Conquest of the Heart
by Linda Crist
Disclaimers: This story was not written for profit and Studios USA and Rob Tapert own the characters, as far as I know. Perhaps they really belong to the fans at this point. Regardless, I do thank Mr. Tapert for allowing the bards to play with them so freely for all these years. The story is rated R for violence and PG for an implied sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. It is a conqueror story of sorts, although perhaps not as dark as some conqueror stories. For some reason the muse felt compelled to insert some moments of humor. Go figure.
Note to Followers of the Series: This story has nothing to do with my regular Xena and Gabrielle series, and I've attempted to write it more like I see the characters on the show itself than how I see them in my series.
More Thanks: To Whoosh! for being the most awesome source of quick Xena and Hercules reference material. And to my list for your patience on lack of updates for the past couple weeks. J
Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, painting Xena's face half in light, half in shadow, the warmth lulling her slowly awake from a delicious dream involving a foot race, a thunderstorm, and several Amazons sinking into a thick goopy mud puddle as Xena ran effortlessly by them, ultimately winning the laurel wreath and a kiss from a certain Amazon queen. She smiled and stretched, feeling the pleasant tug as her muscles came to life. It was early spring and a gentle warm breeze brought the scent of honeysuckle and fresh green leaves to her nose.
The smile was quickly replaced by a frown as her nose twitched at what was missing. There was no scent of breakfast, and the only smell from the fire was that of cold burned-down ashes. And it was too quiet. Gabrielle wasn't snoring, which would indicate she was asleep, and she wasn't stirring about the campsite, which would indicate she was awake and cooking their breakfast. A long arm reached out, curiously patting the sleeping furs next to her.
Two blue eyes popped open and Xena sat up. The furs were cold, as if Gabrielle had never been there, and they weren't flattened from the bard's solid body weight. "Gabrielle?" She looked around for signs of her companion, to no avail. Even the bard's distinctive sweet salty scent was undetectable, where it should have lingered on the bedroll and on her skin. Surely they had fallen asleep together the night before, curled up tightly, sharing body heat against a slight evening chill. "Gabrielle?"
Xena stood and quickly donned her armor and boots, slipping her sword into its scabbard and buckling it in place. She looked around for her chakram, but it was missing. She was certain she had placed it carefully in arm's reach before they went to sleep. "Gabriellleeeeee," she growled. "You'd better not be using my chakram to clean fish again, or I swear, I'll . I'll " she paused, searching for an appropriate threat. It died on her lips. The bard's travel bag was gone from the branch where she had hung it the night before.
As she looked carefully around the campsite, there was no trace of her best friend. Not a single hair or footprint. "She's gotten way too good at those evasive maneuvers I taught her," the warrior grumbled. She cocked her head to one side and closed her eyes, listening intently. Only the slight rustle of the leaves and the scurry of some small creature in the brush greeted her ears, along with the cheerful rush of the nearby stream where they had bathed and fished the night before. "Maybe she went to get water."
Xena shrugged and took off for the stream, following the same trail they had taken the day before. There were no broken branches or any disturbance in the undergrowth to indicate anyone had been by there. She frowned again. Even she should have left some footprints. She wasn't trying to hide from anyone and hadn't done anything to cover her tracks, that she could recall. Maybe Gabrielle was testing her, and had covered both their tracks.
She grinned. Xena always enjoyed a good game. "Okay, Gabrielle," she called out gleefully. "You want me to find you, you're on!" She slowed her pace and took her time, studying every twig and leaf, but nothing was out of place. As she reached the stream, she heard only flowing water and a few twittering birds. Further inspection along the muddy bank brought nothing. No footprints at all. Even the two linen towels they had left to dry on a sunny rock were missing. She found the spot where she had cleaned their dinner -- a string of fat salmon -- but there was nothing on the rocks -- no scales, bloodstains, or any remains of the considerable catch.
Suddenly it was no longer a game. "Gabrielle?" She called out hopefully. "You win." She waited, listening for her friend, wanting desperately to hear the rustle of branches or the crunch of leaves underfoot. "I I'll go shopping with you in the next village if you'll come on out," she upped the ante, hoping to draw out her elusive friend. "Come on, Gabrielle!" Her tone grew exasperated. "You've proven your point. I haven't a clue how to find you. Please. Just come on out so we can get moving. I thought we were just going to enjoy ourselves today."
Silence answered her.
She sat down on a boulder, resting her forearms on her legs, thinking hard. "I don't think I did anything to upset her yesterday," she muttered. "Certainly nothing to warrant her up and taking off without even so much as a bye-your-leave. We didn't have any fights or anything. She was in a good mood when we went to sleep. A really good mood, if I recall." She smiled sensually, remembering their time spent together under the stars. She looked down and retrieved a handful of pebbles, hurling them savagely into the stream one by one.
The warrior wracked her brain, trying to figure out where her companion of over four years might have gone so early on a fine spring morning. True, Gabrielle had become more independent of late, and after their most recent adventure with Mavican and the body-sharing experience, they had reached a new understanding. Gabrielle was no longer a helpless innocent and Xena was learning to treat her partner as an equal, and not as someone who always needed protection. Gabrielle was a skilled and savvy warrior in her own right, as she had more than proven against Mavican. Still, independent or not, it wasn't like the bard to leave without at least writing her a note so she wouldn't worry.
"Now what would make her take off in such a hurry that she would forget to even tell me where she was going?" Her brows scrunched together and her eyes narrowed as a thought occurred to her. "Why, that little sneak! She's taken our last dinars and gone shopping in that market we heard about back in the last village."
She stood, wiping her hands off on her leathers. They had spent a few days helping rebuild a flooded-out village, which had been partially destroyed by a rain-swollen river. In the process they had learned the villagers had lost many goods they were planning to sell in a large spring market in a neighboring village. Gabrielle's green eyes had twinkled at just the thought of rows and rows of merchant stalls -- more than one could go through in an entire day. Despite everything they had been through, some things never changed.
They had engaged in a heated argument, but it had been two days since then. They were down to only a small pouch of dinars, as neither warrior nor bard had done anything in the way of work or trade to earn anything since before winter. The Romans had taken almost all their possessions, and after the crucifixion, the remainder of winter had been spent holed up in Amphipolis and they had only recently taken back to the road again. Xena had been adamant that they needed to be frugal until they could earn more, and Gabrielle had been just as adamant that she could soon earn more dinars offering her services as a bard, and that she should be allowed the rare opportunity to enjoy such a large market.
Xena thought the incident had been quite forgotten. "At least I forgot it," she groused. It also wasn't like Gabrielle to be irresponsible, but maybe her newfound independence was winning out over common sense. Or maybe the market, which was only a few hours' travel away, had been too great a temptation for even Gabrielle to resist.
The warrior sighed and made her way back to camp, quickly packing up her things, since Gabrielle's were all missing. She no longer cared if Gabrielle spent their last dinar. What mattered most was her friend's propensity to get into trouble. True, Gabrielle was much more capable of defending herself. It had surprised Xena just had proficient the bard had become with her sais, especially the moves she used against Mavican. Still Gabrielle was a trouble magnet, and Xena still felt the need to keep an eye on her as much as possible, just in case.
Ignoring her rumbling empty stomach, she whistled for Argo, who had been set free to wander and graze the night before. The mare was also missing in action, and she whistled again. "Come on Argo!" She dug into her bag. "I have apples." After that whole incident with the Scythians, she was careful to always have a supply of her equine friend's favorite treat on hand. Loyal or not, she wasn't taking any chances.
Another series of whistles brought no sign of mare or bard. "Traitors," Xena mumbled, taking off on foot for the village. "Everyone's a traitor. They can all be bought apples shopping fine, I was hungry anyway." She crunched into an apple and chewed angrily, swallowing the tart sweetness before she shouted again. "I hope you're happy, Argo! I'm eating your treats for breakfast." She listened for a whinny of protest, but heard nothing.
She slung her own bag over one shoulder, leaving their bedroll and Argo's saddle and bridle tucked safely in the middle of some thick bushes. "Let's just hope it doesn't rain anytime soon, and flood this area." As soon as she said it, she saw a thin line of clouds forming way off at the horizon. "Great. Just great." She rolled her eyes in frustration. "Which god have I pissed off this time?" As she spoke, she could almost swear she heard an evil chuckle on the wind.
One hour and an ill-chosen shortcut later, a battered warrior emerged on the outskirts of the village. Her mood had gone from irritated to downright foul. What looked to be a perfectly simple path through the woods turned out to cross a stream she had to ford, in which she had tripped on a rock and lost her bag. She could have gone after it, but her guts told her to press forward, so she watched it float away, and kept going.
A mile beyond the stream she'd had to scale a ravine, down one side and up the other. The far side had been covered in thorny vines. True, she could have gone down a ways and avoided the vines, if not for the herd of wild boar which had come thundering down the middle of the ravine and forced her to climb the wall, vines and all, as quickly as possible. Now her legs and arms were covered in scratches, and she had a distinct pain in her backside where a boar had almost gored her.
Then there had been the hive of bees she'd accidentally disturbed. Being a very fast runner, she'd only suffered a couple annoying stings. She was certain she looked like a bog beasty, and could feel her disheveled hair sticking out from all sides of her head, along with the sting of her various injuries. And of course the icky squish between her toes from her wet boots.
"By the gods, Gabrielle, when I find you " She entered the main gate of the village and stopped, taking in her surroundings, as was her habit. Something wasn't quite right, and it took a minute to put her finger on it. There was no activity indicating a market was taking place. It was almost too orderly and quiet, as a few villagers shuffled about, their heads down as they moved purposefully toward whatever destinations they were headed.
Very few of them looked up to meet her eyes, and in fact, the ones who did all had the same reaction -- something akin to terror. They quickly moved away from her, giving her a wide berth. "I know I'm not looking my best, but I don't think I'm scary enough to warrant that," she grumbled. It had been a long time since people had reacted to her in such a manner. It wasn't like she was the only warrior around. "Or am I?" She studied the villagers more carefully. All of them appeared to be simple town folk, and not a one carried a weapon, even so much as a staff.
"Must be a peaceful place. Maybe I am the only warrior around. Would explain their fear, at least." She scratched her head in confusion and continued to make her way to the village square, where she stopped and sat down on a rough-hewn bench, trying to decide what to do next.
She hailed an elderly gentleman, who scrambled by with a large basket balanced on one shoulder. "Excuse me, can you tell me where your spring market is being held?"
"Spring market?" The man snorted. "You've got some sense of humor." He studied her and his eyes grew wide. "A brazen one, aren't you?" He moved closer, looking around as if he were afraid they might be overheard. "Not from around here, are ye?"
She shook her head affirmatively. "I had heard there might be a large market around here. I I'm looking for a friend I thought might have come into town to shop."
"Listen." The man shifted the basket to his other shoulder and leaned closer. "There ain't no markets around here. Not since the Conqueror took over the transfer of goods and services. As for your friend, were they a woman?"
"Yes." Xena felt her heart skip a beat. "And who's the Conqueror?"
"Who's the Conqueror?" He laughed loudly. "You really aren't from around here. Take my advice, and get out of here while the getting's good, before you meet the same fate I suspect your friend did. The Conqueror's army sometimes roams the countryside at night. Any young men or women caught out after curfew get taken into custody as slaves. Especially the young women."
Xena rose up in anger. "I'm not leaving without my friend. Where can I find this Conqueror? No one bullies me or my friend around, or defenseless villagers. Not if I can help it."
The man's slim humor vanished. "Listen, lady. You're dangerous. No one challenges the Conqueror. If your friend was taken, she's gone. Just your appearance," he looked around nervously. "You're asking for trouble. No ..." He backed away from her. "I can't. Im sorry, but if I'm seen talking to the likes of you. Sorry." He apologized again and quickly moved away, almost at a run, and disappeared inside a hut further down the street.
"Hey!" Xena took off after him and banged on his door. She heard the distinct click as the door and shutters were bolted closed. "What in Tartarus is going on here?" The village square was empty, and what few residents had been out and about had all vanished behind closed doors.
Befuddled, the warrior moved to the center of the square and grasped the edge of a raised platform, leaping up and landing solidly in the middle. Pitching her voice to carry, she yelled out across the empty plaza, "Will somebody please tell me where I can find the Conqueror?"
Another door slammed shut.
Xena muttered a string of profanities.
She was just about to jump down and continue on her way, when a familiar voice called out from behind her. "Xena!"
Running footsteps came closer and she spun around. "Iolaus?" Without warning the blonde man leaped through the air, tackling her and rolling both of them off the platform. "Have you lost your mind?" She sputtered, spitting out a mouthful of road dust.
"Have you lost yours?" He whispered harshly. "Come on, we have to get out of here. You've put us in great danger."
"Would you please tell me what's going on?" She held her ground, refusing to budge without an answer.
"Xena?" Iolaus tilted his head and studied her intently, taking in her rumpled appearance. "Did you get hit on the head or something?" He reached out and tentatively touched her forehead, only to have his hand slapped away.
"Cut that out!" She stood up, crossing her arms over her chest. "I've lost Gabrielle and I don't have time for any nonsense. Are you going to help me out here, or should I handle this one alone? And where's Hercules, anyway?"
"He's back at the camp." Iolaus stood up. "Xena." He moved closer, true worry in his eyes. "Who's Gabrielle?"
"Whaddaya mean, 'who's Gabrielle'?!" Xena resisted the urge to stomp her feet in utter defeat. "Maybe you're the one who got hit on the head." She threw up both arms in frustration. "Oh, never mind. I don't have time to deal with riddles. I'll meet up with you and Hercules later, after I find her, that is if you're still around." She turned on her heels and stalked away, only to feel herself tackled again, and wrestled to the ground.
"Are you absofrickinglutely insane!" He drew her sword from its scabbard and quickly tucked it inside his cloak.
"Hey!" Without further thought, she cocked one fist back and slugged him soundly across the face. "That's my sword." She shook her throbbing knuckles, regretting hitting her friend, although a tiny part of her had enjoyed the satisfaction of relieving a little of her confused frustration. "No one touches my sword." She grabbed the leather-wrapped hilt and took it back, re-sheathing it with a quick hiss of metal against leather.
"I know that." He rubbed his jaw, checking to see if all of his teeth were still in place. "And I'm saving your life. Xena, I don't know what's going on here, but maybe you got into some henbane or something. No one is allowed to carry a weapon except for soldiers in the Conqueror's army. You know that." He eyed her warily. "Or you should. The Resistance isn't ready yet to make ourselves known, Xena. Either you're with us or not, but regardless, you can't go off like a maverick. We're a team. Doing something as stupid as walking around in broad daylight carrying a weapon is just plain risky to all of us. The armor is bad enough."
"Resistance?" Xena rubbed her temples. She could feel a raging headache coming on, working its way up the tense muscles of her neck and making her jaw clench and her entire skull throb. "Iolaus, one of us is daft here, and I'm beginning to think maybe it is me. What in blazes is the Resistance?"
"Okay." He scooted closer. "You've obviously scrambled something upstairs. Let's get you back to camp and see if we can help you put the pieces back together. We were really worried when you stayed out all night. Maybe something happened to you while you were gone. Let's get back to camp and maybe we can figure it out."
"The Resistance!" He almost shouted, his own frustration mounting.
"Iolaus," Xena spit out through gritted teeth. "What is the Resistance?"
"The Resistance is the group of renegades who plan to overthrow the Conqueror. You started it. You and Hercules have been leading us for an entire bloody year." He watched her eyes grow wide in fear. "You really don't remember any of this, do you?"
"No." She whispered, feeling her heart beat out of control. "I'm just worried about Gabrielle. All I know is last night I fell asleep with her beside me, and this morning I woke up and she was gone, as if she didn't even exist. It's as if the entire world has gone insane. Or else I have."
"And who is this Gabrielle you keep talking about?" He smiled a knowing smile. "You have a secret lover on the side?" He elbowed her in the ribs. "The only 'Gabrielle' I know of is Gabrielle the Conqueror."
Two pairs of eyes locked in sudden shocked comprehension as they simultaneously voiced the same sentiment -- "Oh My Gods."
"Run this by me one more time," Xena drew a blanket more tightly around her shoulders and hunched closer to the fire, sipping a mug of hot tea and wrapping her mind around everything she had been told in the past hour. The air had grown colder as was wont to happen in early spring, and the sky was completely overcast. It fit her mood.
They were in a well-hidden campsite in an alcove under a rocky ledge at the edge of the mountain range that sheltered the village from all but the heartiest of raiders. And the Conqueror's army. According to Hercules and Iolaus, and the two dozen others who called the campsite home, Xena herself had scouted out the spot and had been leading them in hit and run attacks on the Conqueror's army for the past year. They were testing both loyalty and strength, while planning a much bigger attack to overthrow the feisty woman who led her men -- and women -- with a vengeance and drive that none of them understood.
"A former slave who fits the description of my friend Gabrielle has formed an army and conquered Greece, and roves about the countryside striking fear in the hearts of everyone." She snorted and flung the remains of her tea into the flames, rising up and pacing around the fire. "I'll believe it when I see it. It can't be the same woman I know. Not my Gabrielle."
"Xena." Hercules also stood and paced with her, almost colliding with her as she spun around to go the other way. "We all seem to be missing a lot of pieces here. Our story and your story match up to the point where we defeated Darphus. After that, they part ways. You say you took off on your own and met up with this Gabrielle, and have traveled with her for over four years now. We say you took off on your own for a while and then joined back up with us again after a year.
The Gabrielle we know, if it is indeed the same person, emerged seemingly out of nowhere about three years ago, and led a band of escaped slaves in overturning every warlord for miles around. Then she took over the villages and finally the country. Her main focus now is an ongoing fight to stamp out new warlords as they emerge. She's a monster and she rules with absolute authority."
"She is NOT a monster!" The warrior resisted the urge to slap the demigod across the campsite. "She's good and kind and loving. She's she's everything to me." Her head hung down and she re-took her seat by the fire. "She's my best friend," she whispered softly. "Whatever is going on here, I can help her. Something's all wrong here. Maybe the Fates." She looked up. "Or the Furies."
"Well it's obvious either we or you aren't in the world we normally live in," Hercules agreed with her, handing her a fresh mug of tea, which she accepted with a silent grateful glance. "If it were me, I'd guess Hera is after me again. We all have gods in our lives that seem to constantly taunt us."
"Gods." The word rolled off her tongue with a familiar bitterness and she rose up again, tossing the blanket aside and setting the mug down. "I'll be back in a bit." She stalked off into the woods until she reached a small clearing with a clear view to the cloud-covered sky. "Ares!" She looked up, the rage evident in her icy blue eyes. "Show yourself!" Thunder rolled and lightening snaked across the sky with a loud crack. The sky opened up and began to pour down, drenching her in only a few short minutes. A low chuckle rumbled, just underneath the roaring storm.
"Okay." She held out her arms, turning in a circle and looking up. "I'll take that as a beginning. I'll assume you're behind whatever is happening here!" The chuckle grew louder, morphing into all-out laughter, then faded away leaving only the sound of the falling rain and the occasional clap of thunder.
She waited until she was certain the god of war was not going to emerge. "I'm not done with you, you bastard!"
"Oh, I hope not," the mocking voice sounded all around her, but Ares remained hidden. "You ain't seen nothing yet, Xena. Hang on. This ride is just beginning." The insidious laughter rang out like great bells before leaving her alone in the deluge.
She stormed back to camp, oblivious to the cold drops pelting her skin, plastering her hair to her head and causing her leathers to chafe in really uncomfortable places. "Ares." One word that needed little explanation among her companions.
"Ares," Hercules echoed, not bothering to hide the distaste in his voice.
"So I take it in this world he's still your half-brother and still jealous of your relationship with Zeus?" She sat down, holding out her chilled hands to the welcome fire.
"That would be correct." He joined her, feeling a chill of a different kind. "Who is he to you?"
"My former mentor," she mumbled shamefully. "And my on-again off-again nemesis. We have a complicated relationship." That's an understatement, she added silently. After her last run-in with the Furies, a part of her still wondered what, exactly, his relationship was to her.
"Question is, which of us is he after this time, me or you?" Hercules scrounged up another blanket, draping it around the warrior's wet frame. "Which world is the real one? This one or the one you say you come from?"
"Thanks." She dug in the dirt with a stick, making odd doodles. "I hope with all my heart the one I came from." She looked up, the pain in her eyes saying things she wasn't able to give voice to. A world without her Gabrielle was a world she realized she didn't want to live in.
"I'll have to admit your world sounds a lot more appealing than this one." He eyed her curiously. "It sounds like you're happy in it, at any rate." He watched blue eyes soften and warm.
"I sure am." She closed her eyes, imagining the warmth of her companion's body curled up against her. "I sure am."
The question caught her off guard, and she thought about Serena the Golden Hind, and Dahak's possession of a temporarily dead Iolaus, and everything she had heard about two of her favorite traveling warriors. As far as she knew, they were both still alive and well in her world, even though she hadn't seen them in a very long time. "I think we've all had our ups and downs in that world." She thought about the crucifixion again and shivered all the way to her bones. "But yes, ultimately, all of us are happy there. It's still a dangerous and sometimes violent world, but not like this one. The only threat of a dictatorship in my world was recently overthrown." At a price that had been almost too great to pay, she acknowledged sadly.
"Sounds like a world I wouldn't mind living in," Iolaus commented hopefully. "How about you, big guy?"
"A world with no dictator?" He clapped his friend on the shoulder. "I'd go there in a heartbeat as long as we're all still in it."
"Would that I could just wave my hand and send us all back there," Xena mused. "I feel like I'm in some kind of twilight zone. It's all shadows and I can't figure out where I am or how to get back where I came from." She stood abruptly. "One thing's for certain. Sitting here isn't accomplishing anything. Well?" She stood impatiently, her hands on her hips. "Are you with me or am I going to do this alone?"
"Um Xena." Hercules also stood. "Where are you going?"
"To get myself captured by the Conqueror." She watched their brows rise in sync. "Well do either of you two have a better plan? "
Two silent negative nods.
"Figured as much. I don't see any other way to get inside her defenses." She settled her sword in place and felt at her hip before remembering her chakram was missing. Hafta worry about that later. One problem at a time. "That is if you can tell me where to find her."
"Corinth." Iolaus looked from one friend to the other. "Are we all going together?" He swept his arm around, indicating the entire camp.
"Too many people. I think maybe Hercules should stay here and run the camp." She took charge, something that came naturally, no matter what world she was living in. "Iolaus and I can find her and I should be able to get myself captured easily enough. It'll be safer and faster with only two of us."
"Alright." Hercules handed Iolaus his sword. "Keep it hidden under your cloak, little buddy. And be careful. I expect to see you back here, safe and sound."
"Will do." Iolaus accepted the sword, along with a man hug -- a patting of each other's backs while their bodies didn't quite touch.
"Come on. We don't have time for a lot of mush." Xena tugged on her cloak and turned her back, already walking away at a brisk pace. "I miss my girlfriend. And my horse."
"Um, Xena." Iolaus ran to catch up with her, tugging on her cloak. "Corinth is the other way."
"Oh." She suddenly realized she had no idea where she was. "Right." She smiled sheepishly. "Lead on, 'Little Buddy'." She made a kissing noise and her smile grew broader, hearing Hercules clear his throat behind them, and watching Iolaus' ears turn bright pink as he forged forward.
"By the gods, Gabrielle." Xena eyed the well-fortified compound with more than a measure of respect. Thick rock walls surrounded a palace, with watchtowers situated not only at all four corners, but soldiers with crossbows manned the ramparts at regular intervals between the watchtowers. A wide moat circled the walls and a drawbridge prevented anyone from crossing it uninvited. Not so much as a tree provided easy access over the walls, which had wicked-looking spikes imbedded all along the top.
"Okay." Iolaus smirked. "I brought you here. Now how do you plan to get inside?"
Good question, the warrior acknowledged. "There has to be some underground tunnels leading inside."
"And you know this how?" The blonde man used a dagger to clean his fingernails.
"Because it's what I would have done if I'd ever made it this big." Her ire was rising. She could cause a scene outside, perhaps simply show herself as a warrior brandishing a weapon. A part of her was having second thoughts, though, that perhaps sneaking inside first might be a better plan. She could catch arrows, but she only had two hands and she counted an even dozen soldiers just along the front wall. She had no idea how many back-up troops might be milling about, immediately on the other side.
They had traveled for two days to reach the Conqueror's compound, which was a few miles outside Corinth, and were now lying on their bellies on a rise just at the edge of the woods, using some thin brush as enough cover to keep them from being readily spotted. "Alright." She wriggled forward and parted the leftover dry winter brush, studying the moat with a critical eye. I don't see a visible source for the water, nor do I see a place where any grates allow water from the moat into the compound." She inched closer still. "They have to have a water source."
"Maybe they have a well." Iolaus scooted up beside her, re-sheathing his dagger.
"Probably." Xena frowned. "But a place that big, I'd think they'd need a larger source of water, both for use within the place, and just for washing stuff out and away. And a well couldn't keep a moat that large full. Stay put." She rose to a crouch. "I'm gonna check the other three sides."
"Xena " It was too late, and she was already scrambling away, making a quiet trail at the tree line, which surrounded the fortress on all sides. "Godsbedamned stubborn maverick in any world," he muttered, then took up watch, hoping he wouldn't have to run interference.
She returned a short time later, covered in mud and odd bits of twigs and leaves. She grinned broadly.
"You find the water source?" He sat up cautiously, taking care to stay hidden by the brush.
"Yep." She plucked some of the foliage from her muck-covered legs. "Just as I thought, there's no water entry into the compound directly from the moat. However, on the backside, hidden in the woods, I found a grate over a shaft. It's tucked away between some heavy bushes. When I put my ear to it, I can hear water running. There's a creek back a ways from there and I suspect the creek leads to a larger river. I figure they've dug a system of underground tunnels that feed both the moat and the fortress. I'm thinking after dark, I'm gonna climb down in there and swim my way in."
"How do you know we'll not be completely under water for part of that swim?" Iolaus didn't relish the thought of drowning in the darkness when he wasn't even sure he was in the correct world.
"I don't, and 'we' won't be." She gentled her voice. "Listen, Iolaus, I don't have a plan from here. There's no need for both of us to get captured. Once I've gotten inside, I don't know what to expect. Why don't you camp here tonight and go back to get Hercules in the morning? It'll take you a good four days round trip, and hopefully by then I'll either be in custody, or maybe even have gotten this whole mess straightened out."
"What if you haven't?" He captured her gaze, genuine concern in his eyes. "What if "
"Iolaus, if I die in there, so be it." She fiddled with a bracer, tightening the laces, remembering Gabrielle doing just such a task for her on more than one occasion. "I I'd rather die in this world than live in it without her by my side. In my world, Gabrielle and I, we're a team. Where she goes I go, and vice versa. Do you understand?" Dying together and coming back to life together had only reinforced what she was convinced was an eternal unbreakable bond between her and a friend who had come to mean more than life itself.
"Yes." He thought of his own best friend. "There's no arguing with you on that." He patted her arm awkwardly. "Okay then, help me make camp and I'll set out at daybreak."
They went about their tasks in grim silence, and shared a quiet meal of venison stew and hot tea, cooked over a small fire which burned in a deep pit so the flames would not be seen from the fortress, and sheltered by a woven canopy of green leaves to deflect the smoke from rising in mass into the air. Xena was cold, though whether from the evening chill or the fear in her heart, she couldn't tell. It was all too true she didn't know what to expect, in more ways than one.
She'd seen Gabrielle fight and even kill, but always in defense and only as a last resort. She wasn't ready to see her soulmate as the ruthless murderer that had been described to her. It sickened her, and she found herself stirring her stew without eating much of it, her stomach twisted into painful knots that made eating almost impossible. Ironic, she mused. In my world, Gabrielle saved my soul. Now I've got to go save hers.
Finally, the sun sank behind the trees and the sounds of the night began to stir around them -- crickets chirping and small creatures foraging in the undergrowth. Way off in the distance bullfrogs croaked in the creek, and the leaves rustled overhead as the evening breeze picked up. The rain had stopped the day before, and the sky overhead glittered with a million tiny bright stars. The moon began to rise and Xena put off the inevitable.
"Be safe." She clapped Iolaus' shoulder as she passed him, removing her cloak and steeling herself until her unprotected skin became accustomed to the elements. She tucked an extra dagger into her boot and realized she was missing something more -- her breast dagger. Ah, she smiled in memory, a sad little smile. Because in this world Gabrielle never purchased it and never got herself captured by Morpheus. The smile became a thin grim line. I guess in this world Gabrielle uses something bigger than a breast dagger.
"You be safe too, Xena." He watched her nod once, before disappearing through the trees.
She walked quietly, keeping to the thicker rain-sodden undergrowth to avoid leaving any footprints. She ducked under the occasional low branch and swiped a few spider webs from her face, taking a path well away from the tree line. At last she reached the grating and knelt down, using her sword to pry it up from its tight molding. It was narrow enough that she would be able to scramble down it by bracing herself between the walls. That was a lucky break, as she would leave no tell-tale rope dangling from the opening.
She slipped inside and holding her weight with her wedged feet, slid the grating back in place. It was cold and dank, the stench of rotting leaves and garbage reaching her offended nostrils. She began a careful descent, feeling the rough stone against the palms of her hands. A couple times she dislodged lose bits of mortar from the walls, listening to the splash as they hit the water below, trying to judge her remaining distance.
After what seemed a very long while, but was in reality only a few minutes, she reached the end of the wall and held her breath, dropping into water so cold, it cut through her like great knives. Luckily it was only armpit deep, and she had but two directions to choose from -- one leading to the creek and one toward the compound.
Resigning herself to a long cold swim, she set out for the fortress, hoping with all her heart there were no rats in the tunnel. She shuddered. Xena hated rats.
Outside, up the shaft, and through the trees, a silent figure watched and waited. After a safe period of time, he moved toward the grating. "I'm sorry, Xena, but the big guy would never forgive me if I let you go in there alone. What's more, I'd never forgive myself." He studied the grating and the dark shaft, realizing that unlike his much taller friend, he was going to need a rope.
The tunnel went on for what seemed like forever. She was certain she'd traveled under the fortress walls and was now underneath the compound. She'd passed a few small pipes that branched off from the main tunnel, but were too narrow to squeeze into. She guessed those might be the pipes feeding the moat.
It was very dark. She had a dry torch wrapped up in oil-treated cloth in her travel pack, but dared not light it just yet, for two reasons. If she reached an opening, the light might give her away, and often underground tunnels contained flammable gases or oil -- some of the gases were undetectable to even her sensitive nose, and she really didn't want to risk blowing herself and possibly Gabrielle up before she even had a chance to find her friend.
After a very long while she thought the darkness seemed a bit grayer, and she slowed her progress. She was chilled through and had permanent goose bumps over her entire body. Her breathing was labored from the icy water and her arms and legs were starting to feel numb. She looked around and thought that perhaps way up above her, she saw an opening.
She blinked and moved closer, looking up at the confirming stars. As she looked around for a way up, she bumped into a bucket. Ah. This was the well. She gave the rope an experimental tug. When it didn't come loose, she climbed up a ways and hung there, testing its strength against her full body weight.
It held fast, and she began to climb, hand over hand, her legs wrapped around the rope. She laughed internally, remembering climbing just such a rope with Gabrielle wrapped around her, back so long ago when they met Icas. It was the first time Gabrielle, in her henbane induced state, had admitted she thought Xena was attractive. "Did you say it first my bard?"
She couldn't remember the first time Gabrielle told her she loved her. It was a sentiment the bard shared easily and often, while Xena herself had a much harder time saying it aloud. Gabrielle understood this. "Xena," she remembered her soulmate's soft voice. "You don't have to say a thing. I know. You can say a million things without ever opening your mouth."
"I can?" They'd been lying under a starry sky not too unlike the one she was climbing toward.
"It's all written there, in your eyes. I've known for a very long time." A warm hand covered Xena's, there in the dark, in a place where nothing was held back between them.
"Known what?" She squeezed the bard's hand, lifting it and brushing her lips across it.
"That you love me." And on that night they'd expressed that love in a new and different way, for the very first time.
She swallowed, blinking back a scattering of pesky tears. "Hold on, Gabrielle." She doubled her efforts, eating up the last several feet of rope. "I'll find you. And I'll get us back, no matter what it takes."
Her head reached a level with the well wall and she swung over to the side, letting go of the rope and grasping protruding stone, gaining hand and footholds and sneaking slowly up, allowing only her eyes to peer out over the sides. Just a she'd suspected, small regiments of soldiers were scattered all along the base of the walls on the inside, but didn't seem concerned with guarding the palace inside, their focus mostly toward the outer walls. Most were gathered around fires, warming themselves and passing flasks, ribald laughter occasionally ringing out through the crisp night air.
Otherwise, there was no one else in sight.
She hitched herself up and over the well wall, landing catlike on hands and feet on the side away from the soldiers. There was a long open space between her and the nearest building, and she closed her eyes, counting to ten, then darted out, her head low, running silently as fast as she could until she reached it. She pressed her body flat against cool marble, in the shadow of a pillar, and caught her breath. Her wet skin and leathers were freezing and she had to clench her jaws tightly to keep her teeth from chattering.
Her senses were on hyper-alert. Along with the scent of the campfires and the still-dank scent of her wet leathers, she detected the scent of spicy meat and discerned she might be near the royal kitchen.
It was odd, to think of Gabrielle in that way. Her friend was the queen of the Amazons, and had proven her leadership abilities a short time before they were crucified, in a fierce battle against Pompey. Still, she didn't often think of Gabrielle as royalty, and the unassuming bard didn't typically act like it, unless a stray Amazon needed to be put in her place. She was a reluctant queen, and readily sought Xena's advice on tactical matters.
Suddenly her palatial surroundings seemed ominous -- so out of character from the Gabrielle she loved and knew. Her heart sank, realizing this Gabrielle was one that perhaps she didn't know at all. Would the bard have even a glimmer of familiarity? And what, exactly was Xena going to say to her friend when she did finally encounter her? 'Hello, I'm Xena, and in the world I come from, we're the best of friends and we travel the countryside helping those who need us. Come with me please so we can go kick Ares' butt and get him to send us back where we belong.' She snorted. Yeah, right.
She shook her head sadly and resumed her sensory examination of her surroundings. The courtyard was Spartan, clean and uncluttered, as far as she could tell in the darkness. A row of low storage sheds lined one wall, and she assumed they held extra weapons caches for easy access in the event of attack. Another snuff of her nose brought the scent of hay and manure, and although she couldn't readily see them, she deduced the stables were somewhere nearby.
She closed her eyes, letting her ears take over, blocking out the sounds of the soldiers and the shifting night wind, focusing in on smaller things -- the flutter of curtains in an open window -- the far-off whinny of a horse -- the splash of a bucket being dumped out a doorway, and the low murmur from inside that same doorway along with the clink of metal and glass, that told her the kitchen was indeed very close and the staff, slaves perhaps, were working away at the late hour.
Then she heard another sound -- the patter of bare feet on tile somewhere up over her head. She froze, although she had already been still, save the tilt of her head. Very cautiously she looked up, seeking the source of the footsteps. There. Above and behind her was a balcony on the highest floor, soft candles or maybe torches outlining two open double doors, in light muted by sheer drapery that luffed almost silently in the breeze.
A lone figure paced, arms crossed over chest against the cold air. Xena's breath caught. The darkness and the distance did not matter. Her keen eyes would have known the familiar solid compact body anywhere. Now she could see long blonde hair blowing back and spared a wistful memory for her Gabrielle's long hair, lost in a battle with Alti. She found her friend attractive with short or long hair. Hades, she would have found the bard irresistible bald and wearing a burlap bag. But the contrast of what she knew of this Gabrielle, and her memories of the innocent Gabrielle and her long flowing hair -- she felt a piece of her heart break.
"Have an open mind, my bard," she whispered. "If there is anything of the Gabrielle I know inside of you, please let her listen, because I'm going to need you to believe some pretty unbelievable things." She remembered her desperate prayer in a moonlit glade, after Callisto killed Perdicus -- Please, don't let that light that shines out of her face go out. I couldn't stand the darkness that would follow -- And another piece of her heart shattered, knowing this Gabrielle would have no such light in her face at all.
Almost as if she could hear her, Gabrielle paused, cocking her head to one side and scanning the horizon, before looking down directly at the shadows that effectively hid Xena from her sight. The warrior stood stock still, willing even her breathing to cease. Despite the darkness, she could see the sadness on a face that was the most beloved thing in the entire world to her. Eyes that could melt her heart with a single glance -- those eyes were so profoundly mournful she could see it from three stories below.
Oh, Gabrielle. She shifted, ever so slightly, to get a better view. You're not alone. She echoed her friend's words from so very long ago. I don't know what happened to you, that this is where you landed, sweetheart, but I promise you, if you'll let me in, I'll see you through it.
Then the sadness in those eyes disappeared, replaced by stern coldness the warrior physically felt. She shrunk further into the shadows.
"Guards!" Gabrielle's voice rang out across the courtyard. "Double up your inspection of the perimeter."
A tall soldier loped toward the Conqueror's balcony. "My liege?" He dropped to one knee and bowed his head before looking back up. "Is something amiss?"
"Yes." She shifted, drawing a wrap around her shoulders. "I can't place it, but something's not right." She looked directly at Xena again, still not seeing her. "Inspect the interior areas as well. I know inspection isn't due until the end of the week, but I feel it." She closed her eyes, nostrils flaring. They flew open, as a scent she couldn't identify met her nose. It sent pleasant shivers up and down her spine and she momentarily lost her train of thought. It was at once strange and familiar, and ignited a fiery craving in her belly. What in Tartarus? "I just do as I say." She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "Something's not right out there, and I expect you to make sure we're secure. If you find anyone, bring them to me."
"Yes, my liege." The soldier saluted with a thump of his fist against his chest, and took off to do her bidding.
She looked around and down one last time, her eyes fixed on Xena 's location for so long, the warrior feared she'd been spotted. With a confused shake of her head, Gabrielle went inside and Xena heard the glass doors close. Beyond the palace near the walls, soldiers were forming up in disciplined rows, prepared to go out on the unplanned inspection, while others were already walking the interior in an orderly manner.
She was shaking inside, as she finally took a much-needed breath. She sensed me. Xena knew all the signs -- the almost sixth sense she herself possessed -- the ability to hear things others didn't hear, see things that were much too far away, and smell even the most subtle of scents -- it was a part of herself she almost took for granted. On the rare occasions she thought about it, she assumed it was the part of her that was "Arreeessss." It was a low guttural growl that rose up and burred from her throat. "What kind of games are you playing here?"
She felt a force pass through her, making her blood boil for the briefest moment, and sending her brain reeling off course. Her arm hairs stood on end and her scalp prickled. Laughter she was certain she only heard in her head echoed about, almost deafening her, before it died away to nothing. Damn. She shook all over. I hate it when he does that.
She eased completely back against the wall to assess her situation. The first regiment of soldiers were lowering the drawbridge and preparing to search the woods. Iolaus. Damn. There was nothing she could do about that at this point, and only hoped he was either still awake or a very light sleeper. Shoulda had him head on back tonight. She pushed her thoughts aside to focus on her next move. If Iolaus was captured, she'd simply break him out. First things first.
She heard the creak of a large wooden door, and the scent of hay and manure grew stronger. She realized the soldiers inspecting the interior were probably checking out the stables. Good. Once they determined it was clear, it might be the best place to hole up for the rest of the night. She looked back up at Gabrielle's balcony. She wanted more than anything to climb up and check out the bard's living situation. Okay, so she just wanted to see Gabrielle, plain and simple.
Curiosity won out and she removed her whip from its loop at her hip, and looked around. Gabrielle's balcony was one of many, and while it was in plain sight of the soldiers at the walls, other balconies were hidden behind the wide columns supporting the roof. She looked up, judging distance, and with a flick of her wrist lashed out, catching the railing of a second floor balcony and hauling herself up as quick as lightening. She flipped up and over and peered carefully into a darkened room. It was empty.
So far so good. Using the whip again, she scaled her way to the third floor balcony above it, which was two across from Gabrielle's chambers. The third floor room was also dark and silent, and she perched on the edge of the railing, leaping across to the next one over, where she hit the deck and lay low on her belly, out of sight of the watch. She hitched herself forward and waited, then sprung up and out one more time, landing on Gabrielle's balcony where she once again flattened herself against the marble tiles.
Soft light still shone out from the double doors, and she could hear a fire crackling inside. Slowly and carefully, she inched over and sat down, her back against the wall where she was mostly hidden. She peered around and through the glass, and detected no movement within, although opaque curtains hid most of the room's details.
Now what? She chided herself. Are you going to sit out here all night, or break in? And what if Gabrielle can sense you as you thought she could? How, exactly, do you think you're going to hide yourself from her? Xena sighed. Nothing in this world made sense. Yet she couldn't bring herself to leave. Gabrielle had to go to sleep sometime. Right?
So she decided to wait, there on a cold balcony under a clean clear sky that would have been a perfect one for lying on a blanket chasing star patterns. And sharing warm cider. And maybe a little snuggling. She comforted herself with the thought that at least she was fairly certain the soldiers wouldn't be checking balconies in their sweep of the compound. Her leathers had begun to dry, although she still wished for her cloak. Hades, she wished for Gabrielle's gentle hands to help her out of the wet leathers and drape a cloak around her. Better yet, that Gabrielle herself was draped around her.
At long last she watched the lights go down inside, and realized only the fireplace was still burning. She had no idea which room of the queen's chambers was on the other side of the doors, and wondered how much exploring she would have to do to find her friend. She listened, and hearing nothing stir inside, she cautiously and silently slid back the door, one painful inch at a time, just enough to squeeze her body inside.
She immediately hugged the wall and peered around, relieved beyond belief to find herself alone in what appeared to be a study or war room of some sort. Shelves full of scrolls lined one wall and ornately rich maps covered two others, detailing most of the known world. She couldn't make out exact details in the low firelight, but saw lots of color and recognized the shapes of continents and seas. They were not unlike maps she herself once used to strategize her conquests.
There were two doors to choose from to exit the room, and much as she wanted to explore the room and get inside this Gabrielle's head, she was more driven to locate Gabrielle herself. She tiptoed to one door and slowly pushed it open. It led to a narrow passage, one direction leading down a twisting hallway into darkness, the other direction going down a staircase. They appeared to perhaps be inner escape passages rather than regular means of traverse. There was no décor at all, and the surfaces were all plain functional gray flagstone.
Good girl. She couldn't help but praise her friend. Anyone with as much power as Gabrielle appeared to have should have more than one way to get out of a room. At all times. She closed the door and moved across the room to the other.
It led to a main receiving room, which bore a long table and several plump chairs, along with couches for relaxing in groups to talk. Off to one side was a side table covered with flagons of liquor and wine, and several sets of pewter and brass mugs. A large candle burned in a wall sconce, and she noted a single goblet at the end of the table, accompanied by a half-full wine flask. "I used to drink alone at night too, my bard," she whispered sadly.
There were only two directions to go -- one door obviously the large main one leading out of the queen's quarters, and the other more than likely leading to her bed chamber. She moved toward the latter and stopped, considering the unthinkable. What if Gabrielle shared her bed with another? Her nostrils flared, seeking any scent that wasn't her soulmate's, but detected none.
She swallowed and turned the latch, praying to whatever gods would listen that the hinges were well-oiled. They were. She opened the door but a crack, enough to see inside. Across the room beside another balcony was a large bed with canopies draped over the top, and one small candle burning on a cedar wood bedside table. Next to the candle was yet another goblet and flask.
Steady snoring met her ears and she realized that it was quite possible her friend was passed out from the drink. The snoring was so familiar and endearing, it almost brought her to her knees in grief. She took a few deep breaths to steady herself, and drawing courage, moved closer. Slung over one bedpost was a leather scabbard bearing a sword -- its spiraled hilt of pale polished wood poking out. The hilt was indented in a shape she knew would fit Gabrielle's hand perfectly -- a custom made piece.
She reached the bedside and leaned over, studying a face that even in sleep was tense and pale. The bard rested on her side, her head on her pillow with one arm curled underneath it. In a cubbyhole carved into the heavy wooden headboard, a dagger rested, it's carved ivory handle and shining blade reflecting the candlelight.
Gabrielle's hair was down and fanned out over the pillows. She looked like an angel, wearing a long flowing cream-colored satin night gown, and it was very very hard to remember that she wasn't the companion Xena knew so well. She almost had to sit on her hands to resist reaching out and smoothing the worried forehead, or crawling into the bed and curling up with her.
As she backed away, yet another metal edge glinted in the candlelight, poking out from beneath the bard's pillow. Gabrielle was running scared, that much was obvious. Surely she had a guard posted outside the door to the main hallway, yet she felt the need to heavily arm herself, even as she slept.
She slept alone, and Xena was at once both relieved and saddened. Relieved because she certainly didn't want to see Gabrielle with someone else, and saddened that in this world, it seemed the bard did not know love, or have it in her life. And what did you have before you met her, Xena? You were just like her. Admit it. With great reluctance, she backed out of the room and closed the door.
It was time to head to the stables, and try to get what little sleep she could before dawn, when she was certain at least some cavalry would probably arrive to exercise their mounts. It was something she had ingrained in her own troops, and given the discipline she had seen thus far, she'd be surprised if Gabrielle was doing anything less. She crept back through the study and paused, taking it all in one more time.
She picked up a candle from the mantle and lit it in the fireplace, then carried it over to the long work table where a map was spread out, its corners held down with crystal weights. Next to it was a piece of parchment, a quill, and an inkwell made of the same cut crystal pattern as the map weights. Precise handwriting that was as familiar to her as her own covered the page. It was battle notes -- details of villages to conquer, numbers of troops anticipated to be in each village, types of weaponry observed, and number and types of troops needed to launch a successful campaign.
She leaned closer, realizing she was privy to what might be secret plans. A quicker look at the map caused her heart to leap into her throat. The villages were in Chin, and the adversary Gabrielle had her sights on was Ming Tien. Because in this world I must not have killed the dirty bastard yet, she growled to herself.
She found herself wondering who else in this world might be alive that was dead in hers, and vice versa. What of Lyceus? Or Caesar? What if I can change some things for the good here? She allowed the train of thought for only a minute, before she reeled it back in and tucked it away, remembering the temple of the Fates, and her attempt to keep Lyceus alive while also saving Gabrielle.
Everything happens precisely as it should. She tasted the thought, knowing it to be true.
Her attention was drawn back to the map and the carefully-made notes. It was as if Gabrielle were following in her footsteps from so long ago. It made sense. The bard already appeared to have a firm hold on Greece. The next logical step would be to branch out. She herself had headed East in her day, knowing that Caesar was to the West. The West had always been a part of her future plans, and she would have eventually challenged Caesar, if she hadn't met Hercules when she did.
She found herself wondering if the bard had been to the Norse lands, if she had encountered Caesar in this world, and if she had ever been to Egypt or Sumaria. Or Britannia. She swallowed, sparing the briefest of memories for a place that changed everything between them.
Given what she knew, that Gabrielle had escaped from slavery only three years before, she guessed that her friend had not been to all those places. That she had accomplished as much as she had in Greece was amazing, almost unbelievable, if she hadn't seen and heard of it with her own eyes and ears. Truth be told, Gabrielle had done far more than Xena ever managed to do in her day, and in far less time.
Once I have this all straightened out, I need to have a long talk with a certain god of war. Her expression grew hard with anger, and she stepped away from the table, making sure to leave it exactly as she found it.
Something else caught her eye in a far corner, and she moved closer. Leaning upright was Gabrielle's Amazon staff, complete with bunny fur and deerskin wrapping. It was the same in every detail -- and surely was the same staff, except the intricately-carved wooden bird's head was still on the top, just as it had been when Ephiny gave the bard the staff. Hanging on the wall next to it was the mask of the Amazon queen, the same one the bard had worn on several ceremonial occasions.
Another puzzle to work out. Was Gabrielle an Amazon, and was she their queen? Or, Xena's heart grew sick, had Gabrielle conquered the Amazons? It's what I would have done, she acknowledged in self-loathing. It is what I did up North, isn't it? Befriended the Amazons, learned everything I could from them, and then slaughtered them.
She had seen all she could take for one evening, and stepped back out on the balcony, crouching down until she was certain no one from the watch was facing in her direction. The ground below was clear, and foregoing the tedious means by which she got to the third floor, she simply leaped out and tucked into a ball, flipping through the air and landing silently on the stone walkway below, behind one of the columns. Hugging the wall, she followed her nose to the stables.
She only had to cross a short open area, and reached the large wooden door, which was held closed by a long cross bar, which she lifted carefully, holding on and slipping inside, allowing the bar to slide back into place as it closed. It was dark and warm inside, the scent of hay, manure, and horseflesh rising up to meet her. Mingled with the stronger smells were the more subtle ones of leather, oats, and wool, most likely from saddle blankets.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she was once again impressed with Gabrielle's accomplishments. The stalls were sturdy and high, built of thick oak which had been white-washed to keep it from rotting so quickly. Feed was stored in a row of bins mounted to one wall, and a loft overhead was fairly bursting with clean fresh hay. A long pump-fed trough was in the center between the rows of stalls, for easy access, and a series of shelves and stands against the back wall held tack -- all the saddles, bridles, and blankets, even heavier battle armor the horses would wear, all of it labeled as to which horse it belonged.
She had always loved horses, and took her time, walking the rows of stalls and peering in each one. All the horses were in top form -- coats groomed to a dull gleam, hooves oiled, and manes and tails combed until they were free of snarls. Each horse had a small water trough mounted on the stall wall, another manger for hay, and large tin buckets for oats. There seemed to be a good ratio of stallions to mares, and a few of the mares were pregnant and appeared ready to drop any day.
At the end of the first row, tucked in the corner, was a stall that was larger than the others, its walls rising all the way to the hay loft. It was more sheltered from drafts, and there was even an iron stove set into a rock alcove just outside the door, to keep the stall warm if needed, while protecting the barn from catching fire. So, Gabrielle, let's see what kind of horse you're riding. She grinned, for the first time entertained by the Gabrielle in this world. Her Gabrielle was not completely comfortable on horseback, and still often chose to walk rather than ride double with Xena. How different was Gabrielle the Conqueror from Gabrielle the bard?
She stood in front of the stall and listened, not wanting to disturb some spirited stallion and risk getting caught. Ever so carefully, she opened the top half of the stall door and peered inside. A pale-colored animal stood in the far corner, dozing, its weight on three hooves with one slightly raised. It stirred at her presence and turned, ambling cautiously toward the door. Her eyes grew wide as saucers, as it poked its muzzle out the door and snorted right in her face. She jumped backward in complete shock and just barely managed to keep from yelling.
"She has my horse?" As the initial shock subsided, Xena held out her hand to the mare. It was Argo, no doubt. The mare sniffed her palm and nibbled it, but didn't seem to know her at all. Her ears were folded back partway and her eyes studied the warrior warily. "It's okay, girl." She backed away a few steps. "I won't hurt you. Here." She had picked up a few more apples along the way, and retrieved one from her travel pack, holding it out for the mare's inspection.
Argo snuffed it and whickered in appreciation, then lipped the plump fruit, crunching it in half and chewing rapidly, swallowing and making quick work of the second half. Her ears swiveled fully forward and she nudged Xena's hand.
"Okay, okay." She dug around and found another apple. "Glad to see you haven't changed much from our world." She grinned, slipping her fingers beneath the horse's halter and scratching her in places she knew she loved to be scratched most -- beneath her forelock, at her jaws, and across the middle of her nose. It was peaceful for a moment, smelling the horse's familiar scent and listening to her munch at the sweet apple. She wondered if Argo's was the only friendly face she would see while she was in the compound.
The thought of seeing her bard's eyes gazing on her with anger, or worse, hatred, brought back memories almost too painful to bear -- Britannia and Chin -- places she wished they'd never been. "Would serve me right, wouldn't it, Argo?" The mare nuzzled her hair, as if she understood. "After everything I've done, it would be fitting that the one person I love most in the world might hate me."
She rubbed her cheek against Argo's sleek neck, enjoying the fine velvety sensation against her skin. "Glad you're here. Glad there's at least one person taking care of Gabrielle in this realm, that I trust." She rubbed her friend's nose and reluctantly reached up for the top half of the door. "Sorry girl. I'd bunk in with you if I thought I wouldn't get caught in the morning. But I'll be right up in that loft there, over your head, so if you get lonely, all you have to do is call me, okay?" She closed the door and fastened the latch, feeling a tiny bit better about her circumstances.
So. Now to find a hidden spot in the loft. She stopped and eyed a rack of warming blankets next to Argo's stall, blankets used to keep animals from cooling too quickly after hard bouts of exertion. She assumed the fine blankets on this particular rack were reserved exclusively for Argo. If that's her name, Xena mused. Probably not, but it is Argo, that's certain. She ran her hand along the soft blankets, choosing one that was woven of loosely-knit brushed lambs wool, much more comfortable and less scratchy than the others. It was dyed a rich forest green and she lifted it, bringing it to her face and inhaling deeply. It smelled like Argo, and more importantly, the bard's scent also lingered there.
Tossing it over one shoulder, she located a ladder and quickly scaled it. The loft was crammed full of fragrant springy hay, and she crawled way back in the furthest corner, over Argo's stall, and bedded down, pulling the hay around her so that anyone entering the barn couldn't see her. She was also far enough back to avoid being poked by any pitchforks, should someone have a midnight urge to feed their horse.
It was warm up there, the heat from the animals rising up and filling the small space. She didn't really need the blanket, but spread it out anyway, lying on top of it and pulling one corner up under her chin, cradling it much as a child would hold a beloved doll. She'd been lonely before, but now, out of her element, in a world without Gabrielle by her side, she'd never felt so alone. Her heart was hurting, and she felt a large lump rise in her throat. She squeezed her eyes closed, forcing back the tears, and wishing with all her might she would wake up and it would all be a very bad dream.
"Goodnight, Gabrielle," she whispered softly. "We'll meet tomorrow, though I haven't figured out how, just yet." She nuzzled the blanket, drawing in her soulmate's essence. "I love you."
Continued in Part 2
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