than Gabrielle, of medium built and slightly less stature than the Conqueror, he had proven himself to be a skillful soldier. Considerate and intelligent, Inis engaged Gabrielle's mind. That he tried to see the world as good and discounted the power of darkness affirmed her heart. There was no faulting him, and yet, Gabrielle felt no great passion for him, only tender affection. Being with Inis was enough until the truth of her compromise was placed against the light of authentic love. What she had shared with Inis paled against the brilliance of being with Xena.
Xena removed her armor. She poured two cups of wine. With them in hand she walked toward the screen. Mid-distance she stopped. Rethinking her actions she returned to the table and rested one cup upon it. She sat down and drank the sweet wine from the second cup, taking comfort in the warm sensation that traveled through her body.
Having finished her bath, Gabrielle chose not to dress and donned her robe. She walked into the center of the room.
Xena welcomed her. "Better?"
Gabrielle retied her robe as she gathered her thoughts. She needed to know what Xena expected of her. "May I ask you a question?"
"Where am I to sleep?"
Xena was surprised by the query. "Where ever you wish to sleep."
"And this is because…" Gabrielle waved her hand across the room.
Xena had not expected the sincerity of her hospitality to be questioned. "I realize I can't make up for the way one of my men treated you. I thought I could at least make your homecoming a little more comfortable."
Gabrielle approached the table. She picked up a morsel of feta cheese and placed it into her mouth. The tangy taste of it brought a smile to her face. "I am hungry."
"Good." Xena smiled.
Gabrielle sat down and prepared a plate of food for herself. "Thank you for Osric."
"I don't think he's going to feel grateful."
Gabrielle took hold of her necklace. "He had second thoughts when he saw my medallion."
Xena judged the soldier stupid. "Osric didn't think hard enough. I'm glad the medallion helped."
"I didn't know what it meant until Hamish spoke up."
"It means that no one can judge you. I have reserved that right for myself."
Gabrielle understood that the medallion might have saved her life. The knowledge of always being subject to Xena's justice brought a new sense of security. She realized that in spite of their history she still trusted her Lord. "The Royal Guard is held to a higher standard."
"Yes, they are."
"I've noticed the difference." Gabrielle smiled. "Would you laugh at me if I said they were more gentlemen like?"
"Not at all." Xena took pride in elaborating upon Gabrielle's observation. "They take pride in themselves and they have learned the importance of respecting others. They are all men who can think independently but also follow orders. Hamish and Brogan knew that it would be suicide to draw their swords against Osric. They convinced him that the risk of being wrong was too great and then they made sure nothing happened to you until I arrived. Did you know they were outside your tent?"
"Yes, they promised not to let anyone near me."
Xena decided the two Guardsmen deserved the realm's gratitude. "You can determine a fair reward for their efforts."
Gabrielle knew them both well enough to decide what would please them. "Hamish is pining to visit his home village. There is a girl there that he is courting."
"A proper leave with pay then."
"And Brogan has been wanting a new saddle."
Gabrielle continued to eat. Xena joined her, eating sparingly in what was, to her relief, a comfortable silence. Gabrielle leaned back against the chair. Her body slacked.
Xena's concern rose. "Is everything all right?"
Weary, Gabrielle admitted, "I didn't get much sleep. I am tired."
"If you wish, I will escort you to your quarters."
Gabrielle glanced over to the tent entrance. The aloneness that awaited her could not compare to the company she currently enjoyed. "I don't want to be alone."
Xena did not waver in her courtesy. "I'll ask Jared to send your young man to you."
Uncertain, Gabrielle cast her eyes down to her lap. "I… We are not seeing each other any more."
"I'm sorry." Xena genuinely felt for Gabrielle's loss.
Gabrielle found Xena's gentle regard. "It was my choice. I didn't love him." She steadied her doubt before continuing. "Will you stay with me, here?"
Xena nodded. "For as long as you wish."
"That could be a long time."
"I haven't slept in two days. I'm not in a hurry."
Gabrielle stood up and went back behind the screen. She removed her robe and dressed in a nightshirt. She then entered the main room.
Xena stood up. "Why don't you go on to bed? I need to wash up and change."
Gabrielle went to the Conqueror's bed. She slid under the blankets. Xena took a quick bath in the lukewarm water and dressed in her own nightshirt. Upon entering the main room she walked to a collection of pillows and rugs near a far corner and proceeded to make herself comfortable for sleep. Gabrielle observed silently. Surprised and disappointed, yet grateful for the consideration that Xena's action conveyed.
"Sleep well, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's response caught in her throat. She did not know to whom she was speaking to, whether the Conqueror or Xena. It seemed not to matter, because she loved both. Her fatigue great, Gabrielle fell quickly to sleep. Xena stayed awake and allowed herself the luxury of watching Gabrielle in slumber. With time Morpheus claimed her as well.
She could feel Curan's rough hands upon her and smell his sour breath. He repeated variations of the same argument again and again. 'You need a good man. I'll show you what the Conqueror could never give you.' Gabrielle had been surprised that a new soldier to the realm would have known of her brief relationship with the Conqueror. Her rebuffs progressed from mild to vehement. In turn, he became less a seducer, very much a rapist. Frustrated, he slapped her across the face in an effort to use brute force where words had failed. She fell backward to the ground disorientated. Towering over her, he taunted. 'You weren't good enough to be the Conqueror's whore.' Those words triggered a long dormant rage in Gabrielle. Her fear and her anger fueled her next act. She grabbed a dagger from her boot and plunged it into his gut. Curan's hands went to the dagger. He held them there as he fell to his knees. Gabrielle rolled away to avoid his fall. Once stationary, her eyes returned to him. He said nothing further. He held her gaze with an undisputable look of shock upon his face.
Gabrielle walked the garrison feeling the eyes of the men upon her. Their whispered insinuations and accusations echoed inside her mind. She had killed a soldier. Why had she not run back to the camp? Why had she aimed for a lethal wound instead of one that would have incapacitated? She was a murderer protected by the Conqueror. There were indeed benefits to being the Conqueror's whore.
Gabrielle woke with a start. The memory of the nightmare held in her consciousness. She looked over to where Xena slept. She sullied the Conqueror's reputation by association. No matter how noble Xena tried to be, she would never be given fair consideration, her motives always questioned. Xena had told Gabrielle as much when she lived in Corinth. Everyone measured justice differently. In their arguments Gabrielle thought she was in the right. Now, a benefactor of the Conqueror's sovereign rule, it was not as easy to discount the exercise of justice within the realm.
Xena awoke to find herself alone. Although she knew there could be numerous explanations for Gabrielle's absence, she chose to seek the young woman out. The camp was active. The soldiers she greeted responded with a cold, near hostile glare. None spoke a word to her. As she neared Gabrielle's quarters, Xena crossed paths with Jared.
"Jared, has something happened? I'm getting the sense that all is not well."
The General shared his army's resentment. "Maybe the men are having difficulty accepting Gabrielle's departure."
"Departure?" Xena was stunned. "What in Tartarus are you talking about?"
"She left early this morning."
"You let her leave?" Xena was incredulous. "What were you thinking?"
"Gabrielle is a freewoman. She said it was for the better." Jared was sharp. "I assumed she left by your request."
Xena felt a deep cut across her heart. "Is that what you think of me, that I would throw her out?"
Jared lost his patience. "I don't know what to expect from you when it comes to the lass. It would not have been the first time you turned her away."
Xena winced. "By the Gods I don't owe you an explanation, but I'll give you one anyway. Nothing happened between us. She bathed, ate and asked that I stay so she would not be alone as she slept. She slept on my bed and I slept on the floor."
"Then why did she leave?"
"I don't know!" Xena's passions overwhelmed her. "She has a mind of her own and I don't always understand it."
Jared's anger was pacified.
The same could not be said for Xena's. "Did she take a horse?"
"Yes, her Chestnut gelding."
"Which way did she go?"
"South." Jared offered. "It's been two candlemarks."
Xena ran to the stables. She saddled Argo as the groom stood at a distance. Jared entered the stables carrying a saddlebag and water skin. He strapped the saddlebag to Argo's tack.
"There are three day's rations in here, a flint and a few other things you might need."
Xena worked silently. Satisfied that all was in order, she mounted Argo.
Jared offered her the water skin. "Xena, I'm sorry I misjudged you."
Xena accepted the water skin and secured it. "I can't blame you for loving Gabrielle."
Ashamed of the injury he had caused, Jared tried to make amends. "I have loved you longer."
"I'll remember that. You're in charge until I return."
"Yes, My Liege." Jared watched Xena ride. He prayed the two women would find each other.
Xena rode Argo at full gallop until the steed was spent. She continued at a steady pace without break. Looking up at the sun she hoped Gabrielle would soon rest and eat her mid-day meal. Ahead, a small stream ran parallel with the road. Xena smiled in self-satisfaction, as well as relief, when she spied Gabrielle's gelding drinking at the stream.
Gabrielle sat, leaning against a tree, deep in thought. She was startled to hear footsteps. Looking up she saw the Conqueror standing before her.
"Do I get an explanation?"
Gabrielle turned her gaze away. "I can't stay at the garrison. I killed one of their own."
Xena noted that Gabrielle continued to hold to a formal recognition. She realized Gabrielle had not used either her name nor a formal address all of the previous day. She set aside her frustration.
"He was not a member of either the Royal Guard or the Third Army. You have more brothers in that garrison than you know. Right now they believe I sent you away. I don't mind being thought a bitch, but I do prefer that when I am it be deserved."
"They judge me."
Xena restrained her desire to embrace her former lover. She was left to comfort with words. "They judge you as compassionate and skilled, as someone worthy of their respect and admiration."
"Not all." Gabrielle felt her unworthiness.
Though it had been a long time since Xena saw Gabrielle's rare haunted countenance, she understood the source of it to be wounds Gabrielle bore from her years as a slave. "What happened this morning?"
"It wasn't this morning."
"Don't judge them by Osric's men."
"I don't care what he said." Xena would not allow Gabrielle's spirit to be held hostage. "He didn't know you. His intentions were obscene and he would have done whatever he could to break you."
Gabrielle looked away.
Xena had cause to look to herself for Gabrielle's leaving. "Is there another reason? Did I do something yesterday to hurt or offend you?"
Gabrielle reacted passionately to the question. With her eyes she caught and held Xena's gaze. "No, My Lord."
"Then go back to your home where you are wanted and needed." Xena offered a gentle smile. "If you don't, Jared will never forgive me. He's the best friend I have and I can't bear to lose him."
Gabrielle mirrored Xena's smile. "Do it for you?"
Xena went down to one knee, eye to eye with Gabrielle. She was earnest. "Please."
Gabrielle could not deny the sincerity of Xena's gesture nor of her petition. She could also not deny the tangible tug of her heart. "I will do as you request, My Lord."
The moment was infused with a familiar intimacy; one Xena had willed herself to live without after separating from her lover. Having the young healer so close was far more sweet than bitter. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
Xena walked toward the garrison's center court. The men of the Royal Guard and a number from the Third Army sat around the fire pit. One lone woman sat with them. To the left of Gabrielle sat Hamish, to the right Brogan. They were positions of honor. The two Guardsmen knew not only Gabrielle's and the Conqueror's gratitude, but also that of their fellow soldiers.
Gabrielle had been overwhelmed by the reception she received. Given the Conqueror's reaction upon learning of Gabrielle's departure, and a few carefully selected words from Jared, the men jointly came to the conclusion that Gabrielle's reason for leaving was independent of her perplexing relationship with the Conqueror. They were left to consider that Gabrielle might have left because a soldier had attempted to rape her and that she was forced to kill because of it. Each one felt the shame that supposition brought to their brotherhood.
Xena chose to stand beside Kasen who stood slightly removed from the gathering although still within earshot of Gabrielle's voice. A chorus of laughter rose from the group.
"It's good to have her back, My Liege."
The Conqueror mused. "I've missed her storytelling."
"Gabrielle has been writing many of her stories. I could ask her the favor of having copies transcribed for my library."
Xena observed. "You don't have a library."
Kasen shrugged. "I was hoping you would lend me space in the palace archives until I did."
Xena smiled. "It could be arranged. Thank you, General."
Another round of laughter rose from the men in response to a particularly pithy observation Gabrielle had made. Xena waited until the voices settled before pursuing her curiosity.
"Kasen, why did Gabrielle leave the garrison?"
"The local midwife is the mother of one of my men. Gabrielle arranged to spend a fortnight working with her "
Xena glance over to the woman who was a talented bard as well as a dedicated healer with renewed admiration. "Birthing babies. That isn't a skill she would get in an army garrison."
"Gabrielle continues to seek out opportunities to learn."
"You've done well by her. I've haven't thanked you."
Kasen did not need to be thanked. "She has given back far more than she's received. I only wish to see her happy."
"Look at her, General." Xena gestured with a nod of her head. "That looks like happiness to me."
"She's lonely, My Liege."
Xena was curious. "What happened with her young man?"
Kasen remembered the soldier's stark look. "All I know is that Inis came to me asking for a transfer soon after your last visit. It was obvious that the decision to separate was not his and that to see her every day and not be able to have her was more than he could stand. So, I granted his request."
"She has a great capacity for love."
"And an equal need to be loved." The General was compelled to argue for Gabrielle.
"Her brothers are making a fine show of their affection for her."
"With all due respect, My Liege, it is not their love that she waits for."
Xena paused. Nothing had changed; though the Fates had effectively struck a blow against her argument that Gabrielle was safest when away from her. "Kasen, if I didn't know better I would say that you and Jared are conspirators."
The General did not retreat. "If we are, our motives are honorable."
"I believe you presume too much on Gabrielle's part. She has been courteous to me, no more."
"Again, with all due respect My Liege, under the circumstances, I believe she must be given reason to hope that more could once again be possible between the two of you. You are the only one able to give her that hope."
Xena fought her desire to believe Kasen. "Let's listen to her story, General. I know it and it promises a happy ending. Something I will never be able to do."
Gabrielle had noted the Conqueror's presence throughout the evening. She took great pleasure in hearing the Conqueror's full-bodied laughter intermixed with the others. The Conqueror's smile was rare. To be the reason for it gave Gabrielle a deep satisfaction.
Xena waited until the gathering dispersed before making her way toward the center court. Gabrielle responded to the Conqueror's approach by walking toward her. They met, each having crossed equal distance.
"It was a fine evening, Gabrielle. I hope your doubts have been eased."
"I do feel better." Gabrielle spoke warmly. "Thank you for bringing me back."
Gabrielle looked forward to a new day. "I would be happy to accept any special request you might have for tomorrow night."
"I'm sorry to say that I won't be here to hear you. I leave in the morning."
The bard held her disappointment at bay. "Your Guard didn't tell me they were leaving."
"They don't know." Xena explained, "I thought they deserved an easy evening. They will get their orders when they wake."
"The border problem?"
"Yes. I've received new intelligence. It's time I make a personal visit to the suspected antagonist."
"Will it be dangerous?"
Xena smiled reassuringly. "Jared will be watching my back."
Gabrielle noted that her question had not received a direct answer. "I wish you a safe journey, My Lord."
Once again, Gabrielle's conscious decision not to call Xena by name cut sharply. The Conqueror nodded. Gabrielle offered a minor bow and took her leave.
Xena struggled with her conflicting emotions. With a hint of desperation she called out Gabrielle's name. Gabrielle paused and turned back to the Conqueror.
"Yes, My Lord?"
Gabrielle's formal address squelched whatever hopes Xena held for reconciliation. She had no words that could bridge the distance between them.
Gabrielle witnessed Xena steel herself. She wondered the cause. "Good night, My Lord."
Jared informed the Conqueror that preparations for departure had been completed. She looked over to Gabrielle who stood outside the infirmary. Throughout the morning many of the Royal Guard had made a point of going to her to say good-bye. For the moment, Gabrielle was alone. Taking advantage of the lull, the Conqueror led Argo toward the infirmary.
As the Conqueror approached she realized she had Gabrielle's complete regard.
Xena spoke softly, keeping her gaze gently upon Gabrielle. "Before I leave I want you to know that I regret sending you away from me. My reasons had nothing to do with your worthiness. I did not want to see you hurt. I still don't. If I could, if it would make a difference in your feelings for me, I would go back in time and change my decision. I beg your pardon for the way I treated you."
Gabrielle was stunned by Xena's admission. Given the Conqueror's polite and impassive conduct, nothing could have been more unexpected. Xena waited for a response. Gabrielle's silence was heartbreaking. The Conqueror offered a half-bow and turned away.
Gabrielle reached out, placing her hand upon Xena's arm. "Xena, it isn't too late to ask me to join you."
Xena contained her joy. "Are you sure?"
Gabrielle was earnest. "There is nothing I want more than to be with you."
"Then you will be with me."
Gabrielle did not care that they were in complete view of the garrison. She made her claim upon her Lord by stealing a kiss, embodied with all the ardor that she had held in check since seeing Xena two moons prior. Gabrielle's fervor overwhelmed any thought Xena may have had of gradually renewing the physical nature of their relationship. Her response equaled Gabrielle's in passion. Reluctantly, she broke the embrace.
There was no hiding her smile. Xena advised tenderly. "You better get packing."
Gabrielle placed her hand upon Xena's cheek. She could feel the threads of their intimate connection weave themselves to one unbreakable cord. She placed a gentle kiss upon Xena's lips. "I won't be long." Gabrielle ran toward her quarters.
Having witnessed the exchange, Jared approached the Conqueror.
His voice did not disguise his satisfaction. "My Liege, will we be having the services of a healer during our travels?"
Xena kept her eyes on Gabrielle. "Jared, please inform Kasen that the conspiracy was successful and that I am forever in his debt."
"With pleasure, My Liege."
"Yes, My Liege?"
Xena turned to him. "There is more than one way to save a life. Instead of wielding a sword you can simply speak the truth. We, my friend, are even."
Jared's smile broadened. "I'm happy for you, Xena."
Again, Xena's gaze shifted toward Gabrielle's direction. "Thank you, Jared."
The Conqueror led her men to a secluded stretch of land near the boarder. It would be their base camp as they scouted the region. Come the following morning Xena planned to lead a small scouting party south while Jared lead a similar scouting party north.
She ate with Jared, Stephen and two seasoned officers Tavis and Sentas. They discussed strategy as Gabrielle sat by the Conqueror's side, listening, learning. Satisfied with their plans the Conqueror stood up.
"We leave at dawn. I recommend you get some sleep. We have a long day ahead of us."
Sentas, the brashest of the Lieutenants made a request. "I'm sure there is still time for a story to be told."
With a glance the Conqueror deferred to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle looked up at the Conqueror expecting that she would answer. When she did not, Gabrielle turned her eyes to the awaiting officers. It only then became obvious to her that she was free to decide how she would spend her evening.
Gabrielle stood and deftly took the Conqueror's hand. "Forgive me for refusing your invitation but there is somewhere else I wish to be. Good night."
The men echoed wishes for a good night.
Jared slapped Sentas in the arm. "Now I know that fools are born every candle drop, some even when they're full grown lieutenants in the Conqueror's army."
Sentas grinned. "It didn't hurt to try. Anyway, I wanted to see the Conqueror's reaction."
Stephen quizzed. "Did you see a reaction?"
"Yes, but not the one I expected."
Jared counseled. "Don't do it again. The Conqueror's sense of humor only goes so far, especially when it comes to Gabrielle."
Xena and Gabrielle walked hand-in-hand to their tent. Trevor stood guard.
Xena placed her free hand on Trevor's shoulder. "Go get some rest. We'll be fine tonight."
"Thank you, My Liege." Trevor was grateful for the short watch.
The two women entered the tent.
Xena raised their held hands. "I will need to get accustomed to this."
"Do you mind, terribly?"
"I'm not one to show my affection publicly."
"I didn't mean to…"
Xena touched Gabrielle's lips with her fingertips. "Don't apologize. I didn't say I didn't like it."
Gabrielle was pleased. "Then I have your permission."
"I will trust you to exercise discretion."
"Good." Xena released Gabrielle's hand and removed her chakram and sword and placed them near their bed of skins and blankets. "It's not like you to turn down the opportunity to be a bard for the evening."
Gabrielle stood in her place, uncertain of how to begin. "Xena, it's been a long time since we've been together."
Xena ceased undressing and turned to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle continued. "I've missed your touch."
Xena had wondered. "Have you?"
"I remember our last night together fondly."
Gabrielle struggled. "I want to be with you, but I'm frightened."
Xena feared she was the cause. "Of me?"
Gabrielle looked down and shook her head. "No, for me."
As much as Xena wanted to go to Gabrielle she felt it best to keep her distance. "Tell me."
Gabrielle returned her gaze to Xena. "You have the power to make me feel." Gabrielle's words drifted to silence. She put her two hands together as if in prayer, trying to find the right words. She began anew. "After you left me, nothing, no one could fill the emptiness I felt. I shut that emptiness away in my heart." Gabrielle placed her hand over her chest and took a deep breath, seeking to calm her heart's quickening beat. "It was the only way I could go on. I know that being with you again… I know I won't be able to stop that part of my heart from opening up again. Being with you will complete me and it will be wonderful. I'm afraid… If you leave me again… I don't know if I can survive that emptiness a second time."
Xena spoke with a steady, earnest voice. "A long time ago I gave you my word that I would never bed another as long as you were with me. My word stands. What I have never promised you is that I would want you with me indefinitely."
Xena's words were hard for Gabrielle to hear. She knew that it was her doing that Xena spoke them.
Xena continued. "Tonight Gabrielle I give you my word that I will never again send you away. From this day forward whether we are together or apart is for you to decide. The choice is yours. I will honor you decision without protest."
Gabrielle had Xena's promise. There was a part of her when reopened would cry. The tears would be familiar, provoked by the same omission that always moved them to the surface. With all that bound her to Xena and bound Xena to her, there remained the void left by the unspoken. Xena had no words of love to give Gabrielle. Gabrielle had not asked for them and she would not dare give them. It was words of love that preceded their separation. Gabrielle did not discount how they affected Xena. She was certain that they contributed to the very decision Xena promised never to repeat.
Gabrielle was not willing to tempt the Fates. She understood their terms of engagement for all they granted her and for the one thing they withheld from her. If on this night she invited Xena to her, she would have Xena as no one ever had in the past or would have in her lifetime. If she invited Xena to her, their commitment was absolute. What they would exchange was not a joining; there would be no ceremony or ritual, no public declaration. It was an arrangement between two women, a sovereign and a freewoman. Her tears would be with her always. The price exacted for her unrequited love. It was a price she chose to pay because the tears did not come often - at all other times she knew happiness. Gabrielle was convinced that their arrangement was enough.
She went to Xena; leaning up Gabrielle placed a tender kiss upon the warrior's lips. "Be with me tonight."
Xena's intimate strokes, sweet kisses and few whispered words carried Gabrielle to climax. Xena held Gabrielle as the younger woman's body shuddered and then stilled. Gabrielle allowed her tears to fall freely as she continued her fierce hold upon her lover.
Given Gabrielle's confession of vulnerability, Xena understood that on this night of renewed intimacies, Gabrielle needed her gentlest touch and her constant reassurance. As Gabrielle's tears subsided, Xena kissed Gabrielle upon the cheek and repeated her promise.
"I will never leave you."
Upon hearing the promise, Gabrielle tightened her hold and her tears surged anew.
There was no doubt in Xena's heart that she had made the right decision. It was better to live briefly and have their connection than to live long without it.
Morning came sooner than either of the lovers would have liked. Gabrielle rested on her side, her gaze falling gently on Xena.
"Take me with you."
Xena turned to face Gabrielle. "You're serious?"
"I want to learn." Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "You'll keep me safe."
"Arguing to my ego won't help you."
"I'm not. It's the truth."
Xena offered no encouragement.
Gabrielle continued her campaign. "It's only a scouting party. Your orders are to gather information and come back to camp. We're not going to engage the raiders."
"What if the raiders engage us?"
"You keep forgetting that I've been trained by your Royal Guard." Gabrielle sobered. "Xena, I've proven I can and will protect myself."
Xena leaned her body over Gabrielle's, until Gabrielle lay on her back. She studied Gabrielle's countenance carefully, playing with a few wisps of Gabrielle's hair as she thought.
"Why look for trouble?"
"I'm not." Gabrielle took Xena's hand, stopping its errant motion. "I'm looking after you. That's been my reason in life ever since I came to Corinth."
"You never went into battle with me before. Why start now?"
"Because I'm ready." Gabrielle spoke knowingly from moons of separation. "And, I've learned I have no life without you."
Xena smiled. "Poteidaia grows tough peasant girls."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I wager almost as tough as Amphipolis does."
"Very well." Xena required the same promise from Gabrielle that she demanded from all her soldiers. "There is one condition. In the field you do as I say. No arguments."
"Don't worry, Jared has taught me that rule."
Gabrielle cupped Xena's face with her hand. "Xena, what does this say about us off the field?"
Xena considered. She wanted the scales that individually held them to be as balanced as possible. "There are certain protocols I still ask that you follow in front of my men and in Court. Otherwise you are as free with me as I am with you."
"When we return to Corinth Targon will teach you."
The mention of the forum for nobles and prominent heads of state gave Gabrielle reason to pause. It was not the time for her to address her uncertain feelings. She set the thought of Court aside. "Thank you."
"For?" Xena questioned.
"For last night."
Xena kissed Gabrielle lightly. "Last night gave me only pleasure. It is I who am grateful to you."
Dressed in clothes that did not mark them as soldier or nobility, Xena's scouting party traveled the border as inconspicuously as possible. Their weapons were hidden near at hand. They saw no indication of raiders. The villagers they spoke to had no insight to offer. Though in terms of gathering intelligence it was a frustrating day, Xena enjoyed having Gabrielle with her. It was not only that the bard's storytelling entertained her and her men; it was having Gabrielle's occasional smile or observation that made the day pleasant.
They returned to camp late in the evening. Jared awaited the Conqueror in the mess tent. He and his officers stood when Xena and Gabrielle entered. The men had ensured two seats were available. Xena called for food and mead.
Xena directed her question to the General. "I hope you had better luck than we did."
"We did." Jared claimed a successful day. "Less than three candlemarks from here is an outpost. All indications tell me that we'll find our raiders there."
"What side of the border?"
Xena did not like it. "Crossing over will break our treaty. Any sign of the Persian army?"
Jared was not concerned. "A few men came and went."
"They could be outlaws acting outside of King Okal's decree. If not, Okal is both a liar and a fool."
"He has never struck me as a fool."
"Nor I." Xena agreed. "My bet is that he doesn't know his soldiers are in with the raiders. He won't believe Greece unless I bring him proof. We will need to infiltrate the raiders' camp."
Jared anticipated a return to the outpost. "The moon is at a quarter face and if the weather holds it will be a clear night."
"A party of four should do. Jared, Stephen and Sentas, be ready after evening meal tomorrow." Xena smiled. "This will be a good field test for the finest of the Royal Guard."
With their strategy decided, Xena and her officers had an easy conversation. Gabrielle ate quietly, joining the banter only when addressed.
The following morning, resting in their bed, Gabrielle laid her head upon Xena's heart. "Take me with you."
"Are these the words that are going to greet me every morning?" Xena's was a playful exasperation.
"I can be useful to you."
"No Gabrielle. Not this mission. I need seasoned warriors. The fewer the better."
Gabrielle raised herself up. "When will you be back?"
Xena had reason to be prompt. "Mid-day tomorrow. No later."
"Why must you go? You are the Sovereign." She argued, "I can't imagine Caesar or King Okal going on a mission like this."
For Xena there was no compromising. "It's who I am. I was a warrior before I ruled Greece and I am a warrior as I rule Greece. If I stop being a warrior I will lose Greece and that I will not do."
"You've done a great deal of good."
Xena smiled. "Do you believe that or are you playing to my ego again?"
Gabrielle insisted, "I was not playing to your ego yesterday and I am not playing to it today. I've lived in the east for over nine moons and have seen how people live here. It can be a hard life at times, but it is a good life. The people speak well of you. They do appreciate the fact that you are trying to stop the raiders and that you decreased their taxes to help offset their losses."
Gabrielle waited for a response. None was forthcoming. She laid her hand over Xena's heart.
"You shouldn't measure Greece by how the people of Amphipolis feel about you."
"I don't worry about Amphipolis. My mother has made a point of trying to convince those that still blame me for the battle with Cortese that it's time to forgive and move on."
The mention of Xena's mother was welcomed. "Have you seen Cyrene since we were in Amphipolis?"
"A few times." Xena aired her frustration. "She refuses to come to Corinth. She said it's too big for her and that she would feel out of place in Court. I told her she could teach the nobles a few things." Xena smiled as she glided her hand through Gabrielle's hair. "Maybe it's for the best. I don't know what the nobles would do with themselves having both you and Mother to contend with."
Gabrielle rejected the complement. "I'm nothing special."
Xena rejoined. "You are my…" She stopped herself from finishing her intended thought. "You are my equal."
Gabrielle took Xena to task. "If you really believed that you would take me with you tonight."
"Do I know you? Have you always been so stubborn and obstinate?"
"You now know the difference between being with a slave and being with a freewoman."
Xena sobered. "I'm sorry."
"I didn't mean…" Gabrielle was resolute. "Xena don't. If you go back in time do it only so you will know how much you've changed my life for the better."
Xena was despondent.
Gabrielle wryly taunted. "I will prove it to you and have my way tonight by it."
Xena's interest was aroused. "What do you propose?"
"A test of skill. Spar with me. If I hold my own against you, you must take me with you tonight."
"Being able to use a sword is not a measure of a better life."
"That depends on the world you live in." Gabrielle argued.
Gabrielle stood at ready position against Xena. Xena hated what she was about to do. By agreement Jared stood witness.
Xena stepped forward, marking the beginning of their engagement. Gabrielle waited for Xena to make her move. Exercising her greater patience Xena disappointed. Gabrielle swung her sword at Xena in a cross angle. Xena countered, shifted her body forward, tripped Gabrielle with a back swing of her leg and placed her sword against the fallen woman's chest.
"Gabrielle, you're dead."
Gabrielle lay on the dirt stunned.
Xena turned to Jared. "I didn't realize you had personally tutored Gabrielle. You are the only one I taught that move to."
Jared spoke softly. "This test is unfair. You can take down any man in the Guard."
"It was not my idea, Jared. What is done is done."
She walked away leaving Jared to console her defeated lover.
The foursome remained outside the raiders' outpost waiting for night to fall.
Xena gave her final directions. "Jared take Sentas to the left. Stephen and I will take the right. Remember, I want information more than a fight."
Jared quipped. "You're mellowing, My Liege."
Xena countered. "No, I just know I'm in the company of the young, the impetuous and the decrepit and have planned accordingly."
The men laughed quietly. It was a good release of tension.
Xena asked a final time. "Ready?"
The men nodded.
"Jared, I expect to see you and Sentas here come morning. Don't disappoint me."
"The same to you, My Liege."
"Go then, and be quiet about it."
As the night progressed Xena's disappointment increased. She and Stephen each took one tent at a time, listening for clues in the interior conversations that would either confirm or discount King Okal's involvement. She was treated to nothing more than the boastings of second-rate warriors. They entered the quiet tents seeking more tangible evidence. Xena found the munitions. Stephen entered two storehouses. Outside of her tally of men, it was a wasted effort.
Sentas signaled to Jared. Jared made his way to the tent. Together they listened. It was a good mark. Jared counted three voices. The men were discussing their plans for the future. They were not in agreement.
"We can't keep taunting the Conqueror. She will disregard the border and make waste of us." The man had a thick Persian accent.
A Greek countered him. "The Conqueror is no more than a bitch in heat. She stays in Corinth. Her only care is what plaything she will invite between her legs."
Jared was grateful Gabrielle was not with them to hear the insults.
"Are all Greeks as crude as you, Montavous?"
"Only the civilized ones." Montavous countered.
A second Persian, with a deeper voice, interrupted. "This is not getting us anywhere. We have made a good profit. There is no reason why we shouldn't keep reaping the bounty Greece provides us."
The first Persian challenged. "That is easy for you to say, Leyan. All you have to do is march your men away from our positions. My men are the ones risking their lives crossing the border."
"If you think appeasing King Okal is easy why don't you try it?"
"I am not the leader of his western front."
"And so with my position go certain privileges such as a fair share of the spoils."
Montavous spoke up. "Halan, will you open your eyes? There is no way we can lose. The worst that can happen is that Greece declares war on Persia."
Leyan remarked forcefully. "I am in no mood to go to war with Greece."
Montavous ignored Leyan. "Mercenaries like us will have an easier time of it. No matter what village we raid on either side of the border, the blame will go elsewhere. And, we won't have to be so careful. We'll have the time to take our pleasure with the women and sell any villagers still left alive to slavers."
Halan taunted. "Have you no morals?"
"I didn't realize you were a man of such high moral standards?"
"We obviously follow a different code."
"Don't talk to me about a Warrior's Code. I had my fill of it when I fought in Xena's army. She could have destroyed all the nations and put them under her thumb. But no, she wanted only Greece. The vassals are ruled independently with only a token tribute for show."
"Lao Ma has moved her forces south. She did it by the Conqueror's request. Greece is stronger because of its allies. If we were to fall between Chin and Greece there will be nothing left of us. Even our bones will be crushed to dust."
"We won't be. Lao Ma will not cross her southern border. This is all show. Damn be the Gods, I should have picked men and not frightened milkmaids as my partners."
The sound of a dagger hitting a table traveled through the canvas.
"Insult Greece all you want, but I warn you Montavous, don't you dare insult Persia a second time or I will strike you dead where you stand. I can always find another Greek to provide my intelligence."
Montavous remained composed. He referred to a map lying on the table. "Leyan, how good of you to mark our next target with your dagger."
The tent fell silent as the men remained at a standstill.
Montavous broke the stalemate. "I say we move south. I am planting false information that the Persian raiders are moving north. We give the Third Army a chance to reposition itself. While they march south we will have an easy fortnight of raids before they have a chance to react."
Leyan concurred. "I hate to agree with Montavous but he makes a strong argument. A second advantage of moving south is our access to the sea. It will be easier to get a good price for our spoils."
Montavous continued to persuade. "Including the price for Greek slaves. They have been off the export market for so long the novelty of having them will bring us a premium price."
Harlan assented. "Very well. The next trade caravan is scheduled to arrive in five to seven days. We will march after I complete my business with the merchants."
"I'll cross the border tomorrow and head north. It shouldn't take long for my misinformation to reach General Kasen." Montavous did not hide his satisfaction in winning the argument.
Leyan concluded the triad. "And I'll begin my effort to convince the King to deploy Persia's troops to mirror Kasen. Persia will be more concerned with Greece then with anything you may do."
Montavous was cocky. "I say this agreement deserves a toast. Halan, have you a wine worthy of our alliance?"
Halan's enthusiasm was muted. "In my tent. Come."
Jared and Sentas remained still until they were certain the trio had left.
Sentas whispered. "We have all we need."
"Not all." Jared corrected. "I want that dagger."
"How do you know Leyen didn't take it with him?"
"I didn't hear him pull it from the table. Did you?"
"I wager this is his tent. Can't hurt to look."
Sentas attempted to deter the General from taking the risk. "You shouldn't take the Conqueror's decrepit remark to heart."
"Do you really think she meant me when she said it? I thought I was the impetuous one." Jared offered Sentas a wry smile. "Keep watch. I'll be right back."
Jared went round the tent. It was easier than cutting through or lifting the stakes and going under the tarp. He pulled the dagger from the table and slid it under his belt. He heard two male voices approach. He had little choice in finding cover. A large chest was placed against one side. He lifted the cover. To his relief he found it empty. He positioned himself inside and closed the cover.
The first man entered followed by the second.
"It's about time they left. Why do they have to use our quarters for their meetings is beyond me."
"Neutrality." The second offered as a reason.
"Neutrality, my ass. This is Halan's camp. He could have Montavous and Leyan killed with one word."
"True, but we need those bastards if we hope to keep our casualties low."
The men continued their conversation as they removed their weapons and prepared for sleep.
Sentas listened, hoping for a clue to Jared's whereabouts. He kept his position until he saw the sun break over the horizon. He had no choice but to return to their designated meeting site and report to the Conqueror.
Xena's heart paused at the sight of Sentas returning alone. She braced herself for the worst news possible, although her intellect told her that the camp would have stirred if an intrusion had been detected.
The Conqueror had only one word for Sentas. "Report."
Sentas gave a full accounting of Jared's absence first and followed with a retelling of the conversation they overheard.
Sentas and Stephen waited as the Conqueror considered her options.
She raised her eyes to her officers. "Pray that if Jared falls asleep he doesn't snore." She shook her head with a smile needing to make light of the difficult situation.
The men smiled in appreciation.
"Sentas, lead us back to the tent. We will take turns keeping watch. If the Fates are kind, Jared won't be detected. Come nightfall we will escort the old man out."
Stephen took comfort in how easy the Conqueror made their plan.
The day passed at an excruciatingly slow pace. Xena knew life and death was often determined by the ability to withstand the stress of not acting. More times than she could count, she held back her army with the sound of her officers' protests ringing in her ear. Each time after the battle was won they came back to her humbled. The best learned to trust her. She was grateful Sentas and Stephen learned the lesson prior to this day. Having Jared in jeopardy forced her patience to its limit.
The tent's occupants came and went throughout the day. It was a high traffic area and any thought of an early foray was consistently stymied.
When night fell, Xena counted one man in the tent. She cursed under her breath. "If he doesn't go to the mess tent soon, he'll never know the taste of food again."
Stephen debated offering a reassuring word but chose better of it.
Another candlemark passed before Sentas pointed. "There, My Liege. He's gone."
Xena bolted from her position. "Let's go. You know what to do."
They moved in unison. Sentas took his position at the back of the tent ready to cut at the seam if necessary. Stephen remained at one side of the tent. Having a clearer view of the camp movement his role was to signal an approach. Xena entered the tent through the front entrance. She scanned the space looking for Jared's hiding place. Given the sparse furnishings his location was obvious. She whistled her hawk's call to reassure him before opening the chest.
Jared blinked as the light hit his eyes. "It's about time you came for me."
"Let's go, my friend. I've got a beautiful woman waiting for me."
Jared laughed. "If only I could say the same."
Riding into the camp Xena searched for Gabrielle. She dismounted and gave Argo's reins to an awaiting groom. Trevor met her.
"Where is Gabrielle?"
"We are worried about her, My Liege."
"Why?" Xena's eyes darted, continuing their search. "What's happened?"
"She became anxious when you failed to return yesterday. She hasn't left your tent since last night."
Xena ran to their tent slowing her step upon reaching the entrance. She took a breath, raising her palm against the canvas as if to seek out a sense of what resided within. Shifting the canvas aside she stepped in. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Gabrielle sat huddled on their bed. Xena stepped slowly.
Gabrielle did not respond. Xena went down to her knees beside her. She repeated Gabrielle's name. Gabrielle shifted away from her. Xena reached out.
Gabrielle pushed her away. Her voice was faint. "No."
"Gabrielle, please." Xena tried again.
Gabrielle hit Xena weakly upon the chest with her fist. "You promised."
Xena became more forceful in her attempt to embrace Gabrielle. She took a second and third blow as Gabrielle repeated her accusation.
Xena held Gabrielle by the shoulders. "I didn't break my promise. Jared got into some trouble. I couldn't leave him behind. I knew you wouldn't have wanted that."
Gabrielle caught and held Xena's gaze. Xena's gentle regard affirmed her promise.
Gabrielle cried out. "Oh, Gods!" She reached out and embraced Xena. She wept freely.
Xena felt Gabrielle's trembling body radiate the younger woman's fear and sorrow. Xena never expected such a profound reaction from Gabrielle. She assumed that Tavis' and Trevor's reassurances would have been sufficient to ease her concerns.
Xena shifted Gabrielle over her lap, rocking her in a calming rhythm. She wondered where the strong peasant girl from Poteidaia had regressed. Xena continued to rock Gabrielle whispering words of assurance until the younger woman calmed.
Xena knew it would be cruel to subject Gabrielle to repeated days and nights in wait for her return. She also knew that severing their relationship was no longer a possibility for either of them. That left only two other choices. The first, to avoid future battles was in Xena's mind impossible. One viable choice remained.
"Gabrielle, are you with me?"
"Your place, if you wish it, will always be by my side. You will never again have to ask that I take you with me."
Gabrielle remained still, seeking comfort in the sound of Xena's heartbeat.
Xena waited. She struggled with the silence until she could bear it no longer. "Gabrielle, do you ask more from me?"
Gabrielle shook her head slightly. She whispered. "No."
Xena rested her head against Gabrielle's.
Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "Thank you."
Trevor had briefed Jared. Jared waited, feeling equal concern for both women. Two candlemarks passed before Xena left the tent in search for food and drink.
Jared approached her. "How is the lass?"
"I've made her a promise never to leave her behind again." Xena's gaze gravitated toward the tent. "No criticism intended, but it's time I train her myself."
Jared's gaze followed Xena's. "I agree."
"I've got what I came for. We return to Corinth."
"How do you wish to handle the raiders?"
Xena had little care for them. They would know death by the fortnight. "Send Okal Greece's intelligence. That dagger you risked your life for will be our proof. Greece will offer an alliance to defeat the rebels. Get word to Kasen that he will need to create an appropriate diversion to the north. Tavis will stay here with his company and provide the necessary force to crush the raiders when they make their move in the south. Sentas and Stephen and their companies return to Corinth with us."
As was her custom, Xena stood to the side of the circle of lounging men. All eyes were intent upon Gabrielle as she weaved her story. Xena had noted a subtle change in the bard. Gabrielle quieted. In their bed Gabrielle held close to Xena as if fearful that Xena would disappear in the night. Xena waited patiently for Gabrielle to speak her concern. She took solace that even from their first days as mistress and slave, Gabrielle had always come freely to her with her requests and thoughts. Xena was certain it was only a matter of time before Gabrielle shared what troubled her.
Gabrielle completed her story and graciously declined to tell another. Xena approached and offered her hand to the bard.
She made her own request. "Walk with me."
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and followed her through the woods to a clearing.
Xena mused. "Tomorrow we arrive in Corinth."
Gabrielle released Xena's hand and stepped a few paces away. She found the prospect of returning to the capital daunting.
"So much has happened between us. We can never go back to the way we were before I left Corinth, can we?"
Gabrielle's statement was unexpected. Xena responded cautiously. "Not to the letter."
"Being in the palace will be different than being in the field with the Guardsmen." Gabrielle continued, her voice as distant as her stance.
Xena felt a rising apprehension. "Yes, it will. We have been free with my men. It will feel different in Court."
"Xena, I don't want to disappoint or hurt you."
Xena was now certain that she did not want to hear what Gabrielle was about to say to her. "Gabrielle, I hold to my word. You must do what is best for you."
Gabrielle recalled one haunting exchange in the woods not far from Amphipolis. Even near death, Xena did not claim to love her. Gabrielle feared that without Xena's love there were limits to what Xena would ultimately accept from her. Here was their first test.
Gabrielle did not want to pretend before the nobles to be other than the woman she was. The fraud would be too painful.
"Would you consent to return to our arrangement? I know the fact I've shared your tent won't be a secret, but with time people may come to believe that you've moved on to someone else."
Xena bit her lip. She was wounded by Gabrielle's proposal of perpetuating her less than respectable reputation as a means of camouflaging their relationship. Unable to hold Gabrielle's gaze, Xena turned away. She struggled to compose herself.
Gabrielle waited anxious for an answer.
The Conqueror spoke keeping her back to Gabrielle. "It would be better if you didn't ride beside me tomorrow. We might as well not wait to begin the deception."
Ashamed, Gabrielle was grateful for Xena's turned back. "I won't sleep with you tonight. The Guardsmen will assume that you brought me here to tell me…"
Xena could not stop a tear from falling. "Go on then and remove your things. I'll return in a little while."
"Xena." Gabrielle felt her lover's injury.
"Go on Gabrielle, you've made your decision and we will both live by it."
Xena led the Royal Guardsmen through the streets of Corinth. She dismounted at the palace courtyard, giving Argo's reins to a groom. She began to walk away from the activity, longing for the privacy of her suite. She paused for a moment and looked back seeking one lone figure. Her eyes rested upon Gabrielle who was being greeted by Dalius.
Gabrielle felt an indefinable tug. She looked toward the palace and met the Conqueror's gaze. She wondered if she could right her wrong. She excused herself and made her way toward Xena. Seeing Gabrielle approach, Xena walked to meet her.
Gabrielle stopped a pace from her lover. "Forgive me."
Xena was hopeful Gabrielle had a change of heart. "There is nothing to forgive."
"I don't belong in your world. I belong with them." Gabrielle glanced over to the mass of people unpacking and situating their belongings.
Xena owned. "I am one of them, too."
"You are also the ruler of Greece."
"You are my equal."
Gabrielle wished it were true. "I feel your equal when I am alone with you and that is only because you make me feel worthy."
Xena stepped forward, "You are worthy."
"In your eyes."
"You're wrong. But even if you were right, no one else's matters."
"There you are wrong." Gabrielle emphasized, "Who I feel I am matters."
Xena apologized. "I didn't mean to discount you."
"I know." Gabrielle took a breath to steady her rising emotion.
"You are maddening." Xena would not deny Gabrielle. "You shall have our arrangement, but only if I am allowed to set one term of my own."
Gabrielle braced herself.
"In our suite, you will never again serve me."
Gabrielle nodded. She excused herself. "I have work to do."
Xena turned and walked to the palace. This time she did not look back.
Jared and Stephen stood side-by-side, having observed the exchange between the Conqueror and Gabrielle.
"General. I know it's not my business to ask, but are you free to tell me what happened between the Conqueror and Gabrielle?"
The unexpected change had left Jared perplexed. "I wish I knew, Captain."
"The Conqueror does not seem pleased with the separation," Stephen offered.
"No, she doesn't," Jared confirmed.
Days passed without Xena going to the infirmary or otherwise seeing Gabrielle. Gabrielle's subtle inquiries were responded to in like manner. The Conqueror's mood left many mystified. She was told that the Conqueror devoted herself to the business of Greece without taking time to work with the Royal Guard or enjoy her other few pleasures. She did not share her dinner table let alone her bed. All the behaviors the household was accustomed of using to judge the Conqueror had become unreliable. Only General Jared and Targon had daily access to her and neither of them was forthcoming.
Gabrielle waited until late in the evening to walk down the hidden corridor between her room and Xena's suite. A steady watch of the Conqueror's suite entrance ensured that Xena was alone. Gabrielle knocked lightly. Xena opened the entrance. Mirroring Gabrielle, she was dressed in a nightshirt and robe.
Gabrielle requested. "May I come in?"
Xena stepped aside, allowing the younger woman entry. She closed the entrance.
Gabrielle turned to her. "How are you?"
Xena was subdued. "I've been catching up on business. And you?"
"I've missed you."
Xena walked to the fireplace. "I'm told you have renewed your apprenticeship with Dalius."
For the moment Gabrielle was willing to honor Xena's evasion. "I want to get as much of my life back as I can. Dalius has been very welcoming."
Xena sat down in her chair expecting Gabrielle to take her place across from her. Gabrielle followed wordlessly. She broke custom and sat upon Xena's lap, laying her head against Xena's shoulder. Gabrielle closed her eyes and said a silent prayer to the Gods that she would not be rejected. Slowly, she felt Xena envelop her in an embrace.
Xena remembered the last time she held Gabrielle as she did now. It was upon her return from the raiders' camp. On that day she swore that Gabrielle's place was beside her. Her thoughts traveled further into the past to the evening of their renewed intimacy after their separation. It was the occasion of another promise, her promise to honor Gabrielle's choice whether they would be together or apart. Both promises played at Xena's heart. She never imagined having Gabrielle with her would have the power to break her heart as it did now.
A candlemark passed. The only motion within the room was the rising and falling breath of each woman. Gabrielle's need, more than her confidence moved her to take Xena's hand and gently place a kiss upon its palm. Xena looked down absently. Gabrielle took the opportunity to lift her head and kiss her partner, hoping to coax Xena to the present moment.
Xena responded to the kiss, her desire waking in the quiet of the night. Their kissed deepened. Xena set her pain aside. She lifted Gabrielle up and carried her to their bed.
Gabrielle woke, her body languid, her mind at ease. She turned toward Xena, seeking her lover's touch. She was troubled to find herself alone.
"Xena?" She called out softly. There was no response.
The bedchamber was illuminated by moonlight. She put on her robe and searched the suite. Xena was not within its walls. From the balcony Gabrielle looked out into the night. The sky was clear. The stars burned bright.
Gabrielle followed the winding steps up to the turret. As she made the last turn she spied Xena standing hunched over against the turret ledge. Seeing Xena in such a posture of defeat was foreign to Gabrielle. She felt a devastating press within her heart. She held her place on the stairs, acutely aware that she was the cause of Xena's sorrow. Gabrielle's remorse had no easy relief. She returned to their bed without having revealed her presence.
The following morning Gabrielle was awakened by a gentle kiss.
"Good morning," Xena greeted her softly.
"Good morning." Gabrielle searched Xena's eyes for a hint of the wounded woman she observed during the night.
"I'm expecting Jared early. There is no hurry for you to get up."
"Would you like some tea?"
"I'm fine. Go ahead and get ready."
Gabrielle lay in bed; her thoughts lingered on their shared evening. Xena had given her every tenderness. There were no words between them and yet she had never felt Xena closer to her. Xena's ardor had swept Gabrielle's doubt aside. Gabrielle did not understand how Xena could give so much of herself in their bed and then stand apart -- broken.
Gabrielle heard Xena's and Jared's voices. She donned her robe and stepped out of the bedchamber revealing her presence. Jared paused in speech at the sight of her. Xena followed his gaze, equally surprised to see Gabrielle. Assuming Gabrielle sought a private word, Xena walked over to her.
Gabrielle placed her hands on Xena's arms. "May I return to you tonight?"
Xena nodded. "Yes."
Gabrielle leaned up and kissed Xena tenderly. "Thank you." She stepped back into the bedchamber feeling Xena's gentle eyes upon her.
Xena was well aware of Gabrielle's deliberate declaration to Jared. She returned to the General.
Jared cut to the quick. "What reason did the lass give you?"
"She doesn't feel worthy to be in Court."
"It is they who are not worthy of her."
Xena offered her own conclusion. "Jared, it's not Court."
"Xena…" Jared protested.
"Don't judge Gabrielle harshly." Xena pleaded on her partner's behalf. "I'd rather you be her friend."
Jared waited outside the infirmary. He readied himself to carry out an unpleasant task. Gabrielle stepped outside.
"Good day, lass."
Jared approached. "Gabrielle, I hope you believe you can trust me."
"Then I want to ask you to hear me out. There is something on my mind and I want to say it to you and be done with it."
Gabrielle felt uneasy. She nodded in consent.
"After all this time I think it's only now that I'm beginning to understand you. I don't know how to be anything but a freeman. I was born free and though a man or two has tried, no one was ever been able to take my freedom from me. I've known plenty of slaves. In my opinion those who knew freedom and lost it react in one of two ways. There are the angry slaves who will do whatever they can to keep feeling that they have some control over their pitiful lives. And then there are those who become only a shell of who they once were. They lose all dignity. Women who have been violated have the worst of it."
Gabrielle was uncomfortable with the General's astute observations. "Do you have a point, Jared?"
"Yes, lass, I do. I believe that even if a slave is freed they can never forget what has been done to them. They carry the scar inside them and nothing can take it away. They look down upon themselves instead of the men who enslaved and raped them."
"Jared, please stop." Gabrielle did not have the presence of heart to suppress her silent tears.
Jared would not be put off. "The Conqueror, who has never invited anyone to share her life, has made you the offer. At first you said yes but then the closer we got to Corinth the more impossible the thought was to you. Why, I asked myself, could you be free with her in the countryside and not in the city? I say the answer is because Corinth reminds you that you were once a slave. When you were a slave you felt less than human because you were treated as less than human."
"You're wrong. When I came to Corinth I became a member of Xena's household. She gave me my dignity. She didn't take it away."
"The harm was done to you by others in Corinth before Targon purchased you. Those that harmed you are still in Corinth. There are members in Court who we suspect supplement their wealth by trafficking in slaves. You saw their faces when you served the Conqueror's banquets. They were familiar to you because you first saw them in the slavers' marketplace. You fear that they will recognize you and recall what they did to you. Worse, because you refuse to expose them to the Conqueror, you cannot abide the thought that you will be expected to show them courtesy."
Gabrielle sat down on a nearby bench.
Jared approached and went to one knee before her. "Gabrielle, you know that slavers are prohibited in Court and to expose them is to sign their death warrant. And I know that you will do whatever you must to avoid bloodshed. All I ask is that you confirm their names. I will arrange for the bastards never to set foot in Corinth again. You have my word that they will not be killed."
"How did you find out?"
"Xena told me your reason for denying her. In spite of it, Xena believes that you deny her and only her. She is too close to you to see a truth that would have never otherwise escaped her detection. She has taught me persistence and patience. It took time for me to ask the right questions and bribe the right people, but at the end I learned how and by whom you were brought to Corinth."
Gabrielle stood in her room looking out the window as dawn broke through the horizon. It had been two moons since their return to Corinth. Xena had welcomed her back into their private routine. She never questioned Gabrielle's decision, yet each time Gabrielle left Xena to return to her room, she felt a wave of sadness overcome her lover. Gabrielle made her decision. She went to seek out Targon.
"Sir, I need to request a favor."
The administrator invited warmly, "If I can, Miss."
"I need to learn how to behave in Court."
"Is this the Conqueror's wish?"
"I believe so." Gabrielle placed a condition on her request. "Targon, the Conqueror cannot know that you are training me."
Targon observed, "Keeping secrets from the Conqueror is dangerous business, Miss."
Gabrielle needed to reassure the administrator. "If General Jared vouches for me, will you do it?"
"Yes, Miss. That way I will have company at my execution," Targon quipped.
Gabrielle laughed and hugged him. "Thank you!"
She now had two more favors to ask, the first to Jared and the second to Makia.
With the guests announced, the winter solstice banquet commenced without further fanfare. Xena was dressed in her standard black leather gambeson and pants.
Sitting, she leaned over, looking toward one side. "An empty chair, Jared?"
Jared was amicable to the inquiry. "I am awaiting the arrival of a beautiful woman, My Liege."
"Yes, she is a lady in every sense of the word."
Xena was intrigued. "And how did you come by this lady?"
"She approached me." Jared confessed, "To be honest, I have never been more flattered."
"Are you sure she doesn't have an ulterior motive?"
"She was very forthcoming regarding her intentions. I am more than happy to oblige her."
Xena laughed. "You dog!"
Targon entered the banquet hall. He stood waiting by the door. Jared spied him.
"With your permission, My Liege. I believe my evening companion has arrived."
Xena waved her hand. She enjoyed seeing the broad smile on Jared's face. He deserved happiness. She watched as he stepped out of the room.
Targon instructed the guard to announce an arrival. The guard smiled for a moment before recomposing himself. Holding to a serious expression, he stepped forward and twice struck his lance to the floor.
"My Liege. General Jared and Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
The many Guardsmen in the room quickly silenced, followed by the others present. Jared stepped forward escorting Gabrielle on his arm. Gabrielle looked glorious. She wore a white, flowing gown. She stepped carefully, her posture confident as she kept her eyes forward, finding, never leaving her Lord.
Xena's heart staggered. She stood up and walked round her table and waited at its center for Jared and Gabrielle to reach her. As they approached, one Guardsman after another stood at attention until every Guardsman granted Gabrielle the honor.
Jared spoke proudly so all could hear. "My Liege, may I present Miss Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
Gabrielle curtsied. "My Lord."
Xena spoke softly. "This is a surprise."
"I hope it pleases you."
"It does. From this day forward you will be known as Lady Gabrielle."
Gabrielle bowed slightly. "I am honored."
Xena touched Gabrielle's cheek. She could have not been given a greater gift. She directed her comment to Jared. "General, may I?"
Jared bowed in acquiescence.
Xena stepped to Gabrielle's side and offered her arm. Gabrielle took it and allowed Xena to guide her to the Conqueror's table. Xena held the chair beside her for Gabrielle. Gabrielle sat down, understanding the meaning of her placement. Xena took to her chair and covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. Jared followed behind the couple, seating himself beside the Conqueror's consort. All the Guardsmen followed suit by returning to their chairs.
Xena remained silent as conversations were renewed about her. Gabrielle looked to Jared for assurance. His smile gave her courage. She turned to Xena.
"My Lord, with your permission, I will move my belongings into your suite."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "Permission granted."
At the end of the evening Xena escorted Gabrielle back to their rooms. Their rooms -- the thought was sweet to her. From the moment she saw Gabrielle enter the banquet hall, she felt a rising emotion impossible to name. Upon entering their bedchamber, Xena kissed Gabrielle tenderly.
"I will be back in a little while."
She took the hidden passage to the turret. She stood under the stars. Her heart was full and in want of release. Her tears fell freely. She raised her hands to her face and sobbed. Her body trembled as years of denial, years of suppressed need ended. She surrendered to her most fragile emotion: love.
Gabrielle changed from her gown to the sleep shirt and robe kept in Xena's bedchamber for her night visits. On this day her life had changed. She suspected more than she could imagine. She had claimed Xena and Xena had publicly acknowledged the claim with grace and generosity. Xena had fallen quiet for most of the evening. Jared had been the gentleman entertaining Gabrielle with stories that introduced her for the first time to the biographies of many members of the Court.
Gabrielle crossed the turret's threshold. Xena leaned silently against a ledge, her back to Gabrielle.
Xena wiped any remaining hint of her tears from her face. She turned to Gabrielle, finding in Gabrielle's presence evidence that the evening had indeed not been a dream.
Gabrielle spoke carefully. "I was worried about you."
Xena hesitated. She was not ready to express her heart in words. "Thank you for tonight."
"I'm sorry it took me so long to come to you."
"Everything in its own time."
Gabrielle approached. "Can a Lady of the realm still be a healer to the Conqueror's army?"
"She can be whatever she wants to be."
"There will be changes in my life, won't there?"
"There is no life without changes."
"At the same time some things will never change."
Xena was uncertain of Gabrielle's reference. She sensed a hint of melancholy behind the statement. "I believe I will always find you beautiful."
"Thank you." Gabrielle reached out her hand. "Will you come to bed?"
Xena stepped forward. "Yes, My Lady."
It was late afternoon when Gabrielle exited the infirmary and walked toward the palace.
"Gabrielle, or should I say Lady Gabrielle?" the handsome young soldier called out.
Gabrielle was pleasantly surprised. "Inis!" She offered him her hand. "I will always be Gabrielle to you. How are you?"
"Good, and you?"
"I'm well, thank you. Are you here with General Paulos?"
"I see you keep abreast of the Conqueror's business."
"She includes me as much as she feels is prudent."
Inis was at his most charming. "You look as beautiful as ever. Are you enjoying hosting the conference?"
"Actually, I do my best to avoid the more formal functions in the palace."
Inis was glib. "I'm surprised the Conqueror tolerates your absence."
Gabrielle checked his inference. "Inis, I am a freewoman."
He laughed, "And I am a freeman, but I would think twice before going against the Conqueror's wishes."
"If we were at war I would follow the Conqueror's orders without question because I have sworn my allegiance to her and am in that regard no different than you are as a member of her army. But, the rest of my life is mine. I choose to be with her."
"I wondered what she said or did to you that you left me." Inis' tone attempted to mitigate the incendiary words.
"She did nothing." Gabrielle defended her lover. "As I told you then, as much as I regretted it, I did not love you."
The soldier had been too hurt and angry at their separation to pursue his most wrenching question. He did so now. "You loved her even then?"
Inis attempted to savage his pride. "It is impossible to compete with the Sovereign in all but one respect."
Gabrielle wondered how he claimed superiority. "And what is that?"
"She will never give you a child."
"That is true." Knowing her truth, Gabrielle gave the rising tension release. "The Fates have been kind to me. I am complete as I am."
"You are a rare woman, Gabrielle." Inis offered her a smile.
"I will take that as a compliment."
"As it was intended." Inis shifted his weight from right to left; unconsciously his hand went to his dagger. "I was sorry to hear about the distasteful treatment you experienced at the hands of Osric and one of his soldiers."
Gabrielle preferred not to be reminded of her killing. "It was unfortunate."
"Those who know the Conqueror were surprised Osric was allowed to live. But then it really didn't matter."
"What do you mean?"
"He had an accident and died soon after returning to the Fourth Army."
"What kind of accident?" Gabrielle's dread rose.
Inis took pleasure in telling. "A knife slit his throat. No one took responsibility for the noble deed."
"There is nothing noble about murder." Gabrielle's anger surged.
Inis remarked, "It was an act of honor the Conqueror didn't see fit to exercise herself."
"She didn't harm Osric because I asked her not to."
The revelation caused Inis to see Gabrielle in a new light. "I am impressed. Few are known to influence the Conqueror's life and death decisions."
Gabrielle was uncomfortable with Inis' portrayal. "I'm learning to understand why she makes the decisions she makes."
"Do you find that you agree with her?"
Inis never reconciled himself to Gabrielle's attraction for the violent Conqueror. "And still you can love her?"
"Then I am happy for you." Inis was almost sincere.
"Thank you." Gabrielle was surprised to find that having Inis' approval had been important to her.
"You have proven the people of Greece wrong, including myself. I would have staked my life that the Conqueror was incapable of pledging her love to anyone."
The innocuous words hit their mark. Gabrielle stilled. Inis caught the change.
"She does love you?" He queried.
Gabrielle stumbled with her words. "She…"
"What a lark!" Inis laughed. "You turn me away because you have no love for me and then choose to be with someone who has no love for you."
"Don't bother trying to explain." Inis settled his tenor. "I would be with you now even without your love if you allowed it. Who am I to judge you? I probably understand you better than anyone in Corinth."
"You may be right," Gabrielle granted.
Inis smiled and folded his arms across his chest. "I've missed you. We could always talk to one another. I could tell you things that were not necessarily best shared with my fellow soldiers."
"I remember." Gabrielle responded warmly.
"Gabrielle, may I see you again? We are scheduled to remain in Corinth through the end of the conference. Then we will return to the south."
"The Conqueror would not be comfortable with my seeing you."
Inis gently argued, "You have already proven that I am no rival to her. What harm is there in spending time with a friend? I hope we can be friends."
Gabrielle wanted Inis' friendship. She had regretted the sour note in which they had parted. "Are you free at mid-day meal?"
"I can arrange it."
"Join me outside the infirmary tomorrow."
"That is a fine plan. Until tomorrow." He gave her a minor bow and walked on to the barracks, well pleased with his performance.
Each of the following four days, Inis and Gabrielle shared their mid-day meal outside the infirmary. Gabrielle felt comfortable with the public nature of their conversations. She hid nothing.
Inis took a bite out of a roasted chicken leg. "General Paulos has given me a free day tomorrow. Do you have any suggestions of what I might do?"
"In the city?"
"No. I've had enough of Corinth." Inis laughed lightly. "Can't take the farm boy out of me. Is there somewhere I could ride?"
Gabrielle suggested a place Xena had shown her. "There is a small river less than a half-candlemark away from the city gates. It is a peaceful place."
"I think I will like it."
"I know you will."
He turned enthusiastically to Gabrielle. "Come with me!"
"I don't know." Gabrielle hesitated; it would have to be a secret excursion.
"For mid-day meal. I promise I'll have you back in two or three candlemarks."
Gabrielle thought through Xena's schedule for the following day. "The Conqueror has been busy with the conference. It should be all right."
"Good." Inis was pleased with the prospect of having Gabrielle to himself beyond the watch of the Guard. "Should I meet you here?"
"No." Gabrielle suggested a less visible rendezvous. "Let's meet at the palace gates."
Gabrielle dined alone in their suite. She waited on the balcony for Xena's return from another of the many State dinners scheduled during the conference. She would be happy to see the fortnight of meetings come to an end.
Gabrielle heard Xena enter the suite. She reentered the meeting chamber.
Xena offered Gabrielle a broad smile. "I've been looking forward to seeing you all day."
"How are the meetings going?"
"So well that I have a proposition for you."
"And what might that be?"
Xena offered wryly. "Why don't you rule Greece tomorrow and I'll work the infirmary?"
Gabrielle laughed. "I don't think so."
Xena took Gabrielle into her arms and kissed her. "I'm sorry we've had so little time together. I promise I'll make it up to you after I send my fine dignitaries home where they belong."
"Don't worry about me. I have plenty to keep me occupied."
Xena's smile broadened.
"Why that smile?" Gabrielle saw mischief behind it.
"I've won a wager with Jared today."
"And what did you wager?"
"Jared said you would insist on attending the conference by its mid-point just so you could spend time with me."
"And what did you say?"
"I said you would avoid the conference like the plague."
Gabrielle offered mock sympathy. "Poor Jared, you take advantage of him."
"Hardly." Xena kissed her lover a second time. "Is it my fault he equates quantity of time shared with quality?"
"And of course you haven't told him that you brief me on the negotiations every evening."
"Jared is well aware that you keep informed on government affairs. To be honest, I was surprised that he made the wager. He has been constant in his support of your decision to attend Court sparingly. Why he thought the conference different is beyond my logic."
"A miscalculation on his part."
Xena winked. "Unless your guardian uncle knows something I don't."
"Only you could tell me." Xena stepped away with an exaggerated sigh. "Oh Gabrielle, there must be more to life than spending candlemark after candlemark as witness to the deplorable posturing of a bunch of nobles and vassal leaders."
Gabrielle encouraged, "It's only for another seven days."
"Easy for you to say." Xena collapsed in her chair. "Damn the Gods, I am ruler of the realm. There is nothing to say that I cannot exercise my prerogative and steal myself away for a couple of candlemarks tomorrow to be with you."
Gabrielle went to Xena and took her place on her lap. "No. Stay and rule Greece with your steady hand. I'm afraid that chaos will breakout if you don't oversee their bickering. In a few more days I will have you back all to myself."
Xena teased, "I have another proposition for you."
Gabrielle was playfully wary. "I hope it's better than your last one."
"I believe you will welcome it."
Xena intertwined her hand with Gabrielle's. "I will be wanting some fresh air after this is all done with. What say you to a trip to Amphipolis? I'd like to visit my mother and I am certain she would be happy to see you again."
Gabrielle was pleased with the invitation. "I accept."
"I now have all the motivation I need to make sure the trade agreements are reached with expediency."
"Without knocking heads?"
Xena pouted, "You take all the fun out of my day!"
"I make up for it by offering you all the fun you can handle at the end of it."
Xena relished Gabrielle's blossoming. It had taken time, but the promise of happiness had come to fruition for the younger woman and Xena knew no greater joy than having Gabrielle at ease with her and the world at large.
"I've always said you strike a fair bargain."
Xena entered the stables. It had been a trying morning. She yearned for Argo's more tamed company. Though she did not have time for a ride, she did have time to give the mare a rigorous brushing, attention she knew Argo would welcome and that would give her own nerves solace.
She noticed the absence of Gabrielle's gelding. She called out to the young groom. "Yuri, has Lady Gabrielle gone for a ride?"
The groom was quick to answer. "Yes, Your Majesty. She left 'bout a half-candlemark ago."
"Did she say where she was going?"
"No, Your Majesty. Only that I shouldn't expect her 'til mid-afternoon."
This news was a surprise. "Did she have an escort?"
"None that I saw, Your Majesty."
Xena walked to the palace gates in a brisk stride. She directed her question to the senior of the two Guardsmen. "Xanthus, has Lady Gabrielle passed this way?"
"Yes, My Liege."
"Was Trevor with her?"
"No, My Liege." Xanthus was an observant man. "She was escorted by a soldier from the Fourth Army."
"Not a Royal Guardsman?"
"No, My Liege. Of that I'm certain."
Xena held her concern close. "Did she tell you where she was going?"
"To the eastern track of the forest where the river cuts through."
"Very well. Thank you."
Xena walked back to the palace. Gabrielle had made no mention of taking a respite. She was pleased Gabrielle kept her promise to always report her whereabouts. Still, Xena was curious why Trevor had not escorted Gabrielle. Since their return to Corinth he had the primary responsibility for Gabrielle's security. Xena left orders at the barracks for Trevor to report to her.
Notified that Trevor waited for her outside of the meeting hall, Xena excused herself.
She stepped past Trevor and continued to walk down the corridor. "Come with me."
Trevor followed the Conqueror until they reached a secluded alcove.
Xena measured the Guardsman. "Trevor, can you tell me why you didn't escort Lady Gabrielle when she left the city today?"
Trevor had no reason to fear the Conqueror. "It was by her request, My Liege. She said she would be in safe company with her friend from the Fourth Army."
Xena was far from satisfied. "How do you know you can trust this soldier?"
"He arrived with General Paulos. I observed him visiting with Lady Gabrielle daily at the infirmary. I took it upon myself to speak with the General. He assured me the soldier was an honorable man."
"I don't recall Lady Gabrielle mentioning a friend stationed in the south."
"I believe they met when she was living at the eastern garrison."
Xena's heart pressed inward. "What is his name?"
"Inis, My Liege."
"I know the name." Xena offered Trevor a forced smile. "Say nothing of my questions to Lady Gabrielle. She thinks I worry too much about her as it is."
Trevor responded easily. "Yes, My Liege."
Xena confirmed Gabrielle had return safely late that afternoon. She left the palace riding Argo to the very same location Gabrielle had described. She did not know why she was compelled to visit the site. It was akin to inspecting the scene of a crime.
As hard as she tried to counter her darkest thoughts, on this day those thoughts had dominion over her. Xena wanted to believe Inis was no threat to her. She told herself that Gabrielle had chosen her over the soldier. She tried to mine the necessary assurance by concentrating on the strength and depth of their ever-growing connection. She struggled to believe that their connection was authentic and not a mere illusion.
If only Gabrielle had mentioned that Inis was in Corinth. If only Gabrielle had described how she had been sharing her mid-day meals with him. After making a few inquiries Xena learned that Inis' attentiveness to Gabrielle was common knowledge. Gabrielle had sat with Inis by her side under the watchful sight of the garrison. Xena knew that if she had not been preoccupied with the conference she would too have held the same knowledge.
Gabrielle's actions were so open no one thought twice of it. There had been no fuel for gossip. Just as her relationship with the Conqueror, Gabrielle's friendships with the Royal Guardsmen and soldiers were a part of her identity. Both shaped how others thought of her. Many found the latter easier to understand than the former.
Xena sat at the riverside as the sun touched the horizon. Soon she would return to Corinth. Soon she would face the woman she had given her promise to. What struck Xena as the sun disappeared, surrendering the world to the night, was the fact that Gabrielle had never returned the promise. Xena always took it for granted that she had Gabrielle's pledge. She never thought to ask Gabrielle for an oath of fidelity. She never thought to ask Gabrielle whether her commitment went beyond the present day and carried forward through their lifetimes. The only thing she ever asked Gabrielle for was the truth. Xena's heart quavered. Gabrielle could be with Inis and not stand accused of any betrayal. There could be no betrayal without there first being a promise.
Suspicions continued to torment Xena. She could not discount that she had offered Gabrielle a respite but had been discouraged. Xena recalled the hunting trip she had taken to prove to herself that Gabrielle could be trusted. At that day's conclusion she was able to move on. She had taken the necessary steps to prove her worst fears wrong. Xena decided that though a better person would be able to rise above her jealously she was not that better person and needed to do what had to be done to allay her doubts.
While she waited for Xena, Gabrielle sat near the dormant fireplace studying a new scroll from the medical library. Xena had left her a note expressing regret that, contrary to their plans, they would not dine together. She assumed Xena was mediating a dispute.
Xena entered their bedchamber.
Gabrielle looked over to her lover. "Hi. You look tired." She placed the scroll aside.
Xena sat across from Gabrielle. "It was a long day."
"Did you take care of the problem?"
"I'm still working on it." Xena clenched a chair arm with her sword hand.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Xena redirected. "I'd rather hear about your day."
Gabrielle pointed at the scroll. "Five of the medicinal scrolls from Chin have been translated. I've been reading about the herbs they use to treat fevers. Do you think Lao Ma would object to adding the herbs to our trade list?"
"Shouldn't be a problem." Again, Xena redirected their conversation. "Don't tell me you spent a beautiful day like today in the library."
"Just after mid-day meal. I spent part of the morning down in the kitchens with Makia and then I lent a hand in the infirmary."
"Sounds like a full day."
"You shouldn't push yourself so hard."
Gabrielle swept aside Xena's concern. "I don't think catching up on palace gossip with Makia, while helping cut vegetables, hard work."
"Nonetheless…" Xena's voice drifted. Gabrielle's omission had given Xena the answer she feared. She got to her feet, unable to harness her rising agitation.
Gabrielle's gaze followed Xena to the balcony. "What's wrong?"
Xena shook her head.
Gabrielle was now truly worried. She approached Xena and placed her hand on the small of the warrior's back. "Tell me."
Xena kept her eyes forward, returning to the night she had only just quit. "There is nothing I can say to you."
Gabrielle could feel Xena tremble. She walked around and stood before her silently demanding to be recognized. Xena exuded a familiar aura. Gabrielle knew Xena's battle lust. She believed she understood Xena's rare, but profound need to find release in intense physical intimacy. Gabrielle had the choice to give herself to Xena or to withhold consent. In her deepest core Gabrielle knew she faced such a decision on this night. She had never refused Xena. She had been able to make peace with what was Xena's remarkable pendulum swing from tenderness to near fearful dominance. The effect Xena had upon her on this night was in many ways the same as when she was in the midst of her battle lust, but there was a difference. There was an unmistakable sensation of danger Gabrielle had never felt before in Xena's presence.
"Xena, you're trembling."
Xena closed her eyes and bowed her head trying to regather her focus, to hold back the violence that threatened to consume her. Her violence had a place in battle; it had no place between her and Gabrielle.
She felt Gabrielle's lips against her own. The kiss overwhelmed her will. She swept Gabrielle up into her arms and carried her to bed. Xena felt the bough break within her. It was not passion that found release; it was her rage. It surged to the surface, sweeping away her capacity for tenderness and compassion. Beneath her lay Gabrielle. In the moment, she would own the woman.
Xena's rough handling sent a shock wave through Gabrielle. She placed her hands against Xena's chest trying to ease the feeling of suffocation.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out in growing alarm.
"You're mine, Gabrielle," Xena growled.
"Xena, please…" Gabrielle begged.
Xena took Gabrielle's hands with her own, pinning the smaller woman down. She claimed Gabrielle's mouth harshly, biting down on her lip, drawing blood. Gabrielle turned her head seeking relief.
"Xena… Don't do this. You swore you would never…"
Xena froze. She recognized fear in Gabrielle's eyes and in her voice. Fear she had caused. Fear she had wanted to cause. Disgusted by her own actions, she release Gabrielle and lifted herself off the bed. She left their rooms blindly, taking the back corridor. She found herself at the turret. She stepped outside and walked to the ledge. In her despair the thought of flinging herself over was tempting. She heard footsteps. She gripped the ledge with her hands. Her gaze held to the horizon.
Gabrielle quickly overcame her initial panic. A greater fear, one for her partner, caused her to follow Xena up to the turret. She paused at the threshold. She gently called Xena's name.
Xena answered with genuine remorse. "I'm sorry I hurt you."
Gabrielle took a step forward. "Even after a battle you've never been like this. What's happened to you?"
"I can't explain."
It was not like Xena to deny Gabrielle an explanation. "There won't be any violence in our bed. I won't give you that."
Gabrielle struggled to surmount her fear. She had always harbored the apprehension that, no matter what Xena had promised, there would be consequences to her refusal. "Will you seek your release with someone else?"
Xena spoke without thought. "I don't know."
This was the moment that Gabrielle had dreaded. She had a second choice to make. As hard as it was for her, she was willing to pay the price to keep Xena in her life. "Do what you must. I only ask that you be discreet."
Gabrielle's own words fell bitterly across Xena's tongue. "I will be as discreet as you have been."
Gabrielle was confused. "What do you mean?"
Xena turned around. As accuser she would face the accused. "Inis."
Gabrielle paused upon hearing Xena's charge. Everything that had transpired in the previous half-candlemark was placed in a painfully stark context. "Xena, I can explain."
"Can you?" Xena's anger ruled her. "Can you explain why you didn't tell me that he came to Corinth with General Paulos? Or why you have been meeting with him regularly. Or why today you rode off together for the better part of the day?"
Gabrielle defended her actions. "Inis is only going to be in Corinth for a short time. I knew that you never wanted to know about him so I thought it better to keep the time we were spending together from you."
"Does he still love you?"
"I want to be his friend."
Xena pursued her worst fear. "You didn't answer my question. Does he love you?"
Gabrielle answered the only way she could. She was truthful. "Yes."
"How did it feel when he made love to you?"
Gabrielle recalled Inis' renewed confession of love. The ensuing conversation had taken far longer than she anticipated, delaying her return from the river. She had little success appeasing the young soldier. The argument painfully opened her own wound, one that she had carefully tended. "Only with words, Xena. I won't lie to you and pretend that a part of me didn't feel good to be told that I am loved."
Xena now felt accused. She had no words for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle needed to know the true bounds imposed upon her life with the Conqueror. "Am I forbidden to see Inis?"
The knowledge that Gabrielle wished to see her former lover broke Xena. "You are a freewoman."
Gabrielle's brief anger was appeased. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Nor I you, but it is done." Finding it difficult to be the subject of Gabrielle's gaze, Xena turned away.
Gabrielle waited until she was able to calm her conflicting emotions. "Come back with me."
Xena's voice fractured. "You go ahead. I'll follow in a little while."
Gabrielle cautiously approached Xena, placing her hand once again upon the small of her back. Xena straightened stiffly in reaction to Gabrielle's touch.
"I'm afraid if I leave here without you that I'll lose you forever. I won't take that risk."
Xena's body bore forward. "I hurt. I haven't hurt this much since Lyceus died."
Gabrielle rested her body against Xena's, wrapping her arms gently around her lover's waist. "I'm sorry."
Xena could not withstand the impact of Gabrielle's tenderness. Pain, deeply held, rose from her heart, provoking tears. She began to cry. Her emotions consumed her. She had no power to rein their force. Her body convulsed in a great sob. She gasped as her breath escaped her. There seemed to be no end to her release. Gabrielle tightened her hold. She knew she might never be gifted with words of love, but on this night she was given Xena's tears and that was enough.
Gabrielle cradled her sleeping lover in her arms as they both lay on the floor of the turret. Unlike when Xena was injured, Gabrielle had not been sent away. Instead she was held to. Gabrielle had never known Xena to allow such vulnerability. She had never felt more needed.
"Hey." Gabrielle smoothed Xena's hair.
Xena gathered her thoughts, recalling the events of the previous evening. She felt terribly exposed. She looked up to the sky to measure the time of day. "Targon will be expecting me soon." She rose, breaking Gabrielle's embrace.
Gabrielle released her freely, following Xena with her eyes as the latter stood up. "Xena."
"I will be seeing Inis one more time. Only to say good-bye."
Xena reached out and offered Gabrielle her hand. Gabrielle took it, allowing Xena to help her to her feet. For a moment, looking down at their joined hands, Xena debated whether to disengage herself. No matter how great her discomfort, she could not reject Gabrielle completely. Their held hands offered a modicum of hope that they would find their way back to each other. Xena led Gabrielle down the turret stairs to their suite. Gabrielle remained silent, grateful that she had not been abandoned.
At mid-day Xena left the palace meeting hall and walked to the infirmary. She did not see Gabrielle. Dalius came to her.
"Your Majesty, how may I help you?"
"Is Lady Gabrielle here?"
"No, Your Majesty. I received a message this morning not to expect her."
Xena stepped outside. She felt she was being observed. She looked toward the far right. Across the courtyard stood a soldier. He was wearing the Fourth Army insignia. He defiantly held the Conqueror's gaze. Xena had two questions answered. She now knew what Inis looked like and she knew that Gabrielle was not with him.
Xena entered the mess tent. All the men stood at attention.
"As you were."
Her eyes scanned the room until she saw Trevor. He caught her eye. She nodded. He stood up and went to her.
"Where is Lady Gabrielle?"
Trevor relayed, "My last report was that Lady Gabrielle remains in your suite."
"When was that?"
"Less than a candlemark ago, My Liege."
Xena ran down the palace halls toward their suite. She slowed only when she reached the entrance, walking briskly pass the guard. From her meeting chamber she entered their bedchamber. Gabrielle sat by the fireplace. Xena went to her, pausing a few paces away waiting to be recognized. Gabrielle slowly shifted her gaze to the warrior. Xena's heart ached. Gabrielle seemed a world away from her.
Xena confessed. "I was worried when I learned you hadn't left our rooms."
Gabrielle spoke fearfully. "Do I still have a place in your life?"
Xena dropped to her knee in front of Gabrielle. "Yes!" The pendulum swung back to Xena's incomparable tenderness. She took Gabrielle's hand with her own. "We both made mistakes. I hope you agree that they were not so great that we cannot move beyond them, together."
"I…" Gabrielle held back her words of love. She felt a desperate need to say them, but dared not speak, holding to her conviction never to tempt a recurrence of Xena's rejection. She leaned forward and fell into Xena's embrace.
"I've got you." Xena held her lover closely. She had the answer to her final question. She had Gabrielle's forgiveness.
Xena and Jared led their horses through the forest.
"I'm not surprised to hear it was the lass' idea that you go on a hunt."
Xena quipped, "She felt that in the long run it would be better for the realm than my killing one or two of the nobles."
Jared laughed. "She does you good."
Xena felt comfortable enough to ask a question she had held unspoken for days. "Jared, did you know Inis was in the palace?"
The General answered confidently, "Yes, I did."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You were clear that the less of Inis you knew about the better for all. The lass did you no wrong. If I felt she had compromised your honor I would have spoken to you. Under the circumstances I thought the business of Inis was best left for the two of you to resolve without interference."
"It's been difficult..." Xena turned to Jared, "…for both of us."
Jared observed, "The lass seemed in good spirits this morning."
Xena smiled, remembering the gentle kiss Gabrielle sent her off with. "The last two days have helped."
"I noticed she has not left the palace."
"By her choice. I expect she will speak to Inis today." Xena noted how Jared's brow knitted. She added, "For the last time. I don't think she's looking forward to it. I wish I could help her, but she won't talk to me about what's between them."
"Do you really expect her to?"
"No." Xena felt the expanse that separated her from her partner; it was one that Gabrielle had yet to shepherd her across. "Gabrielle has always been very private. She'll tell a story about anyone but herself."
Jared understood more than Xena realized. "Her past isn't without difficult memories."
"So she chooses to remember nothing."
Jared decided to ease the mood. "What kind of girl do you think she was?"
Xena smiled anew. "Can you imagine her as a tyke, with her long blond hair and bright green eyes?"
"I say she was a spitfire."
"The way she lights up when I spar with her, I think so!"
Xena noted, "She's always serious when we spar."
Jared was droll in his response. "Who isn't when they spar with you?"
Xena saw herself differently when in her lover's presence. "I'm not the Conqueror to Gabrielle. Not anymore."
"You're right," Jared agreed. "You are more to her than the Conqueror."
They continued to walk.
Xena announced, "Gabrielle and I are going to Amphipolis after the conference."
Jared quipped. "Taking her home to mother?"
Xena countered. "Mother has met her."
"Under different circumstances." Jared volleyed back.
"Yes, unfortunately." Xena paused. "Mother knew."
Jared looked over to his companion. "What did Cyrene know?"
"That I… that I would do better if I had Gabrielle in my life."
"I always said Cyrene was a smart woman. Like mother, like daughter. I must say there was a time that I wondered what happened that the fruit fell so far from the tree, but then you came 'round and brought Gabrielle back to Corinth with you and my faith was restored."
"Jared, do you think you might be taking one liberty too much?"
The General smiled, "Just keeping my promise to the lass to make sure you don't take yourself too seriously today."
Xena grinned and shook her head. "An alliance between the two of you frightens me."
Jared laughed. "Just wait until we arrive in Amphipolis. The lass, Cyrene and me. We can think up a grand conspiracy against you."
"Who said you're coming?"
"You won't invite me?"
"It would be an act of self-defense on my part to leave you behind."
Xena stilled. She felt a wave of fear, not her own. Jared recognized the change in her and held his tongue.
Xena instructed. "Jared, look around. Do you sense anything?"
Jared concentrated on their surroundings. "No, Xena, I don't."
Xena turned to Argo. She spoke softly to the mare. "Hey girl, what say you?" Xena had learned to trust Argo's senses. Argo was at ease. "I don't know, Jared. I must be imagining things."
"It's not like you."
Xena closed her eyes. The sensation of fear was enhanced in the stillness. "Something's wrong. Something, somewhere is wrong."
"Corinth?" Jared speculated.
Xena went to Argo's side and readied to mount. "I hate cutting our day short, but we're going back."
Jared mirrored Xena's actions. "I'm with you."
Trevor caught the unexpected but welcomed sight of the Conqueror and the General. He ran from the infirmary and met them in the courtyard. He called out. "It's Lady Gabrielle. She is in the infirmary."
Xena dismounted. "What happened?"
"She's been hurt. She has a head wound and remains unconscious."
Xena ran to the infirmary. Upon entering, she immediately noted the double screen that had been raised. Xena stepped behind the screen to find Gabrielle lying in bed, her face bruised, a cut across her lips. Xena fell to her knees beside the bed. Her hand hovered over Gabrielle; afraid that to touch her would be to hurt her.
"Who would do this?"
Dalius stood nearby. "We suspect Inis. He left with Lady Gabrielle to the river. When they did not return as scheduled, Trevor rode out with a search party. The Guardsmen found Lady Gabrielle, but no Inis."
"Was she violated?"
Dalius' heart ached for his young assistant. "It is possible."
Xena looked up at him. "You're not sure?"
"Much of her body was submerged in the river. Evidence of what might have been done to her could have washed away."
"Her clothes. Were they disturbed?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Xena felt Jared's presence behind her.
Jared heard Dalius' report. The sight of his injured ward brought him near tears. "Here, My Liege."
"I won't leave her. Find Inis. If he harmed Gabrielle, let her brothers do with him what they like. If there is anything left when they are done, throw him in the dungeon and I'll finish the job."
It was near midnight when Jared stepped out of the barracks and walked to a water trough. He washed his bloodied hands before making his way to the infirmary. Jared entered Gabrielle's private space. Xena remained kneeling by her side.
"No." Xena was somber. "Have you news?"
The General's cool voice carried no regret. "Inis is dead."
Xena looked up to Jared. "You left nothing of him for me?"
"His blood will not be on your hands."
"I'm not sure it will matter to Gabrielle. Did he say anything before he died?"
Jared offered a succinct report. "He confessed he hit the lass out of anger. He said he ran away in fear. He swore he harmed her no further."
"Do you believe him?"
"I do not know what to believe." Jared grieved. "I only know what I want to believe."
Xena's gaze returned to Gabrielle. "Then pray that the Gods had mercy on her."
Dalius advised not moving Gabrielle until she regained consciousness. Xena sat on the infirmary floor, her back to the wall beside Gabrielle's cot. She tried to make sense of what had happened. Inis had sworn his love to Gabrielle. He had been an honorable soldier. Why men destroy what they claim to love was beyond her comprehension and yet she knew the feeling well. Her feelings of being betrayed had brought out the worst in her. They drove her to act against reason. A consequence of her darkest emotions was a yearning to raze what she held closest to her heart, what the best of her valued.
She hated Inis for what he had done to Gabrielle. She hated him for reminding her that she was not unlike him. The difference was that upon hearing Gabrielle's cry to stop hurting her, she did. Xena wished she could say that removing herself from Gabrielle had been an act of reason, that reason remained her master in the whirlwind of emotion. But, it was not. Reason had abandoned her. It was only her tender feelings for Gabrielle that stopped the unforgivable from happening.
Xena's gaze held Gabrielle's still body. She wondered how much more Gabrielle could endure. There had to be a limit to Gabrielle's ability to trust, to forgive, to love.
Xena saw Gabrielle's eyes flutter. She moved to the bedside and took her hand. A low moan escaped from Gabrielle's throat. Xena waited for the injured woman to complete the fragile journey back to their shared world.
Gabrielle heard Xena whisper her name. She wanted to see her lover more than avoid the ache in her head. She opened her eyes. Slowly, the image of Xena's concerned countenance came into focus.
"I'm here." Xena reassured, "You're safe."
Gabrielle's memory returned, with it came a start of panic. "Inis."
Xena placed a calming hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Don't worry."
Gabrielle protested. "It was Inis."
"I know." Xena soothed. "Why did he hurt you?"
The truth was simple. "I could not love him."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Remembering she opened them anew, She captured Xena's eyes, needing the strength she found in them. "Inis became angry when I refused him. He hit me. Xena, I tried to fight him …"
"I know you did."
"I hit my head. I don't know what happened after..."
Xena saw a shadow overtake Gabrielle's mien. She assumed Gabrielle's fear. "He said he didn't take you."
"I don't know," Gabrielle said more to herself than to Xena.
"You're going to be all right."
"I shouldn't have gone with him. I thought it would be easier for us to talk if we were away from the palace." A tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. "Forgive me."
Xena was adamant. "You did nothing wrong."
"Where is Inis?"
Xena was dispassionate. "He did not survive your brothers' justice."
Gabrielle turned her head away.
"You are still a member of the Royal Guard. They love you and will never allow anyone to hurt you and survive. It is a matter of honor."
Gabrielle returned her gaze to Xena. "Must death always follow a breach of honor?"
Xena was unwavering. "There is no life without honor."
Gabrielle was moved to the Conqueror's suite soon after she regained consciousness. Her concussion did not prove as severe as Dalius originally feared. Within two days after her injury Gabrielle was able to walk about the palace for short durations before fatigue forced her back to bed.
Xena had impatiently waited for this moment. The conference had concluded and she had just sent off the last of the visiting leaders. Xena entered their bedchamber. Gabrielle lay asleep. Xena removed her boots, sword and chakram and slipped into bed. Needing to feel Gabrielle close to her, she laid her body against the younger woman.
Gabrielle stirred. "Xena?"
Xena whispered. "Go back to sleep."
"Are they gone?"
"All gone. Targon and Jared have orders not to disturb us."
"For how long?"
"Until I say otherwise."
Gabrielle turned on her back to better see her lover. "You're all mine?"
Xena smiled as she lifted a wisp of hair from Gabrielle's brow. "All yours."
"What shall I do with you?"
"What will give you pleasure?"
"Is it still raining?"
"Yes." Xena looked over to the window. "I say it will rain through the morning."
Gabrielle decided, "Then we shall stay indoors."
"A good choice."
"And if I say we will stay in bed until mid-day meal?"
"I will be happy to keep you company." Xena yielded.
"How shall you keep me company?" Gabrielle mused with a tempting smile.
Xena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle tenderly. "I will keep you company in whatever way is to your liking."
Gabrielle reached up and cupped Xena's cheek. "Xena."
Xena leaned into Gabrielle's hand. "Yes, Gabrielle."
"Will you hold me?"
Xena took Gabrielle's hand and guided her. "Come to me."
Xena shifted to rest on her back. Gabrielle allowed herself to be led to lie upon Xena's shoulder. They lay quietly for a time.
Xena breached the silence. "You had a bad dream last night."
Gabrielle said nothing.
Xena assured. "You can tell me."
Gabrielle spoke quietly. "Inis."
"I'm sorry I wasn't at the river to stop him."
"You trusted me and respected my wishes."
Xena kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. "I would prefer that the choice wasn't between my trust and your well being."
Gabrielle lamented, "I made another mistake we need to move beyond."
"It is already in the past."
"Thank you." Gabrielle raised herself.
Xena lifted her hand and combed her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. "I have marveled at your capacity to forgive. You are a far better person than I could ever hope to be."
"I have seen you forgive others."
"Only the inconsequential."
Gabrielle knew Xena's grace. "I hurt you."
"You spoke the truth." Xena defined her standard. "What I do not tolerate are those who have harmed my honor or my body."
"Are those your limits?"
"Yes. Gabrielle, you may petition for my leniency, but remember, once the line has been crossed there will be nothing for us to discuss."
"I know." Gabrielle recalled a difficult memory. "I remember Talas."
Xena was undeterred in her conviction. "He betrayed Greece."
Gabrielle argued, "He was young and made a mistake."
"We must all live with the consequences of our mistakes. I will be the first to admit that the Fates are not kind to the young."
"But Xena, what of the mistakes you made on your road to Corinth? If everyone felt the way you do, you would not be ruler of Greece."
"If everyone felt the way you do Gabrielle, I would be loved. Instead I am considered the lesser of the many evils vying for the crown."
Gabrielle went on with her argument missing the personal import of Xena's declaration. "Don't you agree that a world with more forgiveness would be a better world?"
"Yes, but that does not change my outlook." Xena regretted, "I fear I am destined to disappoint you time and time again."
Gabrielle felt both defeated and disappointed. "We don't agree."
"I will not pretend otherwise."
"Then I shall pray that I never tarnish your honor or injure your body. Either will cost me my life."
Xena was stunned by Gabrielle's observation. She protested. "Gabrielle..."
Gabrielle was firm, "I only echo your words."
"Why say this to me?"
"Because, as much as you state that we are equals, you are still the ruler of Greece and I am still your subject."
Xena had done her best to mitigate the differences in their station. She had obviously failed to appease her previously silent partner. "What would you have me do?"
Gabrielle paused in thought. She wanted the lesser-known aspect of her Lord to have a more prominent role in the ruling of the realm. "Before you stand in judgment of another, remember how it felt to be a peasant girl growing up in Amphipolis."
"And what will that remembrance grant me?"
Xena received the harsh judgment with difficulty. "You see no compassion in me?"
Gabrielle took Xena's hand. "I do. I only wish you would grant your compassion as generously to others as you have to me."
Gabrielle sat at the larger of the kitchen tables sipping a mug of tea as Makia stood by the fire spicing a lamb skewered on a spit.
The cook looked a glance. "Gabrielle, how long are you going to sit there chewing your lip?"
"I'm just thinking."
"For the last two mornings you've come to my kitchen holding in whatever it is that's troubling you. There is only so much an old woman can stand."
Gabrielle confessed, "Makia, I'm afraid."
The cook wiped her hands on her apron and sat across from Gabrielle. "Of what, girl?"
Gabrielle lost her courage.
Makia tried leading the conversation. "Has this to do with the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle bowed her head as a tear fell down her cheek.
Makia's fear for Gabrielle surfaced. "Has she hurt you?"
"No!" Gabrielle protested. "She's been wonderful."
The older woman composed herself. "Good. I would hope she would be. You've had a hard time of it as it is. Has this to do with that soldier?"
"He can't hurt you anymore."
Gabrielle whispered, "He may have destroyed my life."
"How so, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle was dispassionate. She spoke as if she was telling a story that was not her own.
"Inis became angry when I told him I wouldn't see him again. He cursed the Conqueror. He said that being with her would cause me to die a slow death. He said he loved me and if I consented to be with him again he would break the spell the Conqueror had placed over me. When I refused him he hit me across the face. The force of his strike drove me into the river. He followed me into the water and grabbed me. The water was knee high and it was hard to move through it. That's when he ripped my dress. He held me by the back of the head and kissed me hard. I fought him off. I tried to back away from him, moving closer to shore. He marched straight toward me and hit me again. I fell completely into the water. He came and stood over me. I begged him to stop. He raised me up by the front of my dress and then pushed me down again. That's when my head hit a river rock and I was knocked unconscious. The last thing I remember was Inis yelling that he would have me."
Makia reached out and took Gabrielle's hand. "I'm so sorry."
"I believe he raped me."
Makia took a breath to steady herself. "What makes you think so?"
A second tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. "I believe I am with child."
"A child…" Makia looked down as her mind tried to make sense of the news. "Your cycle is late?"
"The Conqueror doesn't know?"
"How can I tell her?"
Makia insisted, "You must tell her."
"This is all my fault. I shouldn't have agreed to go to the river with Inis. I was a fool to trust him."
"You cannot blame yourself for what he did to you."
Gabrielle pulled her hand free. "I need to leave Corinth."
"For what purpose?"
"To have my child. To raise my child."
The cook wondered if Gabrielle had considered all the alternatives. "Gabrielle, you have studied with a midwife. There are ways to end your pregnancy. The Conqueror does not have to know."
Gabrielle stood up. "No! I will not kill my baby."
Makia begged, "Then tell the Conqueror the truth."
"She will despise me."
"You are wrong." Makia reached out and took Gabrielle's hand. She guided the young woman back to her seat. "Give her a chance to prove you wrong."
"I need to find a reason to leave the city. I'll disappear."
"The Conqueror will turn Greece inside out looking for you."
"Then I will leave Greece."
Makia shook her head. "Do you really think she will stop at Greece? You can't do this. Have you no eyes to see how much she cares for you. You do not have to have this child alone."
"You don't understand. She doesn't…" Gabrielle stopped. She could not complete her confession.
Makia was at a loss. "She doesn't what, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle stood up again. "I shouldn't have told you."
"I beg you to wait." Makia was forceful in her counsel, "Don't rush into a decision you will regret for the rest of your life. At least wait until you are sure of the baby."
Gabrielle held a modicum of hope. "I will wait a fortnight. By then I will be sure."
Rugs and pillows were scattered by the fireplace in the Conqueror's bedchamber. The lovers sat opposite one another. They had shared a quiet dinner and easy conversation. Xena's eyes rested gently upon Gabrielle. Gabrielle felt the warmth of Xena's regard. She longed to know what thoughts lingered in her lover's mind.
"Will you tell me?"
"I love you."
The words came simply, easily. Xena spoke them as if to declare her love was familiar, not foreign, as if she had done so many times in the past, when in fact this was the first.
Gabrielle heard the words. They resonated within her heart and for a moment stilled the beat.
Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, will you be my Queen?"
That Xena chose to speak of love, of joining, as Gabrielle waited to confirm whether she was with child was a cruel play by the Fates. She could not accept Xena's offer. The shame she carried within her would not allow it.
Gabrielle slipped her hand from Xena's. "I regret, My Lord, that I cannot accept your offer."
"My Lord?" Xena leaned back as if slapped. Gabrielle averted Xena's scrutiny. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I've misunderstood your… intentions toward me."
Gabrielle tried to offer an honorable reason for her denial, one that did not diminish either of them. "In our silence, we both have changed."
"We haven't spoken of love since you were wounded near Amphipolis."
Xena conceded. "No, we haven't." She was at a complete loss.
Gabrielle waited for the Conqueror's anger. The Conqueror was nowhere to be found in Xena's soul. The woman before her shone with a pure, shattered heart. Gabrielle took advantage of the moment to secure a separation that would save them both.
"It may be best if I leave the palace."
"Leave?" Xena shook her head as if to deflect Gabrielle's words.
"I don't understand."
"It's for the better."
"You don't… I can't believe I've been so blind… so wrong."
Gabrielle did not know how she found the strength, but she captured Xena's gaze and held it with steadfast determination. "Please, let me go."
Xena stood up. Regaining a thread of composure she spoke with a cool, detached voice. "I will instruct Targon to give you a generous stipend."
"I ask for nothing."
The moment was beyond Xena's comprehension. "There is nothing I can give you?"
The sight of Xena's tortured countenance splintered Gabrielle's composure. "Your forgiveness."
"The truth does not require forgiveness." Xena looked about. She did not belong in the room with Gabrielle. "I will find another bed until you depart."
Xena walked to the door and paused. She spoke without looking back. "Will I see you before you leave?"
Gabrielle had no cause to deny the request. "If you wish."
Xena turned her gaze back to Gabrielle. "I do."
"Thank you." Xena left their suite and walked down the palace corridor with no destination in mind. Her world had collapsed with little fanfare. She had declared her love and offered Gabrielle Greece. She wondered how terrible Gabrielle judged her to have rejected both.
Jared entered the Conqueror's suite. "Lass, are you here?"
Gabrielle stepped into the room from the balcony.
Jared was at his wits end. "Is it true? Are you leaving Corinth?"
Gabrielle cast her eyes down.
Jared went to her. "Why?" Faced with Gabrielle's silence, Jared threatened. "I will take the palace apart until I get my answer."
Gabrielle looked up in alarm. "No, Jared, please don't."
"Then tell me. I can't help Xena or you if you don't."
Gabrielle put her hand on his arm. "Do for her what you've always done. Be her friend."
"I am your friend, too."
"You can't help me. Not this time."
"I don't understand. What can cause you to leave her now?"
Gabrielle stepped away. "Xena said she loves me."
Jared was now more confused than ever. He followed Gabrielle. "Believe her."
"I do. She asked me to be her Queen."
"Lass…" Xena had failed to tell Jared of her proposal.
"Jared, I cannot be Xena's Queen."
"Haven't the past moons proven to you that you have nothing to fear in Court."
Gabrielle was steadfast. "I don't fear Court."
Jared stepped back. He spoke his thoughts. "What else is there that has kept you apart? You love her. Tell me you don't!"
"It's because I love her that I must leave."
"What manner of love is it that takes you away from her just as she has opened her heart to you?"
"I do not deserve to stand by her side."
Having lost all control of his temper Jared shouted, "Why in the name of Ares not!"
Gabrielle cried in return, "Because the child I carry is not hers!"
Jared was shaken by Gabrielle's revelation. "By the Gods."
"Do you now understand?"
"We feared Inis had lied." Jared spat. "I was too kind to the bastard."
Gabrielle was grateful. "Thank you for not assuming I gave myself to him."
"You must trust Xena and tell her the truth."
Gabrielle set aside Jared's counsel. "Help me leave Corinth. There is nothing left of Poteidaia for me to go back to. I need a safe place, a place that could use the services of a healer."
Jared did not want to lose Gabrielle. "Are you determined to leave?"
Jared would not abandon his ward. "Then I will make inquires and find you a suitable position."
Gabrielle loved the General for all he had and continued to give her. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me, lass. I am now certain to be condemned to Tartarus."
Xena took residence in the furthest wing from her suite within the palace. Two days passed as Gabrielle made arrangements for her departure. A mist covered the land as the sun rose marking the end of night. Xena sat in a chair by the fireplace of the bedchamber. Her eyes were fixed upon the roaring flames. Gabrielle entered the chamber unannounced. She wore a simple traveling dress. As promised, she came to bid Xena farewell.
"My Lord, I am ready to leave."
Xena stared at the fire. "Gabrielle. Have you ever lied to me?"
"No." Gabrielle rationalized there was no lie in her silence.
"Other than the fact Inis was in Corinth, have you ever kept the truth from me?"
Gabrielle felt trapped. Silence was her answer.
Xena kept her eyes on the flames. "Tell me the truth now. The complete truth. Why are you leaving Corinth?"
Gabrielle drew near until she stood before Xena. She heard Makia's words. She heard Jared's. She felt her own heart's demand. She had a choice, either stand silent or give Xena the only thing Xena had ever asked from her - the truth. "I believe I am with child."
Xena slowly raised her eyes. "Inis?"
"Yes. I have not bled this fortnight as I should have."
"You never gave yourself to him." Xena's words were more a statement than a question.
"No, I did not." Gabrielle needed to affirm her innocence in light of the consequences of her poor judgment.
Xena continued her questions in a calm manner. "Are you sure you're pregnant? He swore he did not take you."
Xena's calmness touched Gabrielle's so that she too spoke evenly. "It's still early, but what other explanation can there be?"
Xena's experience as a healer gave her hope. "You were badly hurt. The trauma could have caused a delay in your cycle."
"I wish that were true."
Xena addressed the most difficult probability. "Gabrielle, why does the fact that you may be with child cause you to leave me?"
Gabrielle was driven by her shame and by her belief in the sacredness of an innocent life. "I cannot ask you to raise my child and I will not give my child away."
"And if I offer to accept the child?"
"The child will be a bastard."
Xena leaned forward in her chair. "Not if you allow me the honor of giving the child my birthright."
Gabrielle quirked her head slightly. She struggled to comprehend what Xena offered. The offer affirmed all that Makia and Jared had argued. If was beyond Gabrielle's conception of Xena's love. She fell to her knees at Xena's feet.
Xena dropped to the floor and embraced Gabrielle. "Don't go down on your knees to me."
Gabrielle was consumed in tears. "How can you do this?"
Xena raised Gabrielle's chin with her hand. "Do you love me?"
"Yes!" Gabrielle cried wholeheartedly.
"Then I will ask you once again. Gabrielle of Poteidaia, will you be my Queen?"
The following evening having completed the final arrangements for a journey to Amphipolis, Xena entered her suite. She found Gabrielle standing on the balcony. She walked behind her and took the younger woman into an embrace. Together they watched the setting sun.
Xena whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "Hello."
Gabrielle leaned back comfortably. "There is a scroll on your desk."
Xena looked over to it. "Who is it from?"
Without a further word, Xena gently released Gabrielle and retrieved the scroll. She opened it. The first line was the title, 'My Lord.'
This is the story of a little girl who lived in the village of Poteidaia. The little girl never felt she belonged. She was a dreamer. From her dreams came stories, which she enjoyed telling her sister and her few friends.
Her father was a stern man who showed little affection, was quick to discipline and never spoke of love. Her mother did her best to console the girl, assuring her that love would be hers.
During harvest the girl had been feeling particularly sad. Her mother found her lying in bed, wanting nothing to do with the world. Taking her daughter into her arms, the woman told her the tale of a young peasant girl much like herself who lost her family to illness. One day a fine Lord met the girl on the road to his estate and learned her story. He took pity on her and arranged for her to live with a good family on his lands. From time to time the Lord would visit the girl to ensure her safety and happiness.
The day came when the Lord decided to marry. Everyone from the nearby villages was invited to the celebration. The name of his bride was kept secret. It was rumored that the woman who earned the Lord's love was not equal to his station. It caused bitterness among the nobles whose daughters the Lord overlooked.
The girl was now a beautiful young woman. She and her adopted family traveled to the Lord's castle. On his wedding day the Lord went to the young woman privately and declared his love. As he spoke she realized she had always loved him but never allowed her heart to speak because she had no hope of ever being his. She accepted his proposal and they married. They both knew happiness. During all the years of their life together, the young woman never forgot her loss or her heart's miraculous capacity to heal and love anew.
The little girl from Poteidaia forgot the story of the orphan and the Lord until the day she came to the city of Corinth as a slave. In Corinth she met her mistress and from that day forward she knew she had met her Lord.
Xena closed the scroll and stepped toward Gabrielle.
Gabrielle turned to her. "From my first days in Corinth I wanted you to be my Lord. I didn't expect you to love me but I hoped you would keep me safe and give me a chance at happiness. Like the girl in the story, I grew to love you. With time I accepted that my life would not be like the girl's. I would never have your love. Even without your love I knew I had your regard and having your regard was enough. You were my happiness."
Xena spoke with a full heart. "So, every time you addressed me as 'My Lord'…"
Gabrielle completed the thought. "I was saying, 'I love you' and praying that in spite of everything that separated us, you would someday love me."
"That day came a long time ago."
Gabrielle approached Xena. She placed her hand over Xena's chest. "You have a great heart. I hope I will always be worthy of it."
Xena covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. "Why give me the scroll now? Why did you wait?"
"Because I needed to believe that you loved me."
Gabrielle declared, "I believe you love me more than I ever imagined possible."
A tear fell down Gabrielle's cheek. Xena raised her hand and with her thumb stopped its progress.
"I bled today. I am not with child."
Xena saw a blending of both sadness and relief in Gabrielle's eyes. "I don't know what to say."
Gabrielle offered a gentle smile. "There isn't anything to say."
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Be with me tonight as only you can be."
Xena gave herself freely. "I am yours, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle turned Xena's hands and placed a kiss upon each palm. "Thank you, My Lord."
Comments always encouraged and appreciated. Mayt_fanfiction@sbcglobal.net
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