The Curse of the Conqueror
The characters in this story are borrowed from the television series Xena: Warrior Princess©. The characters are fictional, which is fortunate for Xena and Gabrielle.
This story contains sex, violence, and other stuff. If sex and violence are considered offensive by the reader, this Conqueror story should be avoided. As for the other stuff . . . you'll have to read it to see. Proceed at your own risk.
Thanks to Trusty for proof reading.
Bards, who dare speak out, sing tales of how darkness descended upon the land. Those most bitter, claim darkness descended the day Xena of Amphipolis was born. Others claim it was the day she picked up the sword. A rare few acknowledge that in the beginning, she and her sword were both welcome.
Evil warlords threatening Amphipolis were the first to feel the power of her swift sword. They fell, one by one, until there were no more warlords. The young teen, who brought peace to the land, was heralded a hero and christened the Lion of Amphipolis.
Her sword was still welcome when raised against threatening armies of neighboring villages. And like the warlords before them, they fell, one by one, until there were no more threatening villages. The Lion of Amphipolis, barely out of her teens, was deemed their protector and called the Warrior Princess.
Then the praise turned into ridicule and fear as the Warrior Princess led her now-massive army into neighboring countries. And like the neighboring villages and warlords before them, one by one, kingdoms fell, until there was only one kingdom.
The Empire. Her Empire.
The Warrior Princess, no longer a hero but a destroyer of nations, proclaimed herself the Conqueror.
Over the years, those who dared to speak out against the brutality and ruthlessness, came to call the Conqueror a Goddess of Death. For how else could the sword of a warrior so young slay so many? How else could once-fertile fields transform into graveyards littered with bodies and drenched with rivers of blood?
For those who managed to avoid the Empress' wrath on the battlefield, there were other deadly prospects that loomed over them: starvation, sickness, or if deemed of value, service to the Conqueror.
It is said that those who had served and failed prayed for a quick end.
Chapter 1 - To Serve
The slave trembled as she was freed from her manacles by a large guard. As she rubbed her wrists, her eyes darted around the large, marble-covered room. There were two women attendants in white robes busily preparing a bath. Not yet acknowledging her presence, one attendant knelt at the edge of the steaming bath and gracefully drew her hand through the water as she poured a rose-colored liquid in. The other fussed over a beautiful green gown that hung over a large cushioned chair.
The slave noticed the handsome red-headed man with a goatee, obviously important from his rich clothing and jewelry, studying her and making her more nervous. After a nod from the important man, the large guard gently pushed the slave towards the bath.
Her heart sank as she watched the two attendants look at her then each other before shaking their heads sadly. They carefully removed the small woman's dirty garb. Modesty drove her to cover herself in front of the strangers as she was guided into the large, steaming tub.
"W. . . Why am I here?" The young woman finally broke the unnerving silence when the attendants began to gently wash her dirty blond hair. Never had she seen such luxurious surroundings or received such pampering from anyone. She was just a fieldhand who was in the midst of a tavern argument which drew the Conqueror's attention. Who knew the Conqueror would be in their small town's tavern, she thought with amazement. Three dead bodies and a day later, the Conqueror's soldiers came to collect her. But why? She didn't do anything wrong but be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"You are to be presented to the Conqueror tonight," the important man announced, absently rotating the large gold ring on his finger.
The slave's heart almost burst with fear. "As a . . . b. . . body slave?" She gasped, looking into the eyes of the attendants and guard who uncomfortably avoided hers. All had heard horror stories of the Conqueror's brutality and nefarious appetites in the bedroom.
The attendants nodded sadly.
Appearing to take pity on her for facing the Herculean task of pleasing the Conqueror, the important man walked to a small table and poured the slave a drink. Kneeling beside the bath, he presented the golden goblet to her. "Drink this. It will ease your nerves."
The slave grabbed the goblet and eagerly gulped down the tangy contents.
"Some have survived," one of the attendants offered with a hopeful smile.
The slave's eyes widened with panic before they rolled back in her head.
The slave slowly came to, enjoying the feel of silk against her skin. She sighed contentedly as she shifted in the decadently comfortable bed. A bed that wasn't hers. Her eyes popped open. She immediately sat up and glanced around, noticing the room awash in the warm glow of candles. It took a few moments before her eyes adjusted and noticed the rich tapestries covering the walls, flanked by various vases and sculptures on intricately carved pedestals.
She took in a sharp breath, realizing she was in the Conqueror's bedchamber. Naked. Quickly, she pulled up the sheets, then jumped, hearing a liquid being poured into a cup. The slave trembled as she squinted to make out the shadow in the corner of the room. Though she didn't really need to see the shadow, she could feel who it was. The dominating presence was unmistakable.
Emerging from the darkness, was a magnificent woman, wrapped in a dark silk robe that embraced each curve of her femininity. Her long black hair cascaded over one of her broad shoulders leaving exposed a surprisingly elegant neck for a battle-hardened warrior.
The Conqueror brought the golden goblet to her lips and took a long sip, her unnerving gaze never leaving the slave. The slave swallowed hard and her heart pounded wildly as the tall woman approached the bed. With each step, the Conqueror's robe gracefully billowed, making her appear to float upon the air like a goddess, instead of walking the Earth amongst mere mortals.
Had the slave not been terrified, she would have been in awe of the incredible beauty carefully displayed before her. Yet, she could only think of how deadly the woman was, having witnessed how swiftly the Conqueror slaughtered the three men who were stupid enough to attack her in that tavern. Remembering all that blood, her eyes dropped, knowing she would never look at a steak knife the same way again.
The slave jumped as the goblet was suddenly hurled across the room. It crashed against the wall, then dropped to the floor, clinking angrily as it rolled about. When the goblet finally came to rest, the imposing woman sat silently on the edge of the bed, irritated. After a moment of intense scrutiny, the Conqueror slowly reached out. Gently tracing her long fingers over the trembling woman's cheek, she finally spoke.
"You have a choice," the Conqueror offered in a deep purr. "Please me or die."
"Palimon!!" The Conqueror roared angrily.
The loyal lieutenant rushed into the bedchamber and deeply bowed. "Yes, Conqueror?" He asked through gasps as he gathered his breath from his sprint down the long corridor. His eyes darted from the Conqueror standing before him, to her bed and the still form in it. He cringed.
"Get my horse ready!" She snapped and started to storm out of the room. Abruptly, she stopped and eyed the dead woman that had captured Palimon's uneasy gaze. "Remove her and burn the sheets," Xena growled deeply and disappeared into an adjacent room.
"Yes, Conqueror," he exhaled.
Chapter 2 - Contributions
". . . and realizing their love could overcome any obstacle, the prince and princess lived happily ever after," Gabrielle finished with a warm smile. Enthusiastic applause erupted from the tavern audience.
Unlike other bards who dared tempt the fates, Gabrielle did not wish to dwell on the Conqueror's bloody battles or perversions, which usually drew large audiences. Instead, she chose to lift the hearts of the oppressed souls. Through her captivating storytelling, for a short but precious time, she enabled the audience to forget the constant terror that hovered over them. That was her contribution.
As the pleased young bard stepped off the stage, a handsome farmer awkwardly bolted out of his seat and approached her. "Can I buy you a drink, Gabrielle?" He asked eagerly, gawking at her chest as if her conservative blue dress was exposing something it shouldn't.
"Uh . . . no, thank you, Perdicus," Gabrielle said, glancing around uneasily and crossing her arms over her chest as she awkwardly pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. She felt like she should have worn a coat . . . and perhaps a blanket.
"How about dinner?"
"Uh . . . no, I'm not hungry," she lied uneasily. Seeing his dejected look, she added with a small smile. "But thank you anyway."
He nodded with a shrug and walked off, to her relief.
"Gabrielle!" A young woman called.
"Lila!" Gabrielle responded excitedly, spotting her sister, who wove through the disbanding crowd. "I can't believe you're here!" The bard said happily, hugging her sister, who had finally come to see her. "But you just missed my story," Gabrielle informed her with great disappointment.
"Yeah. Sorry," Lila said flatly.
"Why are you here?" Gabrielle asked with an attempted smile, brushing aside her hurt feelings once again. Her family had never supported her choice to be a bard and never bothered to listen to her perform her "foolish little stories." She should have learned by now to not get her hopes up, the bard scolded herself.
"Gabrielle, I'm going away to join the rebellion," Lila whispered, looking carefully around.
"Calm down!" Lila said uneasily, hoping the Conqueror's spies were not stalking about.
"Do Mom and Dad know?" Gabrielle said with a strained voice, attempting to be quiet as she nervously looked about.
"Yes. They are very proud of me," Lila said firmly.
"But you'll get yourself killed! I've heard how bards who speak out . . . ," Gabrielle said with worry.
"I'm not going to be a bard," Lila snapped with disdain. "I'll be a political activist!" She announced a little too loudly, then cringed at her slip.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Well, it would be one less Solstice gift to buy.
"People can't live like this forever, Gabrielle. We have to protest the oppression! Why, just the other night the Conqueror slaughtered another village!"
"Three drunken men, fighting over a woman in a tavern does not constitute a village, Lila," Gabrielle said with irritation.
"How can you defend her?!?"
"I am not defending her! I just hate it when people don't get their facts strai. . . " Gabrielle blurted.
"Fine!" Lila interrupted. "You just continue to ignore what is happening around you and tell those foolish stories of yours while I actually go do something to help."
"My stories are NOT foolish!" Gabrielle snapped as Lila shook her head and walked away. "And I DO help!" Gabrielle yelled, then growled with clenched fists. "I DO!!"
The tavern owner came up to her from behind the bar, startling her a moment. "Are you ok, sweetie?" The older women said and she gently stroked the obviously upset woman's back. "Who was that?"
"My sister," Gabrielle exhaled with irritation. "She just doesn't . . . ," Gabrielle said, then stopped and shook her head. Plastering on a smile and changing the depressing topic, she said "So. . . . how's business tonight, Cyrene?"
"Wonderful, thanks to you! I don't know how you do it," Cyrene said with a smile.
"I think people are more willing to part with their money if they are happy," Gabrielle said bashfully with a shrug, still not used to the praise she received from Cyrene. She constantly thanked the Gods for the day when Cyrene came to Poteidaia and into her life. For the first time, someone didn't laugh at her dream to tell stories. For the first time, she felt important.
"I agree. And you make them very happy," Cyrene said warmly, squeezing the younger woman's shoulder, offering more support than Gabrielle's own mother ever did.
"For a short time, I guess," Gabrielle said dejectedly, glancing to the ground with a sigh.
"Hey. What's that frown for?"
"Is telling stories enough, Cyrene?"
"Honey, don't ever underestimate the value of making someone feel good, even if it is for an hour or two," the tavern owner smiled. Cyrene was about to say something else to the bard but the bartender interrupted, needing her assistance.
"We'll talk later. OK, sweetie?" Cyrene asked, eyeing the young woman, who smiled weakly and nodded as the kind-hearted woman left her side.
Chapter 3 - Simple Gifts
Xena enjoyed the breeze against her face as she rode. Outside, in the cloak of night and away from critical eyes, she felt peace. Well, as much peace as the Empress of the Known World could. Especially considering the latest unfortunate incident in her bedchamber.
The Conqueror slowed Argo to a stop and looked up at the star-filled sky in awe. It was the one thing she couldn't conquer. Well, another thing she couldn't conquer, she considered with great frustration. Hearing a twig break, her attention was drawn down from the heavens to the seemingly empty road.
A feral grin emerged.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," she sang melodically, though she knew exactly where they were.
"Give us your money," one man said, emerging from the bushes.
"What fun is that?" She said with an amused smile and innocent shrug. "You'll have to earn it and take it from me.
As suggested, the five men charged her, causing her to laugh and draw her sword. She dismounted her horse with her usual flair and loud battle cry.
The men glanced uneasily at each other as the tall woman grinned at them and spun her sword in an intricate flourish.
"Oh, come on guys. Don't just stand there. Earn those dinars. Attack me!" Xena called out impatiently. "Attack me NOW!" She commanded.
Three of the men gasped, finally realizing why that battle cry and her leather battle dress were familiar. They dropped their swords and ran.
"HEY! Get back here!" She yelled out with annoyance. Seeing her distracted, the remaining two thugs rushed her.
With a seemingly effortless leap, she somersaulted over their heads. Landing with a grin, she easily deflected their wildly swung swords. Only after a few moments of the frantic swordplay, she tired of their incompetence and swiftly impaled one after the other. Life fled their bodies as they crumpled to the ground.
She stared at them, then her bloody sword, exhaling with disappointment. It had been a long time since she really had a worthy opponent that could take her mind off of . . . things. She knew she had to find another way to blow off steam.
After wiping the blood off her sword with one of the dead men's shirt, she whirled it in a flourish before sheathing her weapon. Eyeing the dead man's purse, she mumbled "Waste not, want not," before kneeling down to claim it. As she started to get up, she smirked, noting the other man had a small flask, which she also took. Pulling the lid off, she sniffed it, cringing at the odor before taking a long swig. She coughed as the strong liquid burned all the way down to her stomach, already full of wine. Tossing the empty flask next to the dead man, she dashed towards Argo.
Vaulting over Argo's haunches, Xena landed squarely in her saddle, prompting a groan.
"Heeyah!!" she called out and raced Argo down the road as the early morning sun finally peeked over the mountains.
Nervous Poteidaians watched as the Conqueror rode proudly into their town. Her distinctive armor and leather battle dress, adorned with a broadsword on her back and that circle of death at her hip, accentuated her already imposing figure.
Dismounting in front of the tavern, Xena gazed around, causing the frightened eyes to quickly avert down. She sighed, then scratched Argo's neck. "Wish me luck," Xena whispered uneasily, gaining a whinny and a stomp from her mare.
At the tavern door, Xena stopped and scanned the room's female population with great interest. The chattering of patrons enjoying their breakfast suddenly stopped as a blanket of fear suffocated the room. Xena shook her head slightly and headed to the empty bar as the customers quickly scattered until only the Conqueror was left. She sighed and grabbed a mug.
The bustling tavern-owner burst through the swinging kitchen doors, rear-first, with her arms full of breakfast orders. She halted in surprise. "Xena," Cyrene said flatly, watching as the dark woman sat next to the mead barrel sitting on the bar, against the wall.
"Mother," Xena said neutrally, filling a mug from the tap. "Nice place."
The tavern owner looked around uneasily then shook her head. "You did it again," Cyrene said with irritation as she put the now-unneeded food orders on the bar.
"Sorry," Xena said flatly, taking a gulp.
"You know you scare away paying customers," Cyrene scolded, prompting Xena to exhale heavily and reach for the pouch of dinars on her belt. "Oh no. I don't want your blood money," she quickly added.
"The dead don't need dinars, Mother," Xena said, finishing her mug and pouring herself another.
"And who killed them?"
"That would be me," Xena said and guzzled her mead. Cyrene shook her head with disappointment.
"Where did I go wrong?" Cyrene exhaled with a heavy heart. "They say you destroyed another village a couple nights ago."
"I don't think three drunken bums constitute a village," Xena said with irritation, looking into her empty mug.
"But you keep killing! When will it stop?"
"Who told me to not wallow in self-pity and make something of myself?!? Well I'm the Conqueror now, Mom. You'd think you'd be proud, but nooooo," Xena said wearily, pouring herself another mead.
"Wasn't I proud of you for cleaning up the streets of Amphipolis?" Cyrene countered with amazement.
Xena reluctantly nodded and took a large sip from her mug as Cyrene slid a plate of food and a fork in front of her daughter. Xena started to object but Cyrene interrupted. "I know you didn't have a decent breakfast, Xena. And that's the most important meal of the day."
Xena exhaled heavily, picked up the fork and begrudgingly took a mouthful, satisfying her mother.
"And wasn't I proud of you when you took care of those rude neighboring armies?" Cyrene continued, sitting next to her daughter.
Xena stared at her plate. "But you stopped being proud," she offered softly.
"I did not! I . . . I've always been proud of you," Cyrene blurted uncomfortably, glancing around the still empty tavern. "It's just . . . every time they figured it out, I've had to move and start over. You scare away business, honey."
"Why should you care??" Xena protested. "You don't have to work now!"
"I'm happiest working," Cyrene said softly. "And I love what I do. Keep eating, honey, you're barely touching your food."
Xena grunted, sipped her mead and shoveled in another mouthful of eggs. "You should be living in luxury, not like this. Did you even keep that Persian carpet I got you for Mother's Day?"
"Actually, yes," Cyrene said, earning a surprised look from the Conqueror. "And don't talk with your mouth full, dear. I also love that silk outfit you got from Chin for my birthday," she added warmly, pleasing her daughter, who quickly swallowed before speaking again.
"How about those wooden clogs?" Xena asked with enthusiasm. Finding that really neat gift had been the only thing that salvaged her very disappointing trip North to the land of dikes.
"Well, uh . . . it's the thought that counts, dear. But honey, you really shouldn't go around wiping out entire countries," Cyrene said sternly.
"Mom," Xena said with exasperation. "I never "wiped out" any country," she said and emptied her mug. "I've only killed a few . . . thousand . . . or so," she said as she poured herself another mug. "You know, they practically surrendered when they heard I was coming," Xena said then blurted. "Ha!" Staring dejectedly into her mug, Xena muttered. "Like they'd ever hear that."
"What's wrong, dear?" Cyrene prompted softly with concern.
"You wouldn't understand," Xena mumbled and sipped her drink.
"You'd be surprised."
"There are just some things I can't talk to my MOTHER about," Xena said with a cringe, making the problem clear to Cyrene. Xena never could discuss sex.
Cyrene remembered how her little one almost passed out the last time she attempted such a discussion. That was when she explained the birds and the bees to her when that nice boy Petricles first moved to Amphipolis. The boy that her stubborn husband forbade Xena to see.
"Oh, Xena. If only I had someone to talk to about . . . intimate matters . . . it would have saved me a lot of heartache," Cyrene said with a heavy sigh. Xena looked up from her mug uncomfortably. "Honey, you can talk to me about anything, you know."
"Uh . . . no thanks." Xena got another mug of mead.
"Are you sure?" Cyrene pressed gently.
"There's nothing to talk about."
"You mean you've never . . . ?"
"What?!? Of course I have!" Xena said indignantly. "I've just never . . . It's never been . . . I haven't had . . . Oh damn," Xena exhaled gruffly and gulped her drink.
"Oooohhh." Cyrene responded, enlightened and very sympathetic.
Xena uncomfortably eyed her mother then was overcome by a large wine, grain-alcohol, and mead-induced yawn.
"Did you get any sleep last night?" Cyrene asked accusingly, looking into her daughter's drowsy eyes.
"I can go for days without sleep!" Xena announced with irritation and another yawn as her eyes blinked as they became very heavy.
"Of course you can, honey. But you obviously need your rest now. Go on upstairs and we'll talk later, OK?" Cyrene said warmly as her daughter nodded groggily and headed for the stairs. "Things won't seem so hopeless after you're rested."
"Hey!" Xena blurted, stumbling up the first step.
"I didn't say YOU were hopeless, Xena," Cyrene said with an exasperated sigh, shaking her head at her incredibly sensitive child.
Xena grunted as her mother helped her upstairs to a bedroom.
"Mom?" Xena said and plopped down heavily onto the bed.
"Yes, honey?" Cyrene lovingly took Xena's sword and chakram and placed them by the night stand.
"Are you disappointed in me?" Xena said uneasily, blinking a few times to keep her mother in focus.
"Disappointed? Oh honey, no!" Cyrene said emphatically, squeezing Xena's hand. "You may be a compulsive overachiever, who has killed a bit more than I would have liked, but I could never be disappointed in my little one . . . ," Cyrene said as she removed her daughter's armor, seeing a faint smile on Xena's face as her eyelids struggled to stay open.
". . . even if you do take after your father so much," Cyrene muttered as she pulled her daughter's boots off. "Gods know you are stubborn like him," she added with a sigh, taking the bracers off each arm. "Never admitting to being wrong," she said wearily, getting a grunt from her daughter. "Never admitting to needing help or not doing something right. Too focused on a goal to see that it's really the journey that counts."
"You always said goals are important!"
"Not if you forget to enjoy the journey," Cyrene countered sagely as she took off her daughter's boot, getting a furrowed brow from her inebriated daughter.
"But you know what, little one? Up until a few moments ago, I never realized how much you take after me too," Cyrene said while she removed her daughter's other boot, shaking her head thoughtfully. "But trust me, it's nothing to be embarrassed about, Xena. Many women find it difficult to orgasm. I know."
Xena's eyes flew wide open. "You mean, you had uh, . . . I mean, you didn't . . . uh, you couldn't, uh," she said unable to say what her mother just had.
"For many, many years, actually," Cyrene admitted with a nod and sat on the edge of the bed. "But then, I learned I could come. . . ." A fond smile appeared on the older woman's face as Xena cringed. She didn't really want to talk to her mother about this. ". . . many, many times," Cyrene added, noting the pained look of confusion on her daughter's face. "That's what they call multiple orgasms, dear," Cyrene informed her warmly.
"Yeah, right," Xena said with a disbelieving laugh. "That's just a myth!"
"Xena, I wouldn't make something like that up," Cyrene said firmly, sobering the amazed warrior.
"But how did you . . . !?! I mean, uh, what happened?? What did you do?" Xena blurted awkwardly, then fought a yawn.
"Well, after that unfortunate accident of your father's . . . "
"Mom, you killed him," Xena said bluntly. "With an axe."
"Yes, well, after your father, I thankfully met someone who showed me what I really needed," Cyrene said softly, pulling the covers over her yawning daughter.
"What?!?" Xena asked, struggling between her need to know and the need to pass out.
"Well, let's just say, someone with excellent oral skills," Cyrene said with a warm smile as she gently brushed the hair from her daughter's face.
Chapter 4 - Strangers in the Night
Gabrielle squinted to make out the faces in the candle-lit tavern. She spotted a few regulars, who waved at her. Smiling warmly, she waved back. "Looks like a good crowd tonight, Rubus," Gabrielle said to the barkeep as her eyes were drawn to the back corner of the tavern, where a hooded figure sat, alone with a mug. How lonely he must be, Gabrielle thought sympathetically.
"Yeah. They could use a good story to take their minds off the massacre last night. They're a bit edgy," the bartender said, drying a mug.
"Massacre?" Gabrielle gasped.
"Yeah, on the road to Amphipolis I heard that twenty bodies were found at the side of the road, brutally slaughtered."
"Twenty?" Gabrielle asked with confusion, having heard from the priest about only the two bodies found.
"They say it was the Conqueror's handiwork."
"She was on the road to Poteidaia?!?" Gabrielle said with concern and curiosity. She had never seen the Conqueror, except for her handsome profile on their dinars. But she had heard the dark woman had eyes of fire, a heart of ice, and a soul as black as her raven hair. Though she had a great appreciation of poetic embellishment, Gabrielle still had no idea what the most powerful woman in the world really looked like.
"She was here, this morning!" Rubus said with enthusiasm, pointing to the bar. Gabrielle's mouth dropped as her concern started to outweigh her curiosity. "The blacksmith told me how the breakfast crowd barely got away alive and how she threatened Cyrene that she would slice her into tiny pieces and feed her to the fish unless she got some port!"
"My Gods!" Gabrielle gasped, quickly looking around for the tavern owner she hadn't seen all evening. "Is she all right?"
The barkeep nodded. "She won't talk about it. But I bet she is thanking the Gods right now. From what I hear, the Conqueror's quick temper is even quicker when she's drunk. Why, I heard . . . "
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Rubus' obviously tall tale, then jumped when a young man stood behind her with a big smile and asked "Can I buy you dinner tonight, Gabrielle?"
"Uh, I'm sorry, Perdicus. I already ate," Gabrielle said, gaining a frown from the young man.
"How about a drink?" He asked hopefully, his eyes dropping down below her neckline.
"I can't. Sorry," Gabrielle said then offered with a small smile, "I have to be sharp for my performance. But thank you anyway." Glancing at the stage then the crowd she added "the public awaits" and quickly left the amorous boy.
Now on the much more comfortable stage, she took a breath and looked out over the clapping audience, determined to lift the spirits of the townsfolk. Especially tonight, after the close encounter with the Conqueror that had sparked so much fuss. She would take their minds off their problems, she vowed.
After the applause settled down, Gabrielle smiled brightly and launched into an uplifting story of two dreamers who risked everything and overcame amazing obstacles to find happiness in each other's arms. As she spun her tale, she tried to meet the gaze of every patron to draw them into her story. Still alone in the dark corner sat the hooded figure. Though she couldn't see his face, she wasn't deterred and attempted to draw him in too.
After a captivating candle mark, Gabrielle finished her story with a large smile. ". . . and they lived happily ever after."
After a moment of complete silence that startled the insecure bard, thunderous applause and cheers erupted from the appreciative crowd who also showed their appreciation by showering dinars onto the small stage.
As the pleased bard collected the coins, she curiously glanced to the dark corner where the hooded patron had been sitting. Noting only the mug remained, Gabrielle's smile quickly faded as disappointment filled her. Apparently not everyone in her audience was entertained that evening.
After making sure the unusually tense Cyrene was all right after her brush with the Conqueror, Gabrielle headed for home with her large bag of earnings. She usually looked forward to the relaxing walk home after a performance. But tonight, she felt uneasy. Looking around the moonlit streets once again, she didn't see anything. But she felt . . . something. Shaking the odd feeling off, she heard her name called, causing her to cringe.
"Gabrielle!" Perdicus blurted as he jogged up to her.
"Hi, Perdicus," she said with a heavy sigh, turning to him with a thin smile.
"I should walk you home. It's not safe for a pretty girl like you to be walking alone at night. Especially with that," he said, pointing at her bag of dinars clutched against her chest. At least he'd better be pointing at her dinars, she thought with irritation.
"I appreciate your concern, Perdicus, but the streets are safe. This is Poteidaia, not some deserted road. And you know the Conqueror doesn't tolerate crime."
"But. . . ."
"How about to the end of the . . . ?"
"How about . . . ," Perdicus said, then froze, seeing a tall, ominous figure quietly emerge from the shadows.
". . . you say goodnight," the dark figure suggested, making the bard jump and seek out the source of the startling voice.
"Goodnight!" Perdicus blurted and ran.
"And he was going to protect you?" The dark figure asked with amusement, motioning towards the frightened boy with her hooded head. The silky voice was definitely female. But for some reason, that made the bard more unsettled.
"Why do you hide your face?" Gabrielle asked, attempting to hide the nervousness provoked by the imposing woman.
"I frighten people when I don't."
"Are you hideously ugly or something?"
The hooded figure was silent a moment before hesitantly answering "Uh . . . or something."
"Oh," the bard said, then asked the stranger who had disappeared from her audience "You didn't like my story, did you?"
"I . . . The crowd appeared to be entertained," the hooded figure responded, not used to such direct questions. "Would you say your oral skills are better than other bards?"
"Huh? Is that some kind of crack? If you didn't like it, just say so!" Gabrielle said in a huff and started to walk off.
"Wait!" The hooded figure said as she caught up to the irritated bard. "I never said I didn't like . . . ."
"Why are you bothering me?" The bard said, stopping in her tracks. "Do you need money? I can give you some but I've got bills to pay so I can't give it all to you," Gabrielle said as she started to open her bag of dinars.
"I'm not here for your money! I'm bothering you beca . . . ugh," the hooded figure said with a growl, then announced in an official tone. "I'm here to inform you your services are required at the castle."
"You have been chosen to be the Conqueror's bard and . . . . "
"Very funny. Ha, ha. If Lila or her friends put you up to this, you can tell her you had me going, all the way to the castle door. I'm sure my humiliation will please her to no end. Everyone knows that she and her disgruntled little group are doing far more important things than a simple bard who just happens to like to tell happy stories. Everyone knows that reminding people just how miserable they are is far more important than making them happy for an hour or two each day. Everyone knows they need someone to blame for their misfortunes and couldn't possibly be happy unless they are miserable! So why, you might ask, do I even bo. . . . ACK."
Gabrielle's tirade abruptly stopped when two sharp jabs were inflicted on her neck. The bard dropped to her knees as the bag of dinars fell to the ground.
"You have been recruited. But you have a choice. If you don't want to go, you have about fifteen seconds left to live. If you do want to go, you will live. So what will it be? Do you want to go with me to the castle?"
Gabrielle used all of her strength to nod yes.
"Good choice." The hooded figure said, releasing the pinch. Gabrielle gasped for precious air as her hands shot up to her throat.
As the wobbly bard stood, her eyes narrowed at the hooded figure.
"You're not a people-person, are you?"
Chapter 5 - Heeding the Call
The hooded figure felt the bard tugging on her cloak again. "What?" She said with exasperation.
"I have to go," Gabrielle mumbled.
"I'm nervous, OK?!? I've never met the Conqueror but I'm pretty sure she wouldn't appreciate me relieving myself on her nice floor when we meet!" The bard snapped.
With a heavy exhale, the rider reigned in the horse to a stop. The hooded figure dismounted and reached up for the small woman with another heavy sigh.
"Well, I'm sooo sorry to put you out!" Gabrielle said with irritation as she slapped away the helping hands and awkwardly dismounted on her own.
"You don't ride much, do you?"
"If you must know, I prefer to walk."
"Would you mind if we discussed this after . . .?!?" She asked motioning to the bushes.
"Don't be long."
"I'll be as long as I need to be, OK!?!" The bard snapped and stomped off into the bushes for the third time that night.
Xena shook her head and scratched Argo's neck. "What in Tartarus do I need a bard for?"
"Extremely," Xena agreed.
After a few moments of walking into the forest and satisfied she was finally far enough away from that rude, hooded woman's ears, Gabrielle pulled up her long skirt and . . . ran.
Xena tilted her head and listened. A grin emerged.
Gabrielle's heart raced as she ran for all her worth through the dark forest. She swiftly ran, deftly dodging low hanging branches and roots jutting up from the uneven terrain. But it only took one of the many roots to catch her foot.
"Ooof." She exhaled as she hit the ground hard. Quickly, she picked herself up and grimaced with a mouth full of dirt. "Spifth, spifth"
Taking cover by a large tree, the bard listened for signs that the rude woman was following. Unable to hear anything, except her pounding heart and belabored gasps, she carefully ventured from the tree as a cloak of blackness descended over her.
Xena hauled the kicking and screaming, cloak-wrapped bundle over Argo and mounted. "Well, you got a lot farther than I expected. But, I have to say, you sounded like an elephant stampede," she said and chuckled, provoking another stream of thankfully muffled responses.
"Hmm. Should I count 'cursing like a sailor' as one of your oral skills?"
After a few moments, a tired Gabrielle stopped kicking and screaming. To her surprise, she heard what sounded like soft humming coming from the rude woman. A very relaxing humming.
As the Conqueror lowered her loudly snoring bundle into the guest bed, a petite servant lit a few candles. When the servant quietly reached out to unwrap the guest, Xena surprised her by shaking her head no. Quietly retreating to a dark corner of the room, she dismissed the confused servant with a wave of her hand. Xena smiled when the door loudly shut.
It wasn't long before the obnoxious snoring stopped and the bard wiggled free of the cloak captivity. The bard muttered something about the impossibly rude woman having the manners of a barn animal and looked around her room. After a moment of awe, she angrily muttered something else and got up.
Spotting a window, Gabrielle darted to it and looked out and down. Way, way, down.
Xena grinned at the deep, frustrated growl erupting from the feisty woman. Her grin faded as she curiously watched the bard look back out the window, then up.
The bard's face sported a smile when she brought her head back inside. When she looked around the room, her smile got brighter. Xena watched with interest as the bard pulled the sheets off the bed and started to tie knots in it. The length of the sheets combined was certainly too short to deposit the small woman on the ground but would be long enough to get her to the window on the floor above, if she found a grappling hook.
Spotting the brass cloak rack, the bard walked towards it with great purpose.
The Conqueror almost laughed aloud when the bard grabbed it and almost toppled over when she tried to pull the much heavier-than-expected coat rack to the window. Another growl of frustration emerged but the bard seemed to become more determined as she rolled her dress sleeves up and tucked stray strands of hair behind her ears. Xena smiled at the girl's tenacity, then grinned devilishly.
Inspecting the room's objects as if she were shopping at the market, Gabrielle jumped when the already dimly lit room grew darker as a group of candles was suddenly extinguished. Her heart started to pound as she looked around, feeling . . . something. She squinted towards the darkest corner, almost certain the breeze from the window wasn't strong enough to extinguish the candles. But it had to be the breeze, she concluded and continued her search for the perfect grappling hook.
Another set of candles was extinguished, making the room almost black. The bard swallowed hard, feeling very uneasy.
"Maybe this would work?" Xena whispered in the bard's ear, placing a small statue in her hand.
"AH!" The bard jumped, dropping the statue to the ground, where it shattered.
"You, YOU!!" Gabrielle growled with anger as she spun around. Squinting to see the person belonging to the unnerving voice, she realized with even more irritation that she could barely see the outline of the tall woman.
"You know, you act like you don't want to be here. But I have to say, this room is much nicer than the dungeon. Sweet dreams, Gabrielle." The woman vanished into the darkness.
Chapter 6 - The Last Meal
The bard felt the mattress shake but ignored it and rolled over.
The bard felt her shoulder being jostled but groaned and put a pillow over her head to muffle the obnoxious noise.
"The Conqueror wishes you to join her for breakfast, NOW," the old woman said nervously.
Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open. She looked around as she groggily sat up. "Who are you?" She asked the older woman.
"Taris, my lady."
"Is she in a good mood, Taris?" Gabrielle said, suddenly concerned about her impending meeting.
"Surprisingly yes, my lady. But it would not be advisable to be much longer, or I expect that good mood will not last."
"I'm up. I'm up."
Taking a quick, final look at herself in the mirror, Gabrielle exhaled nervously and glanced to the anxious attendant, who opened the door for her.
"I didn't mean to be so long, I just wanted to look OK. She is the Empress after all. You won't get in trouble because of me will you?"
"I hope not, my lady. It is not healthy to displease the Empress."
"It's Gabrielle. And I will tell her it wasn't your fault, Taris. I'm not really a morning person."
Taris nodded uncomfortably as they walked down a long hallway. Gabrielle inspected her palatial surroundings with great interest as she nonchalantly asked "So . . . where did that rider go? Does she live here, or in a barn someplace?"
"The woman with that cloak. The one who brought me here?" Gabrielle asked as the attendant stopped and pointed to the large, double doors. "Is she having breakfast with us too?" Gabrielle asked curiously, getting a confused look from the woman.
Gabrielle wondered if the attendant wasn't a little slow. "Through here, huh?"
The attendant nodded, wondering if the bard wasn't a little slow.
The attendant bowed and closed the doors behind Gabrielle, who stood alone at the entranceway to a large dining hall. She glanced around the cavernous room, eyeing the wonderful stage which was framed with embroidered silk curtains. She wondered what kind of plays and performers had entertained there. Everything was so grand, she thought with amazement, then gazed at the long table which could accommodate fifty people, with elbow room to spare.
"Do you always take so long getting ready in the morning?" A familiar voice asked from behind, startling the bard.
"Ah!! WHY must you always DO that?!? I was just trying to. . . ." Gabrielle blurted to the annoyingly familiar voice as she spun around to finally face her tormentor.
Her angry response was forgotten as she stared into the most amazing blue eyes and beautiful face she had ever . . . .
"You know, it's considered rude to be late," the raven-haired woman informed the bard and walked over to the table, successfully snapping the bard out of her haze of appreciation.
"Rude? Rude?!? You, of all people, are lecturing me about being rude?" Gabrielle, said, quickly closing the distance between them. "You've got some nerve!"
"Have a seat," the tall woman offered, pulling out a chair for her bard, who stood defiantly with her hands on her hips.
"First, you threaten my life with that pinchy thing . . ."
"I think you'll enjoy breakfast."
"Then, you almost suffocate me with that cloak."
"You've probably worked up an appetite after all that running and thrashing about you did last night."
"Then, you throw me over your horse . . . "
". . . You throw me over ARGO like a sack of potatoes. . . ."
"Do you like potatoes? My cooks can do some amazing things with potatoes."
"Then, you keep sneaking up and scaring the begeebies out of me!"
"Well, I hope your appetite hasn't been frightened away. My cooks will be disappointed. They're the best in the kingdom and don't get to show off often."
"And THEN you have the gall to . . . ." Gabrielle said and paused her righteous tirade. Her eyebrows furrowed. "Your cooks?"
"Yep. I don't settle for anything but the best," Xena said, motioning proudly to the huge, empty dining hall. "I suppose you could eat standing, but I think you might enjoy sitting more," Xena said, nodding to the bard's chair as she sat at the head of the long table.
"I . . . uh . . . ." Her anger quickly fled as Gabrielle slumped down into the chair for what she expected to be her final meal. "Thank you," she said feebly, wishing she could have at least said goodbye to Cyrene.
Xena sighed with disappointment. The Conqueror had not had anyone treat her like a real person in such a long time. The bard was a refreshing change, even if she did get angry and argue a lot. But now it looked like this bard would become just like everyone else. Afraid.
"Is there anything you prefer?"
"Why don't you surprise me," Gabrielle said weakly, then muttered "You seem to enjoy doing that."
The Conqueror looked at her with a slight grin and picked up a small bell and rang it. Gabrielle's eyes furrowed at the obnoxious sound.
"How about a little of everything?" Xena suggested as a cart of food arrived.
Gabrielle couldn't help but appreciatively inhale the wonderful smells from the bounty that was being served.
After the servant left, Xena picked up a fork. "Dig in. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you know."
Gabrielle picked up her fork, then hesitated, looking between the two plates before staring suspiciously at her own.
"You don't think I'm going to poison you after all I went through to get you here?" Xena laughed.
"After all YOU . . . ?!?" Gabrielle blurted angrily but stopped herself, remembering the rude woman was the infamous Conqueror. The woman she heard had recently killed three men with a spoon.
Gabrielle's eyes dropped to the fork in the Conqueror's hand as she imagined the damage that utensil could inflict. She didn't even need a utensil, Gabrielle considered, remembering the jabs to her neck from those strong hands. Strong hands which had been offered to help her dismount that horse. Strong hands which she angrily slapped away. Oh Gods, Gabrielle thought, staring at what she expected to be the last juice she would ever have, then quickly finished it.
"You look pale."
"You don't say," Gabrielle remarked then bit into the most divine pastry she had ever tasted. "Oh my GODs," she gushed with reverence, surprising the Conqueror. "You weren't kidding about your cooks!" She said with amazement and bit into the pastry again, relishing the flavor. Might as well enjoy my last meal, the bard thought.
Xena laughed softly. "I especially like the ones with the pink centers," Xena said pointing to a plate full of them.
Gabrielle's eyes lit up as she started to serve herself. She paused, then offered the plate to the Conqueror, who looked at her curiously, wondering if she would see fear in the smaller woman's green eyes.
"Well, I've got to make sure they aren't poisoned," Gabrielle explained, amusing the Conqueror, who didn't find fear. And it pleased her.
Xena picked up a pink-filled pastry as the bard did the same. They both devoured them, sharing moans of appreciation. Xena couldn't recall them ever tasting this good and helped herself to another. She smiled as the bard did the same. "You know, I had a food taster once."
"Really?" Gabrielle said with sudden concern, glancing at the pastry in her hand.
Xena nodded. "Marcus was putting on way too much weight. I put him on an exercise regimen to get him back in shape."
"What happened?" Gabrielle looked around wondering where he might be now.
"He died. His heart couldn't take it," Xena said softly with a sigh.
"Oh. How sad." Gabrielle said, noting the Conqueror's now distant and melancholy gaze. The bard knew right then, the Conqueror did not have a heart of ice. And it pleased her.
"I'm surprised you didn't replace him. I bet a lot of people would volunteer if they knew about your cooks," Gabrielle said enthusiastically and offered another plate of food to the Empress.
"A smaller staff is easier to manage," Xena said unconvincingly, then took another pastry off the offered plate. "That's what my advisor, Daumas, said. He was rather surprised that I had enlisted a bard," Xena smirked with satisfaction at the look on his face this morning and sipped her juice.
"He's not the only one," Gabrielle said, then uneasily added "your highness" out of deference when those blue eyes curiously returned to her.
"So, why do you think I enlisted a bard?" Xena asked, staring at her juice uncomfortably.
"To entertain your dinner guests?" Gabrielle guessed, looking at the large, empty stage then noticed the woman contemplate her answer for a few moments.
"That might work."
"What might work?"
The slave was prepared for the Conqueror, having been bathed and dressed in a fine dress that would have cost her family a year's wages. She entered the magnificent, but extremely large room with hope. The attendant had told her she was to have dinner with the Conqueror. Now it looked like there might be others too. She hoped so. The others might draw the Conqueror's unwanted attention away from her. Or . . . Oh Gods, she thought with panic - what if she was this evenings entertainment for everyone? She had heard . . . .
"Leave us," the Conqueror ordered Taris, who bowed deeply and closed the doors behind her.
The slave jumped, turning to find the Empress of the Known World standing near her. The tall woman stood proudly, radiating dangerous power in her black leather tunic and pants, which clung to her well-defined muscles like a second skin.
The young slave nervously flattened out the wrinkles from the pretty dress and sat.
"You'll enjoy this," Xena said firmly, making the petrified young woman quickly nod. She silently watched Xena glance to the stage as she picked up a bell and rang it. After furrowed brows and a moment of silence, Xena rang it again, glaring at the stage.
The slave looked between the Conqueror and her bell uncertainly. "Uh, that was very nice," she offered with an uneasy smile.
With an annoyed growl, Xena bolted up from her chair, frightening the woman, who watched with confusion as the Conqueror marched onto the stage and disappeared behind the curtains.
Xena quickly spotted the bard, who was checking her hair in a mirror.
"I rang the bell!" Xena said angrily, holding up the object and ringing it for the bard.
"Yes," Gabrielle said evenly and turned to the Conqueror. "You did."
"Then why are you still back here and not out there??" Xena barked, pointing to the curtain.
"I am a bard, not a pet. If you wish to summon me, I suggest you find a different method," Gabrielle snapped.
"Were you dropped on your head as a child?"
"What?!? You're . . . you're. . . !"
"I'm the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess, the Empress of all the land you see, the CONQUEROR!! Any of those ring a bell?" Xena said, ringing the bell in her hand.
"That's right! You are everything and I'm just a bard. A bard who YOU wanted to bring here to this castle. A bard who YOU wanted to tell a story this evening. But that's NOT going to happen if you keep ringing that damn bell!"
"Or if I strangle you," Xena growled menacingly at the bard, who didn't cower but crossed her arms defiantly.
Somehow, she knew the bard was currently in the mood to die rather than back down. Xena's upper lip quivered. She knew what she needed to do to get a story. "If you would come out now and entertain, I would appreciate it," Xena said tightly, through gritted teeth.
"My pleasure," Gabrielle said with a genuine smile that unsettled the Conqueror. Xena couldn't recall the last time she caused such a happy smile, or felt so pleased for causing one.
"I'll give you some time to get seated," Gabrielle offered warmly, gaining a furrowed brow and half-hearted, disgruntled grunt from the Conqueror.
As Xena approached the table, she glanced at the nervous slave in the beautiful dress. She should have seen to it the bard had a new dress too, Xena thought with irritation, having over looked that obvious detail.
The slave looked up a moment then quickly averted her eyes for fear of irritating the Conqueror further. Shaking her head with disappointment, Xena sat and exhaled heavily. The slave should appreciate the bard, she thought, sipping her wine as she waited for the bard's appearance.
Finally, Gabrielle emerged from behind the curtain with a big smile that faded as she looked around the dining hall that was empty, except for the Conqueror and her guest.
The Conqueror lifted her goblet to the bard and smiled thinly as she nodded for her to start. The bard glared at her a moment, then glanced at the nervous dinner companion with great sympathy before speaking to her audience of two.
"Good evening, ladies. I have a story to share this evening. It is of two lonely people who find one great love. . . ."
As Gabrielle spun her tale, Xena occasionally glanced at the nervous slave who had finally begun to relax. The slave started to freely smile at the engaging bard, which was understandable, Xena thought as she glanced back to the stage where the bard continued to skillfully spin the story.
Though Xena preferred stories about great battles and amazing victories, she had to admit the bard could tell a decent love story. It was perhaps because the fiery bard made you want to listen to it. She had . . . a presence. And it demanded attention, Xena concluded, watching the young woman's graceful gestures perfectly accentuate her tale.
The timid young slave surprised the Conqueror when she enthusiastically applauded at the story's end. She suddenly stopped, fearful that the clapping was annoying.
"You don't have to stop. I am pleased you enjoyed it," Xena offered with a smile.
"It was wonderful," the slave gushed, making Xena's smile wider as she poured more wine for her dinner guest.
Xena noticed the slave suddenly grow tense again, then glanced at the stage, where the bard had discreetly disappeared behind the curtains.
"Uh . . . would you like to meet the bard?" Xena suddenly offered, surprising herself and the slave, who nodded.
Xena smiled then reached for the bell, catching herself with a silent curse. "Uh . . . I'll be right back," she said to the confused young woman and jumped up.
Dashing up onto the stage then behind the curtain, Xena spotted the bard. "Wait . . . "
Gabrielle turned around impatiently, crossing her arms over her chest.
"She would like to meet you," Xena said uneasily, noting annoyance in the bard's eyes.
"My dinner guest," Xena responded, absently pointing back over her shoulder.
"My dinner guest," Xena repeated with irritation.
"I don't suppose she has a name, does she?" Gabrielle smiled thinly.
"Of course she has a name!"
Before Gabrielle could challenge the Conqueror on what that name might possibly be, they heard a crash.
Chapter 7 - Getting to Know You
"She's dead," Gabrielle said in a stunned whisper as she gave up feeling for a pulse. The bard looked up at the Conqueror, whose vacant look startled her.
Xena turned and stormed out of the room as an attendant with a cart of food came in.
Seeing the girl on the floor, the attendant shook his head. "Another mess. I'll get someone to clean that up," he said with a heavy sigh.
"Another mess?" Gabrielle asked, looking back in the direction where the Conqueror had left.
"Aye. But it is unusual for her to kill a body slave outside her bedroom," Ungar said quietly, scratching his chin curiously.
"She didn't kill her," Gabrielle responded with irritation. "The girl collapsed at the table while the Conqueror was talking to me."
"Fear is as deadly as the Conqueror's hands," he said ominously, then rolled his cart out of the room.
Gabrielle also left the dining hall and jogged down the hallway in search of the Conqueror. Turning a corner, she collided into Palimon.
"Where's the fire?" Palimon chuckled, peeling the Conqueror's bard from his chest.
Sorry," Gabrielle said, glancing around, paying little attention to the lieutenant. "Where's the Conqueror?"
"Most people don't run towards the Conqueror. Why are you looking for her?" Palimon asked suspiciously. He didn't know why the Conqueror would recruit a bard. And now this. Odd. Very odd, he thought.
"She was upset after her . . . guest . . . dropped dead," Gabrielle said awkwardly and glanced around.
"Look, it wasn't like you think. She was talking with me at the time and . . . ugh, do you know where she is?" Gabrielle growled impatiently.
"She is probably out on Argo. If she is upset, she won't be back for a while. You shouldn't be around her when she's like this," he warned.
"How do you know that?!?" Gabrielle challenged, firmly believing the opposite.
Palimon pointed to the long scar on his face. "I tried to cheer her up once."
Gabrielle entered her room and dejectedly plopped on the bed. Staring at the ceiling, she wondered where the tall woman could have gone. Tears sprang to her eyes. She had an overwhelming need to help the obviously pained woman, but couldn't.
As the early morning rays spilled through the window and fell onto her face, Gabrielle shifted and blinked. Slowly sitting up, she stretched and rubbed her eyes. Needing to see if the Conqueror had returned yet, she quickly got up. As she straightened her wrinkled dress, the bard glanced over to a corner in her room, startled to find the Conqueror sitting in a chair.
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked with concern, noting the disheveled and tired appearance. "You left so quickly last night I . . . "
"You are free to go." Xena exhaled with defeat and got up, looking lost.
"Wait a minute," Gabrielle said, reaching for the Conqueror's arm which recoiled from her touch.
"Please, I want to talk to you."
Gabrielle didn't really know what to say. It really didn't make any sense. This was the Conqueror, the woman whom everyone feared and loathed. But for some reason, Gabrielle needed to try and help this woman. But how does one explain a need she couldn't explain to herself?
"Uh, I would at least like to know why I'm being fired after one story."
"You are not being fired."
"You brought me here for a reason. I must have failed if you let me go so quickly."
"You didn't fail. I did. . . ." Xena said vaguely with that same vacant look in her eyes Gabrielle recognized from the night before when they found her dead dinner guest.
"You didn't kill her," Gabrielle said firmly, getting a sharp look from the Conqueror. "I was there, remember?" The bard added.
"Fear can kill as well as these hands, Gabrielle," Xena said sadly, glancing down at the deadly weapons. The comment disturbed the bard.
"Xena, she was not an old woman with a bad heart that you said "BOO" to."
"But . . . "
"And how do you know it wasn't my story that did her in? Did you think of that?"
"You are being ridiculous."
"And you're not?"
"But . . . "
"No buts, Xena. Something is not right here and we will get to the bottom it," Gabrielle declared confidently, surprising the Conqueror.
"Why?" Xena asked without suspicion, just pure amazement. "Why are you trying to help me?"
Gabrielle looked deeply into curious blue eyes a moment and almost forgot to answer.
"Because it's wrong not to help when you can."
After the servant left the food cart behind, Xena grabbed a plate of pink-filled pastries and sat with the bard at the small table in the bard's room.
"Now, isn't this more cozy?" Gabrielle smiled approvingly at the Conqueror, who bit into a delicious treat and shrugged as she glanced around the room. It was kind of nice, she thought. And at least there wasn't that draft.
The bard got down to business. Opening up a blank scroll and dipping her quill into ink, she was ready to take notes. "Ok, we need to document the circumstances of each of your. . . ."
Xena coughed as she swallowed the pastry. "Do we really need to dredge up the past?" She wheezed.
"I am not trying to dredge up the past, Xena, only use the scientific method to establish patterns and trends to define the problem so we can find a . . . "
"I know what my problem is," Xena bemoaned, pushing the pastries away having lost her appetite.
Gabrielle looked at her expectantly.
"I am cursed when it comes to . . . you know."
"You know . . . "
"No, I don't. What?" Gabrielle said with irritation.
"Must I spell it out for you?!?"
"Well if you can't say it, I suppose so."
"Sigma, Epsilon, Chi."
"Ooooh," Gabrielle said, then furrowed her brows at the beautiful woman sitting across from her. "But you? Cursed??"
"I must be! Ever since I hit puberty, I've had nothing but bad things happen when I've tried to . . . when I wanted to . . . you know. And then, I find out I'm not just missing out on . . . you know, but multiple . . . you knows, too! It's just not fair," Xena blurted and shook her head dejectedly.
Gabrielle stared at her a thoughtful, slightly confused moment.
"So . . . since puberty, huh?" Gabrielle asked. "What happened the first time?" She asked delicately.
"Xena, what you say here doesn't go beyond those doors. You have my word." Gabrielle offered softly.
Xena got up from the chair and paced. She glanced at the bard, grimaced, and reluctantly began. "I was more than ready to . . . you know."
"You can say SEX, Xena. I'm a bard after all." Gabrielle blurted and shook her head, earning a glare from the Conqueror.
"Look, this is MY story and I'll use MY words!"
"Ok, ok," Gabrielle said holding her hands up in surrender. "You know best," she added.
"Well, my dad didn't let me date anyone. He thought I was too young. But I was fifteen! I was ready to . . . you know. Petricles, the only guy my age in Amphipolis who didn't disgust me, was also ready and we found a nice secluded spot to . . . you know. It was his first time too. He was awkward but was getting me uh . . . aroused," she said and coughed, turning a shade of pink. "It was obvious I wasn't the only one," Xena quickly added with a smirk. "But then just as he was about to . . . we were interrupted by a gang of bandits. They laughed at us and decided to show us what real men with big swords could do," Xena said with an angry snarl.
"Oh Xena," Gabrielle gasped with concern.
"Well, I showed them what a real girl with a real sword could do. I killed them. I killed them all."
"What happened to Petricles?"
"Not a scratch. I protected him," Xena snorted. "After he got up enough nerve again, we tried it again . . . and again, over the next couple of seasons," Xena wearily said. "But each time, he couldn't even start or he'd finish before I'd even . . . you know," Xena said with irritation.
"That must have been incredibly frustrating," Gabrielle offered softly.
Xena readily nodded. "Of course, he told all his friends a different story . . . that I was this wild woman in bed and that if he wasn't such a stud with unlimited stamina, I'd go elsewhere."
"Why that BASTARD!" Gabrielle's response surprised the Conqueror, as did Palimon, when he entered Gabrielle's room.
"How dare you barge into my guest's room without knocking!" Xena roared at the lieutenant as she bolted up from her seat. The Conqueror's ferocity startled the bard.
"My apologies, Conqueror," he blurted nervously, quickly bowing. Shit, shit, shit.
"You owe Gabrielle your apologies too, Palimon," Xena warned.
"I'm very sorry, Gabrielle," he said sincerely, gaining a nod from the bard. "We are not used to real guests," he added with a cringe.
"You should tell the castle staff that if anyone dares enter without knocking, I will remove the hand that should have knocked. Is that understood, Lieutenant?" Xena snarled.
"Yes, Conqueror!" He said, snapping to attention.
"Why are you here, Palimon?" Gabrielle asked.
"The Conqueror's advisor would like to see you."
"If he wishes an audience with MY bard, he should see me," Xena growled.
"Lord Daumas did not know you were back, my lord," Palimon said, his head hung low like a scolded puppy.
"Well he will now!" Xena said angrily and started to storm out of the room.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted with concern, surprising the lieutenant and the Conqueror, who stopped in her tracks. When the Conqueror's angry glare was directed at the bard, Palimon winced, worried for the unwisely bold woman.
"My lord, I would be grateful if you would stay with me a moment more, before your meeting with Lord Dumbass," the bard spoke and respectfully bowed her head.
Xena's eyebrows shot up at the mispronunciation which diffused some of the Conqueror's anger.
Noting the two women silently staring at each other and ignoring him, Palimon smirked. "If you'll excuse me?" Palimon said, no longer concerned about the bard, he left the women alone.
"What!" Xena finally snapped with impatience, and placed her hands on her hips as she continued to glare at the bard.
"When I was really, really angry, my mother told me to count to ten before doing anything," Gabrielle offered.
"One, five, TEN!" Xena stubbornly growled and left the room. Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Count to ten, she says," Xena muttered and shook her head with amazement as she marched down the hall. An amused grin emerged as she entered Lord Dumbass' office.
"Conqueror, you're back!" He said with a warm smile as he stood from behind his desk.
"Yes. It appears so," Xena responded dryly, glancing down at herself.
Daumas chuckled softly. "A good thing. I need you to review the changes to the tax laws that are needed to . . . "
"Daumas, I don't have time for that now. Just send them to my room and I'll read it later with the other laws you want to revise," she said, hating the administrative details of her position.
Daumas nodded in understanding.
"You wanted to see my bard," Xena said bluntly. "Why?"
"Well, I had hoped to get her to tell a few tales at the next meeting of your generals and governors at the end of the month. But if that is not to your liking, I will arrange other entertainment."
Xena never liked those gatherings that Daumas always suggested. She hated crowds and found everyone terrified of having a good time. "Yes, Conqueror. Of course, Conqueror. As you wish, Conqueror," she would always hear. Respect was one thing, but terrified yes-men were another. Perhaps the bard's presence could change that, she thought, remembering how the terrified slave started to relax during the bard's story last night. It was a shame more women were not like the bard, Xena considered. Gabrielle didn't fear her. And that pleased her.
Xena's small smile faded when she noticed Daumas was waiting for an answer.
"Your idea is good, Daumas," she said evenly. "But next time, speak to me first before acting."
"Of course, Conqueror," he said, bowing his head.
Xena returned to her room to find Palimon waiting at her door.
"What now, Palimon?" She sighed heavily.
"You have a visitor at the front gate who claims you will want to see her."
"Who is it?" She said, wearily rubbing her eyes.
"Cyrene of Poteidaia. Do you wish to see her?"
"No . . . but let her in anyway. Take her to the throne room and make sure we have privacy." Xena instructed the Lieutenant, who nodded.
"Hello, mother," Xena said as she entered the throne room and spotted the pacing woman.
"You stole my bard!"
"I didn't realize she was your property."
"No, of course she's not! But she has worked for me ever since I got to Poteidaia," Cyrene countered with irritation. "She's been great for business, Xena. You . . . you can't just take her!" Cyrene said, flustered.
"I gave her a choice," Xena offered with a shrug.
"A choice? Let me guess. Either death or your way?"
"It was a choice."
"Xena, you can't keep doing that. . . ."
"Well, it certainly makes it easier to get my way," Xena muttered under her breath.
". . . . And why on Earth do you need a bard? Especially, MY bard!" Cyrene snapped, amazing her daughter.
"You said that was what I really needed!" Xena snapped back in frustration.
Cyrene looked at her daughter incredulously.
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